A Team That’s Been Up and Down
Last week I delivered the keynote speech at a Hofstra University conference marking the 50th anniversary of the New York Mets. This is a somewhat abbreviated version of that talk. When George Weiss hired Casey Stengel to become the manager of the expansion New York Mets in September 1961, the Ol’ Professor declared to reporters, “It’s a great honor for me to be joining the Knickerbockers.”
Now, Casey had been around New York baseball forever. He broke in as an outfielder with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1912, starred with the New York Giants in the World Series of 1923, and created an unsurpassed record at the helm of the New York Yankees, only to be fired after losing the 1960 World Series in the final inning of the final game. But the Knickerbockers? Casey did not cavort with Alexander Cartwright and Doc Adams on the Elysian Fields of Hoboken before the Civil War, but in his misstep he was on to something.
Casey’s infant Mets owned the oldest name in New York baseball. Dating back to 1857, the height of the game’s amateur era, the first Metropolitan baseball club predated the Giants, Dodgers, or Yankees. Established as a professional nine in September 1880, the Mets and their one-armed pitcher, Hugh Daily, played baseball at a park known as the Polo Grounds because their Central Park field was initially leased for playing … polo. As champions of the American Association (at that time a major league), the 1884 Mets took part in baseball’s first world championship series (losing to the Providence Grays). Baseball ended at this first Polo Grounds when the city built 111th St. through center and right fields in the fall of 1888. The initial home of the expansion Mets was the fourth incarnation of these original Polo Grounds.
Casey’s links with the three New York ball clubs of the twentieth century were echoed by George Weiss’s selections in the expansion draft of October 10, 1961, when they relied heavily on experienced players. “The fans remember players like Gil Hodges, Don Zimmer, Roger Craig, and Gus Bell,” Weiss explained, “We have to give them players they know.” Weiss soon added other veterans to his roster: Frank Thomas, Richie Ashburn, Charlie Neal, Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell, Clem Labine. The original Mets were a stopgap measure, not a green bunch building for the future: the average age of the 1962 team would be thirty.
These graybeards—to whom my hero, Duke Snider, was added in 1963—were no longer the boys of summer but, in poet Dylan Thomas’s actual phrase, seldom recalled in this baseball context, the “boys of summer in their ruin.” The 1962 Mets finished in last place on merit, occupying the bottom rung in batting, pitching, and fielding statistics. Opponents outscored them by more than two runs per game. They won only one game in four and suffered a twentieth-century record 120 losses. But New York fans, deprived of National League baseball since the defection of the Dodgers and Giants to the West Coast four years earlier, found their ineptitude lovable. On this club, Rod Kanehl and Marv Throneberry were gods of a sort. The Mets drew nearly a million fans in their first year, a very respectable total at that time, and by their third season, having moved out of the decrepit Polo Grounds into brand-new Shea Stadium though still in last place, they were regularly outdrawing the pennant-bound Yankees.
Another link between the departed Brooklyn Dodgers and the fledgling, or revived, Mets was Branch Rickey—and through his signal achievement, Jackie Robinson. The departure of the Dodgers and Giants in 1958 had created a vacuum in New York and an increased hunger for baseball in new boomtowns like Houston, Atlanta, and Minneapolis. Rickey was nearly eighty but still possessed a keen nose for new opportunity. The great innovator who had already brought baseball the farm system and integration now created the Continental League, a paper league with paper franchises. Nonetheless, Rickey’s mirage worried Organized Baseball into expansion.
Two of the Continental League “franchises”—the future New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s—were admitted for 1962. The American League was authorized to commence its western foray one year earlier with the expansion-draft Los Angeles Angels and the Minnesota Twins (the latter being the transplanted Washington Senators, who were replaced in the nation’s capital by an ill-fated expansion team that is today’s Texas Rangers).
Nationwide in the 1960s, as pitchers pounded batters into near oblivion, fans drifted away. Attendance in the National League, which in 1966 reached 15 million, fell by 1968 to only 11.7 million. In fact, despite the addition of four new clubs in 1961-62, attendance in 1968 was only 3 million more than it had been in 1960. Critics charged that baseball was a geriatric vestige of an America that had vanished, a game too slow for a nation that was rushing toward the moon; its decline would only steepen, they claimed, as that more with-it national pastime, pro football, extended its mastery of the airwaves.
