By Glen Sparks
Nolan Ryan put in some time as a paper boy while growing up in southeast Texas. That leads to all sorts of speculation.
How hard do you think young Nolan could fling a copy of the Houston Chronicle? Did he always throw the fastball, or did he like to mix in a 12-6 curveball?
Ryan started delivering newspapers at the age of eight. That was one way to build up arm strength. Supposedly, Ryan could hurl a softball 100 yards by time he was in junior high, 30 yards or so farther than any other kid in Alvin.
Not surprisingly, just a few years later, scouts crowded into Alvin High School to check out the Yellow Jackets’ right-hander. The kid went 19-3 as a senior. He pitched in 27 games and struck out 211 batters, many of whom were likely afraid for their lives.
That was in the pre-radar gun days. So, the argument began: Just how hard was this teenager throwing?
The New York Mets selected Ryan in the 12th round of the 1965 major league amateur draft, the first one ever held. So, 294 players were chosen before Ryan. What happened? The story goes that the Alvin baseball coach, upset at the team’s mental mistakes, put his players through one wind sprint after another. The next day, he told Ryan to take the mound. Still tired, the pitcher suffered through a bad day. Teams took notice; Ryan’s draft position plunged.
But, boy, did Ryan rebound to his old form. From 1965-67, he struck out 445 hitters in 291 minor-league innings. New York brought the kid with the golden right arm up to the majors in April 1968. In his first major-league start on April 14, 1968, against (appropriately enough) the Astros, Ryan tossed no-hit ball for five innings and left the game after 6.2 innings and eight strikeouts. In another early start, he struck out 14 Cincinnati Reds. The rookie was good, very good. Orlando Cepeda even declared that Ryan was the best young pitcher he’d ever seen.
Ryan spent five seasons in New York. He missed the 1967 season due to a military commitment and also suffered from finger blisters. Oh, and he walked a lot of batters. Nolan Ryan, with a fearsome fastball and no real control over it, was the very definition of an “uncomfortable at-bat.”
Over his Mets career, Ryan pitched 510 innings and struck out 493 hitters. He also gave up 344 walks. But, he only surrendered 244 hits. All that led to a 29-38 won-loss mark and a 3.58 ERA (98 ERA+). What exactly did the Mets have in Lynn Nolan Ryan? Would he ever join an outstanding Mets rotation that already included Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry?
In the end, the Mets decided they couldn’t control Ryan’s wild side. On Dec. 10, 1971, they sent him all the way across the country, to the California Angels, along with Frank Estrada, Don Rose and Leroy Stanton, for Jim Fregosi.
Fregosi, a six-time All-Star in Orange County, didn’t do a whole lot in Flushing, Queens. He lasted a season and a half, battled some injuries and got into just 146 games. He hit five homers and batted .233 before being shipped to the Texas Rangers.
Ryan, meanwhile, came into his own in southern California, playing just one freeway exit away from Disneyland. He made 39 starts in 1972 and finished 19-16. Over 284 innings, Ryan struck out 329 hitters. And, despite walking a league-high 157 hitters, he posted a 2.28 ERA (128 ERA+). It helped that he gave up just 166 hits.
In 1973, the Ryan Express went 21-16 with a 2.87 ERA (123 ERA+). He also struck out 383 hitters, beating Sandy Koufax’s single-season record by one and doing it Sept. 27 against the Minnesota Twins in memorable fashion. He punched out Steve Brye for No. 382 in the eighth inning. Tied 4-4 after nine innings, the game went into extra innings. Ryan fanned Rich Reese in the 11th inning for the record, and the Angels won 5-4.
On May 15, 1973, at Royals Stadium in Kansas City, Ryan did what everyone probably thought he would do one day. He tossed a no-hitter. Ryan struck out 12 Royals and walked three. And, he wasn’t done.
The man with a 100 mph heater tossed a second no-hitter in 1973, on July 15 at Tiger Stadium. That time, he fanned 17 and walked four. Ryan retired after the 1993 season with seven no-nos, three more than Koufax. Ryan also threw 12 one-hitters, tied with Bob Feller for the most.
