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.

If cheaters don’t belong in Cooperstown . . .

Babe Ruth

“That’s a plug! This bat’s corked!”—Dave Henderson, handling one of Babe Ruth’s bats in a traveling exhibit. Soooooo . . . in the interest of keeping “cheaters” out of the Hall of Fame, do we purge the Sultan of Swat, hmmmm?

The evidence means nothing. There’s still a crowd fuming that that “cheater” David Ortiz was elected to the Hall of Fame on Tursday. Enough of that crowd fumes concurrently that “cheaters” have no place in the Hall of Fame.

Enough of them probably don’t remember, if they ever knew, sportswriting legend Heywood Broun pronouncing in 1923, in the New York World, “The tradition of professional baseball always has been agreeably free of chivalry. The rule is, ‘Do anything you can get away with’.”

Let’s take them up on the idea. Let’s start removing cheaters and their actual or alleged abetters from the Hall of Fame. Since I don’t want to be accused of even the thinnest strain of bias, I’m going to run down the list of defendants in alphabetical order.

Is everybody ready? Let’s play ball.

Richie Ashburn—The Shibe Park grounds crew did Ashburn a favour in the 1950s: sculpting the third base foul line into a kind of ridge to prevent Ashburn’s deft rolling bunts up that line from rolling over it into foul territory. Now, we don’t know if this was Ashburn’s idea or theirs, but . . .

Mr. Putt Putt’s out of the Hall of Fame on cheating grounds. If he didn’t suggest it, we’ll call this the Ashburn Rule: guilt by association, whether allowing it or enabling it in fact or by attempt. Just the way so many PED puffers snort often enough that those who played in the PED era are automatically guilty just for playing in it, regardless of whether they actually indulged.

Leo Durocher—Masterminded the from-the-center-field-clubhouse, hand-held telescopic sign-stealing scheme that helped his New York Giants come from thirteen games down to forcing a pennant playoff they won at home. (Fair disclosure: When Durocher asked his players who wanted the pilfered intelligence, Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Willie Mays demurred.)

The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant! Therefore, loose the Lip from the Hall of Fame.

Bob Feller—The pitching great brought a little souvenir home from World War II: a hand-held spyglass. His 1948 Indians took it into the scoreboard to steal signs down the stretch and may have been stealing signs that way during the World Series they won against the Boston Braves. (First baseman Eddie Robinson blew the whistle in his memoir, Lucky Me.)

So wouldn’t you now agree? Rapid Robert should be rousted out of the Hall rapidly for providing the inappropriate apparatus.

Whitey Ford—In the later years of his career, and by his own subsequent admissions, the brainy Yankee lefthander became a sort-of Rube Goldberg of pitching subterfuge: mud balls (“Ford could make a mud ball drop, sail, break in, break out, and sing ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’,” Jim Bouton wrote of it in Ball Four), ring balls (“It was like I had my own tool bench out there,” Ford once said of the wedding ring he used to scrape balls), buckle balls. (When the ring was caught, Ford had catcher Elston Howard scrape balls on his shin guard buckles before returning them to Ford. “The buckle ball,” Bouton wrote, “sang two arias from Aida‘.”)

The Chairman of the Board is hereby deposed. From Cooperstown, at least.

Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg—Their 1940 Tigers cheated their way to a pennant, using the scope from pitcher Tommy Bridges’s hunting rifle to steal signs from the outfield seats and relay them to hitters. Greenberg eventually admitted the scheme in his memoir. “I loved that. I was the greatest hitter in the world when I knew what was coming,” he once said.

Hammer down upon your heads, Mechanical Man and Hammerin’ Hank.

Rogers Hornsby—In 1962, when there seemed a move from baseball government to crack down on sign stealing, Hornsby published an article in True defending sign-stealing through scoreboards . . . which opened by denouncing then-White Sox relief pitcher Al Worthington after Worthington quit the team rather than abide by its scoreboard sign-stealing scheme.

“In my book,” wrote Hornsby, “he was a baseball misfit—he didn’t like cheating . . . I’ve been in pro baseball since 1914 and I’ve cheated or watched someone on my team cheat. You’ve got to cheat.” Hit the road, Rajah.

Connie Mack—Mack was on the 1910-1914 Philadelphia Athletics bridge while they had a novel for the times sign-stealing plot: someone standing atop a tall building beyond the ballpark fences wielding a telescope to steal signs and turning a flag one way or the other depending on the pitch to be signaled to the batter.

Nobody knows for dead last certain whether the Tall Tactician sanctioned the signs. Nor can it be proven (I think) that that had as much of a hand as pure economics in Mack’s first notorious fire sale. But . . . the Ashburn Rule is hereby invoked, and Mr. McGillicuddy shall henceforth be disappeared.

Gaylord Perry

“I just tend to leave a lotta evidence lyin’ around.”—Gaylord Perry.

