Before they became the Miracle Mets by beating the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, the 1969 Mets had a big hill to climb. A hill that is almost forgotten today, 50 years later.
It was the first National League Championship Series. The Mets, winners of the NL East, faced the Atlanta Braves, the champions of the NL West, in a best-of-five series for the right to meet the American League champion in the World Series.
The Mets were not expected to beat the powerful Braves, who were led by future Hall of Fame sluggers Hank Aaron and Orlando Cepeda. They certainly weren’t expected to sweep the series, especially not with the first two games being played in Atlanta.
But over a three-day span from Oct. 4-6, the Mets did sweep the Braves. And a team that is remembered as pitching-rich did it by outslugging the Braves in an offensive display for the ages.
Even if it isn’t as well remembered today, it happened. And the Mets couldn’t have completed their journey from doormats of the National League to the darlings of the baseball world without those three days in early October.
“People don’t talk about it,” said rightfielder Art Shamsky, who went 7-for-13 (.538) in the NLCS. “Whenever you see some footage of the postseason or somebody talking about it, they basically say, ‘And the Mets swept the Braves in the first National League playoff series.’ ”
The Mets outscored Atlanta, 27-15. Atlanta’s three righthanded starting pitchers combined for a 9.00 ERA as Mets manager Gil Hodges started his lefthanded platoon players in all three games.
The Mets starters — Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry — would all have their moments in the World Series. But the trio combined for an 8.56 ERA in the NLCS, with Seaver picking up the win in Game 1. The Mets bullpen picked up the slack by allowing two runs in 13 1/3 innings and earning two wins and two saves.
“I think because the World Series became such a wondrous thing, it completely absorbs the sweep of the Braves,” outfielder Ron Swoboda said. “That gets such short shrift, and it was pretty incredible that the lefthanded platoon outhit the Braves with Henry Aaron and Rico Carty and Orlando Cepeda.”
Shamsky could have been the first NLCS MVP, had such an award existed in 1969 (the first one wasn’t given out until 1977).
But there were many other candidates. Cleon Jones hit .429 with a home run. Wayne Garrett hit .385 with a home run. Tommie Agee hit .357 with two home runs. Ken Boswell hit .333 with two home runs.
Jones and Agee were regulars, but the others were part of Hodges’ strict platoon system. Because the Braves started three righthanders, the Mets’ lefties got to play, and they made Atlanta pay.
“I think the guys in that lefthanded platoon system that Gil was using feel a little bit overlooked,” Shamsky said. “But it is what it is. I had a good series, Boswell had a good series, Garrett had a good series. It is kind of overlooked.”
Along with the newness of the first NLCS, it was the first postseason series for the Mets, who had averaged 105 losses in their first seven seasons of existence.
“It was a strange series,” said first baseman Ed Kranepool, who went 3-for-12 in the NLCS. “The way Gil Hodges managed, he believed in platooning, which is not the best for everybody’s career. Obviously, you don’t have as many at-bats, base hits, your records are not as good as if you had 500 at-bats.
“But he talked us into it. We believed in ourselves and what happened was in the playoffs, Atlanta had a great offensive team. Cepeda, Aaron — they had some great players. And our lefthanders played that series and we dominated Atlanta. The pitchers were terrible. Now we were playing in high-run games and you wouldn’t have been betting on the Mets.”
The Mets had won 100 games, the Braves just 93. But the Mets were still considered underdogs.
“Everybody that we played [in the postseason], if you put it on paper, they were better,” Jones said. “When you come up against a team like the Braves, who had all the firepower that they had, certainly they looked better on paper.”
The Braves’ hitting stars held up their end. Aaron hit .357 with three home runs and seven RBIs. Cepeda hit .455 with a home run. Carty hit .300. Future Mets second baseman Felix Millan got into the act, batting .333 in the series.
But the Mets won Game 1, 9-5, before 50,122 in the first postseason game in Atlanta history. The Braves hadn’t been in the postseason since the 1958 World Series, when the franchise was in Milwaukee.
Seaver got the victory despite allowing five runs in seven innings. Future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro started for the Braves and was charged with nine runs (four earned) in eight innings.
The Mets trailed 5-4 entering the eighth, but scored five runs off Niekro.
Game 2 was played before a crowd of 50,270, who probably were shocked to witness the Mets take an 8-0 lead after 3½ innings. The Braves knocked out Koosman in a five-run fifth, but the Mets went on to an 11-6 victory.
There was no travel day then and Game 3 was played the following day before 54,195 at Shea Stadium. The Mets won, 7-4, to complete the sweep and earn a spot in the World Series.
Gentry allowed a two-run homer to Aaron in the first inning and was replaced by Nolan Ryan in the third. The future Hall of Famer got the win with seven innings of relief. Garrett put the Mets ahead for good with a two-run homer in the fifth.
Ryan retired Tony Gonzalez on a grounder to Garrett at third to end it. The players celebrated, the fans stormed the field, and a stunning first NLCS was in the books.
“Obviously, it was a new thing for baseball,” said Shamsky, who will appear with Kranepool and Swoboda on Oct. 16 — the 50th anniversary of the Mets winning the World Series — at NYCB Theatre at Westbury. “For us, it was a new thing just being in the postseason. The team had played so well in the end of August and September. Everybody talks about what a big underdog we were, but if you look at it really, we were a really good team at that point. I don’t think we were overwhelmed. I think we had confidence in our ability. It was just a new thing for everybody and most people thought we were going to lose three in a row to the Braves and we were lucky to be there. But I knew in my mind that we were a good ballclub. We were almost unbeatable from the third week of August on. I think we all had the confidence that they weren’t going to run over us.”
Also on Oct. 6, the Orioles clinched the ALCS with a three-game sweep of the Twins, setting up a Baltimore-New York World Series.
Once again, the Mets would be the underdogs, this time to the 109-win Orioles.
“I think we had nothing but respect for the Orioles,” Swoboda said, “and they had every reason to feel like we were just the team they wanted to see. I’ve got to believe the Orioles were happier to see us come out of the National League than Atlanta, to be honest with you.”
The Mets had one more hill to climb. The biggest one of all. To be continued . . .