1969: The Year of Miracles

Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in 2016 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

“Baseball reminds me of a guy with an ice pick in his inner ear. His equilibrium is shot. He walks like a punch-drunk pug. Any minute you expect him to fall on his face. And when baseball finally does fall, do not weep. Just throw some dirt over the body. Take the dirt from the pitcher’s mound. That’ll be appropriate. Pitching is the name of the guy who stuck the ice pick in baseball’s ear. Though the pitchers have had their accessories. Lots of them.” — Arnold Hano, in the November 1968 issue of SPORT.

 

Hano’s view was widely held. After mistakenly enlarging the strike zone in 1963, baseball’s scoring began a steady plummet that reached ridiculous levels by 1968.   How ridiculous? A full 21% of all major league games were shutouts. The American League hit .230 (the Yankees managing .214). No-hitters, long shutout streaks, batters hitting below .200, pitchers with ERAs below 2.00 – none of this was unusual, or special, any longer.

81372021Making things worse, in the hearts of most young people baseball had clearly fallen behind football, seen as more exciting and hip than the boring sport of their fathers and grandfathers. The average attendance at a big-league game in 1968 was 14,217, down 11% since 1960, and several teams had either recently moved or were threatening to do so. “The majors are caught in a kind of pincer movement,” wrote Shirley Povich, “comprised of its own aspects of boredom on the one hand, and the challenges of pro football, with all its thunk, on the other.” In December 1968, the owners fired their beleaguered commissioner, William Eckert, and few months later replaced him, on an interim basis, with Bowie Kuhn, the National League’s lawyer.

As bad as things were for baseball, they were that even worse for the country. We were losing a war in Vietnam, our cities were rioting, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been murdered – nothing was going right, and there was a growing feeling that we had lost our way, that the country was no longer capable of doing great things. What America needed, and just as surely what its national pastime needed, was some sort of Miracle.

 

Although the dawn of a new season is a always joyous time for baseball fans, in 1969 it was particularly so in three cities that were getting major league baseball for the first time – Montreal, San Diego, and Seattle – and the one city getting baseball back after a one year absence – Kansas City. Like most expansions this was somewhat of a rush job, brought about because politicians in Kansas City threatened legal action (specifically, modifications to the game’s beloved antitrust exemption) when the Athletics left for Oakland in October 1967. Suitably panicked, baseball invited four new teams into the club.

The new teams (making a total of 24) led baseball to split into four divisions for the first time, requiring a brand new round of playoffs to precede the World Series. While the expansion of the playoffs in the 1990s was somewhat controversial, in 1969 there was a universal belief that baseball was in trouble and needed to do something. Anything. Why not try divisions?

In an attempt to reverse the scoring decline, baseball took two concrete steps for the 1969 season: it returned the strike zone to its pre-1963 definition — the top of the knees to the armpits; and it lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches. The effects were immediate, as run scoring rose from 3.42 per game (per team) to 4.07.

baseball-stamp-60sOff the field, baseball staged a season-long celebration of its “centennial,” marking the 100th anniversary of the first openly professional team – the 1969 Cincinnati Red Stockings. (Baseball had last celebrated a centennial in 1939, when they honored Abner Doubleday’s supposed invention of the game. This time they were on firmer ground.) Among the trappings of the centennial was the unveiling of a new logo (still in use today) that was worn on every player’s uniform sleeve, a U.S. postage stamp (six cents!), a record album, and a three-day mid-season celebration during the All-Star break.

The 1969 All-Star game took place in Washington’s RFK Stadium, allowing for the involvement of President Nixon, a legitimate baseball fan. The festivities began with a large Monday night dinner to unveil baseball’s all-time All-Star team (one player per position), and another team featuring the best living players. The fans in each big league city had selected their own slate earlier in the season (using a variety of eligible players depending on the city), and a select group of baseball writers had used these lists to select the all-time teams.

s-l300 (5)It was at this event that Joe DiMaggio was named the greatest living player, an honor he trumpeted for the rest of his life. Willie Mays, very much alive (in fact, playing in the All-Star game that very week), had to settle for being named the right fielder on the living team. Left-field honoree Ted Williams, managing the local Senators, sent his wife to the ceremony and stayed home.

The President could not attend the Monday night gala, but instead invited more than 400 people to the East Room of the White House the next day, including the two league All-Star teams, all of the all-time players honored the night before, and any other baseball person who happened to be in town. Nixon spoke to everyone, and appeared to have the time of his life. He talked hitting with Harry “The Hat” Walker and the prime interest rate with banker Casey Stengel, while Lefty Grove sat in a nearby chair smoking a cigar. Nixon told Rod Carew that he had a chance to hit .300, and Carlos May that he hoped he’d play as long as Ernie Banks.

