The little miracle of Flushing, Queens

2019-03-26 TheySaidItCouldn'tBeDoneOh, every now and then I work a small one just to keep My hand in. My last miracle was the 1969 Mets. Before that, I think you have to go back to the Red  Sea. Ahhhhh, that was a beauty!

—George Burns, as God; Oh, God! (1977)

One of the most fabled photographs in Mets lore was shot after Shea Stadium emptied following the Mets’ surrealistic 1969 World Series conquest. Delerious fans left the field resembling Berlin after the bombings. Mets pitchers Tom Seaver and Gary Gentry, their uniforms disheveled from surviving the onslaught after celebrating their win, plodded over the wreckage in apparent disbelief.

Among the celebrating hordes before the two pitchers made their inspection was a fifteen-year-old, hooky-playing kid from Huntington, Long Island, Wayne Coffey, whose grandfather took him to the deciding Game Five. The kid let the moment carry him onto the field, where he pulled up a clump of grass near first base, high tailed it back to the seats before he could be smothered, and ultimately planted the choice greenery in his family’s back yard.

Seven years later, Coffey’s parents sold the home. “The new owners negotiated for the washer and dryer,” he writes, “and had no idea they had gotten a piece of Shea Stadium at no extra charge.”

Coffey grew up to become a respected sports writer and, as of this week, the author of They Said It Couldn’t Be Done, maybe the single best book yet written about the band of lancers, acrobats, bit players, old men, young tigers, and spare parts, with the deceptively becalmed but shrewd manager, who became baseball’s least likely world champions to that point, during a year in which strife seemed to hold hands with splendor in New York and elsewhere.

The year began with New York crippled by the worst blizzard ever to hit the city, in February 1969. (I know, because my mother, my younger brother, and myself were stranded for almost a week in my maternal grandparents’ Bronx apartment.) It left Mayor John Lindsay public enemy number one, especially in Queens, where the Mets played and where over half the city’s 42 deaths in the storm occurred.

Lindsay would lose the Republican primary for re-election and run as an independent. The 1969 Mets may have helped him win a second term (Lindsay attached himself to their fortunes ostentatiously) but they couldn’t save his long-term political career. (His presidential ambitions were torpedoed before his second mayoral term expired.) If he couldn’t manage one blizzard (even allowing for under-equipment, it took a week for the snow plows to get to Queens), good luck with the coming 1970 Hard Hat Riot (construction workers attacking students protesting Kent State) and police corruption scandal. (Lindsay was caught almost flatfoot when the New York Times published the unimpeachable disclosures of two clean detectives, Frank Serpico and David Durk.)

Baseball’s spring began that year with a tussle over how much of its lucrative new television contracts should go into the players’ pension fund. During the season unease about the war in Vietnam and continuing racial tensions began afflicting more than just students on campus and civil rights crusaders. And man—specifically, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, with Michael Collins manning the command module above—finally walked on the moon.

And with the continuing collapse of the Yankees, parched under the ten-thumbed management of their then-owners CBS, the eyes of New York and the country gazed upon the upstart Mets—even when the Apollo 11 crew took their triumph parade down New York’s Canyon of Heroes. The sign Collins most loved along the parade route: “We Love the Mets, But We Love You More. Sorry, Mets.” In due course, Tug McGraw, Mets relief pitcher, would remember, “When those astronauts walked on the moon, I knew we had a chance.”

Gil Hodges was, at once, gifted at bringing a baseball team together and the worst stress manager in the game, a potentially lethal combination in a quiet man who smoked heavily and had a family history of heart disease, including his own father dying of an embolism at 56 years old. But he obeyed doctor’s orders, surrendered his Marlboros and his habit of pitching batting practise, and settled for making these disparate Mets into a miracle worker.

“As well as any manager in the game,” Coffey writes, “Hodges understood the importance of making every player feel involved, keeping every player fresh, giving everyone on his club a slice of ownership in what the collective team was doing.”

“We really were a team,” said Ed Kranepool, the veteran who would be the last survivor of the Original Mets on the 1969 conquerors, and who once admitted his wasn’t the warmest relationship with Hodges, a man he only came to appreciate more in the months before Hodges’s untimely 1972 death.

Sometimes you win in spite of your manager, but not with this club. Gil did everything right. He made every possible move to help our club. He never tricked you. He was so consistent . . . You never showed up at the ballpark not ready. Once he said he was going to do something, he stuck to it. You were prepared when you went to the park. You got your rest. You were ready. You worked hard to stay in shape because you knew you would be called on. He kept everybody sharp.

Hence the key, in hand with their staggering enough pitching, to why the Mets heated up for keeps down the stretch when the Cubs—who looked like a runaway National League East winner until manager Leo Durocher’s heavy hand burned out their regulars with few reserves by the time the heat turned up—were left broiled and basted. That and Hodges’s distinct insistence on keeping issues and mistakes as much out of the public eye as possible. He’d correct and discipline on the spot, but he’d never do it in the press.

