After the Miracle: The Myths and the Men

It’s been 50 years since the Miracle Mets won the World Series. But what are some of the truths and myths behind that team? (via slgckgc)

The 1969 Mets tempted me.

Two years ago, I wrote a week-by-week account of the last month of the 1967 American League pennant race. Reliving that astonishing race, and helping readers relive it through me, was one of my most satisfying times writing at The Hardball Times. So I almost chased success. I gave long and serious thought to similarly recounting the whole 1969 season, month by month, 50 years after it happened, with my primary focus being the New York Mets’ emergence, first as a decent team for the first time ever, then as an actual contender, and finally as champions.

I resisted the temptation on two grounds. First was that reliving old glories often fails to recapture what made them glorious. Second was that the Miracle Mets’ anniversary was such an obvious topic that lots of people would be covering it, and my project would vanish as a drop in the ocean of Mets nostalgia.

The second point has been borne out. Baseball Prospectus took the page from my playbook with its weekly “The Summer of ‘69” series written by Rob Mains and Ginny Searle (and ensconced firmly behind a paywall). Meanwhile, bookstores have absorbed a minor flood of retrospectives on the Mets’ 1969 season. New York sportswriter Wayne Coffey delivered They Said It Couldn’t Be Done, while Ron Swoboda, right fielder on those very Mets, came out with Here’s the Catch: A Memoir of the Miracle Mets and More.

It says rather a lot that that is not the only memoir written by a 1969 Mets right fielder this year. Art Shamsky, holder of the bigger side of that team’s right-field platoon, produced his own book in conjunction with Erik Sherman. After the Miracle was the first of the wave of retrospectives that reached my notice, and it’s the one I actually bothered to buy.

The book is framed by a reunion of several ’69 Mets teammates, arranged by Shamsky and attended by Sherman with a view to producing this book. Shamsky, Ron Swoboda, Bud Harrelson, and Jerry Koosman flew to California to visit Tom Seaver at his vineyard. They had to travel to Seaver, as he was suffering the effects of what he then thought was Lyme Disease, but has since been diagnosed as dementia. Harrelson himself was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease when he made the trip.

The PB&J of this nostalgia sandwich*, of course, is the recollection of the Mets’ miracle season and its immediate aftermath. Loads of stories are told, and not only by the travelers to Seaver’s vineyard. Most of the living ’69 Mets seem to walk on and give anecdotes. It’s like The Canterbury Tales, only with a plot, and more steadily middlebrow than bouncing between high and low.

* I stand by that metaphor. There is a certain feeling of comfort food to the project, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Mileage may vary for fans of the Cubs, Braves, and Orioles.

As I have demonstrated several times, a plethora of baseball stories switches me into baseball Mythbusters mode. I want to know what’s factual and what isn’t, and I’ve been around the block enough to know that a veteran ballplayer swearing it’s true is not an airtight guarantee, much as I might like it to be. After the Miracle gave me some nice ground to play in.

What insured I’d be doing this digging is one sizable, and fairly well-known, myth touched upon as the narrative reached mid-July of ’69. I am going to save that one for later, though, as it’s a big historical matter rather than a one-day anecdote. I will instead use two of those smaller tales as my warm-ups.

There is a risk to examining these reminiscences. The acknowledgments page of the book credits THT writer Bruce Markusen and his staff at the Baseball Hall of Fame for research assistance. That means Bruce had first crack at fact-checking these anecdotes. Am I about to catch an honored colleague in an embarrassing goof?

I’ll spoil the ending for you: no.

Warmups

The first anecdote took place on August 30, 1969, the second of four games in San Francisco. The Mets entered play trailing the Chicago Cubs by four games, having lost ground after being shut out 5-0 by Juan Marichal the previous day. The Mets were still close, but needed a win to stay close as the season rounded into the homestretch.

The game was tied 2-2 in the bottom of the ninth, and the Giants got Bob Burda on first with one out. Up came Willie McCovey. The Mets fielders shifted right, playing the left-handed Stretch to pull the ball. Among them, in left field, was Rod Gaspar.

