“Can the Mets Survive Respectability?”
By Joe Flaherty
If in a moment of campy whimsy Susan Sontag and Salvador Dali decided to have a love affair and conceive a child without sin, he would be destined to grow up and become a New York Met. In a dastardly age when we are accused of genocide at home and abroad, the Mets remain as innocent as a feather boa or a Busby Berkeley musical.
Admittedly, baseball, in Red Smith’s phrase, is still a game played by little boys, but it also is a serious business. One has only to remember the fabled exodus of Walter O’Malley’s Dodgers from loving Brooklyn to lush Los Angeles. The shacks of Mexican peasants were torn down to erect (as the Hollywood press agents call it) O’Malley’s Taj Mahal of sports arenas. And when his edifice was complete, it was discovered that there wasn’t a water fountain in the place. O’Malley in his countinghouse realized soda pop cost money and water was for nothing. So those poor bronzed blond darlings of Southern California, those objects of adoration of all the Humbert Humberts among us, were being subjected in that land of wheat germ and blackstrap molasses to sugary cavities. But these devious machinations have nothing to do with the Mets.
In their six-year history (1968 is their seventh) the Mets not only gave away water but a torrent of ball games as well. Their pitching staff had the marksmanship of Sergeant York-they hit every damn bat in sight. Their batters were as aggressive as flower children, and their baserunners circled the pads as though Mack Sennett and Richard Lester were coaching on first and third. The Mets’ defense was so feeble it could make Nasser feel like a Prussian general. Yet they were loved.
In six years they finished last in the National League standings five times and next to last once. Their unbelievable dramatic ninth-place finish in 1966 (28½ games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers) was relegated to a freak of nature when in 1967 they returned to form and finished last, 40½ games behind the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.
But these were the innocent years. What could be expected of a club that paid $125,000 for Don Zimmer and Lee Walls and $75,000 for the likes of Ray Daviault and John De Merit? And who gave a hell about winning when their manager of three-and-one-half years, Casey Stengel, could combine jabberwocky and Finnegans Wake and convert tragedy into comedy? After Stengel’s heady reign, the Mets went into their Eisenhower years. Under Wes Westrum, the ex-Giant catcher, the Met fans mistook boredom for serious stewardship. For nearly three seasons the Mets slept.
But precociousness is a fragile commodity. What is adorable in adolescence is contemptible in adults. 1968 was the year the Mets were supposed to grow up. And the reason for their maturity was the hiring of Gil Hodges as manager. The feeling was that Hodges, the gentle giant, the solid man who was adored as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ first baseman for ten years, would bring stability to the Mets.
New York was always a National League town. The aristocratic Yankees are only tolerated here; the real action was always the Giants and the Dodgers. And Hodges was the embodiment of the golden years, the late forties and early fifties of the Dodgers. He was so unique as an individual he was never even jeered by the enemy Giant fans. In a borough that canonized the image of the “regular guy” Gil Hodges was a saint.
One remembers the elegance he brought to playing first base. His massive hands seemed to span the right side of the Dodger infield, making it impenetrable. And who could forget the 370 home runs-or, as Red Barber called them, “Old Goldies”? Then there was the human saga, the 1952 World Series in which Hodges batted 0 for 21, and on a Sunday every church in Brooklyn offered up prayers that Gil would end his slump. Indeed, Hodges always seemed to be a character in a morality play. One recalls the great confrontation between Hodges and Giant pitcher Sal “The Barber” Maglie. The blue-eyed Hodges at bat, who always had trouble hitting the curve ball, looking like Billy Budd facing the swarthy, unshaven Maglie as Claggart doing the unmentionable to the instrument of our national pastime-spitting on it-magnificently curving the hero to his death, while the faithful of Flatbush hissed the hairy villain. Even now Hodges says with a self-deprecating smile: “Sal would have to make a terrible mistake for me just to hit the ball.”
Hodges, who also was one of the original Mets, retired from active ball in 1963 because of a crippling knee injury. In 1963 he became manager of the last place Washington Senators of the American League. Within five years as the Senators’ manager Hodges raised the club from the cellar in 1963 to a respectable tie for sixth place in 1967. Then in ’68 the Mets summoned Hodges home, though in a way he had never left since he has lived on Bedford Avenue with his wife and four children (a boy and three girls) since 1948.
But for those looking for the Met image to change drastically the spring season didn’t offer much hope. The Mets compiled their worst loss record ever, and the zany stories were still getting into the press. Ron Swoboda, the team slugger and the sibling with the Chinese stepfather, was reported to heed a call from nature during an exhibition game and missed his turn at bat-once again, the Mets were caught with their pants down. Then there was the story of relief pitcher Hal Reniff urging Phil Linz, infielder and owner of the East Side swing spot Mr. Laffs, to come to spring training for a tryout. In typical Met fashion Reniff had a horrible spring and was cut, and Linz, playing brilliantly, made the team. In fact, Linz was so impressive that Daily News sportswriter. Dick Young was moved to write that Linz was one of the best prospects in spring training. Linz, upon reading the accolade, was moved to comment: “I know that’s not right.”
