1963-68: A Heap of Losses, a Hint of Hope

the lean years

The Mets still struggled, but they never again reached the depths of 1962. After Stengel retired, Seaver and Koosman arrived.

Image1963-68: A Heap of Losses, a Hint of Hope
Bedsheet banners became a distinctive signature of the early Mets. The one above misspelled “vigor” to mimic the way President John F. Kennedy pronounced the word.CreditCreditThe New York Times

The Mets were back in the Polo Grounds in 1963 and so were their many fans. Who knows why everyone showed up, or why so many of them brought banners, but some of the fervor was just sheer irreverence, the antiestablishment joy of rooting for a team that was so awful.

And for sure, the Mets were terrible again, although this time they managed to win 51 games instead of 40. The nuttiest moment came when Jimmy Piersall ran around the bases backward after hitting the 100th home run of his career. The most exhilarating occurred when tens of thousands of Mets fans invaded Yankee Stadium for a charity exhibition game against baseball’s defending champions, had their banners confiscated and then went berserk anyway when the Mets actually won.

A year later, the Mets moved to Shea Stadium, their new home in Queens, and took their ineptitude with them. They went 59-103. They lost their home opener while creating a massive traffic jam. At the end of May, they lost a doubleheader at Shea that went on forever because of a 23-inning second game that lasted 7 hours 23 minutes, a record at the time. Three weeks later at Shea, the Mets were the victims of a perfect game thrown by Philadelphia’s Jim Bunning.

In 1965, the Mets were even worse, winning just 50 games while also losing Casey Stengel, who retired after breaking his hip. Without Stengel, the Mets were less entertaining and still stunk. They did move up from last place to ninth in 1966 but then fell right back into 10th a year later.

Still, that season the Mets had the rookie of the year in pitcher Tom Seaver. In 1968, the left-hander Jerry Koosman was just as impressive in his first season. The teammates of Seaver and Koosman now included other emerging players, like Jerry Grote and Bud Harrelson and Cleon Jones. And it showed in the Mets’ 1968 record — a 73-89 mark that still wasn’t very good but suggested that maybe something was changing. And something was.

Image1963-68: A Heap of Losses, a Hint of Hope
The unpredictable Jimmy Piersall was a Met when he hit the 100th home run of his career in a June 1963 game at the Polo Grounds. He proceeded to run around the bases backward, and The New York Times played along.CreditAssociated Press

The journey from hopelessness to champions of the world without having to pass through mediocrity might have been the miracle, and the devil’s bargain.

Mocking the Mets was considered cool in the early days of that ragtag expansion franchise because it concealed our painfully conflicted true feelings. At the same time that we were deeply ashamed at having been stuck with such a lousy team — how could baseball have scammed us like this? — we also embraced a lunatic joy at once more feeling major league. After all those years being the only three-team city in the show, we hadn’t found the Yankees enough for us.

So we celebrated the Mets in an appropriately early-1960s way — ironic, self-aware, rambunctious. Rock-ish. The crowds with their made-for-TV bedsheet banners seemed charmingly self-deprecating (“We don’t want to set the world on fire, we just want to finish ninth”) but they also foreshadowed darker times to come (“Pray”). The price of allowing, then encouraging, grandstand populism would eventually be their strident demands.

But those two Polo Grounds years were fun. Energized media members were thrilled with their new job and the West Coast trips to visit the Dodgers and Giants that came with them. Writers replated the former Yankee manager Casey Stengel as a madcap guru even as he spoke the truth after yet another loss (“The attendance was robbed, we’re still a fraud”), often with sarcasm (“Come out and see my amazin’ Mets”). A teenager who would never fulfill his hype, Ed Kranepool, was held up as the face of the future.

Most notorious of all, an inept first baseman, Marv Throneberry, was extolled as the symbol of the bumbling present. Years later, he told me how miserable he had been as a Met. He had entered the big leagues as a Yankee, Mickey Mantle’s heir, no less, after a sensational minor league career. Being celebrated as Marvelous Marv, the Mets’ fool, broke his spirit.

Perhaps the most telling signal that celebrating the “lovable losers” as comforting symbols of “everyman” — just like us! — would be short-lived was the creation of “neggies,” precursors of the Moneyball analytics of today. We needed those negative statistics to prove that the Mets were not merely profoundly second-rate but actually the worst of all time, so gloriously bad that we could claim them as champions, inverted champions to be sure, of games lost, chances bobbled, bases missed, hopes dashed. For the Mets, even mediocrity was a dream deferred.

