Wednesday 24/07/2019 - 12:20 pm


Opinion: 50 years ago, the 1969 Mets helped heal a nation in turmoil


2019.06.15 06:58

 They will gather together in New York later in June, rehashing stories from 50 years ago, reminiscing about the year they turned the baseball world upside down, becoming perhaps the most beloved team in history.

 
The 1969 Mets.
 
The team that helped revitalize a city in ruins and heal a nation in turmoil, showing the world you can turn the inconceivable to the improbable to the possible to the incredible, in a way only sports can possibly do.
 
“It was turbulent times, Vietnam, race riots, New York City barely staying afloat,’’ former Mets outfielder Cleon Jones, who caught the final out of the 1969 World Series, tells USA TODAY Sports. “There was so much hatred in the country after Dr. [Martin Luther] King died in 1968. People were losing their lives. It was a bad scene, man.
 
“But the New York Mets came along just at the right time.
 
"Sports has always been a source of healing, especially in the black community, and we showed how a nation can come together.’’
 
Those ’69 Mets, a melting pot of diversity with white and black players, old and young, future Hall of Famers and fringe bench players, led by a brilliant manager, had the country falling in love with them.
 
“I know the world is upside down now,’’ Mets outfielder Art Shamsky says, “but back then, it was really upside down. The country was in turmoil. Vietnam was going on. The city of New York was going down financially, spiritually and morally. We had assassinations. We had social strife. Everything was going wrong.
 
“And then we came along.’’
 
The Mets were the biggest laughingstock in sports, the lovable losers who were the brunt of late-night talk shows jokes on those black-and-white TVs with rabbit ears. They lost a record 120 games their inaugural season, lost at least 109 in each of the first four seasons, had 737 losses and never finished higher than ninth place in the 10-team National League the first seven years. Then came 1969.
 
It was the year man walked on the moon, Woodstock, Richard Nixon was inaugurated , the Charles Manson murders, the Beatles released Abbey Road, and of course, the year the Mets shocked the world, winning 100 games and beat the powerful Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.
 
The Mets were rewarded with a majestic ticker-tape parade, perhaps the biggest celebration in New York City since V-J Day in 1945, which marked the end of World War II.
 
“We kept hearing that if the Mets could win the World Series, the U.S. could get out of Vietnam. And it happened.’’ said Mets outfielder Ron Swoboda, who made an immaculate catch in Game 4.
 
“You felt like America could do whatever it wanted to do at that point. You felt like anything and everything was possible.’’
 
It changed lives and maybe changed America, too.
 
“It seemed like we rejuvenated the whole country,’’ Jones said, “not just New York or the Eastern Seaboard. I remember being with the Mets prior to ’69, and you’d go to places like LA, and there may be one or two Mets’ fans in the stands. Now, everywhere we went there were Mets’ fans.
 
“We resonated with everyone, and gave hope to everybody all over the country. It wasn’t just limited to New York.
 
Remember, this was one of the most tumultuous periods of time in the last century. There were the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968. The riots during the Democratic convention in Chicago. The protests against the Vietnam War, in which 11,780 Americans were killed in 1969 alone.
 
“The country was in such rough times with the riots, and everything so black and white, but we showed unity,’’ said first baseman Ed Kranepool, who was born and raised in the Bronx. "There was no black and white on our team. We did everything together. We ate together. We socialized together. And we played our hearts out together.
 
“Maybe it was tough for people to accept down south, but in New York, we were a team that everyone embraced.’’
 
Jones, 76, who grew up in a community called Africatown, three miles north of Mobile, Ala. where the last slave ships entered the country, left home before the 1969 season with white strangers showing disdain and scorn towards him.
 
When he returned after the World Series, it turned to reverence.
 
The same restaurants who refused to serve him were opening doors for him. Other customers even offered to pay his meals.
 
When he bought furniture and items from department stores, he no longer had to worry about credit, his word was just fine.
 
Those death threats that used to litter his mailbox became fan letters seeking autographs.
 
“Prejudice is something I grew up with in the south, I had a lane, and stayed in it,’’ said Jones, one of four African-Americans on the Mets, who is a community leader in Africatown, helping repair homes and raise funds. “I remember the hate mail. I got a letter once where somebody wrote, If you go to left field tonight, I’m going to shoot you.’
 
“That’s the way it was back then, but after that year, I was the prodigal son. When we won the Series, we showed, black and white players, we can play together as a team, live together without incident during the season, and really love one another.
 
“I really believe we helped make a difference.’’
 
Now, 50 years later, the ’69 Mets remain one of the most iconic teams in baseball history.
 
There were the 1927 New York Yankees, who symbolized sheer greatness.
 
There were 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers, with Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier.
 
And there are those Miracle Mets, symbolizing the sheer faith and determination can turn despair and misery into triumph and euphoria.
 
