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The Return of Old Timers Day 1977

I consider the series finale of Parks & Recreation, which aired Tuesday night, to be one of the finest farewells in the history of episodic television. Yet within twelve hours of viewing, I found something even better to watch. It wasn’t a goodbye episode. More like getting reacquainted. The effect was more invigorating, even, than finding safe haven in a warm bathtub full of Duke Silver’s jazz [1].

Live (on tape) from the crown jewel of the New York City Parks Department and stunningly preserved for the ages [2], I fell into the Channel 9 telecast of Old Timers Day 1977 at Shea Stadium, perhaps the best Old Timers Day Shea Stadium ever hosted.

Yes, Old Timers Day 1977! Do I have to explain the exclamation point to you? Because I will. I’ll create binders and hand them out to each and every one of you just as Leslie Knope would. From WOR to WAR: Statistical Proof Bearing Out My Assertion That the YouTube Video I Found Is the Greatest Thing Ever.

Perhaps I’m overselling this. No, that’s impossible. This thing truly is the greatest ever. Greatest Mets thing ever, to be sure. I hear waffles are good, too.

Let’s back up and bring you to July 16, 1977, a sweltering Saturday afternoon in the Baked Apple. It has been 31 days since the New York Mets traded, for reasons that aren’t worth getting into on an occasion as festive as Old Timers Day 1977 Video Found Day, their best pitcher and their best slugger in exchange for…it doesn’t matter. The Mets traded Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman and there was no reason to keep living. Also, it was three — three! — days since all of New York City had been blacked out and a good bit of it had been looted. The looters left Shea Stadium alone. Everybody was leaving Shea Stadium alone by July of 1977.

And yet, on this Saturday, an actual crowd, shed of animus, pitchforks and torches (it was too hot for torches and the lights were working again), showed up at Shea to celebrate something. They showed up to celebrate Old Timers Day.

That’s what used to happen every year at Shea Stadium. Before that, it happened at the Polo Grounds. This was the sixteenth year there were New York Mets. In 1977, the Mets hosted their sixteenth annual Old Timers Day. Do the math, as they used to say in schools before math was eliminated: the Mets never didn’t hold Old Timers Day. It was in their bones, their DNA, their mission that they chose to accept. The Mets were born in black & white, determined to live in color, yet never forgetting their roots.

Their roots? They never forgot their fans’ roots. I’m not even talking about the Giants and the Dodgers. I’m talking that everybody who set foot inside Shea Stadium for a Mets game was presumed to maintain an interest in baseball — all of it, including the parts that didn’t unfold in front of their eyes. It was the Mets’ solemn responsibility to deliver baseball history to their patrons. If they could make some more on the field, more power to us.

This, you see, is how we learned. We were introduced to players and stories and accomplishments and it became part of what we knew about the game we had come to love. We put together the glimpse of the past to which we were being treated with all we could glean from the present occurring in our midst and it laid a foundation for our future. We would always be interested in the baseball to come because we were immersed in the baseball that had come.

That’s history, baby. That’s its beauty and utility. That’s what keeps you coming back for more, poising you to turn the page (or keep scrolling) in order to learn what happens next in our great shared chronicle. Do they still teach history in the schools? They do a damn poor job of it at Citi Field, but that’s another story. Let’s stick to our warm bathtub full of Old Timers jazz. Let’s be as cool as Duke Silver as we prepare to meet Duke Snider.

The theme of Old Timers Day 1977 is Memorable Moments from World Series Play. No real reason, except that nothing’s bigger than the World Series, so why wouldn’t you choose that as your theme? As WOR-TV anchor Bob Murphy explains, the Mets could make their claim to World Series lore, having been in two of them, but this isn’t really a Metscentric event. There are several Brooklyn Dodgers and a couple of New York Giants of note on hand, but it isn’t necessarily a toast to their Subway Series feats. And — hold on to your hats — there are Yankees galore at Shea because, let’s face it, their team was in a few World Series, but though there’s a discernible New York accent to the festivities, this isn’t all Gotham all the time.

