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Put it in the Book!
A Half-Century of Mets Mania
By Howie Rose, Phil Pepe
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Howie Rose and Phil Pepe
All rights reserved.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have a confession to make: my father was a Yankees fan (so was I, but only when I was a little guy and only before there was a team called the New York Mets).
The first baseball game I can remember is the seventh game of the 1960 World Series between the Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates. When I was little, my dad would grill me on the Yankees' lineup, so I knew their names, their numbers, and their positions. For instance, I knew the name Yogi Berra. I knew he was No. 8 and that he was a catcher. The vague recollection I have of Game 7 of the '60 World Series is of Bill Mazeroski hitting the game-winning home run over the head of the Yankees' left fielder, Berra. My six -year-old mind could not grasp the concept of someone taking off all of that catcher's equipment and running all the way out to left field and still almost catching Mazeroski's home run. (It's a minor miracle I actually became a big-league broadcaster.)
Because of my dad and his love of the Yankees, I became immersed in baseball in 1961, a magical season in which Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle chased Babe Ruth's supposedly unbreakable single-season home run record of 60 and doing it before my father's and my eyes, practically in our backyard, in fact.
At the time we lived in the Bronx, only a few blocks from Yankee Stadium. I was born in Brooklyn (can't everybody trace at least part of his roots to Brooklyn?) but when I was five we moved to the Bronx, where I attended P.S. 77 for first and second grades. I mention that only because P.S. 77 was across the street from James Monroe High School, where both Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg and the Mets' Ed Kranepool went to high school. Literally, when I was sitting in my classroom in P.S. 77, Kranepool was hitting home runs for James Monroe toward my classroom. That shows how far back my New York Mets roots go.
Not surprising, kids being notorious front-runners, my first baseball hero was Maris (the Mets, Tom Seaver, Bud Harrelson, Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez, Mookie Wilson, Gary Carter, and David Wright were not yet even on my radar). I have vivid recollections of the final week of that season with Maris closing in on the record. I'd watch the games on television, but I was in second grade and if there was a night game and there was school the next day, I had to go to bed. I couldn't stay up until 10:00 or 10:30 pm to watch the game. My dad and I would catch the start of a game together in my bedroom. He'd keep the TV on, but he'd turn the sound down and he'd allow me to stay up a little later. When he thought it was too late for me to stay awake any longer, he'd make me turn around and go to sleep while he watched the rest of the game. It wasn't an easy chore for him to get me to sleep because I kept cheating and stealing peeks at the television.
On September 20, a Wednesday night, the Yankees were playing the Orioles in Baltimore. I watched the beginning of the game and then I dropped off to sleep. I was asleep when Maris hit his 59 home run, and my dad was so excited he literally shook me awake to show me Maris running around the bases. That's how passionate he was about baseball and the Yankees.
The following year the Mets were born and I dropped my allegiance to the Yankees and became a Mets fan for the same reason so many kids of my age did at the time: the Mets were not our father's team, they were ours. It was a chance to get in on the action from day one. I was narcissistic enough to believe that because I had become such a huge baseball fan in '61, that when this new team showed up the next year, it was created just for me: "Here's your gift! You're a baseball fan? Here's a team of your own."
That's why I adopted the Mets; they were my team, a team created just for me. I'm sure I wasn't the only eight-year-old who believed that.
I don't imagine there are too many people who can say they have been fans of a certain team since day one of that team's existence. Happily, I am one of those few.
Throughout spring training of 1962, I absolutely peppered my father with questions about the players who would make up the original New York Mets. I needed to know everything about everyone. Obviously, he knew players with New York roots such as Gil Hodges, Charlie Neal, and Roger Craig. He was quite familiar with National League veterans like Richie Ashburn and Frank Thomas. Somehow, though, he didn't have a great deal of material on Rod Kanehl and Jim Hickman, but thanks to original announcers Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner, there were plenty of games to watch and listen to in the spring. I should only have studied for tests in school as diligently as I pursued information about New York's new National League ballclub.
The Topps chewing gum company was a big help, too. They, of course, were the producers of baseball cards (the 1962 set was always my favorite, with the faux wood paneling design on the front of the cards), and the information printed on the back gave you at least a glimpse into what kind of a player was depicted on the front. Even then, knowledge was power.
The first game the Mets ever played was on Wednesday night, April 11, against the Cardinals in St. Louis. I couldn't stay up to watch the entire game, but I remember getting ready for school the next morning and going into my parents' room before my dad left for work and saying, "How did the Mets do?"
"They lost," my dad said, two words that I would hear all too often over the next few years. Immediately, I felt bad. I guess I was hooked.
History will record that the final score of the first game the Mets ever played was 11–4 with Larry Jackson beating Roger Craig. Julian Javier had four hits for the Cards, Bill White knocked in three runs, and the great Stan "the Man" Musial was 3-for-3 with two RBI. Gus Bell got the first hit in Mets' history, a single in the second inning. Charlie Neal knocked in the Mets' first run, and Gil Hodges, fittingly, hit the first home run in franchise history.