But these stories, which were the substance of Stengel’s existence, don’t amuse Hodges. Sitting in his office at Shea Stadium, Hodges solemnly said: “I used to enjoy Met stories as much as anyone else, but I don’t appreciate them anymore. We have to get away from the image of being a funny club.” But the old image didn’t have any major revision during the first two weeks of the season. The Mets blew their opening game to the Giants in the ninth inning and managed to lose six one-run ball games in their first twelve games through spotty relief pitching and horrendous fielding. In fact, if to err is human, to be a Met is divine. In the first seventeen games the Amazin’ Ones made nineteen miscues.
But loving the Mets is not a rational thing; it’s more like life with a drunken husband. He curses you, abuses you, beats you, and then every so often the lousy bastard does something so spectacular that passion overrules reason and your bed of nails once more becomes the arena of conjugal bliss. So it was with the Mets as they staggered home from their road trip, like Hickey the salesman, to their opener at Shea.
All the regular hoopla was present: marching bands, flags flapping everywhere, and a horseshoe wreath wishing Gil good luck. Then, in one loving swoop, all was forgiven. The current ace of Hodges’ staff, twenty-five-year-old Jerry Koosman, not only struck out the Giants, but struck out Willie Mays with the bases loaded. But such treats are rare. The same weekend the Mets threw away a doubleheader to the Dodgers, and Hodges sat in his office, his massive hand shaking, holding a filter cigarette, unable to talk to the reporters. He seemed to be suffering the frustration of so many talented participants who are now relegated to the sidelines to manage the ineptitude of others. The best he could mutter was “We’re beating ourselves, and that can be corrected.” When one looked at the pale blue eyes vacuous and washy, the face from our boyhood now lined and looking prematurely haggard, one thought of John Lindsay after managing a couple of tough summer seasons in this city.
But after a day off, Hodges looked refreshed at a Tuesday morning batting practice. Here one catches the real essence of Hodges. Essentially, Gil Hodges is a father. Young ballplayers treat him with respect but not awe. His jokes are mild-not clever, not cutting, just a touch of chastisement in them. He was hitting ground balls to first baseman Art Shamsky, taking particular glee when he drove one by him. Shamsky sheepishly smiled at the past master of the position he was trying to conquer, and then Hodges, grinning broadly, would hit him an easy grounder to make him look good. Hodges’ coach, Yogi Berra, was pitching batting practice. Berra is the only man alive who can make a baseball uniform look like a zoot suit. His low-slung pants seem pegged, his hat slouches over his eyes be-bop fashion, and his bouncy walk evokes the street corner. Tommie Agee stepped into the batting cage, and Hodges stopped smiling. Hodges traded away .300 hitter Tommy Davis and pitcher Jack Fisher to obtain the White Sox center fielder. Agee, who was suffering a terrific batting slump, couldn’t even hit the ball in practice. Hodges eyed him intently, looking for some flaw in the swing that might bring Agee around. When asked about the wisdom of giving up the Mets’ only .300 hitter for Agee (who later went on to tie the Mets’ record for most hitless times at bat—0 for 34), Hodges in his usual gracious manner said: “Certainly I’ll take credit for the trade. Tommie will come along just fine.”
But all is not bleak for Hodges and his Mets this year. Relaxed in his office after practice, he talked about the positive side of the Mets. “Our pitching is our strong suit,” he said. “These young boys are fine.” Indeed, the Mets do have a fine young staff in Koosman, Tom Seaver, who won 16 games last year, and Nolan Ryan, whose speed has been compared to that of Koufax and Feller. And Ron Swoboda is off to the finest start of his career. But there are the others, the nameless mediocrities who fill out the roster. Hodges has set a goal of winning 70 games this year and perhaps playing .500 ball next year. “These boys have it in them. They’re fine boys.”
Fine boys. The phrase is slightly square for a paid athlete. But then Hodges is slightly square. But then again baseball, like Hodges, is square—but in a nice sort of way. It is a game that is meant to be played under God’s sunshine, as Phil Wrigley used to say. Unlike football, it has no snob appeal. It’s a game for kids, cabdrivers pulling long night shifts, and the old Jewish men who stand on Flatbush Avenue outside Garfield’s Cafeteria. It’s a beer drinker’s game, where the fans do corny things like sing fight songs and take seventh inning stretches. And Gil Hodges fits perfectly into this milieu.
For all his size (6 feet 2, 210 pounds), one could never picture Hodges in pro football where everyone uses war game parlance as if they were bastard sons of Robert McNamara. Or where the season ticket holders are the ad boys with their plaid-covered flasks holding their Ambassador Twelve, snobbishly talking about “Z-outs” and “zig-ins,” as if they were talking about Kama Sutra positions instead of a ball game. Hodges seems content to settle for the glitter of Abner Doubleday’s diamond.
But one wonders if his team should be the Mets. One remembers the hand shaking, the soft drink on the desk, the pale face, and the hesitant speech. Then one thinks of Stengel, booze in hand, regaling sportswriters with sidesplitting tales of his clowns’ ineptitude. Hodges can’t play the buffoon; he takes his “boys” seriously. This may be the sadness of his homecoming. The Mets still look like a team to be run by a tipsy Falstaff rather than a sober, brooding, fatherly Lear.
May 27, 1968