Champagne for Our Real Friends (and real pain for our sham friends)

January 20, 2021

After the Miracle: the lasting brotherhood of the ‘69 Mets  by Art Shamsky and Erik Sherman. Simon and Schuster: New York, 2019. $28.00

 

I would probably read through to the bitter end a terrible, dull, poorly written, overlong, repetitious, inaccurate, derivative memoir written by any member of the 1969 Mets, and in fact possess several thumbed-through books on my shelf that fit that description pretty closely, but Art Shamsky’s new book fails to meet any of those standards.  I recommend it to any reader, even to one born long after or long before the 1969 season, or to one who doesn’t particularly care for that Mets team, or even to a fan of the 1969 Chicago Cubs and (therefore) an avowed detester of Gil Hodges’ World’s Championship team. It’s just that good a book. I would say this book is Art.

It is not, however, a Sham. The concept behind this memoir is brilliant and touching and genuine and original and providential:  coming up on fifty years after that Annus Mirabilus, one teammate decides to put together an expedition to pay a visit to his greatest teammate, living a continent away, and dying (as it turns out) of dementia, so he organizes a sampling of that team’s heroes with him, rearranging everyone’s schedule and hoping for no last-minute complications, and these four men in their seventies set out on their cross-country odyssey. That idea, described in the book’s first chapter (entitled, plainly enough, "The Idea"), is clear enough, and its readers hang in suspense to see how it will be fulfilled, as the main body of the book runs through the 1969 season in great detail, much of it new to me, and in the book’s final chapter, "Vineyard of Dreams," the suspended idea is fulfilled with warmth and intelligence and wit and charm and, yes, even wisdom.

Sham, as the Mets knew their platoon outfielder, is a great teller of tales, although I’m not sure how much credit goes to him or to his co-author Erik Sherman, who accompanied the group from New York to California where they met with Tom Seaver. Which author supplied the wit, and which the wisdom?  There’s enough of each for both to bask in praise, but I want to single out Erik Sherman for his part in making this memoir as readable as it is. Picking the right co-author, it seems to me, is the most crucial choice any ex-athlete can make, and yet so many make it poorly or hastily or thoughtlessly. It’s often overlooked in evaluating a book’s shortcomings or its achievements. Since there are so few of the former here, and so many of the latter, I’m calling the choice of Erik Sherman as one of Shamsky’s finest.

His other choices include which teammates to invite to join him on his journey. Sham invited Rocky, and Buddy, and Kooz to make the trip with him. I refer to each of them (Swoboda, Harrelson, and Koosman, as well as Shamsky) by nickname because that was one of the joys of After the Miracle: the lasting brotherhood of the ‘69 Mets, learning how freely each brother nicknamed each other. Players often have private nicknames that never appear in baseball-reference.com or on baseball cards, but are used in the clubhouse, in bars, on airplanes, just among themselves, so it feels like a sort of special privilege to hear a fair sampling of how they really speak to each other, the nicknames, the insults, the affection, the anger, the truths they share in private that fans rarely get to hear.

I did, one time, have the pleasure of sitting next to Art Shamsky, a few years ago at a SABR function in the 42nd Street Library in mid-town Manhattan. He was speaking on some Mets-related panel, and I remember him mostly because he looked so little like a ballplayer, much less a slugger, which (in the context of the late 1960s Mets) he was. He was slender, just about six feet, with a full head of gray hair, but in his day he was one of the Mets’ few power-hitters. I had his 1966 Strat-o-Matic card (still have it, somewhere—I should have asked him to autograph it) that made him out to be a Jimmie Foxx- or Hank Greenburg-type slugger: in 1966, with the Cincinnati Reds, he’d hit 21 HRs in 234 ABs (figures I don’t need to research) and, a bit famously, 4 of them in consecutive ABs.  Strat players who had Shamsky’s card were tempted to play him more regularly than 234 ABs would imply (I’m sure the 1966 Reds won more than their share of pennants in Strat-o-Matic games), but in 1969 Shamsky’s role on the Mets was just that, a role: he and Swoboda platooned in right field, pretty much all season long, and their combined stats were very respectable: 23 HR, 99 RBI in 630 ABs.

