Maybe you were in New York that summer and fall, rooting for the Mets, the lovable (cue team jingle here) M-E-T-S Mets. You've been an optimist ever since. Of course you are. The club was a baseball comedy act from the year of its premature birth, 1962, right through 1968, losing an average of 105 games a season. And then came the surprise of '69. Elsewhere it was a horrible year, but New York witnessed a miracle: the Mets winning 100 games in the regular season, then beating the Baltimore Goliaths in the World Series. The miracle of Flushing Meadows, Queens.
Art Shamsky had no idea how lousy a year it had been. Not then. Shamsky, sharing duty with Ron Swoboda, patrolled Shea Stadium's rightfield, the first swath of green you'd see coming off the number 7 train. Shamsky was in his own little world that baseball season, 40 years ago, when Tom Seaver was a rising pitching god and Nolan Ryan a wild-armed reliever and spot starter and Jerry Grote, Texas badass, caught them both. Shamsky was a Jewish kid from suburban St. Louis, living in Manhattan, hearing kids (you?) scream Art Shamsky! as his big old Lincoln Continental entered the Shea Stadium players' lot, then going out after the game with the brothers—Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee—listening to jazz, wearing shades and long sideburns and striped pants, sipping house reds. It was many years later that he started making regular trips to the New York Public Library, in midtown, researching a book, twirling microfilm, making lists, catching up.
Good News, 1969: Man on the moon.
Bad News, 1969: Vietnam War, Manson murders, Hurricane Camille, the Chicago Seven trial, Chappaquiddick, inflation....
Shamsky is the unofficial class secretary of the '69 Mets, a regular when his teammates come together for parties, reunions, fantasy camps, golf tournaments, barbecues, card signings. Weddings. Funerals.
They gathered to bury Agee, centerfielder and leadoff hitter, in 2001. Agee—who'd almost single-handedly won Game 3 of the Series with a first-inning homer and for-the-ages catches on drives by Elrod Hendricks and Paul Blair—died of a heart attack, age 58, in his office on Second Avenue in midtown Manhattan, where he worked in the title search business. Shamsky was best man at Tommie's second wedding, in 1985, when he married Maxcine Green, a New York schoolteacher. O.K., not precisely best man. Best-man-on-deck, ready to pinch-hit if Cleon didn't show, and for the longest time that day it looked as if Cleon wouldn't show. But then he slipped in, cool as ever, saying, "Told you I'd get here." Rest in peace, Tommie.
RIP, Rube Walker, pitching coach of the old school. (In 1992, age 66, lung cancer.) RIP, Cal Koonce, relief pitcher, father of Kerry, Kim, Kelly and Chris. (In 1993, age 52, lymphoma.) RIP, Tug McGraw, beloved reliever, early believer. (In 2004, age 59, brain tumor.) RIP, Donn Clendenon, first baseman, World Series MVP, team elder and cleanup hitter, who after baseball became a lawyer, a drug addict, a recovering addict and a drug counselor. (In 2005, age 70, leukemia.) RIP, Don Cardwell, mentoring righthanded pitcher who hit 15 career home runs. (In 2008, age 72, dementia.)
And, of course, the first to go, the most shocking of all the passings: RIP, Gil Hodges, iconic Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman in the '50s, the quiet architect and fatherly manager of the young '69 Mets. (In 1972, age 47, heart attack.) Hodges brought a patina of those old Eisenhower-era Brooklyn teams to the franchise that replaced them, but his death meant something else: that the Mets never became part of an era. The '69 club is a one-off, charmed and charming, the unlined faces of their players frozen in time.
That makes seven deaths from the Mets' World Series roster and leaves 23 survivors, including three coaches. Of those, six remain in greater New York, the ultimate keepers of the flame, bumping into remember-the-time fans on a daily basis. There's Bud Harrelson, feisty shortstop, who lives in Hauppauge, N.Y., on Long Island. There's Ed Kranepool, Bronx-raised first baseman, in Jericho, also on Long Island. There's Ed (the Glider) Charles, smooth third baseman, who lives in Elmhurst, Queens, less than two miles from the new Shea, otherwise known as Citi Field. There's Shamsky, still in Manhattan. There's Yogi Berra, first base coach and accidental philosopher, in Upper Montclair, N.J. And there's Joe Pignatano, bullpen coach, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Also, and not to be overlooked: Mrs. Gil Hodges (née Joan Lombardi) on Gil Hodges Way (née Bedford Avenue), in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Joan and Gil had three daughters and a son, Gil Jr., who was 19 when he sat in the visiting manager's office in Baltimore before Game 1 of the World Series, looking at the Orioles' roster. Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer. Earl Weaver at the helm. Gillie said to his father, "How are you possibly going to beat these guys?" His father, a Brooklynite by way of coal-mining Indiana, lifted his enormous index finger to his mouth and said, "Shhhh—I've got 25 guys in that room who think they can." Twenty-five guys in the visitors' clubhouse, and a few million more faithful on Long Island, Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens, plus parts of north Jersey, among other places. You know who you are.
