Franchises at Birth: The Colt .45s/Astros and the Mets (Part Two)

Last week we looked at the formation and first two seasons of the Colt .45s and Mets franchises. This time we’ll see how they went through the rest of their first dozen years.

The Colt .45s/Astros: Years Three Through Six

Perhaps it was an issue of acknowledging that the “.45s” thing had been just a bit much, and nobody really got on board with it. But whatever the reason, after just three years, in 1965 the Houston team changed its nickname, opting to drop the reference to Texas’s frontier past and instead invoke its space-age present. With the city of Houston the site of NASA’s mission control center, the ballclub was renamed the Astros. This high-tech, ultramodern new image was appropriate, because in 1965 the team unveiled its most expansive, only-in-Texas feature yet: the world’s first domed, air-conditioned indoor baseball stadium, the Astrodome.

The ‘Dome would prove to play as an extreme pitchers’ park. Whether that was part of general managerPaul Richards’s master plan is unclear, but it would have been consistent with his logic. The young Houston club moved from one very low-scoring ballpark to another—the best environment in which to develop young pitchers—and continued along its soundly logical path. The Houston teams of 1964, 1965 and 1966 were methodically, patiently constructed editions of a work in apparent forward progress. Veterans and journeymen (Nellie Fox, Lee Maye, Claude Raymond, etc.) were wisely acquired and put to good use where needed, but the primary focus was on giving ample space for the organization’s prize young prospects to develop.

Not all the seeds blossomed, of course, but several key youngsters came along wonderfully. In 1965, both Joe Morgan and Jim Wynn broke out as stars, and Rusty Staub and Larry Dierker didn’t appear to be far behind. It seemed only a matter of time before Houston would rise to the rank of contender. Thus when a dispute between Richards and owner Roy Hofheinz (two very highly charged personalities) culminated in Richards’s firing following the 1965 season, it was seen as no cause for alarm. Indeed in 1966, as two more youngsters (Sonny Jackson and John Bateman) blossomed, and in the best Richardsian tradition, a journeyman pitcher (Mike Cuellar) suddenly emerged as an ace, the Astros posted their strongest showing yet, winning 72 games and rising to eighth place. Results appeared to be following Richards’s sagacious master plan.

But in 1967, the gradual progress stalled. Both Jackson and Bateman flopped, and the pitching (outside of Cuellar, Dierker, and rookie Don Wilson) completely foundered. The Astros regressed to 93 defeats and ninth place. After six seasons, the team that seemed destined for Texas-sized success had still failed to reach it and indeed hadn’t yet managed to lose fewer than 90 games. Richards was gone, and ownership’s patience with the careful-and-steady methodology of building with homegrown talent was about to expire.

The Mets: Years Three Through Six

The Mets had begun by putting themselves in an extremely deep hole, and the progress they made in digging out of it was meager. Their 1964 and 1965 editions were every bit as dreadful as 1963’s, and it wasn’t until their fifth season that they were able to finally reach the very modest milestones of losing fewer than 100 games and finishing as high as ninth place. But in 1967, they fell back to their familiar, dismal 100-loss basement.

There’s a line of argument that responds to this with a “so what?” Team president George Weiss could have had no realistic expectation of fielding a winning team in the Mets’ first years, so this explanation goes, and therefore on-field competitiveness wasn’t his priority. Instead, his focus was on selling tickets to fund the development of the minor league system that would eventually make the Mets a winner, and his best method of selling tickets, this argument continues, was to stock the roster with as many comfortably familiar names as possible—including, of course, the most familiar name of them all, manager Casey Stengel.

Finally, this line of reasoning concludes that the whole thing turned out to be a crazy success; the early Mets were loveable losers whose fans came out in huge numbers and had a great time, and eventually (as we know in retrospect) the team would surpass all competitors and emerge as a World Champion anyway. In this argument the early Mets are a work of subtle, almost perverse, genius.

It’s obvious that a major element of this explanation is valid; that is, the earliest Mets teams, at least, were name-conscious to an extraordinary degree. Not just Stengel, but many others such as Gil Hodges, Richie Ashburn, Duke Snider, Jimmy Piersall, Warren Spahn, Yogi Berra, Bob Friend and Ralph Terry were brought on board for something more than their very limited capacity to contribute to winning games. It’s plainly true that generating ticket sales was a priority from the outset, as well it should have been.

But there are two assumptions in this explanation that aren’t valid: one, that there was no way they could have been competitive in their early years anyway, and two, that the best way for them to sell tickets was to showcase former stars, rather than to win as many games as possible.

Weiss himself explained his early Mets’ strategy this way:

It’s clear we can’t just stand still and wait for our young players to develop. For perhaps the first three years we may have to play with what you might call ‘one-year men,’ players only good enough for that length of time. By the end of that time we hope we’ll be getting good results from our scouts and farm system.

