New York City had long been a bastion of National League baseball. The New York Giants (since 1883) and the Brooklyn Dodgers (since 1884) were longtime successful teams whose individual stars and long rivalry riveted generations of baseball fans in and out of New York City.
However, in the mid-1950s, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley conceived the idea of moving the team to Los Angeles. This came about due in part to his clash with New York City Construction Coordinator Robert Moses over the location of a new Dodgers ballpark.[fn]Neil Sullivan, The Dodgers Move West (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999).[/fn] He was able to get Horace Stoneham, the Giants owner, who faced similar stadium issues, to agree to move along with him to California’s greener (and presumably more profitable) pastures — and so the Giants landed in San Francisco.
These moves, shocking though they were, were perhaps not unexpected. Three other franchises had already moved to new cities in the 1950s, and with the nation’s changing demographics and much-improved transportation, expanding the major leagues out of its “rough rectangle” (Bounded by Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.) of the Northeast/Midwest regions of the country began to make sense.
The net effect of these moves, though, was to leave the nation’s largest city and its media capital without a National League franchise. Any league expansion would surely include New York City.
New York (along with Houston) was awarded an expansion franchise at the National League meeting in October 1960 to begin play with the 1962 season.[fn]“Astros History: A History of the Astrodome,” mlb.com. houston.astros.mlb.com/hou/history/hou_history_feature.jsp?story=5.[/fn] William Shea was the team’s owner. This New York team took inspiration from the past, naming the club the Metropolitans (or Mets) after a 19th-century New York team, and adopted Dodger blue and Giants orange as the team colors.[fn]“Mets Timeline,” mlb.com. newyork.mets.mlb.com/nym/history/timeline1.jsp.[/fn]
Along the same lines, nostalgia for the Dodgers and Giants influenced the Mets’ expansion draft selections. The Mets selected four players in all from the two former New York teams, with catcher Hobie Landrith selected as their first player. Other players selected in the draft with ties to the Dodgers and Giants were Roger Craig, Gil Hodges, and Ray Daviault.[fn]“Expansion of 1962,” baseballreference.com. baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Expansion_of_1962.[/fn] There was even an element of Yankees nostalgia on the Mets as well, with Casey Stengel (who had also played for the Giants and Dodgers, and had managed the Dodgers) becoming their first manager.
The Mets stumbled out of the season starting gate, losing their first nine games. They lost one-run games, and games by 10 runs. They fielded, hit, and/or pitched poorly enough to lose these games, with pitching being the usual culprit. At one point prior to the season, Stengel had said that “The Mets are gonna be amazing.” And so they were – they ended the season last in all meaningful statistical categories. An exasperated Stengel would at one particularly low point in the season mutter, “Can’t anyone here play this game?”[fn]“Quotes,” The Official Site of Casey Stengel, caseystengel.com/quotes_by.htm.[/fn] Finding new ways to lose became commonplace.
Yet, the Mets did have their moments. And their first victory was one of them.
On Monday, April 23, 1962, the Mets played the Pirates at Forbes Field in front of 16,676 spectators. Jay Hook took the mound for the Mets. Among those taking the field that day for the Mets were Gus Bell, Frank Thomas, and Charlie Neal. The Pirates countered with starting pitcher Tom Sturdivant, backed by players such as Dick Groat, Bill Mazeroski, and Roberto Clemente. The Mets were 0-9; the Pirates were 10-0 to begin the 1962 season.
But on this day, the Mets got on top of the Pirates early, scoring two runs in the first and four more in the second. Beginning the game with back-to-back singles, the Mets scored their first-inning runs on sacrifice flies by Bell and Thomas.
After Hook’s 1-2-3 bottom of the first, the Mets put together a double, three singles (including a two-RBI single to center field by Hook), three walks, and a sacrifice fly to plate four runs and present Hook with what turned out to be an insurmountable 6-0 lead.
The Mets scored another run in the sixth, on Elio Chacon’s run-scoring single to center field, scoring Hook for the second time in the game.
The Pirates scored their only run in the bottom of the sixth on Bob Skinner’s run-scoring groundout to first base.
Then the Mets closed out the day’s scoring on Bobby Smith’s eighth-inning triple to center field, scoring two runs and capping a good offensive day for the Mets. They finished the game with 9 runs, 14 hits (including 3 doubles, a triple, and three sacrifice flies) off four different Pirates pitchers, with Hook, Chacon, and Smith each having two runs batted in.
Hook finished with a complete-game five-hitter, allowing only one earned run. Reminiscing later about this historic game, Hook had this to say:
“The main thing I remember was that if we would have lost one more, it would have been a record opening the season, and if Pittsburgh won one more, they would have had the record for wins. I had pitched one game before that, and we had been winning in that one, but they took me out and we ended up losing. This time, I pitched a complete game.”
After the win, Stengel put Hook to work on the PR front. “After the game, he wanted me to keep talking to the press until there was no one left, so I did, and by the time I was done, everyone was gone from the clubhouse, and there was no hot water left in the showers, so I had to take a bath in the whirlpool in the trainer’s room,” Hook said.[fn]Dan O’Shea, “Jay Hook,” SABR BioProject, sabr.org/bioproj/person/11397aad.[/fn] The Mets had won their first game! It was a highlight in a season that did not feature very many. By the end of the decade, though, the Mets were World Series winners. In the end, Stengel was right: The Mets were amazing.
This article was published in “Met-rospectives: A Collection of the Greatest Games in New York Mets History“ (SABR, 2018), edited by Brian Wright and Bill Nowlin. To read more articles from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.