Cooperstown Confidential: Donn Clendenon’s Strange 1969 Season

Donn Clendenon turned out to be the perfect fit for the New York Mets.

Donn Clendenon turned out to be the perfect fit for the New York Mets.

If you happen to be a follower of the New York Mets, you know all too well that fans and media have been clamoring for general manager Sandy Alderson to do something (anything!) to address the club’s season-long offensive problems. Last in the National League in runs scored, the Mets have badly needed another hitter or two. So, last week, the team added two veterans, Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, adding to their depth in the infield and outfield. They also added Tyler Clippard for added bullpen protection yesterday. Presumably, they will be continuing to shop as Friday’s trade deadline approaches.

The current situation is reminiscent of what the Mets faced in 1969. A decent start to the season, headlined by an 11-game win streak that bridged May and June, had Mets fans thinking that the club could contend legitimately for the first time in franchise history. But the fans, along with the front office, had a nagging suspicion that the Mets’ offense simply wasn’t good enough to keep pace with that of the first-place Chicago Cubs. By the middle of June, the Mets were averaging under four runs per game. A bat was desperately needed to give the offense some life and keep pace with a terrific young pitching staff headlined by Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Tug McGraw.

At the time, the trading deadline was much earlier in the season, June 15. The early deadline forced teams to either commit to the pennant race (a possibility that may or may not have been sustainable), or start thinking about the following season. So only hours before the midnight deadline, Mets general manager Johnny Murphy decided to go for broke. Murphy gambled on a significant six-player trade, sending five players to the expansion Montreal Expos for slugging first baseman Donn Clendenon. The trade would alter the course of Mets history.

Clendenon would have turned 80 this month, but we lost him to acute leukemia a decade ago. He died in September of 2005 at the age of 70 after a long battle. I once co-hosted a show on MLB Radio with him, and while I can hardly say that I knew him well, he could not have been more friendly or cordial during our brief time on the air. Donn never once reminded me that he had played professional baseball, and that I had not, instead treating me with respect. He seemed like a true gentleman.

To put it mildly, Clendenon was a fascinating man, a man of principle. During his playing days, he worked for the district attorney’s office in Allegheny County as part of the effort to help juvenile delinquency. After his career ended in 1972, he successfully pursued a law degree, becoming the rare player who doubled as a lawyer.

Clendenon also found controversy during his life. Because of his strong beliefs, he sometimes butted heads with management. And at the age of 50, he experimented with cocaine. “I was hooked immediately,” he later confessed to William Rhoden of the New York Times. Clendenon eventually went through rehabilitation and overcame his addiction.

In 1969, Clendenon experienced one of the strangest seasons in history; he was traded twice, retired briefly to become an executive with a pen company, and then returned to the game. Along the way, he inspired two different versions of Topps baseball cards.


Let’s begin the Clendenon story with his college days. One of the relatively few African-American players of his era who attended college, Clendenon had graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta in the late 1950s. As an amateur athlete in the collegiate ranks, Clendenon had several options to choose from in picking his career path. Clendenon, 6-foot-4, was a talented basketball and football player; he was called “Big Train” because of his powerful style as a running back. He received contract offers from both the Harlem Globetrotters and the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. Ultimately, Clendenon chose baseball, signing a professional contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

While attending Morehouse, Clendenon had come under the watch of Dr. Martin Luther King, an alumnus of the school who served as a “big brother” to some of the Morehouse students. The King and Clendenon families already knew each other well, so it was only natural that King would take on such volunteer duty. King helped Clendenon make the adjustment to college life at Morehouse and occasionally invited the freshman to his house for dinner.

When the news of King’s assassination came down during the spring of 1968, it badly affected Clendenon. With the 11 black players on the Pirates’ Opening Day roster, no team was statistically more emblematic of the work of King. The Pirates’ black players, including Clendenon, held two team meetings to discuss their response to the tragedy. The Pirates were facing the start of their regular season, on April 8 and 9, a Monday and Tuesday, but there was sentiment among the players to postpone the games.

After the meetings, Maury Wills, the Pirates’ player representative, announced that the players preferred not to play Sunday’s final spring training game, which was scheduled for April 7 against the New York Yankees. More significantly, Wills said that the players, out of respect for the slain activist, did not want to play the Opening Day game against the Houston Astros, scheduled for the Astrodome on Monday. When the players learned that King would be buried on Tuesday, and not Monday as originally scheduled, they asked Pirates management to postpone the season’s second game as well. Several players simply wanted no part of playing on the day of King’s funeral.

