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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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First Star I See Tonight

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

Well you’re a real tough cookie
With a long history…

—Pat Benatar

In 1962, the Mets promised their fans that Shea Stadium would be ready for 1963. It wasn’t. So instead, they invited them back to the Polo Grounds for one final madcap Manhattan season and, as a voucher redeemable immediately, gave them Ron Hunt.

It was a good deal all around. Although Queens had been beckoning since the Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York had been conceived as an entry in the Continental League in 1959, it was best that the spanking new facility be constructed as close to specifications as possible, all nuts and bolts properly fastened and tightened, each of its restrooms living up to the good name of Flushing, each carefully installed escalator gliding upward or downward as pedestrian traffic flow dictated. The Mets had invested $300,000 to spruce up the largely dormant, totally ancient Polo Grounds to make it inhabitable for ’62, thus it would be a shame to let such a historical site go after a single summer in the sun. And what better farewell gift to the urban grit from which the franchise rose than a middle infielder who heartily embraced the dirt beneath his feet?

When the first edition of the Mets had printed yearbooks and scorecards featuring an artist’s rendering of Shea Stadium on their respective covers, Ron Hunt was nowhere in the picture. The kid from St. Louis was sharpening his skills in the Milwaukee farm system in 1962, same as he’d been doing since 1959. For Austin in the Texas League, Hunt hit .309. True, it was Double-A, but nobody at the Polo Grounds (other than those with the visitors) was hitting .309. The Braves may not have been impressed enough to have promoted young Ron any higher in his fourth professional reason, but the Mets brain trust had taken notice and, on October 11, 1962, purchased the 21-year-old’s contract for a reported $30,000 — a tenth of what they’d spent on renovating their temporary ballpark. The transaction was termed conditional in case the Mets wanted to return him.

They wouldn’t. They brought him to Spring Training and, despite his being no kind of Depth Chart Charlie, they learned Ron Hunt was a keeper. You didn’t necessarily have to be Casey Stengel to look past the more experienced hands on deck and see what the Mets had gotten for their 30 grand, but it was indeed Casey Stengel who saw that he had in his midst a second baseman after his own heart. Not big, not fast, not a power-hitting threat, but not daunted. “Exactly the kind of hard-driving, eager young man that Stengel loved most,” Leonard Koppett reported. Hunt, now 22, cursed an orange and blue streak in his quest to make the team. “I’ll make this ballclub,” he declared matter-of-factly when few were sure who he was and nobody thought he had a chance. The cockiness fit right in with his manager’s Caseyness. Ron indeed jumped from the Texas League to the National League.

Six games into the season, the rookie sat. Six games into the season, the Mets lost. Every game, that is — two at the Polo Grounds, four at County Stadium, where a certain former Braves farmhand might have enjoyed making his erstwhile employer regret its “conditional” decision of the previous offseason. It felt eerily similar to the launch of the Mets the year before, when the Mets commenced their existence at 0-9. As Stengel wasn’t getting any younger, there was no sense in the Ol’ Perfesser courting precedent. He inserted Ron into the starting lineup in the seventh game of 1963, in Cincinnati. The Mets lost it, but Hunt had a pair of hits and a .667 lifetime average. Hunt and the Mets both took an ohfer the next day at Crosley Field, but Casey stuck with his new second baseman for the team’s return to the PG.

The opponent, again, was the Milwaukee Braves. The feller they gave up on was ready for them. In his second home at-bat, Hunt singled. In his third, he tripled, driving in Jim Hickman, who’d tripled ahead of him. And in the ninth inning, with the Mets trailing, 4-3, and facing a sophomore start every bit as futile as the one that buried them when they were only freshmen, Ron Hunt doubled. Choo Choo Coleman scored from third. Hickman scored from second. The Mets were 5-4 winners, in the W column for the first time in 1963, and Hunt, a 3-for-5 walkoff hero, could have been forgiven had he sent a serving of crow over to the visiting clubhouse.

Instead, Mets owner Joan Payson expressed her appreciation by sending a bouquet of roses to the Hunt homestead, an assortment for Mrs. Jackie Hunt to enjoy. Perhaps Mrs. Payson should have checked the personnel files before her lovely gesture. Ron Hunt, a player whose calling card would eventually become total fearlessness about being bruised by baseballs, was deathly allergic to those pretty flowers.

