It was 50 years ago and the New York Mets were about to head into the 1972 season and expectations were riding especially high. After having surprised the world in 1969, with 100 regular season wins and a World Series title, the Mets finished with identical 83-79 records and third place finishes in 1970 and 1971. But things seemed to be in motion to push the Mets back to the top of the National League’s Eastern Division.
Key injuries hampered the Mets a bit…but it was more so that the Pirates of the Pittsburgh Lumber Company proved too much for the other teams to overcome. The Mets led the National League in team ERA in both 1970 (3.45) and 1971 (2.99) as well as leading in the categories of strikeouts and WHIP by wide margins. But like the rest of their division rivals, they just didn’t have enough thump. And it was something the team did try to address in the previous two seasons.
The New York Mets began the process of strengthening the offense on December 10, 1971 when they traded away Nolan Ryan.
Following the retirement of Ed Charles at the conclusion of the 1969 season, the Mets would attempt to find a right handed (hopefully a power) bat to man third base. At least in a platoon with the left swinging Wayne Garrett. (For some reason, the Mets hierarchy never felt confident enough in Garrett’s abilities to award him the full-time job.
The first attempt to fill the void in 1970 was getting Joe Foy from the Kansas City Royals. An epic failure in itself. Catastrophic because it sent Amos Otis to the Royals. The Mets followed that up by getting Bob Aspromonte from the Atlanta Braves. Both moves made no sense. Neither player had any kind of a history of being the kind of player that would fit the Mets needs. In fact, both had a history of being the exact opposite.
So that brings us to the Mets going to the well a third time…with the same theories behind it. On that day of December 10, 1971, the Mets pulled off one of the most notorious moves in their history by sending Nolan Ryan, and three other players, to the California Angels for former All Star shortstop Jim Fregosi.
OK…so years later the Yankees would get Alex Rodriguez and slide him in next to Derek Jeter. But Jim Fregosi was no A-Rod. Giving up on Nolan Ryan was clearly an ill-conceived decision. Then Mets GM Bob Scheffing said: "But we've had him three full years and, although he's a hell of a prospect, he hasn't done it for us. How long can you wait?... I can't rate him in the same category with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman or Gary Gentry."
Today Ryan would have been given a partnership in a franchise.
The New York Mets plans to climb back to the top were stalled early on.
As the Mets were going through their drills in spring training, behind the scenes, the Mets were still trying to make a big move to push the team over the top. But there was also something else going on behind the scenes – labor talks. And before the teams could break from spring training, on April 1, 1972, the players conducted the very first players’ strike in Major League Baseball history.
The next day, on April 2, 1972, after playing a round of golf with his coaching staff, Gil Hodges would drop dead of a heart attack.
And although the players’ strike was going on, halting the start of the season and any games, the Mets hierarchy, namely M. Donald Grant, in an embarrassing display and in total disrespect to the Hodges Family, ignored any mourning period and held two press conferences. The first was to name Yogi Berra as manager. The second, on April 5, 1972, was to announce the trade of Ken Singleton, Tim Foli, and Mike Jorgensen for Rusty Staub.
Many people would get irate for saying “obtaining” Rusty was a bad trade. But, in hindsight, it was. The Mets did not get the best Rusty Staub, even though he amassed 500 hits as a member of the club during his years with them. His best years were with the Astros, Expos, and Tigers, where he amassed 500 hits with each of those clubs as well. Staub would only play 66 games as a result of a fractured wrist.
The Mets gave up the third of the triumvirate of highly touted outfielders, Ken Singleton (Amos Otis and Leroy Stanton being the other two). Singleton would go on to be a big-time hitter for the Expos and then the Orioles for many years. A switch-hitting power and RBI bat that the Mets coveted, and, ironically, continue to covet many years later. The few years that Staub gave the Mets in his first tour of duty with the Mets after that trade, was not worth the cost of Singleton.
With the season finally underway (the players’ strike lasted 13 days), the Mets were not off to a great start and the injury bug began a different kind of strike. Then on May 11, 1972, the Mets made a trade with the San Francisco Giants to bring Willie Mays back to New York club in exchange for a young right handed pitcher Charlie Williams and cash ($50,000). Giants’ owner, Horace Stoneham, was able to secure an agreement from the Mets that they would pay Mays $50,000 per year for the first ten years of his retirement. (Sounds a lot like Bobby Bonilla-esque to me.) This was said to be strictly an ownership move – at the behest of Joan Whitney Payson – as Mays was her favorite player when she was a fan and part-owner of the New York Giants.
While it was nice to see Willie back in New York, it was an ill-advised move. It disrupted the team in many ways…as there was no place for him to play. Tommie Agee was the starting centerfielder and his having to yield to Mays didn’t sit right when he was the incumbent for his fifth season now…and was coming off his best season in 1971. Ed Kranepool (also coming off his most productive season) and a young John Milner were already manning first base. Add to that the fact that Mays was making a hell of a lot more coming off the bench than Agee was, and other regulars, and it made for disharmony in the clubhouse.
The New York Mets were so decimated by injuries that they actually had to start all three of their catchers in one game.
On July 11, 1972, with the Mets short on players, Yogi’s starting lineup had second-string catcher Duffy Dyer behind the plate (filling in for a banged up Jerry Grote) with third-string catcher Bill Sudakis playing first base against the San Francisco Giants. Koosman was the starting pitcher facing a lineup that included a first baseman named Willie McCovey, right fielder Bobby Bonds, and some young guy playing third base by the name of Dave Kingman.
The Mets were being two-hit by the Giants Ron Bryant while Kooz was hanging tight against the Giants. When the rookie Milner, playing left field, was the next casualty to go down with an injury during the game, Berra, needing an outfielder, chose to have Grote come off the bench and put the gear on, and moved Dyer to right field. Teddy Martinez, a utility infielder, who had been forced into outfield duty, moved from right field to play left.
I loved Yogi but have always questioned his managerial decisions and this was one of them. Dyer had never played another position other than catcher in professional baseball, or even at the collegiate level. Grote, meantime, had shown to be a very capable third baseman over the years. And Sudakis had played third base, first base, and outfield while with the Dodgers before coming to the Mets.
So why not have Grote go to third base, move Fregosi who had been playing third to first base, and have Sudakis go to the outfield? No…Berra sent Dyer to right. And in his only chance in his career playing right field, Dyer muffed a ball that cost two unearned runs. The Mets ended up losing the game 6-1.
The very next day, on July 12, 1972 the Mets had all three of their catchers in the starting lineup…something that is unheard of. You be hard-pressed to find a Major League team with three catchers on their roster, let alone in a game at the same time!
This time, Berra kept Dyer behind the plate but, inexplicably put Sudakis at first base again, and this time put Grote in right field. The results weren’t as bad as the previous day, as Jon Matlack tossed a four-hit shutout for a 4-0 victory. A member of the Giants lineup that day…catcher Fran Healy.
Any Yankees fan will tell you that the Yankees often had two catchers in the game simultaneously as Berra and Elston Howard often switched off between catcher and left field. Maybe that was Berra’s thinking? The difference is that that was done on a regular basis. The Mets situation was created out of necessity, not because two superstar Hall of Famers were occupying two spots in the lineup at the same time.
It was just not the kind of season that you wanted to remember. The Mets had some good players…there’s no doubt about that. But the production just wasn’t there. Injuries surely took their toll as Kranepool, who still was not given the full-time first base job, did not reach 500 at bats yet again, yet still led the team with 122 games played. Seaver had another great season winning 21 games and could have easily won another Cy Young Award. But Koosman and Gentry were beset by injuries that greatly hampered their ability to start a number of games.
Milner had a pretty good rookie campaign slugging a team-leading 17 home runs. And with Koosman and Gentry shelved for a lot of games, Matlack won 15 games and the NL Rookie of the Year Award.
As bad as it was…the Mets still finished 10 games over .500 – going 83-73 - for a third place finish in the NL Eastern Division. It was a season that had a lot to remember, but also a lot that you would love to forget.