Sports of The Times
National League baseball returned to New York City 60 years ago, and Manager Casey Stengel knew exactly what he was brought in to sell.
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Now, baseball fans can dream again.
Even with all the terrible things going on around the world, fans of all 30 teams have the annual March diversion of dreaming: free agents actually worth the money, franchise pitchers staying healthy, the promised brilliance of the latest “pheenom” (to speak with Casey Stengel’s vocabulary).
Once there was a spring when a ready-made fan base, equal parts bitterness and adoration, saw dreams come true, via the Worst Team in the History of Baseball — 40 wins, 120 losses. You could look it up.
The losses came after the Mets were cobbled together in the manic spring of 1962 and supported by a built-in fan base of New York’s brokenhearted National League fans.
In this round-year anniversary — it has been 60 years since that inaugural season — it is safe to say that never has an American sports team begun with an aura like that of Stengel’s Amazing Mets — bedsheet banners, lusty chants and ancient blood loyalties, all touched off by the Ancient Mariner of a skipper.
The Mets were a welcome addition even before they fumbled their first pop-up, hit into their first triple play, tossed their first game-losing home run.
Whatever Mets fans obsess about today — Jacob deGrom’s elbow, the undervaluing of Jeff McNeil, the lack of continuity in the front office; I could go on — the team is supported by a six-decade love affair with the bittersweet image of “same old Mets” or “did you hear about this?” — even when they win.
Some of us can still remember how this all began, when Stengel assembled his pitchers at home plate on a funky lakeside practice field in St. Petersburg, Fla., in February 1962 and commanded them to run to first base, because that was the essence of baseball.
I was 22, enjoying covering high school sports for that great paper Newsday, on Long Island, and also enjoying the gaggle of New York baseball writers in Florida spreading the word about the ineptitude/lovability of this new team.
In those days, before teams’ ubiquitous presence on social media, radio and TV, newspapers were the major outlet for a new team — and Stengel knew it.
The dispatches reached an instant Mets fandom looking to right a moral wrong — the abdication of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers to California after the 1957 season.
Other cities have lost their only team — some got a new one — but New York, New York, did not take kindly to the loss of both National League teams.
I was recently comparing notes with one of my best friends, Steve Jacobson, now retired after half a century, mostly as sports columnist, with Newsday. He covered a part of spring training with the Mets in 1962.
Jacobson recalled his fear, in 1957, that both New York teams were going to skip town for California. He had been a copy boy at The New York Daily Mirror after college and then went into the Army, based at Fort Bragg, N.C.
“I remember going into the barracks and reading The Times, and it said the Dodgers really were moving,” Jacobson recalled. “I threw the paper on the floor and said, ‘Damn, I’m never going to see the Dodgers again.’”
Hearts were broken. Willie Mays was going to San Francisco. Gil Hodges was going to Los Angeles. From 1958 to 1961, sulking Giants and Dodgers fans had to put up with the lordly Yankees winning three pennants and two World Series.
Some of us refer to that time as the Dark Ages.
“I was young, I didn’t have money, but I went to some Yankees games,” Jacobson admitted. “You respected them, but it wasn’t as much fun.”
He recalled that die-hard fans would fiddle with their radio dial to pick up Dodgers and Giants games from Philadelphia and other N.L. cities. “Some people drove down to Philadelphia to see the Dodgers and Giants. People would get mad because there were so many New Yorkers in the ballpark.”
Political pressure and economic reality forced a new team in New York to be created in 1962. It was to be called the Mets, named after the Metropolitans, a 19th century New York team, and based, temporarily, in the rusty, vacated Polo Grounds, hard by the Harlem River.
The first good sign for “us” was the hiring of the Old Man, Stengel, who had won 10 pennants in 12 years for the Yankees and was then “dismissed” (in his ornate vocabulary) for the criminal offense of turning 70.
Jacobson was hired by Newsday to cover the Yankees in 1960, and Jack Mann, the great sports editor, sprung me to cover a few home games that year and several dozen more in 1961, the year of Roger Maris’s 61 homers. For National League types, the wait was on.
The new Mets management wisely hired Stengel before the 1961 World Series, which was played then in God’s own sunlight in early October and vastly more important to the American populace than it is today. Stengel was at Yankee Stadium, in the media scrum on the field before Game 2, evangelizing the glories of the Amazing Mets.
Stengel was described perfectly in The New York Times by Arthur Daley, the sports columnist, as sporting a “green Tyrolean hat,” doing one of his famous soliloquies in his language known as Stengelese:
“There’s Mr. Berra, which uster help me manage. … I don’t want to get close to these fellers which I am in the other league now and Mr. Berra will live to be 110. These once were my players and they gave me success to a certain extent and no one can say why.”
(To translate: He was saying he would never do such a thing as covet Yankees players. However, he would pick up “Mr. Berra” as a playing coach and good luck charm in 1965.)
