TODAY'S PAPER
Good Morning
Good Morning
SportsColumnistsNeil Best

New York baseball and football hasn't been this bad in 40 years

Yankees pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter blows a bubble

Yankees pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter blows a bubble in the locker room at New York's Shea Stadium on Friday, April 11, 1975. Credit: AP

Cheer up, New York-area sports fans! Things could be worse. Much worse.

For example: No one has used a cannon to blow up a wall at any of our local baseball or football stadiums.

Yet.

But that is precisely what happened on June 10, 1975, a lowlight of the last two-year period in which the Mets, Yankees, Giants and Jets all failed to qualify for the playoffs in consecutive years.

Which New York team has been the most disappointing this season?

Show results

This was at Shea Stadium on Army Day, celebrating the U.S. Army's 200th anniversary -- complete with a visit from Gen. William Westmoreland -- when a 21-gun salute was scheduled before that night's Angels-Yankees game.

Alas, reverberations from the cannons shooting blanks in deep centerfield blew a hole in the outfield fence. There also was a fire.

"We were all horrified," Marty Appel, the Yankees' public relations director at the time, recalled Monday. "Your immediate thinking is: We can't start the game with the outfield fence knocked down."

Fair point. It eventually began after a delay for urgent repairs, and the Yankees beat Nolan Ryan, 6-4, behind a two-run home run by Chris Chambliss.

The next evening, the video made the national TV news, with wry narration from CBS' Walter Cronkite and NBC's John Chancellor. (It's on YouTube for curious citizens of the 21st century.)

Said Cronkite: "Final scores: Yankees 6, Angels 4, Army 21, fence nothing."

So, again: Could be worse.

And that goes not only for the on-field failings of the teams but for the world around them. In 1975, New York was at the nadir of its modern history and widely regarded as an economic basket case.

Meanwhile, with Yankee Stadium being renovated and Giants Stadium being built, all four baseball and football teams used Shea, which even though it was barely 10 years old hardly was viewed as a sports palace.

"It was a miserable experience for the Yankees," said Appel, who recalled them using the Jets' clubhouse, which was so cramped that players spent minimal time in it, preferring to get dressed quickly and head for the field.

Three days after the Army Day mishap, Yankees centerfielder Elliott Maddox tore up his right knee when he slipped on the wet grass. He sued the Mets, the Yankees and the city, alleging unsafe conditions. He eventually lost, on the basis of having assumed the risk with the knowledge that conditions were hazardous.

By early autumn, the grass was worn bare where outfielders usually were positioned. Football season only made things worse.

After none of the four teams made the playoffs in 1974, the Yankees and Mets both had winning records in 1975 yet finished more than 10 games out of first place. The Jets and Giants both had losing records.

The Yankees, Mets and Jets all fired their coaches or managers -- Bill Virdon, Yogi Berra, Charley Winner -- during the 1975 season. The Giants waited until 1976 to fire Bill Arnsparger.

The metropolitan area certainly had its basketball and hockey moments in those years, but in the Big Two sports, not so much. Just like now.

At least the 2-8 Jets won Sunday, on "Salute to Service" day, led by Jaiquawn Jarrett, a safety out of Fort Hamilton High in Brooklyn.

Remember those cannons from back in '75? The men firing them were from an artillery detachment out of Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. Circle of New York sports life? Sort of.

Anyway, times are tough again, but the law of averages says one of the floundering foursome will return to the playoffs in 2015. (This assumes, of course, that the 3-6 Giants do not miraculously rally for a playoff berth this season.)

If not, at least the stadiums are nicer now than they were the last time we went through this. And safer.

"When Shea Stadium closed in 2008, all the little documentaries about it showed those two Beatles concerts," Appel said wistfully, "but they didn't show us blowing up the stadium."

New York Sports