1969. A year filled with rich history.
This morning I watched a replay, in real time, of Apollo 11 lifting off for the moon at 9:32 am Eastern Daylight Time. Fifty years ago, I watched on a black and white Zenith television set in my family’s den. Several days later, we watched on that Sunday night as two Americans set foot on the moon’s surface. This was the stuff that captivated kids growing up in the space age of the 1960’s.
But for this 11 year old boy, the moon landing, while historic as it was, was sandwiched between an even bigger story: the incredible journey of the 1969 Amazin’ Mets. After seven seasons of playing lovable losers, the Mets had found a magic formula of young, strong pitching, superb defense, timely hitting, the use of a platoon system making an average player seem like a superstar and, perhaps, a bit of divine intervention.
After a poor start like all of their other seasons, including losing on opening day to the expansion Montreal Expos, the Mets started to string together wins. For the first time in their history, going into July, they actually had won more games than they had lost and were in pursuit of the first place Chicago Cubs, who also were having an unexpectedly good season after years of ineptitude. There was a three game series in New York starting July 8, two afternoon games with a night game sandwiched in the middle. The Mets won on the 8th, setting up the night of July 9th. This was the night of the Mets’ Bar Mitzvah, Confirmation, and Quinceañera wrapped up into one.
On that night, 59,000 thousand fans, 3,000 over seating capacity, packed Shea Stadium to see the Mets play a game that really mattered. Some fans that couldn’t get in on this hot July night were seen climbing trees to get a look from beyond the left field fence. On this night, we watched a young Tom Seaver record out after out. I called my friend Jimmy to say “are you watching this?” Of course he was watching. This family even had a color set.
After the phone call, no one dare move from our den as my mother, father, grandmother and sister were glued to the Zenith. The crowd’s cheers kept getting louder and louder as the game progressed. The game entered the 9th inning, with the Mets having the lead and Seaver was still perfect – no hits allow, no walks, no errors, and no Cub baserunners. He got the first out in the top of the 9th, and then stepped in a Cub named Jimmy Qualls. The left handed batter lined a Seaver pitch to left center field to break up the perfect game. The fever-pitch crowd was stunned, a few booed, but then was followed by a chorus of applause reserved for the finest symphony conductor. Seaver got the final two outs in a game known as his “Imperfect Game.” But it was clear that the Mets had team that was actually capable of winning and the lovable losers moniker was shed.
The Cubs bounced back to win the next afternoon and for the next month, it seemed like the Mets had plateaued. The Cubs kept winning, and by mid August the Mets were 9 1/2 game behind the Cubs. That timeframe coincided with two events. One of those was in the Town of Bethel, New York, where a music festival was happening, Woodstock. Three days of peace, love and music. Heck, the New York State Thruway was closed. Luckily for us living on the east side of Hudson River, our Sunday August 17 trip to see the Mets against the expansion San Diego Padres didn’t close the Taconic Parkway. That date on the Mets calendar happened to be Banner Day, a tradition which started when the Mets occupied the Polo Grounds. Fans got to make signs and parade them around the field, and the best one got a prize.
On Saturday around the same time as the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival were playing at Yasgur’s Farm, I called up Jimmy and said let’s make a banner. We got an old white bed sheet out of my hall closet, took pictures out of the 1969 Mets yearbook, and stuck them on the four corners. For the text … well, let me state that it did say something, but 50 years later, I’m still embarrassed by our corny and grammatically challenged poem. But it did get us on the field.
Around the eighth inning of the first game of the double header, Jack Lightcap, the public address announcer at Shea, instructed all Banner Day participants to line up outside the stadium. So Jimmy and I, with banner in tow, went. Other Banner Day participants who were lined up near us were amused by the sight of two preteens with message that had a lot of heart but made absolutely no sense. We didn’t care. Bravely, we slowly moved forward around the fenced off area behind the stadium and got closer to the left hand turn we would make to reenter Shea. Finally we approached the back of the green center field fence. Above us was the batter’s eye where loudspeakers amplified Jane Jarvis’ organ medley. And then we were in, looking up at 40,000 people as we crossed the dirt warning track and approached the lush green grass. I recall that it actually smelled like grass, just like anyone’s backyard. Suddenly, we were walking on the same grass where Tommie Agee plays. Heck, Willie Mays has stood here.
This is a dream. We carried our signed towards the infield, passed by the pitcher’s mound where the judges sat to view the banners, continued by home plate, then took a left turn in front of the Mets’ dugout. Rod Gaspar had come out to watch. We finished our fantasy walk along dirt separating the grass from the yellow field level seats, and exited through the Mets’ bullpen. Did all this just happen? As for the Mets, they won both games of the doubleheader 3-2, and never looked back from that point. I think it was the banner or maybe that the Cubs self-destructed for the remainder of the season.
The miracle year continued, with the Mets defeating the Cubs at Shea in early September, aided by the curse of a black cat running in front of the Cubs dugout. The Mets moved into first place about a week later. This all lead to the night of September 24, 1969, clinching the National League east against the Cardinals at 9:07 p.m. While July 9 was their coming out party, I view September 24 as a Holy Day, a day to be revered and annually celebrate that evening of pure joy when fans rushed the field and players found out that champagne stings the eyes. The Mets would conclude the miracle by defeating the Braves in three game straight in the first ever National League Championship series and then defeating the highly favored Baltimore Orioles to make the Mets champions of baseball.
Last month at Citi Field, the Mets honored the 1969 team. There was Jerry Koosman and Jerry Grote, Ron Swoboda and Art Shamsky, Cleon Jones and Buddy Harrelson. Wayne Garrett, J.C. Martin, Bobby Pfeil, Jim McAndrew, Jack DiLauro, Duffy Dyer, Rod Gaspar, Dr. Ron Taylor and Ed Kranepool also were there. Kranepool, who recently had a kidney transplant, was chosen to speak to the crowd on behalf of the team, followed by an extremely well done video compilation of season and historical highlights from 1969 meshed into huge flashback. Sadly, Tom Seaver, who had earned his nickname as “The Franchise” on that July 9 night 50 years ago, could not attend as the pains of dementia have removed him from public life. Likewise, several other players could not attend for various health and personal reasons. And even more sadly, five players are no longer with us: Donn Clendenon, Tommie Agee, Ed Charles, Don Cardwell and Tug McGraw. And neither was their manager Gil Hodges, their strong but quiet leader, who has passed away prior to the start of the 1972 season. His wife Joan was their in his honor, and it’s my hope Gil finally gets his long overdue spot in baseball’s Hall of Fame next year while Joan is still around to see it.
With the remaining living players in their 70’s and 80’s, this was likely the last mass gathering of this team, who brought so much joy to so many people. That was a melancholy and sobering thought. We are all getting older and my baseball heroes are in their twilight of life. But at least for one day, it was nice to be 11 again and relive these wonderful memories of the 1969 Mets, New York’s greatest sports story.