This Week in 1960s Baseball
Glancing Back, and Remembering Gary Gentry
In his first major league season, Gary Gentry pitched for a championship team: the 1969 Miracle Mets. He was an integral part of the New York Mets’ triumph that season. And pitching for a team for which no success was anticipated, Gentry’s success, so early in his career, was miraculously instant. Continue reading
Glancing Back, and Remembering Cleon Jones
The New York Mets’ “miracle” of 1969 was assembled one piece at a time … a pitcher here (like Tom Seaver or Jerry Koosman), a center fielder there (Tommie Agee), a veteran first baseman who didn’t want to go to Houston (Donn Clendenon) and a manager to pull it all together (Gil Hodges). Continue reading
Glancing Back, and Remembering Steve Blass
The ace of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff in the late 1960s, Steve Blass had a career that exemplified the shooting star, both in the height of his achievements and in their brevity. He came, he won, he faded into history, leaving behind a legacy of clutch wins and at times breathtaking performances that demonstrated why, at his best, he was among the best pitchers of his era.
Blass was signed by the Pirates in 1960 and never played for any other organization. He advanced through the Pirates’ farm system, slowly but steadily, and was successful at each level. He made his debut with the Pirates in 1964, going 5-8 with a 4.04 ERA as a spot starter and long reliever. He returned to Columbus in the International League in 1965, going 13-11 with a 3.07 ERA, and returned to the Pirates to stay in 1966 with a 11-7 record and a 3.87 ERA.
By 1968, Blass was the ace of the Pirates pitching staff, going 18-6 and leading the National League with a .750 winning percentage. His 2.12 earned run average was fifth best in the league, (teammate Bob Veale‘s 2.05 was third in the league) and his seven shutouts were third in the league behind Bob Gibson (13) and Don Drysdale (8) and tied with Jerry Koosman.
Blass won 16 games in 1969 and 10 games in 1970. The he strung together his two best seasons in leading the Pirates to back-to-back Eastern Division titles. Blass went 15-8 with a 2.49 ERA in 1971, leading the league with five shutouts. He won both of his World Series starts against the Baltimore Orioles. Blass outdueled O’s ace Mike Cuellar 5-1 in Game Three, pitching a three-hitter and striking out eight Orioles batters. Blass returned in Game Seven to pitch a 2-1 gem, allowing only four hits in winning the Series clincher for the Pirates.
In 1972, Blass was even better. He went 19-8 with a 2.49 ERA, pitching a career-high 249.2 innings. He was named to the National League All-Star team. In the National League Championship Series against the Cincinnati Reds, Blass won the opener 5-1, then pitched seven strong innings in Game Five, allowing only two runs on four hits in a game the Reds would win in the bottom of the ninth.
At age 31, Blass already had 100 career victories, 78 in the previous five seasons. He should have been at the peak of his career, but instead it was nearly at its end. He won only three games for the Pirates in 1973, and never won a major league game after that. For no explicable reason, he suddenly became plagued with chronic wildness, and never fully recovered, even during a return to the minors in 1974. He retired after being released by the Pirates that same year.
Oh, What a Relief: Tug McGraw
Tug McGraw was the bullpen ace of the 1969 New York Mets, his arm and attitude essential ingredients in that season’s miracle at Flushing Meadows. When he took his arm to Philadelphia in the late 1970s, the inspiration went with him, and more miracles followed.
McGraw was signed by the Mets in 1964 and debuted with the club at the beginning of the 1965 season. He went 2-7 as a starter during his rookie season. His second victory was the franchise’s first ever over Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In 1966, after a 2-9 start to the season, McGraw began a tour of minor league seasoning that carried him through 1968. When he returned to the Mets in 1969, the starting rotation was set with proven aces such as Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. McGraw moved to the bullpen full-time, and excelled there. That season he was 9-3 (8-2 in relief) with a 2.24 ERA and 12 saves.
From that point on McGraw emerged as one of the premier relievers in the National League. He went 11-4 in 1971 with a 1.70 ERA. He posted a 1.70 ERA again in 1972, winning 8 games and saving 27. He saved 25 games for the Mets in 1973. He was outstanding in the 1973 World Series against the Oakland Athletics, winning one and saving another game, with 14 strikeouts in 13.2 innings.
