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Whaddaya Know?

What can I tell you that you don’t already know?

You know the Mets are the champions of the National League Eastern Division [1]. They won that title Saturday [2] and they maintained that title Sunday and as regards 2015, it is theirs forever. Even the NCAA can’t take it away. Every time I start to think about something else, the Mets having won the division is all I can think of.

You know the Mets won Sunday [3]in their first outing as the reigning champions of the National League East. They swept the Reds by deploying a classic Day After lineup. Although the Mets still have some home-field advantage business to tend to, you have to go with the Day After lineup. It’s one of baseball’s finest traditions. You rest everybody who did the most to get you the crown and send their understudies to play in their place. The understudies for a division champion can’t be too bad. They’re champions, too.

You know (if you pay attention to these things) the Mets held rookie hazing [4] day after finishing off the Reds. This time they dressed the kids in adult-sized Underoos and paraded them through the streets of Cincinnati. Last year it was skimpy superhero outfits. The year before they constituted a blushing bridal party. Once again, everybody smiled, everybody laughed. Everybody smiles and laughs even when there’s no division title in the bouquet, so this time it must have really been giddy. Hazing of the new guys strikes me as one of baseball’s least fine traditions, but if everybody’s having a sincerely good time (and the too-often present homophobia and misogyny inherent in this ritual is as toned down as possible), then, you know, boys will be boys…I guess.

You know the boys in Washington are screwed, especially the fella they brought in to close games who instead symbolically shoveled dirt on their season. In an episode worthy of the 1993 Mets, Jonathan Papelbon choked Bryce Harper [5] in the Nationals dugout Sunday. All one can say to that sentence, let alone image, is “Wow.” Vince Coleman would have thought Papelbon’s behavior was unprofessional. Harper’s misdeed was not running full-bore after popping up. He should have run harder. Everybody should run harder on popups. Phil Mushnick could tell you that. But there are ways to communicate that without hands lunging for the neck of your teammate/prospective league MVP. Papelbon — who defending N.L. Manager of the Year Matt Williams [6] sent back out to pitch after he assaulted his franchise player — makes no one around him better and everyone around him bitter. Washington’s acquisition of him may have been the Met move of the trading deadline.

I didn’t get into blogging to tell you what you already know (though I don’t mind repeating the part about the Mets as champs and Papelbon as chump). So here’s something I’m gonna bet the vast, vast majority of you don’t know. I didn’t know it until yesterday, and — at the risk of sounding immodest — if I didn’t know it, chances are it’s not widely known.

But Seth Wittner knows it and tells it.

Seth is a Faith and Fear reader who wrote to us in the aftermath of Saturday night’s clinching with an agenda. He wants to promote “Loo-Doo” as Lucas Duda’s nickname. So do Seth a favor and spread that around if you like it.

But never mind Loo-Doo, because Seth embedded another couple of autobiographical notes into his e-mail:

1) He’s been a Mets fan since 1962, when he was 12.

2) He lived in Elmont, near where American Pharoah would someday become a champion, and schlepped via trains to the Polo Grounds to cheer on a nag of a ballclub that was years away from sniffing the floral side of a finish line. “Lots of tears back then,” he says of that Mets outfit that finished 60½ lengths out of first that first year. Lots of loyalty, too, given that Seth’s still with our Mets all these years later.

3) He and a friend entered the very first Banner Night contest at the Polo Grounds in 1963 and earned second place, the prize for which was “four box seats to the first game ever at the Big Shea”.

Whoa, I said. Due respect to Loo-Doo, you gotta tell me what your banner said. It must’ve been a Loo-Doozy if it could win you such a phenomenal bounty.

Seth wrote back and filled me in on the banner and then some.

“Our banner had a silver trumpet on a solid black background. It said, ‘Ta-ta-ta-Da-da-da!’ as in ‘Charge!’ Beneath the words, we had the music for that snippet of melody a trumpet would play.

“My friends and I used to make lots of banners and take them to the PG. A few times, photos of our banners made it into Newsday.

