For Want Of A Nail

May 25, 2017

There is a lot of material in my research for a SABR-bio on pitcher Bill Wakefield that I’m never going to be able to include, especially in light of their 4000-word limit, so I’m going to pass along here the stuff that’s of interest to a sabermetric crowd, perhaps, but not to a wider audience. Oddly, I find this excluded material much livelier than the more mundane stuff the actual bio requires me to include--dates, stats, minor-league stops, Wakefield’s post-career jobs.

SABR’s 4000-word limit illustrates perfectly what I tell my writing classes all the time. Students complain vehemently when I assign them 4000-word papers for their final project, which is why  I haven’t actually done that in over a decade—4000 words, after all, is about 16 typed pages, and too many of their heads exploded contemplating writing that much on a college paper: was I insane? Was I an evil taskmaster? Did I enjoy torturing them?

Well, yes, but that’s beside the point. I assure them that when they graduate college and become professional writers, or at the least grad students or people who have to write memos for their jobs, the difficult part of writing will not be producing a certain large quantity of words, but rather saying the essence of what they have to say in UNDER a certain quantity of words that they will find frustratingly small.  "If you do your work right," I tell them, "you will unearth a great deal of material in your preliminary research into almost any topic that you will somehow need to compress into a readable form that is as SHORT as possible while still conveying the nub of your research. You will not find many supervisors, graduate-school professors, or bosses who want to read papers or memos that are a single sentence longer than they absolutely need to be, and these folks will often frustrate you by giving you a maximum length rather than a minimum length to express yourself in. Life is tough in the big world."

They look at me like I’ve lost my mind, but this Wakefield bio is a perfect example of the principle I’m trying to get across. It’s also a perfect example of another precept: you can make an entire book out of the smallest detail, by following every association you draw, and every association you draw with every association, out to infinity. One of the best examples of this precept is Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine, which takes place entirely in the mind of a man taking a short escalator ride: during that ride, 20 or 30 seconds long, the man has a series of thoughts and associations and images that flitter through his mind, which take Baker an entire (and interesting) novel to describe fully. I recommend it highly.

Bill Wakefield did not have a long major league career—his was so short, in fact, that if he had played one fewer season in the major leagues, he wouldn’t have had a major league career at all. His first game was in April of 1964 and his last appearance was in October of that same year. So it might seem that I have a very easy task in writing his biography for SABR, except for my associations with those aspects of Wakefield’s one year with the Mets that don’t belong in his SABR-biography but are of much greater interest to me than some aspects that do belong.

I could easily write a 4000-word account of his final MLB appearance alone.  There’s enough material there for an entire book, though Wakefield was in that game only a little bit longer than Baker’s character rode on the escalator. The argument could be made that a single pitch of Wakefield’s may have determined the outcome of that season’s entire pennant race, and it is that single pitch that I’m going to describe here.

The Mets were playing the Cardinals on the last game of the year. That morning the standings at the top of the National League were:

 

Team

Wins

Losses

St. Louis Cardinals

92

69

Cincinnati Reds

92

69

Philadelphia Phillies

91

70

 

The Phillies were playing the Reds that Sunday afternoon, in Cincinnati. If the Phillies beat the Reds, and the Mets beat the Cardinals, all three of these teams would finish with identical 92-70 records, resulting in baseball’s first (and as of today, its only) three-way tie for a league championship. The World Series was scheduled to begin on Wednesday in the National League city, but first the champion would need to be determined, a process that could take days to resolve, requiring at least three games to take place on Monday and Tuesday or requiring that the World Series be delayed at least one day and maybe more.

If Cincinnati won and the Cardinals won, there would be a mere two-way tie, which would be exciting enough. The Cardinals seemed favored: after all, the Phillies were still a dangerous if wounded opponent for the Reds, and the Cardinals were facing the worst team in baseball, possibly in the history of baseball, the New York Mets. If the Cards beat them, and Reds lost too, St. Louis would win the National League championship by a single game. On the other hand, if the Mets won, and the Reds won, then Cincinnati would win the NL.

Beating the Mets would seem a relatively easy task for the Cardinals. Their advantages over the Mets were many: in addition to having the best record in the league and playing the team with the worst record, the Cardinals were playing in their home park, Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Before this series began, they had beaten the Mets ten times in fifteen tries overall, and five times out of six at Busch Stadium. Each team was on an eight-game streak, the Cardinals having won their last eight games and the Mets having lost eight in a row. The Cardinals’ starting pitcher in this final game was Curt Simmons, a veteran three-time All-Star pitcher finishing one of his best seasons (a career-high 18 wins), while the Mets’ pitcher was Galen Cisco, finishing up a career-high 19-loss year. The Cardinals’ entire roster was filled with future Hall of Famers (Lou Brock, Bob Gibson), former and future MVPs (Ken Boyer, Dick Groat) and former and future All-Stars (Tim McCarver, Bill White, Julian Javier, Curt Flood, Bob Skinner and Mike Cuellar).  The Mets’ roster was pretty well stripped (their only current All-Star, second baseman Ron Hunt, was unable to play due to injury) but at its finest was no match for the Cardinals.

By that logic, though, the Cardinals should have beaten the Mets in the previous game, and also in the game previous to that one. The Mets and Cardinals were finishing up a three-game series, a victory in any single game of which, it turned out, would have given the Cardinals the championship outright. The only reason the Cardinals found themselves in this do-or-die situation at all was that they had lost the first two games of the series to the Mets. By beating the Cardinals in both games, the Mets had backed them up against this ominously steep wall.

To set the stage properly for this final game, I’d need to explain how the Cards had lost those first two games in diametrically opposed fashions: by a score of 1-0 against Hall of Famer Gibson in the first Mets’ victory, and in the second by a score of 15-5 against 20-game winner Ray Sadecki. Both games were dramatic wins for the Mets, and near-tragic losses for the Cardinals, and I could succinctly spend a few thousand words describing each in excruciating detail.

And of course I would need to provide some background to the Cardinals finding themselves in a close pennant race at all—only one detail of which, the Phillies’ collapse after leading the NL by as much as 6 1/2 games on September 20th, is a  five-act drama in itself.

But as to that final game itself, I want to focus here on only one half-inning, the bottom of the fifth, in which Wakefield found himself throwing the last pitches he would ever throw in the major leagues, and upon which the Cardinals’ eventual victory would turn.

Going into the bottom of the fifth, the Mets had been leading the Cardinals 3-2, knocking Simmons out of the box in the top of that inning. Bob Gibson, less than 48 hours after throwing over 100 pitches in that heartbreaking 1-0 series opener, was quickly summoned into this game in relief of Simmons— Cards’ manager Johnny Keane all but literally called out "All hands on deck!"   Keane couldn’t afford to save Gibson’s arm for Game One of the World Series, because if they lost this game, there might be no World Series for the Cardinals. 

When Galen Cisco opened the fifth inning by surrendering a single to Lou Brock, Mets manager Casey Stengel ordered Wakefield to begin warming up in the bullpen, for the third time that sunny, breezy afternoon. After Bill White singled, Ken Boyer doubled Brock home, sending White to third. At that juncture, Wakefield was called into the game.

Wakefield, it should be noted here, had been the Mets’ most reliable relief pitcher, by far, in that woeful 103-loss season. He had already set a team record for game appearances, and this, his 62nd appearance, established a mark that no Met would equal for another 13 years. He had also started four games, getting roughed up in Milwaukee the previous Thursday night, having the worst possible beginning to the game: after the first three Milwaukee batters reached base, the cleanup hitter, Ed Bailey, had hit a grand-slam home run.  As a starting pitcher overall, Wakefield had not had a successful year: in his four starts, Wakefield averaged fewer than four innings, losing three of his starts, winning none of them, and posting an astronomical 9.82 E.R.A.  But Wakefield’s 58 appearances in relief were as brilliant as his starting stats were grim:  he threw 105 innings of relief, in itself is a huge workload by modern standards, with a 3-2 Won-Lost record. Most impressively, in his relief appearances his E.R.A. was a sparkling 2.74.  He was clearly the Mets’ best reliever, and by any standard was one of the very few bright spots on the Mets’ pitching staff of the 1964 season.

He came into this game with Boyer standing on second base and White a-hugging third, the score tied 3-3. There were no outs. Wakefield faced a difficult situation with an even more difficult decision to make.

With first base open, and no outs, many baseball strategists would think that walking the first Cardinal batter intentionally would be the Mets’ wisest choice. That would load up the bases, creating a force at any base, and greatly improve the Mets’ chances of getting a double-play groundball. Wakefield was adept at getting batters to hit the ball on the ground. His best pitch was a two-seam fastball, a sinker, and when he came into a game in a potential double-play situation, that was the pitch he liked to throw. In that summer’s Mayor’s Trophy Game, an annual mid-season exhibition game between the Mets and the Yankees, Wakefield had gotten Yogi Berra, the Yankees’ manager (and recently retired slugger, who put himself into the exhibition as a crowd-pleasing stunt) to hit into a crucial double-play on just such a sinkerball.

On the other hand, if he were to walk that first batter, former MVP Dick Groat, he would be facing the Cardinals’ catcher, Tim McCarver, who was a left-handed batter, and therefore more dangerous for the right-handed Wakefield. He and McCarver had been roommates the previous spring, when Wakefield was in the Cardinals’ organization, and they were still friendly.  Close in age, raised in adjoining states separated by the Mississippi River, the two opponents had, in fact, chatted just prior to this game. Wakefield had approached his old roommate, and asked him how the Cardinals were holding up under the pressure of this ultra-tight pennant race. "Don’t ask," McCarver had confided in his pre-broadcasting Tennessee accent. "We’re getting by on coffee and cigarettes."

If the Cardinals were tight, the Mets were as loose as loose could be. They, after all, had nothing to lose—they were doomed to finish over a dozen games behind the ninth-place team whether they won this final game or lost it, and they knew they would finish forty games out of first place. In a very real sense, this series with the Cardinals meant everything to St. Louis and its fans, and nothing but fun to the Mets and theirs. This was the young club’s first truly meaningful series in their three-year history: its outcome would determine the 1964 pennant, and the Mets were enjoying the thrill of playing a part, even the part of potential spoilers, in determining who would represent the NL in that year’s World Series.

Just before Wakefield entered the game, in fact, warming up, his bullpen catcher, Jesse Gonder, had been teasing the raucous St. Louis fans, calling out to them, "Cincinnati Reds World Series tickets for sale here!" and the fans had roared back their disapproval, loudly, to Gonder. The Mets were clearly enjoying themselves. Wakefield had thought, "Quiet down, Jesse," just before entering the game. When he arrived on the mound, catcher Hawk Taylor came out to have a word with him.

"Go with your best pitch, son, and don’t bounce it," Taylor said to the rookie pitcher, telling him what he already had decided. With a runner on third, Wakefield had known definitely not to employ his curveball, which often would risk bouncing in the dirt, sometimes getting past the catcher entirely and advancing the baserunners. Wakefield also understood that he would eschew his four-seam fastball, to minimize the risk of a long fly ball that would also score White from third base. No, this situation called for Wakefield’s two-seam fastball, the pitch that Berra had bounced into that double-play three months earlier, and his effective slider. Hawk Taylor went back behind the plate, and set up for Wakefield’s first pitch to Dick Groat.

Even with first base open, Wakefield had never seriously considered walking Groat intentionally, or even pitching around him. He would rather face the right-handed Groat than the left-handed McCarver, whose power was much greater than Groat’s.  If Wakefield were to load the bases by walking Groat, and if McCarver then were to slug the ball for extra bases, possibly a grand-slam home run, that would end the game effectively right then and there. With his infield playing in, Wakefield preferred to take his chances pitching to Dick Groat.

He felt strangely calm in that pressure-packed moment, with thirty thousand Cardinal fans howling for a hit, and with the National League pennant resting on how well he pitched. "I’m a lucky kid," Wakefield thought over the clamoring crowd, "born right here in Missouri, everyone in the state rooting for me to fail, and all I have to do is throw a few good pitches, right here, right now. I can do that."

Groat crowded the plate, looking for an inside pitch he could hit, inside-out, to the right side. Wakefield often threw his fastball inside, early in the count. "I liked to jam guys on the first pitch," he says now, explaining why he ranked fifth in the NL that year in "Hit Batsmen," despite his pitching many fewer innings than any full-time starting pitcher in the league.  Groat knew Wakefield’s proclivity for buzzing batters off the plate on the first pitch, but Wakefield knew by Groat’s feet nearly touching the plate what Groat was thinking.

Taylor gave Wakefield the signal for a slider on the outside corner. He nodded, and threw his first pitch. Groat let it go by, and home plate umpire Ed Vargo called it: "Ball!"  Groat had a good eye--the slider might have missed nipping the outside corner for ball one, Wakefield conceded, but not by very much.  He followed that slider with two consecutive two-seam fastballs. Groat swung at both of them, missing the first sinker and fouling off the second. According to announcer Harry Caray in the broadcasting booth upstairs, who had watched the canny Groat for years as an opposing batter and as a Cardinal, "He’s trying to hit it to the first-base side of the infield." If Groat succeeded in that strategy, White would be able to score on such a ground-ball, and if Groat really succeeded, the ball would find a hole between first base and second base, and Boyer could try for home plate as well.

But Wakefield had worked him into a 1-2 count, and the count stayed that way for another two pitches, both of which Groat again fouled off. The veteran slap-hitter and the rookie sinkerballer each felt that he was wearing the other down. Though more than ten years separated them, both Wakefield and Groat were among the more cerebral and best-educated players in the major leagues. Each of them had signed his first professional contract while still enrolled in an upper-echelon college, Groat at Duke and Wakefield at Stanford, and both had parents who’d insisted that in addition to the generous amount of the signing bonus (each amounting to over a half-million dollars in 2017 money) that the team also make assurances that each young man would get to finish his college education. Groat and Wakefield were superb athletes, of course, but they were each uniquely gifted mentally as well, and this battle was one of mind as well as of body. So far, it was a draw. The Hawk, Bob Taylor, signaled for Wakefield’s sixth pitch of the at-bat, another slider that Wakefield threw again over the outside edge of the plate.

This time, Groat obligingly hit it right back to him, on two hard bounces. It was off to Wakefield’s left side, his glove-hand side. As a groundball pitcher, Bill Wakefield had had to be a good fielder of hard-hit groundballs himself, and Wakefield was. Like most pitchers, the first position he had played as a young teenager had been shortstop, the most demanding defensive position on virtually every team, and even among skillful fielding pitchers, Wakefield was especially adept. In his entire professional career, covering six years in the majors and the minors, he would make only a single fielding error, and that wouldn’t occur until 1966, his final year in professional baseball. Up until this point, Wakefield had handled 91 chances and hadn’t committed an error on any of them.

And he didn’t commit an error on this one. His gloved hand went up, the instant the ball ticked off Groat’s bat, and Wakefield’s thought was: "Hold the runner on third, throw the ball to first." It wasn’t so much that those words had formed in his mind, but that this was a play –a grounder back to the box with an unforced runner on third base—that Wakefield had practiced over and over and over, and that had played out in many games, for as long as he’d been pitching: catch the ball, stare quickly into the lead runner’s eyes, fixing him in place, turn, and throw to first base. Wakefield knew this sequence as well as anyone knows how to zip up his trousers or brush his teeth, having performed the sequence thousands of times in his young life.