Following the 1974 season, McGraw was traded by the Mets with Don Hahn and Dave Schneck to the Philadelphia Phillies for Mac Scarce, John Stearns and Del Unser. He spent the next decade in the Phillies’ bullpen, winning 49 games and saving 94. His best season in Philly came in 1980 when he went 5-4 with a 1.46 ERA and 20 saves. In the 1980 World Series against the Kansas City Royals, McGraw appeared in four games, going 1-1 with two saves and a 1.17 ERA. He finished fifth in the Cy Young voting for that season.
McGraw retired after the 1984 season. His big league career lasted 19 seasons, producing a 96-92 record with 180 saves and a 3.14 career ERA. He was an All-Star twice.
Lights Out: Jerry Koosman Pitches the New York Mets to a World Series Championship
When: October 16, 1969
Where: Shea Stadium, New York, New York
Game Time: 2:14
Looking back now, maybe we should have been able to predict how the 1969 season would end.
The New York Mets of 1969 would not be denied their miracle. The franchise that redefined on-the-field ineptitude in the early 1960s won it all by the end of the decade, and did so by beating a Baltimore Orioles team that, had it won the 1969 World Series, might have been recognized as one of the best teams of all time.
That Orioles squad was loaded. The team had power, was solid defensively and featured outstanding pitching depth, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. The Orioles got big seasons out of Boog Powell (.304, 37 home runs and 121 RBIs) and Frank Robinson (.308, 32 home runs, 100 RBIs). The Orioles fielded four Gold Gloves (Paul Blair in center field, Dave Johnson at second base, Mark Belanger at shortstop, and, of course, Brooks Robinson at third). And the pitching staff was led by Mike Cuellar (23-11), Dave McNally (20-7) and a 23-year-old Jim Palmer (16-4) on the verge of becoming a perennial 20-game winner.
The 1969 Baltimore Orioles won 109 games during the regular season and, in the first American League Championship Series, swept the Minnesota Twins in three games. They entered the World Series as seasoned favorites.
The odds might have been in their favor. Fate wasn’t.
The Mets didn’t exactly limp into the World Series. They won 100 games during the regular season (27 more than they had won in 1968). They swept the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series. And they had two of baseball’s best young pitchers in Tom Seaver (25-7, 2.21 ERA) and Jerry Koosman (17-9, 2.28 ERA).
The Orioles behind Cuellar beat the Mets and Seaver 4-1 in the first game, but Koosman pitched a two-hitter in the second game, with the Mets winning 2-1. Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan combined to shut out the Orioles 5-0 on four hits in the third game, and Seaver pitched a six-hit gem in the fourth game, beating the Orioles 2-1 with the aid of Donn Clendenon’s home run.
Shea Stadium was the site for the fifth game, pitting Koosman against McNally. The Orioles scored three runs in the third inning on home runs from McNally and Frank Robinson. But Koosman was masterful the rest of the way, shutting down the vaunted Orioles bats with six scoreless innings.
Meanwhile, the Mets cranked up their last miracle of the season. Cleon Jones was hit by a pitch to lead off the sixth inning and Clendenon homered off McNally to cut the Orioles’ lead to 3-2. In the seventh inning, Al Weis hit a lead-off home run to tie the game.
Baltimore’s bullpen ace Eddie Watt came on to pitch the eighth inning. Jones doubled to open the inning, and advanced to third on Clendenon’s ground out. Ron Swoboda doubled to drive in Jones. After Ed Charles flied out to left field, catcher Jerry Grote hit the ball back to Watt with Swoboda running on the pitch. Watt bobbled the ball, allowing Grote to reach first base safely while Swoboda scored. It was all the scoring the Mets would need.
Koosman came out to pitch the ninth inning, facing the Robinsons and Powell, the heart of the Orioles’ batting order. Frank Robinson worked Koosman for a walk. Powell hit a grounder to Weis at second for the force out on Frank Robinson. The Orioles brought Chico Salmon in to run for Powell, but he would have nowhere to go. Brooks Robinson flied out to Swoboda in right field, and Dave Johnson flied out to Jones in left field to end the inning, the World Series, and a decade of baseball like no other.
