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Yesterday's heroes: The '69 Miracle Mets

The 1969 Mets were a team that made the impossible possible and the story still is beyond believing 50 years later.

The celebration at Shea Stadium after the Mets

The celebration at Shea Stadium after the Mets defeated the Baltimore Orioles to win the World Series on Oct. 16, 1969. Photo Credit: AP

“There Are No Words”

That was the placard held high by Karl Ehrhardt, known as the Sign Man, at Shea Stadium on Oct. 16, 1969. It went up right after leftfielder Cleon Jones caught Davey Johnson’s fly ball and dropped to one knee.

Ehrhardt, the late corporate art director from Queens, had a gift for having foreseen just the right phrase for each circumstance, putting it on a sign and hoisting it at precisely the right moment. But the Mets winning the World Series was beyond epigrams. It was beyond explaining or describing.

Fifty years later, thousands of words have been written about it, and the surprise still has not worn off. There is a World Series every year (except 1994, when baseball was halted by a strike), but 1969 still stands out as the one hardest to believe or forget.

There was not a word to capture how inept the Mets had been since their inception in 1962. They finished last in the 10-team National League all but twice, and on those occasions, they were ninth. Not only were they a losing team, they symbolized losing. In a skit on “The Hollywood Palace’’ TV show in the 1960s, comedian Milton Berle wanted to appear particularly outclassed on stage between Dodgers superstar pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, so he wore a Mets uniform.

The team’s direction was summed up in the words attributed to Casey Stengel, the founding manager: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Then in 1969, all of a sudden, what the Mets really lost was their stumbling reputation. They were over the moon, which one-upped the Apollo 11 astronauts who walked on the lunar surface that very year (the Mets watched in Montreal, ironically, because their plane had broken down).

Years later, in the movie “Oh God,” George Burns played the title character and said, “My last miracle was the ’69 Mets. Before that, you have to go back to the Red Sea.”

In 1969, it seemed that the world was spinning more quickly than ever. The Jets of the lightly regarded American Football League beat the Baltimore Colts of the established National Football League in the Super Bowl. It also was the year of Woodstock, Chappaquiddick and roiling protests over the Vietnam War. Radical students seized a building at Columbia University. Charles DeGaulle stepped down in France. Arafat and Khadafy came to power in the Middle East. The first artificial heart was implanted.

And amid myriad earth-shaking international events, the Quote of the Day in the front section of The New York Times on Oct. 15 was this: “I figure if I can touch a ball, I can hold it.” That was from Mets centerfielder Tommie Agee, who stifled Baltimore Orioles rallies with two amazing catches in Game 3 of the World Series.

The ’69 Mets reached the unreachable star, to quote the lyrics from the theme song in a retrospective shown on Channel 9 late that October, and they still are glowing. They will be honored at Citi Field this June during a series against the Braves, the team the Mets beat in the first National League Championship Series 50 years ago.

“Winning in ’69 was unique to everybody. We had trying times in this country back in ’69, we had a lot of things going on,” Ed Kranepool, who had been with the team since its first year, said recently. “Winning that year was certainly different. It really changed everybody’s life.”

Art Shamsky, who has just published “After the Miracle: The Lasting Brotherhood of the ’69 Mets,” added, “I think we affected so many people in a positive way, and they have passed that on from generation to generation.”

Young people today have heard about Al Weis, the skinny second baseman from Franklin Square who never was much of a threat at the plate but who hit .455 with a clutch home run in that World Series. Kids know about Ron Swoboda, a power hitter who had to work like crazy on his fielding just so manager Gil Hodges wouldn’t take him out for a defensive replacement, etching himself into history by making a diving, game-saving catch against Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson in Game 4.

There is a metal silhouette of Swoboda’s sprawling figure on the rightfield gate at Citi Field, the park in which Tom Seaver marked the 40th anniversary of the ’69 Mets by telling a capacity crowd, “We cherish this memory, each and every day, forever.”

Forever is how long the legend of the 1969 Mets will last. Swoboda, in his new book “Here’s the Catch,” calls the team’s achievement one of the two transcendent sporting triumphs in his lifetime, alongside the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey gold medal.

