“The Last Miracle I Did Was The 1969 Mets”
In the 1977 comedy film ‘Oh, God!’, actor George Burns quipped “The last miracle I did was the 1969 Mets”. Fifty years ago, the hapless New York Mets who had never finished higher than 9th place in the 10-team National League started turning in one of the most unlikely championship runs in baseball history. The clinchers were a talented pitching staff that led the league in shutouts and a mid-season trade that brought in 34-year old Donn Clendenon.
1969 was the first year of divisional play in Major League Baseball and the Mets fell into the National League East camp. The opening weeks started looking like a repeat of the previous 7 years, which had never seen more victories than losses. April closed out with no surprises as the New York squad came in with a record of 9-11. They were still fighting the demons of their inaugural year in 1962 when the newly-created franchise went 40-120, posting the most game losses by any MLB team in the 20th century.
Gil Hodges, one of the original 1962 Mets, was now managing the team. Hired from the Washington Senators on a 3-year, $150,000 contract, the Mets were hoping he would add a touch of magic to their beleaguered ball club after leading the Senators from 10th place to 6th. Hodges was a fan favorite during his playing days with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950’s and he still had financial interests in bowling alleys in Brooklyn. A natural fit for the franchise, he would exceed all expectations by the end of the summer and achieve the unachievable by the end of the year.
Hodges’ predecessor, Wes Westrum, left him with a productive defense but a hollowed offense. Pitchers Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry and rising hurler Nolan Ryan formed the defensive core of the Mets. At bat, childhood friends Cleon Jones and Tommy Agee were the only power hitters with the possible exception of Art Shamsky. Hodges skillfully platooned his players and utilized all his assets in the dugout, but the team as a whole lacked prowess at the plate and two months into the season Hodges would go shopping for another slugger.
For the month of May, the Mets were even at 12-12, helped by a club-record of 11 straight wins that went into June and included 3 walk-offs and a dominant pitching that averaged just 2 runs per game. In between their losing stretches, Tom Seaver and his throwing peers showed the occasional brilliance on the mound, shutting out opponents and keeping the team on its destined trajectory. By the end of the season, the Mets pitching staff would lead both leagues with 28 shutout wins, double the number of shutout losses. Seaver would deliver 208 strikeouts, an ERA of 2.21, and earn the first of his 3 Cy Young Awards.
June was the turning point in Mets history. The perennial losers who were the laughingstock of professional baseball closed out the month with twice as many games secured as were let go. At 19-9, the franchise saw multiple home runs and leading RBI’s from the outfield duo, Agee and Jones. It would be the peak home run year in Agee’s career (26) and the best RBI season ever for Jones (75). On June 15th, the last man to join the Mets roster would also become the World Series MVP, Donn Clendenon.
Clendenon and Hodges came to know and like each other when the former sought out tips on defending first base while playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Their paths crossed during Spring training in 1964 when Hodges was starting out with the Senators. A former first baseman with oversized hands, the elder was renowned for his mastery of the position. Pee Wee Rees, a shortstop for the Dodgers and old teammate of Hodges, remarked once that “he could have played first base barehanded but wore a mitt because it was fashionable”.
Almost 34 years old, Clendenon was past his prime but Hodges wanted him for experience and leadership as much as for his offensive potential. In future years, the Morehouse College graduate who was later accepted to Harvard Law School (did not finish), became a personnel consultant for large companies such as General Electric and Mead Corporation. He played only 72 games in the remaining Mets season, but delivered his best slugging percentage (.455) since his peak in 1966. Absent in the playoffs, his unlikely moment would come at the World Series when he knocked 3 home runs and led his teammates with 4 RBI’s.
The Mets wrapped up the first half of 1969 with a 56.7%winning ratio and more surprises were looming on the horizon. The press began taking notice, but the level-headed Gil Hodges expressed no illusions or predictions. Late in the summer, when a reporter asked him if he would call the Mets a team of destiny, he replied “No, I wouldn’t”. On the field, he continued to exercise his quiet but disciplined approach to the game. When Cleon Jones failed to hustle for a ball in a match against the Astros, Hodges stepped to the outfield and deliberately walked the star player back to the dugout as a clear warning to the rest of the club. Later on, Hodges would be named The Sporting News’ Manager of The Year.
August and September closed out with unprecedented numbers of 21-10 and 23-7, respectively. Throughout the dog days of summer, the Mets were consistently in 2nd place trailing the Chicago Cubs, though the gap grew to 9 games behind. The breakout point began on September 6th and continued through the end of the month as the pitching crew manufactured 10 shutouts in a span of 25 games, forcing their opponents to 1.84 runs per game. New York would catapult to 1st place on September 10th and flip to an 8-game lead by the time they reached the pennant.
The Cinderella ball team finished the season 100-62 and went on to sweep the Atlanta Braves 3-0 for the NL title before upsetting the highly favored Baltimore Orioles 4-1 at the World Series. The luckless Mets had morphed into the turn-around Mets, who became the amazing Mets, and then 'The Miracle Mets'!
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