America’s called shot, fifty years later

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“When those astronauts landed on the moon, I knew we had a chance.”—Tug McGraw (right), Mets relief pitcher. (Left, of course, Buzz Aldrin on the moon, in the famous photograph taken by Neil Armstrong.

Writing once to commemorate Apollo 11, George F. Will couldn’t resist comparing John F. Kennedy’s kept promise to a baseball legend: It was like Babe Ruth’s ‘called shot’ in the 1932 World Series. America audaciously pointed its bat to the right field bleachers and then hit the ball to the spot.

Whether Ruth actually called the home run he blasted off Cubs pitcher Charlie Root is still open for debate. And it did take Ruth a lit-tle less time to hit the bomb than it took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to hit Kennedy’s ball to the spot.  But let’s not get technical.

The bad news is that 20 July was the birth date of only one Hall of Famer (Heinie Manush) among 48 players to have been born on the date. The good news is at least two World Series champions (Mickey Stanley, 1968 Tigers; Bengie Molina, 2002 Angels) were. And when Armstrong took his small step for man and giant leap for mankind, it inspired the World Series champions to be the same year.

“When those astronauts landed on the moon,” said Mets relief pitcher Tug McGraw, “I knew we had a chance. Anything was possible.”

Alan B. Shepard, Jr. took America’s first suborbital space flight a year before the Mets played their maiden season. As portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Shepard walked the line between inveterate joker and unflappable Navy commander. He was much like Original Mets manager Casey Stengel that way. Except that, by the time he launched, he didn’t have to ask NASA’s diligent calculators, physicists, aeronauticians, and biochemists any longer, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Wolfe portrayed with staggering accuracy and insouciant wit an American space program that began much like the Mets, the significant distinction being that the Mets might have been better off with monkeys doing men’s work even though they didn’t flub one rocket launch by blowing the top off like a champagne cork.

America’s space program required graduation from then-Senator Lyndon Johnson seriously considering professional acrobats and daredevil stunt people to pilot spacecraft to one Navy pilot (Armstrong) and one Air Force pilot (Aldrin) descending gently but firmly onto the moon, with a second Air Force pilot (Collins) piloting the command module around the moon.

Collins once admitted that in the event Armstrong and Aldrin died on the moon he’d return to earth as “a marked man for life.” He needn’t have worried. Baseball fans unfortunately treat actual or alleged game goats worse. Armstrong and Aldrin came through admirably and spared Collins any chance of becoming space travel’s Fred Merkle. He settled merely for being its Dick Stuart.

Stuart was a Pirate in 1960, a man blessed with preternatural long ball power and an equivalent talent for playing first base like a future 1962 Met, a talent that earned him the nickname Dr. Strangeglove. (Sidebar: Stuart did play for the Mets briefly during his career—in 1966, the year the Gemini space program concluded.)

Collins was preternaturally disposed against mistakes as he orbited the moon. Stuart—who’d promised to hit one out in the Series—went out on deck in the bottom of the ninth in Forbes Field in Game Seven of the 1960 World Series, with Ralph Terry on the mound for the Yankees and Bill Mazeroski leading off for the Pirates.

“I was gonna hit one,” Stuart said afterward. “Can I help it if Mazeroski got cute?”

A Met fan got cute in August 1969, when Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins rode down New York’s Canyon of Heroes for a celebratory ticker-tape parade, hoisting the sign Collins claimed his favourite among the sea of signs: WE LOVE THE METS. BUT WE LOVE YOU MORE. SORRY, METS.

Until Apollo 11, 20 July was a kind of lukewarm date for significant history in terms of volume, anyway. St. Hormisdas was elected Pope to succeed Sympowerus (514); Henry I succeeded his father Robert II as king of the Franks (1031); Sitting Bull surrendered to federal troops (1881); Alice Mary Robertson became the first woman to preside over the House of Representatives’ floor (1921); and, the Indo-China Armistice created North and South Vietnam (1954).

Birthdays on 20 July are something else. Heinie Manush, Mickey Stanley, and Bengie Molina share a birthday with Alexander the Great, Pope Innocent IX, New York City mayor Robert Van Wyck (one of the city’s most notoriously suffocating expressways is named for him), the namesake father (and jurist during the last years of the old Russian Empire) of novelist Vladimir Nabokov, future Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, publisher and one-time Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday, screen legend Natalie Wood, and rock star John Lodge (the Moody Blues).

On 20 July 1969, too, the late Jim Bouton was still a relief pitcher for the Seattle Pilots and still composing the diaries that would become Ball Four. His entry for 20 July, when the Pilots continued an extra-innings game suspended from the night before: Poor John Gelnar. The game was picked up today in the seventeenth inning and he promptly lost it. Then he lost the regular game, which is two in one day and not, under most circumstances, easy to do.