The real man of the hour was Commissioner Kuhn, who received most of the credit for baseball’s big day. As Sports Illustrated reported, “In only six months Kuhn has gained an admiration and respect that no commissioner has enjoyed since Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis died in 1944.” A week later, the owners removed Kuhn’s “interim” tag – he kept the job for another 15 years.

Heavy rain caused the All-Star game to be postponed from its usual Tuesday evening until the following afternoon. President Nixon had to leave Washington for an engagement in the Pacific Ocean, so Vice President Spiro Agnew pinch-hit and threw out the first ball. Although the game was one-sided, a 9-3 victory for the Nationals, the contest (with its five home runs) seemed a great improvement over the previous three All-Star games that had featured a total of seven runs. “Remember long ago, last winter, when Madison Avenue buried the game deep in Forest Lawn?” asked SI. “Well, stop digging, men. After 100 years of play and two decades of decay, baseball appears to be born again.”

 

50GS-19.2.jpgOn July 20, 1969, just shy of 11 pm Eastern Daylight Time, astronaut Neal Armstrong stepped from Apollo 11’s Lunar Module onto the surface of the moon. As an eight-year-old, I confess that I did not understand the science, engineering, history or politics enough to fully grasp how extraordinary this was. US astronauts had been launched into space often in my living memory, including four times in the previous nine months. Astronauts had orbited the moon in December, and approached the moon’s surface in May, so the landing seemed like the next logical step. To people wiser than me, it was more like a Miracle. Not just an extraordinary scientific achievement, but a reminder of what the nation was capable of with concerted and determined effort. President Kennedy had challenged NASA to get to the moon by the end of the decade, and there we were. This was not just a giant leap for mankind, it was a much-needed shot in the arm for the US of A.

Armstrong step took place on the Sunday just prior to the All-Star break. While baseball was holding its celebration, Armstrong, along with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were heading back home to a nation holding its collective breath. When the men splashed down the Pacific Ocean, on Thursday, June 24, they began a second life as American heroes. President Nixon had missed the All-Star game but he was on the USS Hornet that greeted the astronauts soon after their return to Earth.

 

On that very same day, Baseball resumed its season.

One of the heartwarming stories of the first half of the 1969 season was the play of the heretofore woeful New York Mets. Having begun play in 1962, the Mets had finished either 9th or 10th in each of their first seven seasons, never closer than 24 games from the pennant winner. The season started uneventfully – the Mets were 18-23 on May 27, the same record they had the year before. They next reeled off 11 straight victories, including two walk-off 1-0 games wins in extra innings. They were still seven games behind the surging Cubs, but the second-place Mets had become a big story in their own right.

How good were these Mets, really? They employed a true superstar in Tom Seaver, just 24 but already one of the most popular players in the game and one of its best pitchers. Seaver had three teammates having star caliber seasons – left-handed starter Jerry Koosman, and outfielders Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones (the only two Mets to earn more than 400 at bats). The rest of the team was made up of role players and veterans, capably juggled by manager Gil Hodges.

By the All-Star break, the Mets were 53-39, just five games behind the Cubs. Three weeks into the second half, a slump had dropped them to 10 games out, now behind the Cardinals as well. They were still a great story – the New York Mets had proven themselves a competent baseball team, which seemed nearly impossible just a few months ago.

At that point the Mets turned into the Miracle Mets of lore. From August 16 until the end of the season they posted a record of 38-11 and threw 15 team shutouts. After years of dreaming of a pennant race, the New York Mets went past the Cubs so quickly (the teams were within two games of each other for only four days) that they ended up eight games in front by the end. There was no pennant race to speak of.

The post-season played out about the same way. First the Mets faced off with the Braves in the first ever National League playoffs, and defied the storyline by overcoming mediocre pitching and winning three straight high scoring games: 9-5, 11-6, and 7-4. Henry Aaron hit home runs in each game for the Braves, but it was nowhere near enough.

In the World Series, the Mets played the vaunted Baltimore Orioles, winners of 109 games and still considered one of the best teams in history. The Mets reverted to their pitching-rich ways, allowing just nine runs in a five-game series, scoring the decisive runs in the final at bat in three of the games. The series is considered Miraculous because it featured not just the usual great pitching from Seaver and Koosman, but slugging and spectacular catches from players not previously (or subsequently) known for either. Nonetheless, the deed was done.

Baseball entered the 1969 season with its reputation in tatters, and came through with flying colors – first by staging a grand mid-season party, and again by featuring one its legendary team stories. The game may have needed a Miracle but, like its country, it got one.

koosman grote 1969 world series

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Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, co-chair of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

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