Welcome back, baseball! Winter is over, and if the start of Passover tonight isn’t enough of an indication that we’ve reached spring, surely the St. Louis Cardinals versus Chicago Cubs game that officially opens the 2015 Major League Baseball season on Sunday should do it.
This is a time of high hopes for fans. “Wait till next year” has changed into “This is the year.” Optimism abounds, but, for the New York Mets, the season is already not looking pretty. The team has lost key players to injuries, and much of their success hinges on the surgically repaired elbow of their ace pitcher. So it goes for Mets fans.
But for all the hapless moments that Mets fans have endured, there have certainly been some happy ones, too. Of these, none are more memorable than the year of the legendary 1969 “Miracle Mets.” Baseball historians have worked hard to discover the secret to the team’s success. Led by Gil Hodges, of Brooklyn Dodger fame, they were extremely well managed. Their pitching, including Jerry Koosman, Tug McGraw, Gary Gentry, and future Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, was magnificent. Against the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, timely hitting and spectacular fielding also contributed mightily to the upset win.
The supernatural has also been suspected of playing a role, as Cubs fans to this today attribute the appearance of a black cat walking by Cubs third baseman Ron Santo in the on-deck circle at Shea Stadium on September 9 as an omen that portended the club’s impending collapse during the pennant race with the Mets. Analyzing the Mets schedule that year, one can see that an early winning streak also played a crucial role in the team’s success. On May 28, the Mets stood at 18-23. Starting with a win at home versus the San Diego Padres that night, the team reeled off 11 straight wins, and finished the season with a remarkable 100 wins. Surely the 11 scoreless inning pitched by Koosman and McGraw helped the Mets win that game, but perhaps an act of charity performed by the Mets toward the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway also played a role?
It all started a few months earlier, when the yeshiva suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage in a fire. The school, under the auspices of Rabbi Meilech Silber, had just moved from Crown Heights to East Flatbush, and the severity of the damage coupled with the general social unrest in New York at the time drew the attention of local politicians, who immediately came to the yeshiva’s aid. Senator Jacob Javits and Mayor John Lindsay visited the heavily damaged building, and both made appeals for help in rebuilding it. Seven Torah scrolls were burned, and Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs quickly sent over replacements drawn from among the thousands collected in Europe after the Holocaust.
Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, the son of Rabbi Meilech Silber and the current executive director of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, graciously provided me with detailed information regarding the massive campaign that his father then started in order to rebuild the damaged building. Involved in the campaign was a “who’s who” of prominent Jewish New Yorkers, including State Assemblyman Stanley Steingut, State Senator Jeremiah Bloom, and real estate mogul Jerome Belson. At one of the fundraising meetings, Belson brought along a close friend of his named Julius “Big Julie” Isaacson. Isaacson was a Zelig-like figure who was involved in the sports world for decades. A minor league pitcher in the 1940s, he was Roger Maris’s close friend and confidente in the early 1960s. He eventually became the president of the International Doll, Toy & Novelty Workers Union. He was well connected and had a friendly relationship with Gil Hodges. As the Mets played in the very Jewish borough of Queens, it was only natural that a significant percentage of Mets fans were Jewish, and it certainly helped that Art Shamsky, a beloved member of the tribe, played outfield for the Mets at the time. Through his connection with Hodges, Isaacson was able to raise $500 for the fire fund from the Mets players and coaches.
The Mets’ public relations department invited Silber to come to Shea Stadium to receive the $500 check. The day that was chosen was May 28. Silber arrived at the stadium a few hours before game time and was taken into the Mets’ clubhouse, where he was warmly greeted by Hodges and Shamsky. Silber came with an entourage that included Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene Gold as well as prominent members of the yeshiva’s board of directors. As a gesture of appreciation, Silber presented Hodges with a seder plate. Hodges noticed that there was writing on it and asked for a translation. Interestingly, the plate had on it the beginning of the “Ma Nishtana.”
Silber translated the words “why is this night different from all others?” Hodges, who has been described by Roger Kahn in the Boys of Summer as someone who “practiced a devout, quiet Catholicism,” was deeply moved by the gift. Little did he know that the verse would come true, as on that night the Mets were about to start doing something that they had never done before: win lots of games.
I recently reached out to Shamsky, and he noted that he only recalled discussing his Jewish faith with Hodges on two occasions—at the May 28 meeting with Silber (which Shamsky described as a “very nice event”) and, later in the season, when the Mets were slated to play the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field on Rosh Hashanah. Shamsky remembered having an open and honest conversation with Hodges, who advised him to do what he thought best. Shamsky ultimately decided to remove himself from the lineup for a double-header against the Pirates on the eve and first night of Rosh Hashanah on September 12 as well as during a game against the Pirates the next day. The New York Times accounts of those three games noted that the Mets played without Shamsky due to his observance the holiday. Fortunately, the Mets won all three games as they continued their winning ways and extended their lead over the Cubs.
A few weeks after Rosh Hashanah, on the eve of their first World Series game versus the Orioles, New York Post columnist Milton Gross wrote about the donation from the Mets players and Hodges. Gross describes an apocryphal scene of the Mets players visiting the charred yeshiva building as Hodges suddenly pulls out a $500 check from his pocket. In his concluding paragraph, Gross described Hodges’ managerial skill and discussed the bonus that the players would receive if the Mets won the World Series. “It’s the way one man takes 25 [players] and makes them think and act as one. Others have tried. Others have succeeded. Gil could have failed, but he did much more than anybody expected him to do. In the end, it could be $15,000 per man, which in the larger scheme of things, could mean less than that $500 in his envelope to restore what had been destroyed.”
The protagonists of this story both died shortly thereafter. The stress of rebuilding the yeshiva took its toll on Silber, and he died the following year. Hodges, who had suffered a heart attack in 1968, did not survive a second heart attack that struck during spring training in 1972.
But perhaps the Mets can bring back some of their 1969 luck by tapping into the spirit of generosity that epitomized Hodges’ squad. Gross noted that “a simple, although unusual kindness does not produce base hits, make Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman throw unhittable strikes or propel the ball over the wall for Tommy Agee and Cleon Jones.” True. But the acts of kindness definitely can’t hurt. And after six straight losing seasons, I have no doubt that both the Mets and its desperate fans are willing to try whatever it takes to turn their fortunes around.