The Mets spent 20 July 1969 sweeping a doubleheader from the Montreal Expos. Their National League East rivals, the Cubs, swept one from the Phillies. The Astros, to whom Bouton would be traded in time to be part of their outlying spot in the NL West race, didn’t play. And it was baseball’s last round before that year’s All-Star break.

Unfortunately, the Mets were delayed at the Montreal airport for their flight back to New York. It enabled the players to watch Armstrong and Aldrin hit the moon on a television set in the airport bar. “[T]he irony wasn’t lost,” remembered outfielder Ron Swoboda. “I thought, We can’t get back from Montreal to New York, and here’s a guy stepping on the moon!

A day later, Bouton and his first wife asked the Korean orphan they adopted a year earlier if he’d like an American name, a subject they didn’t broach earlier for fear of adding to the boy’s burden adjusting to American parents in America. Knowing the boy’s friends had trouble pronouncing “Kyong Jo,” Bouton asked what about “David.”

The boy said, “Yeah.” “Okay,” said Pop, “we’ll call you David. You’ll be David Kyong Jo Bouton.” Right on cue, the lad ran out to holler to his neighbourhood buddies, “Hey, everybody, I’m David. I’m David!” Today David Bouton helps run Citigroup’s real estate financial group covering North America.

When the Beatles played their first concert at Shea Stadium, the longtime home of the Mets, before a mammoth, packed house, John Lennon is said to have commented after the evening ended, “We’ve been to the mountaintop. Where do we go from here?” Already having achieved a kind of immortality, the Beatles merely went from there to what an eventual fictitious toy astronaut described, to infinity and beyond.

When the 1969 Mets won their unlikely division, pennant, and World Series championships, they could ask, plausibly, “We’ve reached the Promised Land. Where do we go from here?” They went from there to a couple of pennant races, the death of a beloved manager, a few spells of futility and the occasional World Series appearance (including another claim on the Promised Land), and, alas, to today’s traveling circus.

When Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, they, especially, could ask plausibly, “We’ve been to the moon. Where do we go from here?” Armstrong became a teacher, co-investigator of the Challenger tragedy, and a businessman; Aldrin, sadly, battled clinical depression and alcoholism before he sobered and, in due course, founded a company to develop re-usable rocket launchers. He also once settled the hash of a conspiracy theorist claiming the moon landings were faked and (with a Bible) poking him repeatedly by administering a right cross.

America sent a few more men (including Shepard himself, romping like a boy all over again with a makeshift lunar golf club) to the moon, ran eventual space shuttle missions to build the international space station among other projects, and has its eye on Mars and beyond at this writing. CBS turned out to be only half kidding when it scored a mid-1960s hit with My Favourite Martian.

Sometimes you can ponder that nothing we’ve done in space since equals Apollo 11 for the singular, permanent joy of having done what we promised to do, that was once unthinkable, and that hadn’t been done. Ever. But then nothing in baseball quite equals the singular, permanent joy of, say, the Mets conquering the game in 1969, the Phillies reaching the Promised Land for the first time ever in three long-distance tries, the Red Sox’s first return to the Promised Land since the end of World War I, the Cubs’ first return to the Promised Land since the Roosevelt Administration (Theodore’s), the Angels’ and the Astros’ first trips to the Promised Land ever.

Seven major league teams still have yet to win a World Series at all; another (the Indians) hasn’t won one since the Berlin Airlift. And two have been traded, the Astros going to the American League in exchange for the Brewers. So far, the American League has the better end of that deal.

The Dodgers haven’t won a Series since the day after the British tried to ban broadcast interviews with members of the Irish Republican Army. But right now their chances of returning to the Promised Land this year are the best they’ve been in a likely seventh consecutive season of winning the NL West.

Among the teams having yet to reach the Promised Land, one (the Nationals) plays in the nation’s capital, which once had a couple of baseball teams (both known as the Senators) that gave it a not always accurate image: “Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” Today, Nats fans can chant plausibly enough, “Washington: First in war, first in peace, and not yet beyond the NL East.”

Take heart, Nationals, Brewers, Indians, Mariners, Rangers, Rays, and Rockies fans. When those astronauts landed on the moon, and the 1969 Mets reached the Promised Land, they did indeed prove that anything was possible. For baseball teams, for America, and for mankind.

And it’s possible that Washington, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Seattle, Arlington, Tampa Bay, and Denver will deliver themselves to the Promised Land before America points her bat to the Martian right field bleachers. And hits the ball to the spot.

When miracle workers re-convene

2019-05-02 AfterTheMiracleBack in 2001, three 1940s Red Sox—Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dominic DiMaggio—planned a road trip to visit their Hall of Fame teammate Ted Williams one last time. Friends since their playing days, the trip’s only disruption was Doerr unable to make it after his wife suffered her second stroke.