“We feel we cannot play these games out of respect to Dr. King,” Clendenon said to The Sporting News, “since we have the largest representation of Negroes in baseball on the Pirates.”

Pirates general manager Joe Brown agreed to cancel the final spring training game against the Yankees, scheduled to be played in Richmond, but said he could not postpone the first two regular season games against Houston without the permission of Astros management. As the home team, the Astros had the final call.

Two other teams, the Reds and Washington Senators, quickly announced the postponement of their Opening Day home games on Monday. But the Astros hesitated.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The Pirates players did not like the noncommittal response from either their front office or the Astros, and voted to hold firm on their decision not to play the first two games on Monday and Tuesday. After discussions with Astros officials, Brown offered a compromise: the team would not play on either Monday or Tuesday, but would play on Wednesday, April 10, which had been scheduled as a travel date. At a clubhouse meeting, all of the Pirates players—blacks, Latinos and whites—voted to accept Brown’s plan. Clendenon’s influence played a substantial role in the decision.

That season, Clendenon hit 17 home runs and stole 10 bases for the Pirates. He put up an OPS of .708, which was not terrible in the Year of the Pitcher. But he also struck out 163 times, a total that led the National League. The frequent strikeouts led to booing from the fans at Forbes Field. the reaction bothered Clendenon. “I’m fed up with the booing, the criticism, and the nervous tension a poor season brings on,” Clendenon told Pittsburgh sportswriter Les Biederman. “I just can’t take it anymore.”

The tension between Clendenon and the fans may have convinced the Pirates to leave him unprotected from the upcoming expansion draft. Surely enough, Clendenon was claimed by one of the four new teams, as the Montreal Expos took him with their 11th pick.

As difficult as 1968 had been because of the King assassination and his subsequent on-field struggles, the Expos’ decision to claim Clendenon would mark the start of another tumultuous season. It would not be tragic in any way, but it would be a year of personal upheaval. The Expos really didn’t want Clendenon, who was 33 years old and past the prime years of production he had shown in 1965 and ‘66. The Expos only wanted him so that they could trade him for younger talent. On Jan. 22, the Expos sent him and outfielder Jesus Alou (late of the San Francisco Giants) to the Houston Astros for Rusty Staub. This explains the first version of Clendenon’s 1969 card, which shows him with “Houston.”

Initially, Clendenon expressed no reservations about the trade. He attended a press conference at the Astrodome, where he talked about Houston’s relative proximity to his home in Atlanta. All seemed well.

In reality, it was a bad trade for the Astros, who were giving up a young star in Staub, who was still only 24, and receiving a fading veteran like Clendenon. The deal was only made worse when Clendenon changed course and decided that he did not want to play for Houston. On Feb. 28, Clendenon announced that he intended to retire and would not report to his new team. Clendenon told reporters that he would work fulltime as an executive for a company, Scripto Inc., which manufactured pens.

Why did Clendenon refuse the trade? In part, he was upset with his contract and his salary level. But the overriding reason was this: He wanted no part of Astros manager Harry Walker, who had a bad reputation for his dealings with black players. Many African-American players, a group that included Clendenon and Astros stars like Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn, felt that Walker was a racist. Clendenon had already played for Walker when he had managed in Pittsburgh. He did not want to experience a second chapter under the thumb of Walker.

In the past, a player announcing his retirement, like Clendenon had done, usually would have resulted in the voiding of the trade. That’s what the Astros wanted. In contrast, the Expos had already begun to market their team around Staub, who quickly learned how to speak French and became known as “Le Grand Orange” because of his bright red hair.

The commissioner’s office, led by the newly elected Bowie Kuhn, decided in favor of the Expos, allowing Staub to report to Montreal and Alou to Houston, while permitting Clendenon to remain the property of Montreal while he was on the retired list. Kuhn also demanded that the two teams restructure the rest of the deal so as to compensate for the exclusion of Clendenon. On April 8, just before the start of the season, the Expos sent right-hander Jack Billingham and left-hander Skip Guinn to Houston as replacements.

Still, Clendenon was not convinced that he should return to baseball. Only after Monte Irvin, working for the commissioner’s office at the time, visited Clendenon and laid out his baseball options did Clendenon change his mind. He would receive a raise of $14,000 for his trouble. With Clendenon reporting to the Expos, Topps issued an updated card of Clendenon, one that showed him with his new team.

