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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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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. They won that title Saturday 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 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 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 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 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? 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, 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, 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’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 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 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.

13 comments to Whaddaya Know?

  • Eric

    Your mention of the Mets’ inaugural residence at the Polo Grounds reminds me to ask, as much as the Mets honor the Brooklyn Dodgers, why doesn’t NYC’s resident NL team honor the New York (baseball) Giants more? The colors that David Wright bleeds are Dodger Blue and Giant orange, after all; the Mets are keepers of the flame for both departed NYC NL clubs. And of the 2 golden-age NYC NL ballparks, the Mets played at the Polo Grounds, not Ebbets Field.

    Duda is already The Dude, The Dude Abides, and Duda Smash. While there’s always room for a resonant nickname, I don’t like Loo Doo.

    The Papelbon-Harper incident shows the gap between Williams’ and Collins’s callow and seasoned managerial hands as baseball Pater familias. It’s less that two teammates would argue or even fight, but that they failed to restrain themselves ‘on duty’ in public view in the dugout during a game. It would be shocking how the Nationals switched from the World Series favorite to LOLNats in such short order if we hadn’t experienced something close to it. The Nationals still possess strong foundational talent with Harper, Rendon, Scherzer, Strasburg, and a few others, but as we know, that the difference between a winning and losing team is about more than the numbers on paper.

    Collins may or may not turn out to be a good play-off tactician – we’re about to find out – but he’s paid his dues for this opportunity to try, which Williams has not yet, despite his early chance at managing in the play-offs. I’m heartened that Collins will finally level up after a long career, especially his time with the Mets cultivating a solid culture despite a perennially losing team. He deserves it.

    The big leagues are an elite fraternity. Their hazing, at least what they show us, is a watered down masculine initiation rite that signals acceptance and belonging in a tribe with attendant interpersonal privileges and responsibilities.

    The Mets pulling ahead of the Dodgers for HFA is one more thing that is pleasantly surprisingly going right for these 2015 Mets after a long time of things going wrong. All of a sudden, the Mets are 1.5 games up on the Dodgers for home field advantage with a magic number of 5 due to the Mets owning the tiebreaker. The Mets are playing better on the road than at home right now, but the Dodgers have been much stronger at home than on the road. Ultimately, it comes down to beating Greinke and Kershaw, who are tough anywhere and may well be slated to pitch 4 of the 5 games if their DS goes 5, but any edge helps.

    The Mets clinching the division in game 155 is just right. It’s not too early so the team’s focus dulls and wanders and allows a good week to tinker in preparation for the play-offs. It’s also the right amount of time for us fans to prognosticate without going around in circles too many times.

    • Eric

      And, to check off the last box on the list of fantasies for the 2015 regular season, the Mets are now 1 game away from the Alderson goal of 90 wins. 90 wins aren’t quite the turnaround 100 wins of 1969, but they’re on the same road.

      For further symbolically laying to rest the 2007 collapse, 90 wins were what was needed to win the division against the 89-73 Phillies.

  • LA Jake

    Nary a day goes by when FAFIF doesn’t entertain. I heard of the Polo Grounds and once participated in banner day during a doubleheader and I’ve had Rheingold beer but had no knowledge of Rheingold Rest or Jerry Leon or Seth Wittner.

    But all make for a quite interesting story, just like the Rise of the Mets and the Phall of the Phightin’ Nationals in 2015, who might as well be the Phillies considering how hateable they have become as a team.

  • SkillSets

    Ought to pass along to Howie Karpin, author of the soon-to-be-published history of Kiner’s Korner.

  • I think Papelbon messed with poor Drew Storen’s head in the bullpen; his stats dropped to an all time low after his delightful pitching mate arrived on the scene. The Phillies aren’t stupid.

  • Bob

    Great story about Seth from Elmont (I’m also from Elmont)
    and Rheingold..the dry beer…
    My program from Polo Grounds- 1963(when my Father took me to a DH VS Phils–Mets won both games & Jimmy Piersall hit his 100th HR and ran backwards around the bases) has an ad with Casey “smiling” at Miss. Rheingold…
    Let’s Go Mets!

  • Ken K. in NJ

    I go back to 62 myself, and was an avid fan already then, yet I have no recollection of “Rheingold Rest”. Of course I was 13 years old and probably didn’t pay too much attention to the Beer Commercials. Thanks so much for the info.

    Fascinating, especially in light of the fact for a while in the 70’s and 80’s I was a collector of beer-related items and became friends with a couple of guys who were Rheingold collectors. They had all sorts of Rheingold audio and video stuff as well as regular collectibles but as far as I know, no Rheingold Rest.

    One minor quibble I’d make with Seth’s commentary. I don’t recall shedding “lots of tears”, or really any tears at all in 1962. We were just happy to have NL Baseball again. I went to quite a few games with my friends and sometimes my Dad in 1962, and all I recall was what fun it was. Nobody really expected the Mets to win, just being at the game was all we wanted. No heartache at all.

  • Dave

    Yeah, sometimes your best trades are the ones that someone else makes. A friend in DC who’s a Nats fan but a very realistic one called Papelbon a “human can of Axe body spray,” but calling him a human anything might be giving him more credit that he’s due. Supposedly the Phils tried to pawn him off to 29 other teams for a year to no avail because he’s, well, I don’t have to bother repeating the obvious. Good luck getting a job next year…Papelbon and Williams.

  • Rochester John

    Another from the class of ’62, here. Eight years old at the time, I was at the Polo Grounds to see Koufax and the Dodgers take two on Memorial Day, despite 3 dingers from Gil Hodges. I do remember the Rheingold bar commercials, although during the intervening years my memory conflated Leon Janney into Leon Ames. Oh, well…

    By the way,
    “My beer is Rheingold, the dry beer,
    Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer,
    It’s not bitter, not sweet,
    It’s the dry flavored treat,
    Won’t you buy extra dry Rheingold Beer?”

    Why do we remember such things?

  • Ed K

    I recall the Rheingold Rest even though I was only 9 years in 1962. I did not know much about beer at the time but appreciated the Rheingold Rest because it meant we did not have to watch one of their other commercials. Rheingold and a cigarette company (Kool and one other brand) were the two sponsors back then, and they would show the same few commercials over and over for each game for the entire season. Even with only a single 60-second commercial each half inning, we were sick of the regular commercials by September. So at least when the Rheingold Rest came on, we knew it would be something different and maybe interesting. I recall Jim Backus doing his Mr. Magoo voice once.