Sixty years on, an eyewitness remembers the Original Mets

1962 Mets Yearbook

The first Mets yearbook, 1962, drawn by cartooning legend Willard Mullin—whose creation of the Brooklyn Bum in the 1930s proved he knew absurdism when he saw it.

In February 1962, Casey Stengel gathered his sort-of brand-new major league baseball team together, pointed toward the spring training field, and said, “Them are the bases.” Two months later, sixty years ago today, broadcaster Bob Murphy crooned from the booth in St. Louis, “Yes, sir, the New York Mets are on the air in their first great season.”

This year’s Mets awoke this morning after beating the Nationals in Washington three straight before losing 4-2 Sunday afternoon. Their ancestors of sixty years ago awoke that 11 April to lose an 11-4 blowout to the Cardinals in ancient Sportsman’s Park, freshly re-named Busch Stadium.

It began a life-opening nine-game losing streak. And, the birth of a legend. When they recorded their first-ever regular-season win, a handy 9-1 final against the Pirates, the immediate gag became, “Break up the Mets!” No such team setting a record for getting destroyed on the field ever seduced a locale as profoundly as the Original Mets seduced New York.

Still smarting from the exodus West of the Dodgers and the Giants (in whose ancient, rambling wreck of a Polo Grounds home the Mets played awaiting Shea Stadium’s birth), and probably saturated by what seemed decades of Yankee success and its attendant hubris, New York embraced the Mets with a season-long bear hug and a kind of pre-countercultural hysteria in the stands.

If the British played baseball and fielded such a team as the Original Mets, they’d have been considered the game’s progenitors of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But the National League awarded New York the Mets in its first expansion, their original owner having been the lone stockholding vote against the Giants leaving town. The Mets became . . .

Well, I’ve said it before, but who can resist repeating it? Abbott and Costello performed “Who’s on First” several hundred times before they ended their partnership. Little did they know. The Original Mets seemed to have Abbott pitching to Costello with Who the Hell’s on first, What the Hell’s on second, You Don’t Want to Know’s on third, and You Don’t Even Want To Think About It’s at shortstop.

One minute, the outfield was reasonably competent (and often included Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn at the sunset of his fine career) and the infield (including future Hall of Famer Gil Hodges at first base, before knee injuries put paid to his playing career) was at minimum not bound for infamy. The next, they were the Three Stooges and the Four Marx Brothers.

Except when otherwise genial Marv Throneberry played first base. “This,” wrote then-New York Herald-Tribune writer Jimmy Breslin, “was like saying Willie Sutton works at your bank.” He was a former Yankee prospect now a gangling Charlie Chaplin for Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. When he didn’t hit the long ball now and then (he once ruined the Pirates and relief legend Elroy Face with a game-winning three-run homer), he either made things unravel or things unraveled through him.

The bullpen could have been mistaken for a flock of ducks. (Daffy, that is.) The bench could have been mistaken for the Keystone Kops. There were those convinced that Ernie Kovacs was raised from the dead to take the managing job in the aging Stengel’s stead.

The Mets were impregnated of the bold but ultimately doomed Continental League project in 1959, a third major league brainchild of former Dodgers mastermind Branch Rickey, that attracted several wealthy men and women to buy franchises, including in New York. The majors surrendered. They agreed to expand, for the first time, two new teams each.

They also agreed not to let the new teams get their meathooks to within ten nautical miles of solid talent, and not to let them raid the established rosters without paying through their noses and their ears. (Paul Richards, general manager of the National League’s incoming Houston Colt .45s—you know them today as the American League West’s ogres, the Astros—said it most memorably, if coarsely, to his front office: “Gentlemen, we’ve just been [fornicated]!”)

Casey Stengel

Casey Stengel, on the dugout steps in the ancient Polo Grounds. He may or may not have been asking was he really there when all that happened.

One of the wealthy incomers was Joan Payson, the aforementioned Giants stockholding holdout. She was awarded the National League’s new New York franchise. Some believed she’d really bought herself a zoo with the animals holding the keys.

Among their earliest fans was a certain six-year-old boy in the north Bronx, whose firm but kind and generous maternal grandfather (himself a displaced Giants fan) consented to take me to the Polo Grounds to see the madness. For giving his grandson such a gift, there were those who might have accused Grandpa Morris of child abuse.

Naturally, the Mets lost to the Cubs, 6-3. Only the Mets could make that generation of Cubs resemble contenders. The 1962 Cubs finished 59-103, good for ninth place. (This, children, was before the age of divisional play.) Their saving grace was my Mets finishing 40-120. It may have been one of the few times That Toddlin’ Town offered thanks for the Big Apple.

I saw a game featuring six future Hall of Famers. Four of them played for the Cubs. One of them (Ernie Banks) cracked a two-out home run in the top of the fourth to cut an early Mets lead in half, then slashed a two-run single an inning later to finish overthrowing that early Met lead, and finished the Cubs’ scoring with a seventh-inning sacrifice fly.

Among the Hall of Famers on my Original Mets that day, only Ashburn factored in the scoring, coming home from a leadoff single in the third aboard former Dodger Charlie Neal’s one-out triple. An inning earlier, future Cub Jim Hickman singled Sammy Taylor home with the first Met run of the game; three innings later, Taylor returned the favour by singling Neal home for the final Met run of the game.

As Original Mets games go, there was none of the slapstick that dominated that first surreal season. The lone error of the game wasn’t all that hilarious, outfielder Frank Thomas merely mishandling a drive. There was a lot of the fast-famous LET’S GO METS! chanting during the game, so I couldn’t really complain. I got enough of the slapstick watching the Mets on WOR-TV that summer when not in day camp.

