This day in baseball history: The first league championship series

In 1969, both of baseball’s two leagues split into two divisions. The division winners in the respective leagues were to face off in league championship series, with the winners moving on to the World Series.

On October 4, the first game of both series were played. In the basement of one of Dartmouth’s dorms, I watched the NLCS game between the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves. I think John was with me, though I wouldn’t swear to it.

Arguably, the Mets and the Braves were both lucky to have made it this far. The Chicago Cubs had outscored their opponents by more runs than the Mets had outscored theirs. Yet, the Cubs, under the unsteady guidance of Leo Durocher, managed to finish eight games behind the Mets.

Atlanta’s run differential was inferior to both San Francisco and Cincinnati. Yet, they had outlasted both clubs to win the NL West narrowly.

As between the two division winners, the Mets had the superior run differential. They also had the lowest team ERA in the National League. Atlanta didn’t have the best anything, except for fielding percentage (.001 better than the Mets), although the heart of the Braves’ batting order — Hank Aaron, Rico Carty, and Orlando Cepeda — was among baseball’s most fearsome, and certainly superior to that of the Mets.

I can’t remember which team was favored to win the Series. However, the Mets, with Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman lined up to pitch four of the five games (if the playoff went that far), should have been the betting favorite.

The first game featured two future Hall of Famers — Seaver and Phil Niekro. Seaver had won 25 games, Niekro 23.

The game was no pitchers’ duel, though. In the top of the second inning, Art Shamsky led off with a single and Ken Boswell drew a walk. Niekro struck out Ed Kranepool, but Jerry Grote singled, scoring Shamsky and sending Boswell to third base. Boswell scored when a Niekro knuckleball got past his catcher, Bob Didier.

Niekro escaped further damage, but the Mets were up 2-0.

The Braves got a run back in the bottom of the second, thanks to a double by Carty, an error by Boswell, and a sacrifice fly by Clete Boyer. And they took the lead in the third on back-to-back-to-back doubles by Felix Millan, Tony Gonzalez, and Hank Aaron. But the Mets grabbed the lead right back in the top of fourth when Bud Harrelson tripled home Kranepool (who had singled) and Grote (who had walked).

4-3 Mets.

With the Braves digging in and teeing off on Seaver, I kept waiting for him to start pitching inside. Guys like Vern Law, Don Drysdale, and Bob Gibson would have knocked a couple of Braves down.

But Seaver was a new breed of pitcher. He kept allowing the Braves to dig in, and they kept hammering the ball.

Gonzalez led off the home half of the fifth with a home run. Aaron hit a solo shot in the seventh. It gave Atlanta a 5-4 lead.

Wayne Garrett led off the eighth with a double. He scored on a Cleon Jones single.

Shamsky singled, sending Jones to second. On a botched bunt by Boswell, Jones found himself in no man’s land between second base and third. However, a high throw by Didier enabled him reach third with an odd stolen base. Now, Jones could score the go-ahead run on the right kind of out

Boswell hit a grounder back to Niekro. This was the wrong kind of out. Niekro held Jones at third and threw out Al Weis, a pinch runner for Shamsky, on a force out at second.

Kranepool was the next batter. He hit a grounder to Cepeda at first. Cepeda threw home, hoping to cut down Jones who represented the go-ahead run. The throw was off line, enabling Jones to score. Boswell advanced to second and Kranepool replaced him at first. Both runners moved up on a ground ball by Grote.

The Braves elected to issue Harrelson an intentional, which loaded the bases. With Seaver due up, Hodges lifted his ace and called on J.C. Martin to pinch hit.

Martin was only a .209 hitter on the season. However, as usual, Hodges had pushed the right button. Martin singled home both Boswell and Kranepool. When Gonzalez failed to play Martin’s hit cleanly, Harrelson scored, as well. The Mets suddenly led 9-5.

Hodges called on Ron Taylor to replace Seaver. Taylor was used to pitching in big games, having played in the 1964 World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals (along with Cepeda). In that Series, he shut down the New York Yankees in two appearances and saved Game 4.

This time around, Taylor set the Braves down in order in the eighth. In the ninth, Millan led off with a single, and pinch hitter Mike Lum doubled with two out.

But Taylor got his ex-teammate Cepeda on a pop-up. The Mets prevailed 9-5.

The Mets took the next two games, as well, to sweep the Series. In the second game, the Mets jumped all over Atlanta starter Ron Reed and his replacement, Paul Doyle. They led 8-0 by the middle of the fourth inning.

The Braves rocked Jerry Koosman in the bottom of the fifth to pull to within three runs at 9-6. But Taylor stopped the bleeding, and Tug McGraw closed the game brilliantly, pitching three innings of shutout ball and allowing just one hit and one walk.

Final score, New York 11 Atlanta 6.

The hero of Game 3 was another future Hall of Fame pitcher, but he didn’t start the game. The Braves scored two runs off of New York starter Gary Gentry in the first inning, and Hodges pulled Gentry in the third, after Gonzalez singled and Aaron doubled him to third.

On came a 22 year-old fireballer named Nolan Ryan. He struck Carty out and, after intentionally walking Cepeda, struck out Boyer too. Ryan then retired Didier on a fly ball.

The Mets rallied, and Ryan took a 3-2 lead into the fifth inning. But with two out in that frame, Ryan walked Carty and Cepeda hit a home run. Just like that, the Braves were up 4-3.

Their lead didn’t last long. In the bottom of the fifth, Hodges allowed Ryan to stay in the game and bat. He rewarded his skipper with a lead off single. Two batters later, Wayne Garrett homered to put the Mets back on top. A double by Jones and a single by Boswell extended the lead to 6-4.

Ryan was nearly perfect the rest of the way. He ended up pitching seven innings, allowing only the two runs on the Cepeda homer. The Braves managed just three hits and two walks in Ryan’s seven innings of work. He struck out seven.

The Mets were now National League pennant winners, perhaps the most improbable NL champs, all things considered, in the long history of the Senior Circuit.

What stands out most about the first NLCS is the Mets’ offensive output. This was not a great hitting team. Eight of the league’s 12 teams scored more runs than the Mets during the season.

Yet, in the NLCS, the Mets scored 27 runs in three games. As a team, they batted .327, with six home runs. Shamsky batted .538, Jones .429. Three other regulars — Agee, Boswell, and Garrett — all batted over .300.

Because the Braves started three right-handers, Hodges had scarcely used the four right-handed hitters he usually deployed against left-handers. The Mets were going to face plenty of left-handed pitching in the World Series, which raised the question of whether, in those games, Hodges would bench his red hot lefty batters — Shamsky, Boswell, and Garrett.

For the moment, no one cared. The Mets were going to the World Series and they felt invincible playing whomever Hodges selected. Utility player Rod Gaspar, used only as defensive replacement in the NLCS declared that the Mets would win the Series in four straight. In the New York clubhouse, no one dissented.

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