The Boston Braves of 1948 are represented. The 1946 Cardinals. The Washington Senators of 1933. The 1945 Cubs. Orioles from 1966. The ’60 Pirates. The ’59 White Sox. Why?

Why not? They were in the World Series, every bit as much as the ’69 Mets and ’55 Dodgers and ’54 Giants and far too many Yankees. This is the “romance” of baseball, says Murph. What baseball fan wouldn’t want to be romanced?

Two months before Saturday nights on Channel 7 would become synonymous with The Love Boat, it is Lindsey Nelson who takes the helm and sets a course for adventure, his mind on the old romance of World Series legends. The sailing will be as smooth as Lindsey’s delivery (except when he has to pause for a passing plane, at which point his testiness will seep through the screen). Lindsey’s role as Master of Ceremonies is every bit as important as Captain Stubing’s will be two frequencies down the dial. Nothing’s a click away in 1977, not even on TV (except in Fairfield County, one supposes, where ABC affiliate Channel 8 would be immediately tunable on the same sets as Channel 9 from New York). There’s no Baseball Reference or Retrosheet to look stuff up when you get curious. There’s no Kindle from which to download. Either you have the books, you’ve saved your Sporting Newses or you plan a trip to your local public library. It takes effort to learn things in these days of Stubing and Nelson.

But on this Saturday, July 16, 1977, Lindsey Nelson in a summer suit pale-blue enough to evoke the Pacific, is steering you across an ocean of nostalgia and celebrity. You’re in learned hands when Lindsey’s at the mic in front of the mound.

It’s Lindsey’s show now. Lindsey and the “Diamond Club Girls,” as Murph calls them. They’ll be serving as “hostesses,” clad in dresses that fit the 1890s more than the 96-degree afternoon. But they are issued parasols and the Old Timers don’t try any funny business, so maybe it’s nice to get out of the Diamond Club for an hour, removal from air conditioning notwithstanding. Escorting Carl Erskine from the dugout to the foul line doesn’t look like the worst assignment for a Diamond Club Girl.

As long as we’re focused on design, oh those Old Timers Day uniforms. Nobody called Mitchell & Ness. Nobody reached out to Ebbets Field Flannels. Nobody canvassed Paul Lukas and Uni Watch [3]. Authenticity takes a holiday where many of the men’s suiting up is concerned. Take Phil Maci, for example. He’s the catcher from those 1948 National League champion Boston Braves. As Lindsey’s describing his World Series derring-do (he scored Game One’s only run when Bob Feller and Lou Boudreau botched a pickoff attempt), we give Maci the once-over. He’s clearly dressed as a contemporary Atlanta Brave — and not a very sartorially splendid one, at that. His cap looks like it was fished from the bottom of a box of Cracker Jack.

Maci is at least close. Erskine is introduced in a Mets uniform (and L.A. cap) despite his never having played or coached for the Mets. Lindsey clearly spells out he was a Brooklyn favorite. But Oisk gets a nice ovation, Maci is given a hand and nobody seems to mind that just about everybody is off-model one way or another.

Everybody’s into Old Timers Day. The crowd is the best the Mets will draw for the rest of the season, save for the weekend the Cincinnati Reds will come in with their recently acquired ace pitcher (a different exercise in nostalgia and celebrity). Both dugouts are crammed. The current Mets are watching. The visiting Pirates are watching. Reporters are hanging around. I want very much to believe a young Howie Rose is recording actualities for Sports Phone [4]. He probably is. Old Timers Day at Shea Stadium is the place to be. No wonder the Mets received more than 50 RSVPs to their ceremony. Old Timers don anachronistic uniforms for the chance to tip quite possibly the wrong cap and be, for a few minutes, Timers again. No wonder Bill Wambsganss — billed as 86 years old, which is exotic unto itself — graces the day with his presence.

Wambsganss is known for one thing: he pulled off the only unassisted triple play in World Series history. If you’re gonna be known for one thing, that’s as good as any. By 1977, he’s a name from the quizzes in Baseball Digest. Who would ever expect to see Bill Wambsganss in the flesh? Bill Wambsganss was born in what were known as the Gay ’90s. John McGraw was playing for the Baltimore Orioles in the National League. Those dresses on the Diamond Club Girls were the epitome of the high style.