Shamsky’s choice in teammates to make the pilgrimage with him out to Seaver’s Napa Valley vineyard is as intriguing as his choice of co-author: in choosing his platoonmate Swoboda, for example, he gets to discuss at length how teammates feel about sharing playing time, how much they resent each other, and support each other, and root for each other to succeed. There was a lot of strict platooning on the 1969 Mets—Shamsky and Swoboda in RF, Kenny Boswell (Shamsky’s roommate) and Al Weis at 2B, Ed Kranepool and Donn Clendenon at 1B, and Wayne Garrett and Ed Charles at 3B, plus two other positions where rest and Army commitments made catcher Jerry Grote and shortstop Harrelson miss a large number of games.  Gil Hodges’ managing, starting with his platoon system and the free use of his bench, is the touchstone that these Mets kept returning to, an often-discussed topic but one I’ve never before read about in such analytical detail as here.

By 2017, Swoboda was an outspoken liberal, and there might have been some mischievousness in Shamsky’s invitation to Jerry Koosman to make the trip, in that Koosman is an outspoken conservative, who teased Swoboda non-stop about Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi and everyone in between. Swoboda gave as good as he got, which sounds like my idea of a nightmare journey, trapped in a series of small spaces with someone feeling free to belittle your core beliefs, and your good sense, and your manhood, but the sub-title of the book shows how Koosman and Swoboda got through this ordeal: they fought bitterly, but in the way that brothers fight. In the book’s penultimate paragraph, they hug each other as Koosman boards his plane ride home, and Swoboda says:

 

You know, I love that crazy SOB. I really do. We couldn’t be more diametrically opposed politically and otherwise, but I know he doesn’t say the things he does to piss me off. He says those things because that’s what makes sense in his brain—so he’s welcome to them. Besides he’s a fascinating guy and was a warrior for us when we needed players to stand up for us on the field.

 

Those are Swoboda’s sentiments, and probably Koosman’s, but it’s Shamsky’s point. He feels a sense of connection to each of these guys, and to the others on that team, because they shared the rarest of experiences fifty years ago of triumphing over a league, a sport, an entire nation that thought very little of their abilities. And truth to tell, even the most fanatical of fans, the looniest of loonies (I’m speaking of myself here) would freely concede that their mortal enemies, the Cubs, and the Atlanta Braves, and the Baltimore Orioles and probably a half-dozen or more teams competing in 1969, were better baseball teams. If you played the 1969 season a few hundred times again, in Strat-o-Matic or in your own mind, the Mets would be the World’s Champions very few of those hundreds of times, but they won the only time that counts, and that struggle makes for bonds that few personal differences can break.

Even back then, there were chains that personal differences attempted to break apart: Swoboda wore a chain of love beads around his neck, one night on a cross-country airplane flight when there was some serious drinking going on, and a veteran pitcher, Don Cardwell, yanked them off his neck, and they went at it. I’ve been reading about this fight for half a century, but I never heard it from Swoboda’s point-of-view as I did here: where he got the beads (a fan gave them to him leaving Dodger Stadium), what Cardwell said, what Swoboda did in response, how the conflict was resolved.  And the subject came up in this book when Koosman decided to raise the memory with Swoboda.

Koosman is probably the most interesting, provocative character in After the Miracle.  I’ve been a fan of his, a huge admirer ever since I heard, on the radio in a bus during some seventh-grade field trip, him pitching himself into a terrible corner early in his rookie year (loading the bases with San Francisco Giants) and striking out and popping up three batters in a row to escape, Houdini-like, unscathed, to at least one bus-load of applause. Koosman won some huge, gut-wrenching games for the Mets, as many as Seaver it seemed (though always slightly behind him when wins were tallied up), including my only in-person playoff game, a crucial win against the Reds in 1973, and I just love the guy—his guts, his competitiveness, his finesse, his smarts, his skills.

All of that is reinforced in Shamsky’s telling, but there’s a roguish element here that I’d never seen so clearly. Shamsky tells one story in particular that I had never heard, that seems good enough to build a short story around.  I’ll tell the non-fiction version: Koosman, who had always loved gadgets, learned that there was a device that could be inserted into a radio which, if the radio was set on the right frequency, would allow a fake broadcast to be aired. The Mets’ TV director was known to do a letter-perfect imitation of Howard Cosell, so Koosman got him to agree to do a fake-Cosell news bulletin, and he inserted the device into, and set the frequency on, the radio that Seaver kept in his locker. When Seaver was chatting with the Mets’ club President, M. Donald Grant, one day, the fake-Cosell "interrupted" a broadcast to announce the shocking trade of Seaver to the Houston Astros for Doug Rader (with throw-ins like Ed Kranepool and some rookie pitcher on the Astros whom the Mets had just lit up in a game, just for credibility.)  Seaver, of course, went completely ballistic upon hearing this news, totally apeshit, utterly bananas. (I once told a schoolmate who used "apeshit" and "bananas" synonymously that I never want him to prepare my breakfast cereal for me.) And he wasn’t alone: Kranepool started bashing bats against clubhouse furniture, and the whole of Mets-dom in that little room was howling with outrage at the cruelty, the senselessness, the malice of the trade. (An added touch was that the Mets had recently gotten into an ugly brawl with Rader, quite possibly the least attractive teammate at that point in time.) But no one was more upset than Seaver.

Except, maybe, for M. Donald Grant, who presumably had to approve such a trade beforehand, and who was simultaneously denying the truth of the report to Seaver and Kranepool while digging a deeper hole for himself if the report were true. It was so successful a prank that Koosman swore his co-conspirator, the Cosell-imitator, to silence and no one could figure out whose prank it was. But wait: it gets better.

Grant eventually, of course, did approve a trade of Seaver, about two years after the fake-Cosell incident took place, and Koosman got into a pitcher’s duel with Seaver, which landed them both on Ralph Kiner’s postgame TV show, "Kiner’s Korner," where they were asked to tell any good stories from their decade as teammates. Koosman chose this moment to tell Seaver, on the air—live television, mind you—of his authorship of the incident.

Seaver’s immediate response needed to be tempered considering the venue he was in, but you can bet he wanted to strangle Koosman then and there, while screaming curses as Koosman turned all shades of purple with Seaver’s thumbs pressing on his windpipe. He kept it under control, though, until the credits started rolling on the TV show, and then (still on camera) he put his mouth to Koosman’s ear and uttered some choice language as Koosman laughed and laughed.

Shamsky cleans up Seaver’s words in his rendition of the story, but it isn’t too hard to figure out what he said to Koosman: "You effing mother-effer," over and over and over again, until they shut off the lights in the TV studio. 

(Tracer: because Koosman specified the inclusion of that rookie pitcher on the Astros, a fellow named Doug Konieczny, who played in only two games against the Mets but "whom we just pounded whenever he came into a game," according to Koosman, I assumed that this prank took place after Konieczny’s appearances facing the Mets, both in the spring of 1975 but before the trading deadline of mid-June, by far the likeliest time for a mid-season trade to happen.  So the prank happened between June 4 and June 9, 1975, when the Mets went on the road until after the trading deadline.  As to the big reveal , it had to have come in 1977, as Koosman says, on one very specific day, the only time Koosman in a Mets uniform faced Seaver in a Reds uniform,  https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYN/NYN197708210.shtml , August 21, 1977.  The score was not Reds 4, Mets 3, as Koosman maintains, but rather 5-1, though to Koosman’s credit, the score was 2-1 into the eighth inning when the Reds unloaded on him. Koosman’s memory is way off in one other respect: despite his claim that the Mets had pounded Konieczky whenever he pitched against them, and that he "had, like, a 25.00 ERA against us," Koosman had just beaten Koniesczy in a 1-0 pitchers’ duel in that June 4th game. Elsewhere, Koosman boasts of a newspaperman’s claim that Johnny Bench had a lifetime .123 BA facing him, which is off by only a bit over 100%: Bench’s lifetime average against Koosman is in fact .256, not much below his lifetime average overall of .267.  My conclusion is that his tales are wearing elevator shoes, perhaps of the same type favored by Donald Trump, and need the same warning helpful to any buyer of Trump’s rhetoric or products, namely "caveat emptor.")

The image of Koosman that comes through Shamsky’s memoir is of a troublemaker, a provocateur, a cunning scalawag, a clever trickster both on the mound and off.  The 1969 team was filled with such personalities—Tug McGraw enjoyed starting some conflicts, all detailed thoroughly here ("You pitching tonight, Jerry? Good. So am I"), and Donn Clendenon comes across as a rival to Koosman, agitating his teammates and upsetting the Big Applecart constantly. But other Mets come across as genuinely humble, shy, self-effacing, calming presences, which would seem a necessity on such a rollicking club. Ed Charles, for example, was Clendenon’s roommate, and no further contrast could be drawn in terms of creating havoc for the sake of sheer delight. Somehow, Shamsky manages to capture the essence of many, many of his teammates—I’d say "most"—in passing, as he tells the chronology of their 1969 season.

Clendenon, to pick one example, seems to have turned the club around when he was acquired in mid-season, but from reading this book, his contribution to the team appears to be in setting a tone off the field rather than on it.  I think his on-the-field contributions have been exaggerated in 1969 lore by a bunch of factors: his previous success with the Pittsburgh Pirates (he peaked with 98 RBI one year and came close other years), his subsequent success with the 1970 Mets (he set a new club record for RBI with 97), his fabulous World Series in 1969 (4 HR in 5 games), and the Mets’ won-lost record in 1969 BC and AD (Before Clendenon, 30-26 or .536, and After Donn, 70-36 or .660). The legend therefore assumes that he was a powerful slugger from the moment he arrived on June 15th, but actually he got off to a very mediocre start, certainly speaking statistically.  Shamsky mentions his slash numbers to praise them (.252 BA, 12 HR, 37 RBI in 72 games) but if you prorate them to a full season, they’re pretty unimpressive numbers for a savior. His contribution to the Mets was, I think, more psychological than anything else: "When Clendenon came on board," Mets pitcher Jim McAndrew was quoted as saying, "you got the feeling that if the pitchers kept a ball game close, he would help us win it with his bat."

McAndrew, a hard-luck 5th or 6th starter (a 3.28 ERA in his first 400 IP on the Mets, but a losing W-L record on a winning team), was another great favorite of mine, a shy, modest athlete who struggled with self-confidence to the same degree players like Clendenon and Koosman and McGraw exuded it. Oh, one other thing about Clendenon’s on-the-field performance in 1969: although he’s often treated as an instant pep-me-up injection of amphetamines, cocaine, and steroids to the Mets’ offense, people forget how in his first month or so he was just awful with the bat. In his first 25 games with the team, he had a crummy .613 OPS (1 HR in 68 plate appearances) and Mets’ fans might have wondered if they should have let five promising young players go to the Expos just to acquire this over-the-hill bozo. (His OPS in August was over .900, and exactly .800 in September.  It peaked at 1.509 in the post-season.) All in all, his bat helped on the playing field but his personality caused the team to jell in the clubhouse, on long airplane trips, and in hotel bars in the wee hours of the night.

His roommate, Ed Charles, had a similar effect but in the opposite way from the boisterous, ever-needling Clendenon. Shamsky devotes almost no space to discussing one of the more annoying (to my mind) traits for which Charles is known, that of the poet-laureate of baseball because, quite frankly, I find his poetry to be wretched doggerel, and mostly valuable (insofar as such things are valuable at all) in terms of their inspirational content, and other such pablum suitable for young children and small animals. ("Go find the ball, Patches—come on, you can do it!"). But the poetry itself—really, no thinking person would call it "poetry"; I would call it "execrable verse, sub-Hallmark division" and let it go at that—was the smallest part of Charles’ ability to inspire his teammates when they needed inspiration.

Shamsky tells the touching story of Charles consoling a very young teammate going through his first major league slump, putting an arm around him, assuring him that he’ll have many, many more chances to succeed in MLB. "He calmed me down, and I appreciated that while I built up my confidence," that once-young, now-old teammate told Shamsky. That teammate was Wayne Garrett, about whom I’ve written (almost certainly too much) on BJOL as one of my inner-circle favorites, a much-overlooked OBP guy with fair power, who could have been the franchise’s first solid 3B man if the Mets had appreciated his gifts properly instead of trading away half of the AL All-Star team in a futile attempt to replace him with a "name" third baseman (Joe Foy, Jim Fregosi, Bob Aspromonte, et al.  They never, to their credit, did try to trade for Doug Rader). He was never an All-Star, but could have played 1000 games or more at third base throughout the 1970s, contributing with his bat and with his glove—he was a skilled and under-valued ballplayer.

But not in 1969, his rookie year. It might seem a bit odd that Charles would be such a rich source of encouragement to Garrett in several ways: for one, they were in competition all year long for the job of Mets’ third baseman. Charles had been the team’s regular third baseman in 1968 and was one of its few offensive stars in that horrible offensive season, but Garrett took his job away as 1969 went on. The 36-year-old Charles was the team’s oldest player, on the verge of extinction: he retired after the World Series, understandably considering that his .207 BA was among his more impressive stats in 1969, while Garrett was the team’s youngest player, at the age of 21. They were each from central Florida, but as a black man and a white man growing up in that part of the world, they probably had more differences in their upbringings than similarities. But Garrett credited Charles with patiently helping him adjust to the major leagues at his young age, above any other teammate’s help and support. "I owe a lot to Eddie," he told Shamsky.

The competition for the third-base job on the Mets in 1969 was, incidentally, outstanding in that the incumbent, Charles, did a terrible job, but not that much worse than the player who took his job away, In fact you could say that, as brutal as Charles’ year was, Garrett’s was more brutal: Charles’ OPS+ was a lowly 68, but Garrett’s was only 54. The reason that they got over 640 collective plate appearances can be explained very simply: the Mets’ third-string 3bman, Bobby Pfeil, had an OPS+ of 49. As Casey Stengel used to say (and not as Jimmy Breslin’s book title misquoted him) "Can’t anyone play this here game?"----the Mets performance at third base in 1969 might be the single weakest ever for a World Champion. If you can name a weaker one, I’d like to hear it. (The previous year’s champion Tigers did have similar offensive holes at 3b and at SS, granted, but it was, after all, 1968, when one batter in the league topped the .300 BA mark. By a single point.) And despite that world-class weak spot, the position was, somehow, manned in every sense of the word.

Did you notice that Garrett referred to Charles as "Eddie"? I never heard that nickname before I read this book. I’ve probably seen the name "Ed Charles" in print at least 50 times per year for the sixty years I’ve been a baseball fan. (Coming up on my anniversary sometime in 2021!) Well, maybe not that first year, 1961, when I was reading my first "chapter books" and Ed Charles was still a minor leaguer, but my point is of the thousands of times I’ve read his name, Shamsky’s book is the first to have referred to him as "Eddie," which apparently was the way his teammates spoke of him and to him. 

It’s a tiny thing, the way players refer to each other, and yet not so tiny. It bespeaks a type of intimacy, a bonding against the outside world, to which players sometimes delighted in giving fake "public" nicknames, such as Ed Charles’ "The Glider."  I’ve devoted most of a BJOL column to this nickname (https://www.billjamesonline.com/bob_turley_stan_lopata_ed_charles/?AuthorId=2​3&Year=2017&pg=3 ) but we get even more details here about that faux-nickname’s origin. As I explained in that column, the nickname was partly a disparagement of Charles’ declining skills, as in "You’ve run out of power, but your career is moving forward by sheer momentum" as much as it was a description of Charles’ natural grace on the ballfield. The part of that story that I love is the "Never throw a slider to the glider" myth that the Mets spread maliciously in the media. Shamsky here describes a Met (not Charles) answering the omnipresent question "What kind of pitch did you hit?" with "A slider" whenever he was clueless as to the nature of the pitch. "A slider" sounds knowledgeable, and it sounds difficult to hit, and may even be accurate—but the idea was to have a confident answer, whatever the truth.

