Welcome to Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End, a milestone-anniversary salute to the New York Mets of 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999. Each week, we immerse ourselves in or at least touch upon something that transpired within the Metsian realm 40, 30, 20 or 10 years ago. Amazin’ or not, here it comes.
If the Mets, with their reputation as beloved fools, could win a World Series in only their eighth season, why anything could happen — the Vietnam War could end; cancer could be cured; the races could learn to live together; poverty could be erased. Anything.
—George Vecsey, 1979
To calculate the joy of an event accurately, perhaps one must measure the inevitable letdown that follows. No event in baseball history, one can say with only a little bias, unleashed as much joy as the 1969 New York Mets winning the world championship wrought upon the land. Alas, it only figured there would be a precipitous dropoff from there.
And there was. In the decade that followed, the Mets wouldn’t match their on-field accomplishment of ’69, coming mighty close once and nowhere near it nine times. That’s show business. Teams have won a championship and experienced comparable dry spells or worse (just ask the 1908 Chicago Cubs). The ’67 Cardinals waited fifteen years for a suitable encore; the ’68 Tigers went without for sixteen years. The Mets’ aridity, September and October ’73 notwithstanding, seemed to indicate something more than the ball not bouncing their way.
The further we drifted from the autumn of ’69, the sadder we felt.
The 1969 Mets spoiled everybody for years to come. Unless you could prove a dynasty was up someone’s sleeve, it was bound to happen. And even if it was the beginning of great things, how could anything ever be greater than the first, universally unexpected time? As Leonard Shecter warned in the wake of October 16, 1969, “It is a glorious thing, and yet it is somehow sad.” He knew, and maybe everybody knew, that you only get to drink in so much joy from a single fount, that once you’ve shocked the world, the world is no longer so easily impressed by you.
The 1970 Mets didn’t repeat the feat of the 1969 Mets, finishing six games out in third after a spirited race with the eventual division champion Pirates and Cubs. The Mets were tied for first as late as September 14, but it wasn’t anything like the year before. How could it be? The year before was unprecedented. Now everything in the way of winning would be precedented for a generation.
“Explanations, excuses…” mused Roger Angell in the wake of 1970, “what remains invisible is the weight of success that these young, all-conquering Mets brought with them into this season. So little was expected of these players last year that they could plunge headlong into every key game and series, knowing that they would not be blamed if they fell on their faces. This year, the opposite was true.”
If you had told the loyal Mets fan in 1968 that within two years their team would be a first-division, 83-79 contender, there probably would have been enough champagne uncorked to fill Flushing Bay. But perspectives change with results. The 1970 Mets were ultimately an also-ran, more competitive than the pre-’69 bottom-feeders, but no more miraculous.
Thus, a certain sameness set in. The Mets compiled the exact same record in 1971 as they did in 1970, but weren’t part of an N.L. East race. They were, all in all, just a touch better than mediocre, and mediocrity — once a goal — had evolved into numbing disappointment.
“Everything considered,” Leonard Koppett wrote following the 1973 demi-miracle in a revised edition of his classic The New York Mets, “1971 was probably the least satisfying year the Mets had ever experienced. Not only were the mini-rewards of the pre-championship days no longer possible, but also the status of champion was officially gone.” As long as the Mets were alive in ’70, Koppett posited, there existed the chance that they still had a miracle in them and maybe a dynasty, a chance for “perpetual success”. Once that was gone, “the Mets moved into complete ordinariness.”
Having become just another ballclub with a decent shot at winning, the end of the Mets’ tenth year of existence proved to Koppett that “all their specialness was gone, for better or worse. They had entered the mainstream, and had completed the transition into being routine. No longer were they a challenge to any Establishment: they were the Establishment.” The Mets of 1971 were not represented primarily by “kooks carrying homemade banners” or what the author called “the disenfranchised”. Mets fans, Koppett concluded, “wanted only what sports fans everywhere seemed to want: victory, and no questions asked.”