Maybe the more apt comparison should have been to The Ed Sullivan Show, where you were liable to see an elegantly passionate performance of classical music followed immediately by a wild animal act. The Original Mets were much like that. One inning of baseball that might plausibly compare to Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun would be followed by twenty that compared plausibly to the clown cars of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Stengel Circus.

“Come an’ see my amazin’ Mets,” Stengel often hectored the incoming Polo Grounds customers. “I been in this game a hundred years but I see new ways to lose I never knew were invented yet.”

Stengel managed the Yankees to ten pennants and seven World Series rings in twelve seasons. With him at the helm, and Hall of Famer Yogi Berra behind the plate, the Yankees actually had a kind of human side. With successor Ralph Houk at the helm, the Yankees merely became efficient and boring, other than occasional uproars such as the 1961 Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle home run chase. Their fans reflected it as a sense of entitlement that’s been handed down through subsequent generations.

The Mets simply played off that Yankee hubris and let the city soon to be called Fun City know there was nothing wrong with having mad fun. The madder the better. Stengel’s triple-talking wit, which some mistook for disengagement, did the invaluable favour of keeping his hapless Mets from indignation and himself from going mad.

Marv Throneberry

“Marvelous Marv does more than just play first base for the Mets. He is the Mets.”Jimmy Breslin, in Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?

Perhaps the closest Stengel had to a kindred spirit was Ashburn, a longtime Phillies favourite (and one of the 1950 pennant-winning Whiz Kids) before coming to the Mets by way of the Cubs. “I don’t know what this is,” Ashburn observed of his Mets at one point during 1962, “but I know I’ve never seen it before.”

The downtrodden Dodgers of the 1930s inspired comparable loyalty but nothing much funnier than New York World-Telegram cartooning legend Willard Mullin drawing a caricature of circus legend Emmett Kelly, Jr.’s Weary Willie character to represent the Bums. The eternally downtrodden St. Louis Browns were about as funny as a tax audit until Bill Veeck got his hands on the team when it was too little, too late.

The likewise-downtrodden Washington Senators (who managed to win a pair of pennants and a World Series, somehow) had a legend—Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League—that wasn’t quite as true as it was iambically clever. (In sixty seasons before moving to Minneapolis, the Ancient Nats finished last in the American League exactly ten times.) And, occasional laughs.

“New York,” Veeck would write in The Hustler’s Handbook, “had nothing to prove to anybody. New York had the Broadway theatre, the Metropolitan Opera, the best art museums, the tallest buildings. New York had everything except a lousy ball club.”

Presented with as lousy a team as the most optimistic rooter could hope for, the city responded [to the Mets] with frightening passion. The more inept the club showed itself to be (and it reached pinnacles of ineptitude previously undreamed of), the closer the city hugged it to its ample bosom . . .

The Yankees always took the attitude that they were doing you a favour by permitting you to watch them perform. They would no more deign to court their customers than the Queen would deign to court her subjects when she grants her annual audiences . . .

It has only been with the rise of the Mets and the fall of the House of Houk that they have found it polite to provide entertainment. [1964] is the first year, I suspect, that they have seen a fan close up.

At this writing, it hasn’t worked. The Mets are a trip to the Fun House. The Yankees are still a board of directors meeting. I don’t know about your neighbourhood, but it had been years since anyone rioted on my block to attend a board of directors meeting.

Casey Stengel

Casey Stengel leaving the field for the clubhouse after the Mets’ final home game at the Polo Grounds, 18 September 1963. The original Eddie Grant memorial monument stone stands in front of the center post supporting the building housing offices and clubhouses. The Mets’ clubhouse is on the right; the visiting Phillies’ clubhouse, on the left. Rheingold Beer sponsored the Mets’ broadcasts from 1962-1973. The Rheingold sign blinked the ‘h’ for a hit or the ‘e’ for an error after official scorers ruled on close or tough plays. The Polo Grounds came down in early 1964; Rheingold died in 1976. Sad irony: the original Brooklyn brewery, like the Polo Grounds, was succeeded by an apartment complex.

The method behind the madness was Mets president George Weiss (Stengel’s general manager in those dominant Yankee years) stocking the Original Mets with names familiar enough to National League fans and a few unknown, untried entities to hold fort while men such as farm director Johnny Murphy built the organisation that ended up in a miraculous World Series triumph. With Original Met Hodges on the bridge as the manager. That’d teach them. Some thought something perversely precious was lost forever.

“There was never a team like the old Mets and there will never be another,” wrote Leonard Shecter—maverick sportswriter/editor, future editor of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, and the writer who first forged a veteran first baseman almost washed up from underuse into the myth of Marvelous Marv—in Once Upon the Polo Grounds, his reminder to those going even madder over the 1969 Miracle Mets that the Polo Grounds Mets were only too real and not to be forgotten. Ever.

Now it is all different. Casey Stengel is gone. The players, who try no harder than the old Mets, succeed more often and as a result are indistinguishable from baseball players all over. There is stuffiness in the front office. There is great concern about unimportant things. [The manager not long ago suggested to a newspaperman that he need not have blabbed in the public prints that the Mets scored their winning run on a bunt.] And, worst of all, when the Mets lose, there is nothing funny about it at all.

Today’s Mets play in a lovely playpen most of whose architecture evokes the memory of Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. The green seats are the team’s homage to the Polo Grounds, which also outlined its field box seats with dangling chains. It’s the only reference to the Original Mets in the park, other than Casey Stengel’s retired uniform number 37.

This year’s Mets look competitive, seem entertaining, seem engaging. But their 1962 ancestors are too ancient a memory for today’s attention deficit baseball fan. The Original Mets have been long doomed to repose in the pages of books, the archives of newspapers, the artifacts in the Hall of Fame. And, in the memories of those who still don’t know what it was but knew they’d never seen it before.

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