Moreover, Groat was one of the slower runners in the league. Groat’s defensive position, shortstop, demanded the greatest range of all the infielders, but Groat, who would turn 34 years old soon after the World Series, covered that range mostly though his knowledge of where to play hitters and through his quickness, which is different from speed. Groat had never been fast, even as a Duke University basketball star, where he’d led the nation in both scoring and assists in 1952. Back then, even at his fastest, as  a young All-America point guard, he had relied on sharp instincts and fast reflexes rather than on pure running speed, and he was now twelve years past his peak of running speed, so Wakefield understood he had plenty of time to throw Groat out at first.  Once he’d thrown Groat out, then he could walk the dangerous lefty McCarver, and then get out of the inning by inducing the right-handed Mike Shannon to hit into a groundball double-play. That was the plan forming in Wakefield’s mind as Groat’s groundball bounced to him.

Only he didn’t catch it. It ticked off the finger-tip of his Wilson A2000 glove, the smallest fraction of an instant too late to envelop the groundball on its second hop. It did, however,  after deflecting off Wakefield’s mitt, bounce directly on the hard St. Louis infield to Mets’ second baseman Bobby Klaus (playing for the injured Ron Hunt), who would catch it cleanly and throw to first base in time to get Groat out.

Seeing that Klaus would be too rushed to look his way once the ball deflected off Wakefield’s glove,  however, Bill White took off full-speed to home, scoring the go-ahead run. The Cardinals led 4-3, and they would never relinquish that lead.

But if that slider had been hit only a few inches closer to Wakefield, and if the ball had therefore found its way into the webbing of his glove, the National League pennant race might have had an entirely different result. Had he caught it instead of deflecting it, and stared Bill White into retreating to third base, as Wakefield had done to so many baserunners in his career, the game would have remained tied. Wakefield certainly would have walked McCarver (as in fact he did) and very likely would have struck out Mike Shannon (as in fact he did). With two outs, the Mets infielders would have then been able to play back several more steps, and the groundball that Dal Maxvill would hit (that in fact knocked Wakefield out of the box) might very well have been caught easily instead of going through a drawn-in infield. Wakefield would have then been the Mets’ miracle-worker, emerging scoreless from the no-outs/ two-runners-in–scoring–position jam, instead of the rookie who gave up the pitches that won the Cardinals the 1964 pennant.

Even still, the game was very far from lost at this point. Even after Maxvill’s career-ending hit, which Wakefield describes as a "27-hop bleeder" between second- and first-base that made the score 5-3, the Mets would score another run to make it a one-run game again, and the St. Louis fans remained on the edges of their red-painted wooden stadium chairs until the final innings of the game when the Cards would pile runs on Mets’ reliever Willard Hunter and emerge with a 11-5 final victory, a win that was much dicier than the final score suggests.

The tension in the St. Louis stands and dugout would also be relieved by news arriving from Cincinnati on hundreds of transistor radios throughout the ballpark that the Phillies were simultaneously piling runs on the Cincinnati relief staff, giving Philadelphia an eventual 10-0 blowout win. In just a few minutes, in fact, around the seventh inning of both games, the mood in Busch Stadium went from tense and gloomy to joyous and celebratory. But the Mets had delayed that celebration almost to the end of the season.

It‘s difficult, and foolish, to speculate on counterfactual events in baseball: it’s far from certain, for example, that if Wakefield had caught Groat’s groundball cleanly and thrown him out at first base, McCarver’s subsequent walk and Shannon’s subsequent strikeout would have occurred as they did, because Wakefield might have thrown them different pitches in that different situation, and they might have approached the plate with slightly different objectives in mind.

But while it’s difficult and foolish to rely on such speculations, it’s also very tempting.  If we can imagine that Wakefield’s glove were only an inch or so longer, if we can imagine the gloved hand growing a metaphorical fingernail, and stopping Groat’s grounder, perhaps he could have made a clean play on that ball, and snuffed the St. Louis rally entirely.

If you then suppose foolishly but reasonably that the Mets would have gone on to score the run that they did score in the next half-inning, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that Johnny Keane would have felt desperate enough, losing 4-3 in the sixth inning, to replace Bob Gibson when he walked in that 4th Met run with the bases loaded.  Maybe Keane would have felt that Gibson was plainly exhausted from his 8-inning stint 40-odd hours earlier, and lacked his normal control. As it turned out, Gibson would pitch very effectively from that point on in the game, but he was very ineffective up to that point, loading the bases and walking a run, and no observer would have faulted Keane for taking him out of the game, and putting in a different reliever whom the Mets might have hit hard.

And neither is it unreasonable to assume either that if Wakefield had gotten out of the fifth inning unscathed he might have pitched even longer into the game than he did, and as effectively as he had all season in long relief.  You might not easily be able to extend this line of reasoning into an actual Mets’ win, but it isn’t a totally unreasonable fantasy, either. Ballgames hinge on the tiniest of events sometimes.

And for want of that metaphorical fingernail, it’s not at all hard to imagine Wakefield’s whole career taking an entirely different shape than it did take. As it stands, it’s a real head-scratcher figuring out how Wakefield’s 1964 performance didn’t assure him of at least a place on the Mets’ roster out of spring training in 1965.  But it didn’t.

Looking back, I would assume that the 23-year-old Wakefield held a very secure spot on the Mets’ 1965 roster. As it is, he’d just put in a very strong rookie year, even without my alternative speculations, and the Mets pitching staff in spring training of 1965 was mostly holes, holes in holes, veterans hanging on for a last chance, unproven prospects, sore-armed pitchers hoping for a healing miracle, and just-plain mediocrities, so it’s not as though Wakefield faced very strong competition for the last spot on the staff. I’d just assumed for decades that Wakefield had blown out his arm, maybe by pitching too frequently for too long in his rookie year, but he vehemently denies having any sort of injury, arm or otherwise.

"I wasn’t hurt," he says. "I just came to camp, had a couple of bad outings and they sent me down, that’s all." He didn’t understand the Mets’ thinking at the time, and plainly doesn‘t understand it now.  I went back to see if the stats from the Mets’ spring training of 1965 perhaps described a disastrous display of pitching ineptitude, and what it showed was nothing at all extraordinary. If anything, "a couple of bad outings" overstates the case for sending him down: Wakefield gave up six runs in eight innings of spring training games and found himself assigned to Buffalo, the Mets’ AAA team. He had some good days, and some poor ones, but only a handful of innings in total. That’s practically a working definition in current terms of "small sample size." Sandy Koufax at his peak probably had a few stretches of eight innings where he gave up six earned runs, and no one even back then decided that what Koufax needed was to spend the season in Buffalo.

It’s a puzzler, why the Mets sent their previous season’s best rookie down to AAA after spring training. Although Wakefield doesn’t profess to make sense of the decision, he doesn’t blame anyone but himself. "I didn’t pitch well," he says. "So they sent me down." But since he hardly pitched atrociously in his handful of innings, and had a full season of excellent relief work under his belt, the decision seems short-sighted at best from a 2017 perspective.

What makes Wakefield’s exile to the minor leagues even odder is that the obvious explanation, some sort of personal animosity to him on part of someone in charge, makes even less sense. Wakefield had been a boyhood star growing up in Kansas City, where he’d attracted interest (in part by pitching back-to-back no-hitters in the very competitive amateur Ban Johnson League when he was 17) from nearly a dozen big-league teams vying to outbid each other with bonus contracts, including the New York Yankees, who were managed at the time by none other than Casey Stengel. Also from Kansas City, Stengel had many friends in the area who gave him glowing reports on the teenaged prospect, and Stengel may have fueled the Yankees’ interest in Wakefield as a result of these personal scouting reports. In the end, it was the Cardinals’ matching the Baltimore Orioles’ bid of $60,000 to sign Wakefield, but Casey Stengel had long been aware of, and a fan of, Wakefield’s abilities, and he took a shine to the young man personally.

When Wakefield was making the Mets’ roster in the spring of 1964, having been acquired in a trade with the Cardinals involving two veteran players in their early thirties, Stengel was boasting of his find. "One spring training game, I remember, was against the White Sox," Wakefield recalls of a scoreless, hitless, walkless final inning of the April 7th 1964 game, "and Casey was yelling over to his friends in the White Sox dugout, like Al Lopez, about how well I was throwing." Proud of his discovery, Stengel certainly had no animosity towards Wakefield—if anything, he would have been inclined to protect him against others’ negative interpretations of his pitching stats in the spring of 1965. In an interview with the New York Times on April 11 of 1965, about a week after sending Wakefield down, Stengel included him on a short list of "six prospects that are going to be fine players." (Of the six he named, two did have fine major league careers: "Saboda" i.e. Ron Swoboda, and "Frank McGraw," otherwise known as Tug.)  The 1965 Mets went north with such young flavors-of-the-month as Tom Parsons and Jim Bethke rounding out their staff.

Beside Stengel, Wakefield had other influential friends in the Mets’ dugout, especially coach Wes Westrum, who would take over the team’s helm when Stengel broke his hip in July.  The youngest coach by far on Stengel’s staff in 1964, Westrum had bonded with Wakefield, appreciating the brainy youngster’s receptiveness to the sort of edges Westrum would offer. "Wes could steal signs from the other catchers or pitchers and signal the pitch, he could show me a quick move to throw to first at the top of the stretch to keep runners close, he showed me how to cover the rubber and then ‘accidentally’ throw a pitch a little ahead of the rubber," Wakefield remembers. "Wes was only 41 or so , and seemed to be kind of thinking of himself more as still a player – he would always give me a wink and say ‘Where did you guys go last night?’  After the game, he seemed to want to go with me and Kanehl,  Frank Lary,  Stallard, Bearnarth," though Westrum always ended up going out instead to drink with the elderly Mets coaches and Stengel.  Wakefield lived in a Times Square hotel with some teammates most of his rookie season, travelling on the direct subway line that began at 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, right opposite his hotel, and ended at Main Street in Queens. When Westrum took over the managerial duties in mid-1965, Wakefield might have anticipated a call-up, but none came. Although Westrum would manage the team until late 1967, by that time Wakefield had already retired from baseball. To this day, he can’t explain why the Mets remained so stubbornly reluctant to give him a chance to repeat his excellent rookie season but he remains upbeat and philosophical about it, marveling about how lucky he was to pitch in the major leagues at all, and how vivid his memories remain.

There’s, that’s about 5000 words. I’ll have a few thousand more for you in a couple of days.

 

 

 
 

COMMENTS (18 Comments, most recent shown first)

billsizer
I also sweated out the final two weeks of the 1964 pennant race as a Cardinal fan growing up in Tennessee. Thank you for a very evocative article.
5:19 PM May 29th
 
WinShrs
Tim McCarver would call the 1992 NLCS for CBS. Tim Wakefield was pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates in that series. I think he was a rookie. McCarver kept calling him "Bill" Wakefield. McCarver called him that often enough that CBS ran a graphic that said, "Bill" McCarver.
11:16 AM May 28th
 
wilbur
Well done. Greatly enjoyed it.

The mention of Groat and basketball at Duke reminds of a great trivia question I pissed off my friends with once:
Who is the only man to lead the NCAA in scoring and assists in the same season? Hints: As a professional he won championships with two different teams. He was an MVP once and finished second another year.
10:36 AM May 28th
 
steve161
They talked about Bunning on the Dodger radio broadcast, which I heard some of while returning from a family gathering. Charley Steiner was more eloquent than I would have credited.
11:03 PM May 27th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Huh. Apparently, Bunning's toughness gave out as I was writing that. He died today at the age of 85. R.I.P.
3:26 PM May 27th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I'm arguing that Bunning was one tough sumbitch, too. The difference between him and Gibson in 1964 wasn't who pitched better under tough conditions or who had a manager who pushed him harder, as much as whose team played better behind him down the stretch. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. I'll be ready to publish it over the weekend, I hope.
7:35 PM May 26th
 
steve161
I don't think it'll disappoint me, though I won't necessarily agree with it (I'm less inclined than you are to heap blame on managers). What's interesting to me is what it says about the individual pitcher: it seems probable that Gibson simply was capable of dealing with a tougher workload, which to me says more about his physical gifts than his moral makeup (despite Johnny Keane's "commitment to his heart").
5:32 PM May 26th
 
Steven Goldleaf
By way of preview, which may disappoint steve161, I do go on a bit in the next installment about Gene Mauch, juxtaposing his use of Jim Bunning down the stretch with Johnny Keane's use of Bob Gibson, which I found edifying. My larger point in the next piece is to marvel over how pitchers' roles changed almost simultaneously and instantaneously with Casey Stengel's retirement, though no strict cause-and-effect should be implied.
2:50 PM May 26th
 
Fireball Wenz
Very enjoyable article! I love learning about some of the "bit players" in baseball history.
2:24 PM May 26th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Dylan and Wakefield were each born on May 24, 1941--I'll work on my "days of the week" as well as my "counting to two." Thanks for all the corrections, folks.
8:19 AM May 26th
 
BobGill
Oops! Bob Dylan's birthday was actually Wednesday, the 24th, not Tuesday. And now that I feel the spirit of nitpicking upon me, I'll add that the Mets actually lost 109 games in 1964, not 103. Or if you're referring to their losses going into that final game, the total was 108.

Good article, though. I'd always assumed, as you did, that Wakefield must've hurt his arm. If he really didn't, I'm just as puzzled as you -- and he himself -- are about what the hell happened in 1965.

8:13 PM May 25th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks for that reminder to count to 2, bhalblieb. Brain freeze- - will correct. i also forgot to mention that Tuesday was Wakefield's 76th birthday. Also Bob Dylan's, a coincidence he was unaware of until I pointed it out.
5:45 PM May 25th
 
Jack
Thanks for this excellent piece, Steven.
4:00 PM May 25th
 
bhalbleib
Fantastic.

However, I would point out that Maxvil's single DID occur with 2 outs and, therefore, there was no need for the Mets to have their infield pulled in. Maxvils hit may very well have been a "27 hop bleeder", but it was a 27 hop bleeder that surely made it through an infield playing at normal depth
2:55 PM May 25th
 
steve161
This article features two things I don't think I've ever seen before: 1) the juxtaposition "foolishly but reasonably", and 2) an account of the 1964 season that doesn't mention Gene Mauch.

Very nice piece, Steven. More. More.
2:41 PM May 25th
 
villageelliott
I recall sweating out that game , indeed the previous two weeks as a thirteen year-old. Thank you for bringing it back alive,
2:27 PM May 25th
 
astros34
I love reading those SABR bios. Looking forward to seeing yours on Wakefield!
10:53 AM May 25th
 
Magpie
Fascinating. And I notice, looking at the box score, that Barney Schultz earned his 14th save of the season for the Cardinals. They were ahead 11-4 with one out in the ninth and two men on base when Schultz came into the game. A different time!
7:06 AM May 25th
 
 
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