They say everybody loves a parade. But everybody really loved the one held in lower Manhattan on Oct. 20, 1969 — 50 years ago this Sunday —for the World Series champion Miracle Mets.
“Oh, my God,” rightfielder Ron Swoboda said recently. “That parade down Broadway where people were just packed right up against you. Every face had a smile on it. To be celebrating this World Series where you kind of paid them back . .. It wasn’t just ticker-tape. It was computer paper. I don't know, it might have been trash to some people or a good excuse to throw it out the window, but it was treasure to us.”
Four days earlier, on Oct. 16, the Mets completed one of the most unlikely feats in sports history. They won the World Series by beating the favored Baltimore Orioles in five games.
But the World Series didn’t start out looking as if it was going to go the Mets’ way. Baltimore’s Don Buford led off the bottom of the first inning at Memorial Stadium by hitting a home run to right off Tom Seaver. The ball just eluded the leaping try of Swoboda, who is still ticked off 50 years later that he didn’t catch it.
All around the country, viewers watching the afternoon World Series game nodded their heads as Buford’s ball went over the fence. The 109-win Orioles were surely going to end the Cinderella run of the 100-win Mets, a franchise that had been a laughingstock since it entered the National League in 1962.
The country expected the Orioles to win the Series. The Orioles expected it, too.
Said Swoboda: “I remember Buddy Harrleson told me that Buford, when he’s coming around second base, looks out at Buddy Harrelson and says, ‘You ain’t see nothin’ yet. ‘ ”
Buford, now 82, said last week from his home in California: “It’s possible I said that.”
The footage is grainy and memories fade, but it’s easy to imagine Buford winking through the phone. That one-sentence, one-sided 50-year-old conversation summed up how the Orioles felt going into the World Series.
“We weren’t overconfident,” Buford said. “We were confident, yes. To this day, I still think we had the better club.”
The Mets, though, had the better World Series. And that’s why they were celebrated with unparalleled love and affection at that parade 50 years ago and throughout 2019.
A sign held up at Shea Stadium said simply “There Are No Words” after leftfielder Cleon Jones caught the last out of the World Series. The ball was hit by Orioles second baseman Davey Johnson, who 17 years later would lead the Mets to their only other World Series title as manager.
The 1986 Mets are a beloved team, too. But they were not — and will never be— the 1969 Mets.
“There was a wholesomeness to it, like a glass of milk,” said Ron Darling, the 1986 Mets pitcher and current SNY broadcaster. “It’s an iconic group. I think it’s more iconic than the ’86 team. It’s not even close. What was Al Michaels’ line, “Do You Believe in Miracles?’ “
Michaels said that about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, which beat the Soviet Union in one of the most famous upsets in sports history. The Mets’ victory over the Orioles didn’t have that one singular moment. It had several.
It had dazzling catches by Swoboda and Tommie Agee in the outfield. It had clutch RBIs by light-hitting second baseman Al Weis and pitcher Gary Gentry. It had home runs by World Series MVP Donn Clendenon. It had a controversial bunt, a controversial hit-by-pitch, and finally that last fly ball that Jones camped under and caught at the edge of the warning track. Jones sunk down to one knee as a celebration began.
One day that celebration may end. But not today.
“Our lives changed on that day in October,” rightfielder Art Shamsky said. “No matter how long you played, you’re remembered as being part of that ’69 Mets team. For me, living in New York, I hear about it every day. I’ve met kids who weren’t even born who know about that team from their parents and grandparents. All of a sudden, the lovable losers win the World Series.
“Over the years, I’ve probably had 100,000 people tell me they were at that last game. And the ballpark held 53,000. It doesn’t make any difference if they were there or if they were there in spirit. I accept it. I’m really proud to be part of that team. Your name will live on forever because you were part of that team. I think that’s something that all of us who are still around hold onto.”
Said Jones: “There were so many things happening at that time. There was a lot of unrest at that time. Men walking on the moon. Woodstock. All kind of rioting and unrest. And the Mets played a role in giving people relief. People were talking about the Mets. Sports has its place and it does a good job of giving us some kind of relief. It’s a pleasure, even after 50 years, to revisit all the things that happened that year. Let’s hope it lasts forever.”
