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When the Mets Equaled Joy

All Mets fans who were around for 1969 enjoyed 1969 in their own way. My friend Garry Spector, who was eleven, enjoyed it so much it drove him to tears. Garry recently penned a sweet reminiscence [1] on the always exquisite Perfect Pitch blog (the unique baseball/musical diamond tended by Metropolitan Opera oboist and Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York diehard Susan Laney Spector) remembering how he absorbed the outcome of Tom Seaver’s shoulda-been-joyous one-hit victory — a.k.a. the Jimmy Qualls Game — that July 9 just over fifty years ago. You’d think he’d have jumped for joy. Yet how much joy can there be if the one hit comes in the ninth inning and prevents perfection?

“My mother,” Garry writes, “assured me that I would see a Mets perfect game someday (I’m still waiting). And this eleven-year-old cried himself to sleep.”

***

Michael Yalango enjoyed the club eleven-year-olds like Garry Spector (and six-year-olds like me) from a spot too far from home. Perhaps that’s why it meant the world to him. Michael, a young man from Staten Island who wasn’t really that big a baseball fan, got hooked from more than 8,000 miles away. He was in the army, stationed in Vietnam and thrilled to cling to anything that brought him, in his mind, in the jungle, back to New York and normality. Listening to the World Series over Armed Forces Radio, Yalango told Mike Vaccaro in Sunday’s Post, “brought me a few moments of joy in a very sad place.”

Be sure to read Mike’s story [2] about what the ’69 Mets meant to one soldier from Staten Island. It’s hard to believe baseball could ever mean more.

***

All Mets fans, whether around in 1969 or picking up on its magic in the past tense, should be able to enjoy 1969 anew or for the first time from the canon of literature devoted to the Miracle of Miracles. Some of the books that best capture 1969’s essence were published nearly fifty years ago on the heels of those Mets doing what made those Mets eternally readable. Milestones being the magnet for reader interest that they are, several new titles have come along within the past few months to coincide with the golden anniversary commemorated so compellingly [3] at Citi Field a couple of weeks ago. A fitting recent addition to the 1969 Mets section of your baseball library is 2019’s They Said It Couldn’t Be Done [4]: The ’69 Mets, New York City, and the Most Astounding Season in Baseball History by Wayne Coffey.

You might think that after a half-century — which has already encompassed a recurring series of milestone anniversaries [5] that spawned their own commemorative examinations — we already have on file everything that needs to be written about what Howie Rose accurately describes as the Greatest New York Sports Story Ever Told. But any story that is the greatest deserves to keep being told. It’s how stories keep thriving. Coffey has indeed ensured the story of the 1969 Mets remains alive and well in the here and now.

Veterans of the Met stacks will recognize certain tales culled from earlier sources, but Coffey (previously with the Daily News and collaborator with R.A. Dickey on 2012’s Wherever I Wind Up) fills his story with original reporting and diligent research, having reached out to living players, faithful fans — Howie Rose and Gary Cohen among them — and archives that were just waiting to spill their secrets. Particularly affecting are Cleon Jones, Jerry Koosman and Ron Taylor each exploring a hardscrabble upbringing, injecting a layer of personal depth not necessarily evident in previous 1969 volumes. Jones’s life in Africatown has gotten a lot of attention of late. You won’t receive a richer tour than that conducted by Coffey.

If you haven’t watched every pitch of the 1969 World Series in fifty years, or ever, don’t worry. The author has rewatched and shares virtually every one of them. It’s like running home from the bus stop (as kids of the era were wont to do that October) and finding there’s still plenty of game left. You know how the five contests turn out, but you’ll hang on every dab of shoe polish nonetheless. And you will be reminded throughout Coffey’s narrative that the one figure who towers over the Greatest New York Sports Story Ever Told is Gil Hodges. He’s the Empire State Building in a blue windbreaker. The players who survive to this day can’t credit him enough for leading them to the achievement that has defined their lives ever since. Gil seems to become more important to the Mets’ success every decade, and he was already universally understood to be its critical element.

