The Miracle Remembered: Those ’69 Mets

Tom Seaver, left, and Jerry Koosman, right, were the aces of the 1969 World Series champion Mets. (via Shelly S)

The 1969 New York Mets will become a popular topic of conversation in 2019. At least three major books covering this upstart team, on its 50th anniversary, are scheduled for release.

Courtesy of Wayne Coffey.

One of the books is titled They Said It Couldn’t Done: the ’69 Mets, New York City, and the Most Astounding Season in Baseball History. A new release from Crown Archetype Publishers, it is authored by Wayne Coffey, a longtime New York City baseball writer with the New York Daily News. Coffey has previously written books with new Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera and former Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey.

Over the course of several e-mail exchanges, Coffey discussed the impetus for his newest book, his memories of those he interviewed, the Donn Clendenon trade, the trades that didn’t happen, and the impact of Gil Hodges.

Markusen: When did you come up with the idea to write in-depth about the ’69 Mets. And how long did this project take, from start to finish?

Coffey: Some years back—2005 to be exact—I wrote a book about the 1980 Olympic hockey team called The Boys of Winter. It became a New York Times bestseller and actually still keeps chugging along. I did that book for Crown, and an editor at Crown, Kevin Doughten, reached out to me to brainstorm other ideas, and when we started thinking about other iconic sports moments and seasons, we agreed the ‘69 Mets would be a worthy subject, especially with the 50th anniversary hook approaching.

I spent about two and a half years researching and writing the book, traveling all over the country in the process.

Markusen: Of all the players you interviewed, who most surprised you with the level of insight that he delivered?

Coffey: I spent about four hours with Ed Charles before he passed last year, and feel so blessed for having done so. He was a special human being who overcame mind-boggling obstacles in his family life, and in the Jim Crow South, to make the big leagues. His wisdom, thoughtfulness, and lack of bitterness about what he endured were all remarkable qualities.

Jerry Koosman was another favorite. He’s a born storyteller, with an insanely good memory, and an extremely funny guy. Tom Seaver was the undeniable ace, the Hall of Famer, but the Mets will tell you that Koosman was a tremendous talent in his own right, and as good a big game pitcher as anybody. It was no accident that he won two of the four World Series games.

Markusen: Was there anyone you really wanted to interview, but turned you down for whatever reason?

Coffey: Ron Swoboda was a guy I really would’ve loved to talk to, but he was working on his own book, and also thought it wouldn’t be fair to Art Shamsky, who flew several guys out to visit with Seaver in California for his own project. Swoboda was extremely gracious, but said he really couldn’t talk, which I completely understood.

I’d also like to underscore how grateful I am for the people who did share so willingly of their time and memories: Ed Kranepool, Al Weis, J.C. Martin, Duffy Dyer, Wayne Garrett, Cleon Jones, Ron Taylor, Rod Gaspar, along with family and friends of Donn Clendenon, Tommie Agee, Gil Hodges.

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Markusen: One of the famous incidents of the 69 season occurred on July 30, when Cleon Jones drew the ire of Gil Hodges for supposedly not hustling on a ball hit to the outfield. Hodges went on to the field to pull Jones from the game. Jones defended himself, claiming to have an injured ankle. What do you make of the Hodges/Cleon Jones blowup? Do you feel that it’s a significant incident, one that perhaps set the tone for the rest of the season, or is it just a good story?

Coffey: As for that incident, to me the most fascinating take—and the most accurate one—came from Joan Hodges [Gil’s widow]. I don’t know if you saw that in the book, but she said years later, in a TV interview, that Gil came home that night and told her that it wasn’t planned or calculated at all—that he was just incensed at what he perceived to be a lack of hustle, walked out of the dugout, and kept walking, and couldn’t very well turn around.

You can quote me on this: while I don’t believe Hodges’ walk out to left field was a calculated attempt to humiliate his best everyday player, it was definitely a move that got everybody’s attention and underscored his unyielding insistence that when you put on a New York Mets uniform, you give it everything you’ve got. It was a rule that applied to everybody, no matter what your batting average might’ve been.

Markusen: Tom Seaver has often said that Gil Hodges was the best manager that he ever played for—bar none. What was it about Hodges that made him so effective in general, and what was it that helped him connect specifically with that ’69 team?

Coffey: Every single player told me, in so many words, that the ’69 Mets would not have won the Series, or even gotten close to it, without Gil Hodges. Apart from being a superior in-game manager who was always thinking four or five innings ahead, Gil had a gift for making everybody feel important, and keeping everyone fresh. He was brilliant in how he handled his role players, and his platoon guys. Everybody on that team felt valued, and took ownership of what was going on.  When he joined the Mets in 1968, he did the hardest thing a leader can do: he got rid of the losing culture, and made guys believe they could play with anyone.