Of course questions would be asked as victory became elusive, prime among them as 1969 faded further into the rearview mirror, where did everybody go? The 1970 Mets stopped being the 1969 Mets within two weeks of their championship when they released 36-year-old Ed Charles. The most famous picture of their celebration, Koosman leaping into Grote, with Charles seconds from making their battery a threesome, was cropped before John Lindsey completed his re-election campaign.
Charles was the first to go but he wouldn’t be the only one disinvited from active participation on Opening Day. The 1970 Mets would compete without the Glider, without Jack DiLauro (lost in the Rule 5 draft to Houston) and without J.C. Martin (traded to the enemy Cubs late in spring). Top prospect Amos Otis was given up on and traded for Joe Foy in December of ’69. Supersub Bobby Pfeil would be dealt mid-season ’70. Rod Gaspar, who scored the winning run in Game Four of the World Series, would get no more than a callup cameo in September and would go to the Padres as payment for Ron Herbel a year after he was one of 25 heroes. Don Cardwell became a Brave in July 1970, a month after Cal Koonce was sold to the Red Sox. Foreshadowing the unsuccessful title defense, Johnny Murphy, the GM who shepherded the Mets to their destiny, suffered a heart attack and never saw the championship flag raised.
Attrition approached epidemic stages in March 1971 when Ron Swoboda was swapped to the Expos for Don Hahn. Swoboda was the first of the frontline, born-and-bred Mets from 1969 to go. It was a sign that nothing miraculous could last forever. By 1973, Rocky was already nostalgic for 1969, telling Joseph Valerio in the updated edition of Jerry Mitchell’s The Amazing Mets, “It was a romantic type of atmosphere in 1969 that ended abruptly. I never got over it, not even yet. I think they had time to sit on that club, but they made businesslike motions. They milked so much emotion from that team and then they made cold, calculating moves. They raised the price of tickets the next year.”
If Ron Swoboda, maker of the most impossible catch a World Series ever saw, could be sent away, who couldn’t? We would know by the end of the calendar year that his right field platoon partner, Art Shamsky, wasn’t immune either. Sham became a Cardinal, as would Donn Clendenon, released two years after earning the Fall Classic MVP award and four months after his stiffest competition for the prize, Al Weis, was given his walking papers. Ron Taylor and his fireman’s gear were sent north to Montreal. 1971 closed out with the highly questionable trade of hot & cold fifth starter Nolan Ryan (and three others) to the California Angels for six-time All-Star shortstop Jim Fregosi. Fregosi would be asked to play third.
Then came 1972 and the death of Gil Hodges, and the dissolution of 1969 seemed to have taken on a whole new dimension. It wasn’t just sad. It was tragic.
Under Yogi Berra, the Mets made a concerted effort to turn the page to a new post-1969 chapter, acquiring the lefty power bat they’d forever lacked in Rusty Staub and grasping for whatever magic remained in the body of 41-year-old Willie Mays. It all seemed to work for a while. The 1972 Mets entered June with a five-game lead and shared first place as late as July 1, but injuries took their toll and the Mets fell from contention long before summer waned. Once 1972 ended, the ’69 housecleaning recommenced: Gary Gentry and Danny Frisella to the Braves for Felix Millan and George Stone in an unquestionably good deal; Tommie Agee for Rich Chiles and Buddy Harris in an absolutely pointless deal. As Agee himself would put it down the road, “When you’re traded for Rich Chiles, you’ve got to be bitter.”
The 1973 Mets, the team that almost matched the 1969 Mets miracle for miracle — albeit via a very different path — was composed of no more than 44% certifiably Miraculous content. To glance at their postseason roster and see Seaver, Koosman, McGraw, McAndrew, Grote, Dyer, Jones, Kranepool, Garrett, Boswell and Harrelson was to be reassured that 1969 didn’t take place all that long before. Berra was the manager now and a coach then. He was assisted by Rube Walker, Joe Pignatano and Eddie Yost, just as Hodges had been. And there was no arguing that Staub, Millan, Hahn, Mays, John Milner, Jon Matlack, Jim Beauchamp and the others who had joined the club since ’69 had achieved something substantial and remarkable.