In his epic 27-year career (with the Mets, Angels, Astros and Texas Rangers), Ryan went 324-292. He struck out 5,714 batters, more than anyone in baseball history and almost 1,000 more than No. 2 Randy Johnson. (Ryan also is No. 1 on the all-time walks list with 2,795, nearly 1,000 in front of runner-up Steve Carlton.) The writers elected him to the Hall of Fame in 1999 with 98.8 percent of the vote.
He put together one of the most spectacular careers in the history of baseball.
By Glen Sparks
Rod Carew was dead.
His died on a warm Sunday afternoon in September, just off the first tee at Cresta Verde Golf Course in southern California.
His heart blew up. He had just smacked a drive right down the middle. Suddenly, his chest burned, and his hands went cold. Alone, he struggled to the clubhouse. Paramedics rushed to the scene.
The Hall of Famer’s heart quit beating two times, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. He had 100 percent blockage in one of his main arteries. He had suffered a major heart attack, one cryptically called “a widow maker.”
Paramedics brought Carew back to life. He survived. One of the greatest hitters ever made it through another battle.
First-Ballot Hall of Famer
Eric and Olga Carew were traveling aboard a train on Oct. 1, 1945, in the Panama Canal Zone. They sat in the rear part of the train, the section reserved for “colored” passengers. Olga, expecting a child, went into labor as the train chugged along.
The conductor, when he learned what was going on, hurried to find a doctor. Luckily, Dr. Rodney Cline had booked passage. Thus the baby boy was christened Rodney Cline Carew.
Eric Carew reportedly drank too much. Rod Carew has said that his troubled dad beat him many times. At 14, Rod Carew left Panama with his mom, three sisters and brother for New York City. Eric stayed in Panama.
Rodney, or Cline as many people called him, didn’t play baseball at George Washington High School in upper Manhattan. Instead, he played with the New York Cavaliers, a semi-pro club.
A scout for the Minnesota Twins liked the way Carew peppered the ball all over the field. He arranged a tryout at Yankee Stadium. Carew passed. The Twins signed him for $400 a month, plus a $5,000 signing bonus, on June 24, 1964.
Carew made the big club out of spring training in 1967. He went on to hit .292 that season. He made the American League All-Star team and earned Rookie of the Year honors. Following a down season in 1968 (He still made the All-Star team, but he hit what would be a career-low, .273), the left-handed hitting infielder batted better than .300 for the next 15 years.
He won seven batting titles during his 19-year career and famously made a run at .400 in 1977, settling at .388 and cover shots for Sports Illustrated and Time. He also led the league in hits (239), runs (128), triples (16), on-base percentage (.449) and OPS (1.019). Never a true power hitter, Carew tied for his career-high in home runs that season (14) and drove in a career-high 100 runs. Not surprisingly, writers voted him the A.L. MVP.
Carew stood up to bat like a cat ready to strike. A wad of chewing tobacco bulged out of one cheek. Carew hit from a pronounced open stance and smacked pitches with a magical bat.
Over his 12 seasons in the Twin Cities, Carew hit .334. Following the 1978 season, he took his magical bat to California. In seven seasons as an Angel, he batted .314 and made six more All-Star teams.
Carew retired after the 1985 season. He hit .328 lifetime and collected 3,053 hits. The 18-time All-Star also stole 353 career bases (including seven steals of home in 1969). He easily made the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1991, with 90.5 percent of the vote.
“Have a Safe Journey”
Following retirement, Carew settled into retirement in Orange County, Calif. He did some coaching, both for the Angels and, later, the Milwaukee Brewers. In September 1995, Carew’s 18-year-old daughter Michelle was told that she had a rare form of leukemia. She needed a blood-marrow donor. Michelle’s two sisters were matches for each another, but not for Michelle.
Carew, a private man, went public. Could someone please help? Carew’s pleas went nationwide. The registry rolls for bone-marrow transplants increased by 500,000 that first year, according to a SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) article. Tragically, no match was found for Michelle Carew. She died April 17, 1996.
