Reporter’s Notebook – Memories of the ’69 Miracle Mets
In a professional writing career that spans six decades and encompasses three daily newspapers and one weekly, three books, and freelance articles for more than 50 publications, it’s still easy for me to zero in on the highlight—the New York Mets’ improbable four games-to-one victory over the favored Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 World Series.
It is difficult to conceive that nearly 50 years have elapsed since those three memorable afternoons at Shea Stadium. As a young sports editor completing my second year at the Waterbury Republican, an esteemed daily newspaper with a Pulitzer Prize on its mantel, I covered games three, four, and five at Shea. With appropriate media credentials, I had access to the field prior to each game, the press box, and press room, and both clubhouses.
I should point out that I’d covered a slice of two World Series earlier in the decade, so I felt neither overwhelmed nor underprepared.
As a young staff member at the Republican, I was assigned the third game of the Yankees-Cardinals’ 1964 Series at Yankee Stadium—decided by Mickey Mantle’s dramatic ninth-inning home run that gave the Bronx Bombers a 2-1 victory. Of note: That was Mantle’s 16th in World Series competition and enabled him to break the tie he shared with Babe Ruth for career homers in the fall classic. In 1966, the New Haven Journal-Courier sent me to Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, where I watched the Orioles win games three and four to complete their four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
So, after Mets lefthander Jerry Koosman wrapped up the 1969 World Series with a five-hit, 5-3 victory over the powerful Orioles in game five, I felt very much at home entering the celebratory Mets clubhouse. Inside, New York’s latest darlings were swigging bottles of champagne, roaring with laughter and dispensing words of triumph to anyone holding a notebook or a camera. One memory lingers: A jubilant Koosman pouring champagne (albeit not the entire bottle) over my cranium during the post-game merriment.
I was delighted that I had the opportunity to interview Mets Manager Gil Hodges, one of my boyhood heroes with the “Boys of Summer” Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, most notably following the title game victory. Gil agreed that first baseman Donn Clendenon, who’d walloped three homers, deserved the World Series most valuable player award and the sports car that went with it. “But I wish there could be 29 cars given out, for the 25 players and the four coaches. They all did a heckuva job,” a remarkably composed Hodges said from his chair in the comparative calm of his office.
The former power-hitting Dodger first baseman, never one to boast, should have included a 30th automobile for himself. In two seasons as manager, he had transformed a club that averaged 105 losses through its first seven seasons into a division titleholder, National League pennant-winner and, ultimately, World Champions. For that accomplishment, Hodges deserved nothing less than a Rolls-Royce.
Few could have envisioned the 1969 Mets making the quantum leap from ninth place to the pennant; Las Vegas oddsmakers made them a 100-to-1 shot. While the Mets boasted a Cy Young Award-winner in Tom Seaver (25-7, 2.18 ERA) and other superb pitchers in Koosman, Gary Gentry, reliever Tug McGraw and a budding Nolan Ryan, as well as a solid defense, there were few hitters of note.
By contrast, the Orioles, who had won 109 games during the American League season, were led by two-time MVP Frank Robinson, Gold Glove third baseman Brooks Robinson, slugging first baseman Boog Powell and a pitching staff headed by 20-game winners Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally, and a Hall of Famer in the making, Jim Palmer.
Well, Seaver and company silenced the Baltimore bats, limiting the Orioles to a collective .146 average and nine runs.
Several of the principals responsible for the Mets’ storybook run that summer are deceased. Hodges succumbed to a heart attack just days removed from his 48th birthday in April 1972. Tommie Agee, the centerfielder who made two remarkable catches in the Mets’ 5-0 victory in Game 3, died in 2001. McGraw, who popularized the Mets’ “Ya gotta believe” rallying cry, passed in 2004; Clendenon died a year later.
And Seaver was unable to join 15 of his teammates for the Mets’ salute to the 1969 World Champions this past June 29 at Citi Field. Sadly, the Hall of Fame pitcher has been diagnosed with dementia.