Manager Casey Stengel thought his Mets were “amazin'” in the early years of the franchise. For the New York, a winning streak of two-or-three games might have been good reason to launch a congressional investigation. They were bad, but with a roster populated by eccentric characters such as “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry, Choo-Choo Coleman, Jim Piersall and Hot Rod Kanehl, how could you not love them? The first batch of Mets teams put some of the fun back into what is basically a kid’s game.
After finishing 9th (out of 10 teams) in 1968, the Mets shocked the baseball world by capturing the National League pennant and the World Championship in 1969. What makes what happened even more “amazin'” is the fact that the Mets beat-out an excellent Chicago Cubs team to win their division.
On paper, the Cubbies were powerful. Their starting line-up included three future Hall-of-Famers (Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo) and three All-Stars (Don Kessinger, Randy Hundley and Glen Beckert).
In ’69, Banks hit 23 home runs and drove-in 106, Williams drilled 33 dingers and compiled 95 rbi, Santo plated 123 runs while slugging 29 homers. Shortstop Kessinger hit 38 doubles and scored 109 runs and second baseman Beckert hit .291. Catcher Hundley added 18 round-trippers and 64 rbi to the mix.
Journeyman outfielder Jim Hickman, who played for the Mets in their early days, contributed 21 home runs to the Cubs’ offensive barrage.
New York’s attack was spearheaded by outfielder Cleon Jones, who had a career year with a .340 average, 75 rbi and 12 home runs. Tommy Agee patrolled center and played well (.271 avg., 76 rbi) and second baseman Ken Boswell added a steady glove to go along with a good .279 avg. Catcher Jerry Grote was outstanding defensively and no “automatic out” at the plate (.252 avg.).
Both teams had good benches in ’69. The Cubs could call on seasoned veterans Paul Popovich (.312 avg.), Al Spangler (23 rbi), and Willie Smith (9 hr in 223 pa). For the Mets, Art Shamsky hit .300 and slugged 14 home runs for the Mets as a part-timer and Don Clendenon stroked 12 round-trippers. Infielder Al Weis didn’t hit much but sparkled as a defensive replacement.
Defensively, both teams didn’t give away a lot of games with shabby glove work. The Mets finished second in fielding with a .980 percentage; the Cubs were close behind at .979.
The Mets had some weapons but could anyone honestly say that they would prefer their positional talent over that of the Cubs? A few brain-dead “homers” might but an honest examination of the seasonal and career stats of the players involved shows that Chicago was better.
A comparison of the pitching staffs is less clear. The Mets’ had a good starting rotation in ’69. Tom Seaver won 25 games while posting a 2.21 era, Jerry Kooseman added 17 wins to go with his 2.28 era, Gary Gentry was solid with 13 victories and Don Cardwell and Jim McAndrew combined for 14 wins.
The bullpen was good, too. Ron Tayor won nine and saved 13, Tug McGraw saved 12 while winning nine, and fire baller Nolan Ryan registered six victories while striking out 92 in 89 innings.
But the Cubs had some guys who could pitch, too. Hall-of-Famer Fergie Jenkins anchored a fine Cub rotation that included Bill Hands and Ken Holtzman. Jenkins finished ’69 with 23 wins, Hands won 20 and Holtzman registered 17 victories. Number four starter Dick Selma notched 10 wins and a respectable 3.63 era.
In the bullpen, manager Leo Durocher had “The Vulture” Phil Regan (12 wins, 17 saves) and reliable veterans Ted Abernathy (3.16 era) and Hank Aguirre (2.60 era) at his disposal.
The Mets get a slight edge in pitching, due mainly to the outstanding performance of staff ace Tom Seaver and the tandem of Taylor and McGraw in the bullpen, who gave Hodges more quality innings down the stretch than Durocher’s “go-to” guys did for the Cubs.
The Cubs built a nine game lead by the middle of August. They looked-like a lock to make the playoffs; the Mets were playing good ball but no one expected them to overtake the juggernaut that played their games at Wrigley Field.
Incredibly, New York got red-hot while Chicago cooled-off. Over the last two months of the season, the Mets went 44-17 while the Cubs sputtered home with a 27-29 log. The Divisional title was lost in September when the Cubs went 8-17, including a season-long 8-game losing streak at the beginning of the month.
When the dust had settled on October 1, Chicago found themselves in 2nd place, nine-games behind the team they had led by the same amount just seven weeks earlier.
What the heck happened?
What would cause such a talented team to fold?
One obvious reason why the Mets overtook the Cubs is timing. It does matter when you win your games. The baseball season is a marathon and not a sprint. Sure, those early season loses might haunt you later but the Mets were five games under .500 on May 27. The Mets were not the first team to get hot late in the season and finish in first place; it’s just that their past history of ineptness made their success so much more newsworthy. Had the Pirates or the Cardinals accomplished the same thing in ’69, it wouldn’t have been so surprising.
The Cubs lost a bunch of games when they should have been winning. The season doesn’t end on Labor Day and the Mets streaked by them. It’s pretty simple.
Another reason for the Mets’ success is the fact that they played “over-their-heads” for an extended period of time. Guys that were average fielders made spectacular plays in the field; .200 hitters got clutch hits when they should have been whiffing, and it seemed like their pitchers were getting all the borderline calls. Balls that normally would have been fielded for outs squirted through the infield, the few home runs the Mets hit seemed to go out-of-the-park at just the right time, and the injury bug decided to stay away from Shea Stadium for the last two months of the season.
Everything bounced right for the Mets in August and September. Coupled with the fact they had a young, improving team, they scaled the summit in dramatic fashion.
A third reason, and perhaps the most compelling, is the likelihood that the Cubs simply got tired down the stretch. Chicago had an older squad; some people believe that veteran manager Durocher should have rested the regulars more when the team had their big lead. The Cubs’ roster averaged 29.1 years-of-age with three guys in the starting line-up over 30 (Banks, Williams and Hickman.) The front-end of the bullpen was populated by grizzled veterans, ages 38, 36 and 32 (Aquire, Abernathy and Regan).
The Mets were considerably younger with an average age of 25.8. The “oldsters” in their line-up (Jones, Grote and Agee) were only 26. Out in the bullpen, Taylor, McGraw and Ryan were 31, 24 and 22 respectively.
The youthful New Yorkers outscored the crew from the Windy City 112-78 in September; meanwhile their pitching staff limited the opposition to 70 runs down-the-stretch while tired Cub hurlers allowed 119.
Skipper Durocher probably wanted to wrap things up early so as to give his team a good rest before the playoffs. According to Bill James, this was a major, avoidable error in judgment:
Durocher was going through maybe his 25th pennant race. Durocher should have had the foresight to see where this was headed.-The New Historical Baseball Abstract, pg. 635
A tired Chicago Cubs team watched a good team with fresher legs overtake them to win the Eastern Division title. Had “Leo The Lip” let-up on the gas a little in May, June and July, the outcome may have been different. The Mets might have still bested the Chicagoans but it’s doubtful that they would have left their rivals in the dust, nine games behind.
For the Mets, the magic continued. They knocked-off the Braves in the play-offs and shocked another talented squad, the Baltimore Orioles by winning the World Series in a 4 games-to-1 rout.
As Jerry Reed once sang, “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.”
For two-and-a-half months in 1969, the New York Mets were definitely hot.
As hot as any team has ever been.
They were simply amazin’.
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The New Bill James Historical Abstract Bill James Free Press 2001