The original New York Mets were more often described as a circus act than a competitive professional baseball team. Fans flocked to the Polo Grounds, and later Shea Stadium, to catch a glimpse of Casey Stengel, or maybe Marv Thronberry miss touching a base running from first to third. Fans reveled when Jimmy Piersall opted to round the bases in reverse.
Everywhere Mets fans looked, they were delighted and surprised by the offbeat characters on and off the field. Lindsey Nelson, one of the Mets play-by-play announcer, was no exception. His wild and colorful blazers were conversation pieces. His analysis was sharp and colorful and, on occasion, reached new heights – literally.
On April 28, 1965, Nelson, the “daredevil” of all the Mets broadcasters according to the New York Times, and executive producer Joel Nixon became the first (and only) baseball announcers to broadcast from a gondola, dangling 208 feet above second base, the equivalent of 18 stories, the highest point of the Astrodome.
“There I was, swinging back and forth like a monkey in a cage,” Nelson described in the opening chapter of the 1966 book Backstage at the Mets. “The ballplayers looked like animated pushbuttons. At the moment I didn’t have foggiest notion what they were doing, where they were going, or why. It was the perfect spot for a New York Met announcer.”
This was all Joe Gallagher’s fault. From the moment he saw the gondola, Gallagher was obsessed, asking questions throughout the first game of the series in Houston.
Can you get up there?
Is it safe?
I guess so.
How many people will it hold?
Can you broadcast from it?
That’s all Gallagher really needed to hear.
He spent the next day making arrangements to send Nelson into the air, and on the air, in the gondola to broadcast the game. Nelson hesitated, but agreed to do it. That evening the Astros lowered the gondola until it hovered over second base, about 12 feet off the ground.
The “flying saucer,” as it was described in newspaper reports, took 45 minutes to descend. Nelson, Nixon, members of the Astros organization and Yogi Berra watched and waited.
“You really going up in that thing?” Berra asked Nelson.
Nelson nodded uncomfortably.
“What are you nuts?” asked Berra.
Nelson and Nixon climbed in with a pair of walkie-talkies, a microphone, binoculars, a scorecard and a couple locker stools. As they climbed into the box, Nelson asked an Astros engineer, “Have you ever been up there?”
“Up there?” he asked back.
“You think I’m nuts?”
The gondola cables jerked Nelson and Nixon back and began its ascent over the next four minutes. When they reached their destination, Nelson peered over the edge, “hanging on for dear life.” He later described the scene saying, “At first I couldn’t see anything except a lot of tiny figures. Everybody looked the same height, everybody looked short. You couldn’t tell a line drive from a pop fly.”
Murphy, Kiner and Gallagher tried to communicate with Nelson using the walkie-talkie, only one problem: the two-way device was on the same frequency as a local Houston cab company. Murphy’s messages were randomly interrupted by street intersections, hotel names and frustrated cabbie which were equally confused by the ballpark sound effects.
“The confusion that resulted from all the racket in the gondola would have given an ordinary man the screaming-meemies, but I’m not an ordinary man,” wrote Nelson. “I’m a Met fan, wish us Mets fans confusion is a way of life. So is cacophony.”
Nelson held steady through the early innings. He refused to stand, refused to wave to fans, refused to keep score (fearing he’d drop his pencil on a player). The sixth inning was torture. The Mets and Astros combined to score eight runs, four apiece. Nelson called play-by-play for the seventh and eighth innings.
Bob Hope sat in the crowd and watched, both the game and the gondola in fascination. The Astros eventually beat the Mets 12-9, a game that officially lasted three hours and 24 minutes.
For Nelson and Nixon it felt like an eternity. After the game, Hope was invited back to Hofheinz apartment inside the stadium. He asked to wait a moment to see if Nelson and Nixon made it down safely as the gondola lowered before his eyes. As the gondola came to a stop, just feet from the diamond, Nelson took a deep breath and climbed out of the container while fans hooted, hollered and cheered the Mets broadcaster like a hero.
Like the circus clown, Nelson understood his role: Another city; another show; another smile; another night under the big top.