Q: What is there to say about a man who couldn't make the worst baseball team of this century?
A: That he didn't want to play badly enough.
Evans Killeen was cut from the 1962 New York Mets. The pitcher sliced open his thumb while shaving on the morning of a scheduled spring training start. The Mets cut the righthander when he couldn't satisfactorily explain why, exactly, he was shaving his thumb.
Steve Dillon did not make the 1962 Mets. But manager Casey Stengel saw something in the lefthander that nobody else did, and he promoted him the following season. "Dillon probably shouldn't have been up there," recalls Craig Anderson, who pitched for the Mets from 1962 to 1964. "But Stengel was real big on him. Dillon was Stengel's middle name, you know."
Craig Anderson, of course, did make the 1962 Mets. Pitching in relief, Anderson won both halves of a doubleheader against the Milwaukee Braves on May 12 of that season to run his record to 3-1. Anderson never won another game in his career, which ended with 19 consecutive losses spread over parts of three seasons. Pardon my italics, but such factoids as these fairly demand the Ripley's Believe It or Not treatment.
Three decades have done nothing to diminish how bad the Mets were in 1962, the franchise's first season. Those Mets were bad like God is good: Their badness will endure forever. "I get three to five letters every day," says Marvin Eugene Throneberry, the Mets first baseman whose monogram and misadventures afield made him a mascot for the '62 season. "I throw 'em all in a box. When it rains, I answer 'em. No, I never thought it would carry on this long."
To understand why a 58-year-old salesman for the Active Bolt & Screw Company is up to his knees in S.A.S.E.'s at his home in Collierville, Tenn., one must understand those expansion Mets embodied by Marvelous Marv. And frankly, that summer of '62 is as difficult to fathom as a Stengel soliloquy. So if this backward glance at that season jumps ahead of itself occasionally or doubles back in spots or tends to ramble here and there, well, it could be no other way.
Stengel-like, the story often makes no sense whatsoever. Nine games into the 1962 season, for instance, the Mets were nine-and-a-half games out of first. Is that possible? In 15 tries, the Mets never once won on a Thursday. Bad? The team was mathematically eliminated from the pennant race on Aug. 7.
This is true—cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye: The '62 Mets continued to lose ground in the National League standings after the season had ended. Is that possible? As we shall discover, it was possible for the Mets, whose record of 40-120 left them 60½ games behind the first-place San Francisco Giants.
Thus, being cut from the '62 Mets was to low self-esteem what the Buick Roadmaster was to low gas mileage. A snub from that club was like having a Hare Krishna on your threshold say that no, really, he couldn't possibly come in for coffee.
Or was it? In hindsight, who would you rather be, the standby passenger who was bumped from the Hindenburg or one of the chaps who went down with the zeppelin? "Oh, I'm glad that season was a part of my career," says the genial Anderson, now an associate athletic director and assistant baseball coach at Lehigh University. "I got to play with Gil Hodges. I got to meet Stan Musial. I got to play for Casey Stengel. I still get letters. How many people can say they were in a ticker-tape parade through New York City?"
Oh, the humanity. The Mets' home opener that April was scheduled for—and these stories have been fact-checked for accuracy; we do not make them up—Friday the 13th, at the Polo Grounds, the Mets' unlucky horseshoe in Harlem. On April 12 the Mets were given a ticker-tape parade up lower Broadway, culminating with ceremonies at City Hall. Among the dignitaries on the rostrum was William Shea. A local attorney and civic leader, Shea was the man most responsible for bringing National League baseball back to New York following the westward flight of the Dodgers and Giants four years earlier.
"At City Hall, Bill Shea—who was lionized in New York—made a speech in which he apologized for the players," recalls Richie Ashburn, the centerfielder who would be dubiously distinguished at season's end, named as the Most Valuable Player on the worst team of this century. "It still sticks in my craw. Before we had played a single home game, Shea told the fans, 'Be patient with us until we can bring some real ballplayers in here.' And the players—we were standing right there! I mean, he was probably right, but he didn't have to say it."
Ticker tape. Nineteen sixty-two was the dusk of that innocent postwar age when America's leading industrial product was...the hyphen. Remember? The U.S. was a veritable Hyphen-Nation of Ban-Lon and Sen-Sen and La-Z-Boys and Speedy Alka-Seltzer and un-American activities and movies like Ben-Hur.
And so the expansion Mets would stay at the Hi-Way House in Houston when they played the league's other expansion team, the Colt .45s. Little news nuggets about the team were tacked onto the end of longer stories in New York City newspapers, beneath bizarre column subheads like "Met-Ro-Nomes," "Met-a-Morphoses," "Met-Cellaneous," metc.