If you can find your way to the six holdovers (not that hard), they're willing to talk '69 with you, sign your crumbling 50-cent yearbook, let you snap a picture on your iPhone. If it's ever been a burden for them to be captured for all time in your head, they don't let on. You might see Joe Pig, who turns 80 in August, at the Bridgeview Diner in Bay Ridge. Yogi at Yankee Stadium, where he goes for one game per home stand, staying current with the pastime. Shamsky at the Grand Central Terminal post office in midtown Manhattan, where the author of The Magnificent Seasons collects his mail. (Seaver, now the owner of GTS Vineyards, does the same in a different setting, making a daily stop at Box 888 in the bucolic California town of Calistoga, in the heart of Napa Valley wine country.) You might see Kranepool, a salesman of credit-card services, at his Long Island office cluttered with notes and leads and messages. Harrelson at his office, the home field of the Long Island Ducks, an independent minor league team, for which he's a part owner and the first base coach. Ed Charles on Northern Boulevard—the melting-pot main street of Elmhurst—running errands.
Charles has a place in Manhattan but spends most nights in an apartment off Northern Boulevard, caring for his frail and elderly aunt. He was the soul and the poet of the club, and after finishing errands one recent day, he invited a '69 witness to his aunt's apartment for a Coke and a poetry reading. Before long, he was singing The Five Stairsteps classic:
Ooh-oo child, things are gonna get easier
Ooh-oo child, things'll get brighter
The apartment is small, with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. sharing wall space with a poster of the '69 Mets. Charles was 36 then and 76 and retired now. The Glider was on the field when the last out of the '69 Series was made, the final game of his career. In 1970 he took a job as a promoter for Buddha Records. He'd visit New York City radio stations and persuade them to play Buddha songs. He loved Ooh Child the first time he heard it, and he knew it would be a hit long before the band did. "Songs then had more melody," Charles said. He was wearing a crisp orange golf shirt with the Mets' logo. On his lap was a scrapbook of his poetry, prized letters and photos. He grew up in Daytona Beach when it was segregated. He has seen the world change and change again. "The words had a better message." In a manner of speaking, the '69 Mets and Ooh Child represent nearly the same thing: promise.
Joe Pignatano, bullpen coach, grew up in Brooklyn when it was largely Jewish, Irish, Italian and black, and one day last month in a booth at the Bridgeview Diner he told a story about being seated next to Joseph Colombo, a mob boss and a Brooklynite, at a bar mitzvah dinner. Colombo wanted a box of major league baseballs for a camp. Pignatano wanted nothing to do with the mafioso. Still, he knew that you ignored Joe Colombo at your own risk. He took a box of balls from the Shea equipment room, dropped them on the outside steps in front of Colombo's office, rang the bell and ran.
Pignatano, who grew tomatoes and peppers and pumpkins in the brick-dust soil of the Shea bullpen, drove Hodges to the ballpark almost every day for four seasons, '68 through '71, and he thought of the man as a brother. (Seaver saw him as a father figure and "the person who had the greatest influence on my career.") The manager's fatal heart attack came in spring training, following an April golf game in West Palm Beach with his coaches, Eddie Yost, Walker, Pignatano and Berra, who succeeded Hodges as manager. Pignatano never got over Hodges's death. "He spent his 48th birthday in a casket at a viewing," Pignatano said of Hodges, a cold cup of decaf at his fingers, shaking his head, staring off into nothing.
Yogi loves Piggie and invites him to play each summer in Berra's big charity golf tournament at Montclair Country Club. Over the years Yogi has heard just about every bullpen story Pignatano has, including the time Hodges called Piggie in the middle of a game, wanting Ryan to warm up for a relief appearance. Pignatano looked and looked and couldn't locate his lanky righthander. He had lost a pitcher! Finally he found him on the floor of the bullpen bathroom, sound asleep. Yogi, Piggie, Hodges, Walker—everybody knew Ryan would become a frontline pitcher. But they thought he'd quit baseball if he had to play out his career in New York. All these years later, Ryan (who doesn't recall any bullpen napping) says that for a young married guy from small-town Texas, the "congestion" of Queens required a "cultural" adjustment. But in his 27 seasons Ryan won only one World Series ring, and he ranks the '69 season among "the top five of my career, and maybe higher than that."