“It was a horrible time what people were going through, especially emotionally with the war,’’ said Shamsky. “I think what we did made people feel like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. If the Mets can do it, we can do it.’
 
“It still resonates today. I have people coming up to me and not asking for an autograph, but just to shake my hand. I have Vietnam veterans coming up and saying, Thank you.  I’ve played 13 years in baseball, and nobody has ever asked about the other 12.’’
 
There will be laughs, memories, and plenty of tears when the Mets gather together for their June 29 celebration at Citi Field. Some of them talk at least once a week. Some haven’t seen each other since the 40-year anniversary.
 
And, with 10 of their teammates already passed away, they realize this indeed could be the final time they are all together.
 
Ed Charles, the heart and soul of the Mets who never knew he could even make a living playing baseball until he saw Jackie Robinson play a spring training game in 1946, passed away last year at the age of 84. His last major-league game was Game 5 of the ’69 World Series.
 
Others went a whole lot quicker. Tug McGraw, the father of country music star Tim McGraw, died of brain tumor at 59. Donn Clendenon, who got his law degree and became a lawyer, died of leukemia in 2005. Tommy Agee died of a heart attack at 58 in 2001. Manager Gil Hodges died of a heart attack at 47, just three years after their championship. Buddy Harrelson just turned 75, but is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
 
And Tom “Terrific’’ Seaver, who along with Nolan Ryan were the only players from that team who became Hall of Famers, is 74 but has dementia, and can barely remember a single thing from that season.
 
"It’s horrible, and it’s progressively getting worse,’’ says Swoboda, who also wrote a book. “I asked Seaver, Hey, when Hodges went to the mound, do you remember what was discussed?’
 
“He looked at me and said, I have no memory of that. Any of that. I have no memory of that game.
 
“That’s so painful because memories are treasures to me and all of us. The thought of anything sneaking in there, and stealing my memory from me, is just horrible. It’s beyond words how painful it is to see Tom losing his memory.’’
 
There were four of the ’69 Mets who went to see Seaver two years ago at his home and 116-acre winery in Calistoga, Calif., reminiscing about that year, talking about their 51 complete games, the .242-hitting offense, and their night together at the Montreal airport bar when their team flight was delayed by hours, allowing them to watch Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the moon.
 
“The irony wasn’t lost on us,’’ Swoboda says, “that here’s Neil Armstrong leaving footprints on the moon and we can’t even get a damn plane to take us from Montreal to New York."
 
They spent about eight hours together at Seaver’s home that day, and when the morning turned to the afternoon, and the afternoon turned to night, no one wanted to leave.
 
“It was really an enlightening, wonderful experience,’’ said Shamsky, “knowing that season changed our lives forever. But when we left, it was sadness. We all aged. We all lost members of the team. And when we finally said goodbye, you didn’t know if you’d see everyone ever again.’’
 
The 50-year reunion perhaps will be most emotional for Kranepool. He has been on a national kidney transplant list for two years, feared he could have been next without someone stepping forward. Yet, being a member of the beloved Mets team, and to the heroic efforts of Mets vice president Jay Horwitz who relentlessly publicized his plight, Kranepool received a new kidney last month.
 
The donor? Deborah Barbieri, a Mets fan, of course.
 
“It took 2 ½ years, then you get a call, and it saves your life,’’ Kranepool says. “It’s amazing. Jay had a couple of press conferences for me, got me on the front page and back pages of the newspapers, and here I am, ready for our reunion.
 
“We’ve lost a number of our friends, and this being the 50th anniversary, I think this is the last hurrah. I don’t think many of us will be around to make the 75th.’’
 
Perhaps not, but the memories will be around forever.
 
It doesn’t matter if you’re Wayne Coffey, a 15-year-old Long Island kid watching Game 5 of the World Series, who ran on the field after the final out to grab a patch of grass. Or Jones, who remembers searching for Jerry Koosman in the clubhouse to give him the ball from the last out since he was the only one interested in memorabilia. Or Grote, who wildly leaped into the arms of Koosman.
 
“I think this 50th anniversary has heightened the power of this narrative,’’ Coffey said. "Fifty year later, people regard this rightfully so as maybe the greatest team achievement in baseball history.
 
“Has there ever been a team as hapless as the Mets reach the summit so suddenly and unexpectedly?’’
 
Most significant, has a team ever captured the hearts and imagination of so many people, while helping heal a divided nation.
 
“I think this team will always resonate with fans,’’ says Shamsky, who wrote the book After the Miracle. "We meant so much to so many people at a time this country needed it the most.’’
 
It may not have been as historic as Armstrong’s walk on the moon or drawn the fanfare of those 72 hours at Woodstock, but the legacy left by the Mets will live forever.
 
“None of who experienced it will ever forget it,’’ Jones said.
 
“Our lives changed that season.
 
"In many ways, so did our country."
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