“Both of these wins came at a time of great public upheaval, when people had lost confidence not just in their institutions but also in the future,” he writes. “What both these teams managed to do was restore a sense of confidence. If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times, ‘If the Mets can win the World Series . . .  ’ Every one finished the sentence in his or her own way. We made it seem like thousands of things were possible, because the event gave thousands of people hope.”

That probably sums up the 1969 Mets as well as anything. You felt it more than you could describe it. The late Hofstra University professor, author and lifelong fan Dana A. Brand more or less reprised Ehrhardt’s placard when — while planning a 2012 Mets symposium at his university — he said: “That was a moment about which it is impossible to speak. You have to somehow or other point out that it is like the moment in ‘The Divine Comedy’ where Dante sees God and is beyond words.”

A half-century of hope goes a long way, and a lot went into creating the event that spawned it. Here, then, is a quick anatomy of a miracle:

THE PROLOGUE

The Mets franchise was born from heartache and frustration. Fans still were distraught over the fact that the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers had left for California after the 1957 season and were starving for National League baseball. The city was awarded an expansion franchise in 1961 after an aggressive effort spearheaded by high-powered attorney William Shea.

Stengel, who had played for both teams and famously managed the Yankees to seven World Series titles, was hired as Mets manager with the understanding that his role would be much greater. With his larger-than-life personality and his unique gift of gab (“Stengelese”), even in his 70s, he breathed life into the franchise. Fans developed a sense of humor during the record 120-loss inaugural season and were enamored of the new colorful stadium named for Shea. Stengel promoted the park during a winter banquet, saying, “It has 57 bathrooms and I need one now.”

Steadily, though, the new team collected young talent. Most notable was Seaver, who arrived through good fortune: His 1966 contract with the Braves was nullified by the commissioner’s office because of a bureaucratic mistake committed by a club in the midst of a move from Milwaukee to Atlanta. The Mets won a three-team drawing for the University of Southern California star and were on their way.

THE MANAGER

Long before anyone in sports used the now-hackneyed phrase “change the culture,” Gil Hodges did it swiftly and decisively with the Mets. The Marine from Indiana, who had become a New York institution as a popular player with the Brooklyn Dodgers and 1962 Mets, instantly showed that he meant business. In spring training of 1968, Shamsky said, the new manager called a meeting and told the players, “You will not be the same old Mets.”

Jerry Koosman, on the phone from his home in Minnesota, recently said, “He said there was one set of rules, and that’s what he went by. And he never let any of us get into a situation we couldn’t handle.

“Maybe he didn’t succeed 100 percent of the time, but he was very good at his job,” said Koosman, who threw a complete game in the World Series clincher. “He had great common sense when it came to baseball. He didn’t go for any trick plays. Just basic baseball. He knew who could and who couldn’t do things in different situations.”

Backup outfielder Rod Gaspar, who scored the winning run in Game 4, which put the Mets in command of the World Series, said from California, “He treated us all the same. He probably had favorites, but he didn’t show favoritism. He got on everybody when he had to. We all knew what our jobs were. He didn’t have to tell me when I was going to go into the game as a defensive replacement. He didn’t have to tell Al Weis when he was playing. He knew the game and all of the players learned a lot from him.”

Hodges could be tough. Once when he was unhappy about the way Jones played a ball, Hodges walked all the way out to leftfield to replace him, the way a manager goes out to the mound to remove a pitcher. Jones, the team’s top hitter at .340, said during a visit to spring training in Port St. Lucie this year that he explained to Hodges that the outfield was underwater and reminded the manager that he had been battling an ankle injury. “He was stern in a lot of ways,” Jones said, “but he would never embarrass anyone.”

In any case, Hodges did have a warmer side. Late in the season, he configured the lineup to allow Jones more at-bats in his chase for the batting title. Bud Harrelson, always sensitive about his smallish frame, recalled years later that at a weigh-in, the manager told him, “You’re the strongest 148-pound player I’ve ever seen.”

