When Tommie Agee stepped in the batter’s box, Mets fans attended the next moment with the anticipation of a kid unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. His bravura performance against the Cubs on July 22, 1971, was one of many igniting gratitude for him wearing a Mets uniform.
Agee went 3-for-3 — including two home runs — and stole two bases in the Mets’ 5-1 victory. Second baseman Ken Boswell, too, homered; Tom Seaver struck out 10 Chicagoans and gave up six hits in the afternoon romp at Wrigley Field finishing the Cubs’ eight-game homestand.
The New Yorkers led 3-0 after the first inning. Bud Harrelson began the festivities with a bunt single on the left side and Boswell smacked a home run; Agee repeated Harrelson’s effort with another bunt single to third baseman and future Hall of Famer Ron Santo. But he didn’t stay on first base long — the swift-footed outfielder stole second and third. Right-hander Milt Pappas retired Cleon Jones on a fly out to center, then walked Ed Kranepool.
Agee led off the top of the third inning with the first of his two solo homers off Pappas. Then the Mets went down in succession. Jones grounded out on a 6-3 play, Kranepool popped out to Santo, and Clendenon whiffed.
The Cubs fought back with a run in their half of the inning when former Met Chris Cannizzaro homered. Cannizzaro, a member of the Mets from 1962 to 1965, had come to Chicago a couple of months before in a trade with San Diego for infielder Garry Jestadt from the Cubs’ Tacoma affiliate and an unreported amount of cash.1
Agee added his next home run with one out in the top of the fifth. His accomplishments underscored the vision of Mets skipper Gil Hodges, who prized signing the 1966 American League Rookie of the Year to amplify the Mets lineup. When Agee died of a heart attack in 2001, Mets broadcaster Bob Murphy remarked, “The first thing Gil Hodges wanted to do when he became the manager [in 1968] was to acquire Tommie Agee. He wanted a guy to bat leadoff with speed and that also could hit for power. He also knew that with the pitching staff we had with Seaver, Koosman, etc., that he needed a guy in center to run the ball down. Things worked out just like Gil planned.”2
Jones followed with a single, prompting Cubs manager Leo Durocher to relieve Pappas with fellow righty Bill Bonham. It proved to be the correct strategy: Kranepool’s 6-4-3 double-play grounder ended the inning. When Cannizzaro hit a two-out double in the bottom of the fifth, Durocher sent in Ramon Webster to pinch-hit for Bonham. But the rarely used Webster — 16 games for the Cubs in 1971 — struck out.
Right-hander Joe Decker went to the mound in the top of the sixth, allowing one hit when Aspromonte banged a one-out single. For reasons passing understanding, Aspromonte tried to steal second base. It was one of his two stealing attempts in 1971; both failed. Dyer struck out looking at the same time.
The Mets mounted a rally in the top of the seventh. Seaver singled and went to second on Harrelson’s sacrifice. Boswell’s double got Seaver to third base; Decker walked Agee intentionally. It was a no-win situation from a strategic standpoint. Agee was having a Ruthian day at the plate. But loading the bases meant facing Jones, who batted .319 that season. Cubs fans lowered their blood pressure when Decker struck out Jones looking and Kranepool grounded out to second.
Hodges moved his defense around in the bottom of the seventh, replacing Kranepool in right field with Don Hahn and switching him with Agee. He substituted Tim Foli for Aspromonte at third base in the bottom of the eighth. With two outs, Durocher tried to ignite a rally with Paul Popovich pinch-hitting for Decker. But he popped out to Harrelson.
In the top of the eighth, Decker struck out the side — Aspromonte, Clendenon, and, for the third time, Dyer. In the top of the ninth Ron Tompkins relieved Decker and retired the Mets in one-two-three fashion, all on grounders.
It looked as though Chicago’s fortunes might change in the bottom of the ninth. With one out, Beckert and Williams singled, then Seaver’s wild pitch advanced them up a base. But “Tom Terrific” got the veteran Pepitone on a popout to Harrelson and struck out Santo for the fourth time.
The Mets’ decisive victory was a high point in a month that began with a 3-15 record. All three wins came during the 12-game homestand that ended with the July 22 game. It was a difficult month, indeed. They began July with a 45-30 record and headed into August at 54-49.
Despite his offensive greatness, Agee remained humble. “I haven’t been consistent,” explained the outfielder. “The good days have been far between. We haven’t had a bad season, just a bad month. We were losing and Pittsburgh kept winning and knocked us out of it.”3 Pittsburgh later beat Baltimore for the 1971 World Series title.
Seaver’s deed ended his four-game drought preceding the victory. “I pitched badly in Cincinnati and Atlanta,” said the right-hander. “I lost one in relief, and I didn’t have a thing.”4 Don Kessinger whiffed twice. Milt Pappas, Glenn Beckert, Joe Pepitone, and Webster fell to Seaver. Perhaps the most painful reminder of Seaver’s excellence was Cubs favorite Santo striking out four times.
Approaching the craft of pitching with analytical devotion, Seaver thought that speed was not a primary factor for moundsmen. In a 1981 cover-story profile for Sports Illustrated, Seaver explained, “There are only three physical elements to a pitch. Velocity, movement, and location — and the least important of these is velocity. Still, pitching is using what you have to work with on any one day. Somebody can say, well, that pitcher’s just a thrower because all he used was 100-mph fastballs. But that can be pitching too if that’s what you happen to have best on that particular day.”5
Even though the Mets clobbered the North Side nine on a hot July day with 35,459 onlookers, Chicago’s National League fans could take solace at the end of the year when Seaver finished second in the Cy Young Award voting to Fergie Jenkins.
The author used Baseball Reference.com and Retrosheet.org for box scores and play-by-play information.
1 George Langford, “Cannizzaro Joins Cub Catchers,” Chicago Tribune, May 20, 1971: 92.
2 Richard Goldstein, “Tommie Agee, of Miracle Mets, Dies at 58,” New York Times, January 23, 2001: B7.
3 Associated Press, “Tom and Tommie Look Good to Cubs,” Kingston (New York) Daily Freeman, July 23, 1971: 11.
4 “Mets’ Power Stops Cubs 5-1: Agee Hits Pair Off Pappas,” Chicago Tribune, July 23, 1971: 6.
5 Frank Deford, “Behind the Fence,” Sports Illustrated, July 27, 1981: 52.