1962 – Present
The Mets began as a franchise in the Continental League proposed by Branch Rickey. When the major leagues absorbed this potential rival, as they had so many others, by selling ML franchise rights to some of its sounder backers, the gap that had been left in New York City by the departure of the Dodgers and Giants after 1957 was filled by the expansion Mets. Chief owner Joan Payson, a millionaire, had been a Giants fan, and her team consciously played to the nostalgia of veteran fans. Before their first season, the Mets hired Casey Stengel and George Weiss, both recently let go by the Yankees, as manager and general manager. Gil Hodges, Don Zimmer, Gus Bell, Roger Craig, Clem Labine, Richie Ashburn, Frank Thomas, Gene Woodling, Duke Snider, Jimmy Piersall, Roy McMillan, Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn, and Joe Pignatano, all local favorites or former stars who would be remembered, played for the Mets in their first four seasons. (Johnny Antonelli and Billy Loes were purchased, but decided they would rather retire than play for the ragtag team.) The tactic was a bigger success as a promotional device than as a plan to win ballgames. The Mets, playing at the old Polo Grounds, went 40-120 in their first year, the worst record in the 20th century. But the fans referred to as the “New Breed,” were in the mold of the old Brooklyn Dodger fans, taking their team to heart as much for its faults as for its virtues, and in their enthusiasm introduced banners at the ballpark. At first, the painted bedsheets were quickly confiscated by park security, but local sportswriters pressured George Weiss, whose dignified Yankee sensibilities were offended by such unserious behavior, into allowing this new splash of color to thrive. The Mets became the first club to have an official Banner Day promotion.
Casey Stengel was largely responsible for the new team’s image. He could see from the beginning that the Mets weren’t going to win, so he clownishly played to the writers, providing a constant flow of funny quotes and stories and diverting attention from the cold facts.George Weiss did his best to find promising young players, coming up with All-Star Ron Hunt in 1963 (he finished second to Pete Rose in Rookie of the Year voting). The club moved into Shea Stadium in 1964 and outdrew the pennant-bound Yankees. By the late 1960s the club, guided by GM Johnny Murphy and director of player development Whitey Herzog, had developed some of the best pitchers in the league. In the storied 1969 season a homegrown rotation anchored by Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Gary Gentry, with Nolan Ryan as a spot starter and Tug McGraw in the bullpen, took the “Miracle Mets” to a completely unexpected World Championship under manager Gil Hodges. The pattern was set for the 1970s: great pitching, below-average hitting. In mid-1972, in a move reminiscent of their earliest years, the Mets acquired Willie Mays, a favorite of Mrs. Payson’s, so the Hall of Famer could finish his ML career in the city where it had started.
During this time the Mets became known for their bad trades, most often ascribed to the chairman of the board M. Donald Grant. The two worst trades shipped Nolan Ryan to the Angels for Jim Fregosi, and Amos Otis to the Royals for Joe Foy.The Mets finished in third place for three years (1970-72) and then had another surprise pennant in 1973 under new manager Yogi Berra. Their record of 82-79 (.509) is the worst ever for a league champion. But they beat the 99-63 Reds in the NLCS, and took the A’s to seven games in the World Series.In September 1975 Joan Payson died. The loss of her financial resources relegated the team to an era of penny-pinching. They remained respectable through 1976 but then collapsed into the cellar for three straight seasons.In 1980 the team was purchased for $21.3 million by Fred Wilpon, a real-estate magnate who had pitched for Brooklyn’s Lafayette High School while Sandy Koufax played first base and Nelson Doubleday of the publishing family. They appointed former Orioles GM Frank Cashen executive vice president and general manager, and he rebuilt the team from the bottom up. The team finished fifth in 1980 and ’81, and last in 1982 and ’83, but contended in 1984 under new manager Davey Johnson, finishing second. Once again, the Mets’ success was based on pitching, with Rookie of the Year Dwight Gooden leading a staff that included Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, and Jesse Orosco. But this time the Mets had an offense too. Darryl Strawberry, the number-one pick in the nation in 1980, won the Rookie of the Year award in 1983, the same season the Mets acquired clutch-hitting Gold Glove first baseman, Keith Hernandez, from the Cardinals. Howard Johnson and Gary Carter were added in 1985. Bob Ojeda joined in 1986 as the Mets dominated, going 108-54.
They won a dramatic LCS over the Astros, winning a 16-inning clincher called by some the greatest game ever played, and came back in the World Series to beat the Red Sox in seven. They remained the favored team in the NL through 1989 but won only the 1988 NL East title in the three seasons following their World Championship.