And from the very start, the New York pitching staff would induce runs like Met-a-Mucil. Opening Day starter Roger Craig and more than a dozen other Mets were stranded in an elevator for 30 minutes at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, where the Mets were to begin the season against the Cardinals. Going down? Indeed. Rained out on Tuesday, the New York Mets debuted on Wednesday, April 11: Craig lasted three innings and balked in one run. His teammates committed three errors. The Cards won 11-4.
It was the first of Craig's 24 losses in 1962. Now the manager of the Giants, Craig recalls with humility pitching against the pennant-winning Giants of Willie Mays and Willie McCovey 30 seasons ago. "We would have pitchers' meetings before every series, and we would go over the scouting report," Craig remembers. "One time when the Giants came to town, Stengel asked me, 'Mr. Craig, where would you like us to defense McCovey: upper deck or lower deck?' "
They say the best things in life are free, but the worst things, it turns out, also come pretty cheap. Mets owner Joan Payson had spent a trifling $50,000 as a fee for the franchise, a mere $1.8 million in payments to other clubs for players in the expansion draft, and all of $600,000 in salaries to field her team. Of course, general manager George Weiss was tighter than a Speedo two sizes too small. In making a salary offer that spring, he is said to have egregiously lowballed traveling secretary Lou Niss, then conspiratorially whispered these words of encouragement: "You know, traveling secretaries are usually voted a full World Series share."
So Mets management got what it didn't pay for. On Opening Night, Hobie Landrith was Craig's batterymate, and what an apt term that was. Gil Hodges, the erstwhile Brooklyn Dodger star who had just turned 38, was at first base. Charlie Neal was the second baseman. Felix Mantilla was at short. Don Zimmer played third base. The leftfielder was Frank Thomas. Ashburn, 35, was the centerfielder. And the rightfielder was...the rightfielder was....
Understand that Stengel had trouble with names the way Ronald Reagan has trouble with dates. When Stengel was hired at the age of 72 to be the Mets' first manager, he told the press that he was delighted to be taking over "the Knickerbockers" and playing in "the Polar Grounds."
And while Stengel had two pitchers named Bob Miller on his team—they were roommates on the road, in fact—he called one of them Nelson. Still, it is startling to see Stengel on a flickering black-and-white television screen during that first week of the '62 season trying to name his starting lineup for broadcaster Lindsey Nelson. Stengel makes it all the way to his rightfielder before treading air.
"He's a splendid man and he knows how to do it," says Casey on camera. "He's been around and he swings the bat there in rightfield and he knows what to do. He's got a big family and he wants to provide for them, and he's a fine outstanding player, the fella in rightfield. You can be sure he'll be ready when the bell rings—and that's his name, Bell."
Having returned from the Wednesday game in St. Louis to be disparaged at their own parade on Thursday, Gus Bell and the rest of the Mets then lost their first home game, amid snow flurries at the Polar Grounds on Friday the 13th. Still, advance sales were as brisk as the weather at the Mets' Manhattan ticket office, located seven blocks from the Metropolitan Opera in the Hotel Martinique. Legend has it that an opera buff mistook the Mets' ticket window for the Met's ticket window one spring day, requested "two for Traviata" and was asked by an eager-to-please Mets employee: "First base or third base side?"
Apocryphal, you say? Hey, don't rain on our parade. Bill Shea did that once already.
Remember Miss Rheingold? Remember King Korn trading stamps? Remember when Ford Prick was baseball commissioner? Remember when people had names like Ford Frick? Remember cruising with the top down in your Ford Frick?
If so, you may also remember that the Mets began the '62 season 0-9. And because the Pirates got out of the gate 10-0, New York was indeed 9½ games back after playing only nine. In fact, the Mets beat those Bucs on April 23 for their first win, 9-1 on Ladies Night at Forbes Field. The following day Frick fined Stengel $500 for appearing in uniform with the voluptuous Miss Rheingold in a Rheingold Extra Dry Lager ad. Why ask why?
Two days later the Cleveland Indians announced that they had traded catcher Harry Chiti to the Mets for a player to be named later. The deal would not be completed until June 15, when Chiti was returned to the Tribe as the player named in compensation for himself. That's when the New York media—tough crowd, the New York media—suggested that the Mets had been fleeced in the Chiti-for-Chiti swap. And thus began a Mets tradition that continues to this day, in which fans in the street endlessly second-guess the team's front office. Yo, I can't believe Weiss couldn't get more for Harry Chiti than, you know...Harry Chiti.
