1969 The Amazin’ Mets

The laughingstocks of baseball for much of the 1960s, the New York Mets perform a rapid and dramatic turnaround, capturing the hearts of fans everywhere with an eye-popping World Series performance against the Baltimore Orioles.

Fifty-thousand Shea Stadium fans, who had loyally suffered with the New York Mets since their 1962 inception, go wild seconds after their team puts the finishing touches on a blindsiding world title over the powerful Baltimore Orioles.

In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy pledged to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. A lot of people thought he was overreaching. Had the President instead said that the hopeless, lovably pathetic New York Mets would win the World Series by decade’s end, they would have thought he was crazy.

Yet amazingly, both missions would be accomplished by 1969.

For much of the 1960s, the Mets had cemented themselves as the laughingstock of baseball. Starting with their famously awful debut in 1962 in which they dropped a modern record 120 games, the Mets lost an average of 108 games through their first six years—much of it led by manager Casey Stengel, the aging clown prince watching his 24 stooges perform pratfalls on the playing field. The fans—and even the players, it sometimes seemed—reveled in the losing image. If the Mets had a mission statement, it might have read: “To seek new ways of losing so as to entertain our newfound faithful.”

While NASA was on track to meet its deadline, the Mets were still trying to figure out how to design a proverbial launching pad. Forget 1969, New Yorkers quipped; it seemed a safer bet that the Mets wouldn’t win anything until 2001.

All bad things must come to an end, and the Mets certainly began to sense by 1967 that the novelty of comic defeat was beginning to wear thin on the Shea Stadium fan base, itself beginning to thin out in numbers. The idea of winning became a higher priority.

Fortunately by this time, the Mets had been graced with a new wave of young talent insistent on shedding the team’s losing image. At the core of this group were three highly-touted pitchers: Tom Seaver, a USC grad scooped up by the Mets after baseball voided an earlier pactSeaver’s deal with Atlanta was nixed because it was ruled he was signed before his college eligibility was up. he signed with the Atlanta Braves; Jerry Koosman, a southpaw from Minnesota who would form a fine accompaniment with Seaver; and Nolan Ryan, a rural Texas-bred hurler who threw so hard, every time his fastball hit the catcher’s mitt it sounded like a rifle going off.

To give these players the discipline they needed to succeed at the major league level, the Mets brought in a new manager by trading for him. Gil Hodges, one of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Boys of Summer, was given to the Mets by the Washington SenatorsFor the Senators’ sake, the $100,000 hopefully went far; Denehy, ultimately a 1-10 lifetime pitcher, did not. for $100,000 and pitcher Bill Denehy.

Under Hodges, the Mets would creep to ninth in the ten-team National League race in 1968, though the team’s 73-89 record was easily its best yet. Hodges’ tough-minded but fair treatment of his players earned their respect and set up the likelihood for further progress in 1969.

The pundits nevertheless expected the usual from the Mets in the newly-created six-team NL Eastern Division—with some even predicting the Mets to finish last behind the first-year Montreal Expos. If the Mets were to make a statement to the contrary, it didn’t happen on Opening Day when they lost to said Expos at Shea, 11-10.

The Mets entered June below the .500 mark, but then reeled off 11 straight victories to serve notice. Few paid attention; all eyes were instead on the front-running Chicago Cubs, who under Leo Durocher were off to a flying start with eventual 20-game winners Ferguson Jenkins and Bill Hands, and star sluggers Billy Williams, Ron Santo and 38-year-old shortstop Ernie Banks—who at long last had promising visions of his first trip to the postseason.

The Mets and Cubs engaged in a series of heated contests through the summer—with the Mets usually coming out on top—but it did New York little good in its goal of chasing down the Cubs. By mid-August, Chicago maintained a commanding 9.5-game lead on the Mets, and the September sage factor purely favored the Cubs, an established team with proven stars compared to the Mets’ talented yet relatively green young guns. And besides: These were the New York Mets, who never knew from anything but last place, right?

Like a blindsiding nighttime tornado, the Mets swept through the rest of the regular season schedule and spun the Cubs around onto their rear ends. New York won 38 of its final 49 games—including two more crucial victories over the Cubs in early September—to help spark a ten-game win streak and surpass Chicago in the standings.

Suddenly the Mets, who for so long seemed to have losing in their lifeblood, couldn’t lose if they tried. They won both ends of a doubleheader over the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 12 when their two starting pitchers—Koosman and Don Cardwell—knocked in the only runs in a pair of 1-0 victories. Three days later, St. Louis pitcher Steve Carlton set an all-time major league record against the Mets with 19 strikeouts—and the Mets still beat him, 4-3. New York clinched the NL East at its final home game before a week-long, season-ending road trip; Shea Stadium groundskeepers would need that week to repair the turf, ripped apart by 50,000 rabid fansHaving drawn well when they stank, the Mets were sure to pack the house with their newfound winning. They did, attracting over 2.1 million fans. celebrating the unbelievable.

Offensively, the Mets’ astounding 100-62 finish was accomplished with mirrors behind Gil Hodges’ heavily platooned lineup. Eleven different players appeared in 100 or more games, but only two—outfielders Tommie Agee (a club-high 26 home runs and 76 RBIs) and Cleon Jones (third in the NL with a .340 average)—played in over 125.

The 1969 season would be the closest Ernie Banks would ever get to the playoffs. The outstanding Cub shortstop is near the top of a list of Hall-of-Famers who played at least 15 years and never made it to a postseason nor played for a first-place team after 1900.

Pitching was the undeniable strength of the 1969 Mets. Tom Seaver, appropriately earning his nickname “Terrific Tom,” won his last ten decisions to finish at 25-7 with a 2.21 earned run average. Koosman won his last five to end the year at 17-9 and a 2.28 ERA. A sharp bullpen was anchored by Tug McGraw and Ron Taylor. Nolan Ryan, limited by groin problems, won six of nine decisions and struck out 92 batters in 89 innings.

As tough an opponent as the Mets became, the Cubs’ biggest foe toward the end may have been Leo Durocher. The firebrand Chicago manager kept using his best players day in and day out, and the resulting fatigue was reflected in a 16-25 record down the stretch. In terms of leadership, Durocher didn’t exactly lead by example when, citing an “illness” in late July, he gave himself a few days off for some presumed bedrest—only to be discovered playing hooky with his son at a Wisconsin camp.

The Mets entered the first-ever National League Championship Series (NLCS) against the Western Division champion AtlantaLocated 200 miles from the Atlantic, Atlanta’s inclusion into the NL West was not a case of baseball flunking a geography test, but of keeping more westbound cities Chicago and St. Louis in the NL East to preserve long-time rivalries. Braves, knowing they had won seven more games overall and 8 of 12 in head-to-head play over the Braves during the regular season. Yet the relatively inexperienced Mets still were considered underdogs to a team brimming with World Series history of seasons past in Hank Aaron (who at 35 hit .300 with 44 homers) and Orlando Cepeda. It also figured in many people’s minds that the Braves were peaking, having taken 17 of their last 21 games to win a tightly-contested NL West race over San Francisco and Cincinnati.

In an ironic role reversal for the Mets, strong hitting would bail out weak pitching in the NLCS, as New York hit .327 with six home runs in a three-game sweep of the Braves—earning more converts nationwide in the process.

The Mets’ stunning turnabout could not be matched within the American League, though what the Baltimore Orioles accomplished in dominating the AL competition was no less impressive.

Sliding about for a few years after their 1966 World Series triumph, the Orioles regained new steam at the helm under manager Earl Weaver. Ever since John McGraw left the game, umpires thought they had it easy—until Weaver came along. Weaver was very much made from the McGraw mold: Short, punchy, temperamental, and a winner. Yet Weaver was strategically miles apart from McGraw, favoring the three-run homer while eschewing modern-day essentials left over from the deadball era such as the bunt and hit-and-run.

Pete Gray was the most celebrated of baseball’s wartime replacement players, hitting .218 as a one-armed outfielder for the St. Louis Browns in 1945.

