- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Family Man

It used to freak me out a little to see pictures of the Mets from their first three years and find no numbers on the fronts of their jerseys. Just “Mets,” as if they had yet to fully sort themselves out. I guess there was some truth in that. We know the humble beginnings — 120 losses; 111 losses; 109 losses; and then, even with numbers by which to tell them apart as they came charging out of the dugout, 112 losses. Those Mets lost lots and they lost quickly.

But a corps of them endured, not just as figures in Met lore, but as men on this mortal coil. Consider the bulk of the starting rotation Casey Stengel depended on to carry him through 1962, when getting to 1963 was as grand an accomplishment as could have been hoped for.

• Jay Hook started 34 games.
• Roger Craig started 33 games.
• Al Jackson started 33 games.
• Craig Anderson started 14 games.

That’s 114 games started by Mets who lasted beyond their days in uniform in a big way. Roger Craig is 88. Jay Hook is 82. Craig Anderson is 81. And Al Jackson, who died Monday [1], made it to 83. Together, perhaps, they were the epitome of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

One assumes that to regularly take the ball for the Original Mets, a person had to have remarkable intestinal fortitude. Your offense is spotty. Your defense is absurd. Your karma is questionable. There you were, a member of a world champion a couple of times like Craig the former Dodger; a league champion like Hook the recently Red; or a budding prospect on a franchise of a decidedly respectable bent. Anderson was a Cardinal in 1961, three years before they were world champions in a decade when they’d reach the World Series three times. Jackson had been a Pittsburgh pitcher in 1959 and 1961, sandwiching October 1960, the month of Mazeroski at Forbes Field.

Now, guys, because of something called an expansion draft, you’re leaving your contenders behind and you’re becoming something called a New York Met. Not only haven’t they existed before, there’s never been anything like them until now. You are them and they are you, except it doesn’t really seem fair to lump the four of you in with your brethren. Listen, it was a team effort to lose 120 games, yet none of you probably deserved to be pitchers of record so often for something so analytically awful.

No, there were no numbers on the fronts of your jerseys, but there was no hiding from the numbers that landed wherever the baseball-curious looked. They were practically the unwitting mirror image of the 1971 Oriole aces [2]: 80 losses among Craig, Hook, Anderson and Jackson. 10-24. 8-19. 3-17. 8-20. They pitched in hard luck pretty much every time they got out of bed.

Yet they kept waking up, kept rubbing the last gruesome outing out of their eyes and kept going to the ballpark to take that ball and accept their respective fates. And they did indeed make it to 1963, all of them back for more of this unspeakable competitive degradation, combining to make 87 starts and absorb 55 losses the second season. Talk about endurance.

Craig was the first to escape our cellar. The Mets traded him to St. Louis in November of ’63. Come October of ’64, he was a world champion again. Hook was swapped to the Milwaukee Braves in May of 1964. He never pitched for them or anybody else in the major leagues; possessing an engineering degree, Jay decided after one more trip to the minors that he was good to go. Anderson threw his last pitch for the Mets on May 31, 1964, a date every good Mets fan recognizes as the Sunday the Mets played 32 innings versus the Giants at Shea Stadium. Anderson’s contribution to history was a messy third-of-an-inning in the 23-inning nightcap. The nicest that can be said of Craig Anderson’s final outing as a Met is that it was a no-decision. He was soon sent down to Buffalo and would later wind his way through Jacksonville and Williamsport, never again to toe a major league slab.

That left the lefty, Al Jackson [3]. The little lefty. “Little Al” Jackson, per Bob Murphy. Not tall, in case you didn’t get the word picture, but no short-timer in the realm of those early Mets. Jackson was in it for as long a haul as the worst team Mrs. Payson’s money could buy could manage. In those four years when the Mets established and cemented their collective reputation as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, Al just kept slingin’. Thirty-four starts in ’63 on top of the 33 in ’62. He outlasted the Polo Grounds and ushered in Shea. Thirty-one starts in ’64, then another 31 in ’65. He outlasted Stengel and ushered in Wes Westrum. He won as many games in those four years — 40 — as the entire roster pooled in its first year. If that’s not some kind of record for prevailing above your circumstances, Elias ought to declare it one.

All burdensome things must come to an end, and for Al Jackson, carrying the burden of the early Mets to the mound every few days stopped being his responsibility on October 20, 1965, when he and Charley Smith were traded to St. Louis for Ken Boyer. An era in New York Mets baseball was over.

A larger one, however, wouldn’t end until August 19, 2019, because, save for a few wardrobe changes, Al Jackson remained part of the Mets family for the rest of his life. Maybe not while he pitched a couple of years for the Cardinals — before being traded back to the Mets in advance of 1968; nor during that portion of 1969 when he was exiled to the Reds — getting squeezed from a pitching staff that dripped with youthful vitality on a team just starting to realize it was no longer destined to lose into perpetuity; and probably not amidst a couple of fairly brief coaching stops in the American League.

But for the rest of his life, Al Jackson was a Met. A Met lifer. He might have invented the concept, really. Not only did he endure through those perfectly dreadful incubator years, but he came back and he stayed. As a pitching instructor. As a minor league manager. As Bobby Valentine’s bullpen coach across a pair of postseasons. As a guru on the art of getting ahead of hitters. As a mentor to too many to accurately count. He made a home of the Mets.

Part of the Mets family? More like the heart of the Mets family. Until a stroke sidelined him in 2015, this distinguished denizen of Port St. Lucie was a staple of the Met spring, summer and winter, literally a Met for all seasons. Fantasy campers shook his hand. Grapefruit Leaguers asked if he wouldn’t mind posing for a picture. Freshly signed students of the game with an eye on advancing up the chain absorbed what he had to tell them if they were serious about plying their craft. Periodically, Shea Stadium and Citi Field would be graced by his presence, too.

The last time we saw Al in Queens was the last time the Mets inducted one of their greats into their Hall of Fame, September 29, 2013. Mike Piazza was going in. The family was out in force. Working in reverse-chronological order of their initial appearances as Mets, Mike was shepherded into franchise immortality by Edgardo Alfonzo, John Franco, Dwight Gooden, Keith Hernandez, Mookie Wilson, Rusty Staub, Ed Charles, Bud Harrelson, Ed Kranepool and Al Jackson. An Amazin’ group, to be sure, but it was Al who got to the Mets first and it was Al who remained a Met the longest.

Al Jackson always could be counted on to start things that would last.

In 2009, I wrote a biography of Al Jackson that was published in The Miracle Has Landed, a Society for American Baseball Research book commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1969 Mets. SABR contacted the book’s contributors earlier this year to let us know they planned to offer a revised edition for the 50th anniversary and ask us to update our original articles. I was glad to have the chance, because in the ensuing decade, I’d learned much more about my subject than I knew then. Sadly, I added a necessary addendum Monday to the version that appears on SABR’s Web site. If you’d like to delve a little further into Al Jackson’s baseball career and life, I’d invite you to read the story here [4].