The Amazin’ Mets:  Baseball and the Amazing Summer of 1969

Culture Watch

Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

            During the summer of 2009, Americans have commemorated the fortieth anniversaries of the Apollo moon landing and the Woodstock musical festival, while also noting the horror of the Tate/LiBianca murders carried out by the Charles Manson gang that same summer.  The possibilities of the era were also apparent in baseball’s Amazing New York Mets whose success obscured some of the difficulties the sport was facing in the late 1960s. 

            In response to the departure of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers to the West Coast following the 1957 baseball season, an expansion franchise was awarded to New York City in 1962.  But the New York Mets quickly established a modern record for futility, posting only 40 wins against 120 losses in their inaugural 1962 campaign.  The club demonstrated little improvement through the 1968 season; finishing in ninth place, 24 games behind the pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals in the final season before the implementation of division play.  The following year, however, the Mets shocked the baseball world by winning the National League title and defeating the powerful Baltimore Orioles in the World Series; leading some observers to quip that if Americans could place a man on the moon and the Mets could win the World Series, then perhaps it was, indeed, possible to end the war in Vietnam.

            The 1969 baseball season got off to an awkward start as Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Players’ Association, threatened a strike if owners did not increase their contribution to the players’ pension fund.  In response, baseball ownership announced plans to open the season with minor league players.  NBC Television, however, made it clear that the network would not be paying major league prices for minor league talent.  Faced with losing the lucrative television market, Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn fashioned a compromise in which the owners’ contribution to the pension fund increased from $4.1 million annually to $6.5 million.

            Baseball ownership blamed the sport’s declining popularity on union militancy by the players.  After attendance peaked with 25.2 million fans in 1966, turnstile counts slowed to 24.3 million in 1967 and 23.1 million for 1968.  Public opinion polls also suggested that football had replaced baseball as the nation’s favorite spectator sport.

            Seeking to revive interest in the sport, Organized Baseball celebrated its centennial with the All-Star Game in the nation’s capital and a White House reception hosted by President Richard Nixon on July 22, the day before he was scheduled to leave the country and greet the Apollo astronauts.  But baseball’s celebration did not go as planned.   A postponement due to rain made it impossible for Nixon to attend the All-Star Game, but the Sporting News, the self-proclaimed Bible of baseball, described the President as “the most knowledgeable and eager baseball fan in the White House since Warren Harding.”

            Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson also clashed at a press conference.  Apparently irritated by African American charges of racism in baseball and American society, Feller lashed out at Robinson for his criticism of baseball’s hiring practices.  The former Cleveland pitcher asserted, “Robinson has always been bush.  He’s always been a professional agitator more than anything else.  He’s just ticked off because baseball never rolled out the red carpet when he quit playing and offered him a soft front office job.”  An angry Robinson retorted, “My big thing is I don’t believe that the black players are getting an equal opportunity with the whites after their playing days are through.  I think the public is more ready for a black manager than the owners.”  But Robinson would not live to see the hiring of Frank Robinson as baseball’s first African-American manager in 1975.  The exchange between Robinson and Feller raised serious questions as to how well the traditional institution of baseball was responding to changes in American life in 1969.

            On the playing field, however, baseball fans were treated to an exciting division race in the National League East between the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets, two teams noted for their losing ways.  The Amazing Mets of 1969 were not expected to contend; however, under the leadership of new manager Gil Hodges, and behind the pitching of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, and young Nolan Ryan, accompanied by some timely hitting from Cleon Jones, Donn Clendenon, and Art Shamsky, the New York club proved to be a respectable team.  Nevertheless, going into the month of September, the Mets still trailed the Cubs by four games.  But a Cubs collapse and Mets surge resulted in the New York team winning an even one hundred games, while finishing eight games ahead of the Cubs.

