The nostalgia of 50 years of New York Mets baseball had me thinking of the first time I read about the Mets on the back of the Daily News or Post in 1962. In those prehistoric days of black and white TV, newspapers were the main source of information and in the sports world, ESPN was a figment of every sports nut imagination.
The Mets of 1962 were an amazing group of ex Dodgers, Yankees and Giants. Casey Stengel was the marquee headliner along with Duke Snider and Gil Hodges. If Casey were alive today modern media would be going bananas over his wit, charm and language. Well before Yogisms became media quotes, Casey was entertaining journalist, newspapermen and early TV sports personalities like no other before or after him.
Casey was 71 going on 72 years old in1962. He was the winner of 7 Championships and 10 American League Titles from 1949 – 1960. Casey remembered everything, stats, names, places, teams, unfortunately or fortunately depending on your point of view, most of the time they were intertwined in verses of Stengelese. The reporters covering the Mets in their first Spring Training were putty in the hands of a true American Showman, right out of Vaudeville and an all night speakeasy, Charles Dillon Stengel held court under the palm trees of St. Petersburg, Florida.
The New York Times’ Robert Lipsyte portrayed his time as a young reporter covering the Mets in 1962 is a wonderful time warp piece “Spring of ’62: Revisiting the Dawn of the Mets” jettisoned me back to my own experiences of the 1962 Mets.
I was 10 years old in 1962 when the Mets reported for their first Spring Training. I was excited to learn who these new Mets were. Each day I would run home to read about the exploits of the Mets. They were the phoenix that was once the Brooklyn Dodgers, but their existence was based more on political capital than monetary capital. The Mets were pay back for allowing The NY Giants and Dodges move west. Money was just as much an issue for the then ownership of the Mets as it is today with the Wilpons. The Mets were a team fielded on the cheap. There were no future stars, they were a group of old stars, mediocre and discarded players at best.
Casey Stengel was the perfect distraction for a terrible team in the world’s biggest media market. The players were spared much of the ridicule of being on the worst team in the history of Major League Baseball. By season’s end the Mets would have 3 more wins that Casey’s number 37.
The 1962 season is well documented and Casey would be the Mets Manager till a fall and a broken hip in 1965 would send him into retirement. He would be seen at Shea Stadium and in Saint Pete for many years after he left the Mets.
In February of 1970, a mere four months after the Mets would win their first championship under Manager Gil Hodges. The Miracle Mets would take their 9th Spring Training as World Champions of Baseball. I was a freshman at St. Leo College a small Catholic College located in St. Leo Florida about 35 miles north of Tampa.
I left for college the past August as the Mets made their push past the Cubs and the National League Pennant. I was away from home for the first time in my life and my daily supply of the Daily News and NY Post from my mother keep me well informed about the Mets and their run for baseball history and eased my moments of homesickness.
I knew the Mets trained less than an hour away from school and I had to go see my heroes, but without a car, the less than hour drive would make my goal a difficult task. After looking for a ride with no success I decided to hitchhike down to Saint Pete and the Mets Spring Training Complex.
The Mets and the Cards were playing at 1 and I wanted to get there early to seek autographs and talk to my idols Seaver and Koosman. I headed out in the early morning and arrived at Al Lang Stadium by 11 am after a series of very good rides.
The Mets and the Cardinals shared the facility at Al Lang Stadium, a wood framed bleacher structure from days past. It reminded me of the oldness of the Polo Grounds, the first home of the Mets. Chips of green paint, on over painted wood and steal made the stadium look like something from the first days of baseball.
There were very few people in attendance two hours before game time so I bought a score card and a pencil and headed for a seat behind home plate. Players were starting to come out on the field and smatterings of young boys were starting to congregate around the Mets dugout in hopeful bliss of getting an autograph.
As I looked around, taking in the moment, I spotted a well dressed elderly man sitting by himself a couple of rows in front of me. I stared and stared, he looked so familiar. It hit me at once; I was sitting ten feet from Casey Stengel. I got up and walked down to where he was sitting.
“Mr. Stengel, I’m a big fan of yours and the Mets,” I stammered.
“Sit down kid, so you’re a Mets fan?” he asked and I proceeded to tell him my life story as a Mets fan. A couple of other fans approached him as we sat and talked and they asked him for his autograph, but for the most part of two hours, I sat with Casey Stengel and talked baseball all by myself.
The game was winding down and I had to get back to campus. I had mentioned I was in college and how I got down to the game. I thanked him for his talking to me and then he asked me how I was getting home. I told him I hitched down and would have to do the same.
“Come on kid I’m getting tired come walk me out,” he said to me. We stood up and I grabbed his arm and help him walk up the steps and out of the stadium. We did not get far when a man came over to us.
“Mr. Stengel, are you leaving can I get you a car?”
“Get me a cab and make sure the driver can work a couple of hours I need him to take my grandson back to his college,” said Casey. I was in total shock, he told this guy, who obviously worked for the Mets, that I was his grandson and he was getting me home to school.
The cab came and I helped Casey into the backseat and I got in behind him.
“Take me to the Holiday Inn, and then take my grandson where ever he wants to go to,” he said.
The cab ride to the hotel was brief and while in the cab he expressed his gratitude to me for talking to him and he stuffed a $50 bill into my shirt pocket. When the cab arrived at his destination, I got out as quick as I could so I could help him get out the cab. I thanked him for the ride and said good bye.
As the cab drove me back to campus, I sat in silence thinking about my day, meeting Casey Stengel, one of the greatest managers in baseball history and a member of the Hall of fame. I realized no one was going to believe my story back at the dorm and I was right, that is until I pulled out the $50 bill that was still stuffed in my shirt pocket and said come on the beers are on me.