The math is easy enough. Clendenon turned 34 a month after he was obtained from the Expos for four minor leaguers. 1969 was 36 years ago. Add 36 to 34 and you’ve got the age Donn Clendenon lived to before succumbing to leukemia Saturday.
Donn Clendenon was 70. The 1969 World Champion New York Mets, forever young in photograph and highlight film and contemporary account and 1969, are increasingly comprised primarily of what we used to call old men. Neither 60 nor 70 is as old as it used to be, they say, but it’s up there. The ’69 Mets we’ve lost over the past few years — Tommie Agee, Tug McGraw — died tragically young. Neither saw 60. That’s young enough to be tragic, especially when we’re talking about the baseball team that won it all with so many “kids” in their twenties.
But Clendenon was technically not one of the wunderkinder. He was the veteran presence, the guy who was almost 34 when he came here from some combination of Montreal, Houston and the Scripto Pen Company; pre-free agency, he basically decided where he was going to play, and, for all our sakes, it was New York. In 1969, 34 was baseball-old. For that matter, 34 was considered four years over the age of trustworthiness in some quarters. That was a long time ago.
Even then, Donn Clendenon was from another era. His father, Nish Williams, was a catcher in the Negro Leagues. He signed his own first pro contract in 1957 when the Giants and Dodgers were still, barely, ours. The Pirates, playing in Forbes Field as they did in the twilight of Honus Wagner, brought him up in 1961, a year before the Mets existed let alone became synonymous with futility.
It wasn’t until June 15, 1969 that the team came to stand, 100%, for something else altogether. Swapping the law firm of Renko, Collins, Carden and Colon for future lawyer and World Series MVP Donn Clendenon was akin to advertising that next year — next eon, in light of everything that had gone on since 1962 — was here. The Mets had never made a trade for a vet to put them over the top because never before were they within yodeling distance of that apogee. On 6/15/69, they were nine games out, almost double-digits’ distance from the unreachable Cubs, but in second place…as good a place as any to start taking yourself seriously.
Has any in-season trade in Mets history paid the immediate dividends that the Donn Clendenon deal did? They got him in the middle of June and, by the middle of October, they were world champs. Who else did that? Even Keith Hernandez, acquired exactly 14 years later, didn’t make that quick a difference.
In Stanley Cohen’s 1988 retrospective, A Magic Summer, it is instructive to reread how Donn Clendenon’s teammates recalled him almost twenty years on. “The catalyst,” according to Art Shamsky; “a take-the-pressure-off kind of guy,” said Tug McGraw; “probably the key to our whole season,” in Wayne Garrett’s mind — “the ingredient we needed.”
Were 37 RBIs ever as important as those Donn Clendenon collected between June 15 and the end of the regular season? He played in only 72 games in ’69 because he platooned with Ed Kranepool. Think about that for a moment. The fortunes of a franchise, a city and maybe the sport pivoted on the presence of a man who split time with, well, Eddie Kranepool. But Kranepool plus Clendenon, along with Boswell plus Weis, Garrett plus Charles and Shamsky plus Swoboda was the sum of Gil Hodges’ parts. Their individual numbers matched their reputations, which is to say Earl Weaver is likely still having night-sweats.
Clendenon was clearly the most accomplished of the 1969 Mets’ irregulars. He’d had two seasons of better than 90 RBIs as a Pirate and in ’68, The Year of The Pitcher, drove in 87. The Mets didn’t have anybody with those credentials (thus Mr. Weaver’s lingering bouts with insomnia). The expansion draft made him an Expo. Good sense prevented him from becoming an Astro. A college education and off-season planning gave him the option of working for Scripto (as a VP, no less). Foresight and fortune, though, had a different script in mind.
There was some disagreement regarding who was really the MVP of the World Series. Some thought Al Weis and his improbable .455 average earned it and that his beyond-the-realm homer in the fifth game clinched it. But who could argue with what Donn Clendenon did? Four games, three home runs, including the blow that turned Game Five around. To that point, only Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Duke Snider had gone deep more often in any World Series. Batted .357. Slugged over a thousand. Maybe the ’69 Mets were the epitome of 25 equally valuable players, but if anyone deserved to drive home the Dodge Challenger, it was Donn.
Little is said about Clendenon’s two remaining seasons with the Mets. It is very much worth noting that he set the team record for runs batted in in a season in 1970 with 97 (in fewer than 400 at-bats), breaking the mark of 94 established by Frank Thomas in 1962. After the Mets moved out of the Polo Grounds, nobody had topped 76 until Clendenon. His 97 would stand as the record until Rusty Staub drove home 105 five years later. No righthanded Met batter topped it until Dave Kingman wound up with 99 in 1982.
It’s no wonder Donn Clendenon stood out as a veteran, accomplished, professional power hitter on the New York Mets. He was that good and they hadn’t had anybody quite like him before. The same, I’ll bet, could be said for Donn Clendenon in the clubhouse. My first-hand recollections of him are scant. He became a Met about two months before I began following the Mets at all and was gone before my ninth birthday. He was simply there in that way that players on your favorite team seemed to have been a part of your life forever (because in the baseball sense, they had). I knew he wasn’t Willie McCovey or Lee May or Richie Allen when it came to monster first basemen. He was Donn Clendenon, which was the best the Mets and I could ever hope for.
The image that popped to mind when I learned of his passing actually came from The Perfect Game, Tom Seaver’s autobiography written with/by Dick Schaap. It’s the image that had informed the way I thought of Donn Clendenon then and informs the way I think of Donn Clendenon now. It’s the way I will always think of him, I’m sure.
The first time we played at Shea after Clendenon joined us, Nancy drove me to the park and walked into the lobby in front of me. She spotted Clendenon. “I know who you are,” Nancy said.
Donn was wearing a Jamaican shirt and a vest, and he turned to Nancy and very suavely kissed first her hand, then her arm. Nancy thought Donn was charming; she was positive he didn’t know who she was. I knew he’d figured out she was my wife and was putting on a little show. At least, I thought so.
“Hi, Donn,” I said. “What are you kissing my wife’s arm for?”
“It’s great to be a Met,” said Donn.