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Gaspar was largely a defensive substitute in a career that was basically the 1969 Mets, plus scattered play in three other seasons that added up to a .111 batting average—and slugging percentage. He was one of the role players that seemed to make up half the Mets roster, and all of whom seemed to have game-saving moments. This was Rod’s, and he related it for the authors.

Stretch beat the shift, golfing a sinker down the left-field line, just shy of the warning track. Gaspar chased it, knowing Burda was heading home with the winning run. He bare-handed the ball, turned, and loosed the best throw of his life at the best time of his life, reaching catcher Jerry Grote on the fly. Burda was out. The game, for the moment, was saved.

Grote rolled the ball toward the mound—having forgotten there were only two outs! First baseman Donn Clendenon had not forgotten. He dashed in, scooped up the ball, and threw it to Bobby Pfeil. McCovey, having seen the blunder, was Stretching for third base, but Pfeil tagged him coming in. “Just your typical seven-two-three-five double play!” Gaspar said of it. Clendenon would hit a two-out homer off Gaylord Perry in the top of the 10th, Tug McGraw made it hold up for the win, and it became easier to believe the Mets were really performing a miracle.

Could it really have happened this way? My usual go-to sources said no. Baseball-Reference had the initial out going 7-3-2, not 7-2. This was derived from Retrosheet, which listed the outs as 7-3-2 and 2-5. However, Retrosheet gave an extended play-by-play on the incident which tracked with Gaspar’s account.

I went to The New York Times, and all became clear. It had the play just as Gaspar recalled, with the added detail of Grote playing possum at the plate until just before the ball arrived, then lunging to tag the lulled Burda. (Retrosheet made mention of this as well.) It was a great heady play, making Grote’s subsequent brain-cramp that much more baffling.

Gaspar’s memory was accurate. If our Bruce Markusen erred at all, it was in not adding the detail of Grote’s play—but no, he didn’t err. He was letting Rod Gaspar tell his story his way, and if it’s true, leaving it alone. It was the right call: the book belongs to those Mets.

The next anecdote came on September 12, the Mets entering a doubleheader in Pittsburgh now two games ahead of the Cubs. Normally, the left-handed Shamsky would have played both games against good righty starters Bob Moose and Dock Ellis—but that day was Rosh Hashanah, and he couldn’t see his way clear to playing. He feared the hate mail he might get if the Mets stumbled without him. It turned out that wouldn’t be a problem.

Jerry Koosman started the opener for the Mets. Not only did he shut out the Pirates, but he singled in Bobby Pfeil in the fifth for what was the only run of the game. In the nightcap, Don Cardwell took the mound. Not only did he shut out the Pirates for eight frames, but he singled in Bud Harrelson in the third for what was the only run of the game. (Tug McGraw got the final three outs.) With a pair of 1-0 games where the pitcher knocked in the lone tally each time, the Mets swept the two-fer and extended their lead.

The accomplishment was vivid in both men’s memories, even if the precise details were debatable. Koosman recalled both he and Cardwell lacing their singles over second base, but Retrosheet puts Koosman’s hit into right field, and Baseball-Reference has Cardwell’s in left-center. After the Gaspar anecdote, though, you may elect to believe the players over the Internet databases with no argument from me.

Shamsky marveled at the feat happening once, let alone in both ends of a twin-bill. “For a pitcher to toss a shutout and drive in the lone run in a game is rare enough,” he opined, “a feat that might not be repeated for years.” I looked into this enthusiastic assertion—and found that Shamsky was right.

I audited the years 1991 to 2018 for games where a starting pitcher had the only RBI, or RBIs, of the contest. The feat is almost certainly rarer today than in the years around 1969, with bats taken out of pitchers’ hands entirely in one league and much more frequent pinch-hitting substitutions in the other. The criteria do not require the pitcher to have gone the distance, since Cardwell didn’t in his game. Such a requirement would naturally make the event far more uncommon today.