Although Clendenon insisted that his desire to retire had been legitimate, his maneuvering showed other players that they didn’t necessarily have to comply with undesirable trades that put them with unwanted teams. They could also use leverage to gain better contract terms. In April of 1969, Ken Harrelson would devise a similar strategy when the Boston Red Sox traded him to the Cleveland Indians. Not wanting to play in Cleveland and give up his many business interests in the Boston area, Harrelson “retired” for 48 hours, finagling a new two-year contract from the Indians during his brief layoff. Even more significantly, Clendenon’s maneuver may have also influenced Curt Flood, who was traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season but refused to report to his new team, setting the stage for one of baseball’s greatest court battles.

After the sit-down with Irvin, Clendenon reported to the Expos. Unfortunately, he was out of shape, having missed all of spring training. He struggled at the plate, leading to sporadic playing time under manager Gene Mauch.

Unhappy with Clendenon, the Expos decided to trade him a second time. On June 15, with the Mets trailing the Chicago Cubs by eight games in the standings and the offense producing only 3.8 runs per game, the Mets rolled the dice on a deal. They had been interested in Clendenon since the end of the 1968 season, so they pounced. They sent backup infielder Kevin Collins, three minor league pitchers, and a player to be named later to Montreal for Clendenon.

This time, Clendenon didn’t balk at the trade. He would be leaving a last-place expansion team for a team that had a chance of contending. He would also have the opportunity to play for one of the game’s best managers in Gil Hodges. Initially, Clendenon became a platoon partner with Ed Kranepool at first base. Clendenon immediately strengthened the Mets’ lineup against left-handed pitching and deepened a relatively thin and inexperienced bench. In due time, he became the Mets’ regular first baseman—in an important decision made by Hodges. The manager realized that Clendenon was a better player than Kranepool, who was better suited to coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter.

In 72 games with the Mets, Clendenon finished with 12 home runs, 37 RBIs, and a .777 OPS, solid numbers to be sure, but hardly earth-shattering. Still, Clendenon gave the Mets a more powerful presence against left-handed pitching and played a smooth first base himself, fitting in well with a team that emphasized pitching and defense. He also brought a sense of humor, and an ability to needle his teammates in a light-hearted way. With Clendenon providing a boost, both spiritually and on the field, the Mets overcame a nine-and-a-half game deficit and won the Eastern Division by eight games over the Cubs, who had the more talented team.

More significantly, Clendenon saved his best hitting for the postseason. After not appearing at all in the League Championship Series—Hodges went with Kranepool against the Atlanta Braves’ three right-handed starters—Clendenon became the centerpiece of the Mets’ offense in the World Series against the substantially favored Baltimore Orioles. In Game One, Clendenon doubled and singled in a Series-opening loss. In Game Two, he powered a critical solo home run that lifted the Mets to a 2-1 victory. Clendenon then homered in Game Four, and again in the clinching Game Five, as the Mets finalized their stunning upset of the seemingly invincible Birds of Baltimore. Appearing in four of the five games against a lefty-dominant starting staff, Clendenon was voted World Series MVP.

While the Mets probably could have won the National League East without Clendenon, it wouldn’t have happened as easily. And they might have been hard-pressed to overpower the talented Orioles—in five games no less—without the presence of Big Train. That’s why fans of the “Amazin’ Mets” will always remember the importance of Clendenon.

It’s pretty much forgotten now, but Clendenon played even better for the Mets in 1970 than he did in 1969. With a slugging percentage of .515 and an OPS of .863, Clendenon emerged as the Mets’ top offensive player. It was his best season since 1967, a last hurrah for a player who had turned 34 years old.

To make the trade even more one-sided, of the players the Mets dealt, only young right-hander Steve Renko would do anything of consequence for the Expos, becoming an effective member of their starting rotation and winning 134 games over a respectable major league career. Collins and the three minor league players (pitchers Jay Carden and David Colon and third baseman Terry Dailey) all washed out. Collins was out of the major leagues by 1971, while the other three never even made appearances in big league uniforms.

All in all, the Mets could not have asked for more in the Donn Clendenon trade. The trade might not have been the best one the Mets have ever made—the Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez and Mike Piazza swaps would all rate higher—but it came at just the right time in the franchise’s history. Donn Clendenon turned out to be the perfect fit.

He was just the kind of player that Mets fans would love to see the current front office add to the roster right now—at another time when the franchise most certainly needs the boost.

References & Resources

  • Donn Clendenon’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
  • The New York Times
  • The Sporting News

Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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7 years ago

“and played a smooth first base himself”

I’m sure you have a good reason for saying this, but I always thought he was a pretty bad first baseman. IIRC, his nickname as a Pirate was Clink.

“With a slugging percentage of .515 and an OPS of .863, Clendenon emerged as the Mets’ top offensive player. It was his best season since 1967, a last hurrah for a player who had turned 34 years old.”

What he really needed in his career was to get out of Forbes Field. Clendenon had terrific power, but Forbes seriously squelched it, as it did for all RHBs (except Kiner, who had the fences pulled way in for him).

Donn’s career H/R split:

Home: 268/325/417 with 58 HRs
Road: 280/332/456 with 101 HRs

Forbes only: 278/335/425 with 36 HRs in 1891 PAs
Three Rivers: 303/368/515 (sss)

In places like Wrigley (315/387/531) and Connie Mack (297/358/507), he was a beast.

One of my favorite stats ever is this: In 1966, Clendenon, in the midst of a 299/358/520 season in a bad offensive environment in MLB, hit 28 homers — three of them at home. He had a 994 road OPS that season (slugging 625), 751 at home.

FWIW, he slugged .702 in July that year, with 10 HRs. The Pirates must have been on the road all month.

Paul G.
7 years ago
Reply to  bucdaddy

Actually, the fence was moved in for Hank Greenberg. Greenberg’s only year with the Pirates was the year Kiner blossomed and they kept the fence in for Ralph.

7 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

True, if you want to get technical about it 🙂

I estimate that Kiner owes his HoF plaque and perhaps 80 HRs to the Korner.

Yes, 80.

No, seriously.

Look at almost any RH power hitter’s H/R splits at Forbes. Then look at Kiner’s. His are almost opposite.

Kiner hit 175 HRs at Forbes, almost half his career total (and he spent 2 1/2 seasons in other home ballparks), which must be far and away the highest total for a RH hitter there. His career H/R split is 210/159 (he also got to hit HRs at Wrigley a couple years). A normal H/R split for a RH power hitter at Forbes was more like Clendenon’s.

Clemente: 102/138
Mazeroski: 45/93
Dr. Strangeglove: 48 at Forbes, 180 everywhere else.

Like that.

If we subtract 80 HRs from Kiner’s H split, we get 130/159, which is still probably high for Forbes (Kiner had a roughly 50/50 split in his other home fields). It could be as many as 100.

Paul G.
7 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

Oh, I don’t disagree. Kiner’s home run totals would be a lot lower without Kiner’s Korner. Shane Tourtellotte did a nice take on that issue here:

Alternate Baseball: Chapter One

I think losing 80 homers may be a bit too aggressive a discount, but not out of the realm of possibility.

Richard Chester
7 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

Second most HR at Forbes Field by a RH batter is Roberto Clemente with 86.

Just for comparison here is a list of PA/HR at Forbes Field for RH batters.

Kiner: 14.0
Aaron: 27.4
Mays: 21.7
Banks: 28.3
Hodges: 22.6
Ennis: 22.7
Greenberg: 14.8
Sauer: 20.7
Frank Robinson: 30.4

Richard Chester
7 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

In my earlier post Aaron’s ratio should be 22.4 PA/HR. I misread my own handwriting.

kevin warren
7 years ago

really good piece on clink.
what was his progress through the minors?
he was pretty old to be a rookie, even starting pro ball at 22.
his walk numbers were decent, despite coming up through the pirate organization.
not great–decent.
supposedly, there had been talk of him as a full-time third base man.
despite his willingness to speak clearly, my guess the reason the pirates exposed to the draft were, a slowing firstbase man, old, a hefty contract, bob robertson & al oliver behind him

Dennis Bedard
7 years ago

Great article on an almost forgotten WS MVP. I remember Sport Magazine named him WS MVP and gave him a car. I think it was a Dodge Charger or Challenger but I definitely remember seeing him in the car in one of the post WS issues. You make a subconscious mistake that everyone makes with the ’69 Mets. We assume that the Cubs and Orioles were the more talented teams as if the Mets’ run was more borne of luck than, well, talent. Not so. The Mets won over 100 games. They may not have had the firepower that the O’s and Cubs had but they did something more important: they won. Another point that has bothered me since I first saw that Topps card in 1969: Why is there an extra “n” at the end of his first name?

