Duke’s Passing Recalls Day at Polo Grounds

Willie, Mickey and the Duke.

With the passing of Duke Snider, now only Willie Mays survives from the great triumvirate that patrolled center field in New York in the 1950s. And the Boys of Summer are down a man.

In his New York Times obituary, Edwin Donald Snider’s career was summed up this way: “Playing for 18 seasons, he had 407 home runs, 2,116 hits, batted at least .300 seven times, had a lifetime batting average of .295 and was generally among the league leaders in runs batted in and runs scored.” And he was renowned for his superb defensive play as well.

The Duke will always be known as a Dodger – he spent a combined 16 years in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. But Snider was purchased by the Mets for $40.000 in 1963, played one season in New York, and finished his career with the San Francisco Giants in 1964.

Through the information found on sources like baseball reference and retrosheet, the  SportsLifer (in 1963 a SportsKid) was able to determine that he saw Snider play once, on a sticky, hot summer afternoon in New York.

The Duke was a Met then, batting cleanup and playing right field, when the Metropolitans hosted the St. Louis Cardinals at the old Polo Grounds in Manhattan.

Hickman’s Natural Cycle

That was the same game where Jim Hickman hit for the only natural cycle in Mets  history, powering them to a 7-3 victory. Snider had a big day that afternoon as well, with three singles and a pair of RBIs in four at-bats.

The Duke spent just one season with the Mets, but collected both both his 400th homer and 2,000th hit in a Met uniform.

Clearly near the end, he hit just .243 in 1965 with 14 homers and 45 RBIs. Several other players — some famous, some not so famous — appeared in that Mets-Cards game on August 7, 1963.

Stan Musial, playing in his final season, pinch hit for Dal Maxvill in the eighth inning and grounded to first base.

Ernie Broglio started the game and was the losing pitcher for the Cardinals. The following June, he was traded to the Cubs for Lou Brock.

Broglio Traded for Brock

That trade would propel the Cards to a World Series victory over the Yankees in 1964.  Bill White, Ken Boyer and Tim McCarver, mainstays on that 1964 club, all played in the Polo Grounds that day.

Broglio was relieved by Lew Burdette, who beat the Yankees three times to lead the Milwaukee Braves to a World Series win against the Yankees in 1957.

For the Mets, Tracey Stallard pitched a complete game and got the win. That’s right, the same Tracy Stallard who surrendered Roger Maris’ 61st home run on the final day of the 1961 season.

The Mets lineup featured several originals — including catcher Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman and Frank Thomas — along with rookie second baseman Ron Hunt. Hunt was once hit by 50 pitches in a single season and led the National League in HBPs for seven straight seasons.

You never know what you’re going to see when you go to the ballpark, right kid. The 9,977 fans who showed up at the Polo Grounds on 8/7/63 saw a lot.


Shea Goodbye

Through the years, I saw some great games at Shea Stadium, including a 1972 game that featured both Hank Aaron and Willie Mays (both went hitless and remained tied with 648 career home runs), a 1986 NLCS encounter when Houston’s Mike Scott stopped the Mets, and some memorable Subway Series clashes with the Yankees, most notably Roger Clemens face-off with Mike Piazza in 2002.

However, my most memorable night at Shea Stadium occurred on Friday night, Sept, 22, 1967, during the second game of a twi-night doubleheader against the Astros.

It was banner night at Shea, and between games my buddy Ed and I paraded on the field with a banner that read: “We Got the Fever over Tom Seaver” or  “Murderers Row: Kranepool, Swoboda, Jones” or something like that.

The Mets lost the opener, 8-0, as Houston’s Mike Cuellar pitched a five-hit, complete game shutout.

The Mets were trailing in the second game when midway through the contest Ed started dropping M&Ms out of the upper deck onto the unsuspecting patrons in the box seats below.

It didn’t take long for security to catch on, and we were escorted from the stadium. Ejected from Shea. Banished from the ballpark

Not to be denied, however, we went down a couple of exits and sneaked back into the park. We had prime seats to see Mets shortstop Jerry Buchek hit a three-run homer to tie the game with two outs in the eighth and another three-run homer to win it, 8-5, with two outs in the 10th.

Undoubtedly this was Jerry Buchek’s signature moment, his finest hour, the best of Buchek. He hit just 22 home runs in his career (14 with the Mets that season) and had a .220 career batting average.

Buchek did get a hit in his only at-bat in the 1964 World Series as the Cardinals beat the Yankees in seven games. But for those were there, and even those who shouldn’t have been, he’s most remembered for that clutch performance on a Friday night at Shea in 1967.


Meet the Mutts

It’s gotta be tough being a Met fan these days. There’s not much to say – other than bag it — after the Mets’ blew it in September and failed to make the playoffs for the second year in a row.

The collapse was historic. You have to go back to 1950 and 1951, when the Brooklyn Dodgers lost the National League pennant on the last day of the season to the Whiz Kid Phillies in 1950… and then followed that up by blowing a 13 1/2-game lead to the New York Giants and losing a three-game playoff to their arch-rivals on Bobby Thomson’s home run in 1951…to find more baseball heartbreak in the same place.

Plenty of blame to go around with the Mets, but you can’t point the finger at Johan Santana. He was absolutely brilliant down the stretch, and would most likely have won the National League Cy Young Award if not for the Mets’ bullpen.

Amazingly, the Yankees and the Mets finished with identical 89-73 records this year. You have to go back all the way to 1993 — when the Mets finished last in the NL East and the Yankees second in the AL East — to find the last time New York didn’t have a team in the playoffs. It will be a quiet October in Queens and the Bronx.

As they said so many times in Brooklyn: “Wait Till Next Year.”


The 1962 Mets — Simply Amazin’

mets.jpg

The 1962 New York Mets

Really now, just how bad were the 1962 New York Mets? Pretty darn bad.

The Mets, an expansion team in the National League along with the Houston Colt 45s, had a rather inauspicious debut. After half the team got stuck in an elevator at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, the Mets lost their inaugural game to the Cardinals 11-4. They proceeded to lose their first nine before beating the Pirates. The Mets later had losing streaks of 11, 13 and 17 games….and they were 40-70 in their other games en route to a 40-120 record, setting the record for most losses by a single team in a single season in the 20th Century. Only the Cleveland Spiders, who went 20-134 in 1899, ever lost more games in a season.

The Mets were managed by the lovable Casey Stengel, who led to Yankees to 10 pennants and seven World Series in 12 years before being fired after the 1960 World Series. “I just know I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 again,” he is reputed to have said after the Yanks dismissed him.

Two years later, he was asked to take over the Mets, The Amazins’ first draft pick in expansion draft was Hobie Landrith, and as Stengel said “You have to have a catcher or you’ll have a lot of passed balls.”

Early on, it was apparent the Mets were going to have trouble competing in the National League. “Been in this game one-hundred years, but I see new ways to lose ’em I never knew existed before,” said Casey after one particularly disheartening loss.” “Can’t anybody here play this game?” he asked after another setback, a phrase that Jimmy Breslin later used as the title for perhaps the best book about the 1962 Mets.

casey.jpg

Early in the season, when a reporter asked Stengel where he thought the Mets would finish, he said “We’ll finish in Chicago.”

Mercifully, the Mets were eliminated from the pennant race in early August. Casey called a team meeting. “You guys can relax now,” he told his ballclub, “We’re mathematically eliminated from the pennant. You can loosen up now.”

The relaxed Mets won a total of 11 games in the last two months, and finished in 10th place, a mere 60 1/2 games behind the pennant-winning San Francisco Giants.

(I’ll blog more about the Amazin’ Mets….lots of great stories there.)