This article was written by Keith Olbermann
This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 26, 2006)
The 1962 Mets were a lot worse than they looked.
That’s an outlandish statement to make about a team that won just 40 of 160 games.
But even among baseball historians, few realize that nearly a quarter of those precious few victories came during a two-week burst in May in which the Mets won nine of 12.
Subtracting that run, they were actually 31-117.
Even the human symbol of the ’62 Mets’ futility, Marv Throneberry, has had his very rough edges dulled by time and nostalgia. Many have heard of the day Throneberry was called out for not having touched first on a triple, and of how a coach’s protest was muted when the umpire mumbled, “He also missed second.” But the anecdote has blunted the true terror of Throneberry’s performance in that game, the first of a doubleheader against the.Cubs at the Polo Grounds on June 17.
Throneberry drove in two runs with his first-inning should-have-been-a-triple, but conceivably cost the Mets another, since Charlie Neal followed his not so-fancy footwork with a solo home run. But in the top of the inning, during a rundown play, he had also committed that most rare and foolish of errors, fielder’s obstruction-when the player without the ball in a rundown play just stands there in the base path and lets the runner slam into him. That Throneberry gaffe led directly to four unearned Chicago runs.
Just to top it off, in a game that theoretically could have been 8-4 Mets, New York rallied to score two runs in the bottom of the ninth to trail 8-7. They got the tying run to first with two men out before their last batter struck out — Throneberry, of course.
If the agonies he caused were not enough, there was pitcher Craig Anderson. The “3” in his 3-17 won lost record seems to preserve for him a shred of dignity. It doesn’t. Anderson was not only 0-11 as a starter, but his last two relief victories came in one doubleheader — on May 12.
At that point Anderson’s record stood at 3-1.
For the next four and a half months Anderson and the blighted Bob Miller would combine to go 0-28 — until Miller won his only game of the year, on the season’s penultimate day, September 29.
The next day, of course, saw the ignominious fare well of Mets catcher Joe Pignatano. In what would be his last major league at-bat, Pignatano lined into a triple play. Less well remembered is that both the base runners in the play, Richie Ashburn and Sammy Drake, were also in their final big league games. Hall of Farner Ashburn’s career, in fact, ended at that moment — Drake would replace him in the field for the bottom of the eighth inning.
So the Mets were bad. However bad you think they were, they were worse.
The clue may have been contained in that career evaporating triple play into which Pignatano hit. He, Ashburn, and Drake were hardly the only men to sing their finales with the ’62 Mets. Of the 45 players who stumbled through all or parts of the season, 19 of them would never play another season in,the majors — and 10 of those guys were under the age of” 30.
The players were bad.
The men who chose the players were worse.
Though there was little criticism of it at the time, Met management’s obsession with bringing in former Dodgers and Yankees as gate attractions has forever after been blamed. The Houston Colt .45s, born in the same expansion draft, went for more of a mixture of middle-level veterans and prospects, and won 24 more games than did the Mets, to finish a fairly respectable eighth.
The Mets, under the control of future Hall of Famers George Weiss and Casey Stengel, seemed instead to go for players they had heard of during their much more successful tenure across the Harlem River with the Yankees. Their Opening Day lineup featured no fewer than four former Brooklyn Dodgers (Roger Craig, Gil Hodges, Charlie Neal, and Don Zimmer). Clem Labine was in the bullpen, and Pignatano would be added before season’s end — as would ex-Yankees Throneberry and Gene Woodling. The original Met plan for ’62 had called for two more familiar faces, the ex-Dodger pitcher Billy Loes, and the former Giant ace Johnny Antonelli. The latter even rode on the Mets float in the 1961 Thanksgiving Day parade. Antonelli had the presence of mind to retire before spring training began, and Loes was so ineffective in early practices that he was returned to San Francisco, and then released.
But surely even a Rotisserie-like fascination with guys Weiss and Stengel might have “remembered from a couple of years ago” can’t explain the continuing death march of the ’62 Mets. The worst teams always get slightly better as veterans fade and get moved out, and Weiss certainly wasn’t loath to unload some of the disasters: Zimmer, Labine, Gus Bell, Jim Marshall, Hobie Landrith, Joe Ginsberg, Bobby Gene Smith, and Herb Moford were all gone before summer.
It may have been the transactions the Mets didn’t make that doomed them to the modern record for futility.
This is dangerous territory for the researcher. Just because Team A obtains Player X doesn’t mean that Team B should, or could have, nor that Player X would have produced as well as he did with Team A. But the pattern of the roster moves the Mets made concurrently with those by other major league teams in 1962 suggests that, at best, Weiss and Stengel were asleep at the switch.
