The history of baseball includes dozens of teams that that vie for the title of the “Greatest Ever.” Whenever baseball fans debate which World Series Champion might have been best, usually the 1927 Yankees, the 1934 Cardinals or the 1929 Athletics are mentioned, along with several other super teams. But 50 years ago this week saw the debut of a ballclub that earned itself a far different kind of distinction. The 1962 New York Mets lost 120 games in their first National League season, the most by any major league team in the 20th Century, and have been celebrated as possibly the worst team in MLB history. But the Mets’ failure on the field ended up endearing them in the eyes of New York baseball fans, and their popularity soon rivaled that of the perennial American League champions, the New York Yankees.
The 1962 season saw the completion of Major League Baseball’s two year plan to expand to 20 teams. During the first half of the 20th Century, big-league baseball was limited to 16 teams scattered among 10 cities. During the 1950’s, five more towns were added through franchise relocations, but the number of teams stayed fixed at 16. In 1959, a group of businessmen, which included onetime Brooklyn Dodger executive Branch Rickey, announced the formation of the Continental League, a third baseball major league, that would begin operations in 1961. Faced with possible competition for players, fans and television revenue, National and American League owners quickly drew up plans to increase the number of teams in Major League Baseball by four, an action that doomed the Continental League before it ever got started. The American League added the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators in 1961, while the National League awarded franchises to Houston and New York in time for the 1962 season.
Joan Whitney Payson, a wealthy patron of the arts and a one-time minority owner of the New York Giants who had opposed their move to San Francisco after the 1957 season, was anxious to bring National League baseball back to the Big Apple. Payson headed the group that was awarded the Mets franchise, becoming the first woman to purchase majority control of a team in a North American sports league. Payson immediately went about adding familiar New York elements to the new franchise, hiring George Weiss as GM, Casey Stengel as the manager, and moving the team into the Polo Grounds, abandoned by the Giants in 1957. Both Weiss and Stengel had held the same positions with the New York Yankees, but were forced to retire after the 1960 campaign, despite ten pennants and seven World Series championships in 12 years. With the front office now intact, the New York Mets took part in the National League’s first ever expansion draft.
At first glance, the Mets seemed to make out pretty well in the draft. They picked up former all-stars Richie Ashburn and Gil Hodges, as well as veteran pitchers Roger Craig, Clem Labine and Jay Hook, plus slugging outfielder Frank Thomas, acquired in an off-season trade. On paper, the Mets appeared to have the makings of a below average team, but that turned out to be an optimistic assessment.
On opening day, April 10, 1962, in St Louis, the New York Mets received their only true big break of the season…the game was rained out. The next night, New York lost their first ever game, 11-4, and proceeded to lose their next eight, finally gaining their first regular season win on April 23 in Pittsburg, beating the Pirates 9-1 at Forbes Field. After losing 16 of their first 19 games, the Mets began turn things around in early May, going 9-3 over a two week period. But during that brief winning stretch, the New York Mets made a trade that would epitomize their season. On May 9, 1962, the Mets traded a player to be named later and cash to the Baltimore Orioles for first-baseman Marv Throneberry. Shortly after Throneberry became part of the Mets’ lineup, they went on a 17 game losing streak. Nicknamed “Marvelous Marv,” Throneberry became the unofficial symbol of the 1962 Mets. Although a decent hitter, Thronberry’s terrible fielding and pathetic base-running were consistent contributors to the Mets’ almost daily woes. On June 17, Throneberry hit a triple against the Cubs, only to be called out for missing second base. Stengel rushed from the dugout, ready to debate the call with the umpire, only to be stopped by one of his coaches, who told Casey, “Don’t bother arguing…he missed first base too.” Throneberry’s sense of humor about his abilities made him a fan favorite, and years later, was seen poking fun at himself in a series of Miller-Lite commercials.
But it was Casey Stengel who stole the show during the 1962 season, as he turned his frustration over the team into a one-man comedy act. In assessing his team, Stengel told members of the working press that the Mets had shown him more ways to lose than he knew had existed, despite spending his lifetime around the game. Describing his three catchers, Stengel said, “I got one that can throw, but can’t catch, one that can catch but can’t throw, and one that can’t do either.” Evaluating two rookies, Ed Kranepool and Greg Goosen, Casey pointed to Kranepool, and told reporters that the 20 year-old Kranpool, in ten years, had a good chance to be a star. Then, pointing to Goosen, Stengel remarked that he, also 20, in ten years, had a good chance to be 30.
Things only got worse as the season wore on. Losing their 100th game in August, the New York Mets ended the season at 40-120, 60 ½ games out of first place. Pitcher Roger Craig finished 10-22, while Al Jackson and Jay Hook teamed up for 39 additional losses. The Mets were last in team ERA, last in team batting and ninth in runs scored. But New York fans didn’t seem to care, as the Mets were 6th in the National League in attendance, drawing close to 1 million at the box office. Although the Mets remained a last place team for several years, in 1964, the Mets outdrew the Yankees, despite the Yanks fifth straight American League pennant. In 1969, with Gil Hodges now the manager, the New York Mets won their first World Series.
Notes: Courtesy of You Tube, I have included a memorable moment from the 1962 season, involving the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants. This audio clip contains some great commentary from both Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges.