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.

The first annual Karl Ehrhardt Prize for Extinguished Baseball Trolling

PhilliesUseLifebuoy02

My phutile attempt to imagine how the 1930s Phillies’ Lifebuoy endorsement was, shall we say, augmented editorially by a disgruntled fan . . .

Once upon a time, the Phillies played in a ballpark shaped more or less like a sardine can, with the field looking as though shoehorned into a gymnasium. The place was called Baker Bowl, and the high aluminum right field wall once bore a team endorsement for a deodorant soap. With the Phillies not exactly being National League oppressors at the time, a particularly disgruntled fan managed to add to the ad’s slogan, making it read, “The Phillies Use Lifebuoy . . . and they STILL stink!

In the same decade (the 1930s), the Dodgers earned their legendary nickname the Bums, thanks to a cabbie asking a passenger, “How did our bums do today?” The passenger was  legendary New York World Telegram cartoonist Willard Mullin; the exchange inspired Mullin’s fabled remake of Emmett Kelly, Sr.’s “Weary Willie” hobo into the eternal representation of the Dodgers. The Bums were bums enough that one angry fan took his paint to Ebbets Field’s occupancy law sign, making it read, “Occupancy by more than 35,000 unlawful. And unlikely.”

You thought fan trolling began when Yankee fans trolled Curt Schilling during the 2001 World Series, after he alluded somewhat sarcastically to the Stadium’s “mystique and aura” to be greeted with, “Mystique and Aura. Appearing Nightly?” When George Steinbrenner’s worst of the 1980s inspired a Yankee Banner Day parade winner wearing a monk’s hooded cassock and hanging a sign saying FORGIVE HIM, FATHER, FOR HE KNOWS NOT WHAT HE DOES from the Grim Reaper’s scythe? When Red Sox fans began chanting “Darr-yllll! Darr-yllll!” at a certain Mets outfielder who wasn’t exactly breaking the neighbourhood on the Boston leg of the 1986 World Series? When assorted Cub fans at Wrigley Field whipped up placards saying WAIT ‘TILL NEXT YEAR—on Opening Day when the season’s first pitch was thrown? When seven Original Met fans greeted the Dodgers’ first return visit to New York by unfurling, in perfect sequence, from an upper deck rail, seven window shades spelling out:

2018-12-30 OMalleyGoHome

Yes, it’s another futile artist’s conception.

When done properly, with genuine wit, and without truly frothing malice, fan trolling is as much fun as a game-ending home run—or, if your team faces the bases loaded, a full count on the enemy hitter, the winning run at first base, and nobody out, your heroes turn a game-ending triple play. (Yes, it’s happened, though not with the bases loaded. The first victims, what a surprise, were the Mets, who ran themselves into one in August 2009, and unassisted yet, when Jeff Francoeur—batting with first and second—lined to Phillies second baseman Eric Bruntlett, who stepped on second and tagged the runner advancing from first in a near flash. Obviously the Mets needed Lifebuoy.)

Even Dodger fans enjoyed a sad chuckle when, with the Cardinals about to push the Dodgers out of a postseason and now-traded Yasiel Puig at the plate, a Busch Stadium fan held up a placard hailing, “Dodgers win? When Puigs fly!” The late Karl Ehrhardt would have been proud. So would the ancient Dodgers Sym-Phony Band, whose atonal racket charmed Ebbets Field fans and the Dodgers alike. Especially when they’d play “Three Blind Mice” after close calls went against the Dodgers. (The humourless umps actually tried getting injunctions against that and also against Ebbets Field organist Gladys Gooding for similar musical crimes against their dignity.) Or, trailing an enemy pitcher knocked out of the box, the Sym-Phony bass drummer would beat his drum to the pitcher’s steps back to the dugout, where taking his seat in the dugout (if he didn’t go to the clubhouse first) received a loud SPLAT! of bass drum and cymbal in unison.

DodgersSymPhonyBand

Troll over, Beethoven!

Karl Ehrhardt was the fabled Sign Man at Shea Stadium for a very long time (1964-1981), assembling handsome, colourfully-lettered, sometimes made-on-the-spot signs to address plays or situations. His parents moved their family from Germany to Brooklyn when he was six; he grew up a Dodger fan and became a commercial graphic artist by profession. He was known to bring as many as sixty of his reputed 1,200 signs to a given game, picking them according to whom the Mets would play and what he thought was likeliest to happen in a game, and he rarely misstepped.

KarlEhrhardt

Karl Ehrhardt.

A favourite was one of his greetings to an enemy pitcher who’d just been knocked out of the box: LEAVING SO SOON? (An alternate: Y’ALL COME BACK NOW, HEAR?) To an enemy pitcher walking a Met hitter intentionally: CHICKEN. To the Orioles with the Mets three outs from their miracle 1969 World Series conquest: BYE, BYE, BIRDIES! To any Cub foolish enough to argue with the umps over a close call going to the Mets: BACK TO YOUR CAVE, BEAR! (When the Orioles argued a close infield play during the Series, it was BACK TO YOUR NEST, BIRD!) After a win over the Cardinals, it was likely to be 5 AND 20 REDBIRDS BAKED IN A PIE!

When Athletics owner Charlie Finley tried to remove hapless second baseman Mike Andrews from the 1973 World Series roster, after two Game Two misplays in Oakland helped the Mets win in extra innings, Ehrhardt was more than prepared. Sure enough, there was an Oakland field miscue in the bottom of the first in Game Three. Up went the Ehrhardt sign: YOU’RE FIRED! (No, we don’t know whether Donald Trump was among the stadium crowd that afternoon.)

But he also knew how to let his own heroes have it when they were playing less than heroically. HE’S HOT TONIGHT! worked either for a Met on a streak or a Met in a slump. IT’S ALIVE! usually greeted a Met breaking out of a slump or a customarily weak hitter reaching base. JOSE, CAN YOU SEE? usually greeted any player named Jose, Met or opponent, who’d struck out. (It started with Jose Cardenal.) Clearly the man who had those plus KONG! and THE KING OF SWING! ready for one of Dave Kingman’s orbital home runs, ORANGE CRUSH! for big hits by Rusty (Le Grande Orange) Staub, and THEY SAID IT COULDN’T BE DONE! for the Miracle Mets’ first parade down New York’s Canyon of Heroes, deserves enduring recognition.

Ehrhardt’s days in the Shea third base field boxes ended after he became fed up with the team’s seemingly willful dissipation in the mid-to-late 1970s, with then-boss M. Donald Grant a particular target for having screwed the Tom Seaver pooch. WELCOME TO GRANT’S TOMB was probably the mildest of Ehrhardt’s trolls to the front office. Once a concurrent fixture at Mets team functions, Ehrhardt’s zaps made him persona non grata there, and, as he eventually said, “They turned their back on me so I turned my back on them.” But a later Met administration convinced him to return for the team’s 40th anniversary, a one-off appearance for which he shocked Met fans by hoisting THE SIGNMAN LIVES! before returning to his private life until his death in 2008.

Fans so often turn trolling into an art worthy of Fred Allen, Groucho Marx, Gracie Allen, Flip Wilson, Jack Benny, George Carlin, P.J. O’Rourke, and Jokey Smurf. But so do those involved with baseball professionally—as anyone can tell you who saw Roger McDowell bomb Mets first base coach Bill Robinson with a time-delayed hotfoot, or Joey Votto trolling road fans by chasing down foul grounders as if they were potential double play balls before they could become fan souvenirs. If the Yankees had beaten the Red Sox in this year’s American League division series, Aaron Judge would be the most powerful contender for the troll awards, thanks to his zapping the Red Sox as he left Fenway Park for the series move to the Bronx by playing “New York, New York” on his boom box.

Except that the Red Sox dumped the Yankees quickly and without a loss in the Stadium. No less than former Yankee star Mark Teixiera reminded Judge what happens when you awaken a sleeping giant. Even MLB itself, whose social media staffers know a thing or two about symbolism, couldn’t resist hitting the Yankees where it hurt on Twitter:

LadyLibertyRedSox

Having been unable to exhume the actual identity of the staffer whose genius it was to create that impossible to top fashion statement, we’ll just have to settle for giving  Throneberry Fields Forever’s first annual Karl Ehrhardt Prize for Extinguished Trolling thus:

2018KarlEhrhardtPrize

Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled Yankee fans yearning to breathe, period; the wretched refuseniks of the steaming Stadium. Send these, those homeless, Series-ringless-this-time-round to me. And lift your braying ears before the House That Ruthless Built!