The owners acted quickly to restore the game’s balance between offense and defense, reducing the strike zone and lowering the pitcher’s mound. But the most important change may have been one that was introduced in 1965 and was only beginning to take effect: the amateur free-agent draft. Successful teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Braves, and Cardinals had stayed successful because of their attention to scouting. Consistently they were able to garner more top prospects for their farm systems than clubs with less deep pockets or more volatile management. Now, dynasties—awe-inspiring but not healthy for the game—were suddenly rendered implausible. Now, baseball had a competitive balance that could produce a rotation of electrifying leaps to the top, like the ascension of the Boston Red Sox from ninth place in 1966 to the pennant the next, and the amazing rise of the New York Mets from the depths they had known to become world champions in 1969. Before then, skeptics were fond of proclaiming, “The Mets will win the pennant when men walk on the moon…”
I don’t know that any Mets success after that can equal the impossible thrills of that season. Not 1973, not 1986, not 2000, all of them years that ended with the Mets in the World Series. In truth, the Mets’ dark days as lovable losers and their periodic stretches of second-division slumber have obscured an amazing fact: they have appeared in more World Series than any of the expansion clubs. The disappointments of recent years have been magnified by the concurrent success of that other, unnamed franchise in the Bronx. But success in baseball or in “real life” tends to be cyclical. Late in his life, Casey was asked by a young reporter to sum up his life in the game.
“I’m a man that’s been up and down,” he replied. That’s a good summation of the Mets, and their fans, and common humanity.
Some deep-pocketed teams are able to stay in the pennant race year after year, masking the periodic downturns in their minor-league talent and fostering a general perception that they are “winners.” This sleight of hand deprives their fans of a basic American experience—the perception that success will come from hard work and patience more gratifyingly, if less reliably, than from privilege. An elite team breeds not hope, but instead expectation, which can be hard to satisfy and even harder to bear.
Hope is the key. It inflates us. It fulfills us. It makes us better fans, and we love the game and our club more deeply with each passing year. The tree does not grow to the sky; the top breaks off and the tree becomes wider and fuller. The limbs of disappointment are especially sturdy ones. Bart Giamatti wrote, echoing the poet Andrew Marvell, that the color of hope is green. In my experience it has been blue and orange.
All of you will recall Game Six of the 1986 World Series, when the prospect was so bleak that only a Mets fan might have hoped for a miracle. I was fortunate enough to attend that game (and last year’s Game Six, very nearly as great). But another game I attended still holds the most honored place in my memory. On September 20, 1973, the Mets were in a stumbling sort of pennant race with three teams, including their opponent that chilly evening, the Pittsburgh Pirates. With two outs and the game tied in the thirteenth inning, Richie Zisk was on first base. Dave Augustine lined a shot to left, over the head of Cleon Jones. The ball struck the very top of the wall, yet somehow stayed in play, miraculously popping into Cleon’s glove. He turned and threw a perfect relay to Wayne Garrett, who threw to Ron Hodges at the plate. Hodges blocked the plate perfectly and tagged Zisk for the third out. In the bottom of the inning, he singled home the winning run. I have watched baseball games for fifty-five years and I have never seen a play like it, before or since.
For this old boy, with more years behind than ahead, the Mets are still at life’s core. Not in the same dizzying way as when the Mets swept to implausible glory in 1969, filling my heart with joy and my mind with the certainty that anything, yes, anything could happen. No longer in the same warming way as seeing my sons become first players and then fans for life. They are grown now, scattered, yet baseball and the Mets remain a link for all of us. The game is what we talk about when we want to connect not only with our shared past but with each other as we are today.
The Mets are family. Tom Seaver and George Theodore, Darryl Strawberry and Jim Hickman—these old friends are now and then present at the dinner table; for us, ballgames of bygone days are stored in our hearts and retrieved like holiday snapshots.
Thank you, Mets.