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WORLD SERIES:
1969

Never Pumpkins Again

A seven-year joke—and a fraying one at that—the Mets brought joy to New York with a succession of World Series victories that would be hard to match for dramatic impact or for sheer improbability

by William Leggett

Issue date: October 27, 1969

  October 27, 1969 cover
(James Drake)
It was nearing midnight in the Diamond Club four stories above what remained of the playing field at Shea Stadium, and the New York Mets, the most improbable champions in 100 years of professional baseball, gathered in a circle around the bandstand. Swaying back and forth with their arms wrapped around each other, they sang Heart from the musical, Damn Yankees. ("When your luck is battin' zero/Get your chin up off the floor;/Mister you can be a hero/You can open any door, there's nothin' to it but to do it./You gotta have heart/Miles 'n miles 'n miles of heart. . . .") Next they sang God Bless America. And then, as the clock struck midnight, they all turned back into pumpkins.

No, they didn't, not really, for somewhere in the delirious weeks leading up to their victory over Baltimore, the Mets had been touched with permanent magic.

Of course, no world championship will ever be the same again, either, as Cecilia Swoboda pointed out to her husband the next morning in their home on Long Island. Ron Swoboda was talking—and talking and talking—about what had been one of the biggest upsets in World Series history when Cecilia smiled.

"Ron," she said, "you can only win it for the first time once."

About the same time Al Weis, a man who hits a home run about as often as Gil Hodges smiles during a World Series game, thought again about the homer that had tied Baltimore in the seventh inning of the fifth and final game. During eight years in the major leagues, both with the Chicago White Sox and New York, Weis had gone to bat more than 600 times before home crowds without hitting a homer. But he got hold of a fastball from the Orioles' Dave McNally and began to run as fast as he could. "When I got near second base," he said, "I started hearing the crowd roar and thought something must have happened. I guess I don't know how to react to a home run. I only know how to react to singles and doubles."

Also that day, as he cleared out his locker in Shea, Ken Boswell looked at the stack of mail before him. The hard-hitting second baseman had batted .422 through the Mets' stretch drive and had let the team with five runs batted in against the Atlanta Braves during the National League playoffs. As a bachelor from Austin, Texas he receives a lot of mail. "The girls from Brooklyn," Boswell said, "keep writing and inviting me to go over and try their spaghetti, but they'd have a better chance if they tried spareribs. After I woke up this morning I went down into the street and some people were saying, 'There goes Ken Boswell.' When I get home to Austin they are going to have a Welcome Home Ken Boswell Parade. I hope they mean me and not some other Ken Boswell."

Despite all the things said by the Mets about their inspired victory, it remained for Earl Weaver, the manager of the Orioles, to put his finger on the heart of the matter. After thinking over his team's defeat for two days, Weaver said, "We hit the ball right where they could show off their defensive ability." Almost unbelievably, after the first game nearly half of the balls hit by the Orioles for outs went toward either Shortstop Bud Harrelson or Centerfielder Tommie Agee, the two strongest gloves in the New York defense.

Harrelson had a spectacular Series, going into the hole between third and short time and again to turn a hit into an out, and it will be a long time before anybody forgets Agee's play in center.

But the 66th World Series will be remembered for many things. Those were not really angels in the Met outfield: they were the Flying Wallendas. Donn Clendenon set a record for a five-game World Series by hitting three home runs and he only got into four of the games. For the first time in 35 years a manager, Baltimore's Weaver, got bounced from a Series game. When the Mets finally clinched the championship, a blizzard of ticker tape settled over Manhattan; and at Shea Stadium fans pulled up chunks of turf, festooning themselves with the magic sod as if its new-established healing qualities could cure all their fears and ills as merely walking upon it had cured those of their heroes.

The reason for the emotional binge, of course, was that just a short while before the Mets really had been pumpkins. Five days before the Series started, Casey Stengel, who alone made the Mets into something to talk about eight years ago, stood in the victorious clubhouse after the playoff series against Atlanta. "Yes, yes, yes," said Stengel, "it's taken eight years but now the people are beginning to know their names!" Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman and Cleon Jones, of course; but now, Weis, Harrelson, Swoboda, Jerry Grote, Art Shamsky, Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan, too. They were being talked about, admittedly as the urchins who threw the snowballs that knocked the stovepipe hats off the autocrats' heads.

