When men look back at their boyhood, what do they miss? A full head of hair? A pair of jeans with more inches in the inseam than in the waist? For a few of us, it's our stashes of baseball cards. Granted, we're not talking Rosebud here, but we may be talking Rose (the Cincinnati Reds' Pete, whose 1963 rookie card fetches up to $650) and Bud (the New York Mets' Harrelson, whose '67 card might bring a buck and a half). In my case we're talking about a '68 Jerry Koosman, which in near-mint condition lists at $1,600.
The mother who unwittingly throws out her son's collection—and thus his college tuition money—is a clich� by now. The marvelous paradox, of course, is that if countless mothers hadn't flushed away their sons' childhoods, the remaining cards wouldn't be worth so much. My mom committed no such betrayal.
While still a boy in Hollister, Calif., I recognized the financial promise of my collection, and I peddled thousands of cards to the neighborhood card shark. I sold him just about everything—the Joe Morgan rookie cards along with the doubles of Felix Mantilla—all for $6.50. I kept a few cards for sentimental reasons, threw them into a plastic bag and forgot about them, perhaps consigning them to some future oblivion when Mom did her spring cleaning.
But I didn't raise my mother to be anybody's fool. A couple of years ago, after one of her cleaning binges, she gave me the bag of cards. I promptly tossed them in a closet and left them there until I could examine them at my leisure. When that time finally came, I discovered, in the remnants of a once mighty collection, a few small gems: a '55 (Bowman) Hoyt Wilhelm, a '59 Robin Roberts, a '61 Mickey Mantle, a '65 Dennis McLain and a '68 Bob Clemente. And there, to my delight and good fortune, I found my Koosman rookie card, the most valuable regular-issue card of the past 40 years.
If you can't quite picture Koosman, don't feel bad. He spent much of his career in the oversized shadow of teammate Tom Seaver and all of it just a step away from full-blown fame.
But in 1968, when he was a high-kicking 24-year-old farm boy from Minnesota, Jerry Koosman hit the National League like a line drive off Willie McCovey's bat. In the last 30 years no rookie pitcher other than Mark Fidrych (in 1976), Fernando Valenzuela (1981) or Dwight Gooden (1984) has had the kind of debut that Koosman had. Pitching for the woeful Mets, Koosman started the season 4-0. In July he struck out Carl Yastrzemski to end the All-Star Game and earn the save in the National League's 1-0 victory. He finished the season 19-12 with a 2.08 ERA—marks that are particularly impressive given that the Mets finished in ninth place, 16 games under .500. Koosman's wins and ERA were club records.
Koosman had not played high school or college ball. He came to the attention of the Mets by way of a glowing scouting report by John Lucchese, whose official capacity with the Amazin's was that of Shea Stadium usher. In the Army, Lucchese's son had caught Koosman for the base team at Fort Bliss, Texas, and he told his father the big southpaw was a prospect.
The Mets sent Red Murff to scout Koosman. "He offered me $1,600 to sign," Koosman told reporters his rookie year. "I turned him down, so the next time he offered me $1,500. Every time he talked to me he offered me $100 less, and I finally signed for $1,200. I figured that if I didn't sign pretty soon, I'd end up owing them money."
I discovered Koosman four years after the Mets did. He began his rookie season in the major leagues by shutting out the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-0. In his second start, the season opener at Shea Stadium, Koosman faced my team, the San Francisco Giants. Koosman immediately got into trouble, letting the first three Giants reach base in the top of the first. That brought to the plate Willie Mays, a veteran of 16 major league seasons and arguably the greatest centerfielder of all time.
Mixing his pitches, Koosman worked the count to 1 and 2, then blew a third strike by Mays. Next Jim Ray Hart popped up to the catcher, and Jack Hiatt struck out. With the bases loaded and no outs, Koosman had plowed through three right-handed batters without allowing a ball into fair territory. He settled down and won the game 3-0. He surrendered just seven hits, struck out 10 batters and became the first pitcher in Met history to throw back-to-back shutouts. By the next morning this Giant fan was rooting for the new Gotham ace. I had Koosmania. I cut out every newspaper story I could find on the Met-Giant game and began a scrapbook on the rookie southpaw.