Sesame Street came along a little too late to be of any use to me. It debuted while I was in first grade, when I already knew how to count, so my reaction to it was quit talking down to me, damn it (I also already knew how to curse). But because it was billed as this great educational breakthrough, our teachers in the West School on Maryland Avenue were directed to lead their classes down the hall to the one room with the one television in the building to make us watch Bert and Ernie and the rest of them on Channel 13 every now and again. It beat sitting at my desk and trying to explain for the umpteenth time to yet another suspicious classmate that I get to drink Grape Hi-C because I’m allergic to milk, but on the whole, after being shown repeatedly and redundantly the number 2…
…I’d rather have been watching Bugs Bunny.
My wife, on the other hand, is a few years younger than I am and was at least a little indoctrinated into polite society by the Muppet machine. When the Children’s Television Workshop decided last year to release a collection of early episodes on DVD under the guise of Sesame Street: Old School, she wanted to check them out, partly to satisfy her video-historian impulse (though Stephanie, too, prefers Bugs Bunny), partly for good old nostalgia’s sake. She watched them and enjoyed them. I looked in on one or two eps and have to admit I got a larger kick out of them in my 40s than I did when I was in my Sesame-scornful single-digits.
“These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child,” according to a warning label attached to the box. I didn’t know counting had changed all that much in 35-plus years or that showing kids moldy television could do anything worse that bore them. Shoot, I wouldn’t have learned what war bonds and victory gardens were had not 1940s-era Bugs alluded to them regularly every afternoon on Channel 5. But whatever. We’re grown-ups, technically, so it was safe for us to see Volume 1 and the more recently released Volume 2.
In the latter collection is the first test episode, shot in the summer of 1969. It was apparently aired on a handful of stations prior to Sesame Street‘s national premiere in November of that year. It’s a little ragged in comparison to what would become the CTW standard in the early ’70s, but it contains an unexpected element that in terms of learning to count is as timeless today as it was then.
In prehistoric Sesame Street Episode 1 is a segment in which a magician (in the service of promoting the letter ‘D’ somehow) tears up a newspaper — a copy of the Daily News — and conjures it back together. As I always do when I spy such a detail, I squinted to read the back page. Maybe there was a Met headline there. For example, in watching the DVD of Network last year, I was blown away when I noticed this back page of the Daily News from September 25, 1975:
CUBS NIP METS IN 11TH, 1-0
SEAVER NO-HITTER FOR 8 2/3
Come to think of it, if Sesame Street was being created in the summer of 1969 when I was on my way to first grade, there could be an amazingly intriguing headline on the back page. I asked Stephanie to pause, pause some more and freeze the picture on the screen until I could get the best look I could.
And there it was, from July 10, 1969:
SEAVER PERFECT TILL 9TH
QUALLS GETS ONLY CUB HIT
This was too good or perhaps too horrible to be true. On the very first episode of the most revered educational television program in the history of the medium, one of the very first lessons anybody learned was that no matter how well a Met pitcher pitched, no matter how great the Met pitcher was, he could never, ever throw a no-hitter.
While the finer points of counting hens and spoons didn’t elude me in the summer of 1969, I was just young enough, 6-1/2 (when did we start dropping the fractions from our ages?) to have missed the Jimmy Qualls Game. Nevertheless after decades of reading about it — continually since I was 8-1/2 — I almost feel as if I saw it. I almost feel I was watching on the night of July 9 when, as Tom Seaver told it to Dick Schaap in The Perfect Game:
With two outs to go for a perfect game, I picked my first pitch to Qualls carefully. Almost all my pitches had been working well, the rising and sinking fast balls, the fast and slow curves, even the slider. I decided to throw Qualls a sinker, but the ball didn’t sink. It came in fast, too high, almost waist-high, over the heart of the plate. Qualls swung and hit the ball to left-center field. Cleon Jones broke over from left field, Tommie Agee raced over from center, two of the fastest men on our club, and neither of them could reach the ball. It fell in, a clean single.
“My perfect game,” Tom said, “was finished.”
So began in earnest the Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York’s quest for its holiest grail. The gag that summer was man will land on the moon before the Mets win a World Series. Eleven days after that almost waist-high sinker, Neil Armstrong made that prediction come true. But 88 days after that (when my parents had the foresight to schedule for me an eye doctor appointment in the morning that conveniently kept me out of school the entire day), the Mets were officially no longer absurd and never would be again in quite the way they had been before Seaver flirted with perfection.
That grail of a world championship, as unimaginable as it had to have been to those who were learning their M-E-T-S while I was still stuck on my A-B-C’s, was taken care of. Seven years after expansion, the Mets had won a Series. But 46 years deep into the franchise’s operation, there is still no no-hitter.
Two world championships.