Markusen: Hodges seems to receive the credit he deserves for the success of the ’69 team. But what about the general manager, Johnny Murphy, who passed away so shortly after the championship? How would you assess the kind of job that he did in putting this team together?

Coffey: Johnny Murphy did a sensational job in his short tenure as Mets general manager, and doesn’t get enough credit for it. His trade deadline acquisition of Donn Clendenon was a master stroke. Clendenon wasn’t having a good year [in Montreal], he was getting on in years a bit, and he was a big, strong personality. But Murphy did his homework. He knew Clendenon had almost no spring training in 1969, and that he wasn’t really wanted in Montreal. He also knew, from Hodges and others, that he was an ebullient, upbeat clubhouse presence who was a great needler and could be a forceful presence on such a young club. It worked out brilliantly.

Markusen: The Clendenon trade was the blockbuster that did happen for the ’69 Mets. But I’m always fascinated by the trades that didn’t happen for championship teams. The Mets very much wanted Joe Torre, a third baseman at the time, in a trade. How close did that come to happening?

Coffey: From everything I was able to learn, the Mets wanted Torre in a big way; he was a Brooklyn-born, slugging third baseman who would’ve been a perfect fit in so many ways. But Murphy refused to panic. Paul Richards [the Braves’ general manager] wanted multiple young stars in return, and was furious when Murphy told him that Seaver, Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Gary Gentry, Amos Otis, et. al. were not available.

This resulted in Richards’ priceless quote: “If the Mets have so many untouchables, how come they don’t win a pennant?” Anyway, his words were close to that. I am paraphrasing. [Editor’s note: At the time, Richards also delivered another memorable quote to a reporter about a possible trade of Torre. “We’re not going to give him up for a bunch of donkeys.”]

Murphy held firm, and the Torre-Cepeda trade [between the Braves and St. Louis Cardinals] happened instead, and the Mets wound up doing just fine without him. Rich irony: the night the Mets clinched, Joe Torre hit into a 6-4-3 double play to make the Mets the National League East champions on the night of September 24.

Markusen: Another rumored trade would have sent Jerry Koosman to the expansion Royals for Freddie Patek. The Mets already had Bud Harrelson. What was their reasoning in discussing a deal for Patek?

Coffey: I am not sure if this is correct about the Royals, Bruce. [Editor’s note: Coffey is correct. Patek was not yet with the Royals at the time. He was still a young shortstop in the Pittsburgh organization.] I know that when Patek was with the Pirates, the Mets offered Koosman in return, the best trade they never made. Why would the Mets think about doing such a thing? The front office people have almost all passed, but there was concern about Harrelson’s fragility, and knee surgery that he had in the late 1960s.

Markusen: In recent years, the health of the ’69 Mets has become part of their story. Harrelson has been struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. Tom Seaver has been afflicted with Lyme disease. Ed Kranepool has had a variety of health problems. How did the health situation affect your writing, both in terms of gaining access to the players, but also in dealing with this overriding sense of mortality for the ’69 team?

Coffey: I discussed some of this earlier, but here’s what I will add: For all of the joy and wonder that the 1969 Mets brought to their fans, and to baseball lovers, the team has had more than its share of tragedy, and hardship. Johnny Murphy, the general manager, died barely two months after the ticker-tape parade. Gil Hodges died on Easter Sunday, 1972. Tommie Agee and Donn Clendenon died as relatively young men, as did Tug McGraw. As much as I obviously would’ve loved to have had the opportunity to interview them, you learn early on as a reporter that when people are not available, you just have to dig that much harder to find other sources, and perspectives, to tell the story in as rich and authentic way as you can.

Markusen: Final question, Wayne: If you had to choose one team as the unlikeliest to win a World Series in our lifetime, which would it be: the ’88 Los Angeles Dodgers or the ’69 Mets? 

Coffey: No brainer for me: the ‘69 Mets. Worst to first. Losers of 737 games in their first seven years. A baseball laughingstock. And they were 10 games out in mid-August, chasing a Cubs team that was loaded with All-Stars.

They Said It Couldn’t Done will make its way onto bookshelves on March 26, but can be pre-ordered now on Amazon.


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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mathias2
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mathias2

Joe Torre never played third base until the 1970 season. He was mostly a first baseman with the 1969 Cardinals with a few games at catcher.

Handsome Wes
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Handsome Wes

Gil Hodges for the Hall!
I understand his playing career numbers put him on the fringe, but his success with the ’69 Mets should be allowed to pad his resume.

GoNYGoNYGoGo
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GoNYGoNYGoGo

Great interview Bruce. Looking forward to reading this book by a great sports writer.

PS. Wayne’s daughter is going to make the women’s Olympic soccer team someday.