            The dream continued for the Mets who swept the Atlanta Braves in three games to win the initial National League Championship Series and achieve the first pennant in Mets history.  Nevertheless, it appeared to be the stroke of midnight for the Cinderella Mets when they faced the Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 World Series.  Featuring three twenty game-winning pitchers (Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, and Jim Palmer), the Orioles won the American League Eastern Division with 109 victories, finishing nineteen games ahead of the second place Detroit Tigers.  The Orioles easily deposed of the Western Division champion Minnesota Twins in three games and seemed destined to dominate the Mets.  Yet, in one of the greatest World Series upsets in history, the “Miracle Mets” defeated the Orioles in five games, setting off massive demonstrations of joy throughout New York City.

            The 1969 World Series also provided political controversy.  On October 15, Vietnam Moratorium Day protesters outside Shea Stadium were handing out antiwar leaflets featuring the image of Mets pitcher Tom Seaver, who was opposed to the war but had not authorized use of his name in the protest.  New York City Mayor John Lindsay backed the moratorium, decreeing October 15th as a day of mourning and ordering all city flags to be flown at half mast.  Since Shea Stadium was owned by the city, a near riot erupted when city officials attempted to lower the flag.  An honor guard of 225 wounded veterans, who were supposed to participate in the game’s opening ceremonies, indicated they would physically resist to the best of their abilities any effort to place the flag at half mast.  Commissioner Kuhn intervened and ordered that the flag be flown at full staff.

            While tens of thousands marched in the streets of New York City, game four of the Series was played, and Seaver, on the mound for the Mets, appeared unaffected by the controversy regarding his picture on the antiwar leaflets.  Seaver pitched ten strong innings, surrendering only six hits in a 2-1 Mets victory, which also featured an exceptional catch by Ron Swoboda in right field and a game-winning bunt play by reserve J. C. Martin.  Following the game, Seaver announced that he would not discuss Vietnam until after the Series, and then he would do something.  The pitcher insisted, “Whatever I do, it will be on my own, not with any group, just as an American citizen.”  Jerry Koosman and the Mets closed out the World Series on the next day, and Seaver did eventually deliver on his promise, procuring an advertisement in the New York Times on December 31, 1969, calling in rather innocuous terms for Americans to pray for peace in Vietnam.

            New York City’s adulation for the Mets culminated on October 20 with a ticker tape parade up lower Broadway which drew more people than a parade earlier in the summer for Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.  Even the conservative Sporting News championed the Mets, referring to them as “the darlings of the mod set.”  Thus, long hair and youthful questioning of authority, which looked so threatening on college campuses, was acceptable if contained within the baseball consensus, especially if the rebellious players excited the popular imagination and filled the empty seats in baseball parks.

            However, the challenge of Curt Flood could not be so easily assimilated by the baseball establishment.  In October 1969, Flood, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals, refused to accept a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies, electing to question baseball’s reserve clause in the courts.  While Flood’s case shortened his playing career and was eventually turned down by the Supreme Court, this landmark case helped usher in a new era of arbitration and free agency which forever altered the structure of player-management relations within the sport.

            Thus, 1969 was a watershed year for both baseball and the United States.  Richard Nixon was growing increasingly uncomfortable with dissent in American society and moving toward the establishment of a White House security network which would lead to his own political demise.  Yet, while the Watergate crisis altered the way politics would be played in America, the basic Constitutional framework of the American system proved sound.  And so it was for baseball.  Beset with allegations of racial discrimination and confronted with challenges to the traditional prerogatives of baseball ownership, along with the growing popularity of professional football, the baseball establishment sought to enlarge the sport’s exposure by expansionism, division play, and making room for the “modish” New York Mets.  However, Curt Flood’s challenge to the reserve clause and the eventual rise of free agency fundamentally changed power relations within the game.  And Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was unable, just as was his friend President Richard Nixon, to hold back the forces of change in baseball and American society.              

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/20/2009

You're a little mixed up about Richard Nixon and the year 1969, which was the first year of his first term.

Throughout 1969 he was working to extricate us from the war started in Vietnam by JFK & LBJ, a task at which he was ultimately successful.

Mr. Nixon was reelected in 1972 with 60.7% of the popular vote vs. 37.5% for Democrat McGovern. Nixon carried 49 of the 50 states in 1972, and won the electoral college by 520-17. Which state did McGovern carry? It was Massachusetts.