TOM SEAVER’S TOWN AND HIS TIMES
By STEVEN TRAVERS
And TOM SEAVER
An authorized biography
It is the biggest city in the world. “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,” as the Frank Sinatra song goes. But by 1969 New York City and all it represented was in disarray; criminally, politically, athletically.
“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” sang Simon and Garfunkel. Then a modern Lancelot rode forth to lead the New York Mets to heights above and beyond all sports glory, before or since. It was the biggest sports story of the twentieth century. One man embodied what it was all about.
This book tells the complete, unvarnished story of the great Tom Seaver, that rarest of all American heroes, the New York Sports Icon. In a city that produces not mere mortals but sports gods, Seaver represents the last of the breed. His deeds, his times, his town; it was part of a vanishing era, an era of innocence. In 1969, six years after John Kennedy’s assassination, Seaver and the Mets were the last grasp at idealism before free agency, Watergate, and cynicism.
Despite his great status, his years in the sports media, his persona – half rock star, half political figure – the quintessential Tom Seaver book has never been written! Here is the Seaver story from start to finish; his formative years in California, his close association with black athletes at USC during racially divided times; his ascendancy to big league stardom; then mythical greatness followed by a career seemingly so perfect it appeared to have been guided by the hand of destiny.
Now in his retirement years back in California, Seaver is able to reflect on his political, religious, sociological and racial views, all imbued by 40 years of experience in America during her most challenging times. It was Seaver who stood astride issues such as Vietnam, free agency, the “new breed” of black athletes, all the time using his natural intelligence and education to lead not just on the field, where his credentials for the Hall of Fame were impeccable, but off the field as well.
It was Seaver who rode the whirlwind of fame and celebrity after the “Amazin’ Mets’ ” triumph of 1969, but unlike many teammates he was able to maintain a steady course in his life and career. He was faithful to his wife in an environment where such a thing is almost impossible. For his steadfastness he was both criticized and deified. Here was a baseball player admired by America in the way only heroes like Dwight Eisenhower and John Glenn were admired. In this book we hear the story of a real man dealing with the emotions, pressures and expectations of such a life.
Despite his public image, Seaver has jealously guarded his privacy and family. Here, for the first time, America learns the unvarnished truth about a human being elevated to ultimate hero status in New York City, a town that builds them up only to tear ‘em down. Incredibly, Seaver never was torn down. He stayed at the top for twenty years, retiring to the broadcaster’s booth where his caramel rich voice, smooth intellect and veteran experience made him a popular, admired character to generations beyond his playing days.
This is also a nostalgic look back at the hero machine that is New York City. Tom Seaver remains one of a tiny handful of ultimate sports superstars who stand out in the Big Apple above all others. This tells the story of how he got there, stayed there, and why, when the times changed, it became virtually impossible for others to follow in the footsteps of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath, and finally Tom Seaver , , , the last icon!
NOTE: While the original concept is an authorized biography, should the publisher desire it to be in autobiographical form that would be equally doable.
This is not a small book, a boutique book, or a niche-market book. This is the ultimate New York sports book. It is a big book that will require a big New York publisher and a major media push. Just as it is about the New York Sports icon, the last truly iconic sports figure of an innocent age, it is a book tailored for the biggest, most literate audience in the world.
It is also not just a sports book. It is a book about a man, his times, his life, the way he shaped the world around him and the way the world around him shaped who he came to be. Seaver is that great rarity, the intellect who not only was a great athlete, but rather the very best of the best. Seaver did not succeed on guile, brains or work ethic alone. He was a physically gifted hardball pitcher in the tradition of Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson. Most athletes who possess this kind of skill do not have the mind to go with it. Seaver is the great exception.
Baseball fans will buy this book. New Yorkers will buy it. Mets fans, of course, but also people who delve into biographies and politics will want to view Seaver through the prism of the 1960s and 1970s, bathed in the nostalgic glow of this era.