***
Hunt also had a physical aversion to losing, or certainly played like it on a ballclub for whom defeat was a chronic condition. “When he tags anybody,” Leonard Shecter observed, “he leaves a black-and-blue mark. He ought to have a great season if somebody doesn’t ram a set of spikes down his throat.” The 1963 Mets conjured some memorable wins, but only when compared to the 40-120 Mets from the year before could have they been considered an improvement. They still finished tenth. They still lost well over a hundred games. They still had as their primary selling point a ballpark under construction; “Shea Stadium, Baseball’s Newest and Best” headlined a speculative but completely objective article in the ’63 scorecard. But they did have one thing that elevated them from their immediate predecessors, an element that gave their already loyal and Metsochistic fans an idea that there might be something to see at Shea besides “54 public rest room installations conveniently located on all levels”.

We had Ron Hunt.

They had Ron Hunt. “A scrapper who would do anything to win a game,” Jack Lang wrote. He wasn’t washed up and he wasn’t wishful hype. In 1963, Ron Hunt was a player. The Mets had themselves a player. Not one to remember from distant better days or mock or pity or grow as old as Casey Stengel waiting for to develop, but one you could pay your money to enjoy right now and soon thereafter. This flirtation with eptitude grabbed attention throughout the Metropolitan Area and well beyond.

Gauged by OPS+, Hunt was clearly above average (110), and gleaned from his birth certificate, he was below 30. That made Ron a Venn diagram unto himself on the Mets. His conventional baseball statistics — batting .272, playing 143 games and reaching base when the pitcher hit him 13 times (only Frank Robinson took more for his team) — earned him runner-up status in National League Rookie of the Year voting behind another second baseman, Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds. Rose, celebrated for doing anything to help his team win, absorbed eight fewer HBPs than Hunt in 1963.

With Mets fans, Hunt was No. 1 in a landslide. They voted him Most Valuable Player on the 111-loss squad. The prize in ’63 was an amphibious car, which was definitely a thing back then. You could drive it on the land, you could drive it through the water. It wouldn’t sink, as the boat given to 1962 Met MVP Richie Ashburn had. Most Valuable Hunt drove it from the Polo Grounds to the foot of Dyckman Street, then plunged it into the Hudson en route to his home across the river in Fort Lee. Just as he demonstrated at the plate, Ron knew there was more than one way to get where you wanted to go.

***
Depending on your point of origin, you could theoretically transport yourself via amphibious car to Shea Stadium without bothering very much with dry land. Shea, finally completed, had its unveiling just as the 1964-65 World’s Fair was getting ready to welcome the planet to Queens. As such, Robert Moses modernized the old boat basin, a product of the last Fair in ’39, to accommodate seafaring visitors. With the right conveyance, you could dock at the World’s Fair Marina and walk the last few steps to Shea. You could take the IRT out from the city or in from downtown Flushing. The Long Island Rail Road was another mass transit option, via the Port Washington line (as a generation began to learn to change at Woodside). Mostly Moses anticipated everybody would want to drive, which is why he placed his answer to the Roman Colosseum hard by the Grand Central Parkway, accessible to the Whitestone Expressway, not far from the Van Wyck Expressway.

There were many ways to arrive at Shea Stadium in 1964. The best way was to ride a streak of momentum from the Polo Grounds as Ron Hunt did. The World’s Fair included a Carousel of Progress. Hunt embodied the concept. The scorecard sold at Shea that first season in Queens let guests know that in addition to the 21 escalators, the 24 “wide and gradual” ramps and, yes, those 54 public rest rooms, you could witness “a scrapping, scrambling, hustling second baseman” who emerged as “The People’s Choice” before the ballclub packed up and moved east.

“His headlong slides into third, his spikes high slides into second, his club-leading 13 hit-by-pitches last season all reflect his intense desire to lead the Mets to victory,” the program calmly elaborated. “With the Mets, he has stung the ball in crucial situations and has learned to make the double play with the best of them.” With Stengel serving as its high priest, the article concluded, “the Hunt Fan Club is a growing cult.” By the sound of things in the spring of ’64, Ron was Mets fans’ answer to John, Paul, George and Ringo all rolled into one.

