Near Perfection, 43 Years Ago Today

There are many memorable moments in the 50 year history of the New York Mets. One occurred a little over a month ago when on June 1st, Johan Santana pitched the first no-hitter in Mets history. It came in the Mets 8,020th game.  It’s hard to believe that Santana’s no-hitter came 43 years after the Mets and Tom Seaver came so close to the first no-hitter in club history. In fact Seaver was two outs away from a perfect game in still the most dominating pitching performance in Mets history.

 

Seaver’s classic that occurred 43 years ago this evening had no controversial call down the third base line and he walked no-one. Seaver was in complete command until journeyman Jim Qualls hit a dunker that broke up the perfecto. Perhaps it was a good thing in a way because Seaver’s near no-hitter probably will always be better remembered than had he got through that ninth one-two-three. Here now is a post I wrote several years ago that recaps that game as I remembered it as a 13 year old watching that Wednesday evening in living black and white so very long ago…

 

July 9, 1969, up till this point the Mets had never tasted success. Having begun life in the National League seven seasons earlier, the Mets had never finished higher than 9th place. They also had never been above the .500 mark at any significant time during any season. But there were signs of hope in the previous couple of years. Players like Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Cleon Jones, Bud Harrelson, Ken Boswell, and Jerry Grote were all produced from the farm. Good trades were made too. In 1968 the Mets got center fielder Tommy Agee from the White Sox. He was hit in the head during the first game of spring training and was never right that season but ’69 was another story. Oh yeah and let’s not forget Tom Seaver.


On the morning of July 9, 1969 the Mets found themselves in an unusual position. They were just 4.5 games out of first place behind the Chicago Cubs who the Mets beat the previous day in dramatic fashion in the bottom of the 9th inning. The current Mets team would be proud of the way their ancestors scored 3 runs in overcoming a 3 to 1 deficit. The Mets record was 46 and 34 after the game, a whopping 12 games above .500. A state of euphoria had enveloped the city of New York in regards to the Mets. No one was quite sure of what was happening. Could the Mets really have been this good? This team which never accomplished much was now the hottest ticket in town.


In contrast, the other team in town was floundering at 40 and 46. It was the Yankees first year without Mickey Mantle, and with their poor play, their attendance was hurting to say the least. The Mets had grabbed the headlines and the fans started pouring into Shea Stadium. Without a doubt, New York was a Mets town.


Having won the first game of this crucial series with the Cubs, the Mets would send ace right hander Tom Seaver to the hill on Wednesday night the 9th. If Mets fans and baseball fans in general had not yet thought anything special was happening in Flushing, that would all change in a few hours.

The starting line up for the Mets that night had Tommy Agee leading off and playing center field. Bobby Pfiel at second, Cleon Jones in left, the recently acquired Donn Clendenon at first, the “glider” Ed Charles at third, Ron Swoboda in right, Jerry Grote catching, Al Weis at short (Bud Harrelson was on military reserve duty and had to miss the game) and of course Seaver pitching.


Shea stadium was packed, over 50,000 in the house. The ballpark was still relatively new and shiny. The Mets took the field, the crowd cheered as Jane Jarvis played the organ (I miss that organ). Everyone stood for the national anthem and of course back then you saw that on television. For me, it was in black and white since we didn’t get our first color TV till 1970.


The Cubs sent up Don Kessenger, the Cubs shortstop to lead off. Seaver promptly struck him out. Next second baseman Glenn Beckert flied out to Swoboda then left fielder Billy Williams struck out, side retired.

 

In the bottom of the first, Tommy Agee led off with a triple. Bobby Pfiel doubled to left and the Mets had a quick 1-0 lead. The crowd went nuts.


In the top half of the second facing the Cubs heart of the order, Seaver struck out the side. Down went Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, and Al Spangler. With one out in the Mets half of the inning, the Cubs committed two errors in a row, one by Ron Santo and the other by Kessinger. The Mets had two men on. Tom Seaver then promptly singled to center driving in Jerry Grote. Al Weis went to third. Agee who tripled in his first at bat, doubled driving in Weis from third. Ted Abernathy replaced the Cubs starter Ken Holtzman. At the end of the second, the Mets had a 3 to 0 lead.


Seaver retired the bottom third of the Cubs line up without any problem getting Randy Hundley (Todd’s father) and Jim Qualls to fly out before striking out Abernathy. The Mets went quietly in their half so a third the way through, the Mets lead 3 to 0.


Top of the order for the Cubs in the forth inning as Seaver went to work. He had retired all Chicago batters to face him so far. Lead off hitter Kessinger struck out looking. Beckert and Williams grounded out, twelve in a row retired by Seaver. On TV you could sense a small buzz developing among the crowd.