Most important was that, as Kranepool said, “He did anything to win a ballgame.” In Game 5 of the World Series, when the Mets said Jones had been hit in the foot by a low pitch that bounced into the dugout, Hodges hopped off the top step and approached the plate umpire while holding a ball that bore a shoe polish smudge. It ultimately was ruled that the pitch had hit Jones, a pivotal call that helped turn a 3-0 deficit into a 5-3 victory.

Who knows if Hodges substituted an old ball or had someone rub polish on the one in play? Either way, the episode is at the heart of the Hodges legacy.

Shamsky and his former teammates believe Mets history would have been much different, and significantly better, had the manager not died of a heart attack during spring training of 1972.

THE PITCHING

Major League Baseball lowered the mound before the 1969 season — and the Mets nonetheless raised the art of pitching to new heights. The team’s staff was not daunted by the rule that cut the mound from 15 inches to 10 in an effort to promote offense.

Swoboda, in a telephone interview this winter from a Mets fantasy camp in Port St. Lucie, Florida, said there was talk during 1969 spring training about acquiring Joe Torre from the Braves. The thinking was that a righthanded power hitter would accelerate the progress of a team that, in Hodges’ opinion, had the potential to win 85 games.

“They wanted to get into our young pitching,” he said. “They wanted guys like Nolan Ryan and Jim McAndrew. Koosman’s name might have come up. And the Mets just didn’t want to give it up. Joe Torre was top of the line, a 100-RBI guy. But the Mets didn’t want to give up those good arms. Had we done that deal, we would have traded away the National League pennant.”

The 1969 Mets were a textbook example of the power of pitching. The club won 100 regular-season games despite a team batting average of .242, eight points lower than the league average. Their home run total, 109, was fourth-lowest in the league.

It revolved, of course, around Seaver. He established his credentials as a star and put himself on track for the Hall of Fame, winning the Cy Young Award with a 25-7 record and a 2.21 ERA. He infused the team with competitive drive and burnished indelible memories.

“You work hard enough, you get the breaks and work as a team, you can become world champions,” he said years later. “That becomes a very special story to the guy walking down the street. And New York hasn’t forgotten. Even as transient as New York is, it hasn’t forgotten.”

Torre was traded to the Cardinals that spring and, on Sept. 24 at Shea Stadium, grounded into the double play that clinched first place for the Mets. (He was acquired by the Mets in 1974 and was named their manager three years later.)

Mets pitchers, meanwhile, held the prolific Orioles batters to a .146 average, a record low for a five-game World Series.

THE TRADE

A power-hitting first baseman remained a need, and it was filled at the trading deadline, June 15. Donn Clendenon had been a reluctant member of the Montreal Expos and the Expos were unhappy that he had refused to report when they traded him to the Astros for Rusty Staub. He was dealt to the Mets in a multi-player transaction that sent pitcher Steve Renko and others to Montreal.

What the Mets got was an unafraid veteran and outspoken leader. “Upon my arrival in mid-June, the New York Mets were in second place, 11 ½ games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs. A lot of the guys were happy to be in second place,” Clendenon wrote in his book “Miracle in New York,” published in 1999, six years before his death. “I was not willing to allow my teammates to settle for second and talk about waiting until next season.”

He hit 12 home runs in 72 games the rest of the way, which proved only a preamble. He hit three home runs against the Orioles and was named World Series Most Valuable Player. “We won the World Series with hard work, good defense, timely hitting and great pitching,” he wrote. “It was sweet, very, very sweet.”

THE MAGIC

Six-year-old Dan Weis, riding to Game 5 of the World Series with his mom and the wife of catcher Jerry Grote, said, “My dad is going to hit a home run today for my birthday.”

Logic said otherwise, given that Al Weis to that point had hit only six homers in eight big-league seasons, none of them at Shea Stadium. Forty years later, he said, “The odds of my hitting one in the World Series were a million to one.”

A million to one was a cinch for the 1969 Mets. In the bottom of the seventh, with the Mets trailing 3-2, Weis hit a blast over the leftfield fence against Orioles ace Dave McNally. Less than an hour later, champagne was flowing.

It was not logic’s finest year. Steve Carlton set a record by striking out 19 Mets but lost on a pair of two-run homers by Swoboda. The Mets won both ends of a doubleheader by 1-0 scores, with the pitcher (Koosman and Don Cardwell) driving in the run each time. A black cat mysteriously appeared from under the stands at Shea to prance in front of the Cubs’ dugout on Sept. 9.