The biggest competition for a book of this sort would normally have been Seaver’s previous big book, except he never wrote it and it was never written about him. Rather, this is the Seaver book millions have been waiting years to read. Think of David Maraniss’s Clemente, Mark Kriegel’s Namath, or David Halberstam’s October 1964.
When mythic Hollywood movie star Marilyn Monroe returned from a tour of Korea in the 1950s, she declared to husband Joe DiMaggio, “Joe! Joe! You never heard such cheering.”
Joe D. coldly replied, “Yes I have.” This exchange encapsulates something unique in America and in the world. In so doing it summarizes why this book, the quintessential, never-before-written authorized Tom Seaver book, will be a national Best Seller!
In today’s world, celebrity is cheap and comes in many varieties, courtesy of cable TV, the Internet and the scandal sheets. Hollywood has a refined process of producing, assembly-line style, its celebrities. But beyond this kind superficiality lies true celebrity status. No living movie star attains it. Few ever have, even beyond the grave. It is something beyond celebrity. Call it greatness. This kind of person, while not solely American, remains a historical figure in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries who, aside from Winston Churchill, can only be a larger-than-life figure in a country as big and full of swagger as America.
There are those lauded for their greatness in Mt. Rushmore style; George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, perhaps John Glenn. But beyond national heroes – Presidents during great crisis, generals in a desperate struggle, and astronauts embodying Cold War pride – there is one very select group of uniquely American celebrity-heroes.
This is that tiniest, most elite group known as The New York Sports Icon. Even this gaudy title does not tell the true story, for many athletes who play in New York City are superstars, but do not rise to the heights of the true, recognized-by-history New York Sports Icon. To live in this rarified air one must have achieved things above and beyond the mere mortal. They must have done so in the most crucial manner possible, and risen to a place in the spotlight - The Arena as Theodore Roosevelt called it – that minimizes all other accomplishment.
To understand this status, one must understand that very few non-New York athletes achieve this level. In Boston, Ted Williams took years to rise to this place in history, while Bill Russell, Carl Yastrzemski and Roger Clemens never did. In California, Sandy Koufax did what Willie Mays and Barry Bonds did not. Most of the legends are regional in nature: college football stars at Southern California or Oklahoma; Tony Gwynn toiling away in obscurity in San Diego; Hank Aaron breaking records in comparable silence. A Michael Jordan, a Joe Montana; these kinds of figures achieving their bona fides without benefit of the Big Apple’s stage are rarities. In fact, it is usually only when they are recognized by New York – cheering crowds at the Garden, “The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame” at the Polo Grounds, or on Madison Avenue – that the imprimatur comes to them. But The New York Sports Icon achieves his status in an almost religious manner; their moments in the sun say what words fail to accomplish. Theirs is a truth which, when witnessed in an American arena, is never misunderstood.
Who are these gods of the New Greece, gladiators of the New Rome? In the biggest city, on the biggest stage, the list is oh-so-short. As Christ says in the New Testament, “many are called, few are chosen.” The Chosen Ones are Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Gifford, Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath and Tom Seaver.
It is the list of those who are so close, yet do not make the cut, which makes this group all the more impressive. John McGraw, Bill Terry, Mel Ott, Willie Mays, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Casey Stengel, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, O. J. Simpson, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Reggie Jackson, and Derek Jeter are just a few of the all-time greats, the Hall of Famers who have toiled in New York City and New York state; achieved fame, fortune and honor; yet remain ever-so-slightly below the hallowed shrines of these eight players (Mathewson, Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Gifford, Mantle, Namath and Seaver).
The last of these represents the crux of what makes this book so unique, so compelling, such a nostalgic memory of a town, a team and a time that is no more. Gone like the wind, like the Old South, is the age of the superstar. Lost to free agency and player strikes. Records still get broken, but somehow the heroes of yesteryear stand above and beyond their successors, untarnished by steroids or, at least in the comparable mind’s eye, greed. All that is left is the last of the true New York Sports Icons.