A column in the April 27, 1962, edition of the New York Times quotes an unnamed Mets spokesman about the decision not to bid for a player just released by a local rival. “If he couldn’t help the Yankees,” the spokesman asked rhetorically, “how could he have been any help to us?”
“He” was Robin Roberts, cut loose in the Bronx after having not even pitched in the first two weeks of the Yankees season. To be fair, Roberts had seemingly bottomed out the year before in Philadelphia, when he struggled with a knee injury to a 1-10 record.
Ignored by the Mets — not deemed worthy of more than an anonymous quote — Roberts instead went to Baltimore, where he managed to win 37 games over the next three seasons, and would continue to pitch solidly if not spectacularly in the majors until 1966. As the Times noted, on the same day they passed on Roberts, the Mets picked up pitcher Dave Hillman from Cincinnati. Hillman managed to produce a 6.32 ERA in 13 appearances in New York, the last of his major league career.
Having eschewed one National League ace of the ’50s, the Mets promptly went out and traded for another one: Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell. The cost wasn’t great-they got him even-up for third-string first baseman Jim Marshall. But while the Mets were making that move on May 6, the Colts were preparing to obtain reliever Don McMahon from Milwaukee in a straight cash deal (it was consummated the same day the Mets traded for Throneberry). Weiss and Stengel should have remembered McMahon-he pitched against them six times in the World Series of ’57 and ’58.
Mizell was a robust 0-2 with a 7.34 ERA in New York, dropped into long relief after just two calamitous starts. These were his last games in the majors. By contrast, McMahon pitched until 1974.
At about the same time, the Reds were giving up on a left hander who had bounced back and forth between Cincinnati and Triple-A. His name was Mike Cuellar, and he had 185 wins ahead of him with four pennant winners, but the Mets couldn’ t be bothered with his sudden free agent status — they were too busy coaxing the Indians into trading them catcher Harry Chiti for a player to be named later (who, as most everyone knows, would prove to be himself).
The then traditional May 15 cut-down date could have been a shopping day for the talent-starved Mets. But, of course, they’d just traded for Throneberry and had no roster room to sign, say, the pitcher released outright by the L.A. Angels — Joe Nuxhall. Nuxhall had also been released six weeks earlier by Baltimore (while the Mets were trying to decide whether or not to hang on to Butterball Botz, Aubrey Gatewood, or Howie Nunn). The Mets passed again; Nuxhall instead went back to Cincinnati, where, after a brief rehab stint in the minors, he managed a 20-8 record over the next season and a half, and a 46-28 mark over the last five years of his career.
Stengel and Weiss did, however, give a long look to another pitcher released by the A’s — ex-Yankee Art Ditmar. Ultimately, they didn’t sign him, either.
Soon after, the Mets got rid of the rapidly aging 33-year-old outfielder Gus Bell. But on June 15, they replaced him with 39-year old outfielder Gene Woodling, a Stengel favorite from a decade before.
The missed bargain-basement opportunities continued at a rate of about once a month. The Mets bought Pignatano — their seventh catcher of the season — from the Giants on July 13. A few days later, the Phillies released veteran pitcher Frank Sullivan. The Mets passed. Sullivan finished the year 4-1 with a 3.24 ERA for Minnesota. Pignatano finished the season (and his career) by hitting into a triple play in his last major league at-bat.
In August, Cincinnati gave up on former Cubs starter Moe Drabowsky, and waived him out of the National League — the Mets again passing — to Kansas City. Drabowsky was no superstar, but he did pitch until 1972, going 54-50 with 51 saves over the rest of his career. Instead, the Mets managed to buy minor league pitcher Larry Foss from the Pirates. He’d make five September appearances with New York (0-1, 4.63) and vanish from the majors.
Hindsight is a wonderful and unfair tool with which to criticize the always dicey business of trying to improve a moribund ball club. But we’re not blaming Weiss and Stengel for failing to swap for the serviceable veterans who were traded that season, like Bob Buhl, Charlie Maxwell, Pedro Ramos, or Bobby Shantz, or even prospects like Don Lock and Steve Hamilton. We’re not even questioning how their expansion cousins signed amateurs in that pre-draft summer like Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Jerry Grote, and Jim Wynn, while their own scouts came up with Ray Apple, Paul Deem, and Ed Kranepool. We’re not even noting that Grote, Staub, and Wynn had already made it to Houston’s 1963 spring camp, while Weiss and Stengel auditioned instead the likes of more ’50s Yankee flash-in-the-pans like Bob Cerv and Johnny Kucks.
We’re talking about buying Dave Hillman instead of signing Robin Roberts.
KEITH OLBERMANN joined SABR in 1984. He hosts MSNBC’s primetime newscast Countdown and co-hosts an hour of the Dan Patrick Show on ESPN Radio. His latest book, The Worst Persons in the World, is published by John Wiley & Sons.