7 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

Clendenon won a new Dodge Dart:

Paul G.
7 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

It was an expansion season. It can be tricky to tell who really is the better team.

Still, the Mets were essentially platooning at 4 or 5 positions (first, second, third, and right field definitely, arguably catcher), had “only” had 3 all-stars (Seaver, Koosman, Jones) and got what were basically ridiculous seasons from Cleon Jones (never close to that good again) and Tommie Agee (bouncing back from an awful year). It was a team giving significant playing time to Ed Kranepool (barely above replacement for his 1853 game career), an over-the-hill Ed Charles, and offensives zeroes such as Al Weis, Rod Gaspar, and Bobby Pfeil. Not exactly what comes to mind when discussing very talented teams.

The Cubs were overrated (Banks was old, Billy Williams had an off season). However, the O’s were stacked (Frank & Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Cuellar, Palmer, McNally, plus the line-up was stacked offensively with everyone with an OPS+ over 100 except Brooks at 92, Belanger at 95(!), and the backup catcher at 96). By OPS+ they were the best team in the AL in batting (by 4 points) and pitching (12 points!) It is very clear why they would be the favorite.

Marc Schneider
7 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

I think the 1969 Mets were not more talented than the other teams but more lucky. Not to take anything away from what they did, but the following year they won 82 games, which was probably more in keeping with their talent level. In 1969, they just got on a roll, helped out by the Cubs collapse. As Paul G suggests, in an era with very good teams, the Mets’ limeup was mediocre at best and, as he also said, they got some performances from players that they would never duplicate. I remember everything going right for the Mets that year. Obviously, they had good pitching, but, after Seaver and Koosman, you are talking about Gary Gentry, Don Cardwell, etc. Nolan Ryan was there but very inconsistent although he played a big factor in the NLCS Game 3 against the Braves. It was just not that good a team and their results the next several years, I think, bear this out. Even in 1973, when the Mets went to the World Series again, they only 83 games. The Orioles, meanwhile, won 100 games three years in a row and, after an off year in 1972, won divisions in 1973 and 1974.

Death To Flying Things
7 years ago

There was a three-year period when the Astros absolutely tortured me with their transactions. I was a young fan, age 10-13, and the following left me scarred for the remainder of my baseball life. I still have not fully recovered from the Morgan trade.

December 4, 1968: Traded Mike Cuellar with Tom Johnson (minors) and Enzo Hernandez to the Baltimore Orioles for John Mason (minors) and Curt Blefary.

January 22, 1969: Traded Rusty Staub to the Montreal Expos for Jesus Alou and Donn Clendenon. Donn Clendenon refused to report to his new team on April 8, 1969. The Montreal Expos sent Jack Billingham (April 8, 1969), Skip Guinn (April 8, 1969) and $100,000 (April 8, 1969) to the Houston Astros to complete the trade.

November 29, 1971: Traded Joe Morgan with Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo and Denis Menke to the Cincinnati Reds for Tommy Helms, Lee May and Jimmy Stewart.

December 2, 1971: Traded John Mayberry and David Grangaard to the Kansas City Royals. Received Lance Clemons and Jim York.

7 years ago

Paul G. (for some reason there’s no “reply” button under your comment):

Thanks for that link. That’s a fun read. I’m very fond of “what if” narratives.

87 Cards
7 years ago

Picking on the “tortured-Astros” reference….Pitcher Jim Umbricht dead in 1964 from melanoma…Pitcher Jay Dahl, one appearance in ’63 (the all-rookie lineup of Sep. 27 in the AstroDome); dead in ’65 from an in-season motor-vehicle accident while assigned to the Carolina League in ’65…John Paciorek, outfielder, made a perfect 3-3 MLB debut/career the following day in the AstroDome then down with a congenital back injury..I can’t resist the painful pun..the 1960s Astros were “star-crossed”…Later, tragedies to pitchers JR Richard in the AstroDome and Don Wilson at his home…Dickie Thon eye injury in the AstroDome April 8, 1984.

