The worst thing about the Mets breaking camp has been that Terry Collins keeps opening his mouth. So far, I’ve found pretty much everything he’s said to be unsettling. He loooooves Ike’s swing! He loooooves Eric Young in the leadoff spot! His standard deference to veterans like Dice-K, Farnsworth, and Valverde. The comment that Juan Lagares has “earned” the right to start the first game of Spring Training in CF. After that, “Hellooooo Chris Young!”
I realize that Terry is here because he does only what he’s told, energetically. I’m not foolish enough to think that he makes important decisions, but I believe his comments reflect the organization’s thinking. Oh well. The Mets have kind of bummed me out. Maybe it’s winter’s tug, I don’t know. I probably just need to see some games, spend time under baseball’s metaphorical sun.
One thing that’s always helped has been reading. This time of year, I like to knock back a few baseball books.
I’ve been flying through Summer of ’68 by Tim Wendel. It’s excellent, moves well, and is loaded with fascinating anecdotes. For starters, the book accomplishes one of my favorite things in a baseball book, which is that it integrates current events into the story of the season. Context is everything. And what a tumultuous time that was in America. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the riots at the Chicago Convention, the Vietnam War, and so much more. Baseball doesn’t occur in a bubble; its players, especially back then, still lived in the real world.
While the ’68 World Series was the first one I avidly watched, rushing home after school to watch the day games on television, I don’t have clear memories of the regular season. It was as if my eyes were opening for the first time and the first thing I really saw was, “Holy shit, Bob Gibson!” Game one is carved into my bones like scrimshaw. Sad thing is, I can easily conjure the grainy footage we witnessed on TV after the assassinations, that lonely balcony in Memphis, the confusing scene at the Ambassador Hotel in California. There I was, seven years old, eating Pop-Tarts and watching the death of innocence on national television.
Here’s one story from the book I wanted to share, since it involves the Mets. After the death of 42-year-old Bobby Kennedy, William Eckert, the baseball commissioner, wanted the teams to play.
From Summer of ’68:
“After Kennedy’s death, President Johnson declared a national day of mourning. But in response, baseball commissioner William ‘Spike’ Eckert opted to postpone games only in New York, between the Yankees and the Angels, and in Washington, between the Senators and the Twins. He told the other ballclubs that their particular contests could go ahead, as long as they didn’t start until after Kennedy’s funeral services were concluded.”
That, folks, is what we call a failure of leadership.
In Houston, the Astros were set to play the Pirates. Many players felt uneasy about it. Maury Wills refused outright, staying in the trainer’s room, reading To Seek a Newer World as a form of protest. Roberto Clemente was prepared to sit out, too, but his mind was changed by Pirates manager Larry Shepard. The clubhouse was divided. Recalled Clemente:
“This is one of the things wrong with our country — too much indifference. I didn’t want to play but I did. I also voiced my opinion.”
On the Astros, two players — Bob Aspromente and Rusty Staub — sat out and were fined for their actions by Astros GM Spec Richardson. Red Smith subsequently wrote: “Among all the mealy-mouthed statements, it remained for Richardson to come up with the nauseating prize. The games would go on, he said, because ‘Senator Kennedy would have wanted it that way.’”
In Cincinnati, the Reds voted on whether to play and came out deadlocked, 12-12, with one player abstaining. Management was not at all happy, and the players were pitted against each other. Management called for a revote, and prevailed, 13-12, with manager Dave Bristol angrily declaring that he’d play with any nine guys. Now it was Milt Pappas, slated to be that game’s starting pitcher, who was disgusted. Again, another clubhouse divided. The vocal Pappas was traded three days later.
Meanwhile, Wendel writes:
In San Francisco, the Mets were scheduled to play the Giants at Candlestick Park. It was Bat Day for the home team, with an estimated 40,000 tickets sold. Unlike some ballclubs, the Mets stuck together and decided, as a squad, not to play. Even under threat of forfeiting the game, management told players to stay at the team hotel and not show up at the ballpark.
The Giants owner, Horace Stoneham, thought about all those tickets and was determined to play the game. The Mets voted no. The Giants, in turn, threatened the New York club with forfeit. The Mets voted no again. At that point, Stoneham relented “in deference” to Kennedy’s death. Yeah, right.
Said Ed Kranepool: “We’re from New York. It’s a matter of respect. If we do forfeit, so what? It’s only one game. It’s better than playing.”
Later on, Frank Mankiewicz, press secretary for Robert Kennedy, sent a grateful telegram to Gil Hodges on behalf of the entire Mets team. It read:
“Please accept my personal admiration for your actions. Senator Kennedy indeed enjoyed competitive sports, but I doubt that he would have put box-office receipts ahead of national mourning.”
The entire disorganized, disgraceful episode was pilloried in the press, with Dick Young calling for Eckert’s resignation. The Sporting News ran an article titled, “The Aftermath — Baseball Takes a Beating.”
“Baseball wallowed in a morass of confusion and acrimony in trying to decide what to do about paying respect to Sen. Robert Kennedy. For the most part, there was no concrete plan on how mourning [for Kennedy] would be handled.”
At least on this day, the entire Mets organization stood tall. Not an accident, I would contend, that a strong, respected, authoritative manager like Gil Hodges was at the helm. Gil was never much for talking.
RetroSimba recounts the situation, “While nation mourned RFK, Cardinals reluctantly played.
The New York Times article by Richard Sandomir, “Sports History: In Times of Crisis, Debates About Whether to Play Games.”