If not for faulty airplane mechanics, the New York Mets would never have witnessed the astronautical feat of Neil Armstrong taking his giant leap for mankind. On the miraculous night of July 20, 1969, they were supposed to be airborne, returning from Montreal for the All-Star break with a record of 53-39, five games back of the Chicago Cubs in the National League East. Fortunately for the upstarts from Queens, the team plane was delayed, so they got to toast the Apollo 11 astronauts — as well as the most successful half-season in franchise history — from the airport bar. That night’s walk-off hero, Bobby Pfeil, mused, “I wondered what was more unusual — man walking on the moon or winning a game with a pinch-hit bunt single?”
This version of the hazy long-ago night comes from veteran sportswriter Wayne Coffey’s entertaining new book, They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: The ’69 Mets, New York City, and the Most Astounding Season in Baseball History. Other accounts of the Great Airport Toast can also be found in the memoirs After the Miracle, by right-fielder Art Shamsky with veteran scribe Erik Sherman, and Here’s the Catch, by his platoon-mate Ron “Rocky” Swoboda, available in June. (Presumably, the tale will be told again in The Miracle of 1969, by Rich Coutinho, out this summer.) A half-century on, Mets-lifers are being rewarded for their loyalty with a scrappy bunch of nostalgic new works rounding the bases with the underdoggiest of underdogs one last time. Fifty years is an eon in sports terms, but the ’69 Mets still have a psychic hold on a substantial chunk of the fan base — even those, like myself, who only know the legend of Tommie Agee through fuzzy television clips and the barstool-chatterbox oral histories passed down from the rickety cheap seats of Shea Stadium.
I’ll come clean: My Mets fandom doesn’t even go as far back as the team’s other World Series champs, in ’86, never mind a season that ended two years before I was born. I admired Doc, Darryl, and the beat-down crew from afar, but my season-by-season attention didn’t take hold until I moved to New York in 1993. Yet I’ve long been fascinated by the Miracle Mets because they represent a moment of sheer euphoria in a half-century filled mostly with disappointment. The Mets have won it all exactly twice, and the second title by the dominant overpowering ’86 team left an aftertaste — that lucky Bill Buckner bobble, repeated failures in ensuing years, and all the reprehensible after-hours drinking, drugging, fighting, and airplane-destroying behavior of a team bereft of its bearings.
But ’69, man: That team is frozen in time, encased in the bedrock on which this baseball-mad city was built. I knew the broad strokes, but I wanted a crash course in the day-to-day and the aftermath, then and now, and the looming anniversary gave me hundreds of pages’ worth. What I came to understand is that, while the outcome of the ’69 Series never changes, the lives of the players and those who follow them do. Records are broken, memories fade, players get older and then they die; their blunders and triumphs live on only in books.
Father Time continues to have the highest winning percentage in baseball, and loss hangs heavy throughout. Team favorites like Agee, third-baseman Ed “The Glider” Charles, and goofball reliever Tug McGraw are gone, but the most moving section in any book is usually about the stalwart who remains. “Vineyard of Dreams,” the final chapter in After the Miracle, revolves around a 2017 trip taken by Shamsky, Swoboda, pitcher Jerry Koosman (smoking butts and railing about today’s “snowflakes” all the while), and shortstop Bud Harrelson to see Tom Seaver at his Napa Valley winery. Seaver is still the best player to have ever worn the Mets uniform, but at the time of the trip, he hadn’t been seen or heard from since the lights went out at Shea Stadium. (In true Metsian fashion, the team spent its last day in the park being eliminated from the 2008 playoffs.)
There was hope among the faithful that Seaver, who’d been battling Lyme disease, would show up for the 50th-anniversary weekend in June, but last month his family announced that Tom Terrific has been diagnosed with dementia and is retiring from public life. The poignancy of the trip Shamsky organized runs deep. The night before visiting the vineyards, three of them sat in a hotel room sipping vodka in plastic cups, eating a bucket of KFC, and swapping war stories. Harrelson, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, was already in bed. The next day, spent tooling about the vineyards, talking old times, and polishing off a couple bottles of lunchtime Cabernet with Seaver, would turn out to be their farewell to the man with the aptly metonymic nickname The Franchise.
Shamsky’s and Swoboda’s books are most interesting for the stories they unearth outside Shea. Neither is as thorough or engaging as Coffey on the field; he spends nearly 150 pages on the Fall Classic alone, from Seaver’s being forced to violate his pregame breakfast routine by wolfing down a roast-beef sandwich all the way to the weight of the confetti (578 tons) dropped on the Canyon of Heroes victory parade. Coffey does a solid job of weaving in personal histories of a wide swath of characters — Orioles and local fans included — like the stellar African-American outfielders Tommy Agee and Cleon Jones, who grew up playing together in the segregated Jim Crow leagues around Mobile, Alabama. Jones, raised in a shotgun shack with no running water in historic Africatown, was the Mets’ best everyday player that season. Students back in Mobile County Training School got out of class to watch all the weekday World Series games in the gym, where they saw Jones catch the final out of the clinching game and drop to his knees. It’s the small notes of grace that kept me engaged.
