Quiet anniversary: The sober end of the Original Mets

Joe Pignatano, warming up at Wrigley Field, where . . .

At a Baseball Assistance Team dinner over a decade ago, Joe Pignatano—once a reserve major league catcher whose career began with the Brooklyn Dodgers and ended with the New York Mets; later a respected Mets bullpen coach—eased himself into a stool behind a table. His old Brooklyn Dodgers teammate, Sandy Koufax, was stationed behind the same table, signing assorted memorabilia and bric-a-brac.

“Hey,” a voice hollered, “how come he gets to sit there?” Koufax flashed a grin and replied, “Roomie seat.”

“On the surface,” Koufax’s biographer Jane Leavy observed, “Piggy is everything Koufax is not—paunchy and balding, indifferently dressed in the manner of baseball men who never had to decide what to wear when they got up in the morning, his accent Brooklyn thick . . . Piggy is who Koufax aspires to be—just another guy happy to be on this side of the grass.”

Pignatano, of course, didn’t (and wouldn’t) draw even an eighth of the throng liable to turn out in line for a Koufax autograph. For his part, Koufax, who wasn’t exactly one of nature’s great-hitting pitchers, didn’t hit into a triple play in his final major league plate appearance, either. Pignatano accomplished that, if “accomplished” is the proper word, to kill the next-to-last rally of the final game played by the 1962 Mets, fifty years ago Sunday.

The Mets fell behind 5-1 to the Chicago Cubs after seven when Sammy Drake singled up the pipe to lead off the New York eighth and future Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn singled him to second with a rip through the hole at second. Say what? Two on, nobody out? Break up the Mets! Up stepped Pignatano, who’d taken over the catching for Choo Choo Coleman in the sixth. He lofted a soft fly over the infield which Ken Hubbs, the Cubs’ Rookie of the Year in waiting, hauled down, firing to first to catch Ashburn—who’d long lost his once-formidable speed—the wrong way, before future Hall of Famer Ernie Banks threw on to shortstop Andre Rogers to catch Drake before he could get back to the pad.

About the only saving grace was that the game was played in Wrigley Field. But those original Mets fans took so warmly to the team that, if it happened in the Polo Grounds, they probably would have moaned spontaneously before shrugging and sighing, “Well, it figures.” About the only real mourning they might have done otherwise would have been that Pignatano’s farewell triple play didn’t actually end the game. Considering the Original Mets’ infant season and the comedy of errors it was, could there have been a more appropriate way for any Met to end that game than hitting into a triple play?

Alas, even those Mets didn’t have that acute a flair for the appropriately dramatic calamity. They still had a ninth inning to play, and no more comedy left to perform, either. After Joe Christopher flied out to Rogers ranging into short left field to take it, Frank Thomas ripped a single down the left field line. Ed Kranepool, the teenaged rookie first baseman, who’d come into the game as a late replacement for Marvelous Marv Throneberry (who’d grounded out, walked, and flied out earlier), looked at a third strike from Cub starter Bob Buhl, and third baseman Felix (Wrong Way) Mantilla, he whose shining talent in 1962 was going the absolute wrong way for ground balls hit toward third base, forced Thomas out at second for the absolute final act of the Original Mets.

Wrong Way Mantilla, ending the ’62 Mets’ season with a mere forceout . . .

There were funnier root canal procedures than the ninth inning in Wrigley that afternoon. Was that any way for the Original Mets to lose number 120? Could the gods, or even their servant Mack Sennett, not have arranged that Joe Pignatano could have waited until the final inning to perform his final major league act on behalf of one of the most appropriate exclamation points baseball history might have yielded to date?

These Mets had established not only new records for futility but had done it by way of becoming the funniest live act in American show business for 1962. In six months they threatened to perform the impossible and provoke a vaudeville and burlesque revival in the same tragicomic act.  You could have suited up Abbott on the mound and Costello behind the plate, the Four Marx Brothers covering the infield, the Three Stooges patrolling the outfield, the Harlem Globetrotters on the bench, the Keystone Kops in the bullpen, Charlie Chaplin coaching at first, Harold Lloyd coaching at third, Buster Keaton as the bench coach, and Fatty Arbuckle as the bullpen coach. And actual manager Casey Stengel might not have known the difference. Except that the Harlem Globetrotters tended to win every game while they were getting their laughs.

Jay Hook: Who says only chicks dig the long ball?

They broke the major league records for most season losses and most home runs allowed. (For a Mets pitcher in 1962, Jimmy Breslin recorded unforgettably, only two things were certain. Either he was going to be hit for some of the longest home runs in baseball history, or he was going to have to stand there and watch his teammates make those amazing plays.) They broke the National League records for wild pitches in a season by one pitching staff. (71..) They tied the league record for the worst staff earned run average (5.04), the most earned runs scored against one pitcher (137, against poor Jay Hook, who’d been the Mets’ first winning pitcher, in their ninth 1962 game), the most earned runs surrendered by the entire staff (801), the most hits surrendered (1,577), the most hit batsmen (52), and the most team errors. (210.) And they were the first team since the 1936 Philadelphia Phillies to boast (if that’s the correct word) two 20-game losers. (Al Jackson and Roger Craig.)