“All we did is we told her we love her, that we’re all here, and I just told her to have a safe journey,” Carew said, according to a New York Times article.
A few years before, Carew went through a cancer scare of his own. Doctors found and removed a cancerous growth from the inside of his cheek, a result of chewing tobacco. Carew’s teeth and gums were also a mess. He needed more than $100,000 of dental work to get his mouth back into shape, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Carew now lives with—and because of—a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) that sits inside his chest. The LVAD pumps blood because his heart muscle cannot. Doctors installed the device during a six-hour procedure at a San Diego hospital, according to an article in the Orange County Register. He can still play golf, travel, and, yes, go to spring training.
He feels better every day, he told columnist Marcia C. Smith at the Register. He is mending nicely thanks to the devotion of his second wife, Rhonda, and the care he has received at five California hospitals.
On Jan. 30, Carew, who turned 70 years old Oct. 1, attended TwinsFest at Target Field in Minneapolis. The Twins, behind skipper Paul Molitor and young, talented players like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, hope to make a racket in the A.L. Central this season. One of their biggest cheerleaders will be Rod Carew.
Yes, of course, he’ll be at the Twins’ spring training facility in Ft. Myers, Fla., he told the fans at TwinsFest, according to an article in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. He’ll drive fellow Twins great Tony Oliva to the ballpark every morning.
“Oh, I’m going to be at spring training,” he told the Press.
Hall of Fame Weekend
Baseball began giving out the Commissioner’s Award in 1971. It honored one player each year for his hard work in the community. The Commissioner’s Award was renamed the Roberto Clemente Award after the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder died while on a mercy mission to Nicaragua on Dec. 30, 1972.
Carew won the Award in 1977, nearly 40 years ago. Now, the man who also did so much to raise awareness for leukemia research 20 years ago plans to do the same for heart-attack prevention. The first Twin Cities Heart Walk is scheduled for May 14 at Target Field. This event is part of a year-long Heart of 29 campaign. (Carew won uniform No. 29 as a player.)
The 2016 Hall of Fame induction is set for Sunday, July 24. Rod Carew plans to be there.
(You can read more about Carew at his web site.)
By Glen Sparks
The baseball writers were sure in a hurry to knock Jim Edmonds off the Hall of Fame ballot.
Edmonds received just 2.5 percent of the vote last week, or half what he needed to remain as an eligible candidate. He fell 72.5 percent short of the requisite 75 percent for induction.
True, the Hall of Fame case for Edmonds is not a slam-dunk one. He may be one more solid player destined for the Hall of Very Good, along with guys like Reggie Smith, Dave Parker and Tommy John. Still, it seems harsh and misguided for the former centerfielder to be exiled as a one-and-done candidate.
Edmonds retired with 393 home runs over a 17-year career. He batted .284 with a .376 on-base percentage and 1,199 RBI. The California native belted at least 25 home runs in 10 seasons and drove in at least 100 runs in four. He topped the 30-homer mark five times and the 40-homer mark twice. Always eager and energetic as a centerfielder, Edmonds won eight Gold Gloves while filling up plenty of highlight shows.
More stats: Edmonds ended his career with a .903 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) and 132 OPS+. The left-handed batter compiled 60.3 WAR points (Baseball-Reference) with high marks of 7.2 (2004), 6.7 (2002) and 6.3 (2000).
On the downside: He played in at least 140 games in just seven seasons and got into at least 150 games only three times. Edmonds fell 51 hits shorts of 2,000. Surprisingly, he only made four All-Star teams.
Let’s compare Edmonds with a center-fielder from an earlier era, Duke Snider, one of the fabled Boys of Summer for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Snider played 18 years in the majors, one more than Edmonds, who spent much of his career with the Anaheim Angels and St. Louis Cardinals. Snider hit 407 home runs, just 14 more than Edmonds. The Duke collected 167 more career hits than Edmonds and 134 more RBI. Snider batted .295, 11 points higher than Edmonds, with a .380 on-base percentage, four points higher than Edmonds.
The Duke’s slugging percentage (.540), OPS (.919) and OPS+ (140), also beat out Edmonds’ numbers (.527, .903 and 132, respectively). He retired with 66.5 WAR.
