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The First Met to Make It to 90

“I hit behind Yogi in one ballgame […] somebody threw him a fastball up in his eyes and Yogi banged it up the middle for a single and I was sitting there on deck going, ‘This is not a game for which I’m familiar…good god.’ To bat behind Yogi Berra [1], that was awesome.”
Ron Swoboda [2]

It wasn’t Gary Kroll [3]’s day. Facing the Reds at Crosley Field on Saturday, May 1, 1965, he was touched for a home run in the second by Leo Cardenas [4] and then roughed up in the fourth: an RBI double to Pete Rose [5], a three-run homer to Vada Pinson [6] and another he left on base that came around to score after he was pulled. The Mets trailed 6-1 in the fourth.

Casey Stengel [7] would be using his bullpen plenty. Al Jackson [8] finished out the fourth. Larry Bearnarth [9] took the fifth (and was tagged for two more runs). Jim Bethke [10], at 18 the youngest pitcher the Mets would ever use, held the fort in the sixth and seventh, but as was usually the case, circa 1965, there wasn’t all that much fort to hold. It was 8-2, Cincinnati. Bethke had done nice work, but after throwing two innings the night before and two innings here today, there was the matter of his young right arm to consider. When his turn came up in the top of the eighth — Joe Christopher [11] on first, two out — Stengel called on a pinch-hitter.

He called on Yogi Berra.

Berra was hired to coach, a personnel matter that was considered a publicity coup. He was Yogi Berra. He needed no introduction, not after 18 seasons playing with New York’s American League franchise, picking up along the way world championships, All-Star appearances and MVP awards the way other catchers picked up passed balls. Yogi was so highly thought of that his previous employer chose him as its manager in 1964.

All Berra did in that role was lead them to another pennant and the seventh game of the World Series. Yet he was dismissed. Stengel — who had managed the man with great delight for a dozen seasons— was happy to snatch him up. The whole transaction couldn’t help but make the Mets look good. The Mets had Casey and Yogi. The Mets had the most quotable, most lovable brain trust imaginable.

They didn’t necessarily plan to have an extra catcher. Yogi finished playing in 1963, but these were the Mets, who could always use another catcher. They could always use another anything, really, but having in their infancy and toddlerhood sifted through the Choo Choo Colemans and the Chris Cannizzaros [12]; the Hobie Landriths [13] and the Harry Chitis [14]; the Hawk Taylors [15] and the Sammy Taylors [16] — to say nothing of assorted Joe Pignatanos [17], Joe Ginsbergs [18] and Jesse Gonders [19] — the Mets behind the plate were where the Rolling Stones were about to be on the radio that summer.

In a perpetual state of dissatisfaction.

So Yogi, at 39 years, 11 months and 19 days of age, consented to be activated. And on this Saturday afternoon in Southern Ohio, he officially became the 94th Met in team history. Berra stepped in against Sammy Ellis [20] and proceeded to ground to first base. Gordy Coleman [21] handled the ball cleanly and stepped on the bag, three-unassisted.

The Mets went on to lose, 9-2. Berra got into three more games over the next eight days — catching twice and pinch-hitting once — before re-retiring, this time for good. He was granted his release as a player on May 11 and resumed coaching full-time. The next day, while holding down the first base box, he celebrated his 40th birthday.

That was May 12, 1965, exactly fifty years ago. That means Yogi Berra has just turned 90 — or the rough equivalent of five ’65 Bethkes. Having participated in that game at Crosley Field made him a Met, and having made it this far means he is the first Met to have ever reached a 90th birthday. Only three Mets (Warren Spahn [22], Gene Woodling [23] and Gil Hodges [24]) were born before him. None has lasted as long as him.

Coincidentally, Yogi’s Mets playing debut came exactly 900 Mets ago, chronologically speaking. Johnny Monell [25], also a catcher by trade, pinch-hit this past Saturday night and became Met No. 994 in the annals. Tonight we are slated to be formally introduced to Met No. 995, a young feller by the name of Noah Syndergaard [26], born August 29, 1992. To date, only one Met (Dilson Herrera [27]) has been born after him. It remains to see how long Noah lasts. We hope his overall run unfurls as lengthily and successfully as Yogi’s in and out of the game.

Though, let’s face it, that’s a pretty high standard.

Yogi Berra was one of the greatest catchers ever, and by dint of that brief 1965 stint, forever holds the honor of first Met player inducted into the Hall of Fame. Richie Ashburn [28], Duke Snider [29] and Spahn each debuted as Mets before Berra, but Yogi got his Cooperstown call first. We’d love to tell you that it was Yogi’s two hits in nine Met at-bats that sealed the deal, or that his plaque lovingly details the events of May 4, 1965, when he caught Al Jackson’s 11-strikeout complete game victory over the Phillies at Shea — or even that what ultimately won him election in January 1972 was the fine job he had done coaching first base for Stengel, Wes Westrum [30], Salty Parker [31] and Hodges — but we can’t. Yogi Berra had ascended to the cusp of baseball immortality before he ever played for the Mets.

But he did play for the Mets, and no one who can say that has lived a life quite so long [32].

(Good thoughts at this time [33] as well to Berra’s batterymate Jackson, truly a Met for all ages.)