Shamsky tells of several nicknames that I never knew about before: "Cli" for Cleon Jones,  "Cheech" for Bud Harrelson, "Jack" for Al Jackson, and "Gent" for Gary Gentry, in addition to the more publicized nicknames, whose etiology he often clarifies, such as "Clink" for Donn Clendenon, which I always assumed referred to the sound a ball makes when striking his metallic glove, instead derives from a typographical error (as opposed to a fielding error) trying to fit his long last name into the confines of a box score. The dialogue among teammates has the ring of genuine conversation: telling a story about Cleon Jones, for example, Shamsky mentions the name of Jones’ boyhood friend and fellow Alabamian Tommie Agee, and the conversation switches gears suddenly as Shamsky recalls the way the two star outfielders had of arguing with each other (again, like brothers, almost constantly) in an incomprehensible patois that no one but they could comprehend. "It was like some kind of Mobile-ese," Shamsky reminds the group. "It was a language none of us understood. When they started talking fast, you might catch a word out of an entire sentence," and Seaver chimes in with "Oh, yeah, it absolutely sounded like a foreign language."

I ought to mention, just about here, that the climactic visit to Seaver’s vineyard, the ostensible purpose of the entire book, is fraught emotionally, not just for a sentimental fan but, as any witness to a declining friend or family member can attest, for anyone. As the above quote indicates, Seaver was still frequently lucid, but there are moments where his memory fails him, where he repeats himself from a few minutes before, where he tires easily, and where he can’t perform normal functions of a man his age, much less of a dominant athlete of his age. It’s sad, but the reunion with old teammates was probably among the happier days of Seaver’s final years.

It’s also sad because one of the teammates, Bud Harrelson, makes the long journey while suffering from Alzheimer’s himself. It took some courage and some determination for Harrelson to make this trip at all—much simpler for Harrelson’s caretaker (an ex-wife!) to have told Shamsky that Bud wasn’t really up to the long trip and the storytelling, the reminiscing, and the repartee that would play such a large part in it, but Harrelson did come along, although his presence is notable for the spareness of his verbal contributions.  Shamsky doesn’t draw undue attention to this detail, but it’s more powerful on those rare occasions when he does join the spirited, rapid-fire discussions that Shamsky, Swoboda and Koosman are having---he pipes up a memory, and because it so rare, you get a real sense of how hard it is for him to follow, much less join in, the conversation.

But the conversations go beyond sentimental, touchy-feely camaraderie. Another of my favorites on that 1969 club—oh, hell, they’re all my favorites—is Jerry Grote, whose personality is discussed here mostly in terms of its flaws. Shamsky tries to sand off the rough edges, noting that both Seaver and Koosman go on the record at one point to assert that they actually liked him, not an assertion that one normally has to make about a teammate, but the general consensus of the teammates is that he was, in Cleon Jones’ words, "a bitch." Other terms for Grote include "difficult," "cantankerous," "mean," "nasty," "unpleasant," "grumpy," "ill-tempered," "cranky," "foul," "crotchety," "red-assed," and "ornery" but these adjectives apply mostly to his personality on the field –off the field, he could be a decent fellow at times, though often not. "My wife and his wife were very good friends," Swoboda said, "but he just wasn’t that nice to my kids. I was like—Hey, man, cut them a break!" Grote was obnoxious to his teammates on the field, and downright vicious to his opponents—I would say, on the verge of psychopathic. What I loved about him, as a player, was his competitive fire—he never stopped hustling, never eased up on the throttle, and I’m sure his drive served to remind his more laid-back teammates to keep their noses in the game—or else. The image of him that replays in my memory more than any other is the way he always hustled out of his crouch to back up the first baseman whenever a ground ball was hit (with no runner on third base). I have no specific memory of his ever catching a stray throw to first base, though I’m sure he did, just of the consistent full-speed sprinting in his catcher’s gear on that off-chance that he could prevent a runner from taking an extra base.

Of all those adjectives, the best one to describe him is "ornery," I think, because it’s such an American term. A little etymological digression here: I looked up "ornery" the other day and found that it derives from the word "ordinary," a mispronunciation and eventually a distortion of the meaning. Ordinarily, "ordinary" means something like "dull," but "ornery" took on connotations of "unpleasant" too. It’s a type of Beverly-Hillbilliesism like "varmint" (for "vermin") or "vittles" (for "victuals") or "critters" (for "creatures,") which comprised at least 30% of Granny Clampett’s vocabulary. (Technically, "southern mountain dialect":  https://www.jstor.org/stable/452728?seq=1 .) I’ve applied this word "ornery" to Grote and to Dick Allen in my last few articles, and it seems appropriate to each, though in slightly different senses.

I also like the word because one of my favorite Dad-jokes had me taking my daughters out to a museum and asking them why certain painters were known as "Ornery Matisse" and "Ornery Rousseau." This joke got tiresome, I understand, after the first few dozen repetitions but I continued to chuckle at it as the decades wore on. I’ve been laughing as I type this paragraph.

After the Miracle is the least egotistical memoir I’ve read in a long time—Shamsky is much more present here as a narrator, an organizer, a convener than he is as a subject of this book, though he doesn’t avoid revealing truths about himself in about equal proportion to the other characters. Rather than simply tell of his legitimate claim to baseball fame, the four consecutive HRs in 1966, he tells it as a story about his relationship with Donn Clendenon, who was on the opposing team that day, and who, after they became teammates, feigned a comical outrage that his Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t have the sense to knock Shamsky to the dirt after he had the nerve to hit the first HR against them.  "We shoulda knocked you right down!" he told Shamsky for years, from 1969 to his death in 2004. "How in the world could you hit four homeruns in a row?"

He also attributes another sharp remark to Clendenon about a doubleheader that Shamsky declined to play in. These two games took place on September 12, 1969, also against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were starting two right-handed pitchers that day, Bob Moose and Dock Ellis, pitchers that the left-handed Shamsky would normally be starting against. But Shamsky took himself out of the games because that day was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. He felt misgivings about this decision, because the Mets were still in a tight pennant race and he knew he would be blamed if they were to lose the doubleheader without him in the lineup (or even in uniform). As it happened, the Mets offense fizzled without Shamsky, but they swept the doubleheader anyway by twin scores of 1-0, both runs driven in on singles by pitchers Koosman and Cardwell.

When I returned to the club the next day, there was a sign by my locker that read "We Won the Doubleheader. Why Don’t You Take Off the Rest of the Year?" I didn’t know for sure who was behind the latest bit of clubhouse humor, though it had to have been Clendenon.

Shamsky’s moral conscience also makes an appearance when, telling about the segregation that Charles and Clendenon endured as they rose through the minor leagues, he recalls his own black and Latin teammates in Macon, Georgia in 1962 being dropped off to dine and sleep in segregated restaurants and hotels: "I regret that I wasn’t adamantly opposed to the blatant segregation….at its worst. I don’t know if taking a stand would have made any difference, but I wish I had tried."

In 1988, Shamsky, in partnership with Mets pitcher Ron Darling,  opened up a restaurant in lower Manhattan called "Legends" at 17 Murray Street-- one of the more intriguing aspects of my brand-new academic career was that, merely by crossing City Hall Park, I could eat lunch there and catch a glimpse of Shamsky, who was often sitting in a corner quietly, alone, looking like the middle-aged, gray-haired restaurant owner that he was, unnoticed by the thousands of Mets fans who ate there every year. Eventually, he and Darling sold the place, and then Rudy Giuliani got elected mayor—among my many reasons for despising Giuliani from the first minute I heard his name was that, in his self-importance, he closed off the cobblestoned promenade in front of City Hall (it endangered his security, he said, though the street had remained safely open since 1814) which made my walk to Legends more circuitous. I think there’s still a restaurant there today, though not called "Legends" anymore. I still think of it as "Shamsky’s place."

Remarkably, he managed to mention virtually all of the 40-odd players and coaches on the Mets roster, almost of all them colorfully and with distinct particularity, giving genuine insight into their personalities, their careers, and their lives in so short a span. After the Miracle is 302 pages, but I feel like I’ve read a 604-page or 906-page volume about the team. In my time, I’ve read many more than 604 or 906 pages about the 1969 Mets, and I’ve sometimes felt that I could do a much better job of compiling a history of that squad than has ever been done. But now I’ve abandoned that ambition. There is not a chance in the world that I, or anyone, could ever hope to do a more thorough or astute rendering of that championship team.


 
 

COMMENTS (12 Comments, most recent shown first)

mauimike
Wow Goldleaf, the only thing better than your review was the book. It's the best baseball book I've read in 50 years. Roger Angell stuff. It was hard to read the things about the World Series and the celebration, my eyes were full of tears. In '69, at, 18, on the west coast I had lost interest in baseball. It was sex, drugs and rock n roll. It must have been fun to follow it everyday. It's not War and Peace, but for baseball it's as good as it gets. Thanks.
11:36 PM Feb 7th
 
DougBJO
Thanks for this great book review! The players on this team were so memorable!
1:38 PM Jan 23rd
 
tickeno
This is a great article. Your best ever. ty
1:42 AM Jan 22nd
 
sayhey
I enjoyed Wayne Coffey's They Said It Couldn't Be Done from last year.
8:02 PM Jan 21st
 
elwarren
Great recommendation! BTW, this title is available as a free streaming audiobook on Hoopla, which is a service provided by a large % of public libraries in the US (and maybe Canada as well). You can access it via your local public library's web page and there is a Hoopla app you can also download to your device. You will need a library card. Many public libraries now make these cards available online for folks to access this and other e-services. Government at its best! If you can't figure it out, call your local library...
6:31 PM Jan 21st
 
110phil
Shampoo for our sham enemies, and real poo for our real enemies.
3:12 PM Jan 21st
 
bhalbleib
Wow, great write up. Not a Mets fan and born in 1969, so no direct knowledge of any of this. But I just bought the book on Amazon and will enjoy reading it. I also perused the baseball reference pages of each of the 4 gentlemen, which is always fun and was very happy I did so. First, Harrelson has a very interesting and famous birthday (I'll let everyone do their own research on that, but I am sure everyone will agree with me when they see the date). More importantly to me, Shamsky went to high school in the city I lived in when I went to law school (University City, MO) and went to undergrad where I did (Mizzou). So that was cool.
12:26 PM Jan 21st
 
Marc Schneider
Steven,

That is a fantastic article. I was a Braves fan in 1969 so not too happy about the Mets. (I still consider the Mets the luckiest team in baseball history considering the actual talent level of the team, but I've come to realize that's baseball.) But Shamsky, being Jewish, was always interesting to me. I remember the doubleheader he sat out but the Mets won anyway.

I also read "The Teammates" and found it a very moving book. As I read about more athletes dying that I grew up watching, or at least hearing about, it certainly reminds me of how time passes so quickly.

Thanks for this.
10:44 AM Jan 21st
 
mpiafsky
I loved this write-up. Thank you for sharing it.
10:02 PM Jan 20th
 
steve161
Steven, I never thought I would hear you gush.

It sounds like a wonderful book, so thanks for the tip. I've already bought the Kindle version.

I'm reminded of Halberstam's The Teammates, about the road trip taken by Dominic DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky to visit the dying (but distinctly non-demented) Ted Williams in 2001. Bobby Doerr, to whom they were equally close, is unable to make the trip, because of his wife's stroke. Also a wonderful book, about a friendship that lasted for 60 years, though it doesn't purport to be a first-person narrative.

Regarding "ornery": check out "I Wonder as I Wander".
6:33 PM Jan 20th
 
MarisFan61
(the below 'link' doesn't work as a link, but does work via copy/paste into the address bar)
5:47 PM Jan 20th
 
MarisFan61
Haven't fully read this yet, but wanted to say right away, thanks!
Glad especially about how good you feel this is.
I've been interested in Shamsky for multiple reasons, including because of that unbelievable game in 1966, which he didn't even enter till the 8th inning.
https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CIN/CIN196608120.shtml
5:46 PM Jan 20th
 
 
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