The Old Man was present for Cincinnati’s only victory in that World Series, as Elio Chacon of the Reds dashed home from third base as a pitch got past the catcher. Chacon slid home in a cloud of Stadium dust and brushed himself off, applauded by anti-Yankees fans. I was there, writing a sidebar for Newsday, in an auxiliary press box, directly behind the Old Man, who doffed his aforementioned Tyrolean hat.
(With that single act of hustle, Chacon earned himself a spot with the Mets in their first season; Stengel had an affinity for players who hustled. Chacon had a mostly futile season, and never played in the majors again.)
As the team filled its roster with players other clubs did not want, Stengel was creating the Mets, an image-building act worthy of a high-grade advertising agency — whisking back and forth from his home in Glendale, Calif., to wherever there were note pads and cameras and microphones in New York.
He had a rolling monologue about the Amazing Mets, the Metsies, and his dream for “the youth of America” because “they ain’t failed yet.”
In January 1962, Stengel materialized in Manhattan to hold a no-news conference. Jacobson reported in Newsday that Stengel had drawn photographers and even Gabe Pressman, the peripatetic radio news reporter, away from “the president and the mayor” — that is, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Wagner.
Stengel waved a paper roster detailing the culls and rejects the Mets had accumulated — geezers named Hodges, Ashburn, Bell, Zimmer, Thomas, Labine, Neal — to attract nostalgic National League fans — plus Chacon, of course, as well as Rod Kanehl, a longtime Yankees farmhand who had impressed Stengel by vaulting a fence on a practice field to catch a long fly ball.
The Old Man said he wore out a roster every day, brandishing it to writers and fans and prospective ticket buyers.
As he strode away, Stengel had parting words for the media types:
“Don’t forget to join the Amazing Mets!” Stengel shouted, adding, “If they have a newspaper merger, get a glove.”
Most New York newspapers assigned beat writers from the good old days — Dick Young of The Daily News was one — but The Times went the other route and dispatched Robert Lipsyte, not long out of Columbia University, literate and observant with no allegiance to standard sportswriting styles.
In his 50th anniversary paean to the Mets, Lipsyte described those first days of camp, including how he actually took his glove with him and was allowed to shag flies at the lakeside field. The first fly “exploded in my hand” and “my palm still stings at the memory.” Fortunately, it did not seem to harm his articles, which I read avidly up north.
The New Yorker sent Roger Angell to see if he could dig up anything — the start of a career shift for the now-centenarian icon.
We at Newsday assigned Stan Isaacs, who wrote a column called Out of Left Field, which he most certainly was, and Jacobson, who started the spring with the Yankees and switched to the Mets.
“The Mets may finish ahead of the Colts because they have implemented their expansion draft roster with journeymen like Frank Thomas and Charlie Neal,” Isaacs wrote, picking the Mets for ninth place in the 10-team National League; Jacobson had them eighth.
“Ah, that was just wishful thinking,” Jacobson said recently. “They had formerly good players who just couldn’t do it anymore.” He brightened and said, “But there was a lot of laughter all the time.”
In St. Louis for the opening game, nearly a dozen Mets were stuck in an elevator in the team hotel and, for better or worse, rescued, in time to lose.
Same old Mets.
The first home game was two days later — Friday the 13th, of course. I played hooky from the high school beat to sit in the stands on a nasty, sleety afternoon to watch the aged Mets slipping and sliding in front of only 12,447 fans. The growing Mets fandom survived a nine-game losing streak before they would win one: same old Mets.
In the days to come, Richie Ashburn, wise old slap hitter, would insist on playing, despite a concussion from hitting the wall. Same old Mets.
The Mets picked up a former Yankee named Marvin Eugene Throneberry, born to be a Met, erratic in the field and on the basepaths. Ashburn, in the next locker, counseled Marvelous Marv to enjoy the chants from the fans: “Raspberry! Strawberry! We Love Throneberry!” Same old Mets.
“You had things you never had before, like banners and signs and chants like a college football game,” Jacobson recalled. “‘Let’s go Mets!’ It was very loud.”
Stengel would go out on the field and it would get louder. People would stand on the dugout.
The New York fans blended their hatred of the departed Dodgers and Giants owners with their love of National League ball — Roberto Clemente! Henry Aaron! Frank Robinson! Stan Musial! When Willie Mays and Duke Snider came home in their road gray uniforms, there were lusty family reunions.
It was a glorious time, and it seems like yesterday. I eventually covered Mets games, home and away, as the crowds began to flock to this strange early-60s happening in Woodstock-on-Harlem.
With the Yankees, Stengel used to concede that he couldn’t have done it without the players.
With the Mets, Stengel couldn’t have done it without the fans.
Mets at 60: Before They Were Amazin’, They Were Amazing – The New York Times