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Mets Memories

Highlights and lowlights in the history of the New York Mets with emphasis on the early years

THE 1969 METS - AN AMAZIN’ ALTERNATE SCENARIO

Sure, it all comes under the category of speculation but it isn’t that farfetched that all of the following players could have been Mets going into the 1969 season. So, if the Mets won the World Series, it would have been no miracle. In fact with these players in the lineup and the Mets’ homegrown pitching led by Seaver, Koosman, Gentry, McAndrew, Ryan, and McGraw, it probably would have been expected.

Richie Allen - available from the Phillies in the expansion draft prior to the 1962 season, Allen was raw but could have easily made the Mets by 1964 as either an outfielder, first baseman, or third baseman. Becoming one of the top power hitters in the game, imagine Allen in the middle of the Mets lineup. He was left unprotected throughout the draft and could have been selected at any time.

Paul Blair - the premier defensive center fielder in the American League from the mid 1960's to the mid 1970's, Blair started his career in the Mets’ minor league organization in 1962, before being lost to the Orioles in the first-year player draft. With so few legitimate prospects at the time, it seems inexcusable that the Mets didn’t protect Blair.

Reggie Jackson - the favorite to be the #1 amateur draft pick in 1966 after dominating as a collegian at Arizona State, the Mets instead used the first pick to select catcher Steve Chilcott. Whether you believe racism or just poor judgment was the reason the Mets bypassed Jackson, this was a disaster.

So, in 1969 the Mets could have fielded this starting lineup :

Paul Blair cf

Ron Hunt 2b *

Reggie Jackson rf

Richie Allen 3b

Cleon Jones lf

Ed Kranepool 1b

Jerry Grote c

Bud Harrelson ss

Tom Seaver/Jerry Koosman/Gary Gentry/Jim McAndrew/Don Cardwell**

*With Allen and Jackson in the organization, there would have been no reason to trade Hunt for Tommy Davis (or Davis for Agee with the presence of Blair)

*** Allen could have also played first base at times with Ed Charles playing third. You’d have Ron Swoboda as an extra outfielder and righty pinch hitter, Ken Boswell backing up second base and one of several available lefty bats off the bench along with Art Shamsky J.C. Martin, and Kranepool when he’s not starting. There would be a need for a backup shortstop but that would be a relatively minor deal that the Mets could have made.

With no Agee, no Clendenon, no Weis, and Swoboda probably on the bench would the Mets have still won the World Series ? Maybe not, but they’d be in position to be a power for several more years and with that kind of lineup, the pressure on the starting pitchers would have been reduced.

My personal take on this (I certainly have no concrete proof) is that both Allen and Jackson were passed up because they were outspoken young black men who didn’t fit into the mold of “acceptable” black players at the time. In 1961, Allen hit .317 with 94 rbi’s as a low level minor leaguer. Yet the fact that Philadelphia made him available and both the Mets and Houston passed on him can be attributed to the fact that he was already acquiring the negative reputation that stalked him his entire career. Still, it’s hard to ignore those kind of statistics especially in view of the players available in the expansion draft and that Allen could have been selected for $50,000.

What younger fans may not understand is that well after Jackie Robinson broke the color line, teams were still quite selective when it came to employing non-white players. You might think that the Mets’ drafting of players like Choo Choo Coleman and Sammy Drake was proof that a black player didn’t have to be a star to get a big league opportunity. True, but there was still a dual code of conduct that many big league teams subscribed to. George Weiss and Casey Stengel had come from the Yankees - the team that traded away its most promising black player, Vic Power, without ever giving him a chance. Power was flashy and was known to have dated light-skinned women which made Weiss characterize him as “not the Yankee type”. When the Yankees finally integrated they chose the soft-spoken Elston Howard. More than a dozen years later, Reggie Jackson was bypassed by the needy Mets likely for similar reasons. Whether Allen was held to the same racist standards, denying them their chance to be Mets is something known only to those Mets’ decision makers. Draw your own conclusions.

As for Blair, I don’t believe there were personal reasons but rather as simple as the Mets didn’t recognize his potential and hadn’t even found the right position for him yet. According to baseball rules at the time, first year minor leaguers could be scooped up in the draft for $8,000 and so Baltimore took Blair. In his only season as a Mets’ minor leaguer, playing in the California League, he batted .228 and struck out over 100 times. Still, the Mets weren’t exactly loaded with prospects and in fact selected Don Rowe, Ted Schreiber and Steve Dillon in the same minor league draft, so they certainly had room on the roster. Of note, Houston selected Jim Wynn from the Reds in that draft.

Now of course, what ifs ? are just that. It’s just as easy to say “what if the Mets had lost the lottery for Tom Seaver and he wound up with the Phillies ?” or “what if Bing Devine and Joe McDonald hadn’t convinced George Weiss not to release Jerry Koosman ?” Of course we will never know. For what it’s worth here are actual 1969 statistics for the “new” Mets in the lineup :

Hunt 3 HR, 41 RBI, .262, 25 HBP FINISHED 15th for NL MVP

Blair 26,76, .285, 20SB FINISHED 11th for AL MVP, WON GOLD GLOVE

Jackson 47,118, .275 FINISHED 5th for AL MVP

Allen 32,89, .288

Ya Gotta Have A Catcher - PART 2

Jerry Grote became the Mets’ #1 catcher in 1966, while Greg Goossen hit 25 home runs at AAA Jacksonville, impressive since he had been promoted from short-season Class A to AAA, quite a leap. Grote was a take-charge guy who would help nurture the pitchers while providing excellence behind the plate. Goossen was a power-hitting prospect. So, it was hard to see how the Mets still considered catching as so much of a need that they would select high school catcher Steve Chilcott with the first pick in the amateur draft when Reggie Jackson was the consensus favorite to go number one.

There have been many speculative articles written about how M. Donald Grant didn’t want Jackson because he was dating a white woman and for various other non-baseball offenses, but then- GM Bing Devine relates that he and Casey Stengel scouted Chilcott at a High School game in California and decided he was the one to take. I can offer no insights into the real truth. All I know is that contrasting Chilcott’s career with Reggie Jackson’s will forever be regarded as a major Mets’ failure. Chilcott was injured and never played in the major leagues. Jackson went on to a Hall Of Fame career and superstar status.

It’s time to digress. Finding and developing catchers has been a challenge for almost every team - not just the Mets. Along with Chilcott, Danny Goodwin (twice), Mike Ivie, Ben Davis, Tyler Houston, Jeff Clement, Eric Munson, and Martin Cott were all catchers who were drafted no lower than third in the amateur draft who failed to make it. Then, there are those players who were drafted as catchers and moved to other positions before they enjoyed major league success. Among current players this list would include Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson, and Neil Walker.

Besides Chilcott, other Mets’ first-round draft pick catchers include John Gibbons, Butch Benton, Alan Zinter, and Rich Bengston. Also worth mentioning is that in 1965, the Mets used their second-round pick on a catcher named Randy Kohn. 14 picks later the Reds chose Johnny Bench. Stupid Mets ? Well, between Kohn and Bench, 3 other teams drafted catchers. Anyone remember Ken Rudolph, Donald Johnson, or Dick Horton ? So, for every Buster Posey or Joe Mauer, there are a dozen or so catchers drafted with high expectations who never reach the majors. Good catchers are at a premium. Is there another way to explain how the Phillies in 1973 selected John Stearns with the second pick in the draft when they already had a talented young catcher in Bob Boone, and the next 2 picks were to be Robin Yount and Dave Winfield ?

And speaking of Stearns, there 's more about him in my next installment. 

Ya Gotta Have A Catcher - PART 1

It was reported that when the Mets drafted veteran catcher Hobie Landrith as their first pick in the expansion pool, Casey Stengel explained the choice with “Ya gotta have a catcher or else you’re gonna have a lot of passed balls”. Landrith certainly wasn’t the answer in 1962 and neither were the other drafted catchers who also got a chance - Chris Cannizzaro and Choo Choo Coleman. Before spring training, the Mets signed veteran Joe Ginsberg and he didn’t last long. The quest to find a good major-league catcher has been a challenge for the Mets throughout their history. Of course, they have had some great ones - Piazza and Carter, a terrific defensive catcher and team leader in Jerry Grote and some pretty good ones like John Stearns and Paul LoDuca. But all of them came in trades. The only quality catcher the Mets developed through their farm system who became a star for them was Todd Hundley. Hard to believe.

Before acquiring Jerry Grote in October of 1965, they also tried Harry Chiti who was acquired for a player to be named later who turned out to be himself, Sammy Taylor who had been okay for the Cubs and figured to be the primary starter for the Mets, but didn’t help much, Joe Pignatano who later became a coach for the team, but whose claim to fame for his Mets playing career was hitting into a triple play in his last major league at bat on September 30th, Norm Sherry, Jesse Gonder who was the best hitting catcher the Mets would have so far, but terrible defensively, and former Braves bonus baby Hawk Taylor.

Then, before the start of the 1965 season, the Mets made the big move for their star catcher of the future - except it wasn’t. Greg Goossen, a big, young catcher who had a terrific season as a first-year player in the Dodgers system was claimed on first-year waivers. Back then, there was a crazy rule that players with just one year in the minors had to stay with the major league team all year or be subject to waivers. Goossen was raw, but all the scouts loved his potential and he looked like a steal. Here was the power-hitting catcher the Mets could pencil in as their future #1. Unfortunately, Casey Stengel probably doomed him with another of his famous quotes “we got a young catcher here, 20 years old, and in 10 years, he’s got a chance to be 30“. Still, the fans thought Goossen could eventually be the answer. After sending him to the NYP League where he excelled, the Mets rushed him prematurely to the big leagues where he hit .290. He didn’t figure to be ready for full time duty for a year or two, but the outlook was bright. In 1965, the Mets also tried to revive the playing career of Yankee great Yogi Berra, a move that lasted about a week until Yogi retired.

In what seemed like an afterthought on October 19th, the Mets traded pitcher Tom Parsons who had been a dreadful 1-10 for them to Houston for light-hitting young catcher Jerry Grote. The Mets were more interested in Houston’s better hitting catcher, John Bateman, but weren’t able to come to an agreement. So, the Mets went into the 1966 season with Grote and Hawk Taylor as their catchers. It didn’t look any more promising than in past seasons, but the Mets had another plan for the future.

TO BE CONTINUED

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