In the first bungling year as a baseball team the Mets lost 120 games, and a saying developed around New York that went, "I've been a Met fan all my life."

By 1967 New York had done all to baseball that could be done to it, and the natives were growing restless. During that year the Mets put uniforms on 54 different players with results that are still frightening. Players sent their laundry out and had to have friends pick it up for them and mail it on to their next destination. The fans couldn't tell the players with a scorecard.

In spring training this year Manager Gil Hodges explained how he felt about the constant shifting of personnel. "It doesn't do anything but breed unrest among the players," he said. "There's no feeling of security knowing you may be the next to go. Those days are over."

This year the Mets got to the World Series by using only 29 men, and their followers knew who they were watching. Even the banners improved. Gone were the derogatory signs, as Shea Stadium's peculiar art form assumed a positive note that made the place more fun than ever before. As the Mets drove toward the division championship a large sign made of reflecting tape appeared high above home plate. LET'S GLOW METS! During the Series a sign greeted Baltimore's huge slugger, Boog Powell, with A 500 POUND BIRD. And in the victory crush on the field after the Orioles had been defeated for the fourth straight time, a youngster held a placard that said, TWEET TWEET.

The Mets seemed to have a unique rapport with their fans and talked about them frequently. They didn't resent it even when they were booed. Ed Kranepool won a game in July and got a tremendous ovation. Often the brunt of jokes, he said, "The last time they cheered me was when I signed." Swoboda, after striking out five times in one game, said, "They booed the hell out of me and if I was them I would have followed me home and booed me there, too.

Swoboda obviously learned something that day. In the Series he batted .400, drove in the winning run of the final game and made two magnificent catches. All the Mets, in fact, showed in the Series that they had come a long, long way. Following their defeat in the first Series game, their pitching settled down—something it was unable to do in the playoffs. After Don Buford's first-inning homer, when it seemed that Baltimore was about to decimate the Mets, only one Oriole leadoff man reached base in the next 26 innings. Only four times in all did an Oriole start an inning with a hit.

Baltimore's failure to handle New York pitching was most evident when Buford, Paul Blair, Brooks Robinson and Dave Johnson were at bat. These four hit a composite .080 for the Series and did not produce one extra base hit after Buford's fourth-inning double in the first game. Of the skimpy total of 23 hits that the Orioles collected, five came out of the ninth spot in the order. And of the nine runs batted in by Baltimore three were accounted for by Pitchers McNally and Mike Cuellar.

If there was a turning point in the Series it came in the second inning of the third game, with the Mets leading 1-0 on Agee's leadoff homer. With two out, Grote, who caught all five games, walked and was moved to second by Harrelson's single. Jim Palmer threw a terrible pitch to Gentry, who promptly drove it into right center for a double to score Grote and Harrelson. In 74 at bats during the regular season and the playoffs, Gentry, one player who has never been accused of being a "pretty good hitter for a pitcher," batted home only a single run and hit but a solitary double. He was sweating out an 0-for-28 slump when he jumped on Palmer's bad pitch.

The third game may well turn out to be the best that Tommie Agee will ever play; it probably is the most spectacular World Series game that any centerfielder has ever enjoyed. Agee is easily the best example of Gil Hodges' patience. Twenty-seven different players had worked in center field for New York before Agee arrived in 1968 from the Chicago White Sox. On the first pitch of spring training that year he was hit in the head by Bob Gibson of the Cardinals, and early in the regular season he went through an 0-for-34 slump.

He hit only .171 in Shea Stadium and seemed to take the Great Circle Route under fly balls. He was pressing. But, although he could not seem to do anything right, Hodges kept playing him, telling Agee not to quit on himself.

At first, 1969 was not an easy year for Agee, either. He encountered slumps and Hodges benched him but, as the Mets played good ball, Agee became a vital man in the attack. He started rallies on offense and stopped the opposition with fine catches in the outfield.