Teammates and opponents may not have wanted to hold his hand —Hunt admitted he wasn’t one for making friends and he seemed to have a knack for inspiring enmity in other dugouts — but he surely earned a measure of respect. When it came time to choose the National League All-Star starting lineup, which was left up to the players after 1957 and before 1970, it was Ron Hunt who was selected to trot to second base. This was a first in Mets history. Not that Mets history was particularly lengthy at this point, yet it was a shining milestone visible from every car jammed onto every highway, every straphanger balancing himself on every elevated line and every sailor navigating every ship on Flushing Bay. The players who represented the Mets at All-Star Game in 1962 and 1963, Richie Ashburn and Duke Snider, were stars on the wane. Future Hall of Famers, to be sure, but on hand at the Midsummer Classic mostly because somebody in a Mets uniform had to be.

This was different. This was a 23-year-old Met elected by his peers as the best at his position. “Best” and “Met” had rarely visited one another in the same sentence. Now Ron Hunt was to be introduced alongside Roberto Clemente, Dick Groat, Billy Williams, Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Ken Boyer, Joe Torre and Don Drysdale. Six of the nine men who started for Walter Alston on July 7, 1964, were destined for Cooperstown (as was Alston). One who wasn’t, Groat, had been NL MVP a few years before. Another who wasn’t, Boyer, would be NL MVP that year.

And batting eighth, every bit their equal for the occasion, was Ron Hunt of the New York Mets. That he was doing it at what the 1964 Mets’ program humbly referred to as “America’s newest, most beautiful ball park” made the moment exponentially sweeter. With Shea hosting and Hunt starting, the “tremendous ovation” noted by radio broadcaster Blaine Walsh was enough to spiritually rival whatever the Beatles elicited five months earlier at CBS Studio 50 when Ed Sullivan formally introduced the Fab Four to America.

Hunt took a .311 average into the All-Star Game and maintained his level of performance, going 1-for-3 until being pinch-hit for in the ninth inning by benchwarmer Hank Aaron. Huntmania extended even to the live commercial reads over network radio. New York’s National Leaguers, Dan Daniels explained, “obtained their All-Star infielder Ron Hunt for just $30,000…an investment really paying off for the Mets — and if you want to invest in shaving comfort and save money, too, here’s news about a Gillette Bargain Special.”

The big news to come out of Shea Stadium’s first (and only) All-Star Game was the designated home team coming from behind to beat its juniors, 7-6, when Johnny Callison of the Phillies popped a three-run homer off Dick Radatz of the Red Sox. Callison wore a Mets helmet while batting, but it was the guy who were a Mets cap the whole game who emerged as an even greater fan favorite in Flushing. Hunt would finish the season batting .303 for another last-place team. As important as his performance was his comportment with those making the turnstiles whir. Take it from none other than Mr. Met.

Like Ron Hunt was the first Mets star, Dan Reilly was the first man to wear a baseball as a head for the Mets. He was, as his 2007 memoir identifies him, The Original Mr. Met, and through cut-out papier-mâché eyes he saw it all. One of the indelible images he retained from Shea’s first year was an All-Star second baseman whose head never got too big for his britches, so to speak.

“Ron,” Reilly recalled, “always stayed after batting practice to sign autographs and talk to the fans. As a result, he was a very popular player.”

“I just hope I can hang around here until we get into the World Series,” Hunt said in 1964, not so much for himself but for those who cared enough to crave his signature. “Look at the way these fans are now. Can you imagine what it would be like if we ever won the pennant? They wouldn’t let us go home. It would be wild.”

All they needed was pitching, hitting, fielding and a couple of dozen players reaching the heights Ron Hunt was scaling. Love they had.

***
Time would reveal that if there was a Beatlesque allegory to the Ron Hunt story, it was Pete Best, the drummer John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison ousted in favor of Ringo Starr before the group really made it big. Best was deBeatled in 1962. Hunt lasted longer as a Met, playing second and third in New York through 1966, but it was never quite the same as it had been in ’63 and ’64.

The Mets didn’t get any better in 1965. If anything, they got worse. Their carousel of progress couldn’t help but stall when, on May 11, the first time they faced the defending world champion Cardinals, St. Louis baserunner Phil Gagliano slammed into Hunt at second as Hunt was attempting to field a ground ball off the bat of Lou Brock and wound up separating the Met’s left shoulder. Hunt had been praised regularly for going full-throttle on offense, akin to what admirers away from New York would say about Chase Utley decades later. One hard slide of Hunt’s, into Milwaukee catcher Ed Bailey the year before, instigated what Bob Murphy called a “real Pier Six brawl”. Here, Ron was on the Ruben Tejada end of an infield collision and didn’t particularly care for it. “I wanted to get in front of him to make the play,” Hunt said as he began recuperating from shoulder surgery. “Then I got hit. I don’t think he could help but see me.”