Weaver had made an impact with the Oriole organization well before he became manager. As the team’s minor league instructor in the early 1960s, he developed a specific regimen of baseball fundamentals that would become known as the “Oriole Way.” When Weaver inherited the Oriole pilot seat midway through the 1968 season, many of the players on the Baltimore roster had the Oriole Way committed to memory.

With Weaver in command, the Orioles became a colossus. They won 109 games for him in his first full season, practically lapping the defending champion Detroit Tigers by 19 games in the AL East. First baseman Boog Powell, statistically asleep the previous two years, reawakened with a team-high 37 home runs and 121 RBIs. Frank Robinson was right behind him with 32 homers and 100 RBIs; both batters hit over .300. On the mound, the strong Oriole rotation was led by Dave McNally (20-7, 3.21 ERA), who won his first 15 decisionsMcNally’s 15-0 start tied an AL record. of the year; Jim Palmer (16-4, 2.34 ERA), who won 11 in a row at one point following a year-plus’ worth of shelf life due to back problems; and Mike Cuellar (23-11, 2.38 ERA), who showed signs of brilliance in Houston, but was nothing but after being traded to Baltimore for 1969.

The Orioles would have little problem with the AL West-winning Minnesota TwinsWinners of 97 games, the Twins were the first of many teams to thrive and then “deal with” pugnacious manager Billy Martin, whose run-ins with Twin players and management got him fired after just one season. in the first ALCS, surviving extra innings to win the first two games before breezing, 11-2, to complete the three-game sweep.

That the New York Mets again rated as underdogs to the Orioles in the World Series was no sign of disrespect; Baltimore clearly looked superior in almost every facet of its game. And when Don Buford blasted Tom Seaver’s second pitch of Game One over the fence—setting the pace for a 4-1 Oriole victory—the Mets finally appeared to meet their match, and then some.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the victory podium for the Orioles.

Starting in Game Two, the Orioles were thoroughly shut down—if not first by the sterling New York pitching, then by the gloves of the Mets’ seemingly omnipresent defense. It was a dual-layered assault that would completely dumbfound the Oriole juggernaut—not to mention a stunned nationwide audience that was tuned in and looking on.

Jerry Koosman retired the first 18 Orioles he faced on his way to a 2-1 Game Two win. In Game Three, pitchers Gary Gentry, Nolan RyanRyan’s Game Three relief role would be the only World Series appearance of his 27-year career. and outfielder Cleon Jones—who robbed the Orioles of five runs with two tremendous running catches—helped to shut down the Orioles on four hits, 5-0. Seaver went the distance in a tense, ten-inning 2-1 win in Game Four, the unofficial save of which went to another Met outfielder, Ron Swoboda—whose sprinting, fully-extended diving catchSome believe Swoboda’s catch may be the greatest ever in World Series play—Willie Mays’ famous 1954 over-the-shoulder grab included. kept the potential winning Baltimore run from scoring in the ninth, preserving the game for extra innings and keeping the Mets alive.

Game Five would provide the Orioles more frustration, added with a dose of poor luck. With Baltimore taking a 3-0 lead into the sixth, Frank Robinson appeared to be hit by a Koosman pitch—only to have it ruled a foul off the bat by home plate umpire Lou DiMuro; Robinson finished the at-bat by striking out. In the Mets’ half of the sixth, Cleon Jones also appeared to be hit, on the foot—but DiMuro again ruled otherwise. In a move that recalled Milwaukee’s Nippy Jones in the 1957 Series, the Mets showed DiMuro the ball—which had shoe polishKoosman later claimed the ball rolled into the dugout without shoe polish; Gil Hodges told him to wipe it off his foot and put it back out, which he did. stroked upon it. DiMuro changed his mind, gave Jones the base—and Donn Clendenon promptly smacked a two-run homer, igniting the Mets as they later scored one in the seventh to tie, then two in the eighth to take the lead going into the ninth. All through the rally, Koosman kept the Orioles in check and secured the miracle at Shea.

As delirious Met fans—most of them too young to remember the dominant days of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants—bore down once more on the Shea Stadium grass for souvenirs, New York City readied the streets for its second ticker-tape parade in two months.