But nothing he did in the regular season approached his third-game performance. Behind 3-0, Baltimore started what looked like a big rally in the fourth inning by putting two runners on with two out and Elrod Hendricks at bat. Normally a pull hitter, Hendricks hit a pitch to deep left center, and Agee, shaded toward right, went galloping after the ball. He caught it two steps from the wall with a spectacular backhand catch to end the inning. Three innings later, after an even longer run, he dove to rescue a potential triple with the bases loaded.

Agee had made a difference of five runs on defense with his fielding and one on offense with his homer as New York won 5-0. The crowd of 56,335 at Shea Stadium sensed for the first time that the Orioles, doubtless a very fine team, could be had by the Mets.

New York's drive to the division championship, the National League pennant and finally the World Championship was surrounded by such hysteria and commercialized sentimentality that certain hard statistics were all but overlooked. The foremost of these shows how well New York played in Shea Stadium. From the middle of August through their final victory in the Series, the Mets won 26 of 31 games there—a percentage of .839. Before their final playoff victory over the Braves, New York pitchers gave up only six home runs in their last 253 innings played at Shea, a remarkable accomplishment since Shea Stadium is considered by home-run hitters as a hitting successor to the Mets' ancestral home, the Polo Grounds. Little wonder Baltimore had trouble.

The Orioles must now suffer through a long winter after what had been, until they met the Mets, a superior season. When Bowie Kuhn, the imposing new Commissioner of Baseball, shook hands with Weaver after the Series he said, "I've just congratulated the Mets and told them they'd beaten the best damn team in sight." The Orioles certainly were, and had it not been for an amazing catch here, a miraculous stab there they might have reversed the whole course of what, mystically, the whole country had begun to regard as inevitable—the triumph of the rankest underdogs. Instead, they return to Baltimore, where only a million watched them this year and perhaps fewer will care to view them the next.

Probably no man has suffered through a more frustrating Series than Frank Robinson. When he wasn't being walked by the careful Met pitchers, Robinson hit the ball hard—once for a home run, in the fifth and last game. But four of his smashes ended in nothing but beautiful outs. As Baltimore packed for its return home, Robinson said, "I'm awfully disappointed it all had to end this way for us. It would be silly to try and take anything away from the Mets because they just played great ball. But don't forget about us. We'll be back."

Now the Mets feel that they will be back, too, but search and you will not find a man in the entire organization who thought that 1969 would be a year in which the team would win its division championship, let alone a World Series. This was to be a season in which the club became respectable and might even finish as high as third in the East. Just the year before they had wound up 16 games below .500 and in ninth place, 24 games behind pennant-winning St. Louis.

It was absurd to think that New York could win 100 games. But the Mets did. It is equally absurd to believe that those 100 games were won with luck. If one holds to the baseball cliché that the breaks tend to equal out, then maybe the Mets were repaid all in one season for seven long years of bad breaks.

But, more important, the Mets were a hungry club and gave of themselves as teams do only in novels. Only four of them had been regulars for as long as three years. It was a smart team. Of the 27 men who contributed to New York's rise, 22 had been to college—a remarkable percentage for a baseball club. And it was a team that was being prodded from underneath. This year the Met farm system produced four pennants in the minor leagues, twice as many as any other organization, which means that more good new Mets are on their way up.

Looking them over last week, Ted Williams said that he saw the possibility of the Mets becoming a dynasty, and it is pretty hard to doubt anything Teddy Ballgame says these days. Although dynasties have a way of lasting for about a year in the National League, the Mets, bless 'em, always seem to defy established principles. With their victory justly acclaimed as a triumph for baseball, it may be hoped that any residual tarnish from the hyperbole of Madison Avenue and New York politicians will soon wear off, leaving only the warm success that is likely to endure and honor the sport.

Anyone who drove away from Shea Stadium last week, past candy stores, playgrounds and lots in Queens and Nassau County, had to notice youngsters by the thousands throwing phantom baseballs and diving to make catches that really could not be made. The kids were dreaming that they were Agee, Jones and Swoboda; Seaver, Koosman and Gentry; Harrelson, Weis and Clendenon. And older people dreamed, too, and wondered if during any five days in their entire lives they had tried as hard as the Mets did.



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