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Mets, New York City, and the Most Astounding Baseball Season

Book corner: They Said it Couldn’t be Done by Wayne Coffey

In 1969, the Apollo 11 moon landing and the 400,000-strong Woodstock concert weren’t the only miracles in the United States. Wayne Coffey’s They Said it Couldn’t be Done focuses on major league baseball, where the New York Mets – a team with a losing record since its founding and who came in ninth place in the National League the year before – won the World Series to become baseball’s champions. Who says that miracles don’t happen?

Coffey is an experienced sportswriter, having written about hockey (The Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team), plus soccer, football, and basketball. In They Said it Couldn’t be Done, he tells the story of the championship ’69 year.

Book review in angrymetatraders by Evan Rothfeld of They Said it Couldn't be Done by Wayne Coffey.

Coffey describes the history of the team. The Mets grew from the wake that was left in New York baseball when two of its three major league teams – the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1957 and the New York Giants in 1958 – relocated to California (referenced by the line “California baseball” in Billy Joel’s hit We Didn’t Start the Fire), leaving the southern boroughs without a team of their own. Created as one of two National League expansion teams in 1962 (the other being the Houston Colt 45s, later renamed as the Astros), the Mets played in the Giant’s old homestead, the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan, until moving to Shea Stadium in Flushing, Queens in 1964.

A word about expansion teams. These teams usually comprise older players whose baseball chops have begun to erode, together with lesser-skilled players who – to put it mildly – weren’t the top prospects upon entering the league. The Mets went 40-120 their first year, a losing record for the twentieth century (and so far for the twenty-first). For the boys in Flushing, the early-to-mid-60s were a ballplaying comedy of errors, a farce with endless losing streaks, blowout games, and (as one can guess) a horrendously poor level of play. Fans would turn up to the game and watch dropped balls, outfield collisions, and balls careening off gloves. But the fiercely loyal New York fans stuck with them, taking the team to their hearts. In fact, an endearing and fun aura surrounded the young team, viewed by the fans as goofy but lovable losers.

As Coffey explains, the change began in mid-decade. Older players retired or were traded, and younger and more skilled players joined the team, such as the nimble shortstop Bud Harrelson. In 1967, two pitchers were introduced who would have a major role in the Mets future win, the left-handed Jerry Koosman and the right-handed Tom Seaver. These players – and others – were hungry for winning and were offended by the stigma of mediocrity that surrounded the team. In 1968, former Dodger star Gil Hodges began his tenure as manager, replacing the old-timer Casey Stengal. Coffey describes Hodges’ character and managerial style, and how it affected the team for the better. A decorated US marine in World War 2, and a man of the highest integrity, Hodges was calm, methodical, unflappable, with an uncanny knack for eliciting the maximum performance of his players, who respected him greatly. The ’68 team might not have even reached .500 (meaning the number of wins equals the number of losses), but for those watching closely, there were seeds of future victory being sown, as shown by good performances from catcher Jerry Grote, outfielders Cleon Jones and Ron Swoboda, and others.

Even with all the young and eager talent, the Mets began the ’69 season still outgunned in the National League, posting a losing record for the first month. But in May, they went .500 for the first time since their founding, and at the end of the month lurched ahead after a winning streak. Coffey describes the additional winning streaks in August and September where, trailing the Chicago Cubs for most of the year, the Mets edged out the Windy City boys to win, in champagne-drenched excitement, the National League East division. On this backdrop, the bulk of the book – the ’69 post-season – begins.

Going up against the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship was frightening. Even though the Mets won more regular season games, the Braves – with powerful hitters such as Orlando Cepeda and top slugger Hank Aaron, and a pitching staff led by the right-handed All-Star Phil Niekro – were still favored to win. But in an unpredicted upset, the Mets swept the Braves, three games to zero, scoring a cumulative 27 runs compared to the Braves’ 15.

Defeating the Braves was one thing. Defeating the American League championship Baltimore Orioles in the World Series was another. With bat-wielding gladiators such as Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Paul Blair, and Frank Robinson, the Mets were going up against a baseball-playing war machine with almost no weak spots. Their pitching staff included four starters who won 20 games apiece, such as left-handed Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally, and right-handed Jim Palmer. Palmer, considered today one of the best pitchers ever, was still young when he took the mound against the Mets, turning 24 on the day of Game 4. But he already had five seasons under his belt, and was an experienced postseason warrior, including a World Series pitching duel in 1966 against the mighty Sandy Koufax.

The Mets went on to defeat the Orioles, four games to one, playing like lions in a World Series that has become legendary. Coffey describes these games – as he does with the Braves – in play-by-play detail, but does a good job of leaving out anything of lesser importance while highlighting the important plays, the latter including Ron Swoboda’s gravity-defying catch in Game 4 that saved the game for the Mets. A writer of lesser skill might over-indulge the reader, or conversely, skimp too much on details. Coffey is able to walk that fine line between the two, and the book’s climax bounces along at an exciting pace, with a breezy, page-turning feel. Coffey did his homework well, by conducting scores of interviews with the key players and obviously watching all the championship and World Series games (all are currently available on YouTube, for anyone interested). He includes interesting commentaries at various points, telling us what the players were thinking, analyzing their moves, and putting various key at-bats in context.

Coffey fills up the book with light vignettes of Met fans of the era, such as Howie Rose, the popular Mets sportscaster, and describes the season’s impact on New York society in general. He also delves into the background and personal stories of many players, including the hardships they endured – such as that of veteran third basemen Ed Charles, an African-American who came up from the Jim Crow South – to make it to the major leagues.

The classic baseball expression, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over”, truly symbolized the ’69 Mets. They Said it Couldn’t be Done is a great read. Baseball fans will love the book but so will fans of any sport.

If you want to read another Book Corner article, please visit this review by Evan Rothfeld:


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