Berra was a coach in Houston in the late '80s when Ryan was pitching for the Astros. Yogi, so famously a Yankee, spent 11 seasons wearing Mets uniforms, as a player (nine at bats in 1965), coach and manager. He guesses that maybe 5% of the questions people ask him are about the Mets. To him there's no great mystery about the '69 team. "The pitching, the pitching," Yogi said a couple of weeks ago, wearing a Yankees windbreaker and sitting in a clubhouse meeting room at Yankee Stadium. He puts his hand on your arm to make a point. "Seaver. Jerry Koosman. Gary Gentry. Nolan Ryan. Lefty out of the pen, Tug McGraw. Righty, Ron Taylor. Good pitching." Good memory too. Yogi's 84.
Ron Taylor is still in the game, as the team doctor of the Toronto Blue Jays. Nolan Ryan is the president of the Texas Rangers. Gary Gentry is the director of a retirement home in Phoenix. Koosman, who had an outstanding 19-year career, lives in Osceola, Wis., where he splits wood, goes fishing, plays poker and golf—and sorts through his IRS problems. He pleaded guilty in May to federal charges of tax evasion, after failing to file returns in 2002, '03 and '04.
Shamsky, silver-haired, thin and wearing his World Series ring, sat in a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan the other day, talking about Koosman's superb sense of humor and the letter he wrote to the sentencing judge in support of his old teammate. Shamsky has had a rough couple of years, too, as his nasty divorce from his wife, Kim, whom he married in 1994, has played out on the pages of the New York Post. Still, he and Koosman and nearly all the others—Kenny Boswell, Rod Gaspar, Wayne Garrett, among others—are expected to be at Citi Field on Aug. 22 for a reunion of the '69 Mets. Tom Terrific, now Tom the Vintner, will be there too. He says nothing he did in his 20-season Hall of Fame career matches the joy and excitement of 1969, when he was 24 and in his third year in the bigs.
Harrelson and Kranepool will assuredly be at the reunion. To New Yorkers, especially, Buddy and Steady Eddie are the '69 Mets. Kranepool played his entire career, from 1962—when he was a 17-year-old September call-up—through 1979 with the Mets. Kranepool was at Shea last year for its final game. He has the stadium records for most hits, most plate appearances, most games. The spot where he stood at first base is now a parking lot. He's not a sentimental man. "It served its purpose," he said of the old place last month, sitting in his office, his hair long and gray, his voice pure Bronx. He was wearing a pink polo shirt, with the tail out. He's happy to talk about the '69 Mets on sales calls, he says, "but it's not like I'm out on a street corner talking about it."
Buddy is. He's the only person left from the '69 World Series roster regularly putting on a baseball uniform. At Long Island Ducks games he'll talk to anybody about anything and sign anything, in the name of promotion and because it's in his nature. (The Ducks' manager is Gary Carter, the Hall of Fame catcher who played for the Mets in '86, when they won their other World Series title.) Buddy played for the Mets, coached the Mets, managed the Mets. He's the same as forever: slim, twitchy, excitable, personable, candid. In June, while sitting in a cramped, bare-bones changing room in the bowels of the Ducks' stadium in Central Islip, N.Y, he said, "Eddie [Kranepool] and I fought a lot." Like Pignatano at the Bridgeview Diner, Harrelson was staring off into nowhere. "I don't know why. He's a good man."
The Ducks' game against the Camden Riversharks was over, and Harrelson was talking about the old days: Seaver calling pitches to Grote by picking up a rosin bag; Buddy hitching rides to Shea with Eddie Yost in his tiny VW Bug and returning to the Mets' trainer, Gus Mauch, to have his knee worked on in his final season, as a Texas Ranger. Harrelson had been talking for an hour and was still going strong when a young Dominican player, in street clothes, his hair wet, appeared at the open door. In halting English he said, "Fans waiting for autographs, say they fans of hay-sicks."
"Hay-sicks?" Harrelson said. "Oh—'86! They're looking for Gary Carter. He's gone for the night."
Buddy's year is '69, as it was for Cleon and Tommie and Swoboda and Seaver and Duffy Dyer and millions of others. You, maybe, among them. In that changing room, small and dingy and impersonal, Harrelson had gone to the effort of hanging a framed photograph: Hodges, his manager, in living color.