On this very afternoon in 1969, Jerry Koosman pitched a solid nine innings, Donn Clendenon, Ken Boswell and Cleon Jones made key contact and Ed Kranepool homered and later delivered the walkoff hit, a fortuitous bloop to left that made Kooz and the Mets 4-3 winners over the Cubs.
In other words, today is the 45th anniversary of the Don Young Game.
Don Young was the least famous member of Chicago’s starting lineup on July 8, 1969, but he is the one for which the most important regular-season game the Mets franchise had played to date is named. The Mets could barely touch Ferguson Jenkins for eight innings, Koosman gave up homers to Ernie Banks and Jim Hickman plus a run-scoring single to Glenn Beckert, but it is Young whose fingerprints remain all over this game…the Don Young Game.
If you were a sentient Mets fan in the summer of 1969 or are a historically minded student of all things Amazin’, you’re way ahead of me on the Don Young Game. If by chance this is all news to you, know that the powerhouse Cubs of ’69 sported All-Star caliber talent at virtually every position. One spot, however, gave them trouble: center field.
Don Young was Leo Durocher’s center fielder by something less than choice. A 23-year-old rookie, Young showed up at Shea batting .227. His presence, however, wasn’t holding back the first-place Cubs, who entered their Tuesday tilt versus the Mets 5½ in front of their surprising pursuers. The Mets had never spent a moment of their lives in the first division. They were not only breathing the heady air of second place for the first time, they had never soared anywhere above .500 this late in the season. They were 45-34, for goodness sake. If nothing else were to happen in 1969, that alone qualified as a miracle.
But more was to come. And it was going to start coming on July 8, 1969, when, in essence, Gil Hodges and the Mets decided second place wasn’t going to be good enough for them. Their fans felt the same way. It wasn’t a promotional item that drew 55,096 to Shea for a midweek day game, unless the throwing off of the shackles of futility could be considered a giveaway. The Mets were loaded for Cub. The Cubs may not have been all that concerned with the team directly behind them in the standings for the first 8½ innings, as they maintained a 3-1 lead, but the bottom of the ninth changed the dynamics of the season and the complexion of the two clubs’ respective narratives forever more.
The linchpin of history was Young: Young who, when Boswell pinch-hit to start the home ninth, lofted a fly to short center that Young couldn’t see on this sunny day. With Young coming in and second baseman Beckert and shortstop Don Kessinger going out, second base was left unoccupied — until Boswell landed on it with a gift double.
The same Young was in the middle of the story again one out later when another pinch-hitter, Clendenon, unleashed a shot to deep left-center. First the ball that fell in shallow bedeviled the center fielder and now it was one headed to the wall about to give him fits. This time Young tracked it down, grasped it in the webbing of his glove…and dropped it when he banged into the fence. Clendenon took second and Boswell, who had to hold up when it appeared a catch was about to be made, was on third.
The rest of the way reads like Mets-In-First Destiny. A line-drive double from Jones ties the game. Durocher orders Art Shamsky walked. Wayne Garrett grounds to second to move both runners up a base. And Krane drives home Cleon.
It’s a 4-3 final that ignites Shea to a state of delirium, that edges the Mets to within 4½ of first, that sets the stage for an epic Cub crumble from which, one might argue, the North Siders have never recovered. It wasn’t just that the next night Tom Seaver shut out Chicago and assured the Mets of taking the three-game series. It wasn’t just that the Mets would grab another two of three at Wrigley Field the following week. It wasn’t just that come early September, a black cat would appear and a divisional lead would all but vanish and the Miracle Mets would soon emerge champions in full.
It was within the minutes after Don Young couldn’t catch two fly balls — difficult plays, but not impossible — that the Cubs began to implode and Young’s problems began to tear them to pieces.
Don’t think one center fielder mishandling two balls on July 8 can have that much of an impact on the course of a campaign? Take it from Ernie Banks that it did. In this week’s Sports Illustrated, Mr. Cub traced all of Chicago’s 1969 shortcomings to the postgame scene in the visitors’ clubhouse at Shea Stadium.
“Before going to New York to play the big series against the Mets, I went to different players on our team and told them, ‘We’re going to New York, and when the game is over, there’s going to be more media than you’ve ever seen in the clubhouse, so watch what you say.’ So we got to New York, and lose the first game. Don Young dropped a fly ball, and that was it. We came into the locker room. I was next to [Ron] Santo, and he just went crazy [blaming Young]. Young was so upset, he ran out. [Coach] Pete [Reiser] had to bring him back. I had never seen something so hurtful.”
It’s not the first time Santo’s (and Durocher’s) treatment of Young has been tagged as the beginning of the end for the mighty Cubs. It won’t be the last, either. It’s just the most recent. Still, to see the episode recalled so ruefully 45 years after the fact by a first-tier Hall of Famer who’s known for always smiling just underlines what an Amazin’ turn of events had occurred and kept on occurring for the next 100 days. This was the second Tuesday in July; on the third Thursday in October, Koosman was again on the mound, the Mets had again fallen behind, and nothing again could stop them. They polished their spikes to a bright shine, beat the Orioles, 5-3, and nailed down perhaps the most legendary professional team sports championship of all time.
What gives the Don Young Game a little extra oomph in the Metsopotamian retelling is I’m having a hard time thinking of too many other Mets wins we commonly refer to by the name of an opposing player. The next night came the Jimmy Qualls Game — named for Young’s immediate center field replacement — but that one deserves a little asterisk, I think, because while we celebrate a win when we invoke it, we’re also regretting that Qualls’s ninth-inning single represented the sole blemish on Seaver’s one-hit masterpiece. You might have to fast-forward all the way to October 25, 1986, for the Bill Buckner Game, an episode that doesn’t need much more in the way of identification. Now and then I try to refer to it as the Mookie Wilson Game, but let’s be real: E-3…y’know? (And even then, despite competition from others generically branded as such, “Game Six” will probably suffice.)
Beyond Young, Qualls and Buckner, do we name our winning games for the other guys? We have a subgenre of losses we pin on villains: the Terry Pendleton Game; the Mike Scioscia Game; the Luis Sojo Game; maybe the Yadier Molina Game, though that particular Game Seven had several actors playing featured roles. We name some bitter losses for our own: the Kenny Rogers Game; the Luis Castillo Game; the T#m Gl@v!ne Game in case “Collapse” isn’t specific enough for you. There are the historical oddities along the lines of the Jim Bunning Perfect Game and the Eric Bruntlett Unassisted Triple Play Game. More happily, we have the Dave Mlicki Game, the Matt Franco Game, the Melvin Mora Game, the Todd Pratt Game, maybe the Carl Everett Game if you’re so inclined, of course the Steve Henderson Game. For those who had but one moment in the Metsian sun, there’s the Gary Rajsich Game, the Esix Snead Game, the Tim Harkness Game, to name three others would call obscure but I would just call fantastic. (Hell, I write books in which such rare breeds roam free.)
All of the above are fascinating to consider, I suppose, but it doesn’t extend the answer to my original question. Is there anybody else in another uniform we designate as the standard-bearer for one of our biggest victories? Don Young was trying to saddle us with a loss. Instead, he helped provide us with a win. Jones tied it, Kranepool won it and the W was recorded alongside Koosman, yet it’s the Don Young Game that we salute (and Banks mourns) 45 years later.