The New York Mets came into existence in 1962 as the National League expanded for the first time.1 Casey Stengel’s ragtag “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game” Mets stumbled to a 40-120 record in their first season, finishing dead last of the league’s 10 teams, 60 games out of first place.2 By 1966 the Mets had managed to win 66 games and finish in ninth place, but regressed to 61 wins and a return to 10th place in 1967.
That 1967 season was, though, the debut year for two pitchers, future Hall of Fame right-hander Tom Seaver and lefty Jerry Koosman, who went on to anchor the Mets’ starting rotation for a decade.3 Koosman, 24, pitched only 22⅓ innings that season, but Seaver, 22, came to the 1967 club fully major league-ready. He pitched 251 innings, completed 18 of 34 starts, posted a 16-13 record for the 101-loss team, nailed down the National League’s 2-1, 15-inning win in the All-Star Game, and was named National League Rookie of the Year.4
By 1968 the Mets had their third manager, Gil Hodges, and “were getting the pieces together, getting Tommy Agee to play center field, getting Jerry Grote as catcher, getting the pitching staff together [with] Seaver, Nolan] Ryan, [and] Koosman.”5 Hodges had been managing in the American League with the Washington Senators, but had strong New York roots from his playing days with the Brooklyn Dodgers (1943-57) and the 1962 and 1963 Mets. After the Mets compensated Washington for the year remaining on Hodges’s contract, he signed a three-year Mets deal for $60,000 a year and brought along two of his coaches, Rube Walker and Joe Pignatano. “Money is important, but it was not the motivating factor. The big thing is that I am going home,” Hodges told writers.6
Hodges had the Mets only four games under .500 — but still in eighth place — at 37-41 on July 5, 1968, as they opened a traditional four-game series in Philadelphia against the 36-38 Phillies. The All-Star Game was set for the following Tuesday in Houston. Most of the Mets were looking forward to three days off; Seaver and Koosman, now the co-ace of the Mets’ staff, were headed to the All-Star Game.7 The Phillies’ Chris Short outdueled Seaver in the Friday night opener, 3-1. The Mets came back to pound six Philadelphia pitchers for 18 hits on Saturday afternoon in an 11-6 win. In the Sunday opener, the Phillies scored three runs in the ninth inning to pull out a 4-3 squeaker and give the 14,478 gathered at Connie Mack Stadium hopes for a momentum-building sweep leading into the All-Star break.
Bob Skinner had taken over on June 16 from fiery Phillies manager Gene Mauch, the odd man out in an ongoing feud with equally combative star Dick Allen.8 Skinner tabbed veteran righty Larry Jackson (7-9, 3.00 ERA), pitching in what would be the last of his 18 seasons in professional baseball, as his starter for the second game. Hodges sent out second-year right-hander Danny Frisella (1-3, 3.16 ERA), making the third of his four spot starts in 1968.
The Mets opened the first inning with singles by Phil Linz and Art Shamsky before Jackson restored order by coaxing a double-play grounder from Cleon Jones and stranding Linz at third base with another groundout. Philadelphia, though, nicked Frisella for a run in its first on Tony González’s two-out triple to right field and Frisella’s wild first pitch to cleanup hitter Allen. Frisella avoided further trouble by getting Allen to swing and miss at a 3-and-2 pitch.
New York responded in the second inning. A walk to Ron Swoboda and singles by Ed Kranepool and Kevin Collins loaded the bases with no outs. Although Jackson nearly avoided scoring by striking out the next two batters — Bud Harrelson and Frisella — the order flipped and Linz delivered his second single of the day, driving in two runs.
Philadelphia tied the game at 2-2 with a run in the fourth inning as Frisella yielded a two-out single to Tony Taylor; it brought home Roberto Peña, who had led off with a single and moved to third base on Gonzalez’s single. Jackson and Frisella then worked scoreless frames through the seventh. Then, in the Mets’ eighth, Jackson was the first to crack.
Doubles by J.C. Martin and Kranepool sandwiching Swoboda’s strikeout produced the lead run. Jackson then intentionally walked Collins to set up a potential double play. The strategy blew up when Harrelson ripped a shot at shortstop Peña, who booted it, allowing Kranepool to score an unearned run and Collins to reach third base. It was now 4-2, Mets, and Skinner replaced Jackson with Short, the Friday night starter. He got Frisella to roll into a 4-6-3 double play and end the inning.
Frisella got the shutdown inning he and the Mets needed in the Philadelphia eighth, yielding only a one-out walk to Bill White. Likewise, Short kept the Mets off the scoreboard in their ninth.
“That’s the longest Frisella had gone this year. He had done his job,” was Hodges’s summary to writers after the game about his spot starter. “I wanted the stronger arm in there in the ninth.”9 The “stronger arm” belonged to co-ace Koosman, tapped for what would be his only relief appearance of the season.
