Like every other baseball team, the New York Mets have fielded their fair share of squads revered by their fans, teams which struck a note with followers more than any of the others. They've been to the World Series four times, so those teams certainly have plenty of fans, and their effort in 2006 won over many people too because the Mets showed character and talent even as they ended up on the losing end of a classic NLCS series - the seventh game in that series is still the best baseball game I've ever seen.
Then there's the 1962 New York Mets. They're also a team that many Mets fans revere and see a lot of themselves in, and they're one of the legendary squads in modern baseball. That's unusual because the 1962 Mets weren't a good team, not by any stretch of the imagination. They stank up the baseball diamond something fierce, set numerous dubious records, and lost 120 games, a record so bad that it didn't even come under serious assault until 2003, when the Detroit Tigers closed their season just one game away from tying the loss record set by the Mets. Both of those teams actually had decent excuses; the Mets were an expansion club in their first season, while the Tigers were a case of implosion by design after a decade of playing resoundingly average baseball.
In 1963, Jimmy Breslin wrote an account of the Mets' terrible first year. Using a quote from manager Casey Stengel, he called it Can't Anybody Here Play this Game? It's a very quick-shot account of that bad but eventful season - it's only 117 pages long, but it's still considered one of the primary must-own books in Mets culture.
The Mets came along at a time when owners were trying to maximize revenue and monopolize sports by reducing every major league city down to one team. Until the 50's, two-team cities were common; the Boston Braves fought it out with the more successful Boston Red Sox; the Saint Louis Cardinals were forced to compete with the Saint Louis Browns for the hearts and souls of Saint Louis fans; the Philadelphia Phillies battled with the Philadelphia Athletics to see who could bottom out first; and the other cities go without saying. Baseball got greedy and started placing the less popular teams in every which city to corner the pro sports market, but in New York City, it didn't take very well. When two National League franchises leave and the people get nothing but the Yankees left, the people are going to feel a bit of wanting. Having just the Yankees didn't sit very well with a man named William Shea, who absolutely NEEDED a second option in New York City at the very least. So Shea decided to form the Continental League, a massive bluff meant to get MLB's attention. With help from the great Branch Rickey, he killed a bill in Washington which would have granted baseball exemption from anti-trust laws. Although the Continental League was a bluff, wiping out that bill made it a real possibility.
Can't Anybody Here Play this Game? is less a book about the how and more about the why of the Mets' first year. Breslin wrote it in a tone of bemused affection with a lot of smarm. He explains how and why the New York Metropolitans Baseball Club came into being and talks a little bit about the misfortunes that befell them upon drunkenly lurching across the baseball diamond for the first time in history.
The Mets, as it turns out, were a very unlikely team. Not only did they have to fight with the MLB brass just for their right to exist, they also went through an owner who believed a better team name would have been the New York Meadowlarks; an embittered National League fanbase which had lost both its teams not five years before; and a roster reshuffling in the National League which prevented the National League expansion teams - the Mets and the Houston Colt .45s from getting any real talent.
The original New York Mets have been compared, on numerous occasions, to a minor league baseball team. That's because with the American League expansion, the owners had seen the newly-created Los Angeles Angels do very well their first year - remembering this was written in 1963, Beslin even speculates that the Angels would be a thorn in the side of the junior league for years to come. The reshuffling made the owners ensure they wouldn't be losing any of their talent whatsoever in the expansion draft, and so when the Mets arrived, they pretty much WERE a minor league team in every way except their official status as a major league team.
Can't Anybody Here Play this Game? is subtitled The Improbable Saga of the New York Mets' First Year. Yeah, a lot of things about this particular 1962 team were improbable. The founding of the team itself was a real mess that got all of baseball up in arms. They blew their draft picks on a lot of bad players, they somehow received funding for a new stadium (yet another sign of just how old this book is - Shea Stadium wasn't even built when it was published!). As Breslin puts it, they were building a whole new stadium for Marvelous Marv Throneberry, the man who came to represent the Mets for those first few years.
This book is not a blow by blow account of a single baseball season. Very little of the season is actually covered. Only one of the chapters goes into any real detail about it, but it's fun while it lasts. We get the sense there was a lot of fun and comaraderie on the original Mets. At one point, the owner asks a prognosticator what spot the Mets will finish in, and it's predicted they'll finish in last. The prognosticator doesn't even make them any room for the new Houston team. Just last place, outright. At another point after the 1962 season, the owner says it would suck if the Mets lost another 120 games. So she sets a goal of losing only 119 games for an improvement! Breslin writes a little bit about the kinds of odd misfortunes and antics that summed up the Mets' season, but he also gives us this quote from Richie Ashburn: "Any losing team I've ever been on had several things going on. One, the players gave up. Or they hated the manager. Or they had no team spirit. Or the fans turned into wolves. But there was none of this with the Mets. Nobody stopped trying. The manager was absolutely great, nobody grumbled about being with the club, and the fans we had, well, there haven't been fans like this in baseball history. So we lose 120 games and there isn't a gripe on the club. It was remarkable. You know, I can remember guys being mad even on a big winner."
On this blog, I've made no secret of my loyalty to the Yankees, but on my personal blog which I write for my friends, readers know of my discontent for the Yankees. I've been poking fun at the Yankees a lot there lately out of a genuine contempt, and I've admitted to outright hating the Girardi squads as of late. They've been boring me to death, and they don't fit me at all as a person. I've in fact bickered about why my hometown is so loyal to them (and the Red Sox, too). We should all be Mets fans. I've always had a soft spot for the Mets, but it wasn't until I started reading about them that I began to understand their appeal. Now that I do understand their appeal, I'm very close to making the switch outright. Can't Anybody Here Play this Game? has been an instigator. It reminds its readers that wins are worthless without strong characters, emotion, and fan relationships. It's a quick read for anyone who relates more to the everyday image of the Mets more than the corporate image of the Yankees.
How bad were the 1962 New York Mets? Let Jimmy Breslin count the ways. The Gotham City columnist tells the story of the baseball team's inaugural season in this 1963 book that left me with a few laughs and a sour taste in my mouth. Breslin here is like the best man at a wedding who does the dinner speech about the groom's sexual misadventures, who keeps going after everyone else realizes he's spent too much time polishing his act at the bar. Breslin can't get enough of telling … more