Snider made eight All-Star teams. He led the National League in runs scored three times, slugging percentage and OPS twice, and hits, home runs, RBI and on-base percentage one time each. Edmonds never led the league in any important offensive category.
Edmonds did not beat out Snider in any of the aforementioned categories. Still, the differences between the two players do not seem that dramatic. The question is, did Edmonds get a fair shake from the Hall of Fame voters?
The baseball writers elected Snider to the Hall of Fame in 1980, in his 11th year of eligibility. Interestingly In his first year on the ballot (1970), Duke received just 17 percent of the vote. He failed to get at least 30 percent until 1975 and didn’t crack the 50 percent mark until 1977, in his eighth year of eligibility.
The Duke finally made it to Cooperstown with 86.5 percent of the vote. He needed time to build some momentum and for writers to make a solid case for him.
As for Edmonds, he’ll have to wait for the veteran’s committee to examine his HOF merits a few decades from now.
Dean Chance had a secret to share. It was his 1964 season with the Los Angeles Angels.
The big (6-feet-3 inches, 200 pounds) right-hander from Wooster, Ohio, enjoyed one of the most overlooked great campaigns of modern times in ‘64. He finished with a 20-9 won-loss mark (.690 winning percentage) for a Los Angeles team that went 82-80 (.506). And, that barely begins to tell this story.
Over 278.1 innings, Chance put up a 1.65 ERA (200 ERA+) and only gave up 194 hits. He completed 15 of his 35 starts and hurled 11 shutouts. He boasted a WAR of 9.1.
The powerful New York Yankees, the eventual A.L. pennant winner in 1964, shuddered at the very idea of facing Chance. In his 50 innings against the Yankees, Chance gave up just 14 hits and one run. That translates to an ERA of 0.18. He went 4-0 in his five starts, tossed four complete games and three shutouts.
Mickey Mantle said: “Every time I see his name on a line-up card, I want to throw up.”
Just a few years before, Chance was making high school hitters in north-central Ohio feel queasy. Chance attended Northwestern High School in Salem. He went 52-1 and fired 17 no-hitters during his prep career with the Huskies. The Baltimore Orioles signed Chance as an amateur free agent in 1959 ($30,000 and a $12 Greyhound bus ticket). The Washington Senators picked him in the 1960 expansion draft and promptly traded him to the Angeles for outfielder Joe Hicks.
Los Angeles called up a 20-year-old Chance in late 1961. He went 0-2 with a 6.87 ERA (66 ERA+) over 18.1 innings. The next year, he was ready. He threw 206.2 innings and finished 14-10. Chance posted a 2.96 ERA (130 ERA+). Although the young hurler’s won-loss record dipped to 13-18 in 1963, his ERA rose only to 3.19 (107 ERA+).
Chance’s great 1964 season began modestly and with a blister on his right hand. By May 15, he had started only three games. (He actually pitched 11 games in relief during the season.) Then, things began to pick up. By mid-season, his ERA stood at 2.18. In the second half, he shrank it to 1.29. Chance threw a sinking fastball, an excellent curveball and a screwball. He delivered the ball from three-quarters and turned his back to the batter. Dean Chance was nasty.
Baseball writers voted Chance the Cy Young Award winner in 1964. (Baseball only gave out one Cy Young Award until 1967.) He finished fifth in the A.L. MVP voting.
Now, let’s introduce Bo Belinsky. He was another pitcher, a left-hander. Born in New York City, Belinsky grew up in Trenton, N.J. The Angels picked him up in 1962. Belinsky already had earned a reputation for staying out late.
Chance and Belinsky went Hollywood. They toured the town in a red Cadillac, starlets (Mamie Van Doren, Ann Margret, Tina Louise, etc.) in tow. Frank Sinatra occasionally palled around with the pitchers.
The Angels traded Belinsky following the 1964 season. His partying, plus his brawl with a Los Angeles Times reporter, prompted the team to say bye-bye to Bo.