The first was for the Apollo 11 astronauts.

The second would be for the Amazin’ 1969 Mets, the world champions of baseball.


1970 baseball historyForward to 1970: One for the Brooks The incomparable Brooks Robinson cleans up at third base on the world's biggest baseball stage for the Baltimore Orioles.


1968 baseball historyBack to 1968: Year of the Pitcher Batting averages plummet as major league pitchers dominate the game of baseball as never before.


1960s baseball historyThe 1960s Page: Welcome to My Strike Zone In a decade where baseball as a tradition is turning stale with America's emerging counter-culturism, major league owners see its biggest problem to be, of all things, an overabundance of offense in the game. The result? An increased strike zone, further contributing to a downward spiral in attendance, but greatly aiding an already talented batch of pitchers.


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Seattle PilotsEight years before the debut of the Mariners, Seattle's first stab at major league baseball took place with the Pilots, one of four expansion teams hastened into play in 1969. Here's the opening minutes to a documentary on the ill-fated Pilots, who lasted just one year in the Northwest.


1969 Standings

National League East
New York Mets
100
62
.617
---
Chicago Cubs
92
70
.568
8
Pittsburgh Pirates
88
74
.543
12
St. Louis Cardinals
87
75
.537
13
Philadelphia Phillies
63
99
.389
37
Montreal Expos
52
110
.321
48
National League West
Atlanta Braves
93
69
.574
---
San Francisco Giants
90
72
.556
3
Cincinnati Reds
89
73
.549
4
Los Angeles Dodgers
85
77
.525
8
Houston Astros
81
81
.500
12
San Diego Padres
52
110
.321
41
American League East
Baltimore Orioles
109
53
.673
---
Detroit Tigers
90
72
.556
19
Boston Red Sox
87
75
.537
22
Washington Senators
86
76
.531
23
New York Yankees
80
81
.497
28.5
Cleveland Indians
62
99
.385
46.5
American League West
Minnesota Twins
97
65
.599
---
Oakland A's
88
74
.543
9
California Angels
71
91
.438
26
Kansas City Royals
69
93
.426
28
Chicago White Sox
68
94
.420
29
Seattle Pilots
64
98
.395
33

1969 Postseason Results
NLCS New York defeated Atlanta, 3-0.
ALCS Baltimore defeated Minnesota, 3-0.
World Series New York (NL) defeated Baltimore (AL), 4-1.


It Happened in 1969

Expansion is a Hit…
For the second time this decade, both the American and National Leagues expand with two new franchises each—increasing the total number of major league teams to 24 after beginning the 1960s with 16. Three of the four new teams stretch baseball’s geographic limits to extremes, with the Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres and Seattle Pilots joining the ranks. The Middle America-based Kansas City Royals are the other new kids on the block, replacing the departed A’s of two years earlier.

…And a Whiff
All four expansion teams win their inaugural games on April 8 by a single run—the Padres, in fact, sweep the Houston Astros to win their first three—but it’s all downhill from there. The Royals are the best of the newborns by season’s end, finishing fourth in the AL West with a 69-93 record; the Expos and Padres share the honors for the worst at 52-110. The Expos do draw a record first-year attendance of 1.2 million, while the Padres muster up a major league-low 512,000. In between, the Pilots—who finish 64-98—draw 677,000 to rickety, aptly named Sicks Stadium in what will be the team’s only year in Seattle (they’ll move to Milwaukee in 1970 and become the Brewers).

Breaking Up Isn’t Hard to Do
Because of the new round of expansion, both leagues for the first time split their membership into two six-team divisions. This allows for an extra round in the postseason, as winners of the East and West divisions face off in each league to determine the World Series participants. Purists worry that the teams with the league’s best record might get tripped up in the newly-formed League Championship Series by a lesser opponent, but at least in 1969, baseball’s strongest teams by the record—the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Mets—sweep their LCS challengers and advance to the Fall Classic.

Kuhn d’etat
Baseball owners fire William “Spike” Eckert, ending his unspectacular three-year reign as baseball’s most forgettable commissioner. Replacing him is New York lawyer Bowie Kuhn, who will show far more proactive involvement and knowledge of the game than the relatively clueless Eckert.

