Sunday, March 24, 2019

Books: "They Said It Couldn't Be Done" On 1969 Mets

They Said It Couldn't Be Done: The '69 Mets, New York City, and the Most Astounding Season in Baseball History
By Wayne Coffey
Crown Archetype; hardcover, $28.00; available this Tuesday, March 26

1969 was a remarkable year for America, as it brought the moon landing, Woodstock, nonstop protests against the Vietnam War, and the most tumultuous and fractious New York City mayoral race in memory.

It also was the most improbable season in baseball history, as the Mets, a woebegone franchise since it came to existence in 1962, won the World Series.

Wayne Coffey, the former longtime sports writer for the New York Daily News, tells the story of the Miracle Mets and the world at that time in the new book They Said It Couldn't Be Done.

From the ash heap of those first seven seasons of Met baseball, Gil Hodges, a beloved former Brooklyn Dodger, put together a 25-man roster that was vastly more formidable than the sum of its parts. They had a top-notch pitching staff headlined by Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Gary Gentry, and the hitting prowess of Cleon Jones, but the rest of the team was mostly comprised of untested kids and lightly regarded veterans. 

Every member of the Miracle Mets had a remarkable backstory, from Koosman, who never played high school baseball and grew up throwing in a hayloft in a hayloft in subzero temperatures with his brother Orville, to third baseman Ed Charles, an African-American poet with a deep racial conscience whose arrival in the big leagues was delayed by almost a decade because of the color of his skin.

The Mets principal  owner at the time was the beloved, Joan Payson, who, Coffey writes, was "a scion of one of the nation's wealthiest families a woman whose ancestry traced back to the Mayflower. A patron of the arts and noted philanthropist, Payson also had a deep passion for horse racing and baseball, owning a number of Thoroughbreds and a minority share in the New York Giants. When the Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers decamped for California after the 1957 season, Payson was among the appalled masses who couldn't imagine life in New York without a National League ball club. So when the league announced it was adding two franchises, Payson bought one. She thus became the first woman to purchase a club in big-league history."

One of the things that gives this book a personal touch is the recollections of the season from Mets fans, including Howie Rose, who went on to be one of their announcers, and writers who covered the team, including George Vecsey of the New York Times.

Wayne Coffey.
This is a tale of an unlikely collection of players and the hallowed manager who inspired them to glory. Coffey finds the beating heart of a baseball family and delivers a spellbinding, feel-good narrative about an unbelievable triumph by the ultimate underdog.

Coffey writes of where the Mets stand in July during a series with the Cubs, which included Seaver coming within one out of a perfect game on July 9, 1969, "Of all the lessons Gil Hodges imparted to his young Mets, the most important concerned staying on an even emotional keel and channeling all of their energy, mental and physical, into that day's game. It sounds simple enough, but having been through so many pennant races with the Dodgers, particularly the one in 1951 when the Dodgers lost a 13-game lead and then the pennant, after the Giants' Bobby Thomson hit the so-called Shot Heard 'Round the World, Hodges had a keener appreciation than most of the game's vicissitudes.
"The baseball season lasts for six months, seven if you are doing well. It has almost twice the number of games of any other sport, a grind that doesn't deplete player physically the way, say, basketball and hockey do but can deplete them mentally if they aren't able to rein in their emotions. Hodges wasn't the first manager to master the art of levelheadedness, but nobody was better at it - and at instilling in his team the gift of a short memory, heeding wisdom once shared by Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller.
"'You can build on yesterday's success or put its failures behind and start over again,' Feller said, 'That's the way life is, with a new game every day, and that's the way baseball is.'
"So when the Cubs took the final game of the series and the Mets had almost as many errors (2) as hits (3), Hodges was fine with letting (Cubs Manager Leo) Durocher, his former manager in Brooklyn, take a dig about how 'the real Mets' showed up today. A reporter asked Hodges how he felt about the three games. Hodges took a bite out of an apple as he sat in his office chair in the corner of the Mets' clubhouse.
"'It was a good series. Anytime you take two out of three, it's a good series,' he said,
"The clubs went their separate ways for the weekend, the Mets hosting the Expos for a series that included Old Timers' Day. It was a sweltering afternoon, and everyone got a serious scare when Eleanor Gehrig, the widow of the Yankees' icon, fainted in the heat. She was quickly revived. In the Old-Timers' game itself, Bobby Thomson hit a homer off Whitey Ford. Nobody called it the shot heard 'round Flushing.
"The Mets took two of three from the Expos before reconvening with the Cubs on the north side of Chicago, where the home team was rooted on by the Bleacher Bums, a boisterous brigade of supporters known for their yellow construction helmets and unmerciful treatment of the opposition. The most infamous fans in baseball, the Bums typically started their day by getting fueled  in a tavern known as Ray's Bleachers, then descending en masse to the left-field seats, where they carried on in broad daylight at the only big-league park without lights. With the Cubs-Mets rivalry suddenly hotter than a waffle iron, they figured to be especially vociferous. The Mets didn't appreciate Durocher's constant dismissals of their worthiness, and almost none of them had any use for (Ron) Santo, who annoyed most of the league with his habit of jumping up and clicking his heels after every Cubs victory. Santo had heard about the Mets' disapproval of his heel clicking, and when he brought Durocher's lineup card out to home plate and met Hodges before a game at Wrigley, he took the opportunity to defend himself.
"'The only reason I click my heels is because the fans will boo me ifI don't,' he told Hodges.
"Replied Hodges, 'You remind me of Tug McGraw. When he was young and immature and nervous, he used to jump up and down, too. He doesn't do it anymore.'
"New York papers were full of stories about the charging Mets and the transformation the club had undergone under Hodges, who characteristically declined to take credit.
"'What turned them on?' Hodges asked, repeating a reporter's question about his players. 'It's a bunch of boys who turned themselves on. Maybe for the first time they realize that it's just as easy to win as to lose - even in the major leagues.'
"Pitching for the first time since the Imperfect Game, Seaver began by retiring 10 straight Cubs but wound up losing a 1-0 decision, nudging the Cubs' lead back up to six games. It made the next two games of paramount importance to the Mets, who would slip back to eight games behind were the Cubs to sweep. Gary Gentry started the second game and pitched superbly  to win his ninth game of the year, the decisive blow coming in the top of the fourth from the unlikeliest source imaginable: shortstop Al Weis. Cubs pitcher Dick Selma, an ex-Met (and ex-Little League opponent of Seaver in Fresno) got ahead 1-2 and came at Weis with a fastball. Weis always looked for a fastball; if he got something else, he would adjust accordingly.
"'My job was to get on base any way that I could,' Weis said. 'I never went to the plate in my whole career trying to hit the ball out.'
"Weis swung and took off running hard. He thought he had a double, at least. The ball kept going, and going. It soared over the left-field wall, the Bleacher Bums and the screen behind them, flying right out of Wrigley Field onto Waveland Avenue. Weis was as shocked as anybody.
"'Don't make me out to be a home run hitter,' Weis said later. 'I'm not even a hitter.'
"It was Weis' fifth career homer, and he do enjoyed the novelty of it that he smacked number six the next day, off Ferguson Jenkins, no less, the Mets jumping out early and getting lock-down relief from Cal Koonce and Ron Taylor. When he came out of the dugout to congratulate Taylor on saving his second straight game, Seaver jumped up and clicked his heels."

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