Hunt missed three months and finished ’65 with a batting average more than sixty points off what he achieved in ’64. Still, he maintained his status as avatar of a brighter day at Shea, whenever that day was due. “A few more like him,” his new manager Wes Westrum opined on the eve of the ’66 season, “and the ol’ Mets could beat anybody.”

The Mets did, in fact, beat a few more opponents in 1966, decreasing their loss total to fewer than a hundred and elevating their standing to ninth. Hunt made his second All-Star team, as a reserve (he didn’t play), and was still the beacon of what might be. That June, as the Mets were haltingly attempting to accelerate their youth movement while coping with the dizziness attendant to breathing the rarefied air above the National League cellar, Jack Mann made a not terribly bold prediction in Sports Illustrated: “The only player the Metropolitan Baseball Club, Inc., can be absolutely sure it would like to have on its payroll in 1969 — which should be first-division time — is Ron Hunt.” At that juncture, Mann’s statement made all the sense in the world. The Mets were coming along slowly. They were playing kids who were not quite ready. They were mixing in veterans who were not quite done but had surely peaked. Three years since meeting Hunt, who was now 25, why would you believe that three years hence it wouldn’t be Hunt who would lead the Mets toward the promised land?

On September 30, 1966, Larry Dierker of the Astros carried a perfect game into the bottom of the ninth inning of a scoreless affair at Shea Stadium. Eddie Bressoud, an old New York Giant, broke up the perfecto with a leadoff double. Westrum sent Hunt up to pinch-hit for Danny Napoleon. Dierker uncorked a wild pitch, sending Bressoud to third. He then delivered the pitch that lost the game for Houston and won it for New York. Ron drove it into right field for a walkoff triumph. In the category of it “it couldn’t be known at that moment,” it wasn’t up there with what Jack Mann had to say in June, but there was symbolism embroidered into this Friday night victory in Flushing.

The first win Hunt ever participated in for the Mets, back at the Polo Grounds in April 1963, was captured because the rookie drove in the run that ended the game. This game in September 1966 became that game’s bookend because it was the last win Hunt ever participated in for the Mets. It was Shea Stadium. It was a full four seasons into a career whose ups had been tempered by downs, but it was another win that was ended because Ron Hunt drove in its deciding run.

Almost exactly two months later, on November 29, the Mets traded their first star, Ron Hunt, and their last Original Met, Jim Hickman, to the Dodgers primarily for veteran outfielder Tommy Davis. Hunt had been the first Met to ever garner even a point of MVP support from National League writers. Davis soon became the second Met position player to do so. Tommy had a good enough 1967 to attract interest from a bona fide contender, the Chicago White Sox. The Mets and the Pale Hose worked out a deal, with Davis heading to the Midwest and New York receiving center fielder Tommie Agee and infielder Al Weis. Agee, Weis, Tom Seaver (who also received token MVP support for the last-place 1967 Mets) and a whole lot of young players not widely ascertained as world-beaters were about to coalesce and make Hunt’s vision of what Shea Stadium would be like with a pennant hanging from its flagpole come true.

Things were about to get better, with or without Hunt, though you, too, would have bet on with.

“Of all the Mets who passed through in those first few years, Hunt seemed closest to the ideal of a World Series ballplayer,” George Vecsey reflected in the wake of the Mets’ 1969 championship. “He couldn’t know it at the time, but it would take a series of trades, beginning with him, to build the Mets to the fantasy level of contenders.”

***
Ron Hunt’s major league tenure wound through 1974. As a Dodger, a Giant, an Expo and a Cardinal, he never made the postseason. He was never an All-Star again, either, though he became very well-known for being hit by a pitch 50 times in 1971 for Montreal, setting a modern record that nobody has since approached. His 243 HBPs are fourth among players who came along post-1900. No Met surpassed the franchise standard of 13 he established in 1963 until Lucas Duda was dinged 14 times in 2015; Brandon Nimmo is the current recordholder, with 22. Only Duda (48) and David Wright (45) were hit more as Mets than Hunt was (41). Duda played parts of eight seasons as a Met, Wright parts of fourteen. Ron collected all his bruises in four years’ time.

