“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” No, I’m not referring to A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I’m talking about the 1962 New York Mets by Casey Stengel.
My father had been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan while my older brother had supported the New York Giants, but that was before my time. My friends were all Yankees fans. I didn’t want to recycle someone else’s favorite team. I was only ten years old and I wanted a baseball team to call my own. The year was 1962. The Mets were the new team and I was a new baseball fan. It was a match made in heaven. The Mets finished that first season 40-120, with two rainouts that the National League mercifully didn’t require them to replay.
The Mets fortunes had improved ever so slightly by 1963. This is when I decided to turn up the heat on my father. I wanted to see a Mets game. The 1962 Mets had ex-Dodger Gil Hodges. This piqued his interest a bit. However, when the Mets traded for Duke Snider in 1963, this really caught my father’s attention. The Duke had been his guy back in the day. My father would now occasionally look at the box score in the newspaper to see how the Duke of Flatbush was doing with his new team. “There’s a real ballplayer in town again,” he would often say. I wondered how I could turn his player and my team into OUR Mets?
My father claimed to have quit on baseball after his team moved away. He maintained this stance all through the 1962 season, even during my barrage of “Please, please, please, can we go see the Mets?” as only a relentless young fan could. But, now with the Duke on board, he finally gave in. One day after an early visit to church, I found myself on a train, baseball mitt in hand, headed for my first New York Mets game, a Sunday doubleheader vs the Chicago Cubs.
Once in the city, we headed for the subway. I don’t recall exactly what line we took or the name of our stop. All I knew was that I was on a magic carpet ride to see my Amazin’ Mets. Walking up the stairs from the subway station I started singing, “Meet the Mets, meet the Mets, step right up and greet the Mets.” I didn’t know the rest of the song, so I just kept repeating that single verse.
As we left the subway, I suddenly saw it. It was right there, standing in front of me. It was the beautiful palace of baseball, the single most magnificent arena ever to house a team. Glistening in the sunshine like an oasis shimmering in the desert, my eyes gazed upon my own true field of dreams: The Polo Grounds.
“What a dump,” my father said. “They should’ve torn this place down when the Giants left.” That didn’t faze me at all. I was about to enter baseball Valhalla.
As we were walking up a rickety ramp, we passed a guy waving a fist full of tickets. “Who needs tickets?” he said. “Hey, buddy, I’ve got two good seats right down behind the dugout, real foul ball territory. Get them before they’re gone.”
My father ignored him. He squeezed my hand in his a little harder as we headed towards the box office. “But, don’t we need to get tickets?” I asked.
“Not from that guy,” he answered. “Never buy tickets from a scalper.”
“Is that who he was? A scalper?” I said. “But he said he had two good seats right down behind the dugout, real foul ball territory and I brought my glove.”
My father didn’t answer me.
We walked up to the box office and after some negotiations with a man behind a counter, we had our tickets. Before I could see what magical words were inscribed on these golden ducats, another man took them, ripped them in half, and handed the stubs back to my father. “Rainchecks,” he said. I didn’t know what that meant, but my mind was already approaching overload taking in everything I saw, I decided to save that question for later.
We walked through the stadium’s darkened hallways, stopping only to buy some peanuts, a scorecard, and a pennant, until we reached our section. As soon as we started down the aisle to our wooden, peeling painted seats, I was stopped in my tracks by a sight from inside this palace of baseball that literally took my breath away. The grass at the Polo Grounds, shining in the noon day sun, was the single most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my young life. I couldn’t believe anything could be so stunning, so magnificent, and so green. Keep in mind that the only major league baseball I had ever known took place on a 17-inch portable black and white television. I knew that this would be a true coming-of-age moment for me. I would never be the same.
I sat there quietly, taking in my new surroundings. I read every outfield wall advertisement with great interest, as if each one would give me some insight to this magical new world. One sign for a certain brand of hot dogs caught my eye.
“Hey Dad,” I said. “What does the sign that says, ‘All Beef Franks’ mean?”
“They’re frankfurters or hot dogs that are only made with beef and nothing else, just like the sign says,” he said. “It also probably means that they’re Kosher.”
I let that sink in for a second and said, “Hey Dad, what does Kosher mean?”
“It was prepared by certain rules under the supervision of a Rabbi,” he said.
By now, my head was spinning with all this new information. I knew that I was testing my father’s patients, but I still had one more question to ask:
“Hey Dad,” I asked. “What’s a Rabbi?”
I could hear the man take a deep breath as he answered, “Why don’t we watch a little batting practice. You can ask these questions to the Nun in school tomorrow. I’m sure she can explain the whole thing for you better than me.”
My attention quickly returned to the field. I could see that the new Mets phenom, Ron Hunt, was signing autographs down by the dugout (where my seats were supposed to have been!) so I asked, “Can I go get Ron Hunt’s autograph?”
“You can try,” he said. “He’s pretty mobbed down there. I don’t think you’ll even get close to him. But, go ahead and don’t wander. Stay where I can see you.”
Scorecard in hand, I set off on my mission. Sometimes there’s an advantage in being a little guy. You can get over, under, around, and through things that would block a mere adult. With guile and determination, I quickly found myself near the field. Everybody was holding out their scorecards or yearbooks for Mr. Hunt to sign. He dutifully moved down the line, signing whatever he was handed. Finally, it was my turn. I handed my scorecard to Ron Hunt. He paused for only a moment and handed it back to me, saying, “Get a pen, kid.” No, this can’t be happening. My dreams were shattered. Hunt didn’t have the pen. The autograph seekers supplied the pen. I raced back to my seat in hopes that a pen could be produced, but it was already too late. Hunt was gone.
“I didn’t think you’d be able to get through that mob of people,” my father said as I returned to my seat. I just smiled, not wanting to explain how the failure of my mission was due to overlooking such a simple detail. I did have Hunt’s fingerprint somewhere on my scorecard. Knowing what we do today, I probably had his DNA, too. Imagine if I could have cloned it and made a team of Ron Hunts. Think about the amount of ‘hit by pitch’ stats that team would have produced.
The announcement of the starting lineups began. The Cubs names echoed through the cavernous stadium with only a few obligatory boos from the home town fans, names like Billy Williams, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo. They may have been the enemy, but they were great ballplayers and I was honored to see them.
Then they announced the Mets line up. I cheered as each name was called: Joe Christopher RF, Rod Kanehl CF, Ron Hunt 2B, Jim Hickman 3B, Frank Thomas LF, Norm Sherry C, Duke Carmel 1B, Al Moran SS, Carl Willey P. Then it hit me: Duke Snider wasn’t in the starting lineup. We were there to see Snider and what we got was Duke Carmel. What had once been the greatest day of my life was quickly turning into its biggest disaster.
“I’m really sorry, Dad,” I quietly stated.
“What are you sorry about, pal?” he asked.
“I’m sorry that Duke Snider isn’t playing,” I said. “I know he’s your guy.”
“Oh yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t noticed,” he replied. “Hey, let’s go Mets.”
I didn’t know if he was let down or mad, but if he was, he didn’t show it. He was still a baseball fan at heart, and we were here to see the Mets, our Mets.
The Mets would lose that first game 8-1 but I learned a lesson that I still remember today. Norm Sherry came to bat sporting his .136 batting average. “This guy really stinks,” I declared. “He never gets a hit.”
My father looked at me and said, “He’s on your team, and as long as he’s on your team, you should cheer for him, even when he’s not doing well. If you don’t, you’re not being a good fan.” Of course, Norm Sherry would get two hits in this game. After his second poke, my father said to me, “I believe that you might owe Mr. Sherry an apology.” I get it. I still do.
The Mets won the second game 11-4. Tracy Stallard went the distance and the bats erupted for four home runs. Snider batted clean up and collected two hits of his own along the way.
The day became late and the stadium shadows became long, first covering home plate, then the pitcher’s mound, and finally the infield. Around the seventh inning, my father decided that we’d had enough baseball for one day and it was time to head for home. I was too tired to protest. We took the subway to Penn Station and caught a train back to New Jersey. I think I slept most of the way.
As we walked in the door, my mother sent me straight upstairs to brush my teeth and get ready for bed. She asked my father about how our day was. He said, “The Mets lost the first game but won the second. I hope they hurry up and build the new stadium in Queens. The Polo Grounds looks like it doesn’t have too many more games left in it. We had a good time. I missed baseball. I’m glad we went.”
My mother then came upstairs to tuck me in. As I was saying my prayers, tonight I included Norm Sherry in my long list of requests for God’s blessing. I felt I owed it to him. I couldn’t wait to tell my mother about my day, “Today I learned that you shouldn’t buy tickets from a scalper, always bring your own pen to get an autograph, The Polo Grounds is the palace of baseball, always cheer for all your team’s players even if they’re not doing so well, and I’m pretty sure I know what Kosher means but I have to check with Sister Theresa to be sure.” Then I told my mother that I had a secret to tell her, but she couldn’t tell anyone else.” She leaned forward, closer to me as I whispered, “I think Dad is a Mets fan. Good night, Mom.”