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.
The 1969 baseball championship, won — not stolen — by the New York Mets, stands unquestioned as the greatest sporting achievement of the year. Yes, some will say “of the century”.
—Richard Dozer, Chicago Tribune, 1969
I’ll love Ron Swoboda ’til the day I die.
—John “Little Chief” Sullivan, Frequency, 2000
Forty years ago today was the last time Mets fans who could sleep woke up never having never experienced a world championship. Come afternoon, Gil Hodges would bring a shoe polish-smudged baseball to Lou DiMuro; Donn Clendenon and Al Weis would each homer; Ron Swoboda would double; Cleon Jones would score a couple of runs; and Jerry Koosman would throw a complete game five-hitter. The last pitch he fired was hit by Orioles second baseman Dave Johnson. It would be caught by Jones in front of the left field warning track and crown the New York Mets the World Champions of baseball.
That was it. For as long as there would be baseball, for as long as there would be Mets, for as long there would be Mets fans, we had one. We had a world championship. We had a trophy (the only one with a Seattle Pilots flag among its ornaments, it would turn out). We earned a parade. We could watch Ed Sullivan introduce Edwin Charles, Rodney Gaspar and G. Thomas Seaver so they and their teammates could sing of the benefits of having heart. But even without the tangible rewards of victory, we were fulfilled in the eyes of eternity. We were Mets fans and we were fans of a world champion. It was not mutually exclusive. Stunning to consider both for where the Mets had been not long before October 16, 1969 and, let’s face it, where they’ve been lately.
This winning a World Series isn’t easy. First you have to get to a World Series, and our Mets have done that only four times in 48 attempts. They’re two-for-four upon arrival. The second time they succeeded, in 1986, they were overwhelming favorites along every step of their journey and it was still hard as hell to nail down. The first edition to be ultimately successful went all the way more succinctly (five games versus seven) but not without its own share of stress and drama.
Your first world champions won two games by one run (one in extra innings) and another after falling behind by three runs. The one game they won by a large margin came via two magnificent Tommie Agee catches that, if not made, would have changed the course of immediate baseball history. It’s not severe overstatement to calculate the Mets in Five could have been, if not for just about everything going right, the Orioles in Four.
But just about everything went right. Maybe not Ron Swoboda’s leap at the Memorial Stadium wall in the first inning of the first game, but history would say Rocky made up for that all right. History would say the Orioles didn’t know what hit them, or, more precisely, what caught them (to say nothing of who pitched right by them). History has been kind and consistent to the Mets from the moment Cleon Jones put away Dave Johnson’s fly ball.
What amazes me when I read contemporary accounts of the 1969 world championship is that everybody got it right away and that the story hasn’t changed all that much over four decades. It was an achievement for the ages and a miracle like no other. It still answers to that brief description. Occasionally its enormity has been overlooked (like when MLB failed to include it among what couldn’t therefore be described as the sport’s thirty most memorable moments) and sometimes it’s been taken a bit for granted (like when shortsighted Mets fans voted it no higher than the third-greatest moment in Shea Stadium history), but it’s held up. The 1969 Mets didn’t fall down a memory hole. You don’t have to explain it all that much. It’s not a season for which you had to be around to understand. It probably helps to have experienced at least some of it first-hand to truly appreciate it, but you can probably say that about everything.
I’m forever grateful for the timing I unwittingly demonstrated in coming to baseball and the Mets in the late summer of 1969. By the time I understood what a world championship was, I had one. My earliest sports memory of any kind was watching the 1968 Summer Olympics with my parents. We laughed at whichever discus thrower grunted the loudest in Mexico City. The first specific sports event I can recall watching was the fourth game of the 1968-69 NBA Eastern Division Finals between the Knicks and Celtics from Boston Garden (Knicks lost a one-point heartbreaker and fell behind three to one in the best-of-seven). But really, it was the Mets who were the beginning of everything for me. They were the beginning of knowing what I was watching and why I was watching. The 1969 Mets were the first thing outside the limited sphere of my own insignificant six-year-old life that I ever cared about.
The Mets were my point of entry to the world at large. And suddenly they were the champions of it. Talk about your most hospitable of Welcome Wagons.
After plucking the Birds, Maury Allen suggested in the Post that ever higher times loomed for those Amazin’, Amazin’, Amazin’ Mets. “Ryan hasn’t yet been tapped and Ken Boswell will be better and Agee has confidence and Jones is only 27,” Allen wrote with glee. “Why, the Mets could win for the next 10 of 20 years.” Perhaps Maury Allen was doused with more clubhouse champagne than Mayor Lindsay. Perhaps the giddiness of the moment was contagious. Or perhaps the Mets seemed just that ready to roll.
It didn’t happen that way, of course. The 1969 Mets stand apart not just from their predecessors but all their immediate successors. Anybody who came along not much after me would have to wait until 1986 for the kind of fulfillment I felt instantly (though 1973 wasn’t a bad consolation prize). Anybody who came along after the fall of ’86 is still waiting. Using my own timeline as a gauge, I deduce that no one currently under the age of 29 likely has any tangible memory of the Mets approaching and winning a world championship.
Thus, I congratulate you the younger Mets fan on this fortieth anniversary. You’ve maintained your affinity despite receiving no ultimate reward on your watch. Congratulations on displaying admirable perseverance and loyalty. But congratulations, too, because today is the fortieth anniversary of the Mets winning their first world championship, and it belongs to you just as it belongs to me, just as it belongs to everyone who started at zero — literally zero and nine — with this franchise when it commenced losing in amounts so voluminous that when it began to win anything at all, it had to be considered a miracle. What happened forty years ago today belongs to all of us. I hope if you’re younger than 30 you see October 16, 1969 that way.
I wasn’t around in 1776, but I still celebrate the Fourth of July.
I’d like to think I would have been every bit the diehard I became had I discovered the Mets a little later, without the benefit of witnessing them become world champions the first time. I assume I would have, but I’m glad I’ve never had to find out. I’m glad I could grow up knowing that it happened at least once. It meant it could happen again. That fact was all that tided me over when things grew grim. Somewhere in my Met-loving soul, I’m pretty sure I still rely on it for reassurance. On October 16, 1969, the Mets beat the Orioles 5-3 and became champions of the world. I know it happened. I saw it happen. It can happen again.