Injuries and allergies took a toll on Hunt’s game, but as Bill James noted, “his trick of leaning into the inside pitch…got him back to regular status, and extended his career by about five years.” In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, published in 2001, the father of analytics took a generally dim view of Hunt’s career, even while ranking him the 57th-best second baseman of all-time to date. “He was an arthritic second baseman with a poor arm,” James wrote, “not well liked by fans or by other players.” After running Ron down for most of three paragraphs, the author did throw in the humanizing quote from his subject that “some people give their bodies to science. I gave mine to baseball.”

During his Met years, Hunt didn’t necessarily furnish a stream of pithy insights for the media, perhaps leading them to portray him as a cold fish with a hot head. Nor did he seem to court amiable relationships among those with whom he clubhoused (let alone the guys in the other dugout…which is where he figured today’s teammate could be sitting tomorrow). Even Stengel, his patron and booster, acknowledged, “He ain’t what you would call the lovable type.” But among the fans at the Polo Grounds in 1963 and the fans at Shea Stadium in 1964, it’s impossible to say he was not well-liked, let alone adored. Maybe, as we’ve seen recently, diminishing returns from unsatisfying performance will lower affection for a player on the downswing and inadvertently shorten memories, but Ron Hunt was the Mets’ first star and, ultimately, that was not to be forgotten. Consider a sampling of sentiment volunteered in the early 2000s at Ultimate Mets Database:

• “He should have been a Met his entire career. You had to love his win at all costs style of play.”

• “Tough as nails guy; uniform always dirty.”

• “For the rest of his career, Phil Gagliano would be booed loudly whenever his name was announced at Shea Stadium, even long after Ron Hunt had been traded.”

• “Ron Hunt may just be my favorite Met player of all time. No, he didn’t have all the tools nor was he one of the ‘greats,’ but he had heart and hustle. His desire was second to none. He made things happen on the field and he wasn’t afraid to get dirty or hurt. The game was interesting when he was around.”

• “Ron Hunt was by far and away my favorite Met player when I was a kid. He was like a ‘mini Pete Rose’…always hustling. What was really exciting for me was that when I opened my very first pack of baseball cards, there was Ron Hunt’s 1965 card! I also remember that Rick Wise was in that pack. My first trip to Shea (in 1966) as a 10 year old was a bit disappointing, as Ron didn’t play that day. The Giants pitched 20 game winner Gaylord Perry, and Chuck Hiller, a lefty batter, played second. I wish that Ron had played longer with the Mets, so he could have shared in the great 1969 season!”

• “Hunt was THE Mets franchise player back then, and was as revered as Mike Piazza has been in recent years. He was every bit as good as his rival Pete Rose in the early years and unlike Rose was always a credit to the game. It really was a shame that the Mets traded him away. If he had been around for 1969, he’d be remembered as a better, earlier version of Wally Backman.”

During this period, as the Mets’ fortieth anniversary approached, Hunt was happy to remember how he felt about the fans for Peter Golenbock’s oral history Amazin’. It was as if nearly forty years hadn’t passed.

• “Maybe I wasn’t playing for the best team in the National League, but I sure was playing for the best fans in the National League, and you owed them something, and I never did forget the fans in New York.”

• “I never missed a Banner Day. I always sat in the dugout and watched the fans parade by. I thought, by God, if they could do something like that, I could pay them a little respect by sitting there and watching. Some of them were so clever. I was amused by it. Anyone who wasn’t had to be dead or stupid.”

• “The New York Met fans were good to me on the field, and they were good to my family off the field.”

By dint of tender age, I wasn’t at the Polo Grounds or Shea Stadium between 1963 and 1966 to see what it was like between Ron Hunt and Mets fans in his prime. But I was there in 2019 when the two parties came together one more time.

Everybody was still good to one another. Everybody was still in their prime.

***
One of the less covered encouraging developments of the last full baseball season in Flushing is that the Mets reached out to their old players as they never had before. Jay Horwitz, after 39 years as head of public relations, was given a new responsibility by Jeff Wilpon, running alumni affairs. Prior to 2019, the role didn’t exist, and the Mets, quite frankly, acted as if they had no responsibility to maintain a bond with most of those who had worn their uniform. They were good at reuniting their champions every ten years and certainly made a few chosen favorites feel like family, but mostly they proceeded with benign neglect. It was as if nearly sixty years of Mets baseball hadn’t really happened.

