“His time is becoming part of history, not living memory, and we need to reach across the generations in new ways.”
—Caroline Kennedy, January 13, 2011, on her father’s presidency (1961-1963)
Mike Baxter appears to have beaten out Vinny Rottino for a spot on the 2012 Opening Day roster, though if Andres Torres isn’t ready to go, Rottino will make it, too.
Good thing we had more than a month of Spring Training to sort that out.
Lest ye who judge the 25-man roster be judged himself (or something like that), I found myself far less excited about exposure to Vinny Rottino, Adam Loewen, Lucas May, Garrett Olson and everybody else who came and went from St. Lucie — some of whom will no doubt come again — and way more thrilled when a righthander the team had already dealt away made an appearance at camp.
Very early in the exhibition schedule, the SNY booth welcomed Jay Hook to the broadcast. Jay Hook started the fifth game the Mets ever played, which the Mets lost to Houston in extra innings. Or, to put it in terms so optimistic Bob Murphy wouldn’t have dismissed them, it was the first time the Mets didn’t lose in nine innings. Hook’s next start, the tenth game the Mets ever played, marked the first time the Mets didn’t lose at all. It was their first win. Thirty-nine more of those followed in 1962, and a few more since.
Jay Hook was a good guest on camera — and an even better one on the Web, as you’ll see when you watch him with Ted Berg here — but what really hit me in listening to Hook was realizing that the guy who pitched our first win, from 50 years ago, is still with us.
I knew it factually. I know it’s not uncommon for there to be men aged between 67 and 85 (the current span of surviving 1962 Mets) walking this earth. Jay Hook is 75. Agewise, that’s no biggie. My dad is 83. I hear about people in their 90s and even triple-digits from my wife, whose profession has her in regular contact with New York’ senior population. The actuarial tables have changed since Don Draper was doing his worst to defy them.
Still, when I stop and think that the Mets commenced to being a full half-century ago, and the guy who won their first game swings by Spring Training a half-century later…that’s pretty Amazin’. If the announcers from the team Hook beat for that first win on April 23, 1962, the Pirates, were to interview somebody from 50 years before, they would have been talking to a Pirate from 1912.
Which sounds unfathomable.
Fifty years sounded unfathomably long in 1973, to use an example I can recall, when the Yankees wore patches to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their ballpark (just before it went into the shop for repairs). When Yankee Stadium reopened in 1976 — so we’re talking 53 years, a touch longer — their PR director, Marty Appel, made sure six 1923 Yankees were on hand, including the fellow who threw the first pitch in the original Stadium, Bob Shawkey. He threw the first (ceremonial) pitch in the renovated version, too.
If you told me in the mid-1970s that baseball players from the early 1920s could do that, I would have been shocked. Actually, I experienced my own shock that summer when my sister and I attended Old Timers Day at Shea and saw Lloyd “Little Poison” Waner come to the plate in his Pirates uniform. Lloyd Waner arrived in the majors in 1927. By 1976, a shade under 50 years later, he was 70. My sister and I laughed and made some predictably lame geezer jokes instead of appreciating that someone who played big league ball as Lindbergh was crossing the Atlantic and The Jazz Singer was bringing sound to motion pictures was on the field in front of us, representing a distant past we couldn’t begin to fully imagine.
Extended periods of time, as measured in decades, just don’t seem quite so long anymore — and I don’t think I’m saying that simply because nine months from tomorrow I will be fifty years old. Perhaps it’s due to a certain cultural stagnation that pervades our midst, something I’ve sensed for a while and something Kurt Andersen pretty much nailed in a recent issue of Vanity Fair. Our devices grow smaller and work faster, and we conduct wars against concepts rather than countries, but in a broader sense, we’re changing incrementally at most. As Andersen wrote, “try to spot the obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992.”
I’m not sure I can, other than to note that as overcompensated free agent outfielders who were better as Pirates than they were or have been as Mets go, Jason Bay is a whole lot more polite than Bobby Bonilla ever was.
