It was the year the United States became the first country to put a man on the moon. It was also the year that computer science saw the first electronic message transmitted through what we would eventually call the Internet. Both seemed to many people like technological miracles.
There was another “miracle” in 1969, this one on the baseball diamond, when the New York Mets won the World Series.
The Lovable Losers
From their inauspicious debut in 1962, the New York Mets were the “Lovable Losers,” finishing for seven seasons at the bottom of the stats, always last or next to last in the National League.
Casey Stengel, the first manager of this new National League expansion team, was legendary for leading the New York Yankees to seven World Series titles. But by the time he signed with the Mets, he was already in his 70s, and he was leading a team of players who also were not in their prime. Stengel once joked about his team’s deficiencies, inviting the public to come and see “my amazin’ Mets,” who consistently found “new ways to lose.”
Legendary New Yorker sports writer Roger Angell (who, by the way, is still with us at age 101), once called the Mets “anti-matter to the Yankees,” who were the most powerful team in baseball. “There’s more Met than Yankee” in the rest of us ordinary people, Angell wrote, and that was why we loved them so much.
But the Mets’ luck changed in 1969. That’s when the “Lovable Losers” transformed into the “Miracle Mets,” with a surprise World Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles.
Defying the Odds
Their dedicated fans believed in them despite their never winning more than 66 games per season (in 1962, they only won 40, with 120 losses). Gil Hodges, who had only taken over as manager of the team in 1968, believed in them, too.
In 1969, Las Vegas bookies set the odds at 100-1 against the Mets even winning the pennant. When the Mets first surpassed the Chicago Cubs in the 1969 National League East division, then took the NL pennant in a victory over the Atlanta Braves, plenty of people were stunned.
A Team Transformed
Hodges had developed a number of strong young players to replace the veterans of decades past. The Mets had a completely new starting lineup and their pitching staff were all 25 or under.
At the beginning of June, Hodges held a post-game pep talk with his team. Himself a beloved former Dodgers player, Hodges had earned the respect of his players. He didn’t raise his voice at them or blame them. What he told them was that they were more than their losses, that they were better than the record that stretched behind them.
Under Hodges, the Mets became a completely different team. They went on to win their next 11 games, putting them into strong competition against the Cubs. With extraordinarily gifted players like Tom Seaver, Cleon Jones, Nolan Ryan, Ron Swoboda, and Jerry Koosman on the team, by September they were on fire, 24-8, and Jones was leading the NL in batting. All this led them to that easy first place in the Eastern division.
When they went up against the Braves for the pennant, their opponents included the powerful “Hammerin’” Hank (he preferred to be called Henry) Aaron. Despite having the home-team advantage in the first two of the best-of-five NL pennant series, the Braves lost both. When the series moved to Shea Stadium for Game 3, the Mets clinched the pennant with a 7-4 win.
After the defeat, the Braves’ general manager said grimly that the Mets were so unstoppable that sending them to fight in Vietnam would end the war in three days.
The World Series Win
But even with all this success, the World Series was another thing entirely. Baltimore had shown themselves the most formidable team to emerge in the past decade. Their players included the formidable Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson, and they had clinched the American League pennant over the Minnesota Twins by winning three games in a row.
So, of course, the Orioles were the heavy favorites, and the presumed winners, of the World Series. And they indeed won the first game, which they played at home, of the best-of-seven. But then the Mets won the second game, and it dawned on them: they could beat a team as powerful as Baltimore.
Then play moved to New York, to Queens, where the Mets’ loud-mouthed fans waited in suspense. At Shea Stadium, the Mets beat the Orioles a second time, with the score 5-0. Tommy Agee was the biggest miracle-worker of that game. The centerfielder sprinted into left field to snap up one ball, then halfway across again to grab another one deep in right field.
Game Four saw a hard-fought Mets win, with the Orioles tying up the score after a spectacular pitch from Brooks Robinson. By the time that game went into extra innings, though, the Orioles had lost their mojo. Their many missteps put the possibility of a Mets World Series victory a single game away.
It was October 16, Game Five. The Orioles were up 3-0 in the third inning. The Mets’ luck had started to run out. In the sixth inning, Cleon Jones got clipped in the foot with a fastball from Baltimore pitcher Dave McNally. The umpire ruled that Jones wasn’t hit, but Hodges took possession of the ball and proved to the ump that it still had marks of the shoe polish from Jones’ shoe on it, evidence that made the ruling turn in the Mets’ favor. They kept gaining momentum in the seventh inning, then in the eighth.
With the Mets’ Jerry Koosman on the mound consistently retiring batters, the stands were going wild. In one spectacular hit, the Orioles’ Davey Johnson drove a fly-ball deep into left field. A homerun would have put Baltimore back in the game. But then Cleon Jones reached up. And he caught it. The Mets had won the series 5-3. If the fans were wild before, now they became ecstatic.
The post-game message written on the sign of Shea Stadium’s beloved “Sign Man,” Karl Ehrhardt, said it all: “There are no words.”