That changed when Horwitz took on his new job. I had seen it online or heard it during broadcasts when a couple of alumni would visit Citi Field at the start of each homestand. On a Friday afternoon, Jay would bring in a couple of contemporaries, like Turk Wendell and Rick Reed from 2000, or maybe a couple of distant temporal relations, like Jack Fisher and Felix Millan who never played together, and set them up at a table in the Mets Hall of Fame and Museum to meet and greet fans who remembered them fondly or maybe never heard of them before. In between, the players might receive an SNY drop-by from Steve Gelbs or sit for a YouTube interview with Howie Rose. Stuff like that is how you stoke interest in what a franchise is all about. Stuff like that is what the Mets didn’t much bother doing prior to 2019.

Somehow I had gotten to August last year without attending a Friday night game. I wanted to witness the phenomenon of the Mets doing something absolutely right up close. So I asked someone in the Mets’ communications office if I could get a press credential for the next available Friday and maybe hang around Jay Horwitz and the alumni and see how it all unfolded from slightly behind as well in front of the scenes. My contact was very gracious and very agreeable. I don’t think too much had been written about the alumni initiative.

As it happened, I also didn’t write too much about the alumni initiative despite my excellent view of it. My excuse is the night that I went, last August 9, suddenly practically a year ago, was a night that ended with a four-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning — home run from Todd Frazier; walkoff double from Michael Conforto; shirt removal from Pete Alonso — that propelled the surging New York Mets to a 7-6 win over the Washington Nationals. You know the game. It was unbelievable then, legendary now. I watched it unfold from the press box, sitting on my hands and biting my tongue because in the press box, even in the bottom of the ninth of probably the most exciting game of the season, you can’t be a fan.

But in the media availability room, hours before first pitch, after the manager and most of the beat writers have cleared out, you can let your guard down a little. It was there I got to spend a few quality minutes with Jay Horwitz. It wasn’t the first time he and I had spoken, but it was just as surreal as it sounds. Jay Horwitz is as much legend in these parts as any Scooter or Polar Bear. He was a presence in Flushing well before any of the current Met stars were born. If anybody is going to give a Mets fan pause in the “I can’t believe I’m having a normal conversation with…” sense, it’s Jay Horwitz.

Jay and I had a normal conversation about what went into creating this alumni affairs department of his, which consisted of mostly him, his contacts and a very capable assistant named Devon Sherwood. There was a lot of reaching out to players who were convinced the Mets had completely forgotten them. Hobie Landrith, for example, told Jay that when he called him, it was the first time anybody from the Mets had picked up a phone or written a letter since 1962.

Paramount, according to Jay, is “showing guys we care” and, implicitly, letting fans know the Mets are aware of this stuff. We never forgot our heroes, and now the Mets were getting over their institutional amnesia. It was partially about celebrating 1969 and 1986, but not only about those most golden of Met years. Thus, Jay said, we were seeing Joel Youngblood and Doug Flynn at Citi Field, just as we were seeing Jack Fisher. Later in the season, we’d be seeing Hubie Brooks. And tonight, August 9, 2019, we’d be seeing 1975-1979 Mets closer Skip Lockwood and 1963-1966 Mets infielder Ron Hunt.

We’d see them in the dugout briefly, which seemed the place to listen to a couple of old ballplayers share their thoughts, except by the time the handful of interested media members like myself gathered around Skip and Ron, it had begun to pour. The availability was moved back indoors, to the room where Mickey Callaway had a little earlier updated us on his lineup and such.

While it was the first time Ron Hunt was in at least half of a Citi Field spotlight, he hadn’t been out of the news completely in New York. The previous November, the Post’s Ken Davidoff had traveled to Wentzville, Mo., to the Hunt family farm, to visit with Ron, his wife Jackie (continually grateful for those Mrs. Payson roses) and the rest of their family. It was no standard “where are they now?” piece. Davidoff’s story was how Mets fans learned Ron was enduring Parkinson’s disease, a condition whose underlying causes likely included all the hits to the head he took as a batter.

Ron Hunt wasn’t kidding when he said he gave his body to baseball. He gave a lot more, too. Longtime listeners to WFAN recognized Ron as a recurring guest of Howie Rose’s in the ’80s and ’90s, where he talked up his no-nonsense baseball camp. He taught the game and a few life lessons along the way. Now life was pitching him inside, but he wasn’t seeking sympathy let alone prayers. It wasn’t in Ron’s nature.

