When the New York Mets finished off the Atlanta Braves to win the National League pennant in 1969, utility player Rod Gaspar declared that the Mets would win the World Series in four straight. Shortly thereafter, when the Baltimore Orioles finished off the Minnesota Twins to advance to the World Series, Frank Robinson declared, “bring on Ron [sic] Gaspar.”
Robinson’s confidence seemed justified. The Orioles had won 109 regular season games; the Mets 100. The O’s had outscored their opponents by 262 runs; the Mets by 91. Baltimore was the overwhelming favorite to beat the Mets, and rightly so.
I thought the Mets had a good shot at an upset, though. The National League was clearly superior to the American in those days. No team that won 100 NL games should be much of an underdog, it seemed to me, especially one that had played at an even better pace during the last months of the season. (I wasn’t aware of the run differential).
Having observed the Orioles during the summer of ’69, I had the impression that Mets aces Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman could handle their batting order. I’m not sure why I had that impression. Maybe it was simply based on the adage that great pitching beats great hitting.
Of course, the Orioles had great pitching too — three outstanding starters in Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, and Jim Palmer. For some reason, though, I thought the Mets could scratch out runs against this trio thanks to Gil Hodges’s platoon system in which he loaded his lineup with lefty hitters against right-handed pitching and righties against left-handed pitching.
Hodges, though, had a difficult decision to make about platooning in the World Series. His left-handed platoon had killed Atlanta pitching in the NLCS. But in Game 1, Baltimore would be starting Cuellar, a southpaw. Should Hodges bench hot hitters like Art Shamsky, Ken Boswell, and Wayne Garrett in favor of righties who hadn’t played against the Braves?
The decision was difficult because Cuellar’s best pitch was the screwball. It breaks away from right-handed hitters, seemingly negating the advantage they normally have against southpaws. In 1969 and for his career as a whole, left-handed hitters had as much success against Cuellar as right-handed hitters.
Nonetheless, Hodges decided to stick to the script that had been working for him. He deployed the four right-handed members of his platoon in Game One. Donn Clendenon, Ed Charles, Ron Swoboda, and Al Weis all started. All would make significant contributions in the Series, and one would be the MVP.
Game One was played in Baltimore on October 11. It was Seaver vs. Cuellar.
Cuellar encountered little difficulty in the top of the first inning. In the bottom, leadoff batter Don Buford drove Seaver’s second pitch just barely over the fence in right field. Swoboda mistimed his jump. Otherwise, he might have had it.
Both pitchers then breezed into the fourth inning. With two out in the top of that frame, Clendenon doubled. But Cuellar got Swoboda on a fly ball to center.
Seaver retired the first two batters he faced in the bottom of the fourth. But then, Elrod Hendricks singled and Davey Johnson drew a walk.
Mark Belanger, normally a light hitter but having a career year at the plate, was next. Going with Seaver’s pitch, Belanger singled to right.
Hendricks was a slow runner and it seemed like Swoboda had a play at home plate. However, his throw was off line and Hendricks scored.
That brought Cuellar to the plate. He was a poor hitter even for a pitcher. Nonetheless, he looped one into center field for a single that brought home Johnson. Buford then scorched a line drive to right. Home came Belanger with the third run of the inning.
Baltimore 4, New York 0.
That was still the score when Seaver was due to lead off the top of the sixth. Hodges went instead with pinch hitter Duffy Dyer. Dyer grounded out and the Mets failed to score.
Hodges brought on veteran Don Cardwell, who had pitched a no-hitter for the Cubs almost a decade earlier. He threw an inning of scoreless ball.
In the top of the seventh, Cuellar encountered real trouble for the first time in the game. Clendenon led off with a single and Swoboda walked on four pitches. One out later, Jerry Grote singled to load the bases.
Light-hitting Al Weis was next. He drove the ball to deep left field. Buford caught it near the wall. Weis nearly cleared the bases, but instead had to settle for a sacrifice fly.
Hodges sent up “Ron” Gaspar, another right-handed hitter, to bat for Cardwell. A better selection might have been one of his hot left-handed batters, but Hodges was sticking with his matchup strategy.
Gaspar hit a slow roller towards Brooks Robinson at the third base. Brooksie made one of his patented bare-handed pickups and strong overhand throws to first. The speedy Gaspar was out easily.
The Mets threatened again in the ninth. Swoboda led off with an infield single. With two outs, Weis drew a walk. The pitcher was due up next. Hodges called on Shamsky to pinch hit. A home run would tie the game, but Shamsky hit a sharp grounder right at Johnson, who threw him out to end the contest.
After the game, Frank Robinson described the Mets as “lifeless.” Boog Powell suggested that some of the Mets had become dispirited after Buford’s solo home run in the first inning.
Ed Charles, though, was feeling cocky. Encountering Orioles pitching coach George Bamberger, a minor league teammate from years ago, Charles reportedly said, “George, you better enjoy this one because this is the last game y’all are going to win.”