Gaylord (It’s a Hard Slider) Perry—Even now you don’t even have to run down his record. Even if he was frisked like a street hustler but only once or twice arraigned. Just say the old gunkballer’s  name. Visions of sugar-plum K-Y jelly dance in and out of your head. Not to mention that little routine of brushing the bill of his cap, the sides of (what remained of) his hair, maybe a couple of taps on the front of his jersey, just to make batters think he was lubing up.

That ain’t peanuts, Mr. Peanut Farmer. Even if all you ever did was want them to think you had something naughty on the ball (and I can be convinced Perry’s real secret was psychological warfare), that’s a sub-clause Ashburn Rule purge for you. That’s the way the witch hunt hunts.

Frank Robinson—A member of the 1961 pennant-winning Reds whose erstwhile pitcher Jay Hook helped blow the whistle, sort of, on their ’61 scoreboard-based sign stealings during the same spring Hornsby flapped his flippers in defense of cheating. We don’t know if Robinson took stolen signs, but under the Ashburn Rule, the Judge is hereby judged unworthy of  Cooperstown. (Since Robinson is thought to be one of the creators of baseball’s clubhouse kangaroo courts, this seems even more appropriate, no?)

Babe Ruth—During 1983, the Louisville Slugger people sent a traveling exhibit of historic bats around major league clubhouses. Dave Henderson, then with the Mariners, spotted one of Ruth’s bats and saw something odd but familiar at the end of the barrel: the round end didn’t quite match the barrel’s wood. “That’s a plug!” Henderson hollered.  “This bat’s corked!” (The Babe was also once caught using a trick bat—four different wood pieces glued together—prompting American League president Ban Johnson to ban “trick bats” from game usage.)

As I see it, nothing could be more typical of Ruth than to use a corked bat if he could get by with it. Ruth tested the limits of the rules constantly; this was what made him who he was. He refused to be ordinary; he refused to accept that the rules applied to him, until it was clear that they did.

Bill James, in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

Sorry, Bambino. You might have been a corker in real life, but in baseball that pulls the cork on your Hall of Fame departure.

Casey Stengel—Watching his Yankee lefthander Eddie Lopat dueling Brooklyn Dodgers lefthander Preacher Roe in a World Series game, Stengel marveled: “Those two fellas certainly make baseball look like a simple game, don’t they? It makes you wonder. You pay all that money to great big fellas with a lot of muscles and straight stomachs who go up there and start swinging. And [Lopat and Roe] give ’em a little of this and a little of that and swindle ’em.”

A little of this and a little of that? Swindle? Code for illicit pitches, which both pitchers were suspected of throwing. Suspicion isn’t evidence? We don’t know about Lopat, but when Roe retired he promptly owned up in a magazine article. Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer called Roe the “master of the discreet spitball.”

We’re going after the big fish on this fishing expedition. If we can bar mere suspects using actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances from the Hall of Fame, who says we can’t strip a manager admiring a contest between a couple of spitball suspects, either? Oops. The Ol’ Perfesser is stripped of his tenure.

Don Sutton—“Sutton has set such a fine example of defiance,” longtime Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller once told Thomas Boswell, “that some day I expect to see a pitcher walk out to the mound with a utility belt on—you know, file, chisel, screwdriver, glue. He’ll throw a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it.” We’ll use the file, chisel, and screwdriver to unglue Sutton’s Hall of Fame plaque, instead.

Earl Weaver—Once, with his pitcher Ross (Skuzz) Grimsley in a jam, Weaver counseled Grimsley: “If you know how to cheat, now’s the time.” That should be enough to have Weaver—oft ejected by indignant umpires (“That little [expletive] called me names that would get a man killed in other places, and that was on days I didn’t throw him out,” Steve Palermo once said of him)—ejected from Cooperstown under the Ashburn Rule.

See what I mean? And those are just some of the ones we know.

But what to do with the freshly-purged actual or alleged cheaters, or with those who merely abetted or encouraged? We can’t just pretend their careers didn’t exist. We can’t just pretend they had as much to do with baseball history as I have to do with quantum physics. We’ve hunted down the witches, now which are the stakes on which we burn them?

Let’s re-mount their plaques in another otherwise isolated hamlet somewhere. We’ll nickname it Blooperstown. Ashburn’s plaque will be re-written in baseline chalk. Durocher’s, Feller’s, Gehringer’s, Greenberg’s, Mack’s, and Robinson’s will have little telescopes attached. Ford’s name will be re-written in mud. Hornsby’s will be re-written in Morse code. Perry’s will have a tube of K-Y jelly attached. We’ll re-mount Ruth on a cork board. Sutton’s can include a Black and Decker drill, since he once bragged he was accused so often he should get a Black and Decker commercial out of it. (He got one, too.) We still have to decide on Weaver, though.

We’ll re-inscribe their plaques in gold. Fool’s gold. In honour of the fools who think it’s that simple to consecrate a Hall of Fame filled with nothing but altar boys, boy scouts, choir boys, and monks.

And, we’ll re-mount them in George Frazier Hall, named for the one-time Yankee pitcher who responded to accusations of using foreign substances, with righteous indignation, “I don’t use foreign substances. Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.”