The Mets’ journey crosses paths with those of the year’s other landmarks. Coffey takes us to those destinations, too: the moon in July; Woodstock in August; streets brimming with discontent over the war young Yalango and too many others were stuck fighting on the same day Tom Seaver was pitching Game Four. The legend of 1969 would be incomplete without these historical details and detours. From a Mets perspective, They Said It Couldn’t Be Done sort of misses, through no fault of its own, certain voices we usually hear from in these retrospectives. I missed gleaning new insights from Tom Seaver, but we know Seaver is unavailable these days. Same for Bud Harrelson. Hell, I still can’t believe Tug McGraw has been silent since 2004.

Time has its own agenda, one that dictates why the contours of a fiftieth-anniversary book is going to be different from a twentieth-anniversary book (specifically Stanley Cohen’s quintessential where-they-are-now A Magic Summer [6]). I’m grateful Coffey dug for additional background on the late Donn Clendenon and Tommie Agee and painted such a vivid portrait of the African-American experience in and out of baseball in the years leading up to 1969. I was happy to read the current thoughts of Gil Hodges, Jr., where his father’s influence on him and the team were concerned. And the pages are surely blessed by the presence of Ed Charles, whom the author was able to speak with before he passed away in 2018.

I also very much like Coffey’s de facto confession, saved for the end of the book: sure he pursued this story like he has any of his many journalistic endeavors, but in 1969, he was a 15-year-old Mets fan, as elated as any Mets fan of any age would have been. The love and care he put into They Said It Couldn’t Be Done shows he has stayed true to his younger self’s heart.

***

The Mets had heart, as anybody who’s watched their star turn [7] on The Ed Sullivan Show knows. Singing wasn’t a talent they suddenly discovered once they upset the Orioles. At least one Met was vocalizing up a storm at approximately this very moment fifty years ago. In The Year the Mets Lost Last Place, the remarkable book that delivers a blow-by-blow account of Met life amid the nine midsummer games that certified the franchise a contender, we are reminded that on July 16, 1969, after the second-place Mets had taken two of three from the first-place Cubs at Wrigley Field, the team flight to Montreal was livened up by Charles belting out a ditty that everybody on the sidewalks of New York could suddenly relate to:

East Side, West Side
The fans are feeling gay.
After seven long, long years,
The Mets are on their way.

South Side, North Side
The word is going round.
When October rolls around,
The Mets will win the crown.

Ed had a way with a rhyme, whether matching it to a borrowed melody or simply expressing his emotions. It’s what made the Poet Laureate of the 1969 Mets so special. Some reporter in The Year… thought he was paying the Glider a compliment when he told him in the clubhouse at Wrigley, “You’re the Ernie Banks of the Mets.” Mets PR director Harold Weissman issued an immediate correction: “No, Banks is the Ed Charles of the Cubs.”

There was only one Ed Charles, of course. Anybody who was fortunate to spend even a little time [8] in his company understood he was an original. A friend of this blog, Michael Garry, was fortunate enough understand it well. Michael wrote a very fine [9] book a few years ago called Game of My Life: New York Mets [10], consisting of interviews with Mets through the years on the one game that resonated with them more than any other. Charles was the interview-subject equivalent for the author. Michael was so moved by the relationship he built with Ed that he paid tribute to him in the most appropriate fashion possible: he wrote him a poem.

“Ed’s own poetry inspired me,” Michael recently told us. He read it to Charles “a few weeks before his death last year, and then at his funeral in Kansas City.” Since no celebration of 1969 would approach perfection without a full-throated invocation of the Glider, Michael wondered if we could publish the poem here.

What a splendid idea.

***

Inspired by Jackie,
Who came to his town,
Ed never gave up,
He never backed down.

He spoke of his struggles
In fine poetry.
Few players could speak as
Cogently as he.

Then Ed got to the majors
With the KC A’s
And proved to the world
He could make all the plays.

He manned the hot corner,
Sprayed hits, stole bases.
With more help from Finley,
They could have gone places.

But lucky for Ed,
The Mets traded for him,
And in ’69
They started to win.

They called him the Glider
For scooping up blasts.
He made it look easy,
No matter the task.

And in the World Series
The Mets wouldn’t settle.
They battled the Birds,
Proving their mettle.

Ed came up in Game Two
In the ninth inning,
Got a hit and then scored;
The run was game-winning

Back in New York,
The Mets did not stop.
They took the next three
And wound up on top.

After the clincher
Ed ran to the mound,
Jumping with joy,
His smile unbound.

Grace on the field,
Grace on the page,
Ever the Glider,
The poet, the sage.