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The Changing of the Guard

If the clock is running inexorably counterclockwise, then it must be Flashback Friday [1] at Faith and Fear in Flushing.

To borrow from the late, great Molly Ivins [2], the 1967 Mets yearbook is more fun than a church-singin’-with-supper-on-the-grounds.

Yearbooks get more expensive every year and are progressively less fun. The 2006 version was ten bucks, 244 pages long and distressingly short on zazz. There was a nice takeout by the esteemed Dennis D’Agostino on the twentieth anniversary of ’86 but everything else about it fairly whispers annual report. Proxy statements are more whimsical.

The cover, various Mets in various boxes, is as exciting as a ticket brochure. The player facts are minimal (Yusaku Iriki enjoys playing golf in his spare time). The recap of the previous year is Orwellian in its deletion of those who had since moved on (Marlon Anderson never pinch-hit that inside-the-park homer [3] and Mike Piazza never waved goodbye [4]). There’s an ad for a perfume with a big picture of Paris Hilton; kids shouldn’t have to see that. The modern-day yearbook is heavy on heft, long on price, light on charm.

Ah, but the 1967 Mets yearbook…the Mets yearbook was something then. You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean [5] in those days.

I didn’t see the 1967 yearbook in those days. I was 4 and a couple yearbooks away from entry into Metsdom. I probably couldn’t have rounded up the 50 cents necessary to buy one at Shea to say nothing of getting a ride to and from. I have a copy thanks to my co-blogger’s relentless pursuit of all things Schmelz. He had it on a tip a couple of slow winters ago that the elusive Al, who was seemingly never properly photographed as a Met (the Schmelzes believe a photograph steals something precious from the soul — or am I thinking of I Dream of Jeannie?), showed up in a team picture. Sadly, this SECOND Revised Edition of the OFFICIAL Year Book (were there bootlegs?) came a cropper and Dr. Fryenstein’s mad experimentation [6] would have to wait another day.

I, on the other hand, made out like a bandit when Jace tossed the thing my way. What a treasure. Start with the cover, drawn by Willard Mullin of New York World Telegram & Sun fame, the premier sports cartoonist ever. The only sports cartoonist we modern folk have with which to compare him is Bill Gallo which is no comparison at all. Maybe you’ve seen some of Mullin’s most classic work, the moony Jint [7] and the perpetually scruffed-up Bum [8] who personified New York National League baseball in the ’50s. Their successor was the kid Met who by 1967 was taking toddler steps [9] up the stairs of heretofore awful records. Note the detail, specifically the cracked step of 1965 when the kid Mets stumbled and managed a worse record than 1964’s extraordinarily poor result.

But that’s ancient history in 1967. Mullin’s boy, our boy, is in ascendance. He’s leaving behind those hundred-loss seasons — imagine acknowledging all your miserable failures of the past half-decade on the cover of your primary propaganda tool — and, having launched himself to the heady stratosphere of 66 wins, he’s on the climb. Watch out National League!

Gosh, what optimism. Unfounded in the short term, of course. The next step would be cracked, too, as the ’67 team stumbled to five fewer victories than in ’66. But we know that Mullin’s golden staircase reaches its apogee way ahead of schedule, just two years after, so no complaints on the prognostication front.

They don’t draw covers like that anymore. And they don’t print yearbooks like this either. Turn the page and the first picture you countenance is a solemn “changing of the guard,” two men in suits who may as well be shaking hands in the Kremlin. It’s grip ‘n’ grim time for a stoic George Weiss “turning over presidency of the Mets” to a wary Bing Devine in November of ’66. Khrushchev and Brezhnev couldn’t have looked any less comfortable. And who, come to think of it, were the marketing wizards who decided the first image to hit fans with was two men in suits?

That’s the beauty of baseball back then, I’ve Bing-divined. It wasn’t marketed, not really. There was something clubby about the whole thing. Oh, it was insidious. It needed Marvin Miller and the NFL and society to shake it up. It needed to move into the second half of the twentieth century by 1967. But the quaintness I found when I leafed through the 1967 yearbook is from another time.
Which is what surprises me. The Mets are supposed to be thoroughly modern. They’re the expansion team born amid the hopes of the New Frontier. They’re the embodiment of the Swinging Sixties.

More relevant to my self-centered view of things, they’ve taken place almost entirely in my lifetime.To have experienced the Mets and nothing but the Mets as your forever baseball team, to have not even a wisp of experience of living without them or before them, arithmetic says you can’t be much over 50. It would take a man or woman born no later than the mid-1950s having a child by the mid-1970s and that child having a child by the mid-1990s to assume there’s a family with three generations of pure, lifelong, well-versed Mets fans — not your grandpa who converted from the Dodgers or Giants or apathy or worse and raised your pop/you right, mind you, but someone whose childhood team was the Mets. Demographically speaking, that third generation is only approaching the staircase as we speak.

Tradition in the sepia sense has always been for the Tigers and the Cubs and the Red Sox and other franchises with roots dating back a century or more. They’re the ones that have grandfather clauses. They’re the ones caked in must and dust. They’re the ones with the antiquated team publications that read so anachronistic in relation to the now. The Mets’ 1967 yearbook, from suddenly 40 years ago, proves to me that we might be, too.

