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William Leggett
December 22, 1969
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December 22, 1969

Sportsman Of The Year


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During the fall of 1960, which was almost a decade ago, the game of baseball suffered two cruel blows. The New York Yankees took their 70-year-old rubber-faced manager, Casey Stengel, to a press conference at Le Salon Bleu of the Savoy Hilton Hotel and announced that after winning 10 pennants in 12 years he had decided to commence his retirement. And in Boston, Theodore Samuel Williams, after 19 years, 521 home runs, two wars and a lifetime batting average of .344, decided that it was time for him to depart. We were all duly told that "we would not see their like again."

So now it is a cool fall afternoon in 1969; the '60s are just about behind us. Bunting is hanging from box seats in a place called Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York. A team called the New York Mets, which had not even existed in 1960, is one victory removed from winning the baseball championship of the whole astonished universe. Seated on the third-base side of the stadium is Ted Williams. Browned and handsome, he has just completed a spectacular rookie season as, of all things, the manager of the Washington Senators. Casey Stengel sits on the first-base side in a green Tyrolean hat with a feather in it, clapping his hands and chanting, "Let's go, Mets!" For four years after the Yankees retired him Casey had managed the Mets, been their Pied Piper Svengali and one-man band, encouraging what he called "the youth of America" to come and play for the " Amazin' Mets." Eventually young men of talent did arrive, and because of them the game of baseball may live happily ever after—or at least another year or two.

Of all the upsets and improbabilities that highlighted sport in the 1960s, the victory of the Mets is likely to be remembered longer than any. Laughed at, ridiculed and adored during seven years of unequaled incompetence, the Mets became the only expansion team ever to attain a championship in a major sport. What is more, their ultimate victory came at the expense of the Baltimore Orioles, the best American League team of the decade.

The success of the Mets not only inspired a snowfall of ticker tape in New York City—such things are routine in pennant-winning towns, though Manhattan's 1,832.6-ton total was, litterly, baseball's record—it triggered an unexpected national response. From the Hudson to the hinterlands people turned the Met victory into a national clich� of hope: "If the Mets can win, anything can happen." Thus the Mets, the decade's symbol of ineptitude, ended the '60s as the darlings of baseball—and more.

Who was responsible, in addition to the glorious fates, which so regularly offer up to sport the stimulation of the totally unexpected? Who typifies the deed?

One candidate would be Gil Hodges, who not many years before was standing on first base in a Met uniform watching with bemusement the deeds of his preposterous playmates. Few men have been replaced at first by Marvin Throneberry and then come back to manage a team to the most improbable of championships. Hodges exercised consummate skill in achieving the feat, balancing talent here, desire there, and all the while sitting expressionless in his corner of the dugout as if the victories that piled up one upon the other before his unwavering eyes were exactly what he had expected.

But Hodges is of the old order, and the Mets are not. Their achievement must be attested to by other terms: by youth, by verve, by personality, by conviction, by naivet� and finally by rare talent where it counted most—on the field. That is why George Thomas Seaver {see cover), a 25-year-old man-child from Fresno, Calif., is 1969's Sportsman of the Year.

Because of the surprise that attended the Met's championship, the role played by Tom Seaver throughout the season was lost to a degree amid the tearing up of Shea Stadium turf and the squirting of champagne on mayors, celebrities, television announcers and millionaires. A reminder is in order. Seaver won 25 regular-season games, plus one playoff game and one World Series game when he was decidedly not at his sharpest. He became the youngest National League pitcher in 34 years to win as many as 25 games ( Dizzy Dean was the last). He won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the National League and had more victories than anyone through a season that produced 15 pitchers with 20 wins or more.

During 1969 Seaver ran off winning streaks of eight and 10 games, which helped spare the Mets any long losing sieges, but win or lose he brought some very special characteristics to an unusually young baseball team. He expected to win, and he expected his team to win. Yet he had a way of handling defeat that helped everyone. An icy realist about many things, he had no use for alibis. When he pitched a bad game, he would say he was lousy. If others were lousy, he attempted to break the mood. After a horrendous Met exhibition in Pittsburgh, Seaver looked around the clubhouse and noticed his teammates' discouragement. He rapped for attention, stood on a chair and said, "Gentlemen, after watching that performance I would like to take this opportunity to announce my retirement from the game of baseball." Once when he thought the bench was too quiet during a game he walked along the dugout plucking spiders from the cool walls and throwing them in the laps of the silent. Seaver could get away with this, of course, only because he had earned the respect of the Mets with his talent and attitude—but, having won the respect, he made maximum use of it.

In his three years with the Mets, Seaver has won 59 games, but it must be remembered that in his first two seasons he played on teams that were a symphony of incompetence. He went to New York's spring training camp in St. Petersburg, Fla. in February of 1967 with only one year of professional work behind him. "I had no time limit set for making it to the major leagues," he says, "but I believed that eventually I would get there because I felt I was good enough. There were no self-declarations that if I did not make it in two or three years I would quit and try something else. None of that. At training camp I was ready to be sent back to the minors if the Mets felt I needed the extra work. I was perfectly willing to accept that, because I believed in the absolute integrity of major league baseball. To be honest about it, I had not been overly impressed by myself during my first year in pro ball at Jacksonville. A record which shows you win only as many games as you lose [12-12] is not one you can accept or be happy with."

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