The team known as the Miracle Mets started the 1969 season with a seemingly sad offense that averaged fewer than three runs a game and had a team batting average of .228 in 1968.
Yet, this ninth-place team went on to win 100 games and the World Series with virtually the same group of hitters. If you want to call it a miracle, then the lightning bolt was manager Gil Hodges’ decision to live by the platoon system, a change that produced 632 runs — an improvement of almost a run per game — and a .242. team batting average
``The brilliance of Gil that year was that he was able to get the most out of everybody on that team,” said Art Shamsky, a lefthanded hitter who shared the rightfield job with Ron Swoboda. The two totaled 23 home runs and 99 RBIs in ‘69.
“I think we all got what he was trying to do” said Shamsky, a 77-year-old Manhattan resident. “There was a point in the season where we knew every day if we were playing or not. If a righthander was pitching, I was playing. If there was a lefthander, Ronnie was playing. We accepted it; it didn’t do anything for our careers.
Swoboda, 74, agreed. “Nobody wants to platoon,” he said this month from his New Orleans home. “We’re all trying to be an everyday ballplayer. We’re trying to be the guy you write down automatically in the lineup.”
Leftfielder Cleon Jones, centerfielder Tommie Agee, shortstop Bud Harrelson and catcher Jerry Grote were Hodges’ automatics.
“Only four people coming to the ballpark knew they were going to start,’’ Jones, 76, said from his home in Mobile, Alabama.
”It’s not what you wanted, but what you could in your unemotional, intellectual side say, ‘this is what the Mets need and that’s what Gil did,’ “ Swoboda said. “His feel for the game was extraordinary.’’
Soon, the “one-for-all” credo began to take hold in the clubhouse. "You couldn’t put up the numbers you wanted to put up,’’ Shamsky said. “ But it was working and Gil was completely honest with all of us. We did it and tolerated it, but I think if it wasn’t working it might have created so many problems. If you look at the cumulative numbers of what we did in rightfield, first base, second base and third base, we all have pretty good years collectively.’’
CLENDENON A HUGE ACQUISITION
Over in Chicago, Hodges’ former manager Leo Durocher had his Cubs playing at a fiery .679 clip, owning a nine-game lead over the Mets in the NL East on June 15. That was the same day that Mets general manager Johnny Murphy picked up Donn Clendenon, a game-changing piece of the puzzle, in a deal with the expansion Montreal Expos for Steve Renko, Kevin Collins and two minor leaguers.
The righthanded hitter fit perfectly into Hodges’ system, sharing first-base with Ed Kranepool. Clendenon went on to hit 12 home runs with 37 RBIs in 72 games.
“Obviously, getting somebody like Donn to join the ballclub changes the whole culture of the offense,’’ said the 74-year-old Kranepool, who resides in Jericho. “You can’t win with pitching alone; you still have to score a few runs.”
At first, the lefthanded-hitting Kranepool didn’t enjoy sitting on the bench against southpaw pitchers. He felt it cut into his rhythm. “You didn’t get enough at-bats to be that productive,” he said. “How many homers could you hit if you only had three hundred at-bats?”
But he bought into the program quickly and enjoyed the results. “The only way to look at the numbers were collectively,” he said. The first-base position produced 17 home runs and 50 RBIs after Clendenon’s arrival on June 17.
“Clendenon was a great defensive player, too, so I’m sure he had some gripes about not playing,’’ Kranepool said in March before his recent kidney-transplant surgery. “But you accepted that situation. It was working. When someone went into the lineup they offered something. We all seemed to produce when given the opportunity.’’
Clendenon hit several key homers during the season, including a two-run shot against the first-place Cubs on Sept. 9 that moved the Mets within a half-game of the top spot. He hit a three-run homer and a solo shot against the Cardinals on Sept. 24 when the Mets clinched the NL East. And he had a big World Series, earning the MVP after batting .357 with three homers and four RBIs. Clendenon died in 2005 at 70.
PLENTY OF INFIELDERS
In the infield, Harrelson played 119 games at short. Wayne Garrett was at third base for 72 games and at second for 47. Ed Charles played in 52 at third. Ken Boswell appeared in 96 at second. Al Weis (who hit .455 against the Orioles in the World Series and homered in Game 5) played in 43 at second and 52 at shortstop. Grote played in 112 games and was backed up by J.C. Martin (48) and Duffy Dyer (19).
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
Thanks to Hodges’ platoon system, Swoboda was in the lineup on Sept. 15 in St. Louis when the Mets struck out 19 times against flame-throwing lefthander Steve Carlton. Swoboda struck out twice but also hit a pair of two-run home runs off the future Hall of Famer and the Mets won, 4-3, to open a 4-1/2-game lead over the Cubs.
“It doesn’t make any sense at all to me and I was a part of it,’’ Swoboda said. “His stuff was big and nasty. Years later, I had him autograph a ball for me saying ‘Anybody but you,’ he wouldn’t do that. He wrote, “All good, Steve Carlton.’ ”
On Sept. 10 at Shea Stadium, the Mets took over first place for good after beating the Expos, 3-2, on Boswell’s game-winning single in the 12th inning. The Cubs went 8–17 in September; the Mets won 38 of their last 49 games.
“The Cubs had the best eight players in baseball,’’ Kranepool said. “Position by position they had a great team, but they got tired. Who do you put in once they got tired? By the time Leo put a reserve in, it took five days to get his groove.”
But that didn’t happen to Hodges’ Mets. They had players like “Super Sub’’ Weis, who hit a three-run homer at Wrigley Field on July 15 and another the next day as the Mets trimmed the Cubs’ lead to four games. “We put a guy in and he wins a ballgame” Kranepool said. “We had instant offense when we substituted a player.’’
Billy Williams, 80, was one of three future Hall of Famers on the 1969 Cubs, who had Williams in right, Ron Santo at third and Ernie Banks at first. “I don’t know if we let up, got tired or what,” Williams said. “We got all-star players at every position. We didn’t lose the pennant, the Mets won it.’’
MEET THE METS
A typical breakdown of the 1969 Mets’ starting lineup:
1B Ed Kranepool* vs. RHP, Don Clendenon vs. LHP
2B Ken Boswell* vs RHP, Al Weis vs. LHP
SS Bud Harrelson#
3B Wayne Garrett* vs. RHP, Ed Charles vs. LHP
LF Cleon Jones
CF Tommie Agee
RF Art Shamsky* vs. RHP, Ron Swoboda vs. LHP
C Jerry Grote
*Batted left #Batted both