It was after 1973’s effort came up one game short in Oakland and its 1974 encore collapsed with a thud (first Met losing record since ’68) that the distance from 1969 to the present really began to gape. It couldn’t help but be noticed by the world at large that the Mets had fallen far from their Miracle peak. Writing in the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1974, Mel Woody recounted the whereabouts of the missing for an article that would be reprinted in Baseball Digest under the headline “Whatever Happened To The Miracle Mets?”
• Jim McAndrew, 30, released by Iowa in the American Association less than six months after the Mets shipped him to San Diego.
• Don Cardwell, selling cars in Winston-Salem.
• Jack DiLauro, out of the game.
• Gary Gentry, recuperating from elbow surgery.
• Cal Koonce, college baseball coach in North Carolina.
• Donn Clendenon, running a “thriving” nightclub in Atlanta.
• Al Weis, working in Chicago.
• Ed Charles, scouting for the Mets in Kansas City.
• Art Shamsky, “younger than Pete Rose,” operating a bar in New York.
• Tommie Agee, same as Shamsky.
• Ron Swoboda, a “TV announcer” in the Big Apple.
• Ron Taylor, studying medicine in Toronto.
• Rod Gaspar, a Hawaii Islander in the Pacific Coast League.
• Nolan Ryan, “doing his strikeout thing for the California Angels after a disastrous Mets deal.”
Woody wondered how so many young up & comers had up and gone from the big leagues in just five years, especially with such a fantastic achievement on their respective résumés. He theorized that someone like the once-brilliant centerfielder Agee, making a then high-end salary like $80,000, was ripe for release if he “slips a bit”. Jerry Koosman didn’t disagree, adding if it meant hanging on longer, “I could see myself going to the front office and renegotiating my contract downward so they could afford to keep me on the club.” (This was a little more than a year before Peter Seitz struck down the reserve clause, making Kooz’s notion quite quaint in due order.)
Whatever happened to the Miracle Mets, it just kept happening, especially after the downcast ’74 season ended. Next out the door: Duffy Dyer (for Gene Clines); Ken Boswell (for Bob Gallagher); and, in the biggest shocker of the realm to date, Tug McGraw, in a six-player deal that brought in two very helpful players, centerfielder Del Unser and catcher John Stearns, yet underscored just how deeply the Mets had descended into the “complete ordinariness” Koppett divined as setting in a few years earlier. Tug McGraw was a Met of good standing in 1969, a top reliever in the early ’70s and, of course, the legend of 1973. You couldn’t believe he was no more than trade bait to the post-Miracle Mets. But he was. GM Joe McDonald admitted to Jack Lang, in The New York Mets: Twenty-Five Years of Baseball Magic, “that both he and McGraw cried over the telephone when the general manager called to advise the relief pitcher of the trade.”
The Mets were down to seven 1969 Mets in 1975. They’d be down to six come July when Cleon Jones, who had hit .340 for the world champs, was released after a dugout run-in with Yogi Berra — who would be dismissed shortly thereafter — over his insertion as a defensive replacement. As the ’75 Mets were coming up short in September (in the weeks just prior to the nearly simultaneous passings of Casey Stengel and Joan Payson), the comparison of what the Mets had been with what the Mets were now was a recurring theme, and not a happy one. In the October 1975 edition of Sport magazine, Dick Schaap and Steve Steiner described the twinned fates of the co-proprietors of the Outfielders Lounge on Astoria Boulevard, Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee, following their romp off the field after Jones caught the final out of the ’69 World Series:
Their futures seemed so bright. They were heroes, fresh from a parade down the middle of Manhattan, fresh from confetti and cheers and a championship.
From that image of 1969 to the reality of 1975: Jones chased from the Mets after a nightmare year (the mini-mutiny against Berra, the nagging injuries and the embarrassment of a team-mandated public apology for being found in a van with a woman not his wife during Spring Training); Agee not even in baseball the preceding two years, his last at-bat coming in 1973, as a Cardinal, at age 31.
