Stengel, 73, was awarded home plate. As he made the long walk with the dish to the clubhouse, 600 feet away behind the centerfield fence, Auld Lang Syne wafted down from the speakers. The 10,304 spectators stood and wept openly. "And we all stood outside the clubhouse," recalls Hot Rod Kanehl, "and we cried."
Of course, "we did the same thing at the end of the next season," Kanehl notes. The Mets returned to the Polo Grounds in '63, you see: Shea Stadium would not be ready until 1964.
As befits a truly atrocious ensemble, the Mets closed on the road, far away from New York City. They lost their 117th game, in Milwaukee, to tie the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics as the most prolific losers of the 20th century. They lost their 118th game the next day and their 119th two days later, before 595 fans at Wrigley Field.
Well, all good things must come to an end, and the bad things have to stop eventually too, and so the Mets' season finally concluded on a frigid September 30 in Chicago. New York trailed the Cubs 5-1 going into the eighth inning, but Sammy Drake led off with a single, and Ashburn advanced him to second base with a single of his own. With the tying run on deck, catcher Joe Pignatano strode to the plate and promptly hit a blooper toward rightfield.
Trouble is, Cub second baseman Kenny Hubbs caught the lazy liner, threw to Ernie Banks at first to double off Ashburn and then watched as Banks threw to shortstop Andre Rodgers to catch Drake off second base. Triple play. It was Pignatano's final at bat in the big leagues.
It was also the final play of Ashburn's 15-year career. He hit .306 in 1962, made the All-Star team, was offered a $10,000 raise to return in '63, but walked away from it all. "I often wondered why a guy who hit .306 would retire," says Zimmer, who was Ashburn's roommate while with the Mets. "Three years later I asked him, 'How could you hit .306 and retire?' He said, 'I could see us losing 100 games again. I couldn't lose again.' "
"This was a group effort," Stengel told the team assembled in the visitors' clubhouse that afternoon in Chicago as they surveyed the foul waste left in their wake. "No one player could've done all this." And yet hadn't the season been fun? The question was put to Stengel by Louis Effrat of The New York Times. Responded Stengel: "I would have to say no to that one."
The Dodgers and the Giants—the two teams whose departures from New York necessitated the Mets and this first unfathomable season—finished September in a tie for first place. L.A. and San Francisco would meet in a three-game playoff, the results of which would count toward the regular-season standings. Thus the Mets did indeed drop half a game in the race after their season had ended.
Richie Ashburn, Most Valuable Player on the worst team of this century, has returned to Chicago to broadcast a Phillie game. He was one of the Whiz Kids, Philadelphia's National League champs in 1950. His lifetime batting average was .308. He is not in the Hall of Fame, but Red Smith once wrote that he should be, and that, says Ashburn, is good enough for him.
And yet as he tugs on a pipe in his room at the Hyatt Regency, what is it that he finds himself talking about? The triple play that ended it all in the ballpark 10 minutes north of here. "That last season was a year I didn't want to go through twice," he says. "But I am glad I went through it once. I made great friends—I still talk to Marv a couple of times a year. I got to spend a year with Casey. You know, I get more mail for that one season than I get for all of my years before that."