Fifteen years later, one of the 1969 Miracle Mets, outfielder Art Shamsky, decided it was time to do something similar in visiting his Hall of Fame teammate Tom Seaver, after long-term, lingering manifestations of Lyme disease began curtailing Seaver’s travel away from his Napa Valley, California home and vineyard.

The Pesky-DiMaggio trek and the lifetime bond between them, Williams, and Doerr were recorded lyrically by the late David Halberstam in The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship. Until Harvey Araton’s Driving Mr. Yogi—about the bond between the late Hall of Fame catcher and a later Yankee pitching star, Ron Guidry, as spring Yankee instructors—there was no better chronicle of baseball friendships and their sometimes impenetrable bonds.

Shamsky rounded up pitcher Jerry Koosman, shortstop Bud Harrelson, outfielder Ron Swoboda, and baseball historian Erik Sherman for the journey to Seaver. And he’s  produced (with Sherman) After the Miracle: The Lasting Brotherhood of the ’69 Mets. (New York: Simon and Schuster; 325 p.; $28.00/$18.30, Amazon Prime.) Unlike the Halberstam and Araton books, Shamsky takes the weight of chronicling the final journey upon himself, from the inside, with Sherman’s help. And he delivers it as precisely as Seaver once delivered fastballs.

Shamsky, Koosman, Harrelson, Swoboda, and Sherman didn’t pile into a car and drive east to west for their trip as the old Red Sox did for Williams. The whole thing began over lunch between Shamsky and Sherman, pondering the coming 50th anniversary of the 1969 Mets. And, knowing Seaver—who has since retired completely from public life, after his family announced him diagnosed with dementia—wouldn’t be able to travel for any commemoration in New York.

When Sherman suggested bringing a reunion to Seaver, Shamsky pounced. All he needed was to pick the teammates for the trip. He wanted Harrelson desperately, since the former shortstop himself deals with the memory issues of Alzheimer’s disease. He also wanted Seaver’s rotation mate Koosman, “one of the most gregarious characters I’ve ever known”; and, Swoboda, with whom he competed for playing time in right field as a ’69 Met. “He’s liable to say anything, at any time, anywhere,” Shamsky writes admiringly.

When he told Seaver he wanted to bring that trio with him, Seaver was all in. “We’ll sit around, laugh a little bit, reminisce,” Shamsky told Seaver, “and tell the same old lies—the balls that we barely hit over the fence that are now five-hundred foot blasts—those kinds of lies.”

“Ahh,” Seaver replied with a chuckle, “but those are good lies.”

Swoboda hesitated at first, in the wake of his wife’s surgery to remove a malignant tumour, but went all in as well. Koosman was eager from the outset so long as he was free when the others could go. Harrelson was in, too, though his former wife (with whom he maintains a close friendship) first thought the tickets sent him for the trip came from a baseball card show promoter. Realising it wasn’t, Kim Harrelson left Shamsky one instruction: take lots of pictures to help him remember the journey.

The group was forewarned by Seaver’s wife, Nancy, that they were taking a small gamble. “We just don’t know how he’s going to feel—he gets foggy sometimes,” she advised. She knew the visit would be good for Seaver and for Harrelson, as well, “but just understand that some days are good and some days are not too good. Every day is different. It’s really a roll of the dice.”

They’d fly across country and have only one day to spend with Seaver. But it turned out to be the winning roll. The four Miracle Mets recalled the key days and nights of their unlikely trek to the World Series championship and some of the details involving their acquisition of several key pieces to it.

They enjoyed remembering things like first baseman Donn Clendenon’s wicked humour (his nickname was Clink), third baseman Ed Charles’s spirit, spare infielder Al Weis’s coverup of the bat logo on the souvenir bat he insisted on using in the Series (it was an Adirondack the feel of which he liked though he was signed with Louisville Slugger), the circus clinic the Mets outfielders put on in the Series, manager Gil Hodges’s deftness at using his entire roster, and, of course, the atmosphere around the team and its unlikely (to everyone but themselves) accomplishment.

Including the atmosphere of the city and the country during the Series. With unrest over the protracted Vietnam War achieving fever pitch, one demonstrator outside Shea Stadium hoisted a sign: BOMB THE ORIOLES–NOT THE PEASANTS! In baseball terms the peasants did indeed bomb the Orioles—not to mention out-pitch and out-catch them—to win the Series in an unlikely four straight following a Game One loss.

Koosman remembered entertainment legend Pearl Bailey stopping him as he paced nervously before his Game Five start. “Kooz, settle down, settle down,” Bailey told him. “I see the number eight, and you’re going to win.” Indeed. Weis’s unlikely blast in the bottom of the seventh, tying the game at three, was only the eighth home run the middle infielder ever hit in the major leagues. And, the last.

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Seaver (left) and Shamsky (right), flanking original Mets owner Joan Payson in 1969.

