As the 1960’s started I was a 10-year old in 5th grade. At the end of the decade I was in my freshman year of college.
In 1960, the New York Mets existed only as a business plan on the desk of New York attorney William Shea. In the fall of 1969 as the decade was coming to a close they became the most unlikely of World Series champions.
I think we came of age together.
The years following the departure from New York of the Dodgers and Giants were tough years for New York baseball fans, especially those of the National League variety. The rivalry/animosity built up over the previous ten years when there were seven subway series between the Yankees and either the Giants or Dodgers precluded most of those teams’ fans from moving up to the Bronx. My own family attended games in Philadelphia when the Giants were in town rather than go to Yankee Stadium.
The Mets came along in 1962 as basically a nostalgia team. Former Dodgers Charlie Neal, Gil Hodges and Clem Labine played a final year or two in a Mets uniform. The great Phillies center fielder Richie Ashburn did one last year as a Met in ’62. They even brought in a veteran St. Louis Cardinals pitcher by the unlikely name of Vinegar Bend Mizell. He lasted a couple months. Our staff ace was another former Dodger Roger Craig. Amazingly he lost 24 games in one season. Even more amazingly he won ten.
This was truly a collection of has beens and they posted a won-lost record of 40-120. Nevermind, we were happy to have them.
And things got even better in 1964 when Shea Stadium opened its doors at the same time that the New York World’s Fair came to Flushing Meadows. A boardwalk was erected between the new stadium and the fairgrounds with the Willets Point subway stop between the two. My family made 3 or 4 trips in each of the two years of the World’s Fair, with each trip ending at Shea Stadium. It was one of the few family activities that we all enjoyed together that I can remember. It also involved the only time I ever remember us taking public transportation as a family.
Since my parents showed me how to take the 7 train to Shea, I was set up to make some more clandestine visits with my friends in future years. I remember cutting high school to go to opening day at least twice.
I loved Shea. It was not a great looking stadium and as it aged the orange and blue panels on the outside made it look something of a dump. But it was a baseball stadium built in the shape of a baseball field and the stands were close to the action. It wasn’t too big. It was a much better place to watch a ballgame than at the next generation of stadiums which were the giant all-purpose oval stadiums like Veterans and Three Rivers.
From 1962 until 1968 the Mets finished last every year except two when they finished next-to-last. In the 60’s the National League East had 10 teams, not five like it has now, so it was no mean trick to finish last year after year after year. On those rare occasions when they slipped up one spot it was at the expense of the Houston Colt 45’s/Astros.
I graduated from high school in the spring of 1969 and headed to college in Ohio that September. That is when strange things started happening at Shea. On Sept. 10 of that year, the Mets moved to the top of the standings for the first time in their history. Then they won their first pennant, played their first post season game, won their first National League championship and on Oct. 16, 1969 won the World Series.
No longer in New York I joined the numerous other New York and New Jersey students at Kent State, filling the lounges of the on-campus dorms. We saw some strange happenings. Ron Swoboda, a guy who played right field as if he had two left feet, started making diving catches robbing the Orioles of hits. Al Weis, a light hitting shortstop who had only two homers in 103 games that year, knocked one out in the deciding game.
But with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan and Tug McGraw we had a major league pitching staff. The Mets had come of age. So had I.
Next week’s post will be about how I learned to love the Indians at the “Mistake By the Lake.”
See also Chapter 1 – Childhood Heroes.