Forty years ago today, the Eastern Division champion Mets were hosting Cincinnati, tied one game apiece with the Western Division champion Reds in the National League Championship Series…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)…
In an era when comedians could get a cheap laugh at the expense of the violence-riddled NHL — “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out” — a touch of Broad Street Bullying came to the intersection of 126th Street and Roosevelt Avenue. Except unlike the Stanley Cup-bound Philadelphia Flyers of 1973-74, whose brawl-encompassing season was about to begin, the Cincinnati Reds saw their attempt to win with their fists what they couldn’t win with their skills amount to naught.
That’s because by the time they decided to come out swinging this sunny Monday at Shea Stadium, they had already had the hell beaten out of them where it counted.
The Mets and their perennial offensive blues were reflected in the first seventeen innings of this NLCS when they provided Tom Seaver and Jon Matlack with all of two runs for their brilliant efforts. Finally, in the ninth inning of the second game, the Mets bats woke up. The four runs that secured the Game Two win must have served as a shot of caffeine because those bats stayed wide awake as the series set down in New York.
For the first time since the last time Jerry Koosman started, eight days earlier in Chicago, the Mets scored in the first inning. The trigger man was again Rusty Staub, providing his second solo home run of the series. The early lead grew quickly. In the bottom of the second, Wayne Garrett’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly and Felix Millan’s RBI single extended the Met lead to 3-0 and ended Cincy starter Ross Grimsley’s day. With two on and two out, Sparky Anderson opted for his lefty reliever, Tom Hall, to face the sizzling lefty Staub.
Rusty was not to be faced down. He took Hall on a tour of downtown Flushing via his second home run of the game and third of the series. The Mets presented Koosman with a 6-0 lead. It got trimmed in the third when Denis Menke homered and three singles strung together a second run. But Kooz got half of that back on his own, driving in Jerry Grote in the bottom of the third to make it 7-2. And in the bottom of the fourth, Cleon Jones and John Milner each knocked in runs.
It was 9-2, Mets. They had scored in every inning dating back to the ninth the day before. Despite their starter’s earlier hiccup, their pitching now appeared on Kooz control. Jerry struck out Roger Nelson (Anderson’s fourth pitcher of the day) to begin the fifth. Pete Rose touched him for a single, but then Joe Morgan grounded to Milner at first to start a 3-6-3 double play to end the inning.
Except in the middle of that otherwise routine twin-killing, Rose got it into his head to reach out and do more than touch Buddy Harrelson. That’s how Buddy saw it from his vantage point at the business end of the onrushing Rose. “He came into me after I threw the ball,” the skinny shortstop swore. “I’m not a punching bag.” The much larger Rose resented the implication that he played dirty, testifying he slid hard but clean.
Buddy might have added he wasn’t a sliding pit, either.
“And a fight breaks out! A fight breaks out!” was Bob Murphy’s call of the scene once the DP was turned. “Pete Rose and Buddy Harrelson! Both clubs spill out of the dugouts, and a wild fight is going on! Jerry Koosman’s in the middle of the fight! Everybody is out there!”
Yes, everybody. The Mets’ starting pitcher was too much the competitor to keep his left arm from danger. The Mets relief pitchers weren’t going to stand idly by from their safe haven in the right field bullpen, either. Tug McGraw figured that by the time he and his colleagues joined the fray, the fray would be dying down. No such luck. Tug grabbed Rose; the Reds third base coach, Alex Grammas, grabbed Harrelson; Ray Sadecki pitched in to quell the rabid Rose. “But finally,” McGraw recounted in Screwball, “we ripped them apart and the hassle seemed over.”
But it wasn’t, because the Met relievers weren’t the only recent arrivals at the scrap. The Reds pen men showed up, and one had a taste for…well, something.
Murphy: “And now, Buzzy Capra is in a fight. Out in center field, another fight breaks out.”
McGraw: “Pedro Borbon came tearing in and broadsided Buzz Capra with a shot out of left field that you wouldn’t believe.”
Mind you, this is Tug McGraw who’d just spent six weeks telling everybody who’d listen that You Gotta Believe. Yet it was pretty unbelievable. Borbon went after Capra, so Duffy Dyer went after Borbon and “cold-cocked” him by McGraw’s account, “then everybody started to hassle all over again.”
As if the scene needed a coda, it was provided by Borbon, who grabbed what he thought was his Reds cap and placed it on his head when all the hassling was losing its zip. Alas, Borbon picked up somebody’s Mets cap, and when he realized he was sporting the gear of the enemy, “he went into a real rage,” according to Tug, stuffing the cap “in his mouth, with his eyes all like fire, and started to tear it apart with his teeth” before flinging it to the ground and stomping off the field.
That would have been that, a pugilistic interlude (or two) to liven up a seven-run rout, except one more corner had yet to be heard from. There were 53,967 on hand at Shea, and as proud as they were of Harrelson for standing up for himself — and, by proxy, for them — a minority of the spectators didn’t think Charlie Hustle had quite gotten what was coming to him. So they were going to take care of that themselves.
When Rose took his position for the bottom of the fifth, he learned left field had been rezoned for sanitation disposal by popular referendum. Garbage came flying out of the stands, all meant for him. Rose liked to cast himself as a tough guy, but taking on the malcontents in a sellout crowd was far above his pay grade. The fruit and paper cups didn’t bother him, he said later, but glass receptacles were another matter:
“They just missed me with a bottle of J&B.”
When the critical mass of debris ramped from nuisance to danger, Sparky Anderson scotched the idea of the Reds just standing there and taking it. He pulled his players from the field for their own safety. National League president Chub Feeney and the umpiring crew could hardly blame him and were forced to confront the Mets with a very unpleasant fact: get this barrage stopped or forfeit this game.
It took a diplomatic mission more suited to solving the crisis enveloping the Middle East — Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Seaver, Jones and Staub — to head to left field and negotiate some sense into the slice of the crowd that wanted the grass to run red with the blood of Rose. Cut it out, they urged the cranks, or our 9-2 lead becomes a 9-0 loss.
They cut it out and the game proceeded without interruption for the final four innings. Amazingly, no one was ejected. Borbon even pitched the eighth and ninth (in his Reds cap). Koosman just kept on keeping on despite hanging around for the donnybrook. When he retired Phil Gagliano to end the most memorable Columbus Day in Shea Stadium history, the Mets discovered themselves 9-2 winners in Game Three and 2-1 leaders in the series overall.
With one more win, they’d sail into the World Series. But the waters grew choppy on Tuesday.
What happened next?
You’ll find out when you read The Happiest Recap (First Base: 1962-1973).
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