Break Up the Mets!

Break Up the Mets!

April 23, 1962

“The Mets are gonna be amazin’,” declared Casey Stengel in 1961 — and, indeed, there seemed to be reason for optimism a year later, as Stengel’s Mets prepared for the first game in team history in 1962. The club had finished the spring exhibition season with a solid 12-15 record, including an extra-inning victory against the World Champion Yankees. Some had even picked Casey’s “Amazin’s” to place ninth, eighth or — gasp! — seventh in the ten-team National League.

But, back to reality. “I ain’t fooled,” Stengel confided in reporters before the season began. “They play different when the other team is trying, too.” Knowing full well his cast of cast-offs would be lucky to win a third of their games, Stengel took the opportunity to pepper New York reporters with one-liners. On his three catchers: “I got one that can throw but can’t catch, one that can catch but can’t throw, and one who can hit but can’t do either.” Referring to his projected outfield of Frank Thomas, Richie Ashburn, and Gus Bell — who had fathered a total of twenty children — Stengel remarked, “If they produce as well on the field as they do off the field, we’ll win the pennant.” Where do you think the Mets will finish? was one of the favorite questions in spring training. “We’ll finish in Chicago,” Stengel replied.

Just as Casey had predicted, the Mets inaugural season came to an end in Wrigley Field on September 30, as the Cubs handed the Mets a 5-1 loss. It was the Mets’ 120th defeat in 160 games, dropping them an incredible 60 1/2 games behind the pennant-winning San Francisco Giants and 18 games behind the ninth-place Chicago Cubs.

The Mets started as badly as they finished. Their first game was rained out; their second began with a throwing error by third baseman Don Zimmer and ended as an 11-4 loss. (“That Zimmer’s the guts of your club, isn’t he?” Stengel was asked later in the season. “Why, he’s beyond that,” Stengel replied. He’s the lower intestine.”) The Cardinals scored their first run on a balk by Roger Craig, who — with a runner on third — simply dropped the ball during his windup. “I’ve been in this game a hundred years,” Stengel remarked, “but I see new ways to lose I never knew existed before.”

A week later, the Mets found themselves in Pittsburgh, still looking for their first win. Two losses to the undefeated Pirates gave them a 0-9 record — and a third Pirate win would set two records. (“You couldn’t play on the Amazin’ Mets without having held some kind of record,” Stengel recalled in 1967.) No team had ever begun a season with an eleven-game winning streak — and no team in the National League had ever opened with ten consecutive losses.

Jay Hook was the scheduled starter, and the Northwestern graduate did his best to end the carnage. Stengel referred to the young intellectual as “the smartest pitcher in the world until he goes to the mound” but this time was pleasantly surprised by Hook’s results. The Mets tagged Pittsburgh starter Tom Sturdivant for five runs in the first as Hook held the Pirates to five hits, giving the Mets a 9-1 win — the first in franchise history.

Keying the Mets attack that day with three hits apiece were leadoff man Felix Mantilla and hot-dogging shortstop Elio Chacon, whose antics would infuriate his manager and teammates enough to ensure that 1962 would be the last season of his brief career. Former Dodger star (and future Mets manager) Gil Hodges went two-for-three after replacing Ed Bouchee at first; Hook helped his own cause with two runs and two RBI.

It was a brief respite from a long, arduous season which kept the Mets beat writers searching their thesauri for new ways to describe their team’s mediocrity. Returning to form, the club dropped its next three games, and Mets fans would endure double-digit losing streaks three times during the season. But on April 23rd, the Mets and their fans first tasted the thrill of victory instead of the agony of defeat.