“For several months” after his unconditional release by the Dodgers in the spring of ’74, Schaap and Steiner wrote, Agee “kept practicing his batting stance, his grip and his swing in front of mirrors. And then, by the time he turned 32, he knew the dream was dead, and he stopped practicing, and he let the paunch come on him without resistance.” The Sport article left them in their bar, physically near but spiritually disconnected from Shea Stadium. A Mets game aired in the background, but “neither man even glanced at the television for a moment. They just turned their backs on the game — the way the game, for some reason, had turned its back on them.”
The 1976 Mets reduced their 1969 head count from six to five with the trade of Wayne Garrett (and Unser) to Montreal in July. The Mets were going nowhere faster than usual, and Maury Allen in the Post shortly thereafter envisioned where we might find the final survivors of ’69 five years into the future, 1981. Jerry Koosman would be farming in Minnesota; Jerry Grote would be ranching in Texas; Bud Harrelson would be the baseball coach at the University of San Francisco; Ed Kranepool would be tearing up the American League as designated hitter for the Kansas City Royals; and Tom Seaver would be a full-time sportscaster. Allen’s larger point was the Mets needed to start rebuilding and he urged them to think about trading Tom Seaver sooner than later.
M. Donald Grant must have read that article.
Come June 1977, the 1969 Mets absorbed the crushing blow the Cubs, the Braves and the Orioles could never deal them. Tom Seaver was traded. It had been in the air, but it seemed impossible to fathom. There were more tears, shed by the traded as he packed up his locker and shed by his devotees as they attempted to comprehend the incomprehensible. “A man I know — not much of a Mets fan, or even much of a baseball fan, ” wrote Roger Angell, “told me that ever since the trade he had been waking up in the middle of the night thinking about Tom Seaver; one time, he said, he woke up crying.” There was anger, too. “This place is a madhouse,” Mets switchboard supervisor Emma Fuchs told Sport magazine’s Paul Good. “It’s insane. The people are calling up and screaming and cursing.”
That was about all the passion the ’77 Mets would inspire. They would delete Jerry Grote before September (handed to the Dodgers for their stretch run) and end the season in last place for the first time in ten years. Bud Harrelson would go to the Phillies in the spring of ’78 for the immortal Fred Andrews. Jerry Koosman would get his first and only Opening Day start. He’d win it and two more decisions, en route to a 3-15 record, his last as a Met. In December, he’d be sent packing to Minnesota, not to farm, but to pitch.
Ed Kranepool, the last of the 1962 Mets, was now the last of the 1969 Mets on the premises. Come July 14, he would hear his name called among his most accomplished teammates again as part of the team’s first reunion of its, to that point, only world champions.
Old Timers Day 1979 was clearly the highlight of that season’s schedule, with the double-theme of 1969’s tenth anniversary and coach Mays’ upcoming induction into the Hall of Fame. Mets fans looked forward to it, flocking to Shea in numbers mostly unseen that year (28,254, a paid gate exceeded only and barely by the inaugural Fireworks Night in June). The Mets organization, which couldn’t have done more things worse across a decade had it actually set out to fail, did the best it could to brighten this particular Saturday. The individual ’69 Mets may have turned bitter toward their former employer as they had been traded, released and ignored (none of them voluntarily stepped aside), but 15 of those who were no longer active turned out for this milestone occasion. Kranepool was included in the festivities as was fictional ’69 utilityman Chico Escuela, a.k.a. Garrett Morris, fresh off his All-Star season on Saturday Night Live. A handful of those who were otherwise engaged by baseball — Seaver the Red, Koosman the Twin, Harrelson and McGraw of Philadelphia — sent taped messages the fans cheered.
That esteemed quartet couldn’t be there, nor could Angel Ryan or Expo Dyer. Garrett was playing in Japan. Gaspar missed his plane. “Efforts to contact Koonce and Pfeil,” according to the 1980 Mets Yearbook, “were futile”. But everybody else who could be there showed up at Shea, which was transformed, for this fleeting moment in 1979, back into the happiest place on Earth.