Meanwhile, out at Shea, gleeful madness erupted as thousands swarmed the field, the thrill of watching a team win it all for the first time unleashing communal chaos that could never happen today. Does it excuse the handful of guys who stuck around for two hours to pee on the departing Orioles from a concourse 20 feet up? It does not, but all these years later, consider it water under the bus. A fuller story couldn’t be told.
All the ’69 books have their moments, but unless you obsessively live and breathe Mets history, consider this an invitation to skip around in After the Miracle and Here’s the Catch. For me, at least, one version of Seaver’s near-perfect game in July, the mystical black cat spooking the Cubs, and Mets manager Gil Hodges’s game-five shoe-polish trick is enough. Rocky Swoboda is the better writer, funnier and more concise, an erudite jock, which means you get references to Monet, Shakespeare, and Neil Sheehan along with an anecdote about soiling himself after a long night of Carstairs whiskey. Rocky’s story of himself — how a single game-four-saving catch gave a generally middling ballplayer a life us mortals could only dream of (he probably didn’t pay for a night out in 40 years, before he quit drinking) — is a more interesting through line than Shamsky’s rambling chronology, but both have enough once-in-a-lifetime yarns to earn out their retail price.
My favorite post–World Series narrative finds Shamsky and a few others getting $10,000 apiece to do a couple of inebriated weeks at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas as a musical act in a variety show put together by comedian Phil Foster. (Did the Mets cut an album called The Amazing Mets on the day they clinched the NL East, featuring hits like “Green Grass of Shea?” Is Mr. Met’s foam noggin a little big?) The sublime ridiculousness of Steady Eddie Kranepool warbling “Mack the Knife” or whatever contrasts with Swoboda, who forsook Sin City in favor of a USO Tour in Vietnam with Joe DiMaggio and others. It’s mostly autographs and photo ops, but a 15-minute rant by a doctor about the inanity of the war and a bedridden private with a thousand-yard stare made their mark on the left-leaning Swoboda.
The Vietnam War is a backdrop to the ’69 season, and the authors lay on the times-they-were-a-changin’ a bit thick. It was definitely a part of the story: Hodges had seen action on Okinawa, Seaver was a former Marine (though he stood up for antiwar protesters), a few guys missed time that season for the reserves, and huge demonstrations shook New York all year. No doubt, the Mets were a distraction from the grim evening news and, for grunts listening to Armed Forces Radio, from the war itself. But baseball is still just a pastime, even if it was more national back then. It’s hard to believe families of the 11,780 Americans killed in Vietnam in 1969 remember it as a year of miracles. And that’s fine, let baseball be baseball. As memorable a season as was ever played on a big-league diamond is enough.
Speaking of you-had-to-be-there seasons, the most purely entertaining new Mets book isn’t about ’69 at all. It’s Doc, Donnie, The Kid, and Billy Brawl: How the 1985 Mets and Yankees Fought for New York’s Baseball Soul — a rollicking look back at the pre–Wild Card era by Chris Donnelly. Young Cy Young–winning phenom Doc Gooden torched the National League to the tune of 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts, while over in the American League, Don Mattingly was named MVP with a .324 average, 35 home runs, and 145 RBIs, all while trying to tune out the shenanigans of Yanks owner George Steinbrenner and the paranoid alcoholic manager Billy Martin. Donnelly’s wild tales include a fake Tibetan pitcher allegedly throwing 168 mph in Mets spring training, multimillionaire Rickey Henderson getting evicted from his New Jersey apartment for not paying rent, and the glorious September 13 (a.k.a. “Baseball Thursday”), when both teams were fighting for first place, at home, and more than 100,000 fans in total filled the parks to watch the home nine come out on top.
Donnelly’s work is a dinger of sentimentality-free fun and a palate cleanser in the diehard Mets fan’s literary diet. The plethora of Miracle Mets books lean way in on the “There’s no I in team” ideal — it seems every guy minus redneck catcher Jerry Grote was beloved by all — but the reason all of these books have been published isn’t just a pure nostalgia play, or a cash grab on the golden anniversary, or even a chance to catch up with old friends. It’s all those things at the same time, ingredients transformed by the ineffable, oddly meaningful collective force of fandom.
Historians aside, the 2019 mini-library is aimed primarily at Mets fans, those who remember and those who want to learn. They Said It Couldn’t Be Done should appeal to any baseball-loving reader who wants to know where the Mets came from and how they pulled it off. After the Miracle and Here’s the Catch are more specific, but each offers an intriguing journey into how profoundly wearing the right jersey can change a player’s life. Swoboda made me laugh; Shamsky made me, well, not cry, but certainly take a moment for Tom Seaver. All of these books are open-hearted, with no score-settling or crotchety belittling of players today for being too rich or too soft (Kooz’s Fox News–ian mutterings aside). And all of them reinforced my love for a squad that isn’t always easy to like.
Some of the reading required a bit of patience, but who has more patience than someone who would root for a team that averages a World Series win every 25 years? So read ’em if you got ’em and long live the franchise. And The Franchise.
Let’s go, Mets.