George Thomas Seaver embodies the New York Sports Icon in the modern manner, yet his story is curiously familiar. Like Gifford and DiMaggio, Seaver was a golden boy from the Golden State of California. Like Gifford, he matriculated at the University of Southern California, the great sports factory of Hollywood. There was a charisma to Seaver, as there was to Gifford, both of whom were sports versions of JFK in the 1950s and 1960s. There greatness went beyond mere “hits, runs and errors,” to use common parlance.
Many of the Chosen Ones exemplified something that statistics could not capture. DiMaggio was not Ted Williams’s equal as a hitter. Gifford’s on-field records are overshadowed by his contemporary, Jim Brown, or fellow USC legend Simpson. Namath, beset by injuries, fell far short of Johnny Unitas’s career accomplishments.
Willie Mays is considered better, but unlike Joe D. and Mantle – who won the world championships that with one lone exception eluded Willie - his New York years were short, his personality no match for his talent. Jackie Robinson unfortunately is an Elvis or James Dean figure, his myth like Martin Luther King’s elevated by untimely demise. Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel seemed oddly out of place. Willis Reed had one bright shining moment but lacked longevity. Reggie Jackson strode to the top of Mt. Olympus but did not heed the warning that “All glory is fleeting,” his brief stop marred by the ugliness of free agency. Derek Jeter remains on the cusp, but in the ESPN era, as he competes with Britney and Mariah and Angelina for attention, the very limelight he bathes in reduces him.
Mathewson, Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle and Seaver remain untainted by modern celebrity that is more indifferent disdain. Their records are pure, the shadow they cast unchangingly huge. It is Mathewson who Seaver most closely resembles.
Matty was the first hero athlete, the collegiate All-American who combined good looks with intelligence and breathtaking ability. In breaking down Seaver’s record in light of modern constraints (which make winning 30 games, which Mathewson regularly did, virtually impossible today), “Tom Terrific” rates among the most elite of all-time hurlers. His place in the New York pantheon is not merely a result of his looks, intelligence or unique role in the saga of the 1969 “Amazin’ Mets.” His pure baseball records hold up to any and all scrutiny.
This places him with Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle as winners with a New York swagger to them; the very best on the field, champions with panache off it. Whereas Ruth and Mantle were libertines, their place in the pantheon is either tragic (Mantle) or laced with that’ll-never-happen-again wonder (Ruth’s speakeasy life). Finally there is Gehrig, the hero after Ruth’s departure shed light on his glory, his memory a sainted one after early death. But Gehrig was “second fiddle” to The Babe, whereby Seaver embodied his team.
Tom played “second fiddle” to nobody. He was Lancelot riding to the rescue on a white steed. The great tragedy of the Dodgers’ and Giants’ California departures wreaked havoc on Big Apple sports sensibilities, leaving the Yankees alone like Rome having won a war of attrition with Hannibal. As with all great empires of history, “pride goeth before the fall.” The Yankees folded and a proud city bowed down.
It was the late 1960s. The sports landscape was egalitarian, with champions spread throughout the Fruited Plain: Los Angeles, Detroit, Boston, Baltimore, Green Bay and points beyond. In New York a famous stadium suddenly was old, decrepit, its Bronx neighborhood overrun by crime. Drugs, prostitution, promiscuity and racial division now sprung forth, replacing the old veneers of respectability. This monied metropolis was in debt, its citizens racing to the suburbs in what was known as “white flight,” the old neighborhoods quickly deteriorating into a Martin Scorsese film noir. A terrible war tore at the fabric of a great society that just a few years before had enough hubris to call itself the Great Society.
Enter into the mix a stand-up comedy act called the New York Mets. In a city where only the sports version of Caesar’s triumphant return from Gaul was considered worthy of public admiration, the fumble house Metsies were so bad New Yorkers laughed at ‘em, but even this was a predicament telling of a city’s downfall. Was this the level New York had fallen to?
But a stadium was built which by 1960s standards was modern. Slowly but surely the Mets’ front office began to come around to the idea that, in order to built a lasting fan base past the anybody-but-the-Yankees Brooklyn crowd, which mostly lived out on Long Island by now anyway, actual on-field accomplishment must be attained.