Though I suppose they’re all ten years in length, decades in our day and age at least seem more condensed. It doesn’t seem anywhere near as unfathomable as it used to that you could have a baseball player from 1962 show up spry at the ballpark in 2012. Folks live longer as a rule. They live younger, you might say. You’ve seen Tom Seaver make cameos at Citi Field. Seaver was 67 on his last birthday, or three years younger than Waner was when I saw him at Shea. Nothing about Seaver — who happened to be the Mets’ starting pitcher that Old Timers Day in 1976 — suggests “old man,” no matter that he’s in Waner territory now.
Yet with perceptions giving way to new realities about how we measure time, 50 years is still 50 years. And the Mets are 50 years old this year. They designed a logo to commemorate the occasion, are wearing it on their sleeves and caps and have produced a slew of merchandise they hope you’ll want to add to your own Met collection. If you’ve seen the ad treatments at your local subway stop, they are casting their current product against an evocative historical backdrop, the Mets they hope you’ll love now as an extension of all you’ve loved about the Mets always. And as far as “sexy” milestone anniversaries are concerned (10th, 20th, 25th, 40th, 50th, 60th, 75th, 100th), the 50th is the last one that can be counted on to be marked more in living memory than as history, particularly when it comes to the actual participants…in this case, the actual 1962 Mets.
As of this writing, 29 of the 45 men who played for the 1962 New York Mets are still among us. That is to say Jay Hook has ample company. We’ve seen a few of his contemporaries lately. Al Jackson showed up on a Spring Training telecast, too, in team-issued windbreaker and cap, still tutoring Mets pitchers. Frank Thomas joined them on the dais at the BBWAA dinner in January. Choo Choo Coleman was in the audience that night. Joe Pignatano, better known for coaching the bullpen from 1968 through 1981, is alive and well despite hitting into a triple play in the eighth inning of the final game in 1962 (his final MLB plate appearance). He’ll be at Hofstra for the 50th Anniversary conference. So will Ed Kranepool, the youngster — 17 then, 67 now — from 1962. I don’t know what catcher Joe Ginsberg, 85 and the oldest of the 1962 alumni, is up to or what he’s up for, but I do know Original third baseman Don Zimmer remains in the employ of the Tampa Bay Rays at the apparently cuddly age of 81.
Felix Mantilla, Roger Craig, Hobie Landrith, Ed Bouchee, Jim Marshall, Ray Daviault, John DeMerit, Bobby Gene Smith, Chris Cannizzaro, Jim Hickman, Craig Anderson, Ken MacKenzie, Dave Hillman, Sammy Taylor, Cliff Cook, Joe Christopher, Willard Hunter, Bob G. Miller, Rick Herrscher, Galen Cisco and Larry Foss were all 1962 Mets. Better yet, they are still 1962 Mets. Like those catalogued above, they are the living memory of our beginnings.
And if we can allow ourselves a slightly more generous definition in the spirit of Lee Walls, so is pitcher Evans Killeen, who (as Nick Diunte lets us know here) was one ornery shaving kit away from making the final cut in the Mets’ first Spring Training. So, too, is Ted Lepcio, the utilityman who was beat out of a roster spot by Hot Rod Kanehl. Lepcio never made the Mets but we shouldn’t forget the name of the first major league veteran to take a chance on the Mets. A few weeks after the expansion draft, Lepcio, a free agent, opted to sign with the new ballclub. He wasn’t drafted by the Mets. He wasn’t purchased by the Mets. He sought out the Mets.
The Mets should seek him out (just as Dave Sullivan did here). They should seek out Killeen. They should seek out Bob “Butterball” Botz, 76, another would-be Original Met pitcher who didn’t make the club that first spring or ever, yet when the Mets began their second season at the Polo Grounds, a sentimental New Breeder unfurled a banner demanding, “BRING BACK BUTTERBALL BOTZ.”
Sounds good to me.