Michael Bacon
7 years ago

A very fine article on a fellow Georgian! I must beg to differ with anyone who would write that the Cubs “had the more talented team.” This is a perfect example of a shibboleth that has been repeated so often it is now become a part of MLB lore. It goes without saying that a short series between closely matched teams does not tell us which team was better, but the regular season does provide a large enough sample size to make a statement as to which team was stronger. During the regular season it is true that the Cubs scored more runs than the Mets, but how much of that is due to the parks in which they played? The Cubs were +0.37 in R/G; the Mets were below average at -0.15. But the Mets pitching was outstanding, grading at -0.71, while the Cubs were -0.30. And here is the kicker-the Mets defense was the best in the league (the Braves, who won the Western division-what was Atlanta doing in the West?- were second) by a wide margin, +.028; the Cubs were awful, weighing in at MINUS -0.29. Not enough has been written about the Amazin’ Mets defense, and I am SHOCKED to read something on a stat-head website that does not acknowledge this simple fact. The Amazin’ Mets proved that pitching and defense win baseball games. Ditto the ’73 Mets. Having read “Miracle Collapse: The 1969 Chicago Cubs” by by Doug Feldmann, and other type books and articles, it is more than evident Leo Durocher was the problem. A better manager may have won with the team, but Leo did not. Simply put, the team was riddled with discension. The title of a book by David Claerbaut, “Durocher’s Cubs: The Greatest Team That Didn’t Win,” helps continue the myth. Granted, the Cubs pythag record was one game better than the Amazin’s, but they fell by EIGHT GAMES where it counted. There has got to be a reason for this, and they all begin with Leo, who ran his players into the ground. I seem to recall reading something on THT recently in which the writer wrote something about what Leo did to Randy Hundley being “criminal.” People are beginning to understand. The next season the Cubs pythag was TEN games better than their actual record! When one sees something like that there can be only one conclusion, that being MANAGEMENT. Intentional gambling and throwing games by the manager, who was once suspended for a year because of associating with gamblers cannot be discounted…

And thanks for the link. I somehow missed that article, and I greatly enjoy speculating about “What if?” What would have happened to the 60’s O’s if there had been no expansion and they had kept Dean Chance? I can, though, tell you what would have happened if the ’69 Astros had not lost big Nate Colbert in the expansion draft. The ‘stros would not have traded Mike Cuellar for Curt Blefary, and would have been a better team. The trade of Rusty Staub was one of the worst trades of all-time! Without expansion it could have been that both earlier expansion teams, the Mets and the Astros, could have won their divisions in ’69, which means that it takes a minimum of eight years for an expansion team, in the era prior to free agency-1962 until 1976-to become on par with the other, older teams. So in that regard, the years from 1962 until 1976 can all be considered “expansion seasons.” As far as the AL goes, the expansion years begin in 1961 and end in 1972, because in ’73 the rules were altered so drastically that a completely new era began in the AL. One can no longer compare any AL team with other teams who play what is considered to be “true” baseball. From 1973 on in the AL it can only be considered “gimmickball,” and those teams can only be compared with other gimmick teams. Because the modern NL teams are forced to play gimmickball one can no longer compare modern teams with any other team except those of today, and something has been lost. I do not even know when the NL was forced to play gimmickball, but an era ended, and a new one began, and modern day baseball is simply not as interesting.

Marc Schneider
7 years ago
Reply to  Michael Bacon


Your statement is a bit inconsistent. On the one hand, you argue against the idea that the Cubs were better than the Mets but then blame Leo Durocher for why they lost. I tend to think you are correct there; Durocher was still managing as if it were the 1950s. If that’s true, then it suggests that the only real advantage the Mets had was a better manager. Also, though, in 1970, the Cubs finished ahead of the Mets even though their record was even farther below their pythag; the Mets were also 5 games worse than their pythag, so Hodges’ magic seems to have worn off. No doubt the Mets had better pitching and defense THAT YEAR, but they didn’t necessarily have better players unless you think Ed Charles was better than Ron Santo. With basically the same players, the Mets were 17 games worse than the year before, which, to me, screams that 1969 was a fluke. And, you can’t really rely on pythag to prove the Cubs choked and then ignore it when it suggests the Cubs really were at least marginally better in 1969. The fact is, as someone else noted, the Mets had several guys in 1969 that had career years and were never close to that good again, primarily Cleon Jones and Tommy Agee.

As for your argument about the AL not being comparable because they don’t play “real baseball” that makes no sense. If anything, it makes the AL a more difficult league, at least for pitching because AL pitchers don’t get to face other pitchers and really weak 8th place hitters. You may not like the DH, but you can’t really argue that the AL ball is not comparable.

Yogi The Berra
7 years ago

Mr. Bacon is not the only one who is tired of hearing how the Cubs were the better team. I appreciate his bringing up the fact about how much better were the Mets defensively.

