PHOTO CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Anyone who has played pro baseball, been around a pro ball team, or is an avid fan knows that the season is long. It’s a grind. The regular season starts at the beginning of April and lasts until the beginning of October. A typical season might be about 180 days long. Over that time, Major League teams will play 162 games. Simple math will tell you that the teams and their players will have roughly two or three off days a month.
Yes, they’re playing a ‘game’, but it’s day after day, month after month, from the time the snow goes away until the time the days grow ever shorter, and the temperatures start to fall. It’s truly an endurance test. And if the teams are lucky – or very good – they will get to play in the postseason. That is the reward for excelling during the marathon of the regular season.
For a long time, in Major League Baseball, The American and National Leagues consisted of eight teams each. There were no divisions. There wasn’t really a postseason either. The teams at the tops of their respective leagues would simply walk into the World Series and face off against each other. By the second week of October, we saw a champion crowned. It was simple as that.
Until 1960, each league had just eight teams. In 1961, the American League grew to have ten teams. They welcomed the Minnesota Twins and the Los Angeles Angels. The National League followed in 1962, expanding to a group of ten, adding the New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s. Up until 1968, the first-place team in each league would advance immediately to the World Series.
In 1969, two more teams joined each league. In the American League, the new teams were the Seattle Pilots and the Kansas City Royals. The Royals replaced the Athletics in KC. The A’s had moved to Oakland before the 1968 season at the behest of their owner, Charles O. Finley. Over in the Senior Circuit, the San Diego Padres and the Montreal Expos, Major League Baseball’s first ‘foreign’ team, played their inaugural games.
The growth of the leagues necessitated the creation of divisions. Each of the A.L. and the N.L. now contained an Eastern and Western Division. Because of this, there would now be an extra round of playoffs – a ‘League Championship’ series – pitting the first-place teams in the East and West of each league against one another for the right to represent their group in the World Series.
In 1968, the Detroit Tigers, with Denny McLain winning 31 games while losing just six, dominated the Junior loop and they met the St. Louis Cardinals who had the incredible Bob Gibson, who posted an earned run average of just 1.12 while posting 22 victories, in the World Series. Gibson was so good – in fact, pitching was so dominant in 1968 – that the decision was made in baseball to lower the pitchers’ mound and reduce the size of the strike zone, in order to try to increase offense in the game.
Looking at teams that had contended over the previous few years, the A.L. champions in 1967, the Boston Red Sox, won 86 games in ’68, finishing 17 games behind the juggernaut Tigers. The Baltimore Orioles, who had swept the Dodgers in the 1966 Series, finished in second in ’68, but a distant twelve games behind Detroit. Going back to 1965, it was the surprising Minnesota Twins who represented the A.L.in the October Classic.
The Cardinals had taken the N.L. pennant for the second straight year in ‘68. The Dodgers, who had taken the National League in ’66 won just 76 games in the final year before divisional play. They were 21 back of St. Louis.
If one looked at the composite standings of the National League in the years from 1958 to 1968, the best team over that eleven-year span was the San Francisco Giants. The stood 24 ½ games ahead of the closest team, the L.A. Dodgers, and 33 games above the Cardinals. Despite their excellence, however, the Giants only managed to win one pennant – that was in 1962. They lost the World Series that year to the Mantle-Maris-Berra-led New York Yankees in seven games. In 1968, the Giants finished second once again, nine games back of the Cards.
With the leagues moving to divisional play in 1969, the hope in the Bay Area was that the Giants would step up and take what was rightfully theirs, a Western crown and a postseason berth. By the end of April, there had to be some significant optimism there as the Giants won 15 of their 21 games in April to sit as the best of the West. Hot on their heels though, just a game back, were the Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves.
The National League East was kind of a dog’s breakfast as, by the end of the first month, there were just two teams above .500. The Chicago Cubs were at the top of the division, two games ahead of the up-and-coming Pittsburgh Pirates. The Mets were in third with a record of 9-11. They had opened the season at home against the expansion Montreal club. The Expos won the wild opener, 11-10, at Shea Stadium.
In the Expos’ ninth game, Bill Stoneman blanked the Phillies, 7-0. Stoneman tossed a no-hitter in the game. Sadly, for this motley crew, that would be the highlight of their 1969 season. They would finish 52-110 and in the basement of the N.L. East.
Over in the American League East, the Baltimore Orioles were soaring above the rest of the division. They won 16 of 23 in April to lead their group. Behind them, a game separated four teams. The Red Sox sat 3 ½ games behind the O’s. The Yankees and Washington Senators were a half-game behind Boston. Detroit was 10-10, a half-game behind New York and the team from D.C. Cleveland was long gone, having won just two games in all of April.
In the West, the Twins, went 13-7 to lead the division. A game-and-a-half back of Minnesota was the Oakland A’s. The White Sox were at .500 and three back. Kansas City, Seattle and the California Angels rounded out the Western Division.
By the end of May, the Orioles were still atop the American League East, playing at an almost .700 clip. But the Red Sox were flying as well and still remained just three games back of the O’s. The Tigers separated themselves from the rest of the pack and sat six games back. The Yankees and Senators were now below .500 and were double digits behind the leader. Cleveland was pretty much ensconced in the basement.
The Twins were six games above level and in the lead in the West Division. Oakland was still a couple of games back. The rest of the West had more losses than wins after two months but all sat in the same order as they did at the end of April.
The Cubs continued to play well in the National League East. By the end of May, their lead over Pittsburgh was now 7 ½ games. The Mets were the best of the rest of the division. Those four clubs were all below .500. The poor Expos won just four games in the month and looked like a CPA running a marathon in Denver in the summer. They were flailing, out of breath and floundering.
The optimism that may have existed in San Francisco at the beginning of May was likely gone by the end of it. The Giants went 9-16 over the month and saw themselves in fourth place in the West. The Braves had moved up to the top of the group a game-and-a-half ahead of the Dodgers. The Cincinnati Reds were a couple of games back of Los Angeles. The Houston Astros and the Padres were looking up at everyone else.
There’s an old maxim that states that the teams that are in first place at the All-Star break will be at the tops of their respective divisions by the end of the season. Now, that is not an absolute. But in terms of probabilities, the teams that are in first place in mid-July do have a much better chance of staying there than other teams do of catching them.
Many people recognize July 20, 1969, as the day that man first set foot on the moon. Indeed, that was the day that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the lunar lander and placed their boots on to the surface of the moon. It was also the last night of baseball before the All-Star break that season. In terms of the divisional leaders, nothing had changed.
Baltimore was still playing at an incredible pace. It wasn’t quite the near-.700 clip they were playing at earlier, but they were still 34 games above .500 in the American League East. Their lead over Boston was now 11 games and Detroit was a half-game behind the Red Sox. In the West, it was Minnesota, Oakland, and the rest. The A’s were four games behind the Twins, but it felt like a larger chasm than that.
The Cubs were still at the top of the National League East but the teams behind them were shaking themselves out in a new way. The New York Mets – yes, THE METS, the team that had never finished a season higher than third-last in the league – had gone 32-16 in June and the beginning of July and now sat just five games behind the very good Cubs. Well back in the East were the Cardinals, Pirates, Phillies, and Expos.
The Atlanta Braves were still hanging on in first place in the N.L. West but tailing them very closely were the Dodgers and the Giants! The Braves’ lead was just a game over the two west coast teams. Cincinnati was three games back of those two. Houston was at .500 at 48-48 and sat seven back of Atlanta. The Padres were just better than their expansion cousins up in Montreal, but still in the cellar of their division.
As the teams headed into the All-Star break, a lot of the big boppers were in the American League. Reggie Jackson of the Oakland A’s led the majors with 37 home runs. Washington’s Frank Howard was next with 34. Big Willie McCovey of the Giants had 30 to lead the National League. Cincinnati’s Lee May had 29. There were six other players who had at least 20. Three in the A.L. and three in the N.L. Boston’s Rico Petrocelli had 25, Baltimore’s Boog Powell had 24 and Frank Robinson had 22. Atlanta’s Henry Aaron had 24, the Reds’ Tony Perez and Ron Santo of the Cubs each had 22.
Remember that the teams that went to the World Series in 1968 had been the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Their respective managers, Mayo Smith and Red Schoendienst, were marshalling the teams in this All-Star Game. The starting pitchers would be the Cardinals’ lefty, Steve Carlton and the Tigers’ ace, Denny McLain. Carlton had a 12-5 record with a 1.65 earned run average. McLain had a 14-5 record with a 2.50 ERA.
In fact, the rest of each pitching staff causes eyes to go wide. Besides Carlton and McLain, there was Tom Seaver, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson and Phil Niekro, Mickey Lolich, Mel Stottlemyre and John ‘Blue Moon’ Odom. There was a concern about the rainy weather in the Washington, D.C. area for this few days. One column remarked that the players might have to trade in their umbrellas and hip waders to play the game.
Going into this All-Star showdown, the National League had won every game from 1963-1968. The last three contests had all been decided by a single run, in favour of the Senior Circuit. They would make it seven straight and it wouldn’t be that close. Willie McCovey had a pair of homers. Johnny Bench had one and would have had another except he was robbed by the Red Sox’ Carl Yastrzemski of a second. Frank Howard and Bill Freehan homered for the Junior loop. In the end, the Nationals beat the Americans 9-3.
The game was supposed to be played on the Tuesday of the week but was pushed back a day by a violent thunderstorm. President Richard Nixon was also supposed to be at the game but left on Tuesday night for the west coast to meet the returning astronauts after their craft splashed down. Nonetheless, he eventually went on to bigger and more momentous things.
By mid-August, the Orioles were cruising in the American League East. They had built a 15 ½ game lead on the pack. They were followed by the Tigers, the Red Sox, the Yankees and the rest of your Eastern Division. In the A.L. West, it was still the Twins and Athletics doing their merengue atop the division. The Twins, of course, were leading – by two games.
In the National League East, the Cubs were thirty games over .500 and holding a nine-game lead over the Cardinals. The Mets were a half-game back of St. Louis. The Pirates, who had shown so much promise back in April, were still five games above sea level but in fourth place, 12 ½ games back.
Over in the West, the future red machine…(not yet the Big Red Machine)…were sitting precariously on top of the division. The Braves had fallen a game behind them. The Dodgers and Giants were each a half-game back of Atlanta. The Astros were just a half-game behind them. Looking at the battle of the expansion cousins, each of the Expos and Padres had lost 81 games. Montreal had won 38, and San Diego 35.
On September 7, the Mets, with a 22-year-old Nolan Ryan on the mound for the last three innings, came from behind to take a 9-3 decision over the sad-sack Phillies. That, coupled with a 7-5 Cubs loss to Pittsburgh in extra innings, put the Mets just 2 ½ games behind the division leaders. On that Sunday night, after all the games were done, the Cubs were flying into Laguardia to play a two-game series with the Mets.
What had, earlier in the season, looked like a cakewalk for the Cubs was now becoming tighter than anyone ever expected. Remember that this was the first ever season with divisions and Bowie Kuhn had come up with tie-breaker scenarios if teams finished with the same records at the top of any division. The hope was that they wouldn’t be needed, but in the event that they were necessary, a one-game playoff could be used to decide an eventual entrant into the league championship series.
On the Monday in Queens, New York, the pitchers would be Bill Hands for the Cubs and Jerry Koosman for the Mets. Each man would go all the way for their teams. Tommie Agee hammered a two-run homer in the third inning off Hands. In the top of the sixth, Koosman gave up a single to Don Kessinger and then another to Glenn Beckert. Billy Williams singled to score Kessinger and move Beckert to third. Ron Santo’s sacrifice fly plated Beckert. That made it a 2-2 game.
In the Mets’ half of the sixth, Agee doubled to lead off the inning. A Wayne Garrett single scored Agee to give the Mets back a lead they would never surrender. That Garrett single made the score 3-2 for the Mets. The game would end that way and the Cubs’ lead was now down to a game-and-a-half over these upstart Metropolitans.
As the season had progressed, Koosman saw his strikeout numbers drop. He was getting tired of being asked about it over and over. “I decided to find out the answer,” Koosman told reporters. “I looked at some stop-action photos of myself and I saw it right away. The position of my hand after releasing the ball was all wrong. I wasn’t getting the proper spin on the ball. Also, I saw that I was rushing my body, not giving myself a chance to get out in front. Thank goodness for cameras.”
Koosman struck out thirteen Cubs hitters in the win.
Meanwhile, two Reds’ wins over the Giants moved Cincinnati into first place, a half-game over San Francisco, a game-and-a-half over the Dodgers, two over the Braves and three-and-a-half over the Astros. Things were now getting exciting. September baseball will always be so meaningful. The next day would see a cat impose itself on the playoff picture…maybe forever. Oh, and the Mets had 21-game winning, so far, Tom Seaver going on Tuesday night against the Cubs. He would face the 19-game winner, Ferguson Jenkins.
In the top of the fourth inning, a moment occurred that, many suggest, changed the 1969 season. The Mets had already staked themselves to a 4-0 lead in the game. Shortstop Don Kessinger led the inning off for the Cubs. He looked at a called strike three. He was the tenth straight out recorded by Seaver.
Glenn Beckert then doubled to left centre. That sent Billy Williams to the plate. Third baseman Ron Santo was in the on deck circle. A black cat had walked on to the field and approached the Cubs’ dugout. Jim Flood was a Cubs’ batboy, and he was on the field at the same time as the cat. He had not yet seen the feline. Flood said, “Then I heard Santo go, ‘Oh man, we’re f***ed now.’ And that’s when I saw the cat.”
Apparently, after the grounds crew dragged the infield before the fourth inning, this black cat had come out from the entry way behind home plate. Eventually, it made its way toward the Cubs’ dugout. As Santo was watching the intruder, the cat was peering into the dugout and connecting eyes with Leo Durocher. It then ran away and disappeared underneath the stands along the third base line.
Why was there a cat at the stadium? Apparently, there were cats – plural. Shea Stadium had a mouse problem, and the cats were a form of security guard in that sense. Mets’ outfielder Art Shamsky was not unhappy with the turn of events.
“We’re all very superstitious, and it was just an incredible moment for us, for the city and for the country,” Shamsky told Peter Botte of the New York Post fifty years later. “Who knows? I don’t know if it had a direct effect on them (the Cubs) or not, all I know is it was really eerie, like somebody sent it. It was so freaky, but I’m sure glad it happened.”
Williams flied out. Santo then singled to centre, scoring Beckert. That was the Cubs’ only run. The Mets won 7-1 and moved to within a half-game of the Cubs. It was the sixth straight loss for the team from the Windy City. This was the worst point in the season for Chicago. Their longest losing stretch in all of 1969. The Mets had just won five games out of six. They had won 20 of their last 26. They were turning it on at exactly the right time.
The Mets had 22 games remaining. The Cubs had 19. The season would come down to the last three weeks. That same day, the Giants were dumping the Reds by a score of 7-4. Atlanta was defeating the Dodgers 2-1 in ten innings. San Francisco sat atop the N.L. West. Cincinnati was a half-game back. The Braves were a game behind them, and Los Angeles was a half-game back of Atlanta. Everything was getting incredibly tense.
For the Mets, it was their fourth straight victory. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were in the process of winning ten games in a row. Leo Durocher was the manager of the Cubs in 1968. He had directed his team to the lead in the N.L. East from the beginning of the season to this point in September. But now, there were people questioning his helmsmanship. Ron Santo was having none of that after the game.
“There’s not a better son-of-a-gun in baseball than that guy in the other room,” Santo told reporters after the game as he pointed toward the manager’s office. He’s a great manager and a great man. And we’ll win it because of that man.” Santo may have felt absolutely sincere about his words that day. His prediction would prove to fall flat.
The next day, the Mets had a double header with the Expos at Shea. The first game was one that had been rescheduled from July because of rain. After nine innings, the score was tied 2-2. After ten and eleven innings, the score was still even. Mike Wegener was amazing for Montreal pitching eleven innings and striking out fifteen Mets’ hitters. Bill Stoneman came on to pitch in the twelfth.
Stoneman got Tommie Agee to hit a fly ball to right that was caught. He then got Wayne Garrett on strikes. But then, Cleon Jones got a base hit to centre. Rod Gaspar came up and worked Stoneman for a base on balls. Ken Boswell came up and ended the game on a single that scored Jones. That win pulled the Mets even at the top of the division with the Cubs. That evening, the Mets and Expos would play the second game of their double dip. The Cubs would be in Philadelphia taking on the fifth-place Phillies.
At Connie Mack Stadium, in front of just over 4,000 fans, the Cubs and Phils were tied 2-2 after six innings. But a Philadelphia run in the bottom of the seventh gave the home team the lead. Three more runs in the eighth iced it. Meanwhile, back in Queens, in the nightcap, the Mets put up a six-spot in the bottom of the third as they cruised to a 7-1 win. As the night of September 10 became morning, the New York Metropolitans found themselves a game ahead of the Cubbies at the top of the N.L. East.
For the Mets and their fans, this was an opportunity – a brief one, mind you – for them all to look back to seven years ago to the day. The Mets were 35-105 on September 10, 1962. Now they were looking down at the teams in the National League East. On the Shea Stadium scoreboard, it read “Look who’s No. 1 now.” Below the header was the division standings, showing the Mets in first place. When asked by reporters what he was doing on that date in 1962, Ken Boswell had a great answer. “Let’s see….1962. Why, I was in the ninth grade then. And I can tell you, I wasn’t dreaming of the New York Mets or first place.”
On the afternoon of September 11, the Mets and Expos were closing out their three-game series at Shea. In the evening, the Cubs would be playing the Phillies to finish off their series. That day, Gary Gentry looked really good in tossing a complete game and striking out nine in a 4-0 shutout win over Montreal. After the sun went down, the Cubs got a run in the top of the ninth, but it only got them closer to a tie. They dropped a 4-3 decision to a bad Philadelphia team.
The Mets were up by two games now. In Chicago, it must have felt like they were twenty games back. The loss at Connie Mack was the Cubs’ eighth straight defeat. At Shea, New York had taken their seventh consecutive victory. On the Friday, the Mets were heading to Pittsburgh for four games in three days with a double header on September 12. Chicago would head down to St. Louis for three at Busch Stadium.
In the Chicago Tribune, writer Richard Dozer made reference to “Chicago’s flickering baseball hopes”. Remember that New York had blanked the Expos on Thursday. On the Friday afternoon, Jerry Koosman allowed just three Pirate hits in a 1-0 complete game win. That evening, it was Don Cardwell’s turn to stifle the Bucs. He went eight strong and Tug McGraw fired a blank ninth in another 1-0 win. In each game, it was the Mets’ pitcher who knocked the run in.
Down in St. Louis, Bill Hands put in a gritty nine-inning effort in a 5-1 Cubs win. For Hands, it was his career-high 17th victory of the season. That win kept them from falling farther behind the upstart team from Flushing. That said, they were still 2 ½ games behind the division leaders now, heading into the weekend.
If you were thinking that the National League East was the only real race in baseball, you would be mistaken. After the games on the Friday night, there were five teams within two-and-a-half games of each other over in the N.L. West. The Reds and Braves were tied atop the division. The Giants were a half-game behind them. The Dodgers were a game-and-a-half behind the leaders and Houston was a game behind Los Angeles.
By the end of Sunday though, the Braves lead over the division was a game-and-a-half. And the Reds had fallen two games behind Atlanta. The Dodgers and Giants were tied in second place. And Houston had fallen 5 ½ games behind the leaders. In the East, the Mets split their weekend games in Pittsburgh, but the Cubs dropped both games at Busch. They were now 3 ½ back of the Mets.
By September 24, the Mets had clinched the East Division with a 6-0 win over the Cardinals. The team that had been horrible since their inception was now being celebrated everywhere. A writer from the Associated Press called Casey Stengel, who had been the original manager of those miserable Mets, at his home in Glendale, California for comment.
“They can play! If they can still stay hot, they might win the whole thing,” Stengel said. When asked if he would head back to Shea for some playoff games, he responded, “Well, the club has been very good to me, paid me a nice salary all these four years and without even a contract. So, I believe I might get invited back. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a seat.”
New York mayor John Lindsay celebrated by sending a telegram to the mayor of Chicago, Richard Daly. It read, “We’ve all been upstaged today by the joyous clinching of the pennant by our amazing Mets. We’re number one. All politicians had better keep a close eye on Gil Hodges from Brooklyn – his constituency is nationwide, and he can really deliver – especially pennants.”
Mets’ manager Gil Hodges was one of the original members of the expansion team as his playing career was coming to an end. He was thinking of so many other people on this night. “It’s a great thing for the owners and the organization. I remember when the Mets won only 40 games. We’ve got ours (a division title) now and we’ll just have to wait and see about the West.”
One year and one day earlier, Hodges had suffered a heart attack. He did his best to stay calm and not get over hyped after this landmark victory. He was asked about his demeanour, and he laughed a bit. “It’s not that I’m not happy. I’m happy, I’m thrilled for them (his players). But I’m a little older than they are.”
In the American League, it was the Orioles and Twins that held on to their divisions from wire to wire. For Hodges, and everyone else who was wondering about the National League West, the Braves and Giants had been doing a dance together where one would be in first place and then the other. By September 25, Atlanta held a game-and-a-half lead over San Francisco. Cincinnati still held a slim chance at the division, but with seven games left, they were three games out. The Dodgers and Astros were eliminated by this point.
September 26 was a Friday. The Braves ambushed the San Diego Padres 10-4. Phil Niekro won his 22nd game of the season. Hoyt Wilhelm, the old knuckleballer, got the save. Taking the loss for the Padres was Phil’s brother Joe. It was just a knucklers’ paradise that night in Georgia. Meanwhile, at Chavez Ravine, the Giants edged the Dodgers 2-1 behind Gaylord Perry’s 18th win of the year. Atlanta’s lead over San Francisco was stagnant at a game-and-a-half.
After the game, Phil had a difficult time expressing any joy. Phil’s teammate, Orlando Cepeda had hammered a grand slam off Joe in the game and he described the hit and the game as “a wonderful feeling”. When asked his own level of happiness, Phil described it as “not as pleasing as it should be”. Phil felt badly for Joe, knowing how Joe had nothing but good hopes for him. “It was the hardest game he ever had to pitch,” Phil told members of the press. “He wants us to win the pennant as bad as we do. He was in one hell of a bad spot.”
On Saturday afternoon, Atlanta doubled the Padres 4-2. In Los Angeles, the Giants and Dodgers went into extra innings. In the bottom of the eleventh, after Manny Mota hit a one-out single and Willie Davis singled to move Mota to second, Len Gabrielson singled to score Mota and move the Giants another game away from the Braves.
Atlanta had three games left in their season. San Francisco had four, but they were now 2 ½ games back. They now pretty much had to win out. On the final Sunday of the season, the Braves did them no favours by again defeating San Diego 4-2. The Giants did what they had to do as an under-the-weather Juan Marichal notched his 21st win of the year in an 8-1 drubbing of the Dodgers.
After play on this day, the Braves maintained their 2 ½ game lead. San Francisco was not eliminated yet, but Atlanta was assured of at least a tie, even if they lost their last two games. The Giants manager, Clyde King, spoke glowingly of his ace pitcher after the game. “Marichal is a real courageous pitcher to have worked a complete game, feeling the way he did.” He was feeling the effects of a flu virus and was running a fever.
“As a result, we’re still in there,” King said. “We may be hanging by a hair, but we’re not out of it yet. It’s not impossible. It’s happened before.”
For his part, Marichal said he had no gas left in the tank by the end of the game. “Any time you win, it feels good. I was so tired at the end of the game, my arm felt like it was down to the floor. I felt so weak, I couldn’t throw my curve ball because I didn’t have the strength to turn it over.”
Neither team played on the Monday, but on Tuesday, September 30, the West was won.
The Atlanta Braves faced a 2-1 deficit in the bottom of the seventh inning. But an RBI single by Tony Gonzalez that drove Ralph Garr home and a run-scoring single by Rico Carty that brought Felix Millan across the plate gave the Braves enough to defeat the Cincinnati Reds 3-2 to clinch the inaugural National League West Division title.
Phil Niekro was on the mound again for Atlanta and he claimed his 23rd victory of the year. Henry Aaron had been with the Milwaukee Braves when they won pennants in 1957 and 1958. He had a little something for the people who doubted this Atlanta team. “People said that we didn’t have a chance, but I think we showed them that we had.”
Phil Niekro didn’t want to talk about what happened that night. He was looking forward to the next task. “We’ve got to go and get ready for the Mets now. I think the big thing is that we won when we had to.” This new divisional formation was something that everyone had to get used to. Clete Boyer stood back and surveyed the victory party and told Jim Walser of The Greenville News, “You know, we could have finished fifth just as easily as we finished first. But just winning this division is like being in the World Series now with this new setup.”
Boyer pointed to the addition of one man to this Braves team as the difference maker. Hoyt Wilhelm had been acquired by Atlanta in a trade with the California Angels earlier in 1969. He was one of those who helped get the team over the finish line. “If we would have had another Wilhelm,” Boyer said, “we could have won this thing by ten or twelve games. Wilhelm really helped us out.” Boyer also had compliments for Rico Carty as well. “Carty caught a couple of balls in the outfield that I didn’t think he could come up with. And his bat made the difference these past three weeks.”
According to Walser, there were a couple of thousand people outside the Braves clubhouse door which prevented anyone from leaving. But the way they were partying and enjoying the feeling of victory, how many of them really wanted to get out of there anyway?
Up north, in Queens, the Mets now knew which team they had to prepare for. And manager Gil Hodges reserved most of his concern for one man – Henry Aaron. “He’s the one that makes it go for them,” Hodges told Dick Young of the New York Daily News. “You can’t let that man beat you. No matter who is batting behind him, you have to pitch around Henry in the clutch, and take your chances.” That meant that Hodges would rather take his chances by pitching to Orlando Cepeda and Rico Carty.
If there was one player in the Mets’ lineup that the Braves might have wanted to concern themselves with, that would have been Cleon Jones. 1969 was the only year that Jones was named to the All-Star team. Also, he hit well against the Braves in that season. In 32 at-bats, Braves pitchers did hold him to just a single home run over the course of the year. But he did bat .344 against Atlanta, and perhaps more importantly, he drove in fifteen runs! Keep that in mind going forward.
Conventional wisdom might have looked at these two teams and figured that this best-of-five series would be about pitching. Atlanta had a 23-game winner in Phil Niekro and an 18-game winner in Ron Reed. After that Pat Jarvis and George Stone each won 13. The Mets had ‘Tom Terrific’, Tom Seaver. Seaver won 25 games in 1969. Jerry Koosman went 17-9. Gary Gentry won 13 games. Their closer was Ron Taylor, but Tug McGraw could also fill that role when called upon. Oh, and there was a 22-year-old named Nolan Ryan who could throw smoke out of the bullpen as well.
The last day of the season was October 2, 1969. The very first set of League Championship Series would start in Atlanta and Baltimore on October 4, a Saturday. In the American League, the Orioles would sweep the Twins in three games. And, lest you think the series was any kind of whitewash, it took extra innings in the first two games for Baltimore to get past Minnesota. Game Three in the Twin Cities was won easily by the O’s 11-2.
The first game of the National League Championship Series was a see-saw battle. Each team had their ace going on this fine afternoon. It was Tom Seaver for the Mets and Phil Niekro for the Braves. By the end of the seventh inning, the score was 5-4 for Atlanta, but there had been four lead changes to that point and each team had led twice in the game. The top of the eighth was the decider.
Phil Niekro was still in the game for Atlanta and the first batter he faced was Wayne Garrett. Garrett doubled to left. Cleon Jones then singled to score Garrett. Art Shamsky was the next man up. He singled, moving Jones to second. Shamsky was not the fleetest of foot so, Al Weis came in to run for him. Ken Boswell was up next. Hodges asked Boswell to bunt, but Boswell couldn’t make contact. Jones, on second, left the bag and created a pivotal moment in the game.
“The bunt was on,” Jones told Wayne Minshew of the Atlanta Constitution, “and I was cheating a little bit. So, when Boswell couldn’t bunt, I’m standing there wanting him (Bob Didier, the Atlanta catcher) to throw to second base. If he does, I know I can make it to third. If Didier had run at me instead of throwing, I’m dead. He would have made me commit myself.”
Indeed, Didier did throw the ball to second and Jones made it safely to third. So now, Weis is at first and Jones is at third. Boswell hit a ground ball to Cepeda at first. Jones took off for home. Cepeda threw but he bounced it into Didier, and he couldn’t handle it. Jones scored and gave the Mets a lead they would not surrender.
“Cepeda had me,” Jones told Minshew, “but he hurried his throw. I wasn’t running hard because the ball was hit right at him, and I thought I’d have to get in a rundown play so the other runners could move up.” Cepeda tried to be too perfect on the play. “I try to make too sure on my throw,” Cepeda told Wilt Browning, also of the Atlanta Constitution. “But it seems like things go that way when we play the Mets. They don’t do anything wrong.”
When someone mentioned to Jones that he had stolen the game with the way he ran the bases, Jones was emphatic. “Nope. Gil Hodges did. He put on the play.”
The final score was Mets 9, Braves 5. New York was ahead in their best-of-five series, one game to none over the Braves. Game Two would be the next night at Atlanta Stadium. Where the first game went back and forth, this one was almost over by the time the fourth inning was done. In fact, by the middle of the fifth, it was 9-1 for New York. Ron Reed started the game for Atlanta and couldn’t make it out of the second. The Braves used six pitchers in the game and the final score was 11-6 for the boys from Queens.
The Mets now led the series 2-0 and were heading home to Shea Stadium for the third game.
The starting pitchers for this crucial game were Pat Jarvis for Atlanta and Gary Gentry for New York. For the men on the mound in Game Three, it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. The first half of this game would be a wild, offensive, back-and-forth affair. Then, it suddenly became a showcase for the pitchers.
Gentry’s first inning was rough. The first Braves’ hitter was Felix Millan. He flew out to Shamsky in right. But then Tony Gonzalez singled to left. The third batter was the much-feared Henry Aaron. He justified Hodges’ pre-series concerns. He lofted a Gentry pitch beyond the outfield wall and gave Atlanta an early 2-0 lead. Gentry got Rico Carty to ground out to the shortstop, Bud Harrelson. But then, Orlando Cepeda doubled to left. Finally, Gentry induced Clete Boyer to ground out to the third baseman Garrett.
In the bottom of the second, things looked good for the Mets when Tommie Agee doubled to lead off the inning. But then, Garrett smashed a line drive to shortstop Gil Garrido. He turned and tossed to Millan to double up Agee. Suddenly, there were two outs, and the bases were empty. But Cleon Jones singled to give the Mets and their fans some hop to cut into this early Braves’ lead. Sadly, for all, Art Shamsky went down on strikes and Jarvis had quelled the threat.
In the Atlanta second, Gentry pitched around a Gil Garrido walk to retire the visitors without any damage. Jarvis did the same in the bottom of the second. He allowed a Ken Boswell single to lead the inning off but then he retired Ed Kranepool on a liner to Aaron in right, he got catcher Jerry Grote on strikes, and he got Harrelson to ground out to Garrido to end the inning.
The top of third proved to be the undoing of Gary Gentry. Tony Gonzalez led things off with a single to right. Hammerin’ Hank was up next, and he pounded a double to left which advanced Gonzalez to third. Hodges wanted to end this series in this game and so he went to the pen and called upon the young fireballer, Nolan Ryan.
The 22-year-old looked good. He got Rico Carty on strikes, then he intentionally walked Cepeda. Clete Boyer came up next. He looked at strike three and walked back to his dugout. The catcher, Bob Didier came up and he promptly flew out to left to end the inning. Ryan had done his job in the third. Could his teammates help him out in the bottom of the inning?
Jarvis was dealing. Ryan came to the plate to bat for himself. He swung and missed on strike three. And went back to get his glove and focus on the next inning. The top of the order in Agee was up next. Jarvis made a mistake and Agee made him pay. When the ball landed in a delirious fan’s hands, Agee was rounding the bases to put the Mets on the board. Jarvis shook that off to get Garrett and Cleon Jones out, both on strikes.
After three complete innings, the Braves led 2-1. In the top of the fourth, Ryan came back out and worked. Efficiently. He got Garrido to fly out to Agee in centre, he got Jarvis on strikes, and he got the lead-off man Millan to ground out to Harrelson at short. On to the bottom of the fourth.
It would be the 4-5-6 hitters for the Mets against Jarvis in the home side’s fourth inning. Art Shamsky got aboard on a single to right. That brought up the second baseman, Ken Boswell. He saw a pitch from Jarvis that he liked, and he deposited it beyond the wall for a two-run shot, and the Mets were in the lead for the first time in this game, by a score of 3-2. Ed Kranepool then slammed a ball to right off Jarvis. Kranepool was not the fastest guy on either team. He tried to turn a double into a triple and was thrown out at third, 9-4-5. After that, Jarvis regrouped and got Grote on strikes and Harrelson on a grounder.
But the damage was done, and the Mets were up 3-2 after four.
Ryan was feeling good as he entered the Braves’ half of the fifth. The first batter was Tony Gonzalez. Ryan got him to hit a ground ball to Kranepool at first for an easy out. The next man up would be a test. It was Henry Aaron. But Ryan got him to pop up to Boswell at second. But then Rico Carty worked him for a walk. Orlando Cepeda was next for Lum Harris’ Braves. He got a pitch that he could extend on, and he hit it to a place where no Met could catch it. Only a fan could. Cepeda’s blast gave Atlanta the lead again. Clete Boyer’s fly ball to Agee ended the inning, but it was back to work for the Mets’ bats.
Between innings, people wondered what Hodges wanted to do with his pitcher’s spot leading off the Mets’ fifth. Those questions were answered when Ryan strolled to the plate. Ryan’s batting average in 1969 was .103. But he swung at a Jarvis pitch and placed it into right for a single. Ryan donned his blue Mets’ jacket as he was standing on first and Tommie Agee walked up to face Jarvis.
Agee smashed a Jarvis pitch into left but it landed in Rico Carty’s glove for the out. That brought Wayne Garrett to the plate. Garrett didn’t wait long to swing his bat. He let go on Jarvis’ first pitch and pounded it deep into right field, just to the right of Shea Stadium’s auxiliary scoreboard and into the seats for a round-tripper. The two runs made it 5-4 for the Mets. All eyes were on the Braves’ dugout. Would Harris now take Jarvis out? Nope.
He left him in to face Cleon Jones. Jones followed Garrett’s big hit with a double of his own to right field. Now the Braves’ manager had seen enough. In came George Stone to try to get out of the inning. There was one out in the inning and Jones was on second. The first hitter was Art Shamsky. Stone got him to hit a ground ball to the right side. He was retired 3-1, but Jones moved up ninety feet to third.
Ken Boswell was the next hitter. He managed to hit a Stone pitch into right to plate Jones and give his team a two-run lead. Ed Kranepool lined a pitch from Stone right at Cepeda at first to end the inning. But what an inning it was for these Miracle Mets. They now had a 6-4 lead and twelve Braves’ outs left to try to record to move on to the World Series.
Given that the Mets sent seven men up to the plate in their half of the fifth, and the pitching change from Jarvis to Stone, plenty of time had elapsed between the moment Ryan was last on the hill in the top of the fifth and this sixth. Would the long inning have any effect on the young pitcher? Ryan answered any of those questions quickly. Catcher Bob Didier hit a Ryan pitch right back to the flamethrower, and his toss to Kranepool notched the first out of the inning. Ryan then got Garrido to hit a grounder to his shortstop counterpart, Harrelson, for the second out. Harris sent Stone out to hit for himself in the sixth and Ryan got him looking at strike three.
Stone would be facing the bottom third of the Mets’ order in the sixth. Catcher Jerry Grote was up first. He started things off with a double to right. Bud Harrelson then moved Grote over to third with a sacrifice bunt to the right side. There was one out and Grote on third and Nolan Ryan coming up to hit. Harris opted to take Stone out and replace him with one of their closers, Cecil Upshaw. Upshaw got Ryan to hit a ground ball to Boyer at third, who looked Grote back before gunning the ball to first for the second out.
That brought Agee to the plate. He hit a ball that landed in left field for a single and Grote scored another insurance run. It was now 7-4 for the team that had come from absolutely nowhere to now be on the precipice of going to the October Classic. Upshaw got Garrett to pop up to Didier in foul territory. The task at hand now was for the Mets to get nine more outs.
For Ryan, he’d be facing the top third of the Atlanta order. Millan, Gonzalez and Henry Aaron. Millan made good contact on a Ryan fastball and lined it into left but Jones was able to flag it down for the first out. Ryan then got Gonzalez to swing and miss on strike three. His fastball was moving, and he got Aaron to pop up to Harrelson for the final out in the seventh.
Upshaw got around an error by Millan that allowed Shamsky to get on base in the seventh to retire the meat of the Mets’ order and move on to the eighth. Ryan gave up a lead-off single to Rico Carty in the top of the inning, but then he got Cepeda and Boyer, both looking at strike three. The catcher, Bob Didier, was scheduled to bat next, but now Harris was pulling out all stops and he sent Mike Lum to pinch hit for his receiver.
Lum managed to single, moving Carty to second, with two out. Gil Garrido was the next batter. Harris called him back and he sent Felipe Alou to hit for him. Alou hit a line drive, but it landed in the glove of Bud Harrelson for the final out of the eighth.
In the Mets’ eighth inning, the bottom third of the order was set to bat. Upshaw struck out Grote and got Harrelson to ground out to Millan at second. That brought Ryan up again. He got his bat on an Upshaw delivery and sent it to centre for his second single of the day! After Upshaw got Agee to swing and miss strike three, the inning was over, and Atlanta was down to their final chance at getting back into this game and this series.
Cecil Upshaw was scheduled to lead off for the Braves in the bottom of the ninth. Harris sent Bob Aspromonte in to pinch hit for the reliever. Ryan kept Aspromonte in the park with a ball that was lofted into centre field. Agee was able to gather it in for the first out. Millan then grounded out to Harrelson for out number two. The next man up was Tony Gonzalez. He hit a ball on the ground to third. Wayne Garrett gathered it up and fired it over to Kranepool for the final out of the game.
There were 53,193 fans at Shea Stadium that day. They were absolutely delirious. Many of them stormed the field. Someone took first base. Someone else took second. Another person took third – in fact, third base was gone even before Kranepool caught the ball for the final out. Home plate was the last to go. The people who invaded the field wanted souvenirs. Some, in fact, many, took strips of turf from the infield. And the outfield.
Many of the fans took time to write their names on the outfield walls. They added the words ‘Mets Power!’ to everything they wrote. These were fans who, in 1962, would have been happy if a Mets’ hitter drew a walk. On this day in 1969, as this game got into the later innings and the certainty of a New York victory appeared more realistic, the thousands in attendance began chanting “We want blood!”
One cynical fan, who was doubtless old enough to remember when both the Dodgers and Giants moved to the west coast, commented to a reporter, “The Mets are getting so good, I hear they are thinking of moving them to California.”
There was more than one hero on this day for the Mets. Ken Boswell had a homer and a single and drove three runs in for New York. He saw that the Braves weren’t going to give up, so he and his mates had to keep pushing. “They kept trying, trying to get up the momentum, but our homers just tore it down for them.”
Gary Gentry lasted only a couple of innings, but Nolan Ryan picked up the slack and just carried his team home. “It just shows that if the big boys, the starters, get knocked out, we’re not through. The bullpen can come through. I never had any doubts during the game. I knew I had to throw the fastball. The last time I pitched so well in a title game was in high school.”
Manager Gil Hodges was thrilled with this victory. “This meant more to me than the division title because this is the pennant. The turning point was when Ryan came in and stopped them without a run. I thought if it came down to hitting, we’d be the underdogs.”
But perhaps Cleon Jones summed it up as far as the feelings of this Mets team. “We’re the greatest team in the world right now. Nobody can stop us…Atlanta, Baltimore, nobody. We’re gonna win it all!”
So, this team that once were misfits was now headed to the World Series. Their opponent would be those Baltimore Orioles, who swept the Minnesota Twins in the American League Championship Series. Oddsmakers installed the Orioles as 8-5 favourites in the Series. Earl Weaver was the O’s manager and he and his players and coaches remembered back to the 1966 Series in which they swept the vaunted Los Angeles Dodgers who had pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
One of Weaver’s coaches, Billy Hunter, was blunt in his assessment of the upcoming best-of-seven series with the National League champions. “We are going to sweep the Mets.” In the city of Baltimore, the embarrassment of Super Bowl III was still quite raw. In that game, the American Football League’s upstart New York Jets upset the heavily favoured Baltimore Colts 16-3.
In a United Press International article preceding the Series, “the unanimous feeling was that the Baltimore Colts’ Super Bowl loss to the New York Jets will remain a bad dream.” The Orioles had Mike Cuellar going in the first game. Cuellar had won 23 games in 1969. Dave McNally won 20 himself. Jim Palmer notched 16 victories and Tom Phoebus laid claim to 14 as well. Eddie Watt and Pete Richert were the designated closers for Baltimore.
The World Series would get underway on the Saturday afternoon of October 11.
Given the proximity of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., there were rumours that the President, Richard Nixon, might be at Memorial Stadium to watch the first game between the hometown Orioles and the team that an Associated Press piece called ‘Destiny’s Darlings’. Alas Nixon didn’t show up, but his wife, Pat, was there along with their two daughters and a son-in-law, David Eisenhower. They sat in the front row in a box right beside the Orioles’ dugout with baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
The Mets came up in the top of the first and Cuellar allowed a two-out single to Cleon Jones but that was it. Tom Seaver, the Mets’ 25-game winner, came out to face Don Buford, the Orioles leadoff hitter. Buford greeted Tom Terrific by hammering Seaver’s second pitch to deep right field. Ron Swoboda chased it and thought he had a chance at catching it, but it eluded his glove and cleared the wall and almost immediately, Baltimore was out ahead of the Mets.
“The ball I hit was a fastball that I thought maybe the wind held up,” said Buford after the game. “It was about belt high.”
In the O’s fourth, Seaver got Boog Powell and Brooks Robinson right away. But catcher Elrod Hendricks singled and second baseman Davey Johnson walked and just like that, Seaver was in a pickle. Matchstick shortstop Mark Belanger singled to right scoring Hendricks. That brought Mike Cuellar to the plate. He got bat on ball, and it landed ever-so-softly in right-centre field. That scored Johnson. Then Buford came up and doubled down the right field line scoring Belanger. That gave Baltimore a comfortable 4-0 lead. It would end 4-1 for the home team. Not pretty for the visitors.
Mets’ first baseman Donn Clendenon, who doubled and singled off Cuellar, stood up after the game and spoke for himself and his teammates. “First of all, let’s get one thing straight, he (Cuellar) pitched a great game. But all of us came out of the game knowing we’re gonna beat ‘em.” As Clendenon was saying that, Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee, who were sitting next to the big first baseman, nodded in agreement.
Clendenon continued. “Before the ball game started, we were all a little leery of them. A lot of us were, me included. You know, we’d read all that baloney in the papers about how good they were. I’m not taking anything away from them, but we know we can beat ‘em now. It’s hard to explain, but this game, this one game, gave us more confidence.”
Seaver was honest about the way he played, but he kind of echoed what Clendenon had said. “I didn’t pitch well. Don Buford? I thought that was the way to pitch to him. I guess not. He hit ‘em right on the nose. Both of ‘em.” But then he added, “One ball game doesn’t mean that much. We’ve come back all year long.”
Ron Swoboda toed the party line when someone asked him what he thought the Mets’ chances were after this loss. “Oh, hell, man. This is a long series. This isn’t like that three-out-of-five series with Atlanta.”
Orioles’ third baseman Brooks Robinson got his hands on six ground balls in the game and afterward, the Mets had only glowing things to say about the all-world infielder. “I’ve heard so much about him,” Cleon Jones said. “Ron Santo always rated high on my list, but this guy has to be better. Everybody says he is.” The Mets’ Ed Charles was similarly awed. “He’s fantastic. I saw him five years in the American League. Some of these guys never saw him. They were surprised. I knew what he could do. He’s the best third baseman I’ve ever seen.”
Game Two would take place back at beautiful Memorial Stadium in Baltimore the next afternoon. It would be Jerry Koosman on the hill for the Mets and Dave McNally for the Orioles. This would be one of those pitching duels, that, because it took place in the World Series, would be held up as something special. McNally was good in this game. Koosman was great!
The first hit of the game didn’t take place until the top of the third inning. The Mets’ Al Weis led the inning off with a single. But Koosman was the next man up and he went down on strikes. The leadoff man, Tommie Agee, hit a ground ball to Mark Belanger at short who tossed the ball to Davey Johnson at second to force Weis on the fielders’ choice.
McNally would walk Bud Harrelson but retired Cleon Jones on a line drive to Don Buford along the left field line. The jam was distinguished.
In the top of the fourth, Donn Clendenon led off the inning and greeted McNally with a massive shot to deep right field. Clendenon’s home run put the Mets on the board. But Ron Swoboda followed the Mets’ first baseman and struck out. Ed Charles and Jerry Grote were both retired on ground balls to the infield. After that, neither team could get a man on base until the top of the seventh.
Ed Charles’ one-out double was followed by McNally’s two-out intentional walk of Al Weis. But when Koosman grounded out to Johnson to end the inning, any Met threat was averted. The score, in the middle of the seventh inning of Game Two, was still 1-0 for the visitors. To this point in the game, the Orioles had been held hitless by Jerry Koosman.
That drought would end abruptly.
Paul Blair was the first man up in the bottom of the seventh inning. He singled to left field to break Koosman’s no-hitter. Cleon Jones got the ball back into the infield immediately. The next man up was Frank Robinson. His level swing pounded a Koosman pitch out to Agee who caught it for the first out of the inning. That brought Boog Powell up. He popped up to Harrelson at short.
Two out. Brooks Robinson was the next man up. Right away, first pitch, Blair took off for second. He was safe with a stolen base. Then, Brooks hit a ball that landed in centre field and managed to score the speedy Blair. The no-hitter was now a distant memory. And the game was now tied. Davey Johnson ended the inning by hitting a ground ball to Charles at third who fired over to second for the force out to end the seventh.
Neither team could get a man on in the eighth. In the top of the ninth, the Mets were sending up the middle third of their order – Clendenon, Swoboda and Charles. McNally got the leadoff man on strikes, and he induced a feeble ground ball to Powell at first from Swoboda for the second out. But Ed Charles managed to get a base hit to left. Catcher Jerry Grote singled as well, to send Charles to third. Al Weis, the Mets’ eighth-place hitter, got a high slider that he liked and lined it to left, scoring Charles, and restoring the visitors’ one-run advantage. Koosman grounded out to end the inning.
There was one job left for the Mets’ lefthander. Get three more outs. He would face the top of the Orioles’ order – Buford, Blair and Frank Robinson. Koosman got Buford to loft a fly ball to short right field. Swoboda came in and corralled it for out number one. He got Blair to hit a ground ball to Harrelson that he played perfectly for the second out.
But then, Koosman walked Robinson. Immediately, Earl Weaver sent Merv Rettenmund out to run for the great outfielder. Boog Powell was next up. He earned a base on balls as well. Gil Hodges had seen enough of Koosman on the day, despite his stellar day. He brought in Torontonian Ron Taylor to try to finish this game off.
Taylor would face third baseman Brooks Robinson. First pitch – ball. Second pitch – ball. Third pitch – called strike. Fourth pitch – ball. Fifth pitch – foul ball. The Memorial Stadium fans were feeling it! They were in a state of pandemonium, expecting the situation to erupt. Brooksie hammered the 3-2 pitch toward third. Rettenmund was off and running on the pitch.
Charles scooped up the liner and started toward the bag to try to get the force on Rettenmund, but then he thought better of it and fired the ball toward Clendenon at first. When he caught the ball for the final out, the Mets’ players just flew out of their dugout to celebrate around Taylor.
It was the first-ever World Series win for the Mets. It was also the first ever World Series loss for this group of Orioles.
Monday, October 13, 1969, was a travel day for the teams. They would face each other at Shea Stadium on Tuesday afternoon. It would be Jim Palmer for the Orioles against Gary Gentry for the Mets. Gentry lasted just a couple of innings in the last game of the National League Championship Series. He was relieved in a masterful way by Nolan Ryan as the Mets won the game and clinched the right to advance to the World Series. There had to be trepidation in the hearts of Mets’ fans. The wait between Sunday in Baltimore and Tuesday in Queens would feel like a lifetime.
NBC had been given the rights to carrying the World Series and they had to be thrilled with the numbers they had been getting thus far. It seemed that Mets-Mania was not just confined to the boroughs of New York. The country appeared to have become lured in by the story. Neilsen ratings of the two ball games on the weekend gave the World Series games a 25.2 share while the Rams-49ers game had just a 6.1 share.
One spokesperson for NBC told reporters that, “If the series between the Mets and Orioles goes to seven games, with the final game next Sunday (October 19), we expect to have 90 million people watching. It would be the biggest sports audience ever!” Let’s get to the third game of the series first.
The weather in Baltimore had been beautiful and sunny. As the teams worked out on the off day, Monday, they did so under a cover of grey clouds. Tuesday was said to be bringing with it a “chance” of rain. Gil Hodges said that if there was rain that postponed the game, he would shelve Gary Gentry and go back to Tom Seaver the next day. Earl Weaver said he would be going with Jim Palmer whether there was rain or not.
Alas, there was no rain, and the game would proceed on Tuesday afternoon as scheduled.
More than 56,000 people jammed themselves into Shea Stadium for the first ever World Series game played there. Gentry lasted just two innings against Atlanta in Game Three of the NLCS. He pitched around a two-out walk to Frank Robinson and got Boog Powell to ground out to Ken Boswell at second to get out of the first inning unscathed.
In the American League Championship Series, Palmer pitched for the Orioles in the clinching third game of the set. Baltimore defeated the Minnesota Twins 11-2. Palmer tossed a complete game for the win and allowed just two runs in going all the way. He walked just two Twins’ batters but allowed ten hits in the contest.
The first Mets’ hitter he faced in Game Three was Tommie Agee. When Agee’s at-bat was completed, the Mets held a 1-0 lead. The ball Agee hit went deep to centre field and cleared the fence. Palmer then retired Wayne Garrett, Cleon Jones, and Art Shamsky, but the balls that Jones and Shamsky hit off Palmer were both hit hard and deep to right field before being caught by Frank Robinson.
Most importantly for Gentry, he was now pitching from ahead – and he looked like it. The right hander got Brooks Robinson, Elrod Hendricks, and Davey Johnson in order in the top of the second. What he also did was he quickly got his team back to the plate so they could have the opportunity to do more damage offensively. And Gentry would end up having the chance to help himself in the Mets’ second inning.
Palmer managed to retire Ken Boswell and Ed Kranepool but then he walked the catcher, Jerry Grote. That brought Bud Harrelson up and he scratched out a single that moved Grote up to second. Harrelson was the eighth-place hitter. Gentry was next up. He hit a Palmer pitch that split the outfielders in left and centre field. It also drove in both Grote and Harrelson. The man who just doubled now had a 3-0 lead. Agee grounded out to Brooks Robinson to end the inning.
By now, Gentry was filled with confidence, and he got the 8-9-1 Orioles batters. Mark Belanger grounded out to his Mets’ counterpart at shortstop, Harrelson, for the first out. Jim Palmer popped up on the first base side. Kranepool got under that one. Don Buford popped up into foul territory on the left side. Harrelson ran that one down for the final out of the inning.
The Mets got nothing in their half of the third. But in the top of the fourth, the Orioles got something going. Gentry caught Paul Blair looking at strike three. But then Frank Robinson singled to left. Boog Powell knocked a Gentry pitch out to right field and advanced Robinson to third as the big man stood on first. So, with runners on the corners and Brooks Robinson up with just one out, there was some pressure. Gentry got Brooksie to swing and miss on strike three.
Now it was time for the catcher, Ellie Hendricks. He lofted a ball to the wall in left centre. But Tommie Agee got a good jump on it and got the ball in the webbing of his glove just before running into the wall. It was a great catch and a pivotal play in the game. Gil Hodges, who had played for the champion 1955 Dodgers, and been around the game for a while, compared it to some great catches of the past.
“It was better than Gionfriddo’s and as good as Amoros’,” Hodges told the press after the game. For context, Al Gionfriddo made a great catch on a Joe DiMaggio drive in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the 1947 World Series. The Yankees had runners on first and second with two out and Gionfriddo took a twisting, turning route to the ball and caught it over his shoulder just short of the wall, 415 feet away from the plate, in centre field to end the threat.
In Game Seven of the 1955 World Series, with one out and two men on, the left-handed hitting Yogi Berra was up in the sixth inning. Amoros, in left field, was playing Berra to pull so he was a long way away from the foul line. Berra waited on a Johnny Podres pitch and hit it down the left field line. Amoros had to cover a lot of ground, but he caught the ball just before getting to the wall along the left field line. He had the presence of mind to gun the ball back to first to double the Yankee runner off and end the inning. The Dodgers would go on to win the Series.
Palmer was still working as the Mets came to the plate in the sixth. The first batter was Ken Boswell. He singled. Ed Kranepool then grounded out to the right side. But that allowed Boswell to move into scoring position. It was Grote’s turn to bat. He hammered a ball that traveled down the left field line. He ended up at second with a double and Boswell ended up scoring the Mets’ fourth run of the ball game. Palmer got Harrelson and Gentry on strikes, but the Orioles were now in a 4-0 hole.
The top of the seventh came and the Orioles made a valiant attempt to make this game dramatic. Hendricks and Johnson were the first two Baltimore batters. They both hit fly balls to Tommie Agee that were caught for outs. But then, Gentry walked Mark Belanger, Dave May, who was pinch-hitting for Jim Palmer, and Don Buford. The O’s had the bases loaded for their best scoring chance of the game.
Hodges came out and took the ball from Gentry. He handed it to the 22-year-old Nolan Ryan. Ryan had been the hero of the series clinching game against the Braves. He would face the second-place hitter for Baltimore, Paul Blair. The wind was blowing from left field toward right. Blair was slightly late on a Ryan pitch but got his barrel on it. The ball flew deep into right-centre. Agee had to travel to even get close to this one. As he got closer, he left his feet and dove for the ball. He just snagged it and ended the inning.
By the Mets’ half of the eighth, Dave Leonhard was pitching for the O’s. Ed Kranepool hammered a ball off him that soared over the wall in right-centre field to make the score 5-0. That was how the game ended and the Mets and their fans were left in a state of ecstasy. Well, the Orioles weren’t happy. The whole country had seemingly been swept up in the Mets’ momentum. But the O’s were having none of it.
“They’re not super men,” Frank Robinson was quick to remind reporters after the game. “They’re flesh and blood. The writers want to make it look like somebody’s looking over them, but there’s nothing to that.”
Earl Weaver alluded to Tommie Agee’s play in this game in his comments following the game. “They tell me that the man up there likes us all the same. Magic? They don’t have any magic. They’re just good. Heck, if Agee has an ingrown toenail, we got five runs.”
Recency bias would make people think that the Mets were on their way to World Series victory. Surely, the Orioles’ backs were to the wall? Frank Robinson didn’t like the question. “Do we have our backs against the wall? No. When they need only one more, then we have our backs against the wall. They have only the advantage of being one-up just the same as when we won the first game. But it certainly gives them an edge. It was a pivotal game. They got by it. They’re in good shape.”
Relatively speaking, the Mets were in really good shape. They had a 2-1 lead in the series, and they had 25-game winner Tom Seaver on the mound for Game Four. The Orioles would counter with Mike Cuellar, the winner in Game One of the series. It would not be easy for either man, or either team. It would go into extra innings, and perhaps fate would play a role in this one.
In the first game of the series, the Orioles jumped on Seaver early and built a 4-0 lead by the end of the fourth inning. Don Buford had a homer and a double in the win. They cruised to the victory in that contest. Seaver showed up early in this one. He got a couple of strikeouts and pitched around a walk to get out of the first without giving up a run.
Cuellar got Agee, Harrelson and Cleon Jones out 1-2-3 in the bottom of the first. Seaver then allowed a walk to Ellie Hendricks in the top of the second but got around it without any damage. That brought up the middle of the Mets’ order in the bottom of the second. Donn Clendenon was the first man up. He smashed a Cuellar pitch deep to left to give the Mets a 1-0 lead. The score stayed that way through most of the game.
Shag Crawford was the home plate umpire that day. In the third inning, Crawford gave Earl Weaver the boot. It was the first time since 1935 that a manager had been ejected from a World Series game. Weaver didn’t like the call on a pitch to Mark Belanger and he complained about it. “The pitch to Belanger looked like a ball to all of us,” Weaver said after it was over. “There was a protest in unison from our bench. I kicked something in the dugout, and I said ‘we don’t have to take that pitch’.”
Weaver continued, “Then Crawford came over and shook his finger at us. I went out and asked him what he said.” Crawford told the media, “I told him to shut his damned mouth. If he didn’t hear me, then his ears are as bad as he thinks my eyes are. He knew what I said. He has been objecting this entire series. In every game, he has come out to make protests. I called it a strike. It was a good strike. Weaver was just trying to test me. He wasn’t coming out to the plate just to say ‘hello’. He knows what the baseball rule is. A manager is not allowed to protest balls and strikes. It’s the rule of baseball.”
Billy Hunter replaced Weaver for the balance of the game. He would order the intentional walk to Al Weis later, in the tenth, when it mattered.
The ninth inning came, and it was still 1-0 with the Mets in the lead. Seaver was still in the game and had been in control through most of this contest. The first Orioles batter in the frame was Paul Blair. He flied out to the right fielder Ron Swoboda. But singles to Frank Robinson and Boog Powell left runners on the corners with just one out.
That was when Brooks Robinson strode to the plate. The right-handed hitting third baseman got the ball off the end of his bat and sent it to shallow right centre. Swoboda was not the greatest defensive outfielder. “I didn’t think I could get it,” Swoboda told the media afterward, “but I had to try for it. I had to backhand the ball and I hit the ground hard. I was sort of dazed when I got up.” Swoboda made an incredible catch on the ball. A run did score on the play, and it tied the game, but his catch did save more Orioles from counting.
The game went into extras. In the top of the tenth, Wayne Garrett had replaced Art Shamsky at third base. You know the old saying how the ball always seems to find the new guy. Well, the first batter, Davey Johnson, hit a ball to Garrett who proceeded to bobble it and that allowed the Mets’ second baseman to reach base.
Mark Belanger then popped up to Grote in foul territory. The pitcher’s spot was due up next, and Clay Dalrymple pinch-hit for Eddie Watt. He singled and moved Johnson up to second. But Don Buford’s deep fly ball to Swoboda in right moved Johnson over to third. Then Paul Blair was called out on strikes. It was now up to Orioles’ reliever Dick Hall to shut down the Mets.