In reality, it looked like the old Soviet “five-year plan.” In 1969, it seemed the most anybody could reasonably expect would be contention by 1974. A World Series seemed an impossibility, something that might happen some time between a decade and a century from that point in time, if ever. It was a preposterous idea.
Seaver was only 24 years old in 1969. He was “new breed” all the way. People were talking about the “new breed” among the black athletes. The “old school” black athletes were generally quiet, Christian family men who did not “rock the boat.” The “new breed,” symbolized by St. Louis ace Bob Gibson, were proud, outspoken and articulate.
But among white players there was a “new breed,” too. More and more players were college-educated, hailing from the suburbs, and Seaver embodied the California athlete whose societal views were cutting edge. Seaver was from an affluent home. He had graduated from Fresno High School, which in his day produced some of the best players around, only he was not one of them, at least in his time. There were no scholarships and no pro contracts offered. He joined the Marines and a funny thing happened. Seaver gained 25 pounds in lean muscle mass and about three inches in height. He returned from the Marine Corp, establishing himself as the ace at Fresno City College.
From there he earned a scholarship to USC. His hero was Hank Aaron, a telling sign. Most white kids loved Mickey Mantle or some other white star, but Seaver chose the enigmatic black superstar of the Milwaukee Braves. It is telling also that he preferred the reserved Aaron to the more famed Willie Mays, starring at the time for the San Francisco Giants on radio broadcasts heard in the Seaver household.
At USC, Seaver roomed with Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mike Garrett, a baseball star too. It was through his relationship with the black Garrett that Seaver developed further discernment, an understanding of other races and cultures beyond his suburban upbringing.
After starring at USC, Seaver found himself in the New York Mets’ organization. He did not buy into the Mets’ clown reputation, forged in the early years of Casey Stengel, “Marvelous Marv” Throneberry, and “Choo Choo” Coleman. It was not funny to him.
He broke into the Major Leagues in 1967, earlier than he would have had he been toiling in most other organizations. He pitched in the All-Star Game, earned Rookie of the Year honors, and dispelled notions of Met inferiority by instilling a winning attitude in his teammates. In 1968 things began to change as Seaver again starred and a young corps of talented players asserted themselves.
But there is no explaining 1969. In the film Oh, God! George Burns is asked what His last miracle was.
“The 1969 Mets,” He says.
It is not an exaggeration to state that the 1969 “Amazin’ Mets” or “Miracle Mets,” or whatever adjective is attached to the story, represents the most incredible, unbelievable, impossible story in all the history of sports. Nothing was more improbable, nothing more unexpected, nothing more unlikely to predict. They won the World Series. It was the greatest top-to-bottom upset ever; not just beating 109-win Baltimore in the Fall Classic, but the entire “rags to riches” tail from Spring Training to Game 5, when New York’s 5-3 win gave them the title before a world’s disbelieving eyesBut the story is only half about an improbable team. The New York setting, the desultory fall of the Yankees, the still-smoldering loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers, all placed against the landsdcape of the Vietnam War, protesters, hippies, drugs, a battered but unbowed city, and a country changing at warp speed; this is what makes 1969 the year, the Mets’ team, and the Seaver story a compelling Hollywood drama. Furthermore, the 1969 Mets saved baseball. The game was dead, boring, unsexy before Seaver and the Mets turned it into the Age of Aquarius.
Despite all the religious qualities of the 1969 Mets, however, Seaver’s rise, in contrast, is straightforward. He did it with talent, work ethic, and a competitive streak second to none. Throughout baseball history, there have been few players ever locked in like Seaver in ’69. He took that team on his back and carried them. The list of those who have done it in like manner is: Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees in 1949, Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox in 1967, Orel Hershisher of the Dodgers in 1988 . . . the list is this short!
The hoopla, the excitement, the sheer joy of 1969 has never been matched before or since. It was the greatest New York sports experience – and the most incredible baseball story - bar none. It was a time of utter legend. Seaver rode the whirlwind of fame, celebrity and fanatical adoration more than any in the pantheon; Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, and the like. Only Namath, whose image is as much about those swingin’ times as it is his performance on the field, achieved such god-like status. However, Namath’s injuries prevented him from ever building much beyond the foundation of the New York Jets’ Super Bowl win over Baltimore.