To Davidoff, he said, “Just tell them I said hi.”

It was better that he got the opportunity to do it himself. First he spoke to those of us with dangling credentials, answering media types who didn’t cover him in the 1960s, who maybe only remembered him as a former Met in the 1970s, and then only because Ralph Kiner, Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy unfailingly mentioned it whenever the Mets played Hunt’s Expos. Taking Q&A turns with Lockwood, Hunt slowly but steadily told us, among other things…

that he got hurt taking part in the 1964 All-Star Game;

that “Casey was good to me”;

that Casey Stengel didn’t remember names “but he remembered numbers,” thus to No. 37, Ron was inevitably No. 33;

that he didn’t like Stengel’s successor Westrum;

that he learned he’d been traded to Los Angeles “from a sportswriter,” which understandably annoyed him still;

that he was determined to get four years in the big leagues in (“one day less, no pension”);

that “Duke Snider took me under his wing” during their one season together in ’63;

that the Polo Grounds was “tough on parking” (the amphibious car wasn’t mentioned);

that “I loved Shea”;

that, in response to a question about the Mets-Yankees dynamic in his day, the American League was “a minor league”;

that “I was a Met all my life” until he was traded, and that point, “I became a player for the team that hired me”;

and that “I liked the fans. They treated me good.”

***
I’d be fortunate to see the fans and Ron Hunt continue their mutually amenable treatment a little while later. Horwitz, the Lockwoods and the Hunt family entourage (they seemed myriad in number) made their way through the tunnel behind the playing field, with me tagging along. On the walls most fans don’t see are a number of stylish murals saluting the men who’ve had their numbers retired by the Mets. When we passed the one for No. 37, Jackie Hunt, as elegant a baseball wife in retirement as I imagine she was when her husband was active, took a hand and patted the picture of Casey Stengel on its cheek. He’d treated them good.

The tunnel, if one knows their way around the sanitized bowels of Citi Field, leads a person or group through a side entrance to the Mets Hall of Fame. Ron, 78 last summer, arrived at the secret door in his wheelchair. But he decided he wasn’t going to greet his public any way but standing. Pitchers could knock him down, but Parkinson’s couldn’t keep him there. With the aid of a cane, he made his way a few presumably difficult feet to the autograph table and took a seat next to Skip. A line of several dozen fans was already in place. It would replenish over the next 45 minutes or so.

Ron was unable to offer his autograph one at a time, but he came prepared, with pre-signed black & white photos of himself in his 1964 glory, showing off the batting stance that earned him a starting All-Star nod. The World’s Fair patch from that season and the next is clearly visible. He is able to share a few words with each well-wisher, and he does. He doesn’t tell anybody no if they want a selfie. Nor does Skip. Nor, for that matter, does Jay, who is off to the side looking customarily fretful. For all of Ron Hunt’s and Skip Lockwood’s exploits at Shea Stadium, there’s no doubt Jay Horwitz is the most famous among them at 21st century Citi Field.

But the fans are indeed queued up for the ballplayers. Some of these Mets fans have been lined up in their heart since 1963. Affection for Ron Hunt is not merely anecdotal. Ken Davidoff reinforced that notion in February of 2019 when he wrote about the special relationship between Louise Martone Peluso and Ronald Kenneth Hunt. Though there was competition at the Mets Hall of Fame this Friday evening, it would be fair to say Louise, who had just passed at the age of 98, was Ron’s biggest fan, and Ron was pretty keen on her. Displayed at the lady’s funeral was a pinstriped jersey, the kind the Mets wore in ’63, except it had a name on the back: AUNT LOUISE. The number was 33. The two of them had stayed in touch for a long time. Louise’s niece Laurie Martone told Davidoff, “Ron has been so devoted and giving. He still calls me at least once per day. I would like more people to know how giving Ron has been to Aunt Louise and to others.”

He did it for the fans.

While Ron met and greeted, I had a chance to chat with Ron, Jr. “He thought he’d be a Met forever,” he said of his dad. “He just ‘played’ for other teams.” While Hunt, Sr., kept up the give-and-take (wearing a 2013 All-Star Game polo, from the first one the Mets hosted after 1964), Hunt, Jr., told me this right here was what it was all about, regardless of the physical stress it put on his father. “He wanted to go see the fans. You don’t play for the teams. You play for the fans.”