HONORING THE CHAMPS
The Mets are trying. They honored the 1969 team with a weekend of events in June at Citi Field. They are erecting a Seaver statue outside the ballpark and last month announced plans to retire Jerry Koosman’s uniform No. 36. Koosman won Games 2 and 5.
“It’s built up through the year,” Jones said. “We had a fun time together in June. The Mets organization laid out the red carpet for us. Certainly, it was a pleasure for me and my family to reunite with Seaver’s family, Koosman. I can go on and on. It was a thrill because it’s been 20-some years or even longer for some of us that we were able to shake hands and look into each other’s eyes and reminisce about ’69 and how glorious it was for the players and the families.”
On Wednesday, Jones hosted a charity golf tournament in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. Jones was hoping to get as many of his former teammates to attend as possible. But with Swoboda, Shamsky and Ed Kranepool already committed to events on Long Island, only Wayne Garrett and the family of the late Agee were able to be there.
Many of the 1969 Mets aren’t with us anymore. Some of those who are still around aren’t able to attend events such as these.
“We’re old, ancient people now,” Jones, 77, said with a laugh. “Everybody’s not well and we’ve lost some guys. We’re still in close contact and we’re still a family.”
Garrett, the lefthanded-hitting third baseman, said: “I used to see guys 4-5 times a year. Then it was once a year. Then it became every other year and every three years and now it’s become like every five years or every 10 years. That’s the sad part about it. It’s nice getting together — almost like a family reunion. We’re all getting older. You don’t know from one year to the next if you’re going to be there. I think a lot of guys realize that this time.”
A week after the June events at Citi Field, Swoboda went to the doctor and was told he needed triple-bypass surgery. Swoboda, who turned 75 on June 30, is recovering nicely.
“It’ll be nice to get back to your real life,” he said, “and know you made 50 years, for God’s sake.”
1969 World Series game by game
Game 1: Oct. 11, at Memorial Stadium
Orioles 4, Mets 1
Don Buford hit a leadoff homer in the bottom of the first off Tom Seaver. Buford had an RBI double in the fourth to cap a three-run inning. Mike Cuellar threw a six-hitter with eight strikeouts.
Game 2: Oct. 12, at Memorial Stadium
Mets 2, Orioles 1
Al Weis’ two-out, RBI single in the ninth gave the Mets the lead. Jerry Koosman allowed one run in 8 2/3 innings and Ron Taylor got Brooks Robinson to ground to third with two men on for the save.
Game 3: Oct. 14, at Shea Stadium
Mets 5, Orioles 0
Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan combined on a four-hitter. Gentry drove in two runs with a second-inning double. Tommie Agee and Ed Kranepool homered for the Mets.
Game 4: Oct. 15, at Shea Stadium
Mets 2, Orioles 1 (10 innings)
The Mets were leading 1-0 in the ninth inning when Brooks Robinson sent a ball to medium rightfield with runners on first and third. Ron Swoboda made a diving catch to keep it to a game-tying sacrifice fly. In the bottom of the 10th, pinch hitter J.C. Martin was hit on the wrist on a throw by pitcher Pete Richert on a sacrifice bunt as Rod Gaspar scored the winning run. Tom Seaver pitched all 10 innings for the Mets.
Game 5: Oct. 16, at Shea Stadium
Mets 5, Orioles 3
The Mets rallied from a three-run deficit on Donn Clendenon’s two-run homer in the sixth and a solo shot by Al Weis in the seventh. Ron Swoboda drove in the go-ahead run with an eighth-inning double. “I remember standing out there at second base and thinking, ‘Holy crap, this is ours to lose now. If we hold it, we win it,’ “ Swoboda said. “And I just remember that scared the living crap out of me.” The Mets did hold it as Jerry Koosman went the distance, retiring future Mets manager Davey Johnson on a fly ball to Cleon Jones in left to set off the celebration at Shea.
Sign up for Newsday’s Mets Messages for updates directly to your phone via text, free with a Newsday digital subscription. Learn more at newsday.com/metstext.