Glancing Back, and Remembering Tom Seaver
When the New York Mets lost a modern-day record 120 games in their inaugural season of 1962, it would have been hard to find even a die-hard fan who would genuinely imagine a championship season for the Mets … ever, let alone by the end of the decade.
Yet the Mets did the miraculous in 1969, as the team was carried to the World Series on two young arms: the left one belonging to Jerry Koosman, the right one to Tom Seaver.
A highly recruited high school pitcher and All-American at the University of Southern California, Seaver was signed not once but twice. Originally signed by the Atlanta Braves in 1966, that deal was voided by Commissioner William Eckert and Seaver’s rights went into a lottery … won by the New York Mets. It was a stroke of fate that would change the Mets’ fortunes thereafter.
Seaver spent a single season in AAA ball, going 12-12 with a 3.13 ERA. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1967, going 16-13 as the first bona fide Mets pitching ace. The next year Seaver again won 16 games, posting a 2.20 ERA with five shutouts and 205 strikeouts. His achievement that year was somewhat overshadowed by Koosman, who went 19-12 in his rookie year with a 2.08 ERA and seven shutouts. While fans debated which of the young Mets aces was the better pitcher, most agreed that the Seaver-Koosman tandem provided the pitching foundation for a genuine Mets contender.
Contend they did, and then some. Led by a Cy Young season from Seaver, the “Miracle Mets” won the East Division by eight games (thanks to the Chicago Cubs’ collapse), swept the Atlanta Braves in the league championship series, and then beat the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in five games to capture the decade’s last World Series.
Koosman turned in another strong showing in 1969 (17-9 with a 2.28 ERA) and provided some important clutch pitching down the stretch of the pennant race. But Seaver was magnificent from start to finish, ending the year with a 25-7 record and a 2.21 earned run average. He finished second to Willie McCovey in the voting for Most Valuable Player.
During the “miracle” season of 1969, Seaver nearly pitched a perfect game. On July 9 against the Chicago Cubs, he pitched 8.1 perfect innings before giving up a double to Jimmy Qualls. Seaver won the game 4-0, striking out 11.
By age 24, Seaver had already won 57 big league games on his way to 311 victories in a 20-year pitching career. He would lead the league in victories three times and in earned run average three times, and strike out 3,640 batters to rank sixth all time, leading the league in strikeouts five times.
The Glove Club: Tommie Agee
Tommie Agee’s excellence as a center fielder bordered at times on the spectacular. He was at his best in the clutch, and found no better stage for his outfield speed and grace – and his out-capturing glove – than in baseball’s most miraculous World Series.
Signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1961, Agee showed talent that generated comparisons with Willie Mays. His hitting never approached Mays-ian output, but his talent as an outfielder made comparisons with Say Hey somewhat plausible if not completely fair.
After five seasons in the Indians’ farm system, Agee was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 1965, and won Rookie of the Year honors for a 1966 season when he batted .273 with 22 home runs and 86 RBIs. He also stole 44 bases and won the Gold Glove, his first of 2 in his career.
Agee struggled at the plate in 1967, and was acquired by the New York Mets at the direction of new manager Gil Hodges. After hitting only .217 for the Mets in 1968, Agee regained his hitting stroke in 1969, batting .271 with 26 home runs and 76 RBIs. He was a force in the Mets’ lineup throughout their season-long march to the National League pennant.
The American League champion Baltimore Orioles came into the 1969 World Series as heavy favorites to beat the Mets. The Orioles, behind the six-hit pitching of Mike Cuellar, beat Tom Seaver and the Mets 4-1 in the opener, while Jerry Koosman knotted up the Series at 1-1 by shutting down the Orioles 2-1 in the second game.
In Game Three, Agee led off the game with a home run off Orioles’ starter Jim Palmer. It proved to be all the runs that New York would need, thanks to Agee’s “amazin’” defensive performance. With two outs and runners at first and third in the top of the fourth inning, O’s catcher Elrod Hendricks hit a screaming liner to left-center field that Agee ran down and caught in the webbing of his glove just before crashing into the wall.
In the seventh inning of the same game, Paul Blair came to bat with two outs and the bases loaded. Blair hit a fly ball to right center that Agee chased down and grabbed with a diving catch, saving at least three runs. The Mets won the game 5-0 and swept the last two games of the Series to make the Mets the last world champions of the 1960s.