Pitcher Roger Craig with the No. 13 jersey he wore in August 1963 in a bid to break his 18-game losing streak. It worked, and he improved his record to 3-20.CreditBettmann

But the founding Mets writers and fans couldn’t paint over the mid-’60s slump in real American life. The glow of post-World War II triumphalism had given way to the Bay of Pigs, the murderous resistance to civil rights activism, mounting Cold War anxiety, the assassination of J.F.K. There was too much dread. Mets fans began to clamor for some wins on their scoreboard.

There was a jolt of hope in 1964 when the Mets moved into their home for the next 44 years, Shea Stadium, paid for by the taxpaying fans, named for a wheeler-dealer lawyer. The ballpark was riddled with imperfections. The team was even worse, lurching through five more losing seasons. The Mets couldn’t even claw their way up to mediocrity.

The so-called New Breed fans (named and championed by the swaggering, righteous Daily News columnist Dick Young) grew restive. Beyond the ballpark, the riots and assassinations were taking their toll on the public psyche, and the Mets, our safety valve, our comic relief, were becoming just another black hole of despair.

And then came Tom Seaver — fresh, ebullient, hard-working, immensely talented. Nothing mediocre here. He was the Mets’ first homegrown superstar and many of us still think the only one. In 1967, he was National League rookie of the year, an All-Star, and a 16-game winner for a last-place club. The next year he again won 16 games, this time for a ninth-place club.

But Tom Terrific set the world on fire, not only the top gun of a strong young pitching staff — Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Gary Gentry, Tug McGraw — but the anti-Marv. He was the New Breed’s dream of the New Met, a California college boy with a playful cackle who would lead us to the promised pennant in 1969.

Was it a miracle? Don’t sports miracles happen suddenly, one hockey game, a shot heard ’round the world, a perfect punch? This miracle unspooled through seven years of suffering as preparation for 100 victories punctuated by Seaver’s 25. Beating the highly favored Orioles was almost anticlimactic: It was truly about the journey from hopelessness to champions of the world without having to pass through mediocrity. Maybe that was the miracle … and the devil’s bargain.

In fact, a case could be made — here it comes — that the 1969 World Series is still the high point of Mets history, that nothing in the next 50 years came close. The Mets lost the 1973 Series to Oakland and won in 1986 under morally nullifying circumstances; not only did they win because of a Red Sox error, but a member of that team in his final major league season, at a still serviceable 41, was Seaver.

He should have still been a Met.

In 1977, a contract dispute with the cartoonishly imperious Mets chairman, M. Donald Grant, was viciously spun by Dick Young into a Desperate Players Wives plot; Nancy Seaver, he claimed, wanted Tom to make more than Nolan Ryan. A man of dignity, Seaver opted out and began an exile’s journey to the Reds, the White Sox, briefly back to the Mets, then the Red Sox and finally to his California winery.

The Mets went on to lose the World Series in 2000 and 2015, each by four games to one. Failing against the Yankees in 2000 doomed the Mets to their current fate. Only winning the Subway Series would redeem a history of steady disappointment. Their owners have been lackluster; they have managed a record of 4,362 victories against 4,732 defeats, a .480 average, not to mention involvement with the Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff. The closest the Mets ever came to a Seaverish star was the talented, handsome, good-hearted David Wright, unfortunately bedeviled by injuries.

Even now, 50 years after what, yes, must have been a miracle, that glory is tinged with sadness. Seaver, a longtime victim of Lyme disease, recently announced his withdrawal from public life because of encroaching dementia. The creator of so many of our most amazin’ memories, is losing his.


It was built without bleachers and always seemed a little incomplete. But Shea Stadium did rise high, and fans could wave to the airplanes overhead.CreditRobert Riger/Getty Images

Following are excerpts from Times articles from 1964 to 1968.

SHEA STADIUM, April 17, 1964

Shea Stadium, the newest major league baseball park, opened for business yesterday with appropriate festivities and colossal traffic jams. A crowd of 50,312, including 48,736 who paid, radiated enthusiasm under sunny skies as the New York Mets fought their way to a typical 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The lack of parking space at the stadium caused massive traffic snarls that started an hour and a half before game time. The congestion was not nearly so bad after the game despite the addition of normally heavy commuter traffic. Traffic Commissioner Henry A. Barnes was in a helicopter over the area trying to unscramble postgame jams.

In every respect but traffic control and the outcome of the game, the occasion was declared a rousing success by most of those involved.

“At first,” said Casey Stengel, who has been singing the praises of the new stadium all over the country for months, “I couldn’t find out where the writers were and where the broadcasters were, but then I found them and I was in trouble.” LEONARD KOPPETT


Baseball’s transcontinental archrivals — the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants — battled through 10 hours and 23 minutes of a titanic doubleheader at Shea Stadium yesterday that included the longest game on a time basis ever played in the major leagues.

Endurance records, attendance records and performance records fell through nine innings of the first game and 23 innings of the second before the largest crowd of the baseball season anywhere — 57,037.