I was disappointed with the result, but from that point, at age eight, I was off and running. From that day on, I became immersed in the Mets, obsessed with them.
I remember the first home game in Mets' history, on April 13 (Friday the 13th, wouldn't you know?) against the Pirates at the old Polo Grounds. Only 12,447 showed up for that historic occasion on a cold, raw, drizzly day to see the Mets lose again, 4–3 this time, with Tom Sturdivant outpitching Sherman "Road Block" Jones.
And I remember the first win in Mets' history. They would lose their first nine games before finally winning one in Pittsburgh on April 23, a 9–1 blowout of the Pirates behind Jay Hook's complete-game five-hitter. Unfortunately, the Mets would win only 39 more games that season, while losing 120.
I went to only one game at the Polo Grounds in that first year and it turned out to be a historic one: Friday night, July 6, 1962. It was the night Gil Hodges hit his 370 and last major league home run, passing Ralph Kiner on the all-time list for the most home runs by a right-handed batter in National League history. It came in the second inning against Ray Sadecki. The Mets beat the Cardinals 10–3, so you can imagine what a happy young guy I was.
Later that summer we moved from the Bronx to Bayside, for me another fortuitous event, another sign that I was destined to be a Mets fan. Two years later, the Mets moved into their brand-new home, Shea Stadium, leaving the Polo Grounds in Manhattan and taking up residence in Flushing, only a short distance from my new home. Now there was no doubt in my mind that this was all done to accommodate me. I was able to feed my passion for the Mets with frequent trips to Shea Stadium, which would have been much more difficult if we were still living in the Bronx.
The first game I went to without adult supervision was Opening Day on April 15, 1966. The Mets played the Atlanta Braves, and with Shea Stadium still practically brand new, a crowd of better than 52,000 showed up to watch Jack Fisher oppose the Braves' Denny Lemaster.
The Mets jumped in front in the bottom of the first when Ron Hunt walked, stole second, went to third on catcher Joe Torre's throw into center field, and scored on Ken Boyer's sacrifice fly. The Braves tied it with a run in the sixth, knocked in on a single by Hank Aaron. The Mets grabbed the lead in the eighth on Cleon Jones' home run, but in the top of the ninth, the Braves tied the score on a single and took the lead with a squeeze bunt. The Mets went down in the bottom of the ninth and were beaten 3–2.
It was a heartbreaking defeat, especially discouraging for a 12-year-old kid who had high hopes for his favorite team. But it was something I was going to have to get used to if I intended to continue following my team, which I did.
Once I was able to go to games without an adult, my friends and I started going regularly, maybe to 20 or 30 games a season. We found we could take the Q27 bus from Springfield Boulevard and 73rd Avenue in Bayside to Main Street in downtown Flushing, and from there we could either take the subway one stop to Shea Stadium or walk across the Roosevelt Avenue Bridge. Invariably, we opted for walking across the bridge in order to save the subway fare, which then became a hot dog, an ice cream, or a scorecard. The trip from portal to portal was less than an hour.
We used to get the same seats in the upper deck, where all seats, except for the first few rows, were general admission and cost $1.30. The gates opened for a 2:00 pm game at noon and we'd buy our tickets and then run up the ramp or onto the escalator and settle into the same seats: Section 1, right behind home plate, Row 1, the first row behind the reserved section. This may have been an omen as well, because our broadcast booth at Shea was right behind home plate, just below where my seats had been. We carved our initials into those seats, as if to mark them as reserved. If those seats had not been replaced by plastic ones in 1980 when Shea received a makeover, I would have loved to have bought them as a memento. I trust they would have cost more than $1.30!
There was a game in 1966 that still resonates, so much so that I committed the date to memory. It was August 4, a Thursday afternoon, the Mets against the Giants in Shea Stadium. As was customary in those early days, whenever the recently departed Dodgers or Giants came to town there was always a packed house at Shea. On this day, more than 41,000 were in attendance, many of them no doubt drawn by the opportunity to see Willie Mays one more time.
The Mets were facing Juan Marichal, whom they had never beaten. At the time he was 15–0 against them, No. 15 having come just two nights earlier when manager Herman Franks brought him into the game in the eighth inning and he pitched a perfect inning and a third and got the win, improving his record that season to 17–4. Now, some 40 hours later, he was starting and shooting for win No. 18 on the season.
Marichal had picked right up where he left off two nights earlier by retiring the first 15 Mets and taking his perfect game into the bottom of the sixth, leading 3–0. When the first two Mets batters were retired in the sixth, Mets manager Wes Westrum let pitcher Dennis Ribant hit, and he broke up Marichal's perfect game by dribbling a 38-hopper over the pitcher's mound into center field. (We could never figure out Westrum.)
