Here at Rising Apple, we’re planning a year-long celebration of the 1973 National League Champion Mets, and we’re starting it with a guest post from author, Matthew Silverman! Matthew is author of Swinging ’73 and nine other books on baseball. He blogs regularly at metsilverman.com and can be followed on Twitter @metsilverman. To get a small preview of his latest book, you can see an excerpt below. You can buy a copy of Swinging ’73 right here.
The Mets emerged from spring training with a retread manager, injury issues, a combustible bullpen, lackluster offense, and no center fielder. Once in the basement, no one expected to ever hear from them again. Sound familiar?
Well, we’re talking about the 1973 Mets, one of the most unlikely pennant winners in major league history. Forty springs ago, Yogi Berra’s team broke camp with a slew of question marks. They had a remarkable young pitching staff with Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack, and Jerry Koosman, but even that had a touch of remorse in the wake of the trade of Nolan Ryan (plus three prospects) for Jim Fregosi a year earlier. Fregosi was the incumbent third baseman in ’73; Willie Mays was the Opening Day center fielder.
The Say Hey Kid, who’d been a contemporary of Yogi’s during the “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke” days of New York baseball in the mid-1950s, was making a curtain call at Shea Stadium in the 1970s as the highest-paid player in the game at $165,000. Acquired from the Giants as a Mother’s Day present for owner Joan Payson in 1972, Mays showed occasional flashes of the old magic, but mostly he showed up on the disabled list or sat on the bench shaking his head when Yogi asked if he was fit to play. During the sorry Mets second half that spoiled the team’s tremendous start (that has a familiar ring to the modern ear), Mays didn’t look like the old Willie—he just looked old. His .250 average in ’72 was the lowest of his career. Mays also lost the all-time National League home run title he’d held for seven years. Hank Aaron, three years Mays’s junior, usurped the NL all-time crown and looked to have plenty left to challenge Babe Ruth’s hallowed 714 total.
As the ’73 Mets broke camp, Berra had little choice but to pencil in Mays as the Opening Day center fielder, even at age 41. Mays, who’d been fined by Berra for going AWOL to see his wife in San Francisco, was hitting .105 when he went on the disabled list in May. He had plenty of company. The Mets would set a team record (since shattered) with eight separate trips to the DL, including former All-Stars Cleon Jones, Jerry Grote, and Bud Harrelson (who went on the DL twice). Even one of the team’s feel-good stories during the summer of 1973, George “The Stork” Theodore, landed on the disabled list with a broken hip after a frightening collision with Don Hahn, handling the day-to-day center field duties in place of Mays, who’d turned 42 on the DL.
The Mets landed in last place in June, and their standing hardly improved. At 13 games under .500 in mid-August, the Mets hit their lowest point in five years. Berra’s job was spared by a New York Post poll that showed that fans blamed the front office more than the manager. Reliever Tug McGraw, a two-time All-Star enduring a terrible season, had come under fire from M. Donald Grant for bursting into repeated refrains of “Ya Gotta Believe” during the team chairman’s banal motivational speech to the troops. Managerial and personnel changes seemed imminent as most fans started looking toward 1974.
How did the Mets turn it around so quickly with so little time left in the 1973 season? An excerpt from the new book, Swinging ’73, helps explain the unique situation:
The common perception is that the National League East was ridiculously mediocre for all of 1973, and the Pirates couldn’t hold a lead they’d maintained for months. Not true. At the end of June, the Cubs had the second best record in the game at 47‑31 and had the largest lead of any team in baseball’s four divisions: 8½ games ahead of the Cardinals. (The 31‑39 Mets were last, 12½ games back, though their .443 winning percentage was almost 80 percentage points higher than any other cellar dweller in any other division.)
St. Louis had its own remarkable comeback in ’73. By the All-Star break on July 22, the Cardinals, who lost 12 of 13 to start the year and reached a nadir of 15 games below .500, had already caught the Cubs. The Cards went 26 games over .500 between May 14 and August 5. On the latter date, the standings looked like this:
W L Pct. GB
St. Louis 61 50 .550 —
Chicago 56 55 .505 5
Pittsburgh 54 55 .495 6
Montreal 53 56 .486 7
Philadelphia 52 60 .464 9½
New York 48 60 .444 11½
Over the final 50-plus games of the season, the division turned almost upside down. Baseball-Reference affords a look at who did what in that final third of the season:
W L Pct. GB
New York 34 19 .642 —
Montreal 26 27 .491 8
Pittsburgh 26 27 .491 8
Chicago 21 29 .420 11½
St. Louis 20 31 .392 13
Philadelphia 19 31 .380 13½
So what happened? How did the race turn around so quickly, and so completely? All the theories and bits of conjecture are inconclusive. It may be more insightful simply to go with the explanation of the day: God took an apartment in Flushing.
God’s apartment in Flushing was a common refrain in New York in 1973 to try to explain the sudden turn of events at Shea Stadium that saw an 82-win team claim a division title. The truth, as had been the case in September of 1969, lay in the team’s remarkable pitching. Tug McGraw, who’d started the year 0-6 and was, pardon the phrase, Benitez-esque in his ability to torch leads, slapped glove on thigh in celebration on an almost daily basis; Tug’s 0.88 ERA with 12 saves and four wins over his last 41 innings fueled the team’s 24-9 finish. Jerry Koosman tossed 31 2/3 consecutive shutout innings, which stood as the franchise record until R.A. Dickey passed it last year. Tom Seaver allowed less than a run per start in August and fought through a painful shoulder in September to earn his second Cy Young Award. Jon Matlack, whose skull was fractured by a line drive earlier in the year, went 7-2 over the final two months, and was even better in the postseason—until his last start in the World Series.
As happened in 1969, a poor-hitting Mets club bunched hits at key times to make their superb pitching stand up. Their .246 average was 23rd of the 24 teams in the majors in ’73. The Mets stood last in slugging and adjusted On-Base-Plus-Slugging while stealing just 27 bases, averaging a home run every two games, and scoring fewer runs than all but one team in baseball.
Yet there they were in the cramped Wrigley Field visiting clubhouse pouring champagne all around. Somebody believed.