The Mets put a couple of runners on in the 4th via a walk and an error but were left stranded when Cleon Jones stuck out. In the Cubs fifth, Seaver again faced the big hitters in the Cubs line up. Ron Santo flied out to Agee, Hall of famer Ernie Banks grounded out to short, and Spangler struck out again. Now Tom Seaver had retired the first fifteen batters to face him.


Swoboda singled to right, but the Mets did not score in the fifth. Seaver entering the 6th inning having not allowed a runner, not a hit, a walk, a hit’s batsman, nothing. He would face the bottom third of the order now. After a couple of ground outs, Seaver struck out Abernathy. He was making it look so easy. The huge Shea crowed roared louder and louder with each out. TV announcer Ralph Kiner was not talking about it but you could hear it in his voice. Something historic may be happening here.


The Mets went quietly in the 6th. Ted Abernathy was doing a good job in his own right keeping the game close. The Cubs sent up the top of the order for the third time in the 7th inning. Kessinger and Beckert flied out and Billy Williams grounded out to third. Eighteen in a row set aside.


Cleon Jones hit a home run in the bottom of the seventh which made the score 4 to 0 in favor of the Mets. It was Cleon’s 10th dinger of the year.


In the top of the eighth, manager Gil Hodges sensing history in the making made some defensive changes. Wayne Garret went in to play second base. Bobby Pfiel moved over to third spelling Ed Charles. Rod Gaspar went into right to replace “Rocky” Ron Swoboda. After Ron Santo flied out, Seaver struck out Ernie Banks and Al Spangler. Seaver appeared to be getting stronger as the game went on. He was simply throwing smoke. Twenty-four Chicago Cubs were retired in a row. The crowd was on its feet. Three outs to go till perfection.


With one out in the Mets eighth, Al Weis singled. Tom Seaver bunted him over to second. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. The Mets did not score however and that seemed to be okay with the fans. They just wanted to get on to the ninth.


50,709 fans roared and held their breath at the same time. Only a handful of pitchers prior had ever thrown a perfect game. Tom Seaver was three outs away. Randy Hundley grounded back to the mound. Seaver threw the ball to first and there was one out, twenty-five in a row.


Up comes Jim Qualls. He flied to right in the third and grounded out to first in the sixth. This was Jim Qualls’s first year in the big leagues, a below average player at best. He would be traded by the Cubs at the end of the season to Montreal, then on to the Reds, then White Sox. He would be released in 1972 ending his short career. Others like him would never be remembered. He himself would have faded into baseball obscurity if not for this one at bat. Jim Qualls will always be remembered by Mets fans old enough to have witnessed this game. I forget the count but the pitch from Seaver seemed to be a good one. At that time, the camera angle was from behind the catcher. The center field camera had yet to gain acceptance for Mets telecasts on WOR 9. The pitch appeared to be a slider low and angling in on the batter. Qualls swung and somehow got his bat on the ball. The ball sailed high and lazy to the outfield a little left of center. The ball appeared to hover as if to give Cleon Jones enough time to get under it. It was clearly too far out for Weis to reach. The huge crowd grew silent as if someone turned the volume control down. Bob Murphy’s voice gave us watching at home a feeling of hopelessness. The ball fell to earth and for the first time during the game, a ball hit by a Chicago batter touched down on Shea’s outfield grass. The bid for a perfect game by Tom Seaver was over. I wanted to cry. I’m sure I was not alone. At Shea, 50,709 fans gave Seaver a standing ovation that seemed to last forever.

Twenty-five batters in a row then Jim Qualls stood on first base. Seaver got the next two batters to end the game. The game became known as the near-perfect game. In a way, the result may have more legs than if Seaver had pitched the perfecto. You see, no Mets pitcher in the 44 year history of this pitching rich franchise has ever pitched a perfect game or even a no-hitter. When the topic comes up, this is the game that all Mets kingdom points to.


Eventually, Seaver did pitch a no-hitter but it was as a member of the Cincinnati Reds (he never looked right dressed in red). I don’t even remember who he did it against. Other Mets pitched one-hitters. Dwight Gooden did it, David Cone did it too. And ironically both of these pitchers went on to pitch no-hitters for the Yankees of all teams. Cone’s of course was a surreal perfect game, doing it on a day dedicated to Yogi Berra with Don Larsen in attendance.


That game long ago vs. the Cubs will live forever in Mets history. I wonder if somewhere a tape of that game exists in a vault. Wouldn’t you love to see that one on Mets Classics? I certainly would, and this time in color.


Not only was it an historic game for Seaver and the Mets, but it was truly a bench mark for that team of 1969. After the game, the Cubs lead over the Mets was reduced to 3.5 games. The Mets won the first two games of that series against a Cubs team who did not believe the Mets were for real. By the end of the season, the Cubs knew better and their first clue should have been that night in July, 1969.

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