Seaver, on the other hand, went on in the 1970s and 1980s to mold a pitching career that may be the finest of the post-World War II era. When combining individual seasons, longevity, records and historical impact, Seaver ranks with any pitcher the game has ever known. When the Hall of Fame vote came up, he went in with more than 98 percent. To this day, it is the highest percentage attained by any player, and this includes the likes of Ruth, Williams, DiMaggio, Mays or Koufax.
The “new breed” Seaver expressed outspoken opinions about the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, religion and politics during the turbulent times of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King Jr., and Watergate. When ballplayers read comic books, Seaver read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
But Seaver’s intellectualism, All-American image and superstar status created problems. 1969 was a “fairy tale” season, but succeeding years were “real life.” He was the highest-paid, highest-profile player on the most famed team in the world, surrounded by New York media and East Coast adulation. Seaver was married to a beautiful blonde California girl, and the glamour machines turned them into the “it couple” of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Furthermore, Seaver was perhaps that rarest of all sports breeds: the faithful husband.
Without preaching, his avoidance of road temptations served as a silent example to teammates who, unable to resist their lustful desires, saw in Seaver something they could not be and resented him for it. It was an age of sexual infidelity, drug use, alcohol excess, and moral depravity. Seaver, like a Colossus, rode above all of it. On his teams in New York and later in Cincinnati, young pitchers tended to be his disciples, but other free-wheeling teammates could not relate to a man so together in every aspect of life.
Seaver was the ultimate role model. His work habits were legendary. He was the greatest interview subject in the game, his intelligence proving to be another sore spot with teammates who could not comprehend a baseball player who knew so much about history, political theory and world affairs.
Somehow, Seaver did not change with the times; the times changed in conformity with him. He was the “square” kid, the All-American who came out of the innocence of the pre-Kennedy assassination 1950s. When the world changed, his rock solid traditional values helped steer him through treacherous times. When those traditional values found their voice after some 15 “wilderness years” it was as if Seaver’s Norman Rockwell style was vindicated.
Yet, Rockwell he was not, not entirely. His Christianity, his Marine background, his patriotism, was always tempered by a1960s awareness, an empathy for the poor, the working man, the downtrodden. Yet he was never a “bleeding heart liberal.” Seaver did not suffer fools easily. Some thought of him as corporate, a Wall Street baseball player. He took what fame gave him, but to be in his inner circle, to earn his trust and friendship required a sense of intelligence and accomplishment. One did not merely assume Seaver’s respect, and it has always been that way.
When Seaver was at the height of his fame, everybody wanted a part of him, and he sensed that there were those who tried to freeload off of him, his image, his reputation. He resisted that, not always without damage.
Steven Travers is already the author of One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation, due for an August 2007 release from Taylor Trade Publishing. This is the true story of the 1970 USC-Alabama football game and its effect on the integration of the American South. It is a fast-paced narrative similar to Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Like that book, it is now under option to a major Hollywood producer and slated for production.
Travers is a veteran of Hollywood who writes with a flair for the dramatic, lending itself to a screenplay format. An enormous focus of this book will be the unbelievable events surrounding the 1969 “Amazin’ Mets” world championship run. What is almost as “amazin’ ” as the ’69 Mets is the fact this story has never been told on the screen. This book is the perfect vehicle to do just that.
As a biography, this will allow author Steven Travers to tell the story of Tom Seaver in a flowing manner absent the kind of modesty Seaver would employ if it were a pure autobiography. It will give the author the freedom to express the story in a free-flowing parade of words and images meant to place the reader squarely into Manhattan circa 1969. However, this being the authorized Seaver bio, it will contain stand-alone Seaver sections in which he will describe in his own words the chapters Travers expounds upon.
If the publisher insists on an autobiographical format, however, this can be adapted easily.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism