In 1960, the New York Yankees, set for a run of five consecutive pennants, made two bonehead moves. After losing the World Series that year to the Pittsburgh Pirates, ownership fired Casey Stengel as manager, plus the longtime general manager, George Weiss. Stengel was 70 years old. The man didn’t get along with certain younger players. He had a habit of falling asleep during games and had just lost a World Series to a frankly inferior Pirates squad. Above all, the Yanks wanted bullpen coach Ralph Houk as manager, and they were afraid another team would steal him away.
But George Weiss? The GM had been with the Yankees since 1932, when he served as director of minor league operations. He was the most successful general manager in the game’s history. His farm system nurtured Hall of Famers Joe Gordon, Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto. His trades included bringing in Roger Maris, Bob Turley, Don Larsen, Ryan Duren and Clete Boyer.
Ever since the New York Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers left New York for California in 1957, the city’s National League fans were homeless. That changed when baseball expanded in 1962 and one of the new teams would be, thanks to an enterprising attorney named William Shea, the New York Metropolitans. Mets ownership promptly scooped up both Stengel and Weiss. It worked magnificently. With the lovable Casey as skipper, fans flocked to the Polo Grounds. Casey implored the “youth of America” to come to New York to play for his “Metsies.” With a huge fan base, the Mets had the money to build a contender.
This year has been an ongoing celebration of the 1969 Miracle Mets World Series champions. In 1964, the Mets moved to more spacious grounds at Shea Stadium and Weiss began building a team around pitching and defense. Players who starred for the 1969 team originally signed by Weiss included Ed Kranepool, Cleon Jones, Tug McGraw, Ron Swoboda and Bud Harrelson.
Weiss retired in 1966. Stengel himself had stepped down as manager in 1965. Johnny Murphy, the new general manager, built on Weiss’s foundation. The biggest break took place in 1967. That year, three teams were vying for the services of Tom Seaver, an All-American pitcher from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Commissioner William Eckert stepped in and declared that the dispute would be settled by drawing names from a hat. The Mets chose Seaver’s name. A turning point was reached.
When Seaver joined the Mets, they no longer had an image of lovable losers. Seaver was all business. He was a pitcher as team leader. Mediocrity wasn’t enough. It was time to win.
That meant a new manager. Down in Washington, Gil Hodges had compiled a respectable record for another team with a losing reputation. Hodges was an All Star first baseman for the legendary Brooklyn Dodger teams of the 1950s. A native of Indiana, he had married a young woman from Brooklyn. The man was a New Yorker at heart. A homecoming was inevitable.
In 1968, Hodges was named manager. That year, there were stirrings in Mets land. The team was playing 0.500 ball. In Seaver and Koosman, they had an effective one-two starting pitcher punch. Around the diamond, the team was promising: Jerry Grote behind the plate, Kranepool, Dave Boswell, Bud Harrelson and Ed Charles in the infield, with Ron Swoboda and Tommie Agee joining Jones in the outfield.
In that pre-free agent era, farm systems were the life’s blood of any organization. Trades mattered greatly, too. Filling out the Miracle Mets would be an early 1969 trade for Donn Clendenon, a power-hitting first baseman. The Agee trade was made in 1968. That deal was also vital. Agee played center field, while supplying speed and power to the offense.
All throughout the summer of 1969, the Chicago Cubs dominated league play. With the charismatic Leo Durocher as manager, the beloved Ernie Banks at first base and the friendly confines of Wrigley Field as a backdrop, the Cubs were sentimental favorites. After every win, third baseman Ron Santo would click his heels in joy to the delight of the Wrigley faithful. But the Mets were patient. And they had that same “youth of America” on their side. The Mets were a younger team with more depth on the bench and on the mound. When the dog days of August and September hit, that would tell the tale.
The Cubs hit their own snag in the midway point, when the always-brazen Durocher briefly jumped his own club for a marriage with wife number four, Lynne Goldblatt. That raised eyebrows, but could the Mets really catch this juggernaut?
Hodges, following Stengel’s example, platooned heavily: Kranepool and Clendenon at first, Boswell and Al Weiss at second, Charles and Wayne Garrett at third, Swoboda and Shamsky in right field. Seaver and Koosman were complemented by Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan in the starting rotation and Don Cardwell and Tug McGraw in the bullpen. Meanwhile, Durocher played his veterans day in and day out with little rest.
In early September, the Cubs lost first place to a Mets team now on fire. In August, the Mets were nine games out of first. They ended the season with an eight-game lead over the Cubs—an incredible 17-game turnaround. Seaver won 25 games and was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. The Mets swept the Atlanta Braves in the playoff series and disposed of a mighty Baltimore Orioles squad, four games to one in the World Series. Casey Stengel was on hand for the games and good luck charm Yogi Berra was first base coach.
The Mets won through pitching and defense, but that year and in 1973, when they won another National League crown, the ball club overachieved dramatically. In the 1970s, they would compete in a National League that included such powerhouses as the Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies. Tragedy struck the team in early 1972 when the great Hodges succumbed at age 48 to a heart attack. In late 1971, the Mets made a trade that seemed like a good deal. They shipped Ryan to California for All-Star shortstop, Jim Fregosi. Ryan often had trouble finding the plate, while the Mets needed Fregosi’s bat. On the West Coast, Ryan dominated like few pitchers have ever done so. Fregosi, on the other hand, never adjusted to New York. Imagine a rotation for the ’70s: Seaver, Koosman, Ryan and Jon Matlock. On the other hand, don’t. Too painful.
The end to that winning era came in 1977, when Seaver, unhappy with the team’s direction, asked to be traded. On June 15 of that year, a reluctant Mets front office sent The Franchise to Cincinnati. Met fans would have to wait until the mid-1980s for more championship baseball. But the 1969 team changed Mets history forever.