Gary Gentry, “now a real estate man in Arizona,” is a 1977 Old Timer, same as Bill Wambsganss, defensive wizard of the 1920 World Series. Gary Gentry on July 16, 1977, is 30 years old.

Bill Shea, he of the Shea Stadium Sheas, and Chub Feeney, GM of the “Polo Grounds Giants” and now president of the National League precede all the players, regardless of age. They are left to loiter behind Lindsey in the heat. They don’t line up with the various hitters and pitchers and they don’t take a seat. Wambsganss took a seat. At 86 or so when it’s 96 or so, you don’t stand out under the sun all day. But Shea and Feeney do. The baseball people, Murph has told us, love this day. They love it more than they love shade.

Hall of Famer Monte Irvin appears (the day after the Parks & Rec finale airs turns out to be the day Monte will celebrate his 96th birthday). Cookie Lavagetto, who broke up Bill Bevins’s no-hitter in 1947, appears. Bevins appears. Sandy Amoros robbed Yogi Berra in 1955. His reward? A swell greeting in 1977. Al Gionfriddo gets the same for having taken a long hit away from Joe DiMaggio. Hal Smith, who helped set the stage for the Bill Mazeroski home run, is invited. Bill Mazeroski is invited. Ralph Terry — later a Met, but in 1960 the Yankee who basically put Maz in the Hall of Fame — is invited. They all make their way to Shea. Terry dresses as a Yankee, same as Hank Bauer and Bobby Richardson and Old Reliable Tommy Henrich and the Chairman of the Board Whitey Ford and Don Larsen and Joe Sewell and…I told you there are a lot of Yankees at Shea.

It’s a World Series kind of day, but the Mets are too kind and generous to not make room for anybody who fits the description of Old Timer. You don’t have to have won a World Series like Gentry, Jim McAndrew, Ron Swoboda, Al Weis and Ed Charles did in 1969 (though they’re there) and you don’t have to have lost a World Series like Chuck Hiller did in 1962 (though Chuck’s here) and you don’t have to have bopped not one but two pinch-homers as Chuck Essegian did for the Dodgers against the White Sox in 1959 (though this Chuck’s here, too). You can be Tom Burgess and Denny Somers, first-year Mets coaches in 1977, and you are treated by Lindsey Nelson as if you descended from Mount Ty Cobb to join us.

Mrs. Johnny Murphy, widow of the general manager of the 1969 world champions, is introduced. She’s sitting on the press level and isn’t shown on TV. Mel Allen, who called almost every World Series for a generation — and in 1977 is making himself known to the next generation via the narration of This Week In Baseball — is introduced. He’s sitting in Field Box 13G and is shown on TV. Mel is just hanging out, by himself, enjoying the Mets’ Sixteenth Annual Old Timers Day.

How about that?

Mrs. George Weiss gets a shoutout, if not a first name (tell it to Mrs. Johnny Murphy). According to Lindsey, she’s no doubt looking in on the proceedings from her home in Greenwich…unless she’s flipped to Channel 8.

Our main man the Glider [5] is the only Old Timer to rate two Diamond Club Girl escorts. He literally skips to the foul line. Are the Diamond Club Girls just that lovely or is Ed Charles just that happy to be here?

The answer is yes.

There’s not much explicit hierarchy to Old Timers Day as it goes on. They’re all legends, heroes, gentlemen who’ve come a long way to join us today. Enos Slaughter will be ushered into the Hall of Fame eventually. At Shea, he’s the opening act for Amoros.

Yet a few special slots are reserved. One minute, it’s a steady stream of Weises and Wambsgansses. Then, resplendent in the sleeveless Pirates jersey the Pittsburgh team didn’t wear when he was slugging for them but it looks damn good on him anyway, Ralph Kiner. Ralph never played in a World Series just as he never played in one of those sleeveless numbers. But this is his adopted home field. So Ralph is saved for late in the affair.