The fans were here to affirm that assertion. Ron’s fans had made a habit of feting him whenever he came to town. They’d had dinners for him and with him. One fellow named Joseph was up from St. Lucie in August of 2019 full of anticipation for this latest interaction. He was a Mets fan in 1964. He was a Mets fan in 2019. He was a Ron Hunt fan indefinitely. “This,” Joseph told me, “is getting me back from being 67 to 12 years old.” Another fan, named Charlie, was happy to fill me in on Ron’s career OBP and how it was higher than that of a couple of second basemen in the Hall of Fame. He and Ron had become friends over the years. “He played the game the right way,” Charlie told me. “He sacrificed his body.”

I’d read Davidoff’s heartbreaking stories revolving around the Parkinson’s. I’d read another recent profile, by Benjamin Hochman in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that delved into the old ballplayer’s physical state. I was aware it was absolutely not easy for Ron Hunt to be at Citi Field, but I had the real sense that it would have been harder for him not to be at Citi Field. This hadn’t been his home park, but for close to an hour, it was his living room. The stuff about playing for the fans — about playing for the Mets fans — wasn’t just one of those things somebody says to be nice. Not more than fifty years since he last played. Not for a guy who, by contemporary accounts from his playing days, didn’t exactly let on how nice he could be. I don’t know the astronomical technicalities associated with how long a star shines, but I was convinced that the first one the Mets ever had wasn’t going to simply flicker and disappear.

The line to meet the alumni was cut off around 6:20. Marcus Stroman would throw his first pitch in a Met home uniform at 7:10. It was time to clear everybody away from the VIPs and get the Hunts and Lockwoods upstairs to the press dining room for a meal with Horwitz. At last, if only for a moment, Ron Hunt sat alone. I went up to him and asked how he thought it went. I guess I meant this event. He meant something more in his reply.

“The Polo Grounds, Shea Stadium,” he said, “Four years. I gave them my best.”

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1964: Rod Kanehl
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1998: Todd Pratt
2000: Melvin Mora
2001: Mike Piazza
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2004: Joe Hietpas
2005: Pedro Martinez
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2019: Dom Smith

10 comments to First Star I See Tonight

  • Bob

    Greg/Jason
    I have that Ron Hunt baseball card-with the green edges.
    I was 11 years old in 1963 and my Father brought me to to my first Met game @ Polo Grounds for a DH VS Phillies.
    Mets won both games and Jimmy Piersall hit his 100th career HR and ran backwards around bases.
    Will to check to see if Ron Hunt played in either of those games..
    Somehow, still have scorecard from the day.
    Ron Hunt was 1st real hope for Mets & me back then ,and when Hunt played in All Star Game in 1964 @ Shea….just amazin’!

  • joenunz

    What a great recap of the first great Met!

    But I have to admit I spent most of the article musing about how many of the 54 Shea restrooms I patronized during my 43 years of attendance there.

    I am guessing 50 and that only 2 or 3 had been clean.

  • Ken K. in NJ

    Thanks for this wonderful installment, as well as the links the Hunt articles. Ron Hunt was my favorite Met in 1964 (how could he not be). I was at both the All Star Game (perfectly stroked line drive single to left center, if I recall correctly) and the Phil Gagliano Game (better known in our household as the Diamond Club Fiasco Game).

    You mentioned his head-long slides into third base, but what I remember most is his head first dives into first base trying to beat out infield hits. I’m not sure if he was the first to do that, but he was certainly the first I ever saw do it. I was so impressed as a young teenager that I added it to my Little League repertoire, until my Manager told me 1. It was a stupid play, and 2. I’d hurt myself for no reason.
    Point number one has turned out to be true in conventional baseball wisdom, and the faint scar still on my left knee proves Point number two. But it was still exciting to see Hunt do it.

    Thanks again.

  • […] catcher from Pennsylvania pushed us into all-time triple-digits on July 28, 1965, in the midst of Ron Hunt’s reign as the Mets’ first star, or precisely 55 years before Peterson arrived at Fenway Park. Schaffer played in only 24 games as […]

  • […] METS FOR ALL SEASONS 1962: Richie Ashburn 1963: Ron Hunt 1964: Rod Kanehl 1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice 1969: Donn Clendenon 1970: Tommie Agee 1972: […]

  • […] METS FOR ALL SEASONS 1962: Richie Ashburn 1963: Ron Hunt 1964: Rod Kanehl 1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice 1969: Donn Clendenon 1970: Tommie Agee 1972: […]