Fifty years ago today, one Met pitcher, Bob Miller, took an 0-12 record into his start against the Cubs. “This would have tied a major league record,” Breslin recorded wryly. “Miller then blew his chance at immortality by beating the Cubs.” Miller did achieve his immortality regardless: the 1962 Mets were the first team in major league history to have two pitchers with identical first and last names: Bob Miller (middle initial: L; throwing: righthanded) and Bob Miller (middle initial: G; throwing lefthanded).

But they also set a new home attendance record for a last place team: 922,530. Built from the remnant of talents that once prowled National League stages respectably, these Mets were fated to be managed by a man who’d made his legend dominating the American League for more than a decade, and their biggest star was fated to be a once-promising American League-nourished slugger whose defensive weaknesses reduced him to a spare part among the league’s lesser companies before the Mets bought him in a bid to fill a space opened when Gil Hodges, the beloved old Dodger first baseman, went down for the season with a knee injury.

Marvelous Marv, one of a kind . . .

Hodges was stoic; Marvelous Marv was slapstick. Paraphrasing Breslin, either he hit some of the longest home runs off the bat of any 1962 Met (his game-ending, pinch-hit launch against the redoubtable relief ace Elroy Face may have been his biggest crowd pleaser among the sixteen he did hit), or he was going to stand helplessly and ask himself, after one of his own amazing plays, “Did I do that?” He was Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart with half the home runs and three times the lopsided charisma.

Yet even he couldn’t deliver the appropriate season-ending exclamation point. He made solid contact for two outs and worked out a walk otherwise before yielding to Kranepool. The Mets committed three errors on the afternoon and none of them involved Throneberry. He had five putouts at first base, including one on a double play collaboration and one unassisted on a grounder up the line. He played, in other words, like a competent veteran whose bat contact simply went right to a pair of Cub fielders and whose glove work got the job done without a single misstep, smudge, or miscue. He was, simply, anything but marvelous.

This is not the way those Original Met fans deserved to see their antiheroes end that first season.

No, those Original Met fans who provoked Breslin to dedicate Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? to them (Never has so much misery loved so much company) deserved far better. They deserved, at least, another third baseman handling his first chance of the day by throwing it fifteen feet above the first baseman’s head. (Don Zimmer did that in the Mets’ very first regular season game.)

They deserved, at least, another pitcher wild-pitching a man from first to second and the same man from third to home a few minutes later. (Ray Daviault, poor soul, did that in the Mets’ very first regular season home game. On Friday the Thirteenth, no less.)

They deserved at least one more breathtaking shallow outfield collision. (The classic: the day Frank Thomas—on a short fly to left center that Ashburn waved off shortstop Elio Chacon, after Chacon had plowed into oncoming outfielders a few times previous on similar plays, hollering in Spanish, Yo la tengo! for “I’ve got it!”—blasted into Ashburn after Chacon dutifully backed off the play.)

Neal, who touched ‘em all (or else?)

They deserved at least one more negated extra-base hit. (The unquestioned classic: Throneberry’s long triple, turned into an out when Banks called for the ball and stepped on the pad, provoking Stengel to barrel out of the dugout hollering, before first base coach Cookie Lavagetto stopped him: “Forget it, Case, he didn’t touch second, either.”) And, one choreographed home run to follow it. (After Throneberry’s mishap, Charlie Neal smashed a long home run off the upper deck facade—and Stengel halted him post haste as he left the box to run it out, pointing to each base and stamping his foot, until he’d made dead certain Neal had touched every base including home plate. The Polo Grounds audience went nuclear.)

They deserved, maybe, even to be no-hit once again. (Koufax had already done that to the Original Mets, to end June.)

Well, you don’t always get what you deserve. Who did the Mets think they were, when they played the final game of 1962? The Houston Colt .45s? Those Colts were born the same season, into the same league. They finished their own woeful premiere on 30 September, too. They lost a one-run game to the San Francisco Giants. Maybe their starting pitcher (Turk Farrell) finished by losing his 20th game of the year, but the Colts committed no errors on defense. They couldn’t even hit into a double play on the day, never mind a triple play. Who the hell needed them?

“Listen, mister,” Breslin wrote to finish Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? “Think a little bit. When was the last time you won anything out of life?”

Most bad baseball teams merely suck. The Original Mets sucked . . . with style. Until the final day. So they were on the road and not in the Polo Grounds. No excuse. The Metsian spirits owed those loyal New Breeders anything, except proving unable to let a stocky spare part hold off to the ninth inning before ending his major league career by flying modestly into a two-on, nobody-out, rally-killing triple play.

A season’s worth of extraterrestrial bang and the Original Mets went out with a none-too-terrestrial whimper. We wuz robbed.

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