A couple of weeks ago I learned that SNY, the New York Mets’ cable network, had aired all five games of the 1969 World Series. Not being an SNY subscriber, I missed all the airings. But the ’69 Mets have been much on my mind lately, as I recently read They Said It Couldn’t Be Done, Wayne Coffey’s excellent chronicle of that championship season. I therefore searched YouTube for recordings of those games, and was delighted to find – and watch — them.
I was 10 years old in 1969, and growing up in Westport, Connecticut. I will never forget how Metsomania gripped the Tri-State region that summer and fall. We’ve all seen the highlights of the ’69 Series – Agee’s circus catches, Swoboda’s audacious grab, the shoe-polish incident – umpteen times. But all these years later, I’ve realized that — except for the very end of Game 4, which went into extra innings – I didn’t actually watch Games 3, 4, and 5 in real time – because I was in school! Watching the games now, and knowing the outcomes of the games in advance, it’s still been fun for me to see the events unfold on a pitch-by-pitch basis.
A few observations from my ’69 Series watch party:
- On paper, the Orioles should have dominated this Series. They had superb starting pitching, and their lineup was downright scary. Everybody knows about Frank, Brooks, and Boog, but there were no easy outs in that lineup. Even those who were better known for their defense – guys like Paul Blair (.285 regular season average) and Mark Belanger (.271) – could handle the bat. But the Orioles hit only .146 throughout the Series, thanks to the Mets’ outstanding pitchers: Seaver, Koosman, Gentry, Ryan (oh, what might have been had he stayed!), and Taylor.
- The ’69 Mets had a handful of offensive standouts: Cleon Jones hit an astonishing .340; Tommie Agee led the club with 76 RBIs out of the leadoff spot; Art Shamsky (my Jewish ballplayer hero of the time) hit .300 in a platoon role; Donn Clendenon put up mediocre stats in the regular season but was a reliable clutch hitter in September and October. But after those guys, there was a considerable drop-off. And yet, the bottom of the Mets’ lineup was surprisingly productive during the World Series. In fact, the momentum of the entire Series turned in the ninth inning of Game 2, when, with 2 outs and the game tied 1-1, Ed Charles (.207), Jerry Grote (.252), and Al Weis (.215) hit consecutive singles off Dave McNally, giving the Mets the margin of victory. The Orioles weren’t the same after that, and the Mets never looked back.
- How the game has changed: In 1969, batters stayed in the box between pitches, and when they hit the ball, they ran hard to first base, “as if that were the fastest way to get there,” as the New York Post’s Phil Mushnick recently quipped. Batters also didn’t lunge so much at pitches outside the strike zone, and most didn’t try to crush every pitch out of the park. As a result, there was much more contact hitting than in today’s game, and many more interesting plays in the field. Strikeouts were also much less frequent, and were therefore quite a feat for the pitcher.
- Pitchers worked quickly, weren’t yanked at the first sign of trouble, and were generally given the chance to pitch themselves out of trouble and to work late into games. Compared to today, calls to the bullpen were much less frequent, and complete games were not unusual.
- It’d be another year before Brooks Robinson emphatically ended the debate over who is the Greatest Third Baseman of All Time. But he made several sparkling plays during the ’69 Series, giving us all a preview of the mind-blowing glovework he’d flash in the ’70 Series against the Reds. For that matter, the ’69 Series featured a lot of outstanding defense from both teams; the Series would’ve been compelling enough for that reason alone.
- Fashions sure were different in 1969. The stands were filled with men dressed in jackets and ties (or without jackets but with ties), and many of the (comparatively fewer) women in the stands wore pearls. As for the players, uniform pants extended to just below the knees, or perhaps to the shins, leaving the stirrups and sanitary socks clearly visible. Many of the Orioles wore the high stirrups, a look popularized by Frank Robinson, who reportedly had a tailor alter them. The Mets, by contrast, all wore lower stirrups, and plain black shoes (although many of my 5th grade classmates were already sporting Adidas and Puma sneakers in gym class, it’d be another couple of years before logo-adorned shoes appeared on MLB ballfields).
- The TV viewing experience was much more pleasant and digestible, largely because there was only a one-minute break between every half-inning, as opposed to today’s three-minute pause. Indeed, the three-minute hiatus is the single biggest reason behind the increasing duration of MLB games in the current era. (There are other factors, such as interminable replays, the carousel of relief pitchers, and batters frequently stepping out of the box, but in my opinion those factors pale in comparison to the multiple commercials crammed into every break.)
- Speaking of the TV experience, the screen was much less cluttered with graphics in 1969 – as if it was the game that actually mattered! Whereas replay technology was rather primitive – usually you’d get a single replay from the same inconclusive angle you’d already seen – replay itself was reserved for the truly notable plays, and not for the inconsequential plays. On the other hand, the center-field camera was not always used for live-action shots of the pitcher delivering the ball; producers in those days seemed to like the behind-the-plate perspective, in which the umpire and catcher obscured the view of the pitch as it crossed the plate.
- Interestingly, the recordings of Games 1 and 2 were both in black and white, which made the NBC announcers’ reminders that “You’re watching this In Living Color!” quite ironic. Moreover, the recordings for both of those games were from CBC broadcasts of the NBC feed, and all the commercials were for Canadian products and corporations.
- Back in the day, I was not a fan of Curt Gowdy, NBC’s multi-sport play-by-play man. To my 10-year-old ears, Gowdy’s sing-song delivery sounded pompous, and I cringed at his frequent mispronunciations of players’ names. (My dislike of Gowdy dated back to the 1966 Series, when Frank and Brooks Robinson hit back-to-back homers off Don Drysdale. I was rooting for the Dodgers, whose biggest star was Sandy Koufax, my original Jewish hero. Gowdy kept gushing about the “back-to-back homers by the Robinson boys,” to my eternal irritation.) But now that I’m middle-aged, Gowdy strikes me as the consummate professional broadcaster. He didn’t fill every spare moment with chatter, and when he had a story, he told it quickly and at the appropriate moment. In short, Gowdy allowed the game itself to be the star.
- In those days, NBC would have one of the home team’s TV announcers split the play-by-play duties with Gowdy. For Games 1 and 2 in Baltimore, the guest announcer was Bill O’Donnell, whom I’d never heard of, but did his job quite well, without bombast or controversy. The next three games, of course, were played in New York, which meant Lindsey Nelson shared the booth with Gowdy. You might think the presence of two veteran baseball broadcasters would spark extended, spirited conversation between them, with pertinent observations and anecdotes stirred by the action on the field. Sadly, there was little of that. When Nelson did play-by-play during the Series, Gowdy seemed to retreat into the background, piping up only occasionally while Nelson acted as if he were the only person in the booth (to be fair, the same dynamic held while Gowdy called the game, with Nelson offering only occasional comments). When Nelson held the microphone, he often resorted to his habit of inserting random, barely relevant observations such as the high school the pitcher attended, or the name of the scout who signed the batter who just popped out to short. It reminded me of all the times I fell asleep to Nelson’s voice while growing up. It made me wonder: Were the random, innocuous observations a Nelson idiosyncrasy, or did all baseball broadcasters in the late 1960s approach their craft in that way? I suppose Nelson’s “fame” was largely due to the garish blazers he’d wear while on the air (one is draped over the announcer’s chair in the faux press box in the Broadcasters’ Wing at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown). From the Mets’ beginnings through the mid-70s, Nelson had the highest profile of the Mets’ broadcasters, a group that also included Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner and the immortal Bob Murphy, who for my money was the best baseball announcer ever, the true Voice of Summer. If only NBC had chosen Murph!
- The guest announcer custom continued through the 1976 World Series. I don’t know why NBC pulled the plug on the practice after that Series, but my guess is that they grew weary of Phil Rizzuto’s wacky, incoherent ramblings as the Yankees were swept by the Reds. We New Yorkers, of course, accepted and loved The Scooter, as he was one of us (although I have lived in Western Massachusetts for the last 16 years, I think my 23-year Manhattan residency gives me the right to call myself a New Yorker). But for non-New Yorkers, I suppose Rizzuto was an acquired taste.
- As the 7th inning of Game 5 began, Nelson read a promo for that Saturday’s edition of The Andy Williams Show, with special guests Don Knotts, Ray Charles, Mama Cass Elliot, the Osmond Brothers, and “the Creedence Clearwater Revival.” CCR was my favorite band at the time. How did I miss that show?
- The guest announcer arrangement meant that NBC’s Tony Kubek was relegated to interviewing luminaries in the stands. Some of his interviewees were retired ballplayers and managers, such as Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Casey Stengel, and Joe Garagiola. Others were true celebrities such as Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, and Jerry Lewis. As Kubek tried to interview him during Game 3, Lewis feigned annoyance with the rowdy Shea Stadium crowd: “Hey! Can ya keep it down around here? Knock it off!” Other interviewees were more notable for the times in which these events were unfolding. For example, during Game 1 Kubek interviewed David Eisenhower and his wife, Julie Nixon Eisenhower. When Kubek told Mrs. Eisenhower it was too bad her father couldn’t attend the game, she said he would’ve loved to have been there, “but he has a big Vietnam meeting.” That reminded me about the massive, nationwide antiwar protest that took place just a few days later – the first time I’d ever heard the word “moratorium.” The protest dominated the news for days, but it didn’t overshadow the World Series. Nothing could ever outshine the 1969 World Series!