Chiti, by the way, was one of seven catchers who would do time with the Mets in 1962. Hobie Landrith, another, had been the Mets' very first selection in the expansion draft. "You gotta start with a catcher or you'll have all passed balls," explained Stengel, who then, just a few weeks into the season, had Landrith traded to Baltimore for Throneberry.
Stengel tried Clarence (Choo-Choo) Coleman behind the plate, and the former Phillie showed early promise. "He was one of the best low-ball catchers I've ever seen," says Craig. "But if it was high stuff, you could forget it. Choo-Choo would also give you the sign and then look down to see what it was."
Coleman was also fidgety in the crouch, so animated that when journeyman pitcher Chuck Churn was once asked to name the toughest man he ever pitched to, he answered, "Coleman." Coleman was equally elusive in interviews. Mets broadcaster Ralph Kiner recalls, in his seminal prose opus Kiner's Korner, asking Coleman on the air how he got his nickname. Coleman responded that he didn't know. Flustered, Kiner then recovered by blurting, "Well, what's your wife's name, and what's she like?"
"Her name's Mrs. Coleman," replied Coleman. "And she likes me."
What does David Letterman say? Do we have time for one more? Here goes. On May 12, Stengel inscrutably sent the lefthanded Landrith to pinch-hit against Hall of Fame lefty Warren Spahn of the Braves. As soon as Hobie reached the batter's box, Stengel called time, hobbled out there himself, whispered in Landrith's ear and then returned to the dugout with a smirk on his mug. Hobie hit Spahn's first pitch for a game-winning home run. What had Stengel told him? "I told him," Stengel said afterward, "to hit a home run."
What does David Letterman say? These are actual letters from actual viewers. Well, these are actual stories from actual players. "Some of the stuff is myth," says Hot Rod Kanehl, the utility infielder who spent the eight seasons before 1962 kicking around the minor leagues. "Some of it sounds better than it actually was." But Kanehl not only fails to refute a single story, he also enthusiastically antes up with others and then embroiders those with delightful detail.
So on July 6, Hot Rod didn't just hit the Mets' first grand slam, he won 50,000 King Korn trading stamps for doing so. "King Korn had a store in Chicago, and I traded the stamps in there," says Kanehl, who now manages a Garcia's Mexican Restaurant in Rancho Mirage, Calif. "I got a living-room suite, a Deepfreeze, an end table—a lot of junk." Go deep, win a Deepfreeze. Mets home games were like Wheel of Misfortune that summer of '62.
The decrepit Polo Grounds, erstwhile home of the Giants, had undergone $350,000 in renovations for that season, which is to say the place was painted white. The Polo Grounds were, in fact, more like a state-fair grounds, full of ridiculous sideshows and carnival-midway games that diverted attention from the Mets games themselves.
"They had circles on the walls down the foul lines at the Polo Grounds," recalls Ashburn, who is now a broadcaster for the Phillies. "If you hit a ball in a circle during a game, you got so many points. Ball boys were stationed down the lines, and they decided whether a ball landed in the circle or not."
The player with the most points at season's end would win a boat. Keep in mind that Ashburn would eventually be named the team's MVP, and for that he would win a 24-foot Owens powerboat that slept four. "Well, I hit one ball that I know was in the circle, but the ball boy didn't see it," Ashburn says. "And there was no appeals process. That ball would have given me enough points to win the boat. So I should have won two boats that season. But what the hell, I didn't even know what to do with one. I lived in Nebraska."
Remember, this nautical intrigue occurred during the games. Frank Thomas, in fact, tried to jerk so many balls boatward down the 279-foot leftfield line that Stengel is said to have chastised him at one point, saying, "If you want to be a sailor, join the Navy!"
In any event, Ashburn would dock his boat in Ocean City, N.J. "It sank," he says. "But it didn't just sink. The sucker took five or six days to go down. So they dragged it up, and I sold it. Oh, and the guy I sold it to—his check bounced."
No it didn't. "Yes," says Ashburn. "That really happened."
The Mets' official mascot was Homer the Beagle, and he lived at the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Avenue. Oh, what a wonderful time that was to be young and single and a beagle living in Gotham! And if you happened to be a big league mascot on top of that, well, then the world was indeed your Gaines-Burger.
Homer was trained by Rudd Weather-wax, the man who taught Lassie everything she knew. Alas, the Weatherwaxian magic didn't always work on Homer, and the beagle never quite got the hang of circling the bases at the Polo Grounds. But then again, neither did Throneberry.