The dream has been torn to shreds by batters often no more magical than Jimmy Qualls dozens of times. Unlike that magician on that little-seen first installment of Sesame Street, there’s been nobody to weave the dream back together, not yet anyway.
You learn to live with it. You learn to have that internal dialogue like the one Tom Seaver had with Nancy Seaver six minutes (according to The Year The Mets Lost Last Place) after perfection proved unattainable.
TOM: What are you crying for? We won 4-0.
NANCY: I guess a one-hit shutout is better than nothing.
You constantly remind yourself that a W is a W, that the H column is incidental. You remind yourself of that, it seems, at least once a year when you begin to believe the zero will take care of itself at last. You rationalize away every single disappointment as long as a win is involved. To do otherwise, you tell your Met self, would be greedy. And you can’t do anything about it anyway.
You do it for Bobby Jones when he’s tagged by Jeff Kent because a one-hit complete game shutout that clinches a playoff series is way better than nothing. Hey, we won the NLDS today! Would have been nice to have had the no-hitter, but that’s not the important thing.
You do it for John Maine when Paul Hoover — who wouldn’t even be playing in the eighth if Miguel Olivo hadn’t been such a hothead in the fifth — ruins an otherwise brilliant day, because a combined one-hit shutout while you attempt to maintain life on the edge of impending disaster is immensely better than nothing. Hey, we’re back in first place! Would have been nice to have had the no-hitter, but that’s not the important thing.
You do it for the Mets you barely know, the Mets you wish weren’t Mets, the Mets you’re thrilled to have, for any Met pitcher who will ever come as close as carrying the 0 under the H to the end of 9 as Tom Seaver did the night before the Sesame Street props department secured a Daily News for its magician sketch.
It would have been great had it been Jones against the Giants in 2000 or Maine against the Marlins in 2007. It would have been just as splendid if it had been Gooden (Keith Moreland, 1984) or Reed (Wade Boggs, 1998) or Cone (Benny Distefano, 1992) or Darling (Vince Coleman, 1987) or Fernandez (Davey Concepcion, 1985) or Estes (Eric Young, 2002) or Trachsel (Chin-hui Tsao, 2003) or Heilman (Luis Castillo, 2005) or Martinez (Chris Burke, 2005) or Dotel (Phil Nevin, 1999) or even T#m Gl@v!ne against the Rockies when he took it to the eighth inning and I magnanimously allowed the Manchurian Brave the honor of the first no-hitter in Mets history before he allowed a hit to Kit Pellow. I sat in The Broadway Theatre, straining hard through the static to hear the last Met I ever wanted to throw the first Met no-hitter over the overture of a Sunday matinee performance of Bombay Dreams on May 23, 2004 and rooting hard to hear the last Met I ever wanted to throw the first Met no-hitter throw the first Met no-hitter. A couple of numbers into the show, I tapped Stephanie on the knee and shook my head. (So much for Bombay Dreams.)
I imagine I would have rooted for all of those guys whose flirtations stand out in my mind had Tom Seaver’s sinker sunk a little lower on July 9, 1969, if the most marginal Major Leaguer in the Cub lineup had lived down to the obscurity he so richly deserved. Even if Seaver had made Jimmy Qualls his 26th consecutive out of the evening and then retired pinch-hitter Willie Smith to make it perfect, I would have wanted another. I’m sure I would have wanted Seaver to have duplicated the feat when the Phillies of Mike Compton or the Pirates of Vic Davalillo or the Padres of Leron Lee or the Cubs of Steve Ontiveros slipped away with the moral victory of having pinned another one-hit win on the Mets or, especially, when Jungle Joe Wallis did in Seaver in September of ’75 with two out in the ninth and the score inconveniently knotted at nothin’ and nine one-hit innings went completely for naught as CUBS NIP METS IN 11TH.
But if none of those had worked out, if the 0 under the H always became a 1 just as has happened from July 10, 1969 onward, I know I wouldn’t have taken it as hard as I have every time it’s occurred.
ME: Why aren’t you crying? We just missed out on a no-hitter.
ME AGAIN: Tom Seaver threw a perfect game on July 9, 1969. Anything else would be anti-climactic.
ME: It doesn’t bother you that you don’t remember it personally even though you remember the moon landing from just eleven days later?
ME ONCE MORE: No. It’s not my fault I wasn’t born eleven days sooner.
We would have that no-hitter filed away forever. It would be on the wall in the Diamond Club and would be packed up in bubble wrap and moved to swankier digs at Citi Field. I might not have the scratch to get a look at it, but I would know it’s there and that would be good enough for me. There would be no Jimmy Qualls Game. There would be Tom Seaver’s Perfect Game, the first no-hitter in Met history, perhaps the only no-hitter in Met history, perhaps not. But we would have 1, and 1 is as high as I absolutely need to count when it comes to no-hitters.