The huge throng saw the Giants win, 5-3 and 8-6. And the 8,000 to 10,000 still on hand when the action ended at 11:25 p.m. saw 41 players struggle for 7 hours and 23 minutes, a record, in the second game.

The two teams also played the longest doubleheader in history: 9 hours 52 minutes on the field. They also played the most innings ever played by big-league teams in one day: 32.

During and after the games, people lined up outside the stadium to use a telephone alongside the right-field stands.

Because of a union jurisdictional dispute, there are no telephones at the stadium.

Some potential callers who saw the one phone booth tied up rushed hundreds of yards to the elevated train station. After paying a token, they raced to the phone booths there.

Those who wished to leave during the game to make telephone calls were permitted to return.

There was some grumbling, however, as the day went on.

Mel Ganz of Kew Gardens, Queens, said those manning the stadium entrances “won’t let me in to see my kid — he’s been inside since 10 a.m.” JOSEPH DURSO and GERALD ESKENAZI

Shea Stadium was 2 months old when the Mets were victims of a perfect game by Jim Bunning of the Phillies.CreditAssociated Press

SHEA STADIUM, June 21, 1964

Jim Bunning of the Philadelphia Phillies pitched the first perfect game in the National League in 84 years yesterday when he retired all 27 New York Met batters.

The Phils won the contest, the first game of a doubleheader at Shea Stadium by 6-0 before 32,904 fans, who were screaming for Bunning during the last two innings.

The lanky right-hander became the eighth man in the 88-year history of major league baseball to pitch a perfect game. He is the first man to pitch one in the majors since Don Larsen of the New York Yankees did not permit a Brooklyn Dodger to reach base in the fifth game of the 1956 World Series.

In the second game, which the Phillies won, 8-2, the Mets were held to three hits, by a rookie, Rick Wise, and John Klippstein.

Oct. 5, 1966

As the World Series opens today on the other side of the continent, New Yorkers at least have the consolation of knowing that both their teams made baseball history in the season just past.

The Yankees ended up in last place for the first time since 1912, and the Mets didn’t — for the first time ever.

It is of mere academic interest that the Yanks actually won more games and finished closer to first place in the American League than the Mets did in the National. What counts is that in the National League, the Chicago Cubs were worse.

The Columbia Broadcasting System acquired the Yankees in 1964 as they were winning their fifth straight pennant. The merger of corporate strengths brought fears of unfair competition that the mighty Yankees soon dispelled by sinking to sixth place last year and 10th place this.

Now C.B.S. must rebuild a show with failing ratings. They can’t rerun the 1964 club.

The Mets, too, will find the way up full of peril. They won intense loyalty from the fans for their first four years in the cellar. Now that they are just another thoroughly professional second-division club, the fans may demand even better performances: eighth place, then seventh — there is no limit to rising expectations.

But for the moment, ninth place is the top of the world.

Tom Seaver as a rookie in 1967. When the Mets won the rights to George Thomas Seaver in April 1966, The Times misspelled his surname as Feaver and misidentified his college. Seaver went to the University of Southern California.CreditLarry C. Morris/The New York Times

SHEA STADIUM April 20, 1967

Tom Seaver, a college student who cost the New York Mets $50,000, began to pay off on the investment yesterday by pitching his owners to a 6-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs. He received eloquent support from Tommy Davis, who hit his first home run as a Met.

But in most ways, Seaver’s first major league victory turned into a triumph for the Mets’ Class of ’67 — especially since another rookie, Don Shaw, went to the rescue in the eighth inning and retired the last five Chicago batters.

Moreover, in his second game in the major leagues, Seaver outpitched Curt Simmons, who was pitching in his 540th game and who started pitching 21 seasons ago, when Seaver was a 2-year-old tot in Fresno. JOSEPH DURSO

LOS ANGELES April 11, 1968

The New York Mets, fresh from their opening-day travesty in San Francisco, made a remarkable comeback when Jerry Koosman defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, 4-0, on a complete-game four-hitter. The 24-year-old rookie left-hander from Minnesota had never seen Dodger Stadium before. He had never won a game in the major leagues, either, and had pitched only 22 innings for the Mets, all of them last season.

Koosman gave up two walks and no hits until Tom Haller singled to right in the fifth. Then Wes Parker doubled to left in the sixth, but still the Dodgers were scoreless.

The Mets, meanwhile, reached Singer for two runs in the sixth, when Singer suffered from the effects of a bad cold, a pair of troublesome contact lenses and a leadoff triple by Ken Boswell. A pair of walks to Ron Swoboda and Ed Kranepool loaded the bases, then Art Shamsky pulled a two-run single to right. JOSEPH DURSO

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