“Here’s a story you’ll enjoy. Leon Janney was a semi-retired Broadway actor who played a bartender for TV commercials between innings. He would interview players or their wives. Everyone was bringing banners cheering on guys like Mays or Frank Thomas or whoever. Mike and I made one that said ‘Let’s Go Leon Janney!’ It had a picture of a sudsy, overflowing mug of beer.

“We were sitting in the right field upper deck. I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. It was Leon! He walked all the way from his season box behind the plate to where we were and talked baseball with us for a few innings. He mailed us autographed headshots and invited us (while he sat with us) to come watch a Rheingold Inn taping…but he never told us where or when.”

I know from Rheingold. We all know from Rheingold, the dry beer, the beer synonymous with the early years of New York Mets baseball. But the Rheingold Inn? Leon Janney [7]? A bartender for TV commercials between innings who would interview players or their wives?

Did the Mets have a Steve Gelbs in 1962? A one-man Branden and Alexa?

I did not know. So I looked Janney up to see if I could find out anything else. The following I learned from a book called Cue the Elephants [8], written in 2005 by Dean Alexander, a memoir of 50 years spent working in television.

There was a “permanent, full-sized, functioning tavern” constructed in a studio at Videotape Center in Manhattan. It was dubbed the Rheingold Rest (Rest…Inn…close enough). Alexander worked there and saw “hundreds of Rheingold beer commercials” shot there. He likened the set, with its mahogany and brass and Cheers-like feel, to a “forerunner of the modern sports bar”.

In the middle of the action was Janney — a former child star, whose credits included a turn in one of the Our Gang comedies — as a barkeep, “who casually chatted with stage, screen, sports and political personalities who just ‘happened’ to drop by.” Alexander namechecks Tony Randall, Phil Silvers and Jim Backus among the visitors, adding, “virtually every living athlete who had ever played in New York made a pilgrimage to ‘Rheingold Rest’.”

According to Bill Shannon’s Biographical Dictionary of New York Sports [9], the Rheingold Rest aired after Mets games on Channel 9 those first two seasons at the Polo Grounds. Whereas Choo Choo Coleman became famous in part due to Ralph Kiner’s tale of Choo Choo coming on his postgame show and being legendarily taciturn…

“Choo Choo, what’s your wife’s name and what’s she like?”

“Her name’s Mrs. Coleman, bub, and she likes me.”

…Mike Tennenbaum, a contributor to the Ultimate Mets Database [10]’s Memories section, recalled hearing Mrs. Coleman herself on Rheingold Rest. Leon, apparently, got more out of Mrs. C than Mr. K got out of her husband. “She met Clarence at the public tennis courts in Orlando, Fla.,” Mike wrote. “She recalled this soft-spoken master of the understatement as a wonderful tennis player.”

A self-described “beer reviewer, historian and raconteur” named Dan Hodge [11] reported Janney’s skills went beyond interviewing. On the Rheingold Rest, Leon could be seen “illustrating tricky plays with the imaginative use of bottle caps as bases and baserunners”. Surely that made the sponsor happy (even if the tricky plays probably related to the sponsor’s team running into outs or throwing balls away).

Maybe not everybody was a fan. In 2010, someone on a Brooklyn Dodgers message board [12] brought up the Rheingold Rest only to judge it “more like the Rheingold Snooze”. Nevertheless, the harsh critic of the program had fairly nice things to say about the host: “I met Leon on the subway once after a Mets game in the Polo Grounds, and he was a very nice guy, but he didn’t seem to know too much about baseball.”

Neither did the Mets, based on their records in ’62 and ’63, but we loved them then and we love them now and it’s characters like Leon Janney, whether they stood the test of time or only cross your consciousness because somebody brings them up in the service of disseminating a nickname for the guy who just blasted a grand slam in the current season’s division-clincher, are all part of the Amazin’ tableau.

So thank you, Seth Wittner, first runner-up in the 1963 Banner Night procession, for telling me something I didn’t know about the Mets. Thank you, Leon Janney (1917–1980), for taking note of the banner in your honor and schlepping up from your nice box seat to say hi to Seth and his friend Mike, not to mention your kind conversations with the man who would play Felix Unger, the lady who had married Choo Choo Coleman and the guy on the subway who wasn’t easily impressed.

And thank you, Sandy Alderson, for not trading for Jonathan Papelbon.