By James G. Robinson
"The Mets are gonna be amazin'," declared Casey Stengel in 1961 -- and,
indeed, there seemed to be reason for optimism a year later, as Stengel's
Mets prepared for the first game in team history in 1962. The club had
finished the spring exhibition season with a solid 12-15 record, including an
extra-inning victory against the World Champion Yankees. Some had even
picked Casey's "Amazin's" to place ninth, eighth or -- gasp! -- seventh in the
ten-team National League.
But, back to reality. "I ain't fooled," Stengel confided in reporters before the
season began. "They play different when the other team is trying, too."
Knowing full well his cast of cast-offs would be lucky to win a third of their
games, Stengel took the opportunity to pepper New York reporters with
one-liners. On his three catchers: "I got one that can throw but can't catch,
one that can catch but can't throw, and one who can hit but can't do either."
Referring to his projected outfield of Frank Thomas, Richie Ashburn, and
Gus Bell -- who had fathered a total of twenty children -- Stengel remarked,
"If they produce as well on the field as they do off the field, we'll win the
pennant." Where do you think the Mets will finish? was one of the favorite
questions in spring training. "We'll finish in Chicago," Stengel replied.
Just as Casey had predicted, the Mets' inaugural season came to an end in
Wrigley Field on September 30, as the Cubs handed the Mets a 5-1 loss. It
was the Mets' 120th defeat in 160 games, dropping them an incredible 60
1/2 games behind the pennant-winning San Francisco Giants and 18 games
behind the ninth-place Chicago Cubs.
|Don Zimmer played third base for part of the Mets' inaugural in 1962. (Allsport)|
THE METS STARTED AS BADLY as they
finished. Their first game was rained out; their
second began with a throwing error by third
baseman Don Zimmer and ended as an 11-4
loss. ("That Zimmer's the guts of your club, isn't
he?" Stengel was asked later in the season.
"Why, he's beyond that," Stengel replied. "He's
the lower intestine.") The Cardinals scored their
first run on a balk by Roger Craig, who -- with a
runner on third -- simply dropped the ball during
his windup. "I've been in this game a hundred
years," Stengel remarked, "but I see new ways
to lose I never knew existed before."
A week later, the Mets found themselves in
Pittsburgh, still looking for their first win. Two
losses to the undefeated Pirates gave them a
0-9 record -- and a third Pirate win would set two records. ("You couldn't
play on the Amazin' Mets without having held some kind of record," Stengel
recalled in 1967.) No team had ever begun a season with an eleven-game
winning streak -- and no team in the National League had ever opened with
ten consecutive losses.
Jay Hook was the scheduled starter, and the Northwestern graduate did his
best to end the carnage. Stengel referred to the young intellectual as "the
smartest pitcher in the world until he goes to the mound" but this time was
pleasantly surprised by Hook's results. The Mets tagged Pittsburgh starter
Tom Sturdivant for five runs in the first as Hook held the Pirates to five hits,
giving the Mets a 9-1 win -- the first in franchise history.
KEYING THE METS' ATTACK that day with three hits apiece were leadoff
man Felix Mantilla and hot-dogging shortstop Elio Chacon, whose antics
would infuriate his manager and teammates enough to ensure that 1962
would be the last season of his brief career. Former Dodger star (and future
Mets manager) Gil Hodges went two-for-three after replacing Ed Bouchee at
first; Hook helped his own cause with two runs and two RBI.
It was a brief respite from a long, arduous season which kept the Mets beat
writers searching their thesauri for new ways to describe their team's
mediocrity. Returning to form, the club dropped its next three games, and
Mets fans would endure double-digit losing streaks three times during the
season. But on April 23rd, the Mets and their fans first tasted the thrill of
victory instead of the agony of defeat.