This month in baseball history: The 1969 World Series, Part Four

The Baltimore Orioles were down three games to one to the New York Mets entering Game Five of the 1969 World Series. The Orioles thus needed to win three straight games.

The previous year, the Detroit Tigers had overcome a three games to one deficit against the St. Louis Cardinals. However, that was only the third time in the history of the World Series this had been accomplished.

The Orioles could take heart from the fact that during the regular season they had won three straight games or more 17 times. Indeed, in the ALCS they had taken three straight from the Minnesota Twins, a team of comparable quality to the Mets.

However, the Mets were red hot. They had won six of their seven post-season games so far. Add that to what they had accomplished during the regular season from September on, and their record was 30-9. The Mets had to like their chances of avoiding three straight losses, even to a team as great as the Orioles.

The Game Five pitching matchup was a repeat of the one in Game Two — a duel of southpaws Dave McNally and Jerry Koosman. In that contest, pitching dominated in a 2-1 Met victory. It figured to do so again.

In the top of the third inning, however, Koosman ran into big trouble. Mark Belanger led off with a bloop single. That brought McNally to the plate in an obvious bunting situation.

Anticipating a bunt, Koosman threw a high fastball, a tough pitch to put on the ground. Koosman wanted to get the location right, so he took a little off of his heater.

But McNally wasn’t bunting. He ambushed Koosman with a full swing, smashing the ball into the Orioles’ bullpen for a two-run home run.

This was Baltimore’s first home run since Don Buford, their leadoff batter in Game One, hit one off of Tom Seaver.

Two outs later, the Orioles had another. Frank Robinson drove a Koosman fastball to left-center field for a homer.

The Orioles were up 3-0.

After that, Koosman settled down. Hodges kept the faith, allowing Koosman to bat in the bottom of the fifth, still trailing 3-0.

The top of the sixth was a bit rocky for Koosman. It took another in a growing line of great New York outfield plays to deprive Paul Blair, leading off, of extra bases. This gem was courtesy of Tommie Agee in deepest center field.

Koosman then appeared to hit Frank Robinson in the leg with a pitch. However, home plate umpire Lou DiMuro ruled that the ball had hit Robbie’s bat first for a foul ball.

When DiMuro refused to check with the first base umpire, Earl Weaver charged out of the dugout. The O’s manager had been ejected for arguing in Game Four, the first tossing of an umpire in a World Series game since 1935.

Weaver didn’t want to make it two games in a row. However, he contested the call vigorously.

Meanwhile, Robinson retreated to the dugout to apply ice to his upper thigh.

When Robinson rejoined the game, Koosman struck him out. Boog Powell followed with a two-out single, but Koosman retired Brooks Robinson for the third out.

McNally had breezed through five innings, allowing only two hits. However, his first pitch to Cleon Jones, leading off the bottom of the sixth, was a curve ball that broke down and way inside, on or near Jones’s front foot.

Jones, claiming that the ball hit his foot, started for first base, but DiMuro called him back. The ball hadn’t hit Jones, the ump ruled.

Out of the dugout came Gil Hodges. Unlike Weaver, Hodges didn’t rush the home plate ump. Instead, he walked up calmly to DiMuro carrying the ball, which had bounced into the New York dugout, and said, “Lou, the ball hit him.”

DiMuro examined the ball and saw a smudge of shoe polish. Then, he awarded Jones first base.

Weaver, of course, was furious. Robinson had been hit but not awarded first base. DiMuro didn’t even check with the first base umpire. Yet, Jones, whom DiMuro had said wasn’t hit, got first base on the evidence of a smudge on a ball that entered the opposition’s dugout. Anything could have happened to the ball while in “enemy” hands, Weaver insisted.

It was no use.

Koosman would later say that when the ball rolled into the dugout, Hodges instructed him to brush it against his foot. The ball may have hit Jones’ foot, the consensus seems to be that it did. But Hodges wanted to make sure the Mets got the call.

Eventually, the next batter, Donn Clendenon, stood in against McNally. He had homered off of McNally in Game Two.

This time, he jumped on a 2-2 curve and smashed it over the auxiliary scoreboard in left field. McNally retired the next three Mets, but his lead had been cut to 3-2.

That was still the score when light-hitting Al Weis led off the bottom of the seventh inning. Weis, a switch-hitter batting from his slightly weaker right side, hit a home run to tie the score. It was only his seventh home run in a career that dated back to 1962. Weis would end his career with eight homers in 1,590 at-bats.

McNally made it through the seventh with no further damage, but Weaver called on a pinch hitter for him in the top of the eighth. That inning, Koosman set the Orioles down 1-2-3. Since the three-run outburst in the third inning, he had allowed only one hit, that blooper by Powell in the sixth.

Eddie Watt, one of the premier relievers of the late 1960s, took over from McNally in the bottom of the eighth. His regular season ERA in 1969 was 1.65, and he allowed just 49 hits in 71 innings.

Jones was the first batter Watt had to face. Watt threw him nothing but fastballs. Jones tagged the fifth one to deep left-center. Paul Blair, one of the best defensive outfielders of any era, couldn’t reach it. Jones had himself a double.

Clendenon was next up. The situation called for a sacrifice, but Clendenon wasn’t used to bunting. After fouling off two attempts, the big first baseman grounded out to Brooks Robinson at third base.

That brought up Ron Swoboda with Jones still on second. On a 1-0 pitch, Swoboda ripped a curve ball down the left field line. Don Buford had to play the ball on the hop. From the moment the ball left Swoboda’s bat, Jones hadn’t liked Buford’s chances of reaching it. Thus, he was able to race home with the go-ahead run. Swoboda took second base on a futile throw by Buford.

Watt retired the next batter, Ed Charles. It was up to Jerry Grote to bring home an insurance run.

Grote hit a hard one-hop grounder to Powell at first base. Boog blocked the ball and tossed it to Watt covering first. It should have been an out, but Watt was slow getting there and Powell’s toss was a little high.

Grote beat Watt to the bag and the pitcher dropped Powell’s throw. Swoboda, running all the way, tore home with the run that put the Mets up 5-3.

To preserve victory, Koosman still had to deal with the heart of the Orioles lineup, beginning with Frank Robinson, in the top of the ninth. Koosman walked Robbie. Now the powerful Powell could tie the game with one swing.

Instead, Powell hit a grounder to Weis. He tossed the ball to Bud Harrelson at second base. Robinson, probably the most fearsome baserunner in baseball, went in hard on Harrelson. The shortstop kept his nerve to retire Robinson, but there was no question of a double play.

Brooks Robinson was next up. He was having a dreadful World Series at the plate. All he could do in this at-bat was hit a short fly ball to Swoboda in right field. Two out.

Dave Johnson was the Orioles’ last hope. He hit a long fly to left field, but it was clearly an out from the time it left the bat. Jones caught it at the edge of the warning track.

That was that.

After the game in the New York club house, Rod Gaspar told anyone who would listen — and everyone was listening — “I told you we would win in four straight.” It had taken five games, but the Mets had won four straight.

Is this the biggest upset in the history of the World Series? Possibly.

Are the 1969 Mets the most improbable champions in baseball history? I think so, if one considers what the odds were of them becoming champs when the season began.

They must have been astronomical. This was a team that had finished in ninth place the year before with a record of 73-89. And this was a franchise that had been the laughingstock of baseball since its inception in 1962.

The laughing subsided when Gil Hodges took over the team in 1968, but no one expected that his club would contend for a title in 1969.

If one man deserves credit for the Mets winning the title that year, I think it has to be Hodges. I gather from the 50 year retrospectives of the ’69 Mets I’ve read that most of his players agree.

NOTE: Nearly all of the above account of Game Five comes from Wayne Coffey’s fine book about the 1969 Mets, They Said It Couldn’t Be Done.

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