1966: The Worst of New York sports

New York sports fans will be glad when they bring down the big ball on 2013 in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. No playoffs outside of the Knicks, Nets, Rangers and Islanders — and look where those teams are right now. No baseball playoffs. No football playoffs. No nothing.

Take heart, 1966 was worse. Fuhgeddaboudit!

New York sports fans, don’t despair. With the Mets and Yankees both struggling to live up to expectations, the Rangers facing a long summer after being ousted by the Penguins, and the Knicks (well, let’s not even go there), times have been tough lately in Gotham.

Let’s forget, for purposes of this exercise, the Giants improbable Super Bowl victory over the previously unbeaten New England Patriots. Since February, it’s been nothing but doom and gloom on the New York sports scene. But it could be worse, much worse. It could be 1966, the worst year ever for professional sports in New York.

1966. Lyndon B. Johnson was President, the first Star Trek episode aired, Truman Capote wrote “In Cold Blood”, and a gallon of regular gasoline cost 32 cents. The first Super Bowl, Woodstock and Richard M. Nixon were just over the horizon.

The Yankees, Giants, Rangers and Knicks all finished in last place. Only the Jets, third in the AFL East, and the Mets, ninth in the National League after four successive last-place finishes. avoided the basement. It was bad. It was worse then bad, it was terrible, embarrassing, pathetic.

The Yankees were the biggest disappointment. Just two years from a fifth straight World Series appearance — and after dominating baseball for more than 40 years — the Bronx Bombers finished 10th and last in the America League for the first time since 1912 with a 70-89 record, 26 1/2 games behind the Baltimore Orioles.

Led the by the likes of Horace Clarke, Steve Whitaker and Dooley Womack, the Yankees hit rock bottom on September 22, 1966. That day, paid attendance of 413 was announced at the 65,000-seat Yankee Stadium. Legendary broadcaster Red Barber asked TV cameras to pan the empty stands as he commented on the low attendance. Although denied the camera shots on orders from the Yankees’ head of media relations, Red said, “I don’t know what the paid attendance is today, but whatever it is, it is the smallest crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium, and this crowd is the story, not the game.” The Yankees lost to the White Sox that day 4-1.

The Mets actually wound up with a worse record than the Yankees, 66-95, but showed signs of progress, finishing out of the National League cellar and avoiding 100 losses for the first time in their history. Led by the likes of Ed Kranepool and Ron Swoboda, the Mets would draw nearly two million fans to Shea Stadium.

No Defense for Giants
That fall, the football Giants finished with the worst record in their illustrious history, 1-12-1 and last in the NFL East. There was no defense. The Giants surrendered 501 points that year, a record for a 14-game schedule. They lost 52-7 to Dallas, 55-14 to Los Angeles and 72-41 to Washington. Gary Wood and Earl Morrall shared quarterback duties, and Chuck Mercein led the team in rushing with a paltry 327 yards.

The Jets were starting to show promise under young quarterback Joe Namath, but wound up with a mediocre 6-6-2 record. On November 27, 1966, the same day the Giants gave up the NFL regular-season record 72 points to the Redskins, the Jets were beaten 32-24 by Kansas City, marking one of the darkest days in New York pro football history.

Things weren’t a heckuva lot better at the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street. The Knicks would finish 30-50, last in the NBA’s Eastern Division for the seventh straight season. And the Rangers would finish last, out of the playoffs for the fourth straight year in the six-team NHL, midway though a 54-year Stanley Cup drought.

Even during these darkest hours, (it’s always darkest just before the dawn), the Jets, Mets and Knicks were all within four years of winning championships. It would take a bit longer for the Yankees, who returned to baseball prominence with a refurbished Yankee Stadium and an American League pennant in 1976, and World Championships the following two years.

For the Giants, the climb was steep, the team finally returning to the playoffs in 1981 after an 18-year drought, and winning the Super Bowl five seasons later. And in 1994, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup.


The Ballad of Bob Dylan and Baseball

Bob Dylan…singer, poet, painter, fixture in music for five decades, symbol of social unrest.

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
thinking about the government

(from Subterranean Homesick Blues, 1965)

Yeah that Bob Dylan. Robert Allen Zimmerman. Born May 24, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, this iconic figure of American art, is turning 70. Next Tuesday.

Baseball is one of the last things that comes to mind when describing Bob Dylan.Yet there are some strong connections between Bob Dylan and the National Pastime.

The day Dylan was born, a Saturday, the Yankees hosted the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. That day, Joe DiMaggio singled to extend his hitting streak to 10 games, on the way to 56. Ted Williams singled twice, walked twice and raised his average to .383, on the way to .406. In nearly 70 years since, neither DiMaggio’s 56-game streak nor Williams .400 season have been seriously threatened.

The Yankees won the game, 7-6, on the day Bob Dylan was born. Strangely, there is no record of the time of game and attendance that day.

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

(from Ballad of a Thin Man, 1965)

Dylan and Maris
In 1961, around the time Dylan’s career was taking off, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record with 61  home runs.In the book “Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero” by  Tom Clavin and Danny Peary, the first chapter has a short byte on how Dylan became a fan of Maris during his 1961 home run chase. To quote:

“Among those rooting for Roger Maris as he closed in  on Babe Ruth’s record in September of 1961 was a folksinger whose  nascent career took off that month in New York City thanks to a rave in  the Times and his first studio work. Although he wasn’t much of a sports  fan, Bob Dylan felt pride when he learned that the ballplayer making  national headlines also hailed from Hibbing, Minnesota.”

Maris was born in Hibbing, and later moved to Fargo, North Dakota, where he is buried, Dylan moved to Hibbing when he was seven-years-old

Dylan has always been an incredibly prolific songwriter, only releasing a fraction of what he records. One of those songs, a rare classic, was written and performed by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy.It was a ballad of Catfish Hunter, who had just signed a five-year, $3.7M contract with the Yankees. Here’s a little taste:

Used to work on Mr. Finley’s farm
But the old man wouldn’t pay
So he packed his glove and took his arm
An’ one day he just ran away

Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.

There’s more Dylan-baseball affinity. In 2004 and later in 2009, Dylan did a par of concert tours at minor league baseball stadiums. The 2009 tour, which also featured Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, included stops at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, RI; Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland, and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, NC.

Radio Dylan
In 2006, Dylan hosted a program on XM Radio dedicated to baseball. He spun a wide selection of baseball tunes, including Buddy Johnson and Hit Hits Orchestra playing “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball” and Les Brown’s “Joltin Joe DiMaggio,” an old-time band jewel.

In typical Dylan fashion, he told a tale during the virtual seventh-inning stretch of his radio show. He recalled how a Mexican community was destroyed to make the room needed to build Dodger Stadium and then introduced Ry Cooder’s “3rd Base Dodger Stadium” which spoke to the situation.

Jonathan Lethem wrote a piece called “The Genius of Bob Dylan” in Rolling Stone on the September 7, 2006, issue around the release of Dylan’s album Modern Times. In a footnote to the piece, Lehtem asked Dylan what baseball team was his favorite.

Dylan responded: “The problem with baseball teams is all the players get traded, and what your favorite team used to be – a couple of guys you really liked on the team, they’re not on the team now – and you can’t possibly make that team your favorite team. It’s like your favorite uniform. I mean, yeah, I like Detroit. Though I like Ozzie [Guillen] as a manager. And I don’t know how anybody can’t like Derek [Jeter]. I’d rather have him on my team than anybody.” 

FOOTNOTE: Twice had the opportunity to see Bob Dylan perform in concert. On September 16, 1978, I saw him at the Portland Civic Center, the first time in my life I set foot in the state of Maine (been to all 50 states). Earlier that day, the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 3-2, a ninth inning sacrifice fly by Thurman Munson, giving Catfish Hunter the victory. That win ultimately led to the game that made Bucky Dent famous. Also saw a Dylan performance at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, New York, about a dozen years ago.