This is taken from the wonderful book, “When The GAME CHANGED: An oral History of baseball’s True Golden Age: 1969-1979,” by George Castle.
“Manager Gil Hodges employed role players instead of a static, set lineup, used a five man rotation to take pressure off his hard throwers, and even dabbled in bullpen roles-all standard parts of baseball in decades to come. Hodges’s strategy was in stark contrast to the old-school ways of Cubs counterpart Leo Durocher, possessed of superior overall talent that he wore down throughout the dog days of August into September.” – pg 13
There it is.

“Never mind that Durocher, once accused by roommate Babe Ruth of stealing his watch, fit all the classic definitions of a first-class jerk and admitted as much.” pg 14

“…Durocher suddenly developed impatience with the kids. He became reliant and overly loyal to his core of lineup regulars and rotation centerpieces.” – pg 17

“We were like puppies that were being whipped.” – pg 17

But Durocher went beyond personal outrage. He abused his young players.” pg 18

“Hodges was a smart guy who was all about winning and doing the best. Leo was always about looking good.” …Hodges used to monkey with Leo. They’d have the Saturday Game of the Week. After that game they always left technical stuff in the dugout. Hodges took one of the headsets and put it on-you could see one another from each dugout. He put it on like he was talking to somebody out in centerfield. I know it was related to that whole business where the Giants got the signals from [a spy in] the scoreboard in the Polo Grounds. He got a towel and made a big splash with it-like he was secretive with it. He was playing with Leo. Those guys had to have a little history together. We’re talking pretty good egos here.” – Ron Swoboda pg 20

“By then the Cubs were a marked team, partially due to Durocher. Teams were reluctant to help Durocher.” – pg 23

“Everybody hated the Cubs. In Cincinnati or Pittsburgh they’d put a Mets score up, people would cheer. It’s the only year it’s been that way; otherwise, you’d see Cubs fans everywhere, all over the country. That season we were the enemy, the bad guy.” – Blake Cullen (Cubs traveling secretary, 1969-75) pg 23

[On whether Durocher was the most hated man in the National League] “That’s without question.” – Bill Hands pg 23

“In a new era when players did not blindly accept a Captain Bligh approach to management, Durocher was beyond his time in his next 2 1/2 stormy seasons as manager, which included an August 1971 player revolt in the clubhouse.” pg 26

“Never mind that Durocher had been suspended from baseball for the entire 1947 season for his associations with gangland-related people.” – pg 13

“One contemporary got the best of Durocher in 1969. Former arch-rival Gil Hodges from the Brooklyn Dodgers-New York Giants rivalry was a 1970s manager going up against a 1930s manager in Durocher.” – pg 20

A baseball team is a collections of talented individuals led by a manager, who is most certainly a part of the team. How to quantify how much better is one manager? There are some things for which statistics cannot account. History has recorded that one team was led by a reprehensible man while the other was led by a beloved leader. The 1969 New York Mets proved they were the better team, in everything that can be counted, and also in things that cannot be counted.

7 years ago
Reply to  Yogi The Berra

Your observations re Gil Hodges’ managing style are spot-on, he hasn’t received enough credit, in a historic sense.

7 years ago

Durocher’s 1947 suspension was trumped-up nonsense. MacPhail had known gamblers in his own box at the Stadium, but had Commissioner Chandler’s ear and since Happy owed his job in large part to MacPhail, Durocher was due for a fall. He knew a couple of racket boys, to be sure, maybe more than a couple, but there was the reek of hypocrisy here, as MacPhail knew just as many shady characters and wasn’t disciplined or even questioned. The suspension shouldn’t be used as evidence that Leo was a jerk or a crook; he was no saint, to say the least, but this incident was no evidence.

Cyril Morong
7 years ago

The Orioles had the 4th highest OPS differential ever (from 1914-2014). It was .136. The Mets had just .017 (and several NL teams had better that year). Here they are

PIT 0.054
CHC 0.036
STL 0.034
SFG 0.031
CIN 0.025
ATL 0.024
LAD 0.019
NYM 0.017

Cyril Morong
7 years ago

Kiner had pretty good road numbers: .381 OBP, .503 SLG. Maybe not Hall worthy. It is possible his park favored him more than other guys. I really don’t know. But he did lead the league in OPS+ 3 times. From 1946-52, the park factor was 102-103. Does that treat him fairly or does it still favor him? If lefties still had a hard time there it could make the park look average or just a bit better than average when in fact it favors some guys at the expense of others . Anyone know?