Still, there is a good sprinkling of instances: 17 of pitchers getting one RBI in a 1-0 games, six of two RBIs in a 2-0 final, and Brad Hennessey on July 28, 2005, his three-run homer pacing his Giants to a 3-0 win over the Brewers. In all, 24 times in 28 years a lone starter drove in every run of a ballgame.

As for being “a feat that might not be repeated for years,” that is literally correct. There were no such instances from 1996 to 1999, or through 2007 and ’08, or through 2012 and ’13. No fact-checker would have required Shamsky to rephrase himself in the slightest.

Even so, recent years have seen a peculiar rise in this rare event’s frequency. It occurred eight times from 2014 to 2018, including a cluster of three in 2016. (The hurlers in question were Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, and Jaime Garcia.) Then on May 2 of this year—while I was doing my historical digging on the subject—Noah Syndergaard of the Mets not only accomplished the feat, he did it with a shutout and a home run. You may have heard about it at the time. Way to observe an obscure anniversary, Thor.

There was another assertion in the book that intrigued me: starting pitcher Jim McAndrew’s claim that he regularly threw fewer than 100 pitches in his complete games. He credited his “pitch-to-contact” style with letting him stay fresh, and lamented a late 11-inning effort against Montreal that spent his arm and let him pitch just twice more in the final three-plus weeks of the season.

Such a claim made about a recent season would be eminently checkable. For 1969, sadly, pitch count stats are not there. I searched my favorite baseball radio archive, looking for a McAndrew start in ’69, but came up dry, so I don’t have even anecdotal evidence on this anecdote.

Season stats are slightly suggestive. McAndrew’s 6.0 K/9 ratio was right at the National League average, while his 2.9 BB/9 rate was a little below the 3.3 for the NL. He did lean toward contact rather than whiffs and walks, but it’s not enough to make me think he was economizing severely on his pitch count. Of course, on a staff featuring aces like Seaver and Koosman, the young and wild fireballer Nolan Ryan, and relief whiz Tug McGraw, McAndrew might certainly have felt like a mere contact pitcher.

Dog Days

The Mets won the Eastern division that year with one of the great stretch drives of all time. Sitting 10 games back on August 14, with just 49 games left to play, they tore off a 38-11 finish to the season. It was, however, the concurrent 18-27 slump of the division-leading Chicago Cubs that let the Mets not only catch but bury the pacesetters.

Reasons for the Cubs’ collapse have been debated ever since. Some involve ruminant-based curses. Some involve manager Leo Durocher riding his front-line players into the ground, or those players being older and lacking the stamina of youth, or a heat wave that socked Chicago and sapped a team that constantly played in a swelter.

Wayne Garrett, rookie infielder for the ’69 Mets, mentioned all of the last three in the book as reasons why the Cubs wore down … and added another. “Because they didn’t have lights at Wrigley then,” he recalled, “they had to play all day games.”

The Cubs were famously the last team in the majors to install lights, waiting all the way until August 1988. There has long been speculation that having to play many more day games in the heat of summer than their competitors made them wilt by season’s end. For some time I’ve had an itch to put this theory to the test. Art Shamsky and Wayne Garrett gave me the chance to scratch.

It was in 1946, the first season after World War II ended, that all the ballparks in the National League, except for Wrigley Field, had lights installed. The Red Sox waited until 1947, and the Tigers until 1948, but it didn’t matter to the Cubs: interleague play back then was for spring training or the World Series. The years from May of ’46 to August of 1988 would appear to be when the day-game effect would be in force, but it’s somewhat more complex than that.

Early in the night-game era, the lights weren’t used all that often. Daylight ball remained the norm. Night games were an occasional innovation trotted out to draw some big crowds with novelty and after-work availability, while not upsetting the purists who disdained nighttime baseball too much. In time, night play increased in proportion, but it took until 1960 for the majority of games played in the NL to happen under the lights.

This has also been how the Cubs’ “experiment” with lights has proceeded. Under pressure from the neighborhood where Wrigley Field resides, night games were originally capped at 18 per season. That number has marched upward in the decades since, but is still limited by agreement with the Chicago City Council.

