By Glen Sparks
The New York Mets muddled their way through a laughably bad debut season of 1962. The Big Apple’s new National League squad, put into play after the Giants and Dodgers moved west in 1958, floundered first and quickly foundered.
By season’s end, the Mets had sunk to 40-120, 60 ½ games behind the pennant-winning San Francisco Giants. No team had finished with a sorrier record than the ’62 Mets since the Cleveland Spiders of 1899 ended the year 20-134, caught in their own web of ineptness.
Roger Craig led the ’62 Mets with 10 wins. But, he lost 24 times. Al Jackson also lost 20 games. Craig Anderson finished 3-17. If you add Jay Hook’s 8-19 mark and Bob Miller’s 1-12 record into the mix (and, at this point, why not?), the five Met hurlers with at least 14 starts finished a combined 30-92. (Some of those losses did come in relief. Still …)
Offensively, Frank Thomas, no, not the guy who just went into the Hall of Fame, was one of the lone bright spots. He hit 34 home runs and drove in 94 runs, playing half his games at the Mets’ first home ballpark, the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. Marv Thornberry (more about him in a minute) added 16 home runs, while former Philadelphia Phillies star Richie Ashburn hit .306 in 389 at-bats. This still didn’t stop opponents from outscoring the Mets by 331 runs.
Casey Stengel managed this crew. He took the job just a few months after getting dumped by the Yankees. Casey had won seven World Series in the Bronx, with players like Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra.
With the Mets, he had Thomas, Ashburn, Craig and loose change. “Can’t anyone here play this game?” Stengel supposedly asked—pleaded?–on at least one occasion.
This may be the classic story that sums up the 1962 Mets: One time, Thornberry hit a triple. Or, so he thought. An umpire called Marv out for missing third base. Casey ambled out to argue. The second-base umpire ran over and told Casey to quit complaining. Marv missed that bag, too. (Thornberry also made 17 errors in ’62 … as a first baseman.)
Things were a little better in Houston. The Colt ‘45s, forerunner of the Astros, joined the Mets as an N.L. expansion team in 1962. The team played at Colts Stadium, a venue famous for holding both heat and humidity, welcoming vulture-sized mosquitos and offering Texas-sized hospitality to rattlesnakes that enjoyed lying in the outfield grass.
The Colt ‘45s claimed just one 20-game loser, Turk Ferrell 10-20. Of course, Turk put up an admirable 3.02 ERA (124 ERA+). So, he wasn’t half bad. Roman Mejiias, an expansion selection from the Pittsburgh Pirates, led the offense. The Cuban-born right-fielder hit 24 home runs, drive in 76 and batted .286. He put up a career-high 3.6 oWAR, remarkable because he retired with a 2.5 career oWAR over nine seasons. (That happens when you put up a season-long oWAR of 0.0 or lower six times.)
Houston actually started the year 31-36. Then, things fell apart. The Colt ’45s went 33-60 from there and finished 64-96 in ’62, good for eighth place in the N.L., 36.5 games out of first. (The Cubs at 59-103 neatly ended up in ninth place, between the Mets and Astros, 42.5 games behind San Francisco.)
So, expansion era baseball did not start well in the National League. Things were quite different when the American League grew by two teams in 1961, at least for one squad. In kicking off baseball’s expansion era, the A.L. introduced the new-look Washington Senators and the Los Angeles Angels (soon to be the California Angels, then the Anaheim Angels, then the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim).
The Angels finished a respectable 70-91 in their opening campaign. Even more impressively, they won 86 games the following year. Smartly, the team drafted young pitchers Ken McBride and Eli Grba (25 and 26 years old, respectively). Both men threw more than 200 innings in ’61 and both had an ERA+ of better than 100.
Dean Chance, another expansion-draft pick by the Angels, hit the baseball scene full-time in 1962. At age 21, he went 14-10 with a 2.96 ERA (130 ERA+). Two years later, the 6-foot-3-inch right-hander enjoyed one of the most overlooked seasons of the modern era. He finished 20-9 with a 1.65 ERA (200 ERA+) and a 9.3 WAR.
So, how did the Angels find so many good young pitchers in ’61, while the Mets were picking up 35-year-old Clem Labine and 32-year-old Roger Craig in ’62? Jack Moore writes on The Hardball Times web site that it wasn’t simply about scouting and good luck. Rather, he writes, the rules changed from one year to the next.
National owners decided they didn’t want the new clubs plucking off young pitching talent, as happened during the A.L. expansion draft. The Angels and Senators chose players from a much larger talent pool than did the Mets and Colt ‘45s.
“The new franchises were picking from the ranks of aging veterans, utility players and swingmen who would have certainly been released to make room for protected minor leaguers come December,” Moore writes.
The article is worth a look. Moore makes some good points. Things got so bad that the National League held a special draft in 1963 to help both New York and Houston. Even so, the Mets lost 100 games in five of their first seven seasons, and Houston didn’t enjoy a winning season until 1972.
Moore also shows some bias, political and otherwise. He also doesn’t mention that the Angels never really built on to their early success. The team didn’t make the playoffs until 1979 and didn’t win a World Series until 2002.
The Senators, meanwhile, playing under the same expansion rules as the Angels, flopped in their second go-round in the nation’s capital. They lost at least 100 games in their first four seasons, posted one winning season out of 11 in D.C., and played in decrepit RFK Stadium. That was more than enough. They left for the Dallas suburbs in 1972, becoming the Texas Rangers.
Maybe with those early Angels teams, it really was just a little bit of luck.