A team that got by on scratching out a run here and there thoroughly outslugged the Braves in the NLCS, batting .327 and averaging nine runs. Pitcher Gary Gentry, an .081 batter, hit a two-run double in Game 3 of the World Series.

The Mets’ stardust was so strong that it overcame the bitterness and stench of a protracted sanitation workers strike. New York Mayor John V. Lindsay’s popularity plummeted as mountains of garbage grew and he seemed certain to be voted out of office. But then he managed to find a way into the Mets’ clubhouse celebration. “They poured champagne on my head. There was a wonderful picture of it on the front page of every paper,” he told Newsday during the 25th anniversary observance. “And it helped me get reelected.”

THE KARMA

There were glimpses in 1969 of what was and what was to be. The Mets must have been helped by the mere presence of first-base coach Yogi Berra, winner of 10 World Series rings as a Yankee, the person who leaped into Don Larsen’s arms after the 1956 perfect game, the one who shook Roger Maris’ hand after the home run that broke Babe Ruth’s record. Four years later, Berra managed the Mets from last place in August to Game 7 of the World Series.

Nolan Ryan, meanwhile, offered a hint of the dominant Hall of Fame pitcher he would become after the Mets traded him in 1971.

He still was a raw talent whose claim to fame was having broadcasters Bob Murphy, Lindsey Nelson and Ralph Kiner talk about the pickle brine with which he treated his recurring finger blisters.

But there were occasional signs of the future legendary Ryan Express.

In Game 3 of the Braves series, he was called in to relieve Gentry in the top of the third with no outs, runners on second and third and the Mets trailing 2-0. Harrelson later recalled hearing Hodges tell his young pitcher, “Well, you’ve been in this situation before . . .  ” Ryan got out of the jam, went seven strong innings to support the Mets’ comeback and became the first winning pitcher in an NLCS clincher.

THE OPPOSITION

Fate was gentle on the teams the 1969 Mets left in their wake. The Cubs, having blown a big league in the National League East, were not berated in Chicago. Instead, as Ron Santo later said, they “became rock stars.” Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins and Santo all made it to the Hall of Fame. And a Cubs game at Wrigley Field remains quite an occasion to this day.

The Braves’ Hank Aaron hit three home runs in the NLCS and went on to break Babe Ruth’s hallowed career home run record five years later. The Orioles bounced back from what then-general manager Frank Cashen called “an avalanche” to win the World Series the next year. Cashen eventually moved to New York and built a championship team at Shea Stadium with Johnson — 17 years removed from the fly ball that landed in Jones’ glove — as his manager.

THE REUNION

Sadness and heavy reality will have their say when the 1969 Mets gather again this June. Team members will mourn Agee, Clendenon, Cardwell, Tug McGraw, Ed Charles, Cal Koonce, Hodges, Berra and most of the rest of the coaching staff. Seaver has dementia and no longer will appear in public, his family announced this month. Harrelson has Alzheimer’s disease. Kranepool needs a kidney.

But those who will be able to come back will cherish each other’s company and relish all of the old stories.

“The last time we all got together was the 25th anniversary. That’s a long time ago,” Kranepool said during an interview at his home in Jericho. “This will be the first time since then, and this will be the last time. I can’t imagine there being a 75th. But look, it’s nice to see all the guys. We were all young, we were all growing up together.”

And they all played their hearts out. Speaking of which . . .

THE LYRICS

There really were words, after all. Soon after the 1969 World Series, the Mets were invited on “The Ed Sullivan Show,’’ then were hired for a three-week run at Caesars Palace, singing the words from the song “(You Gotta Have) Heart.” It was the underdogs’ anthem, the show-stopper from the musical “Damn Yankees,” a baseball fable about a perennial losing team that won it all.

It sounded as if it had been written precisely for the team that captured the public’s fancy 50 years ago:

You’ve gotta have heart

Miles and miles and miles of heart

Oh, it’s fine to be a genius of course

But keep that old horse before the cart

First, you’ve gotta have heart.’’

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