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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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Hot as Hicks

Met offense is moping along as Met offense has made a habit of doing since its founding in 1962. Then amid the mopery emerges some genuine hope in the form of a Triple-A outfielder who brings to New York a bat loaded with hits, making things a little less mopey, at least for a spell. Mike Vail is the most extreme example of this phenomenon, D.J. Stewart the most recent.

Joe Hicks, who died on December 2, stands out as the first.

Hicks was called up to the Mets from Buffalo shortly after the All-Star break in 1963. The Mets finished the first half on a ten-game losing streak and began the second half by losing five more. All help was welcome. All help began to make a difference on July 15 when, in Hicks’s third start as a Met, Joe doubles in a run in his first at-bat. Two batters later, pitcher Carl Willey launches a grand slam. Hicks will also single a run home in the fourth and single once more besides. Three hits, two runs, and the Mets are 14-5 winners over the Colt .45s in the opener of a doubleheader at home. Losing streak over. Hot streak begun.

More for Hicks than the Mets, really, but for a few days, the team and the callup complement one another brilliantly. The Mets are still new, but their new center fielder isn’t exactly a fresh face. Fresh to New York, but climbing the rungs of professional baseball since 1953, with major league experience tucked under his belt since 1959. He didn’t stick with the White Sox (despite a few hits in the September they clinched their first pennant in forty years) and he wasn’t deemed a keeper in Washington (after giving the expansion Senators 102 games in ’62). A stint in the army surely didn’t help him gather the momentum that might have kept him on a clearer path to the bigs. After the Mets have purchased his contract and sent him to Buffalo to commence 1963, he is listed as a 30-year-old whose career major league batting average measures .218.

What was it they said in Hamilton? In New York, you can be a new man. For lefty-swinging Joe Hicks, the Polo Grounds was the room where a change of identity happened. In mid-July back in ’63, Hicks isn’t a Quadruple-A straggler. He’s the hitter the Mets have been waiting for all year, maybe since they were born, never mind that they’re only in the second year of their existence. A fifteen-game losing streak will age any franchise.

On July 16, Hicks goes 3-for-4 with a homer. The Mets beat Houston, 4-3.

On July 17, Hicks goes 2-for-6 with another homer, this one a walkoff dinger versus the imperfect man himself, Don Larsen. The Mets defeat San Francisco in eleven, 9-7.

On July 18, Hicks goes 3-for-5, and, yup, he sends his third ball out of the old yard. The Mets fall to the Giants, 6-5, but Joe is now a .419 batter against National League pitching, with nine ribbies on his ledger less than a week after his Met debut (when he was struck out as a pinch-hitter by Sandy Koufax). He was hitting .320 in the International League. Maybe the higher he got, the better he was bound to get. Red Foley in the Daily News declared the journeyman “off to the finest start any Met has ever enjoyed.”

“Why did you deprive Hicks of a chance at the batting title by bringing him up so late?” a reporter asked Casey Stengel as Joe began providing sizzle and steak to a lineup more used to famine. Usually it was the manager who delivered the laugh lines. In this case, Casey chuckled and then turned serious for a change: “I’ll tell you something abut that nice kid. He’s had a tough time making it and he worked hard to get back up here.” Stengel, who could have brought Hicks north to start the season, admitted after the home run that beat Larsen, “I began to wonder where this ballplayer had been all my life.”

Right here, Joe might have told the manager who’d seen a lot of ballplayers in his time. “All I ask is that I get a chance to play often to keep in stride,” Hicks said with modesty becoming someone who’d waited so long for such an opportunity. “You can’t stay sharp by sitting on the bench.”

Joe played more often than not for the rest of 1963. He didn’t maintain his .400 average, nor anything resembling a blistering pace. There’d be no more home runs the rest of July, only one in August and one in September. His last circuit clout was the final homer hit by a lefty in the history of the Polo Grounds, a ballpark that had seen about as many ballplayers in its time as Stengel had in his. Hicks’s stroke seemed tailor-made for the bathtub beneath Coogan’s Bluff. At the Polo Grounds, Joe slashed .333/.379/.580. On the road it wasn’t anything close to that. What he might do at brand new Shea Stadium would remain a matter for speculation, for the Mets sent him back to Buffalo to start 1964 and they never recalled him. Joe Hicks’s entire Mets career was 56 games in 1963, highlighted by one scalding week to get it going. He played at Triple-A for three seasons before giving up on pro ball in 1966.

Which left some 57 years for a heckuva life beyond the minors and majors. His obituary, published in Charlottesville, Va., the area where he spent most of his days, said he was 91, born in 1932. His baseball records always pegged him as a year younger. In a business where age dictated a number of personnel decisions, it was probably beneficial for him that the Mets thought they had a 30-year-old phenom on their hands as opposed to a feller who was just breaking through at 31. Either way, Ol’ Case referring to Joe as a “kid” was all relative.

The statlines were only selectively kind to Hicks, but you can’t say baseball and Joe didn’t go together well. For one thing, it was during winter ball in Nicaragua in the offseason following 1958 that he met and married his wife of more than six decades. For another, he became a top-flight umpire in Virginia, eventually recognized by the commonwealth for his extensive work with amateurs in baseball, softball and volleyball. Charlottesville Parks and Recreation benefited from his expertise and sportsmanship when he served the department as its longtime director of athletics. “A down to earth person with a kind heart and gentle soul,” his obit reads. Some things don’t show up in the box score. Some things don’t have to.

3 comments to Hot as Hicks

  • Ken K. in NJ

    I was around in 1963, I remember him altho I can’t say I remember his hot week, but I’m sure I was aware of it back then. Glad to hear he lived a nice full and long life, thanks for the research.

    Speaking of being old enough to have been around in 1963 and of shaving a year off one’s age: I turned 30 in 1978. Using the only readily available resource at the time, The World Almanac, I decided to see if any “celebrities” were turning 30 the same day as me.

    Turns out there were two. A pretty good infielder (later MLB Manager) and a mid-level actor who’s still making the occasional movie. On the occasion of my 70th birthday I re-visited the question, and curiously, both of these individuals are now somehow a year younger than me.

  • Bob Kurpiel

    Hi Greg,
    Nice job paying tributes to former Mets who may have played a small but important role in their heyday. I guess from your description that I was at that game when Carlton Willey hit that grandslam. To my memory, it was more like a check swing excuse me fly to right field right down the line, hitting the top of the cement lower stands and bouncing in for a maybe 269 foot grandslammer to the opposite field (as Willey was right handed).Hey, you can’t make that stuff up and have people believe it unless they were there.

  • Lou Bruns

    It’s stories and tributes like this that makes your site so wonderful. I was barely nine when my Mom took me to the first game ever played at Shea. I’ve no history of the Polo Grounds though, so it is always a treat to read about those years and the p[layers. Thank you.