October 4, 1969: Mets and Braves play first NL Championship Series game
After 99 years, the major leagues ended the 1969 regular season with playoffs between the winners of the newly created East and West divisions. In the inaugural years of this new format, the division winners of each league would face each other in best-of-five series for the right to play in the World Series. In the National League, the two division winners, the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets, met for the first game of the National League Championship Series on the afternoon of October 4, 1969. The Mets, who were in their eighth year of existence, became the first expansion team to make it to the playoffs. The Braves had made the postseason after winning a challenging five-team race in the West division.1
A crowd of 50,122 showed up at Atlanta Stadium in Atlanta to see the first game of this historic series. The opposing managers, Lum Harris of the Braves and Gil Hodges of the Mets, sent out their aces, Phil Niekro (Braves) and Tom Seaver (Mets). It looked as though the game would be a pitching battle between the two future Hall of Famers.2 Niekro had finished the season with a 23-13 record and a 2.56 ERA and struck out 193 batters. Seaver would be named the 1969 NL Cy Young Award winner on the basis of his 25-7 record, 2.21 ERA. and 208 strikeouts.
The first inning played out as most fans had expected with these two masterful pitchers on the mound. Niekro got Tommie Agee and Wayne Garrett to ground out to shortstop and third, respectively for the first two outs. Cleon Jones hit a fly ball to center field for the third out. In the bottom of the first, Seaver also got the first three batters out quickly: Felix Millan on a grounder to short, Tony Gonzalez on a fly ball to center field, and Hank Aaron on a grounder to third.
The hitters took control of the game in the second inning. Art Shamsky singled to lead off for the Mets and Ken Boswell walked. After Ed Kranepool struck out, Jerry Grote hit a single that scored Shamsky and moved Ken Boswell to third base. Niekro’s knuckleball caused a passed ball when catcher Bob Didier couldn’t handle it and Boswell scored. Niekro regained his control and struck out Bud Harrelson, then got Seaver to ground out to third. The Mets led, 2-0.
The Braves scored in the bottom of the inning. Rico Carty hit a leadoff double, moved to third on an error by second baseman Boswell, and scored when Clete Boyer flied to center field. In the next inning, the Braves took a 3-2 lead on consecutive doubles off Seaver by Millan, Gonzalez, and Aaron.
The Mets wasted no time in reclaiming the lead in the fourth inning. After Niekro got the first two batters to ground out, Kranepool singled to right field, Grote walked, and both scored when the normally weak-hitting Harrelson tripled to right.
But the Mets did not maintain the lead for very long in what was turning into a hitter’s game. Gonzalez tied the game, 4-4, with a leadoff home run in the Braves’ fifth. Then Hank Aaron’s solo homer off Seaver in the bottom of the seventh inning gave Atlanta a 5-4 lead.
Niekro was still pitching in the top of the eighth inning when things fell apart for the Braves. The Mets’ Wayne Garrett led off with a groundball double to left and scored the tying run when Jones hit a single to center field. The Mets were just getting warmed up. Art Shamsky singled to right field and was replaced by pinch-runner Al Weis. Jones then stole third base. Boswell grounded to pitcher Niekro, who held Jones at third and got Weis on a force out at second. With runners at first and third, Kranepool grounded to first baseman Orlando Cepeda, who made a bad throw home that allowed Jones to score and left runners at first and second. Grote’s groundball to third moved the runners up.
An intentional walk to Harrelson loaded the bases, and Mets manager Hodges lifted Seaver for pinch-hitter J.C. Martin. Once more during the Mets amazing run to the 1969 championship, Hodges’ move succeeded.3 Martin singled to right field. Boswell and Kranepool scored, and the speedy Harrelson followed them home when outfielder Gonzalez could not handle the ball cleanly. Gonzalez got Martin trying to reach third, but the damage was done; the Mets led 9-5.
Hodges brought in Ron Taylor to finish the game for the Mets. He got the Braves out in order in the eighth. Didier grounded to first, Gil Garrido struck out, and Bob Aspromonte, batting for Niekro, was out on a groundball to second.
Cecil Upshaw replaced Niekro in the ninth inning and got the Mets out quickly. Agee struck out and after Garrett singled, Jones grounded into a double play started by Upshaw.
In the bottom of the ninth, Millan singled to lead off. Gonzalez struck out and Aaron flied to left field for the second out. Pinch-hitter Mike Lum raised Braves fans’ hopes with a double that moved Millan to third. But Taylor finished it off by getting Orlando Cepeda to pop out to second.
The Mets were the surprise winners of the first game after pummeling Niekro for nine runs. Seaver got the win despite allowing five runs in seven innings. He was the only Mets starter to emerge with a win in the series.4 The first game set the tone for the rest of the series as the Mets exploded for 27 runs in a three-game sweep of the Braves. Although Aaron homered in each game, it wasn’t enough to stop the Mets' onslaught as they continued their “amazin’” season.5
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also used the Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball-Almanac.com, and Retrosheet.org websites for box-score, player, team, and season pages, pitching and batting game logs, and other pertinent material.
1 Scott Chiusano, “From 1969 to 2006, News Looks at Mets’ History in the NLCS,” New York Daily News, October 16, 2015.
2 “Remembering Mets History: 1969 NLCS Game 1: Seaver Wins Opener Beating Atlanta 9-5,” Centerfield Maz.com, October 2, 2016.
4 Marty Noble, “Mets ’69 sweep of Braves a Forgotten Feat,” Mets.com, August 22, 2009.