Matriculating in the Yankees' farm system of the 1950s, Marv Throneberry was thought to be the next Mickey Mantle, not the first Mickey Klutts. But by 1962 he found happiness in simply having one of the 500 big league jobs that then existed. As for his often erratic play? "A lot of it," Throneberry says now, "is nothin' but fiction."
Let us pull a nonfiction classic from the shelf: Throneberry lashed a triple off Chicago Cub starter Glen Hobbie in the first inning of a game at the Polo Grounds on June 17. But Chicago first baseman Ernie Banks motioned for the ball, stepped on first, and Throneberry was called out on appeal. Says Ashburn: "We could all see from the dugout that Marv really didn't even come close to touching first base."
All except Stengel, who shot from the dugout as if catapulted. Second base umpire Dusty Boggess intercepted the skipper and informed him that Throneberry hadn't touched second base, either. "Well, I know he touched third," went Stengel's timeless punch line, "because he's standing on it."
"I can kid about it now," says Throneberry, relaxing after dark at his fishing house near Collierville. "When people ask me about it, I ask them, 'Have you ever seen an umpire who could see?' "
He is good-natured enough to have done 13 self-deprecating beer commercials for Miller Lite. His name resurfaced nationally in 1983 when the incriminating bat George Brett used in the Pine-Tar Incident was discovered to be a Marv Throneberry model. When a young New York writer named Jimmy Breslin wrote a book about the 1962 season called Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?, Throneberry was, naturally, the comic lead. "Jimmy Breslin went on the TV once and said that I made him famous," says Throneberry. "I think it was on Johnny Carson. He admitted it."
Having said all that, Throneberry is still fiercely proud of his seven seasons in the major leagues. "I still don't know why they asked me to do this commercial" was one of his signature lines in the Miller Lite ads. And in wrapping up your conversation with him about the '62 Mets, you get the feeling that he still doesn't know why you asked him to be in this story.
"People always ask me to tell them some of the funny stuff that happened that year," says Throneberry, "Really, I don't remember that much funny stuff happening."
Some people, of course, wouldn't know funny if it sprayed seltzer in their face. Marv Throneberry is not one of those people. He simply needs to have his memory refreshed.
You want funny? The New York Mets celebrated Old-Timers' Day before their game against the Dodgers on July 14, even though the franchise was four months old. Who were they supposed to bring back—Harry Chiti?
You want funny? After 5½ innings of the main event that day, the Mets trailed the Dodgers 17-0. "We were bad," says Galen Cisco, and he didn't even join the Mets until September. "If you could just win one game out of a series with the Dodgers or the Giants, you were good for the week. We weren't expected to win. We had a horse——team. There were a lot of clubs we just couldn't beat. We were as bad as our record."
And so they were. Two weeks before their Old-Timers' Day loss to the Dodgers, the Mets were no-hit by Sandy Koufax in Los Angeles. Koufax struck out the first three Mets he faced that afternoon on nine pitches on his way to the first of his four no-nos.
The Mets didn't go bad, like lunchmeat. They were bad from the beginning. Wire-to-wire bad. But on the glorious first Saturday of August, they did sweep a doubleheader from the Reds at the Polo Grounds. This rendered Cincinnati manager Fred Hutchinson so distraught that he remained alone in the visitors' dugout for a full half hour after the second game had ended. "If you were playing the Mets you had to win four," explains Don Zimmer, who was traded from New York to Cincinnati in May. "Winning three of four wasn't good enough."
It was in another series against Cincinnati that summer that Ashburn pursued a fly ball to shallow left centerfield. Now, the Mets' Venezuelan shortstop, Elio Chacon, recklessly laid claim to every ball hit in the air. So before this game, Ashburn had asked bilingual teammate Joe Christopher how to say "I got it" in Spanish. "Yo la tengo," he was told.
So here comes the fly ball, and sure enough, here comes Chacon to invade Ashburn's airspace. "I see him whipping out from shortstop like a little kid on a scooter," says Ashburn. "So I yell, ' íYo la tengo! íYo la tengo!' And Elio puts on the brakes." It was at that precise moment that leftfielder Frank Thomas, a native of Pittsburgh, ran headlong into Ashburn and knocked the ball loose.
There is no i in team, but there is an e or, in the case of the Mets, 210 of them. That's how many errors they committed in 1962. Their team ERA was 5.04. Their team batting average was .240. They crafted separate losing streaks of 11, 13 and 17 games and generally gave the Cleveland Spiders, who finished 20-134 in 1899, a run for their money.