These two trends create a rough bell curve. The margin between Cubs day home games and the rest of the league’s began fairly modestly, rose to a peak in the 1960s through ‘80s, and has since receded to its old level. (In this context, “the league” means the National League from 1946 to 1996, and MLB from 1997 on, when interleague play came into being.)

I examined the years from 1946 to 2018, splitting the sample into five periods by the size of the day-game margin. The first period, 1946-1951, had the Cubs playing more day games than the rest of the league by a general margin of 10 to 19 percentage points. (E.g., in 1950 the Cubs played 82.4 percent of its games in day, compared to 65.4 percent for the rest of the NL, for a margin of 17 percentage points.) From 1952 to 1965, the margin was mainly in the 20s; from 1966 to 1988, in the 30s; from 1989 to 2005 it returned to the 20s; from 2006 to 2018 it was back in the teens (or in 2015, in single digits).

I did not count the strike years of 1981, 1994, and 1995, as they messed up the balance of the months I was examining. I did count the 1972 strike year. That season began on April 15, which was a standard start date for years in the early part of the survey*, so I felt it was still an apples-to-apples comparison.

* Remember why April 15, 1947 is so famous.

I tallied up the Cubs’ winning percentage in each month, then looked at the problem two ways. First, I took April* through July as a baseline, and saw whether Chicago’s performance was better or worse in both August and September*. Second, I expanded the baseline to include August, and checked just September against the rest of the year.

* As usual when examining monthly stats, March games will be included in April, and October regular-season games will count as September.

First, working off the four-month baseline:

Cubs Monthly Performance, Pt. 1
Period Apr-Jul WPct Aug WPct Sep WPct Aug Diff Sep Diff
’46-’51 .4423 .4446 .4124 +.0023 -.0299
’52-’65 .4417 .4293 .4394 -.0124 -.0023
’66-’88 .4920 .4884 .4435 -.0036 -.0485
’89-’05 .4967 .4667 .4829 -.0300 -.0138
’06-’18 .4979 .5087 .5292 +.0108 +.0313

August was not a great month for the Cubs, but neither was it a disaster. In two out of five periods, the Cubs played better in August than in the baseline months; in two out of five periods, they played better in August than in September. The overall trend was still down, and sharpest in the 15 (non-strike) years after the lights came to Wrigley Field.

September, on the other hand, was a disaster. For six decades, the Cubs reliably slumped in the final month compared to the rest of their season. The fall-off was worst in the decades when the surplus of day games the Cubs played over the rest of the league was at its height. The one shock in the numbers is in how the collapse has transformed in recent years into a September surge.

Let’s now look at it through the five-month baseline:

Cubs Monthly Performance, Pt. 2
Period Apr-Aug WPct Sep WPct Sep Diff
’46-’51 .4422 .4124 -.0298
’52-’65 .4387 .4394 +.0007
’66-’88 .4910 .4435 -.0475
’89-’05 .4900 .4829 -.0071
’06-’18 .5001 .5292 +.0291

The gap in the second, ‘50s to ‘60s, period goes away and becomes microscopically positive, and the other margins all narrow to one degree or another. The September slumps look a little smaller when the frequent August slumps are taken into account. Still, for most of the period we think of as defined by the Cubs’ “curse,” the team did tend to melt in the heat of summer, if not of the pennant race.

One may ask whether the Cubs’ awful September numbers in the 1966-88 period can be attributed to manager Leo Durocher being especially ruinous for his team in the final weeks when he held the reins. Wayne Garrett did cite that as helping to give his Mets their chance in 1969, so I’d be negligent if I didn’t look at the numbers.

Durocher had six full years helming the Cubs, from 1966 to 1971, fitting neatly into the start of the Cubs’ most night-game deprived period. In those six seasons, his record from April to July was .5090. In August it was .5173; in September it was .4682. Using the four-month baseline, the Cubs were .0083 better in August with Durocher managing, and .0408 worse in September. For the whole ’66-’88 period, those two numbers are .0036 worse and .0485 worse respectively. Durocher’s late-season success was better than that of the Cubs in the rest of this period. He may have been a problem, but he wasn’t the problem.

