By mid-August of 1969, it was clear that the New York Mets would have a banner season. Not only were the Mets virtually assured of their first winning season in club history, they were on pace for 90 wins.
A pennant seemed out of reach, though. On the morning of August 19, they trailed the Chicago Cubs by 7.5 games.
But the Mets hadn’t given up. They still thought they had a shot at catching the Cubs.
This belief seemed fanciful. The Cubs had all-stars at six of the eight non-pitching positions. The Mets had only one, Cleon Jones.
The Mets had great starting pitchers, led by Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. However, the Cubs’ starting rotation, led by Ferguson Jenkins, Ken Holtzman, and Bill Hands, was almost as good. And the Cubs had Phil Regan and Ted Abernathy, two of the best relievers of the 1960s, in the bullpen.
The Mets had Tug McGraw and Ron Taylor. The former came into 1969 with a career record of 4-19, The latter was a journeyman.
What, then, was the source of the Mets’ confidence? One source was their manager, Gil Hodges. It seems odd that the Mets would have a managerial advantage. Hodges had never experienced a winning season as a skipper By contrast, Leo Durocher of the Cubs had managed teams to three pennants and one world championship.
But Hodges, with his steady hand and thoughtful approach to the game, was admired and even adored by his players. Durocher, erratic and egotistical, wasn’t universally liked in his club house. Among those he had alienated was Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub.
Moreover, Hodges was minimizing the Mets’ shortfall in star power, while at the same conserving the team’s energy, by platooning at four positions. No, Ken Boswell wasn’t Glenn Beckert at second base and Ed Charles wasn’t Ron Santo at third. But by using Al Weis and Wayne Garrett to create favorable matchups against particular pitchers, Hodges narrowed the gap.
Meanwhile, Durocher risked wearing his players out. Banks, age 38, would play 155 games. Santo would play 160, Don Kessinger 158, and Billy Williams (age 31) played 163. Regan wasn’t always the guy Durocher called on to warm up in the bullpen, but sometimes it seemed that way.
It may be that Durocher has received too much criticism for this policy down through the years. In 1968, Red Schoendienst played Orlando Cepeda, Mike Shannon, Lou Brock, and Curt Flood virtually every day His Cardinals won the pennant easily (though they did struggle a bit in September when the pennant race was over). But there’s a broad consensus that Durocher should have given his stars more rest, especially once the Cubs built up a big midseason lead over the Mets and Cardinals.
The second source of confidence among the Mets was a series against the Cubs in early July at Shea Stadium. The Mets had been sneaking up on Chicago. Heading into the series, they were only 5 games back.
The Cubs seemed headed to victory in the opener, though. They led 3-1 behind the great Ferguson Jenkins headed into the bottom of the ninth inning.
Boswell led off for the Mets that inning with a blooper to center field. Don Young of the Cubs broke the wrong way initially and his desperate dive played the ball into a double.
After Tommy Agee popped out, Donn Clendenon hit a shot to deep center. This time Young made a fine break and snagged the ball back-handed as he crashed into the wall. But the impact of the crash jarred the ball loose. Clendenon had a double. Boswell, seeing Young about to make the catch, had to stop at third base.
Cleon Jones, hands down the Mets’ best hitter, was next up. An intentional walk seemed like the smart play, even though it would have put the go-ahead run on base.
Durocher elected to have Jenkins pitch to Jones. The Mets’ hitting star doubled to tie the score.
A walk and an out later, Ed Kranepool singled Jones home to end the game.
Afterwards, Durocher ripped Young for not making the play on Boswell and Clendenon. “Two little fly balls,” he moaned. “[Young] just stands there watching one and he gives up on the other — it’s a disgrace.”
Hodges would never have said this. He was tough on players who didn’t hustle or who made mental errors. But it wasn’t his way to tear into players who broke the wrong way on a fly ball or had a ball come loose upon crashing into a wall.
Durocher was the opposite of Hodges. He always shifted blame to his players. It wasn’t Young who decided to pitch to Cleon Jones, but Young was the fall guy.
(This harked back to the time when Arky Vaughn, a future Hall of Famer, went on a one-man strike after Durocher told a pitcher to throw a certain pitch and then criticized the pitcher’s alleged selection in post game comments to the press. Vaughn, who was on the mound when Durocher made the pitch selection, took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers only after Durocher publicly confessed.)
To make matters worse for Don Young, Ron Santo, the Cubs’ fiery leader on the field, also ripped the center fielder. He accused Young of sulking over a poor day at the plate, and therefore not being ready in the field.
Young was devastated. He “was never the same after that,” Phil Regan (now the 80 year-old pitching coach for the Mets) would later say.
Young didn’t play again for a week and was used only sparingly thereafter. 1969 was his last big league season. At age 23, he was done as a major leaguer.
The Mets split the next two games to pull to within 4 games of the Mets. Later in the month, they took two out of three at Wrigley Field, leaving them only 3.5 back.
However, the Mets then went into a tail spin, which is why they were 7.5 games behind on the morning of August 19. But they still believed they could catch the Cubs.
They faced a daunting task on this day in baseball. The San Francisco Giants were in town and the great Juan Marichal was pitching. The Mets countered with Gary Gentry, a fine young right-hander, but certainly no Marichal.
Both pitchers were almost unhittable for nine innings. The Mets nearly broke through in the 10th, though.
Jones led off with a single, was bunted to second base, and stole third. With one out, he could score on a hit, a wild pitch, or the right kind of out.
But Marichal got Garrett on a weak grounder (the wrong kind of out), pitched around Kranepool, and struck Bud Harrelson out.
Hodges wisely lifted Gentry after 10 innings. His replacement, Tug McGraw, would limit the Giants to no runs and only one hit for the next four innings.
Marichal had an easy 11th inning, but in the 12th, Jones led off with a single. McGraw, the pitcher then singled. Jones tried to score all the way from first base, but was cut down at the plate. Marichal survived the inning, but the hit he yielded to McGraw perhaps should have persuaded his manager, Clyde King, to bring in a relief pitcher.
King didn’t and he was rewarded when Marichal set down the Mets in order in the 13th.
Rod Gaspar led off the bottom of the 14th. He tapped one back to Marichal, who threw him out.
Up stepped Tommy Agee, Cleon Jones’s boyhood friend from Mobile, Alabama, and a high quality player in his own right. Agee smashed a home run to end this affair after three hours and 44 minutes.
The Mets had prevailed. So had the Cubs — 3-0 over Atlanta behind Ken Holtzman. Thus, the Mets still trailed by 7.5 games. But they had notched another confidence-sustaining victory.