You wouldn’t want to be the ballplayer who has to follow Ralph Kiner at Shea Stadium unless you have some serious credentials. Following Ralph Kiner? Roy Campanella. He gets a standing ovation.

Then, because he’s just that adored by Mets fans in the summer of 1977, a place where there’s been little love in the room since June 15, comes someone who “never participated in a World Series as a player. We are confident and hopeful that one day in the not too distant future, he will be managing in one.”

Of whom does Lindsey Nelson speak so fondly? “Here is the Mets’ skipper, Joe Torre.” He will indeed be managing in a World Series or six, albeit in a distant future that is best left unspoken of for now.

So who’s left after so much of The Baseball Encyclopedia has sprung to life and onto the Shea Stadium grass? Who could possibly top the one-two-three punch of Ralph Kiner, Roy Campanella and Joe Torre? Let’s listen to Lindsey for the answer.

“It is certainly safe to say no city has ever had the pleasure of viewing as much talent as New York did about a quarter-century ago. And much of that talent played the same position for each New York club. We consider it a great honor indeed to have with us today four of the greatest center fielders in the history of baseball and appreciate all of them starred on the field right here in the Big Apple.”

And as the center field gates swing open, we meet…

“The Duke of Brooklyn,” Duke Snider…
“The greatest switch-hitter in the history of the game,” Mickey Mantle…
“The most exciting player of this or any other era,” Willie Mays…
“The man chosen as baseball’s greatest living player,” Joe DiMaggio.

The authors of 1,964 big league home runs thrill the stadium built in 1964. [6]

The authors of 1,964 big league home runs thrill the stadium built in 1964.

That’s right, my fellow Mets enthusiasts of all ages, Willie, Mickey, the Duke and — because who doesn’t like a surfeit of immortals? — Joe D. The sight of them is stood for and applauded at and roared about. Pictures are taken of all that talent as it strolls from the outfield to the infield. Not long after, a songwriter by the name of Terry Cashman gets a gander at the image of the fearsome foursome and decides to write a song about this quartet, though he admits the Yankee Clipper doesn’t quite fit his musical tableau [7], so he cuts his inspiration by a quarter and produces a little number called “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey & The Duke)” that takes its spot alongside “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” in the game’s canon.

This happened at Shea Stadium. All of it. The Mets made sure of it. It was their sacred trust to put on an Old Timers Day and they were true to their trust. Maybe they couldn’t keep their biggest current-day stars on the roster, but boy could they round up a posse of all-time greats from the past.

It was glorious. And it wasn’t over! The four center fielders came in and stood in the company of their fellow Old Timers for a “moment of silent tribute” dedicated to essentially everybody who was no longer with us. Mrs. Payson, Mr. Stengel, Mr. Hodges, Mrs. Johnny Murphy’s and Mrs. George Weiss’s respective husbands and the gone-far-too-young Danny Frisella were all named, though Lindsey said we should think of everybody who made the game great. Jane Jarvis played Auld Lang Syne and then the national anthem.

And then the Old Timers who were up for it played a ballgame while Bob Murphy and Stan Lomax — the first New York radio sportscaster, dating back to 1933 — did some light play-by-play. Murph asked Lomax an open-ended question about the past and Lomax gushed forth with anecdotes a sharp fan would know enough to lap up. For example, Stan Lomax could identify the precise loudmouth at Ebbets Field who started calling his favorite team a bunch of “Bums” and tell you all about how it stuck.

With minimal condescension, Murph and Lomax marveled at how these fellas could still swing the bat and so forth. They weren’t kidding. Ralph lined one into the left field corner just foul and the Duke drove one that almost went over the right field wall. Willie Mays, of all people, got caught in a baserunning blunder on Duke’s hit, but that was OK. It gave Bob and Stan a chance to invoke “three men on third” from when the Dodgers were indisputably daffy and every so-called Old Timer was certifiably younger.

When I watched Old Timers Day when I was a kid, it made me feel older. Nowadays it has the opposite effect. Little at Shea ever functioned quite so flawlessly.

Not as monumental a find, but also on YouTube: I join the folks at On The Sportslines [8] for a little Spring Training Mets talk.