He treated equally his rural, urban, educated, and visceral players and didn’t mind allowing the occasional indulgence for those who really needed one. Whether future Hall of Famers (Cy Young Award winner Tom Seaver, then-swingman Nolan Ryan), valued co-stars (Gentry, Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, Bud Harrelson, Jerry Koosman), supporting players (Ken Boswell, Ed Charles, Donn Clendenon, Wayne Garrett, Ed Kranepool, Tug McGraw, Art Shamsky, Ron Taylor), or extras (Cal Koonce, J.C. Martin, Bob Pfeil, Al Weis), he directed his cast with the aplomb of an Alfred Hitchcock and the patience of Job.

His most salient quality may have been his unschooled knowledge into the psyches of his players, a quality likely borne of all those seasons he’d played in Brooklyn and in all those pennant races in which the Dodgers—the team who shepherded the end of baseball’s colour line with Jackie Robinson—came up short in October until that staggering October 1955.

So much so that, knowing the sensitive Agee (a former American League Rookie of the Year trying to return from a terrible 1968) needed it, Hodges actually allowed Agee any and all the time he needed after a game to park himself in the manager’s office, behind closed doors, and vent. What Hodges got for that kind of empathy was a leadoff hitter leading the team in regular season runs batted in, and one of his major outfield acrobats in the postseason.

Hodges prized character in hand with baseball smarts and execution, especially in players whose backgrounds suggested they could have gone too readily the other way. Few personified this more than veteran third baseman/house poet Ed Charles, in his final major league season, who’d had it harsh enough growing up in segregated Florida without growing up concurrently with a father who beat his mother regularly and pistol whipped him a time or two.

“Background is not the primary concern,” wrote Charles, whose 1969 record looks horrendous until a deeper look shows he hit .275 with men in scoring position and .333 with the bases loaded, “but backbone is.”

To quit is cowardice. To lose faith is to doubt the working of God through man, and to shirk responsibility is to live a life void of purposeful meaning, another liability on the backs of those who are the true heirs of life.

Charles could have been writing about the 1969 Mets. Once, though, Charles did lose faith, when called back to the dugout for a pinch hitter, the only time it happened during his Met tenure. Charles was so crestfallen he slammed his bat back into the bat rack, with Hodges watching but saying nothing at the out-of-character outburst.

Coffey records that Charles went into Hodges’ office the next day and apologised for his momentary lapse of good example. “I knew you’d be coming in,” a smiling Hodges said when Charles finished

The Original Mets were the tragicomic National League dumping ground collection of Abbott on the mound and Costello behind the plate, the Four Marx Brothers in the infield, the Three Stooges in the outfield, the Harlem Globetrotters on the bench, and the Keystone Kops in the bullpen. The 1969 Mets were the Flying Wallendas in the outfield, the Daring Young Men on the Flying Trapeze covering the infield, the Third Army on the mound, Sgt. Rock (Jerry Grote) behind the plate, and spare parts from IBM.

They swept the Braves in the first-ever National League Championship Series. (This was divisional play’s first season, of course.) When the Orioles swept the Twins in the first-ever American League Championship Series, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson hollered, “Bring on the Mets and Ron Gaspar,” referring to the Mets’ reserve outfielder who’d predicted a little rashly that the Mets would sweep the Series without a loss. Told by reserve catcher Merv Rettenmund that the proper name was “Rod, stupid,” Robinson hollered, “Then bring on the Mets and Rod Stupid!”

The bad news is that life is not always kind even to miracle workers. Tom Seaver has retired from public life after being diagnosed with dementia; Gary Gentry and Bud Harrelson also battle it. Ed Kranepool still awaits a kidney transplant. (He might have received it in January but for an unexpected health issue for the donor-to-be.) Hodges, Charles, Tommie Agee, first base coach (and Hall of Fame catcher) Yogi Berra, Don Cardwell (veteran starter who had a key five-game win streak down the stretch), Donn Clendenon, Kevin Collins, Cal Koonce, Tug McGraw, third base coach Eddie Yost (known as the Walking Man in his playing days for his frequency drawing walks) and pitching coach Rube Walker have all passed away.

So has Karl Ehrhardt, the fabled Sign Man whose placard down the Canyon of Heroes for the 1969 Mets’ World Series parade provided Coffey his book’s title. (THERE ARE NO WORDS, his sign read when Cleon Jones’s catch of Davey Johnson’s fly ball ended the World Series.) So has Jane Jarvis, the jazz virtuoso who spent almost fifteen years including 1969 entertaining Shea Stadium with her jaunty organ playing, until she was forced out when a later Met ownership decided organ music was just so un-cool.

“I definitely think the Mets will make it next year,” Jarvis said during August 1969. “We might get lucky and win it this year.” You might even be lucky enough to hear Jarvis’s jaunty music in the back of your head—maybe even her version of Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple,” which she often played during bench-clearing brawls—while you read Coffey’s book, grateful that it doesn’t even come close to living by nostalgia.

 

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