The first batter Hall faced was the catcher, Jerry Grote. He got to a full count before hitting a ball to shallow left field. Don Buford lost it in the sun. The ball landed and Grote ended up at second with a strange double. Gil Hodges sent Rod Gaspar in to pinch-run for Grote. The eighth-place hitter, Al Weis, was intentionally walked. It was now Tom Seaver’s turn to hit. But J.C. Martin was sent in to hit for Seaver. Hunter and pitching coach George Bamberger took Hall out of the game and replaced him with Pete Richert.
On Richert’s first pitch, Martin squared around to bunt. He tapped the ball in front of the plate to the right side of the mound. Richert picked up the ball and threw toward first. But his throw hit Martin and careened away. Gaspar scored the winning run. The Mets won 2-1 and led the series now by a 3-1 count! On the play, O’s catcher Ellie Hendricks wanted the ball. “I yelled all the way to let me get it,” he said. Richert disregarded that. “I just went in and made the play.”
Martin spoke about what transpired after the game. “I wanted to bunt down the first base line to keep the ball away from Brooks Robinson. I know the pitcher made a good play because the ball had backspin on it. It was a good bunt. When I saw they had no play at other bases, my job was just to try to get to first base.” Gil Hodges added, “The ball just happened to hit J.C. I’m glad it did.”
Gaspar had stopped at third on the bunt. But when Richert’s throw went awry, he scampered home with the winning run. “I got a very bad jump and didn’t see the play,” Gaspar said. “I thought they held the ball, and we had the bases loaded. Then I saw it roll away and knew they had no way of getting me.”
The favoured Orioles were now down to their final chance. Win or go home. Thursday afternoon, October 16. Dave McNally for Baltimore. Jerry Koosman for New York.
Through the first two innings, both pitchers were good. McNally gave up a couple of walks. Koosman allowed a Davey Johnson single in the second. But neither team could get anything going. In the third, some of the thread came off the spool for Koosman. The first batter in the inning was the eight-place hitter, the light hitting shortstop, Mark Belanger. He singled to right.
That brought McNally to the plate. He swung at a Koosman delivery and made solid contact. His bat sent the ball over the wall in left field, and the O’s pitcher gave himself and his team a 2-0 lead. After Koosman retired Buford and Blair, Frank Robinson came up and he hit a homer of his own, this one to left-centre field. Just like that, the Orioles looked like the Orioles again. The inning ended with Baltimore leading the Mets 3-0.
Koosman and McNally weren’t perfect, but they did trade zeroes after that, until the Mets came to bat in the bottom of the sixth. To that point in the game, New York had managed just three hits and were aching to get a baserunner or two. Cleon Jones led off the inning and stepped in. The lefty, McNally, threw him a curve ball that came down and in on Jones, causing him to try to step back, losing his balance.
The ball bounced all the way to the Mets’ dugout. The dugouts had no fencing or anything in front of them impeding people or objects from rolling in. Jones began to head to first, as if to imply that he had been hit by the McNally delivery. Lou DiMuro was the home plate umpire and he called Jones back. Yogi Berra took a few steps toward home plate from his first base coaching box. Just then, Hodges sprung from the dugout to show DiMuro that the ball must have struck Jones in the foot because there was shoe polish on the ball.
DiMuro, seeing the evidence, awarded Jones first base. (There will be more about this later in the story.)
That, of course, brought Earl Weaver out from the third base dugout. After a brief explanation from DiMuro, he seemed reluctantly satisfied that the right thing was done. Then, Donn Clendenon came up to face McNally. After four pitches, and a 2-2 count, McNally tried to throw the big right-handed hitting first baseman a curve. But the pitch hung and Clendenon got enough of it to put it into the seats down the left field line for a homer. After six innings, at Shea Stadium, it was now a one-run game.
In the top of the seventh, Koosman got the Orioles in order. Second baseman Al Weis led off for the Mets in the bottom of the inning. He deposited a McNally pitch into the stands in left field to tie the game up. McNally got the rest of the Mets out without incident, but with his spot coming up in the eighth, this would be his last inning of work.
Once again, Koosman, perhaps buoyed by the fact that his teammates had put enough runs on the board to draw even, mowed the Orioles down in the eighth. Eddie Watt was now on the hill for Baltimore. Cleon Jones once again led off for the Mets and he greeted Watt by smacking a double to the centre field wall. After Clendenon grounded out, Ron Swoboda doubled to left to plate Jones. After Ed Charles flied out, Grote got aboard on an error to Powell, scoring Swoboda. Watt got Al Weis looking to end the rally.
Within about a half an hour, the Orioles went from thinking about going back to Baltimore for Game Six on Saturday to having three more outs to play with to get back into this contest. Well, if they were going to do that, they had the right men coming to the plate to do it.
Frank Robinson led off for Baltimore. He worked Koosman for a base on balls. Boog Powell then came up and hit a ground ball to Weis at second. He tossed over to Harrelson to get the force on Robinson at second. Powell was not the fastest guy, so Weaver had Chico Salmon pinch-run for the big man. Next up was Brooks Robinson. He lofted a ball to right, but Swoboda tracked it down for the second out. It was all up to Davey Johnson now. He hit a ball to left field that Cleon Jones caught up with to end it.
The gang that couldn’t hit, run, or throw straight had pulled off the miracle. Just like they had after the Mets won the NLCS, the fans stormed the field. They tore up the turf just like they had the previous week. Inside the Mets’ clubhouse, there was a similar scene. Less sod stealing but more champagne swigging. Jubilation reigned supreme. At one point, it got to be a little too much for Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.
They adjourned to an empty storage room to just chill out. Both were still in their full uniforms. Koosman was sitting, smoking a cigar and sipping on a beer. Seaver was holding his head in his hands and not saying anything, as if he was in shock. A reporter found the pair and asked how they were feeling. Koosman replied, “There is just no way to explain how I feel at this moment.”
Koosman asked Seaver, “Hey, I wonder when we’ll get our Series rings.” Seaver showed Koosman his bare hands and said, “I’m not a ring man. But that’s one ring I’ll wear.” When Koosman was told that he had family waiting outside the clubhouse door, he went over and opened it. The door was well monitored but he got his mother, sister, and other family members into the team room. When his mom walked in, several naked players and coaches ran for cover.
Koosman took his relatives into Gil Hodges’ office to introduce everyone. Earlier, during the champagne party, Koosman was having a good time with singer Pearl Bailey, who was a massive Mets fan. At one point, the two kissed. A photographer had missed the moment and yelled at the pair to kiss again. Pearl shouted, “Hey, this boy’s been drinking!” She laughed as Koosman took another swig of champagne. As people kept yelling for the two to kiss again, Bailey came back with, “You dirty old men!” and she laughed through all of it.
There was undoubtedly a lot of joy in that room in that moment. There were also players who felt relief and others who felt serious vindication. Yes, the team had been bad for a long time before 1969. But don’t suggest to World Series Most Valuable Player, Donn Clendenon, that this Mets club was a ‘Cinderella team’.
“Cinderella team? Hell! We’re a great club," Clendenon told reporters. “We’re not a myth. We beat everybody and should get credit for being a good team. I was worried a little today because we weren’t alive on the field. But that home run (Clendenon’s homer in the sixth that got the Mets on the scoreboard) brought us back to life.”
Cleon Jones had similar feelings. “We knew Baltimore was a great club. But we had to go out and prove we were better. You can’t play this game on paper. Maybe man-for-man, they’re better, but not as a team. They had the big names, we didn’t. We just tried harder.”
Ron Swoboda alluded to the fact that his team came through when it mattered most. “We weren’t supposed to do anything this year and we did it all. We executed and made the plays. They (the Orioles) didn’t. Their errors and bobbles are in the record.” He also said he wanted to do what baseball fans had been doing for the last while. “You know what I’d like to do now? Go home and watch the Series on TV. I missed that part this year. I’d like to relive every bit of it.”
Oh, and one final note about the pitch that had allegedly hit Cleon Jones on the foot to ignite that Mets’ rally in the sixth inning. This is a quote from Jerry Koosman out of Peter Golenbock’s book, Amazin’.
“That baseball never hit Jones. The pitch bounced in the dirt and rolled into our dugout. Immediately, Gil Hodges told me to pick up the ball and rub it on my shoe. I did and put a black shoe polish mark on it. Hodges, in a split second, grabbed the ball and ran out to the umpires arguing that the ball hit Jones (on the foot) and here was the ‘mark’ to prove it.”
So, keep your shoes shined. You never know when it might come in handy.
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Howie’s new book MORE Crazy Days & Wild Nights, eleven new stories of outlandish and wild events that occurred in sports over the last fifty years, is available on Amazon.
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