Enough sociological, anthropological noodling. Let’s turn more pages.

There’s Vaughan Devine, President. Oh wait, that’s the same guy from the page before where he was Bing. The Mets took their “Officials” headshots very seriously (and, by their looks, took them before World War II). No Mr. Devine, you can’t use your nickname here. This is our page of record.

There’s Vaughan again. Naturally. Baseball fans love executives. President Bing [10] is a little looser in this two-page spread (whereas Weiss, “Man of Dynasty and Destiny,” gets a double-truck of his own later and couldn’t be a whole lot tighter). We have shots of Devine playing basketball with Solly Hemus in 1954, donating his vital fluids to a blood drive in Rochester and being delighted by “gag gifts” at a 50th-birthday surprise party in St. Pete. Bing, who passed away last month, seems reasonably delighted by the all-stag affair.

Baseball was a very manly business in 1967. A group photo of the Met beat writers (you don’t see those anymore) features 13 men, including a few (Vic Ziegel, Steve Jacobson, Maury Allen) who are still active and one (Dick Young) who most of us believe hung on too long. Not pictured: a single woman.

Pictured: a married woman. That would be Josephine Westrum. She’s pouring coffee for her husband the manager, Wes Westrum. According to the caption, by doing so she “proves worth as a manager at the breakfast table.” I’m assuming that was considered complimentary by the editors in 1967, fellows, one senses, whose values system was set in stone by 1937. The first yearbook I ever had as a kid was the ’72 and while there were arcane references to Met player wives as “better halves,” I don’t remember nearly as much patronizing prose. A lot could change in five years. A lot did.

But in 1967, “Mets are Model Wives.” Look out Twiggy, here comes Mrs. Jack Fisher sporting the latest from Carnaby Street or wherever ’60s fashions were sold. Yes, it’s Austin Powers come to life on pages 54 and 55, a fashion shoot to benefit the Doctors’ Wives Auxiliary of Flushing Hospital when “Shea Stadium served as the ‘salon’.” Some salon — they used a ramp between loge and mezzanine. That’s where we find the “purty Mrs. Dennis Ribant” (let’s keep her first name out of the public eye) pretending to sell copies of the Daily News. How this helped Flushing Hospital I couldn’t tell you, but there’s no denying it: Mrs. Dennis Ribant sure was purty.

Somebody worked overtime on assigning nicknames to the major Met players themselves. Newly acquired Tommy Davis was THE TOMMY GUN: Mr. Two-Time Batting King. He’s captured in candid conversation with Mickey Mantle, presumably reminding him “they call me MISTER Two-Time Batting King”. Titular ace Jack Fisher is simply HI-JACK, perhaps in honor of his absconding with 24 losses two years earlier. Ken Boyer is 7-TIME ALL-STAR (not much of a nickname, but truthful advertising), Bob Shaw is THE CITY SLICKER: Mound Magician of Mets (coming off a 12-14, 4.30 campaign — some magician) and 21-year-old William Francis Denehy is “Literally Billy the Kid,” presumably in deference to his callowness and not because the Mets planned to use him in a trade to rob the Washington Senators blind of manager Gil Hodges.

Having been on the Mets scene myself since ’69, I’ve seen most everybody who’s played for us. But I never saw the guys mentioned above, certainly not in their New York phase. Mets who were Mets in 1967 but not later may as well be Cleveland Spiders from 1899. I know they were there. I’ve read about them plenty. Yet it feels somehow impossible there were Mets without me, even more unlikely that these historical figures cavorted with many of the same gents — THE JONES BOY (Cleon), THE PONY EXPRESS (Buddy), “THE DEAN” AT AGE 22 (Kranepool already a legend), Seaver The Saver: Picked out of a hat (Tom not yet Terrific nor worth upper-casing) — who introduced me to baseball. It was only two years from ’67 to ’69 but from the time I was 4 to the time I was 6, it was an eternity.

What links the eras as I read through this, what connects what I perceive to be the time before time began and the time when time started, is a bit of the advertising. The Mets may have presented themselves through out-of-date thinking (unless reincarnating Ron Swoboda as THE PEEPUL’S CHERCE [11] was “with it”) but a couple of their sponsors were clearly endeavoring to be a part of the late ’60s as they happened. Opposite the Flushing Gothic of Weiss and Devine is a perky, today kind of couple selling cherry-red Plymouth Furys. On the back we have a Rheingold ad that’s almost cutting-edge in its meta-commentary on the medium: an Archie Bunker type (before we knew that’s what he was called) clutching a beer, smoking a cigarette and demonstrating “In N.Y., the city of tough customers, only Rheingold’s made it to the top.” It’s an ad that’s sort of about the ad…if you look at it hard enough. Or tough enough.

It’s 2007. The Fury is off the lot. Rheingold shuttered [12] its brewery. Don Bosch never developed into MIDDLE MAN: Center of Attention. Vaughan Devine beat it out of town after a year. Judging by his own downcast [13] demeanor before his September dismissal, Wes Westrum never asked the dutiful Josephine for that second cup [14]. The 1967 Mets lost 101 games. But this 1967 yearbook? It’s a winner in any baseball library.

Next Friday [15]: It seemed like such a good idea.