The truly eye-opening part of all these numbers is that the summer meltdown has gone away entirely in the last decade-plus. September, and August to a lesser degree, is when the Cubs have a little something extra. They still play more day games than the rest of baseball, but with the league building modern schedules to ameliorate players’ fatigue issues, the Cubs may have found themselves in a sweet spot where a little more day play actually helps. If the Cubs’ true curse was an excess of sunshine, perhaps that one has also been broken.

The old legend holds up pretty well. The Chicago Cubs tended to fade in September, and their worst fades came when they were playing more (presumably hot) day games by the widest margin. The other legend, of Leo Durocher grinding his teams down through overuse, remains plausible, but with the complication that Chicago’s September swoons got even worse once he was out of the picture. That’s all right. Finding one baseball legend that holds up to analytic scrutiny is enough for me for one day.

Bruce Markusen almost certainly wasn’t checking this one, but I’ll put it in his win column anyway.

Looking Back

Is After the Miracle worth your money and reading time? If you have an abiding interest in the history of baseball, it probably is. If you don’t, you probably aren’t reading this website, so the question is academic. It helps if you were local to the New York area, which I was for a few decades, while denizens of Chicago and Baltimore may be excused.

There is more than just recollections of games and an amazing season to the book. One nice thread in this hyper-polarized age is the friendship of Jerry Koosman and Ron Swoboda. They are utter political opposites, and they needle each other about it regularly, but it doesn’t stand in the way of them loving each other like crazy brothers. (They would differ on which is the crazy one.) You may be either cheered that such a bond remains possible, or dismayed that it probably takes people in their seventies or so to act that way these days.

An unavoidable theme is age. Everyone involved in the reunion, save for co-writer Sherman, is much closer to the end than the beginning, and they’ve lived lives front-loaded with excitement and accomplishment. Many of their teammates have already died. Two of them are enduring the terrifying ravages of the mind that can come with advanced years. This informal reunion is almost certainly the last time these players will all be together.

These matters never become smothering or mawkish in the final chapters that recount the reunion, but they are ever-present, and sometimes they hit hard. Tom Seaver, contemplating all the limitations he now endures, encapsulates it while talking with Shamsky. “How the hell did I get to be 72 years old?” he asks. “How did that happen to us, Art?”

Plenty of people have asked a question like that. I haven’t asked it yet, but from where I stand, I can squint and see the place where I may ask it. If you think a scene like that isn’t relevant to you, I’ll briefly remind you: either you’ll reach that age someday, or you won’t. I trust you’d rather do the former.

It’s a tough place to be, even with only the baseline declines of body and mind attendant to such an age. I’ve heard it said more than once, by people in a position to know: “Old age is not for sissies.” How does one bear it? My general answer is that time and experience accustom us to things we could not endure if they came all at once. People can get used to just about anything, even getting old.

My more specific answer is that being able to look back with pride at the things you accomplished with the years that got you to old age is a tremendous salve to those pains. These men have that advantage. They won what is likely the most improbable championship in the history of the National Pastime, and became the darlings of the country in the process. They and their teammates became a byword for achieving the seemingly impossible.

There are myriad more prosaic things you can achieve to lend you the strength to face the sunset years with equanimity. There are few that would be more spectacular, or more fun, or that would deserve having multiple books written about them half a century afterward. These Mets earned that privilege. They earned the celebration of themselves and of each other that the reunion became.

On the 29th of this month, all the Mets who can manage the trip will be going to Citi Field for a pre-game ceremony honoring what they did 50 years ago. All of them—the ones in attendance, the ones too ailing to travel, the ones already gone—earned that, too. I hope they have as good a reunion as the one Shamsky and Sherman wrote about.

References and Resources


A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

How does one bear old age? Not very well. It eventually kills you.

Tooele Dave
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Member
Tooele Dave

Shane,
Did you grow up in Clearfield, PA?

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Great article, Shane. Thanks. I’m in my 60s now and it brings me up short to see players I grew up watching dying or being ravaged like Seaver. But, as they say, no one gets out of life alive.