The narrative of the Mets as a franchise that had stumbled itself into hard times was now familiar not to mention accurate. Perhaps the most telling episode from that Old Timers Day, as captured by George Vecsey in Inside Sports magazine:
The choice of uniform confirmed the rumors of the new tackiness of the Met ownership. Rather than provide a souvenir shirt with each player’s name on it, the Met management scrounged up spare uniforms with the right numbers but adhesive tape blocking out the name of the current Met. Thus, Rocky Swoboda returned to the scene of his dazzling World Series catch wearing his old No. 4, but with peeling white tape barely concealing the name of Bruce Boisclair.
So the Mets under Lorinda de Roulet were penurious and preposterous. So the Mets commemorated the tenth anniversary of 1969 by finishing in last place for the third consecutive season. So Jerry Koosman would win 20 games for somebody else, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan would lead other teams to the playoffs and Tug McGraw was merely one year away from sealing a division rival’s world championship — by which time the last of the ’69 Mets to not leave the Mets, Kranepool, had been kicked off the roster (never to DH for KC or anybody).
Yes, it was sad to watch the Mets transform from once-in-a-lifetime winners to stupefying losers, usually without grace or regard for what had made those winners so appealing. Yes, 1969 was all over too fast. Yes, it was a sad story.
Emphasis on was.
Now and, really, since 1979, the ’69 Mets have lived on as a unit happily ever after. It may have started that otherwise hopeless July day when SWOBODA peeled off into BOISCLAIR. At the time, the 1969 Mets were out of practice at coalescing. They hadn’t done it since that Thursday ten Octobers prior when Koosman jumped Grote, Charles jumped them both and all of New York followed. But the first Old Timers Day in which the ’69 Mets came together not as retired players but living legends set the stage for the rest of time. We now understand the ’69 Mets will always be the ’69 Mets, no matter how each of them stopped being a Met in the course of his career. We just accept it and are grateful for it.
With that kind of hindsight, it’s rather surprising to read in Vecsey’s characteristically wonderful 1979 article how it was all a little strained for the retired Mets to greet each other again, at least according to Dr. Ron Taylor:
“Almost no laughter, not many old stories, not much serious talk. I guess that’s because a lot of the key players — Seaver, Koosy, Bud Harrelson, Tug McGraw — are still playing. In ten years the party will be better.”
There would be more parties and nobody seems to have complained of their frequency or quality. Reuniting the 1969 Mets became a tradition at Shea Stadium. There would be an Old Timers Day in 1989 for the twentieth anniversary, another in 1994 for the twenty-fifth and a thirtieth birthday party in 1999. There will be one at Citi Field on August 22 for the fortieth anniversary, the first to feature Nolan Ryan. Any and all celebrations that weren’t dedicated solely to 1986 have represented an excuse to bring back 1969 Mets, including ten from the World Series roster — McAndrew, Charles, Shamsky, Garrett, Swoboda, Kranepool, Jones, Harrelson, Koosman and Seaver, along with first base coach Berra — when Shea shuttered its gates on the last day of 2008. There’d be fantasy camps and card shows and commercials and all manner of reunions as 1969 grew sepia-toned. Men like Agee and Swoboda managed to forget whatever misdeeds management dealt them and became regular visitors to where they made the miracle. Tom Seaver serves the Mets as a “club ambassador,” which is not something one would have projected for him in 1977.
While it was still fresh in the memory, ’69 couldn’t help but mock its ever less miraculous immediate successors. But as it’s become older, what stands out about 1969 is not how it unraveled but how it could never truly come apart.
“When the Mets roared down the stretch to win the National League pennant five years ago, and then went on to upset the Orioles in the World Series,” Mel Woody reflected in 1974, “they captured the fancy of the baseball public. In retrospect, it was a short-lived miracle.”
That, blessedly, would prove a short-lived conclusion.
The 1969 Mets could hook a person on baseball, as you’ll find out when you read Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook.