THE 10th BEST TRADE IN METS HISTORY
* June 15, 1969: New York Mets trade Jay Carden, David Colon, Kevin Collins and Steve Renko to the Montreal Expos for Donn Clendenon.
When I think of great trades, this one quickly comes to mind. A prime example of a team going for it. Management identified a team weakness, then went out and got the perfect player to address it. Just a bright, shining example of everything a trade should be. I absolutely love it.
In mid-June 1969 the idea that the New York Mets could win the new Eastern Division was still very optimistic. New York was over .500, 30-25 at the time of the deal, easily the best start in team history. But on June 15 they were still 8.5 games back from the Chicago Cubs.
Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and rookie Gary Gentry were headlining a fabulous pitching staff that was keeping the team in game after game. With some additional firepower there was room for major improvement. Ed Kranepool, the team’s primary first baseman, was having his second consecutive miserable year. Clendenon, a veteran power hitting first baseman, filled a big hole.
Nothing comes for free in life and prospect Steve Renko went on to have a nice major league career, throwing almost 2,500 innings with a sub 4.00 lifetime ERA. It didn’t matter to Mets fans of that time, it is hard to imagine the 1969 club winning the pennant without acquiring Clendenon.
The organization had pitching depth in the system, so Renko, while good, was a guy they could move. A classic deal of moving organization excess to address weakness. That team desperately needed a bat. Clendenon really was something new on the scene, from my point of view. It is fair to say that he was the Mets first power hitter.
Donn Clendenon was a fascinating man, and I think it merits a brief side discussion here. (Credit Ed Hoyt and the SABR Baseball Biography Project for much of the info that follows.) He graduated high school at age 15, with one B+ keeping him from valedictorian status. His “big brother” at Morehouse College was a family friend, none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. Clendenon’s stepfather, Nish Williams, was a veteran of the Negro Leagues, a player-manager for the Atlanta Black Crackers. Growing up, Donn met players such as Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Satchel Paige, Roy Campenella, Cool Papa Bell, and more.
Donn was surrounded by strong, proud, exceptional black men — and those same qualities were expected of him. He was a college football and basketball star, and upon graduation was offered a contract from the Harlem Globetrotters. In the end, Joe L. Brown and Branch Rickey Jr. lured him with a $500 contract to join the Pirates organization, where he roomed with Roberto Clemente.
In a moment that would later take on more significance, in 1964 Clendenon sought out Gil Hodges for advice on playing first base. The same year, Clendenon was accepted into Harvard Law School, but he found it too difficult to study at Harvard while playing for the Pirates’ famed Lumber Company. He drove in 96, 98, and 87 runs in ’65, ’66, and ’68. His final season with the Pirates, 1968, was a tough year for Donn. His family friend and former mentor, Martin Luther King, was assassinated in April; his beloved stepfather, Nish Williams, succumbed to cancer on Labor Day.
The stage was set for change. Clendenon was exposed in the expansion draft and picked up by the Montreol Expos, who then flipped him to the Houston Astros in a trade involving Rusty Staub. However, Clendenon and the Astros could not agree on financial terms — so Clendenon, standing up for his rights, announced his retirement. The Expos refused to return Staub, but were ordered by commissioner Bowie Kuhn to send “additional compensation” to the Astros.
After a slow start in ’69, Clendenon was ripe for the picking. Enter Gil Hodges, who had closely followed Donn’s career since they met in ’64. Gil wanted big Donn, and told Mets GM Johnny Murphy to get it done. Notably, on the day Clendenon joined the Mets, Gil Hodges informed the 33-year-old veteran that he was going to be used exclusively as a platoon player. It took a strong manager to deliver that message to the proud veteran. Importantly, Clendenon became a clubhouse leader on a young squad, an important figure for Mets outfielders Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee. After the Game One loss in the 1969 World Series, Clendenon received permission from Hodges to address the disappointed team. He ended his speech, “Trust me, fellows. We will win!” Before Game Two, Clendenon got into an exchange with Paul Blair, telling him, “We are going to send you home with your f***ing heads between your legs.” Then he went out and broke a scoreless tie in the 4th inning with a home run.
That was the ultimate turning point in the 1969 season, as the World Champion Mets did not lose another game in that Series. And that was not Donn’s only contribution to the cause, overall his slash line in 16 plate appearances was .357/.438/1.071 with 3 HRs. Clendenon backed up his words with action.
That 1969 Series included many heroes and heroic moments but only one man could be voted Series MVP. That man was Donn Clendenon.
Some folks might forget, but Clendenon was a monster in 1970, breaking the team RBI record (Frank Thomas, 94, 1962) by knocking in 97 runs. Get this, he accomplished that in only 396 ABs with a .515 SLG. The Mets were 1st in attendance that season because, you know, New York and baseball used to be a passionate thing. The fans liked going to the park. In 1971, Ed Kranepool had the best year of his career and earned the lion’s share of ABs at first base. Donn, at 35, started showing his age. He finished out his career with one last, sad season in St. Louis.
Donn Clendenon’s overall time with the Mets was not very long but he gave us special memories that have lasted a lifetime.
They began with this deal, a signature moment in team history.