The trade’s effect on Chance remains unclear. Was he ever going pitch better than he did in 1964? He really didn’t come close in 1965. Chance’s ERA nearly doubled, to 3.15 (107 ERA+), with a 15-10 won-loss mark. The next year, he went 12-17 with a 3.08 ERA (108 ERA+).
Los Angeles traded Chance to the Minnesota Twins on Dec. 2, 1966. Moving to the quiet Midwest, Chance put together a 20-14 mark with a 2.73 ERA (128 ERA+). He led the A.L. in starts (39) and complete game (18) and was named the A.L. Comeback Player of the Year. On Aug. 6, Chance threw a five-inning, rain-shortened no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. A few weeks later, on Aug. 25, he no-hit the Cleveland Indians.
Following a 16-16 season in 1968, with a 2.53 ERA (124 ERA+), Chance’s time as a big-time pitcher ended. He pitched three more seasons and went a combined 18-18 for the Twins, Cleveland Indians, New York Mets and Detroit Tigers. He took the mound for the last time on Aug. 9, 1971. He was just 30 years old.
Chance retired with a career won-loss record of 128-115 and a 2.92 ERA (119 ERA+). He tossed 83 complete games, 33 shutouts and had three seasons with more than 200 strikeouts. In retirement, Chance worked in real estate and managed pro boxer Ernie Shaver. He even served for a time as president of the International Boxing Association.
Belinsky—“the playboy pitcher”–and Chance remained friends until Belinsky’s death in 2001 at the age of 64. Chance organized a memorial service for Belinsky at Dodger Stadium—their former home ballpark–and handed Bo’s burial arrangements in Las Vegas.
Chance retired to his hometown of Wooster, on the farm once again. He died Oct. 11, 2015, at the age of 74. Just a few months before, he went to California for his induction into the Angels Hall of Fame. His 1964 season is not forgotten.
By Glen Sparks
OK, this is what you need to do: go to your baseball card collection–pore through a binder or sift through a pile–and find a Frank Robinson card. Look for one of his later cards. Maybe a 1975 Topps, the one with a portrait shot of Robby wearing a Cleveland Indians cap. Turn over to the back of the card and check out those stats.
Or, better yet, go to Baseballreference.com, the Internet’s reason for being. You’ll find everything you see on that baseball card, plus a lot more. Robinson put up some gaudy numbers. Over a 21-year career, he slugged 586 home runs, drove home 1,812 and hit .294 with a .389 on-base percentage, .537 slugging percentage and .926 OPS. He accumulated 107.2 WAR points. He remains, even now, baseball’s overlooked superstar.
The right-handed swinging Robinson, born in Beaumont, Texas, on Aug. 31, 1935, grew up in Oakland, Calif. He graduated from McClymonds High School and signed with the Cincinnati Reds as an amateur free agent in 1953. Frank blasted 38 home runs and led the N.L. in runs scored in 1956, winning Rookie of the Year honors and finishing seventh in the MVP voting.
Over his 10 seasons in Cincinnati, Robinson topped 30 homers seven times and hit 29 twice. He led the league in slugging percentage, OPS And OPS+ three straight seasons (1960-62), taking home an MVP trophy in 1961. The following campaign, Robinson finished second in the league in batting average (.342), third in home runs (39) and third in RBI (136).
In 1965, Robinson slugged 33 homers, drove in 113 and batted .296. He also celebrated a milestone birthday late that season. The Reds famously declared that Robinson was an “old 30” and shipped him to the Baltimore Orioles in the offseason for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson. Huh? What? Old 30? (OK, for the record, Pappas, 27 years old when dealt and the star of this deal, compiled a 30-29 won-loss mark in three seasons in Cincy, with a 4.04 ERA, 93 ERA+. Baldschun, another pitcher, went 1-5 in two years as a Red, with a 5.25 ERA, 75 ERA+. Simpson, a 22-year-old outfielder, also lasted just two seasons in Cincinnati. He hit .246 in 138 at-bats.) Clink.