Bring back Botz and Lepcio and Killeen. Bring back the Bob Miller who isn’t the other Bob Miller (Bob L. Miller passed away in 1993). The Mets used seven catchers in 1962; only Harry Chiti, famously sort of traded for himself, is gone. So bring back the six catchers you can: Taylor, Piggy, Ginsberg, Landrith, Choo Choo and Cannizzaro (one Chris Cannizzaro has already been honored at Citi Field; why not two?). Bring ’em all back this year as a unit. Bring back the 1962 Mets for the 50th anniversary of the Mets. Bring on the living memory of the 1962 Mets. Reintroduce them to Ralph Kiner. Introduce them to the generations of Mets fans who never saw them, who have never heard of most of them.
These guys, as much as all those who have succeeded them, are why you have a 50th anniversary logo. They put the uniform on before Seaver, before Hernandez, before Piazza, before Wright. That they lost in it far more often than they won in it is not a reason to shy away from making them the focal point of at least one celebratory day in Flushing this season. If anything, surviving 50 years after playing a role in a 40-120 baptism deserves our admiration.
The Mets don’t believe in Old Timers Day anymore: partly because the Yankees believe in it fervently; partly because it costs money to fly in Old Timers and put them up for a couple of nights. The Yankee part should be irrelevant because of that 50 logo. The Mets are half-a-hundred. Management can stop pretending they just got here. For the most part, the Mets are heartily embracing key elements of their storied past in 2012…except they’re doing it without conducting the event that was invented to embrace storied pasts.
No Old Timers Day? Scattered, low-key, poorly publicized “alumni” events have become the norm, and we have tended to accept them for the unfulfilling substitute they are. No 1969 reunion on the 50th anniversary of the franchise? Regrettable, but we’re only three years removed from the last one. No 1986 reunion on the 50th anniversary of the franchise? There never seem to be less than five 1986 Mets circling Citi Field on a daily basis, so we’ll let that go, too. Besides, we expect a beautiful moment on Opening Day when Gary Carter is remembered.
But no scheduled 1962 reunion? While there are still, after 50 years, more 1962 Mets living than not? That’s no way to celebrate 50 years. If you can’t bear to call it Old Timers Day, then call it something else like Original Mets Day (and don’t dither because you worry every wanna-be wag will make some crack about the 2012 Mets paying tribute to the 1962 Mets already, look at their record, haw-haw). Expense? You just beat the rap…I mean settled out of court on your biggest potential expense. Surely the Mets alumni you’d have to fly in will rate a senior discount.
Bob L. Miller can’t be here. Hot Rod Kanehl can’t be here. Harry Chiti can’t be here. Gil Hodges, Richie Ashburn, Sherman “Roadblock” Jones, Sammy Drake, Vinegar Bend Mizell, Marvelous Marv Throneberry, Clem Labine, Gene Woodling, Elio Chacon, Herb Moford, Gus Bell, Bob Moorhead and Charlie Neal can’t be here. Bob Murphy, Lindsey Nelson, Casey Stengel and Joan Payson can’t be here, either. You’d sure love to see them again. But you can’t.
We can see a whole lot of other 1962 Mets, not in the grainy film clips or the dusty archives or the sterile statistics, but in the Mets ballpark in 2012, where they should be, one more time, for all of us to cheer.
Fifty years is still a long time. It’s certainly not going to get any shorter.
Two books you might want to know about if you’re interested in the roots of your favorite team, one fairly recent, the other newly reissued:
• A Year in Mudville by David Bagdade, released in 2010, endeavors to serve as the definitive repository of what really happened in mythic 1962. Bagdade is thorough and respectful of his material, bringing an honest curiosity to the task and offering dogged research in its support. Pretty good for a White Sox fan who didn’t grow up with Lindsey, Ralph and Bob filling his head with the legends of Casey & Co. Check it out here.
• Tales From the 1962 New York Mets Dugout by Janet Paskin was first published in 2004, in the wake of the 2003 Detroit Tigers’ assault (if you can call it that) on the Original Mets’ standard for transcendence. It’s been brought out again in honor of the 50th anniversary, this time with a foreword written by a Mets fan who did grow up with Lindsey, Ralph and Bob filling his head with the legends of Casey & Co. That would be me, who was delighted to be asked. If you’re wondering what somebody born in 1962 can tell you about a team that was born in 1962, I invite you to find out in my essay, “Ashburn to Pascucci,” and stick around for the rest of the Tales. Look for it here.