7 years ago
Reply to  Cyril Morong

FWIW, just because I looked it up and not because it proves much, here are the Forbes home run numbers for a couple notable RH power hitters who came along just after Kiner left.

In 1954, Banks hit 2 at Forbes. He also hit 2 at Crosley. They were his top totals in parks other than Wrigley.

In 1955, Banks hit 0 at Forbes, 6 each at Connie Mack and Busch.

In 1956, Banks hit 1 at Forbes. His top totals were 3 each at Crosley and Busch.

Mays actually had some success at Forbes even with the deep LF walls. In 1954, he hit 3 at Forbes, with 6 at Ebbets his top number.

In 1955, he hit 5 at Forbes and 9 (!) at Ebbets.

1956, 1 at Forbes and 6 at Ebbets.

What I was looking for, however, was for a RH power hitter who played in the NL during the same period as Kiner and for some years after. Wanted to see how said hitter’s numbers changed once the Korner was gone. Couldn’t think of one off the top of my head though, so I thought I’d see how hard a park it was for the two guys who came along just after.

Any ideas who I should look at?

Cyril Morong
7 years ago
Reply to  bucdaddy

Here are the top 10 righties in HRs from 1946-55 after Kiner in the NL

Gil Hodges
Hank Sauer
Del Ennis
Roy Campanella
Bobby Thomson
Sid Gordon
Andy Pafko
Andy Seminick
Carl Furillo
Walker Cooper

Through 1960 it is

Gil Hodges
Del Ennis
Hank Sauer
Willie Mays
Ernie Banks
Bobby Thomson
Roy Campanella
Hank Aaron
Joe Adcock
Frank Thomas

Cyril Morong
7 years ago

Here are the OPS and OPS allowed for the Mets and Cubs in High, Medium and Low Leverage situations in 1969

H) .720/.590
M) .640/.649
L) .652/.669

H) .750/.703
M) .683/.677
L) .705/.646

So the Cubs best differential is in Low leverage cases. For the Mets it was High leverage and they were actually negative in the Medium and Low cases.

You might think the Mets had a better bullpen but the OPS allowed for their starters and relievers were .626 & .702. For the Cubs it was .663 & .692. So neither team’s bullpen helped that much and it seems like the Mets starters did really well in High leverage situations then.

Also, the Mets hitters really ramped it up in High leverage cases. That is probably luck.

The Mets were 41-23 in 1-run games and the Cubs were 29-23

Marc Schneider
7 years ago

I continue to think the 1969 Mets were a mediocre team that got hot at the right time. For what it’s worth, the Mets’ Pythagorean record was 92-70 (obviously very good) and the Cubs was 93-69. So the Mets significantly outplayed their expected record. Hodges certainly deserves some credit for that and certainly their pitching and defense were very good. But look at the Mets’ win totals from 1967-1975: 61,73, 100, 83, 83, 83, 82, 71, 82. Which one doesn’t belong here? The Mets were certainly consistent and largely a decent team, but not championship caliber. The Cubs may well have been overrated but the Mets were clearly not as good as the Orioles and I think they largely caught lightening in a bottle.

Cyril Morong
7 years ago

Maybe the Mets had a good Pyth pct but they might been lucky by scoring more runs than expected and giving up fewer runs than expected based on their underlying stats

With no runners on, the Mets had an OPS of .640. With runners on it was .691. With RISP, it was .722. For the whole NL that year, With no runners on it was .672. With runners on it was .709. With RISP, it was .714.

Yes, all hitters do better with runners on but the Mets far exceeded normal differentials (almost double for both runners on and RISP).

The Mets pitchers allowed an OPS of .643 With no runners on. With runners on it was .648. With RISP, it was .658. So it did go up but far less than normal as you can see from the league numbers I show above

Cyril Morong
7 years ago

Based on OBP and SLG (but skipping the regression details), I have the Mets scoring about 26.9 more runs than expected while allowing about 23.9 fewer than expected. So 51.8 swing in runs or about 5 wins

Cyril Morong
7 years ago
Reply to  Cyril Morong

That is the 4th biggest swing of all MLB teams from 1967-71. But the Cubs had a swing of 36.3 in 1969

Cyril Morong
7 years ago
Reply to  Cyril Morong

That should say 50.8