Forty years ago today, the Mets were hosting Montreal, sitting in first place, one half-game ahead of the second-place Pirates in the N.L. East with a record of 79-77…and they were about to post one of the 500 most Amazin’ wins of their first 50 years.
From The Happiest Recap (First Base: 1962-1973)…
What mattered most, per the parameters of any pennant race, was how the game ended, and on this Tuesday night, it ended spectacularly well, with Tug McGraw coming on to throw two-and-a-third innings of shutout ball to seal Jerry Koosman’s 2-1 victory over the fast-fading Expos. Sparked by yet another Cleon Jones home run, the Mets won their seventh in a row, stretching their lead over second-place Pittsburgh to a game-and-a-half with five to play. McGraw was doing everything in his power to back up his You Gotta Believe credo. From September 5 to September 25, as the Mets took 15 of 19, McGraw made a dozen appearances. Every one of them was a personal and team success: he saved nine games and won three more. Eight of the outings were at least two innings long.
Tug’s pitching put the usual exclamation point on the Shea festivities, but nothing could have made more of a statement about the magical properties of this Met month than the way the evening began. Hours before Tug bid au revoir to the team from Canada, his most revered teammate was issuing a memorable signoff to a whole other nation.
It was Willie Mays Night, marking the end of a career surpassed by nobody for utter brilliance. Mays began it in 1951 in the same place where the Mets learned to crawl, at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan. Six years and a slew of indelible images later, Willie and his team, the New York Giants, were whisked away to San Francisco. Their departure, along with the Brooklyn Dodgers’, facilitated the birth of the Mets, which was a good thing for the millions wrapped up in total Belief by September of 1973, but old-timers would tell you there was always a little something missing from the New York National League baseball scene as long as the quintessential New York National League baseball superstar was plying his trade on the West Coast.
Mrs. Joan Payson attempted to turn back time and make all right with the world in 1972 when she plied a trade of her own: Charlie Williams and cash to the Giants in exchange for Willie’s homecoming. It was a dramatic success from the Say Hey get-go… though after the euphoria of Willie Mays in a New York uniform settled down, it couldn’t help but be noticed that a season later, the Mets were left with a 42-year-old legend who had never been anything but a legend — but had never been 42 before.
Willie contributed a few timely hits in 1973, but after going 0-for-2 in Montreal on September 9, his batting average sank to a most unMayslike .211, accompanied by six homers, 25 RBIs and a mere 24 runs scored in 66 games played (Willie had scored more than a hundred runs annually from 1954 through 1965). He was hurting physically after cracking two ribs on a metal rail at Jarry Park in pursuit of a foul ball, and mentally, not being the Willie Mays whom fans from coast-to-coast idolized and idealized finally caught up with him. Thus, he announced his retirement at a press conference in Shea’s Diamond Club on September 20.
Phil Pepe covered the SRO event for the Daily News, reminding any readers who were perhaps momentarily dismayed by Mays’s descent into cranky mortality — a couple of times as a Met, he hadn’t shown up when and where expected, making Yogi Berra’s managerial tenure no easier — what Willie represented beyond his 660 home runs, 1,903 runs batted in, 2,062 runs scored, 3,283 base hits and .302 lifetime average. “[It] is not the records or the statistics or the awards that distinguish him,” Pepe wrote. “It is the memory of the way the man played the game, with a zest and a daring, with an excitement that is unmatched.”
“I’ve had a love affair with baseball,” Mays told the media, but acknowledged, “you just can’t play at 42 the way you did at 20.”
The Mets had already scheduled Willie Mays Night before his retirement went official. When they announced their intention to honor him, it was before there was any inkling that it would serve as a sidebar in a sizzling-hot pennant race…or that a pennant race might provide the backdrop to Willie Mays Night. Where No. 24 was concerned, it was unfathomable that he wouldn’t be the main attraction.
Sure enough, a full house of more than 53,000 showed up at Shea to bestow its appreciation on Mays. After a 45-minute tribute in which Willie was showered with all manner of gift and applauded by a veritable Hall of Fame cast of his Giant, Dodger and Yankee contemporaries from the golden age of New York baseball, it was the man of the hour’s turn to speak .
What happened next?
You’ll find out when you read The Happiest Recap (First Base: 1962-1973).
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