They Said It Couldn't Be Done
They Said It Couldn’t Be Done
Excerpted from They Said It Couldn't Be Done by Wayne Coffey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Forty-one is a notable number in the history of Flushing, Queens, the biggest and easternmost borough of New York City. It’s not so much because the neighborhood sits hard by the 41st Latitude, or because the number was once worn by men named Gordon Richardson and Jim Bethke, both of whom pitched briefly for the local baseball team, the New York Mets, in the mid 1960s. It is more because of the person to wear it after them, a rookie from Fresno, California. His name was George Thomas Seaver. He arrived in New York in 1967 and unlike Richardson and Bethke, he was a starting pitcher. He wore number 41 with such distinction that no Met will ever put it on again.
Tom Seaver and his contemporaries played their ballgames in Shea Stadium, where the Mets took up residence in 1964 and stayed until 2008. Built on top of an ash heap, Shea opened just ahead of the 1964 World’s Fair, not far from the former site of Ned’s Diner on Roosevelt Avenue. In its fifth year of existence, two men walked on the moon, four hundred thousand people decamped on a farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains for the biggest and muddiest musical event in history, and Shea Stadium became the epicenter of the baseball world.
The last of these developments was the most unforeseen.
Shea Stadium was a bowl-shaped edifice, long on symmetry, short on character, its most notable architectural feature the blue and orange tiles that were speckled around its perimeter like rectangular graffiti. It was located a long toss from a bay and creek that bore the name Flushing – an anglicized derivation of the Dutch town Vlissengen, given to the area by its first European settlers. In its earliest days, Flushing was considered New York City’s horticultural hub, known for rich, creekside earth that spawned a wide assortment of trees and shrubs, along with the first commercial nursery in the United States. Started by a father and a son, Robert and William Prince, the nursery opened for business in 1735 – forty-one years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
In Shea Stadium’s formative years, it was known for neither fertile soil nor winning baseball. A four-sided clock tower with the words Serval Zippers rose in plain view over the left-center field fence. For decades the Serval company helped people keep their pants and dresses on, but apparently paid scant attention to their clock, which was stuck at 10:59 for years and showed no more sign of getting unstuck than the Mets showed of ever leaving last place.
The Mets began life as an expansion team in 1962, joining the National League along with the Houston Colt 45s (renamed the Astros late in 1964, to coincide with their move into baseball’s first indoor ballpark, the Astrodome, the following spring). Their principal owner was Joan Whitney Payson, a scion of one of America’s wealthiest families, a woman whose ancestry traced to the Mayflower. A patron of the arts and a noted philanthropist, Payson also had a deep passion for horseracing and baseball, owning a number of thoroughbreds and a minority share in the New York Giants. When the Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers decamped for California after the 1957 season, Whitney Payson was among the appalled masses who couldn’t imagine life in New York without a National League ballclub. So when the league announced it was adding two franchises, Joan Whitney Payson bought one. She thus became the first woman to purchase a club in big-league history.
Payson hired former Yankee general manager, George Weiss, to be the Mets’ first president. Weiss, in turn, hired 71-year-old Casey Stengel, who led the Yankees to seven World Series titles and three American League pennants in 12 years, to be their manager. The two men had unassailable baseball credentials, but their winning pedigree did not carry over to their new enterprise.
The 1962 Mets went 40-120, losing more games than any ballclub in the twentieth century and finishing 60 ½ games out of first place. This is not easy to do. It requires staggeringly poor results over the full six-month season, and that is precisely what the Mets achieved, with the help of losing streaks of nine games (to start the season), thirteen games and seventeen games, along with another patch in which they lost sixteen of seventeen. The ’62 Mets made three errors in their first game, three in their last game and 204 more errors in between. Crisp baseball was in such short supply that one Mets player remembered a road trip in which Stengel announced the day’s itinerary: “There will be two buses to the park from the hotel. The two o’clock bus is for those who need a little extra work and then there will be an empty bus leaving at five o’clock.”
The Mets’ last rally of their debut season – two on and nobody out against the Cubs in the top of the eighth inning of Game No. 160 at Wrigley Field – fittingly ended when catcher Joe Pignatano, another former Dodger and future Mets coach, came on for Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman and hit into a triple play. It would be Pignatano’s final big-league at-bat, clearing his schedule to report to his offseason job at Abraham & Strauss, a Brooklyn department store.
The Mets played their first two seasons in the Polo Grounds, the former home of Payson’s beloved New York Giants in Upper Manhattan, just across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium, before relocating to Shea. The move changed little beyond their mailing address. The Mets continued to lead all of baseball in futility, averaging 108 losses per season in their first half-dozen years, an avalanche of defeats that did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm of their ever-faithful fans, who kept coming through the turnstiles and kept embracing the players’ earnest, if unavailing, efforts to win an occasional game.
Steve Aptheker was one of those fans, a fourteen-year-old kid from the Canarsie section of Brooklyn when the Mets were born who grew up to be a real-estate lawyer and eventually moved his practice (not by accident) to a few miles from the New York Mets’ spring-training headquarters in Port St. Lucie, Florida. To Aptheker, the indefatigable spirit of Met fans had everything to do with the heartache that came when their National League forebears, the Brooklyn Dodgers, bolted for the West Coast after the 1957 season.
“You can’t underestimate the horror of losing the Dodgers, and of wandering in the wilderness for four years,” Aptheker said. “The Mets were our salvation.”
Indeed, the Dodgers had been as much a part of their Flatbush neighborhood as the cement sidewalks on Bedford Avenue. Dr. Joseph Viteritti, a professor of public policy at New York’s Hunter College, used to ride those sidewalks on his bike to go to games. He and most all of the neighborhood kids would play stickball, stoopball, boxball, and punchball – every variation of baseball that their urban environment could accommodate. Baseball was their sport and playing in Ebbets Field one day was their dream. After Dodger games, the neighborhood kids would wait on the Sullivan Street side of Ebbets, where the players would exit the park, relishing the proximity of their ballplaying heroes. The players made good money, certainly, but not so much that they lived in gated suburban mansions or Manhattan penthouses. These weren’t distant, millionaire idols. These guys were participants in daily borough life, mostly living and raising their families in the neighborhood. Viteritti, the son of a ship fitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, liked that. He liked that Gil Hodges’ brother-in-law owned Jack’s Barber Shop on Washington Avenue, and that there was a photo of Hodges in the front window stretching forward from first base to scoop up a throw. Sometimes the man himself would show up. The neighborhood kids would ask for autographs and Gil Hodges always complied. The day Viteritti got his Gil Hodges autograph, he tore a piece of looseleaf paper from his school binder and was awed by the size of Hodges’ forearms as he signed his name.
One of Viteritti’s favorite parts of Ebbets Field was the movie-theatre-style marquee atop the ballpark, between center and right field. Beneath the words NEXT GAME were white letters on a black background displaying the name of the upcoming opponent, date, and game time. The marquee always gave young Joe Viteritti something to look forward to. On the night of September 24, 1957, he and a friend biked over to Ebbets one last time. After sixty-seven years in Brooklyn, the Dodgers were closing up shop.
The Dodgers beat the Pirates, 2-0, behind Danny McDevitt. A shortstop named Don Zimmer had the last hit at Ebbets Field. Gil Hodges had an RBI single, but also made the last Dodger out, striking out in the bottom of the eighth.
“We looked up at the NEXT GAME sign and it was blank,” Viteritti said. “That’s when it hit us. They really were leaving. There would be no next game. It was devastating. It was like losing a member of your family.”
Steve Aptheker can barely say the word Dodgers without gagging even now, more than six decades later. He can tell you about his first visit to Ebbets Field, sitting in the seats behind third place, rooting for his favorite Dodger of all, Jackie Robinson. He can provide details of the time that Don Newcombe, a superb pitcher and powerful hitter, crushed a ball so hard it went through—not over—the Ebbets Field fence (he was awarded a home run). The Jackie Robinson Story was the first nonfiction book Aptheker ever read. He can report on the night he ventured to the Polo Grounds for the first time, seeing his Dodgers play the hated Giants in enemy territory. Aptheker went with his father, and wore his Dodgers jacket.
“This kid has guts,” the Polo Grounds ticket taker told Aptheker’s father, and then let the boy in for free. The date was August 31, 1956. Willie Mays homered and the Giants went up 3-0, before Steve Ridzik, the Giants’ starter, walked Robinson to lead off the fourth. Aptheker can still see Jackie Robinson dancing off first, his feet as alive as if he were on hot coals, daring Ridzik to throw over. Robinson finally stole second. The Dodgers went on to win behind Newcombe’s twenty-second victory of the season. The club remained Steve Aptheker’s greatest passion until their desertion.
When the Dodgers made their first visit back to New York to play the Mets, there was no chance he was not going to be there, and even less chance he would cheer for the team that jilted him. Steve Aptheker was a fan of the New York Mets.
The series opened with a Memorial Day doubleheader. A crowd of almost 56,000 poured into the Polo Grounds. Aptheker and three friends - John Minichelli, Ralph Subbiondo and Jeff Rosenberg - sat in the last row of the upper deck behind third base, along with the white bedsheet they’d brought along for the occasion.
Sandy Koufax, born and raised in Brooklyn, former baseball and basketball standout at Lafayette High School, started for the Dodgers, Jay Hook for the Mets. The Mets were down 10-0 in the top of the fourth when the kids from Canarsie unfurled the sheet, and started to chant the words they’d written on it with green paint:
LET’S GO METS.
They chanted it again.
LET’S GO METS.
They kept chanting, over and over.
LET’S GO METS. LET’S GO METS.
Soon other fans joined in and the simple, staccato chorus grew louder and louder, scoreboard be damned.
The early Mets were quintessential underdogs, largely a collection of castoffs and retreads, once stellar players who were in steep decline and whose presence might sell a few tickets. You want to take a last look at Gil Hodges or Duke Snyder or Warren Spahn? Go see the New York Mets, your kindred, bat-and-glove-toting souls.