Koosman had a 1-and-2 count on Gonzales, leading off, when home plate umpire Ken Burkhart “suddenly spun around after [being] hit with a pitch that had skidded past catcher J.C. Martin. At first Burkhart’s call was not obvious, but then he suddenly signaled ball two, at which point Hodges erupted from the dugout.” Hodges heatedly maintained that Burkhart had called a foul tip first, then changed the call to a ball. “It was so ridiculous it’s not even funny. He missed one in New York, too, and that one cost us a ball game.”10
The argument “swirled around the home plate area for some 10 minutes before Burkhart, somewhere near the middle of the third round,” pointed his thumb toward the exit.”11 It was Hodges’s first ejection as a National League manager; he had been banished twice while managing Washington from 1963 through 1967. Remarkably, he had never been thrown out of a game in 18 major-league playing seasons.
Whether through pique or from rustiness due to downtime, Koosman’s next pitch “brushed Gonzalez’s helmet,” putting him on first base. Hodges had left the managerial reins with his pitching coach, Rube Walker. Walker immediately lifted Koosman and, “following the plan Gil had left,” brought in Seaver.12 Like his co-ace, Seaver was making his first and only relief appearance of the 1968 season.
Allen was up. On Friday night he had touched Seaver for a triple and a single — and as he stepped in as the potential tying run, he had 14 home runs and 35 RBIs through 67 games. But “Seaver took charge.”13 He dispatched Allen on three pitches, the last one a called strike, then needed only six more pitches to retire Johnny Callison and Taylor on outfield flies. It nailed the lid on a satisfying 4-2 win for the Mets and provided some balm for Hodges’s ejection.
Those nine pitches earned Seaver the only regular-season save of his 20-year major-league career.14
The win lifted the Mets to 39-43, still in eighth place. They bounced as high as sixth shortly after the All-Star break, but drifted down in the standings as the season ground on, finally finishing ninth. They suffered a scare in late September when, with the team in Atlanta, Hodges was hospitalized with “a mild heart disturbance or spasm,” as Walker took over as manager for the final four games.15 But a year later they stood 45-34 and in second place — albeit 5½ games out — on July 7, 1969.
That was their memorable “Miracle Mets” season. Rather than regressing over the summer as the 1968 team had done, the 1969 Mets, with Hodges recovered and back at the helm and Seaver and Koosman16 leading the way, took over the National League lead on September 10 and went 17-5 down the stretch to capture the pennant by eight games. They then swept the Atlanta Braves in the first-ever National League Championship Series and surprised the baseball world and the 109-win Baltimore Orioles by winning the 1969 World Series in five games. With the Yankees an 80-81 also-ran in the American League East, the new team in town had, for the time being, become the apple of the Big Apple’s eye.
In addition to the Sources cited in the Notes, I used the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for player, team, and season pages and daily logs as well as the box scores for this game:
1 The Mets were joined by the Houston Colt .45s as the National League expanded from eight to 10 teams. The National League played as a 10-team circuit from 1962 through 1968 before expanding again by two teams for the 1969 season and creating East and West Divisions.
2 Jimmy Breslin, Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? (New York: Viking Press, 1963).
3 Nolan Ryan, another young Mets pitcher, debuted in 1966 at age 19 but pitched in only two games. He was with the Mets from 1968 through 1971. Although he pitched well in the Mets’ 1969 postseason, he failed to demonstrate his ultimate Hall of Fame talent until 1972, when he was 25 and a member of the California Angels.
4 Seaver was selected to 12 All-Star teams during his career. He pitched in eight games with one start (1970), accruing 13 innings. He had a save in his first All-Star Game, but no All-Star Game wins or losses.
5 Maxwell Kates, “Tom Seaver,” SABR Biography Project, sabr.org.
6 Dick Young, “Gil’s Home as Mets’ Pilot,” Daily News (New York), October 12, 1967: 27, 31. The Transactions sections of Hodges’s Retrosheet page and his Baseball-Reference page both report that the deal, completed on November 27, 1967, involved $100,000 and a player, pitcher Bill Denehy, going from the Mets to the Senators.
7 Koosman won 19 games for the 1968 Mets to Seaver’s 16. Each lost 12 games.
8 John Dell, “Bob Skinner Calls Allen Great Player,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 16, 1968: 59. Skinner had been coaching with the Seattle Mariners.
9 Tom Cushman, “Hodges Gets First NL Thumb,” Philadelphia Daily News, July 8, 1968: 48.
12 Joe Trimble, “Allen HRs Mets, 4-3, but They Pin Jax, 4-2, Daily News (New York), July 8, 1968: 66.
14 Although saves weren’t recognized as an official statistic until the next season, Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet have retroactively calculated them for prior years. The 1968 season was Seaver’s second season; this was his 54th major-league mound appearance. In 647 career appearances, he pitched in relief only five other times.
15 “Hodges Hospitalized With Heart Disorder,” Daily News, September 25, 1968: 125.
16 Hodges was 44 years old when he suffered the heart disturbance in 1968. He went on to manage the Mets through 1971, compiling a 339-309 record. In 1969 Seaver was 25-7 and Koosman was 17-9. The 1969 Mets won an even 100 games, with the NL now further expanded to 12 teams and divided into East and West Divisions.