But the most remarkable statistic from that season is the 922,530 unshakable fans the Mets drew to the Polo Grounds even while, minutes away, the Yankees were fielding what would be their ninth world-champion team in 14 years and drawing 1,493,574. So before their final home game, against the ninth-place Cubs on September 23, the Mets thanked their public. Each player was given a lettered placard to hold, and when the team assembled on the field, they spelled out WE LOVE YOU METS FANS TOO. Stengel then moved to the end of the line as an exclamation point.
"We had a big meeting in the clubhouse before the game about whether we should do this," says Craig Anderson. "Most of the guys were saying it was bush-league and we weren't going to do it. We were major leaguers. We weren't doing this. Then Stengel came in and made a 15-minute speech that began, 'You guys don't have to do this.' Fifteen minutes later we ran out there with our placards. I don't know what the hell Casey said, but we did it."
Because the Mets were to move into their new Queens ballpark, named for the parade-pooping Shea, at the start of the 1963 season, this was to be the last ball game at the historic park beneath Coogan's Bluff. So at the end of the Mets' 2-1 win over the Cubs, the Polo Grounds' public-address system played Till We Meet Again.
Stengel, 73, was awarded home plate. As he made the long walk with the dish to the clubhouse, 600 feet away behind the centerfield fence, Auld Lang Syne wafted down from the speakers. The 10,304 spectators stood and wept openly. "And we all stood outside the clubhouse," recalls Hot Rod Kanehl, "and we cried."
Of course, "we did the same thing at the end of the next season," Kanehl notes. The Mets returned to the Polo Grounds in '63, you see: Shea Stadium would not be ready until 1964.
As befits a truly atrocious ensemble, the Mets closed on the road, far away from New York City. They lost their 117th game, in Milwaukee, to tie the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics as the most prolific losers of the 20th century. They lost their 118th game the next day and their 119th two days later, before 595 fans at Wrigley Field.
Well, all good things must come to an end, and the bad things have to stop eventually too, and so the Mets' season finally concluded on a frigid September 30 in Chicago. New York trailed the Cubs 5-1 going into the eighth inning, but Sammy Drake led off with a single, and Ashburn advanced him to second base with a single of his own. With the tying run on deck, catcher Joe Pignatano strode to the plate and promptly hit a blooper toward rightfield.
Trouble is, Cub second baseman Kenny Hubbs caught the lazy liner, threw to Ernie Banks at first to double off Ashburn and then watched as Banks threw to shortstop Andre Rodgers to catch Drake off second base. Triple play. It was Pignatano's final at bat in the big leagues.
It was also the final play of Ashburn's 15-year career. He hit .306 in 1962, made the All-Star team, was offered a $10,000 raise to return in '63, but walked away from it all. "I often wondered why a guy who hit .306 would retire," says Zimmer, who was Ashburn's roommate while with the Mets. "Three years later I asked him, 'How could you hit .306 and retire?' He said, 'I could see us losing 100 games again. I couldn't lose again.' "
"This was a group effort," Stengel told the team assembled in the visitors' clubhouse that afternoon in Chicago as they surveyed the foul waste left in their wake. "No one player could've done all this." And yet hadn't the season been fun? The question was put to Stengel by Louis Effrat of The New York Times. Responded Stengel: "I would have to say no to that one."
The Dodgers and the Giants—the two teams whose departures from New York necessitated the Mets and this first unfathomable season—finished September in a tie for first place. L.A. and San Francisco would meet in a three-game playoff, the results of which would count toward the regular-season standings. Thus the Mets did indeed drop half a game in the race after their season had ended.
Richie Ashburn, Most Valuable Player on the worst team of this century, has returned to Chicago to broadcast a Phillie game. He was one of the Whiz Kids, Philadelphia's National League champs in 1950. His lifetime batting average was .308. He is not in the Hall of Fame, but Red Smith once wrote that he should be, and that, says Ashburn, is good enough for him.
And yet as he tugs on a pipe in his room at the Hyatt Regency, what is it that he finds himself talking about? The triple play that ended it all in the ballpark 10 minutes north of here. "That last season was a year I didn't want to go through twice," he says. "But I am glad I went through it once. I made great friends—I still talk to Marv a couple of times a year. I got to spend a year with Casey. You know, I get more mail for that one season than I get for all of my years before that."
Those Mets truly were bad like God is good. Their badness will endure forever. Three miles from Ashburn's downtown Chicago hotel, at a club called Lounge Ax, a professional rock 'n' roll band has been booked for the weekend. The band's lead singer was raised in Brooklyn in the 1960s. The band's name is Yo La Tengo.