Robinson, meanwhile, continued pounding fastballs and curveballs into submission. One of the game’s great all-around talents won the Triple Crown in his first season with the Orioles. He hit 49 homers, drove in 122 runs and batted .316. That fall, he was awarded the World Series MVP as Baltimore won its first title, beating the Dodgers. Robinson also played on Baltimore’s 1970 World Series-winning team.
The future Hall of Famer (first ballot, 1982, 89.2 percent of the vote) wrapped up his career with the Dodgers (1972), the Angels (1973-74) and the Cleveland Indians (1974-76). The Indians, of course, hired Robinson to serve as player-manager before the 1975 season, the first African-American to skipper a team in the big leagues.
Later, he also managed the San Francisco Giants (1981-84), the Orioles (1988-91) and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals (2002-2006). The writers named him Manager of the Year in 1989.
Maybe, Robinson, now 80, is more famous today as a manger than as a ballplayer, even one with 14 All-Star appearances. Supposedly, a former player once asked him if he had ever played in the big leagues. Frank probably smirked. Ever play? Did he ever.
By Glen Sparks
The 1970 regular season ended Oct. 1, and Jim Fregosi looked like a decent Hall of Fame candidate.
Fregosi, the California Angels’ shortstop, had just completed another splendid campaign. He hit 22 home runs, drove in 82 runs and batted .278 with a .353 on-base percentage. The right-handed batter compiled a 7.7 WAR, the second highest of his career. (He put up a 7.9 in 1964). Additionally, as he did five other times in his career, he made the American League All-Star team.
Fregosi was 28 years old and a 10-year veteran, one of the great all-around athletes to come out of northern California. He earned 11 varsity letters at Serra High School in San Mateo and turned down college baseball and football offers, signing instead in 1960 with the Boston Red Sox for $20,000.
Boston sent its top prospect to Alpine, Texas, a Class D squad. Fregosi promptly made the All-Star team. Class D ball is still far away from the Majors, though. The Red Sox left Fregosi unprotected in the 1960 expansion draft, held to stock the Angels and the new Washington Senators. The Angels selected Fregosi with the 35th overall pick.
Following a bit more seasoning in the minors, Fregosi debuted with the Angels as a 19-year-old in 1961. By 1963, he was the team’s starting shortstop. By the end of 1970, he had accumulated 45.1 WAR points. He received MVP votes in each of his eight full-season campaigns, finishing as high as seventh in 1967. At 6-feet-2, 195 pounds, Fregosi combined size, speed and a competitive fire.
Truth was, though, he was also beat up and worn out. He had a sore knee, and his struggles began. In 1971, Fregosi slumped to .233. He only hit five home runs to go with 33 RBI (0.8 WAR). Late in the year, the Angels made a concession to their star player’s battered body and moved him from shortstop to left field.
Rumors picked up that Fregosi, a leader on the field, would take over as Angels manager. Instead, the club traded him to the New York Mets for pitcher Don Rose, outfielder Leroy Stanton, catcher Francisco Estrada, and a 25-year-old fireballer from Texas who couldn’t hit the backside of a beer vendor from 10 paces. Nolan Ryan.
Up to that point, Ryan had been frightening batters in the Majors for five years. He had thrown 510 innings and had 493 strikeouts. He also had issued 344 walks. Nolan Ryan didn’t know where his 100 mph fastball was going. He was scary.
Soon enough, the Ryan Express got things a bit under control. Maybe, it was because he finally got some regular work. He won 19 games for the Angels in his first season and had a 2.28 ERA. He walked 157 batters in 284 innings, but he struck out 329. The following season, he won 21 games and fanned a record 383 hitters.
Ryan won 324 games in his 27-year career. He struck out 5,714 batters. He led the league in strikeouts 10 times and K/9 ratio 12 times. The guy who had 3.0 WAR points as a Met retired with 83.8.
Fregosi, meanwhile, added just 2.8 WAR points in his final seven seasons, retiring after the 1978 campaign. He spent several seasons as a manager, including a stint with the Angels.
The trade was one-sided, of course, a slam-dunk win for California. It’s important to remember, though, how much Fregosi meant to the early days of the Angels and, later, as the team’s skipper.
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.