A paid crowd1 of 28,922 settled in to watch a scheduled doubleheader between the Astros and Mets on a Wednesday afternoon. Less than a week before, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins returned safely in the spaceship Columbia, concluding the Apollo 11 mission and the historic walk on the moon.
In 1969 the Mets and Shea Stadium became synonymous with the stuff that dreams are made of. But on this day, after they dropped both games of the twin bill, the Mets’ record fell to 55-43, in second place, five games behind the East Division-leading Chicago Cubs. Nevertheless, Mets fans were about to witness baseball history in the first game, although not one they might care to remember.
The Astros also finished the day five games out of first place. However, they found themselves in fifth place in the newly created National League’s West Division behind the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, and Cincinnati Reds.
The game one starters were Don Wilson and Jerry Koosman. Wilson came into the game with an 11-7 record. Koosman was 8-5. The Astros held a 5-3 lead into the ninth inning before things spiraled out of control for the Mets.
The Astros opened the scoring in the second inning. Koosman walked leadoff hitter Denis Menke. Doug Rader followed with a single. After Curt Blefary sacrificed the runners to second and third, Koosman intentionally walked Jesus Alou. The strategy backfired when catcher Don Bryant singled to right field, driving in two runs. (Bryant would finish the 1969 season with 11 hits. He totaled 24 hits during a three-year career.)
After Wilson retired the Mets in order in the bottom of the second inning, the Astros again got to Koosman in the top of the third. With one out, Jimmy Wynn drew a walk. He reached second when Bud Harrelson booted Menke’s groundball. Rader followed with an RBI single. After another out. Alou drove in the second run with a double in the left-center-field gap. With runners on second and third, Koosman intentionally walked Bryant before retiring Wilson for the final out.
Trailing 4-0, the Mets broke through for a run in the fourth. Singles by Cleon Jones and Art Shamsky put runners on the corners. Ed Kranepool singled home Jones. The inning ended when J.C. Martin was caught looking at a third strike.
The Mets chipped away for another run the following inning. Again, two singles put runners at first and third. Ken Boswell drove in the run with a sacrifice fly to Alou in left.
The Astros added a run in the sixth on Alou’s home run. The Mets countered in the bottom of the seventh inning, scoring an unearned run on Joe Morgan’s throwing error. The Mets had the bases loaded with one out, but relief pitcher Fred Gladding retired Boswell and Jones without further damage.
Cal Koonce was on in relief for the Mets to start the ninth inning, which began innocently enough. Gladding looked at a called third strike for the first out. Then Norm Miller walked and Morgan followed with a double. The Mets decided to load the bases and set up a potential double play. Koonce intentionally walked Wynn. Menke, hitting cleanup, hit his seventh home run of the year, a grand slam to left.
Menke was a curious choice to bat fourth. While with the Milwaukee Braves in 1964, he had gotten into a bad habit of trying to hit home runs. He worked to become a better, more consistent hitter. “I got a heavier bat — 34.5 ounces, shortened my grip, and practiced hitting to the opposite field. … [Houston manager] Harry Walker … helped me learn to hit the ball where it was pitched — to all fields.”2 Walker agreed. The Astros’ skipper said, “Home runs are the most overrated hits in baseball, and Menke was trying to hit nothing but homers. I have nothing against home runs, but a hitter like Menke, and most of the others, will get more of them by just swinging than by trying for distance. Menke, for one, got to uppercutting at the ball.”3
Following Menke’s grand slam, Koonce gave up a single to Rader. Ron Taylor relieved Koonce. After Blefary singled, Gary Geiger, who had replaced Alou in left, hit into a fielder’s choice for the inning’s second out. Johnny Edwards, pinching-hitting for Bryant, walked, loading the bases. Pitcher Gladding knocked in a run with a single. Miller followed with hit, driving in two more runs. After a passed ball, Morgan walked, loading the bases again and setting the stage for Wynn’s historic hit. The Toy Cannon sent his 23rd homer of the year over the left-field fence. Menke grounded out to end the onslaught, but not before 14 men had gone to the plate and 11 runs scored.
The Mets went quietly in the bottom of the ninth. Trailing 5-3 going into the ninth, they lost the game 16-3.
It was the first time in the National League’s modern era that two players hit grand slams in the same inning.4 Seven years earlier, on July 18, 1962, Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison turned the trick for the Minnesota Twins against the Cleveland Indians.
Joe O’Day of the New York Daily News summed it up: “Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin only walked on the moon. Another pair of ‘astronauts’ — Dennis [sic] Menke and Jimmy Wynn of the Astros — reached Mars yesterday. The pair crashed ninth-inning, grand-slam homers to trigger an 11-run outburst as the Astros landed on the Mets, 16-3, in the opener of a Shea Stadium doubleheader.”5
1 The author sat along the third-base line and had a bird’s-eye view of Menke’s and Wynn’s homers.
2 Cleon Walfoort, “How Denis Menke Became a ‘Complete’ Ballplayer,” Baseball Digest, September 1969: 38-39.
3 Walfoort: 39.
4 Malachi Kittridge and Tom Burns were the first to hit grand slams in the same inning. They did it on August 16, 1890, playing for the Chicago Colts. Others are Cecil Cooper and Don Money (Milwaukee Brewers, April 12, 1980), Jim Dwyer and Larry Sheets (Baltimore Orioles, August 6, 1986), Fernando Tatis. He is the only player to hit two grand slams in the same inning (St. Louis Cardinals, April 23, 1999), Cliff Floyd and Carlos Beltran (New York Mets, July 16, 2006), and Nolan Reimold and Steve Clevenger (Baltimore Orioles, September 11, 2015). The Orioles lost the game on August 6, 1986 to the Texas Rangers 13-11.
5 Joe O’Day, “Mets Just a Mess as Astros Blast Away, 16-3, 11-5,” New York Daily News, July 31, 1969: 79.