All championships are miracles, somewhere, if you think about it.
Even if a team assembles a lineup full of Galácticos and runs away with a championship, it seems like a miracle for that time, that place, those athletes, those fans.
But here in New York, the Greatest Little Town in the World, we know that our miracles are bigger and better, more stupendous than any other miracles, just because.
Take 1969 – precisely 50 years ago, when the Amazing Mets won everything, which is why there is a year-long (more, in the planning) of celebrations and evocations and memorials, to say nothing of a one-event boom in the publishing industry, just as there was in 1970.
I have just read – and enjoyed -- two of the lunar tide of books cresting this spring.
One is “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: The ’69 Mets, New York City, and the Most Astounding Season in Baseball History,” by Wayne Coffey.
See what I mean about New York being the center of the universe?
Coffey’s book is delightful because it replays the surprising surge by a franchise known for its goofy, even charming, failures. (Casey Stengel! Marvelous Marv! Bedsheet banners!)
Coffey also catalogues how the Mets firmed up before our unbelieving eyes under the talents and Marine steeliness of manager Gil Hodges and franchise superstar Tom Seaver. Some reporters (me) never believed it until Cleon Jones caught the last out and went to one knee in what only could be construed as prayer.
But….the very best part of Coffey’s book is the work he did nearly half a century after the fans stopped ripping up the Shea lawn for souvenirs. Coffey, it turns out, was a schoolboy playing hooky, in that scrum, on that day of days. Later he became a good and versatile reporter for The New York Daily News. Now he writes books…and works at them.
I loved, absolutely loved, catching up with people I knew half a century ago. Coffey discloses a previous link between Hodges and the mid-season acquisition, Donn Clendenon, who has posthumously become a more vital part of those Mets. Also, Coffey discloses that Clendenon was mentored at Morehouse College by a graduate named Martin Luther King, Jr., and was often a guest in the King home.
By 1969, Clendenon was also a salty vet who hit the Met clubhouse motor-mouthing, heckling everybody, the way the 60s Pirates had done. He told Gil Hodges, Jr., the teen-age son of the manager, to man up and defy his Marine dad. Gilly was wise enough to tell Clendenon: no way.
Coffey pays attention to the bigger picture – Karl Eberhardt, the self-proclaimed Little Old Signmaker in the stands, and Jane Jarvis, the hip jazz musician who played the Shea organ with wit and talent, and two batboys from my high school (the late, lamented Jamaica High) who were mentored by Joe Austin, Mario Cuomo’s legendary amateur coach.
With Shakespearean breadth, Coffey describes the major players and also the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of the Amazing Mets. Yes, it was a miracle.
The other book I have read is “Here’s the Catch: a Memoir of the Miracle Mets and More.” If the book sounds like Rocky, earnestly thundering to epic catches and humiliating gaffes, that is because he has been writing it on his own for a while. He describes himself as an average-IQ human and middle-of-the-pack major leaguer but his curiosity and zest have made him much more, over the years.
Rocky, going on 75 and vibrant, tells about departed teammates and soul mates like Tug McGraw and Ed Charles and Tommie Agee – guys with whom he competed and talked and drank and ate ribs and gallivanted.
Having known him since he was a teen-ager in Met camp in 1965, I know Rocky to be an autodidact (one year of being a jock in college) who often demonstrates his eclectic tastes. He follows the music of the Marsalis Family of his adopted home of New Orleans, and he also mentions classical music…and the Globe Theatre of Shakespearean time….and Jackson Pollock…and Monet….and Don DeLillo and so on. He means it. That is Rocky.
Maybe the best part of Swoboda’s book is growing up in a working-class neighborhood of Baltimore – relatives with tempers and guns and wit and opinions, two of them working in the morgue, pulling gory pranks on cops. Then there was the family flasher. Plus, the Chinese cook his earthy grandmother married, who smoked and drank and drove erratically and taught him how to make and eat Chinese food.
Swoboda writes about his lovely redheaded wife, Cecilia, and how Casey and Edna Stengel, childless, fussed over the Swobodas’ first-born, and his active scorn for the Vietnam War and the instant rapport when he visited the troops over there, very close to combat.
He laments behaving like a jackass toward Hodges, who was not just resolute with big hands but also a wily manager. All sports memoirs should be this earnest, this real.
On my incoming table are books by Art Shamsky about 1969, plus Ron Darling’s book, mostly about 1986, which was, of course, another miracle.
They all are, but some are more miraculous than others.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.