That’s One Homer for Every Eight Fans in the Stands
Willie Mays, pinch-hitting for future all-star George Foster, becomes baseball’s second player to hit 600 career home runs on September 22 during the San Francisco Giants’ 4-2 win at San Diego. Only 4,779 are on hand at San Diego Stadium to witness the event, as Mays’ potentially lucrative souvenir rattles around empty bleachers behind the left field wall.

Savings Account
The save is introduced as an official statistic.

Tying Ty
Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins, on the way to his first of seven career batting crowns, steals home seven times during the season to equal the long-standing mark set by Ty Cobb. Carew will swipe only 12 other bases during the season.

19 K's, 1 L
Steve Carlton of the St. Louis Cardinals sets a major league record by striking out 19 (since broken) against the Mets on September 15—but loses the game 4-3, thanks to two home runs by Ron Swoboda that bring in all four New York runs.

Was it Something They Said?
At Atlanta, five Braves batters are hit by Cincinnati pitchers during a 9-4 win over the Reds on July 2. The five hit batsmen set a modern National League record. Red starter Jerry Arrigo plunks three of the Brave hitters in the second inning alone, tying another record.

Expo-No-No!
The Montreal Expos’ fourth win ever—and the first as a starter for pitcher Bill Stoneman—is a no-hitter at Philadelphia against the Phillies on April 17. Inserted as a last-minute starter after Mudcat Grant is scratched with a sore knee, Stoneman walks five but allows no hits in a 7-0 victory.

Senator Ted
Ted Williams returns to baseball as manager of the Washington Senators. Behind Williams, the Senators finish at 86-76, the first winning season Washington baseball fans have seen in 16 years—and the last they will ever see until well after the Expos relocate to D.C. Williams’ advice on hitting improves a Senator offense that will go from the second worst team batting average (.225) in 1968 to the third best (.251) in 1969. Unfortunately for Williams, the improvement stops there; he’ll average 96 losses a year from 1970-72 before being dismissed.

Consecutive No-Hitters, Consecutive Years
For only the second time in history—the first occurring the year before, in 1968—teams trade no-hitters against each other on consecutive days. Cincinnati’s Jim Maloney, who struggled twice in 1965 to win no-hitters taken into extra innings, earns one the easy way on April 30 as the Reds romp at home, 10-0, over the Astros. The next day, Don Wilson responds with his second career no-hitter, silencing the Reds, 4-0.

Next Time, Just Strike Out
The San Francisco Giants tie a major league mark by hitting into seven double plays against the Astros at Houston on May 4. The continuous twin-killings kill the Giants’ chances in a 3-1 Astro win.

Any of You Other Guys Take Batting Practice?
The Chicago Cubs lose 9-2 to Pittsburgh on September 5, but don’t blame Billy Williams. The Cub slugger accounts for all four of his team’s hits with two doubles and two solo home runs. It is only the second time a player has collected as many as four hits in a game while his teammates go hitless.

New Ballparks

San Diego Stadium, San Diego Like similar multi-purpose facilities in Atlanta and Oakland, San Diego Stadium was conceived and constructed before anyone had given it a major league baseball team. And like the other two, the $27.5 million stadium located seven miles inland from the Pacific coastline would be quickly rewarded with a big league franchise within a few years of its opening.

There was nothing unusual about San Diego Stadium’s looks relative to other new pro sports facilities of the time; it was adaptable for both baseball and football, featured a myriad of corkscrew spectator ramps on the outside, and was completely surrounded by a sprawling parking lot. Hitters initially had to clear not-too-cozy outfield conditions and an 18-foot concrete wall to earn a home run, but in 1982 a separate, shorter wall was erected closer to home plate.

Renamed Jack Murphy Stadium in 1980 for the local sportswriter who championed for it, and then Qualcomm Stadium in 1997 because San Diego needed the naming-rights revenue to help pay for one of many stadium expansions over the years. Vacated by the Padres after 2003 for its own baseball-only, downtown ballpark; the stadium continues to be used as, essentially, a football-only facility.


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