Marichal started the ninth and gave up a home run to make it 6–5 before leaving the game. The rally continued and the Mets won it on a three-run pinch-hit home run by Ron Swoboda off Bill Henry. I was so excited leaving the ballpark that day that I kept thinking, "This is the greatest game I ever saw [I was only 12], and the greatest game I ever will see. I'm going to remember this day forever. August 4, 1966."
I also remember on my way home thinking, "I wonder what it must have been like to call that home run. How excited were Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy calling the home run on television and radio? What did they say? How did they phrase it? Did they know right away that it was a home run?"
They didn't have the benefit of replays back then, so it was a lingering curiosity that I maintained forever. Most kids, when they went to a game and saw someone hit a game-winning home run, would imagine themselves being the guy that hit the home run. Not me. I would fantasize about being the guy that called the home run on radio or television. How had the announcers made it sound? How would I have made it sound?
I knew I was never going to be the guy that hit the game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth, so I figured the next best thing was to be the guy that described that home run.
My dad didn't treat me as a turncoat because I abandoned his Yankees and embraced the Mets as my team. Nonetheless he seemed to take great joy in teasing me about following such a woeful collection of losers in those early days when his Yankees were winning championship after championship while my Mets were setting records for futility. He made fun of me for being a Mets fan.
That all changed in 1969, though, and I think he got almost as big a kick out of the Mets miracle run to win the World Series as I did. Sadly, he didn't live long enough to see me become a broadcaster for the Mets. He would have liked that, and I'm certain I would have succeeded in getting him to switch his allegiance from his team to mine.
Like most city kids, I tried my hand at playing all sports — Little League baseball, softball, stickball, stoop ball, touch football, basketball in the playground, roller hockey — changing the sport with the changing of the seasons, hoping, or more likely fantasizing, that some professional scout would recognize my latent talent and sign me to a contract. It never happened. I never was even good enough to make the varsity at my high school in any sport, so I contented myself with being the super fan and nurturing my dream of becoming a sportscaster.
I can't pinpoint when I first had that thought but I know it was early. Maybe it was the first time I heard Mel Allen say, "Going ... going ... gone!" I was enthralled by the whole idea of being in the broadcast booth and making a living out of going to a baseball game. From the first baseball game I attended I was smitten with the whole environment. Like most other kids I said I wanted to be a baseball player when I grew up, but during Little League I realized that wasn't going to happen.
So I switched gears and fantasized about how it would feel to call the big moment, not to be in the moment as a player, but to call it.
As a kid, I was totally immersed in sports, obsessed with them; hockey in the winter, baseball in the spring and summer. Nothing else in my life mattered. Nothing! So when my parents told me I had to go to Hebrew school for bar mitzvah training I argued with my mom and dad like you wouldn't believe. Billy Martin and Earl Weaver, in their best days arguing with the umps, had nothing on me.
"You mean to tell me you want me to go to school until three o'clock, come home, drop my books off, and then go to school again and miss the entire Mets game? Are you nuts?"
As a sort of compromise, I went to a Hebrew school that was unique. It was expensive to send kids to a conventional Hebrew school with a structured environment. It was my good fortune to grow up as a Baby Boomer in an environment where most families had two or three kids, and so my parents simply could not afford the tuition needed to send their three kids to a conventional Hebrew school.
In our neighborhood, there was a man named Joel Bernstein who said he was a rabbi and he had a plan. His niece lived in a two-family house and they converted the basement of the house into a school by putting a divider in the middle of the room to create two classrooms. He charged minimal, affordable tuition for kids to come for Hebrew school training. We learned to read in Hebrew — just enough to qualify for our bar mitzvah — but we didn't learn much else.
Rabbi Bernstein also had a connection on Manhattan's lower east side, where he would buy tape recorders, walkie-talkies, and transistor radios, and make Hebrew school into a competition. He broke the class up into quadrants, four students to a quadrant, and we went around the room reading from the Hebrew book. Whichever team made the fewest mistakes during the reading would get so many points, and whatever team had the most points after a set period won tape recorders, walkie-talkies, or transistor radios. We were being bribed into learning Hebrew.
Part of our curriculum included reading from a periodical called Jewish Current Events. On the back of the periodical was a list of 10 questions. Hebrew school kids were going to be rowdy by nature simply because there wasn't the supervision in Hebrew school that there was in regular school. We'd occasionally take liberties, and when Rabbi Bernstein had had enough of our hijinks he'd get angry and say, "Okay, we're not playing today. We're not competing today. We're going to take the test. Get out your copy of Jewish Current Events. There are 10 questions on the back, answer the questions."
Excerpted from Put it in the Book! by Howie Rose, Phil Pepe. Copyright © 2013 Howie Rose and Phil Pepe. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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