If you are a Mets fan (like me) you should be prepared for an exciting year of 50th anniversary celebrations. I was not born when the Mets stepped onto the field for their first season in 1962 and I don’t remember anything about the 1969 “Miracle Mets” (except the highlights that channel 9 used to show during rain delays), but one of my earliest baseball memories was the 1973 National League playoffs against the Reds and the fight between Buddy Harrelson and Pete Rose. My life has overlapped with a good portion of the history of this franchise. And, of course, who can forget 1986. (RIP Gary Carter).
Sportswriter Robert Lipsyte covered the Mets in 1962. In yesterday’s New York Times he reflects on the Mets’ first Spring training. The group of players that arrived in St. Petersburg in February 1962 included Richie Ashburn, Frank Howard, Don Zimmer, and Gil Hodges. And let’s not forget manager Casey Stengel.
Here is a taste of his article:
Hiring Stengel was a stroke of promotional genius. He had won 10 pennants and 7 World Series with the Yankees. He was considered a brilliant tactician, ruthlessly shuffling players. He was endlessly quotable. He had been fired after the 1960 season for having grown old. Upon taking the Mets job, in a sly nod to his age, 71, and a Civil War-era baseball team, he said, “It’s a great honor to be joining the Knickerbockers.”
Cranky, smart, mean, compassionate, profane, hilarious, Stengel was the show’s leading man. He was up early, instructing the younger players on life (“Get yourself in shape now, you can drink during the season”) and hitting (“He who stands up to bat is all right; he who sticks his fanny out isn’t worth a road apple”) while bantering with fans and holding a running news conference. The nutty language called Stengelese (“So this here fella on second base, let me tell you he was not as horseapple as he was in Kankakee, which was amazing for a left-handed dentist, which I did not get to be”) was a construct of big-time columnists parachuting into camp for 15 minutes with “the ol’ perfesser.” Heard in their entirety, his hours-long monologues made perfect sense.
I spent many nights in the hotel bar, at his elbow, absorbing his intricate, though coherent (if you were there from the beginning, that is) theories of platooning and pinch-hitting and his ribald reminiscences of players he managed, especially Joe DiMaggio, whom he did not like and referred to by an Italian slur. Even for his time, Stengel was not politically correct.