The group also remembered the ribald prank Koosman hatched with a radio bug and a Mets television director named Jack Simon, the latter impersonating sportscasting legend Howard Cosell so dead on it shook Seaver to flip his radio on and hear he was being traded to the Astros—with Mets chairman M. Donald Grant in earshot. That was a prank, but Grant’s eventual purge of Seaver after a contentious contract renegotiation broke the Mets and their fan base in half eight years later.

They reveled with Seaver in his pride over his vineyard and indulged the one habit former ballplayers can never avoid when they reunite at all, never mind renew such friendships as these and other 1969 Mets share—an out-of-the-dugout version of bench jockeying. Consider this exchange, recalling a tough play for Swoboda on a rare day playing left field, with Harrelson in his customary habit of gunning out from shortstop on any short fly as Swoboda shot forward for it.

Swoboda: “I see Buddy and he ain’t stopping. But I didn’t even have time to make the call to say I had it.”

Seaver: “I remember that, too. I was pitching!”

Koosman: “Yeah. Cheech (a Swoboda nickname, aside from the usual Rocky) caught the ball and about three seconds later, you ran over him!”

Swoboda: “I know I did. But you didn’t want the ball to fall in, did you? I didn’t know what to do.”

Seaver: “Did anybody bother to use the English language out there?”

Harrelson today looks as grandfatherly as a former athlete can look and admits to writing notes to himself to help with his stricken memory. Koosman, who credited Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax for teaching him a better and more variable curve ball, resembles a portly rancher rather than the machine designer and pilot he became after baseball. Only Shamsky’s gray betrays his age; he still looks like a tapered ballplayer as well as the broadcaster he was and realtor he still is. Swoboda, a longtime broadcaster post-baseball, looks more like a former footballer now but does colour commentary for the telecasts of the minor league New Orleans Baby Cakes (AAA).

They swapped stories about Berra (a Mets coach from 1965-72, before succeeding Hodges as manager following Hodges’ fatal heart attack) and other coaches, including bullpen coach Joe Pignatano. (“Piggy was Hodges’s spy,” said Koosman about the coach Shamsky describes as having one job: “to keep control of the pitchers out in the bullpen who were out of control.”) And they reminded each other that age’s betrayals didn’t have to obstruct life.

Even as they miss the earthly presences of those among their 1969 fraternity long gone. Hodges, Charles, Berra, and Clendenon. (“Hey, remember the Caesar’s Palace act we had after the Series? Donn Clendenon would have himself paged every five minutes just to hear his name.”)

Outfield acrobat Tommie Agee, veteran pitcher Don Cardwell, spare infielder Kevin Collins, spare relief pitcher Cal Koonce, co-closer Tug McGraw. (“I’ll tell you one thing,” Seaver said of the flaky but effective lefthander, “I want him right here in my foxhole, I’ll tell you that!”) Third base coach Eddie Yost. (“I used to tease him all the time,” Shamsky says, “by saying, ‘Eddie, you really look like a ballplayer. You look like you could still play!”) Pitching coach Rube Walker. (“I’d call him even during the winter,” Koosman says. “He had a way of putting up with our BS and still have a smile on his face—just always glad to see you the next day.”) All long gone to the Elysian Fields.

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This Bloomberg photo shows Tom and Nancy Seaver amidst their Napa Valley grapevines in 2017.

Seaver now looks the part of a veteran wine grower especially when he’s paired with Nancy, his wife of almost 53 years, to whom age has been a little more kind. When having a private moment among the grapevines with Shamsky, Seaver admitted quietly that he’s had to ward off anxiety attacks since his condition became more acute than when he first battled Lyme disease while still living in Connecticut.

“I was so frightened,” Seaver recalled about such an attack, while with his wife en route visiting a former Mets announcer. (Seaver himself spent a few years as a Yankee announcer, teamed with Phil Rizzuto and Bill White.) “Man, it just made me breathe heavy like this. We turned around and went home. I mean, this Lyme disease ain’t fun. It can be absolutely frightening. The more cardiovascular I do, the better off I am. And drinking wine helps. I drink about half a bottle of wine per night. I haven’t had a beer in about eight years. But the traveling, no. I just can’t anymore.”

Meaning Seaver can’t be present when the Mets commemorate their first World Series winner come June. Or, at the Hall of Fame, in July, when Yankee relief legend Mariano Rivera, Yankee/Oriole ace Mike Mussina, Mariners hitting clinician Edgar Martinez, the late mound marksman Roy Halladay, longtime relief ace Lee Smith, and longtime outfielder Harold Baines will be inducted.

But you can get Seaver’s presence, and the bond of the biggest surprise champions of the 1960s, in this amiable book, mourning those absent, thankful for those still present, and quietly contented that their baseball fellowship melted into something more enduring than the transience of even the most transcendent World Series triumph.