New York Mets fan stroll through the Baseball Hall of Fame
By Matthew Silverman
A New York Mets fan strolls through the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
As part of the Hall of Fame’s Author Series for Shea Stadium Remembered, I went around the Hall and checked out every New York Mets image I saw in Cooperstown’s hallowed halls. In the Bullpen Theatre where they usually hold the series talks, I was supported by wall images of Jesse Orosco and John Franco, in case a tough lefty in the audience came up with a tricky question.
I did not catch every instance of the Mets in the Hall, but there are a few Mets-worthy Hall moments.
Mets First Uniform Number
The Mets coaxed legendary manager Casey Stengel to take over the team in 1961. It only makes sense that Stengel was the first person assigned a number. Stengel played in the majors in the 1910s and 1920s, before uniform numbers.
By the time those came along, Stengel was a manager of the mediocre Braves and Dodgers, donning random numbers in the 30s in the 1930s and ’40s. When the Yankees stunned baseball and plucked him out of the Pacific Coast League in 1947, Stengel took number 37. He put up big numbers in pinstripes, especially 10 and 7—AL pennants and World Series titles, respectively.
The Yankees won 90 or more games in 11 of his 12 seasons. Ironically, the one year the Yankees won 100 games with Stengel, the 111-win Indians ran away with the 1954 pennant.
Casey’s record was as abysmal with the Mets as it was exemplary with the Yankees. Yet it’s safe to say that his work as the ringleader of the three-ring circus that was the early Mets is his ultimate baseball legacy. His plaque in the great hall in Cooperstown depicts him wearing a Yankees cap. Everywhere else, though, he seems to be wearing a Mets cap and a quizzical expression on his face. As if he can’t quite figure if anybody can play this game.
After he broke his hip and was forced to retire in 1965, the Mets announced that no one else would wear his number 37. (The Yankees later followed suit.) The Mets eventually hung his number on the wall at Shea. New Mets have wanted it over the years, notably Jimmy Piersall and Keith Hernandez, but both opted for other numbers. Like Casey, 37 stands alone.
“Meet the Mets” 45 Record
If you followed Casey Stengel’s Mets, you were part of the New Breed. A lot of young people jumped on the Mets bandwagon not because the team was good, but for the opposite reason. The Mets were new, they were different. Despite all those pennants, the Yankees looked like they did on TV in the 1960s: black, white, and gray.
The Mets were in living color: blue and orange. They were new, they were exciting—as long as you weren’t win-at-any-cost. New things took time—like a puppy that kept chewing up your slippers. And crapping on the rug. The Mets were more akin to what was happening in the early 1960s. They weren’t good, not by a longshot. But they were fun.
“Meet the Mets” was part of that fun. The 45 RPM single written by Ruth Roberts and Bill Katz became the second baseball song New York kids learned—“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” takes first place. Sorry. “Meet the Mets” is more complicated, but it is catchy. Even most Yankees fans at my grade school knew the song, though of course they made the inevitable parody of “Beat the Mets.” I don’t know any Yankees songs, except the one Channel 11 only played the instrumental version of the official song, skipping the words both pompous and unmemorable.
“Meet the Mets” invites the family along—you know, “bring your kiddies, bring your wife.” And if they can’t make it to the ballpark, there’s always Mr. Met. Although he existed mostly in spirit form for a quarter century, he was like the Great Gazoo, big head and all. Speaking of The Flinstones, it’s funny that this forebearer of our prime-time cartoon world was canceled in the mid-1960s while the Mets were not. It helps to have a catchy tune and play in the National League.
Bartolo’s Blast Card
The Hall of Fame has put together an exhibit this summer on baseball cards. There were enough cool cards that you could spend the better part of an afternoon checking out the Shoebox Treasures exhibit. All the valuable cards are on display, including the “Holy Grail” of the Honus Wagner card, which was pulled from circulation because the great shortstop did not want it distributed in cigarette packs.
Also worth noting is Pittsburgh is spelled without the usual “h” at the end. (There’s a blind alley to run down that will tell you how that “h” came and went long ago.)
There are a lot of Mets cards on display, but the one that I think connects most with Mets fans—especially those who remember when the team was fun (not so long ago)—is the Bartolo Colon home run card. The card—called Topps Now—was made available by the company shortly after the pitcher’s 2016 home run, an event as unlikely as any longball in a Mets game this side of Rick Camp. It shattered the record for most cards sold this way. I was not even aware Topps sold selective cards this way.
It’s a long way from buying a pack for a quarter at Rader’s Stationary in White Plains during the Roy McMillan administration—his managing tenure lasted about as long as the flavor in the bubble game that came with those 1975 cards.
Right below Bartolo in the Cooperstown display was Cleon Jones “In Action” card from 1972, running toward third base at Shea. It took long past the summer of ’75 for me to understand why Cleon was so quickly banished from the Mets. Manager Yogi Berra soon followed.
And wait, isn’t that Roger McDowell with the mask in the card on the left? If only he could have hidden that Dodgers shirt. We know his inner prankster will always be a 1980s Met.
Tom Seaver’s Plaque
Mike Piazza, of course, has the only other plaque bearing “NY” that does not stand for the Giants or Yankees. But seeing that this is 50 years since Tom’s first Cy Young season and health issues keep him from the upcoming commemoration of the 1969 team, this is the place to end our trip.
For a guy who was all business on the mound, Seaver wears a big smile on the plaque. They squeeze more verbiage onto the plaques now, but the Twitter-esque character limit forces the issue and create sentences that stay with you. Grover Cleveland Alexander won 373 games and still owns the single-season shutout record (16); he has two sentences and one discusses a single at-bat in the 1926 World Series for the Cardinals “by striking out Tony Lazzeri with the bases full in final crisis at Yankee Stadium.” Babe Ruth was “the greatest drawing card in the history of baseball.”
Piazza helped “rally a nation” with his “dramatic home run in the first Mets game in New York following the 9/11 attacks.” And Seaver was simply a “Franchise power pitcher who transformed Mets from lovable losers into formidable foes.”
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Seaver did all that and more. I got to see him pitch before and after the trade. And I saw him beat the Mets at Shea in the last game before the 1981 strike. It was an honor to watch his Mets teams, even if their ineffective bullpen and inconsistent hitting engendered a feeling of angst that would make present-day Mets fans feel right at home. He’ll be missed this weekend. But you can always find his smiling face in Cooperstown.