With the 1969 World Series tied at one game for the Baltimore Orioles and one game for the New York Mets, the Series moved to New York City. The pitching matchup was Jim Palmer vs. Gary Gentry.
It favored Baltimore. Palmer, who came into prominence by outpitching Sandy Koufax in Game Two of the 1966 Series, had fought off serious injury to become one the best pitchers in baseball. His record in 1969 was 16-4 with a 2.35 ERA.
Gentry, a rookie, had performed solidly for the Mets, but his ERA was more than a run higher than Palmer’s.
However, Palmer didn’t have it in Game Three. The Mets jumped on him for three runs in the first two innings. Palmer left the game after six innings trailing 4-0.
Meanwhile, Gentry and Nolan Ryan combined to shut the Orioles out on four hits, though they walked seven. The Mets won 5-0 to take a lead of two games to one in the Series.
Game Four looked pivotal. A Baltimore win would restore the Orioles as favorites. A New York win would give the Mets a commanding lead.
The contest featured a rematch of the Game One starters, Mike Cuellar and Tom Seaver. The latter, despite a phenomenal regular season, had been rocked in both of his two post-season starts. The former had been outstanding in both of his two.
Both pitchers would excel on this day.
The Mets scored early off of Cuellar, though. Donn Clendenon, who managed two hits against him in the opener, led off the bottom of the second inning. Cuellar’s best pitch was the screwball, but he threw Clendenon seven straight sliders. The big first baseman hit the final one into the Orioles’ bullpen.
For the third straight game, the Mets had an early lead.
In the top of third, Seaver allowed hits to the number eight and nine hitters, Mark Belanger and Cuellar. Clendenon then made an excellent leaping stop of a Don Buford chopper to get the first out and prevent a possible big inning. Ultimately, it wasn’t even a small inning. Baltimore failed to score.
Meanwhile, Baltimore manager Earl Weaver was becoming increasingly frustrated with the calls of home plate umpire Shag Crawford (and, one suspects, with the way the Series was going). Crawford finally ejected Weaver in the top of the third. This was the first ejection of a manager in a World Series since “Jolly” Charlie Grimm was tossed in 1935.
As the game progressed, both pitchers gained nearly total control over the opposing lineup. Seaver held the O’s hitless in innings five through eight, yielding only a walk to Paul Blair in the sixth. Cuellar was almost as stingy, but had to come out for a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth. Eddie Watt took over and set down the Mets 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning on only seven pitches.
Thus, Seaver entered the ninth inning leading 1-0. He retired Blair on a fly ball. Now he only needed two more outs. However, the heart of the order was coming up, beginning with the great Frank Robinson.
Seaver threw only fastballs to Robbie. He drilled the seventh one up the middle for a single.
Next up was Boog Powell. Seaver jammed him with a good fastball, but Powell managed to place it between first and second for hit. It sent Robinson to third base with the tying run.
Seaver seemed to be tiring and Gil Hodges visited him on the mound. But the call for Hodges wasn’t difficult. Trust your ace.
Brooks Robinson was just 1-15 in the Series so far, but still a dangerous hitter. He slashed a Seaver fastball towards the gap in right-center field. It looked like a sure hit, indeed a double that would give Baltimore the lead unless Ron Swoboda cut it off.
But Swoboda wasn’t interested in cutting it off. He went all out for the catch. In one of the most improbable defensive plays in World Series history — because of its difficulty and Swoboda’s less than stellar reputation as an outfielder — he made a diving catch, snagging the ball inches above the ground.
Mickey Mantle called this “the best defensive play I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Frank Robinson scored easily from third, but Powell had to retreat to first. The game was tied 1-1.
Seaver really seemed to be losing it now, but Hodges kept him in to face Elrod Hendricks, a dangerous left-handed hitter. Hendricks nearly homered, but his blast to right field went foul. Hendricks hit another shot to right. Swoboda caught it on the run.
Watt pitched himself into and out of a jam in the bottom of the ninth. The game headed into extra innings.
The last thing the tiring Seaver needed to start the tenth inning was an error by a teammate. Unfortunately, that’s what he got. Wayne Garrett at third base failed cleanly to field Dave Johnson’s grounder. One out later, Clay Dalrymple, batting for Watt, singled Johnson to second. But Seaver got Buford on a long fly ball that sent Johnson to third. He then struck out Blair on a 2-2 breaking ball well outside the strike zone.
The Orioles called on veteran reliever Dick Hall to pitch the bottom of the tenth. Hall’s ERA in the regular season was 1.92, and he allowed only 49 hits in 65-plus innings.
Jerry Grote led off with a pop-up to short left field. Buford broke back initially, taking himself out of the play. It was up to Belanger, a great fielder, to make a difficult catch. He missed the ball by inches. It went for a double. Rod Gaspar took over at second base as a pinch runner for Grote.
Al Weis was next up. A good bunter, Weis no doubt would have tried to sacrifice himself and move the runner to third. Instead, Baltimore issued him an intentional walk.
Hodges then called on left-handed hitting J.C. Martin to pinch hit for Seaver. Baltimore countered with southpaw Pete Richert, who had been the Washington Senators’ best pitcher when Hodges managed them.
Hodges had told Martin to swing away against Hall, but against a lefty the decision to have him bunt was an easy call.
Everyone in the stadium knew that Martin would be bunting. However, his bunt was perfect, leaving only a play at first base.
The play should have been the catcher’s, but Richert didn’t hear Hendricks calling him off. Richert fielded the bunt, spun around, and made the throw. Martin would have been out, but the ball hit him in the wrist.
Third base coach Eddie Yost signaled wildly for Gaspar to race home. Gaspar scored the winning run standing up.
Richert protested to Shag Crawford that Martin ran inside the baseline in fair territory. If so, Martin should have been out and Gaspar shouldn’t have been allowed to score.
Replays showed that Richert was right. Martin was slightly inside the line. However, Shag Crawford was having none it.
Game over. Mets 2, Orioles 1.
The Mets were one win away from being champions, and they had up to three more opportunities to get that win.
After Swoboda’s catch and the play on Martin’s bunt, destiny, not just math, seemed clearly to be on the Mets’ side.
NOTE: A good deal of the material in this account comes from Wayne Coffey’s fine book about the 1969 Mets, They Said It Couldn’t Be Done.