This is a completely reasonable statement. However, it isn’t an accurate description of what the Mets actually did, in two ways. First, the implication is that no young players were available other than those scouted and signed into the Mets’ own farm system, but as we’ve seen, every expansion team was able to acquire a number of young players through the expansion draft and in other deals.

Beyond the core of celebrated veterans, the majority of the Mets’ roster was actually quite young; in fact it was typically younger on average than Houston’s. The Mets were indeed “standing still” and waiting for young players to develop in several spots. The Mets’ problem regarding young players wasn’t a lack of availability nearly so much as it was a lack of judgment in selecting them and a lack of finesse in developing them.

The second problem is the assertion that the “one-year men” they did employ would indeed be “good enough for that length of time.” The Mets did have a few veteran players who were pretty good for one year. But they employed many more veterans who were decisively not “good enough” to continue as major leaguers. The contrast with Houston, in particular, is striking in this regard: while the Colt .45s/Astros thrust several youngsters into regular roles, the major reason they were so much better than the Mets in those years was that they were far more adept at selecting “one-year men” who actually were “good enough.” Houston, in fact, was the team implementing the strategy that Weiss described.

And it’s worth considering just what the Mets’ showcasing of washed-up veteran names accomplished in terms of fan appeal. The early Mets’ fans were indeed distinctive for their passion and energy. Generally young, and decidedly uninhibited, they were raucously enthusiastic despite the prospect of near-certain defeat, displaying signs and banners and generating a nearly constant refrain of, “Let’s Go Mets!” As Roger Angell put it:

The noisy, debris-throwing, excitable Met fans have inspired a good deal of heavyweight editorial theorizing….Sportswriters have named them “The New Breed.” Psychologists, anthropologists and Max Lerner have told us that the fans’ euphoria is the result of a direct identification with the have-not Mets, and is anti-authoritarian, anti-Yankee, id-satisfying and deeply hostile.

The zany intensity of early Mets’ fans tempted many observers to conclude that the horrific performance of the team on the field was just what these masochists wanted, or needed. Mets’ chronicler Jerry Mitchell wrote:

It was generally agreed that Met fans were a fantastic out-of-this-world lot and that they loved gallant losers. They were incredible down-to-the-last-out optimists. They always hoped for the best and found the Polo Grounds the best of all possible worlds….It was suggested that the Mets might lose their following if they should by some chance become winners.

But this line of reasoning sold Mets’ fans short in two ways. First, it failed to answer the basic question: what else were the fans supposed to do? Would showering the team with boos and insults have made for a more pleasant day at the ballpark? Second, this reasoning succumbed to the fallacy that since the fans cheered and the team lost, the fans must have been getting what they wanted. That the fans might cheer even more (and attend in even greater numbers) should the team occasionally win seemed to be beyond the realm of comprehension.

Such a failure of imagination—to see beyond what was, to what might have been instead—is what prevented most observers from properly understanding the early Mets. The team was so stupendously bad that the typical response was laughter rather than frustration. They were so bad that it became easy to believe that this was somehow the way things had to be, or even ought to be. The performances of George Weiss and Casey Stengel in directing the operation were practically never criticized; Weiss and Stengel seemed to be regarded as just two more powerless bystanders. But the truth is that the early Mets were as terrible as they were, very simply, because of the terrible performance of Weiss, Stengel and the Mets’ management in general.

The Astros: Years Seven Through 12

If Houston felt frustrated by the lack of progress in the standings through 1967, in 1968 things only got worse; the Astros got off to a disastrous start, fell into last place, and couldn’t escape it. After seven years, it now seemed that beyond a small core of stars, the organization’s roundly admired youth program had proven nearly fruitless. Houston attendance, which had boomed to among the best in baseball upon the opening of the Astrodome in 1965, had declined every year since, and the Astros spent 1968 not only trailing the hapless Mets in the standings, but also being outdrawn by them by nearly half a million. There was no avoiding the admission that although the organization’s massive dreams and plans had yielded a boldly innovative stadium, its synthetic turf was still not home to a competitive team.

Following the disappointing 1967 performance, the Astros under new general manager Spec Richardson had, for the first time, traded away one of the prized homegrown talents, sending 23-year-old shortstop Sonny Jackson to the Braves. In the wake of the even more dispiriting 1968, Richardson made even more decisive changes, signaling once and for all that the ballclub was headed in a very new direction. Mike Cuellar and Dave Giusti, two anchors of the starting rotation, were both traded away, and in an even bigger bombshell, Rusty Staub, once the centerpiece of the young ballclub, was also dealt.

The 1967 Jackson deal had turned out well for the Astros, netting two players (shortstop Denis Menke and pitcher Denny Lemaster) who would serve them quite well. But the other moves were head-scratchers: Cuellar went to Baltimore for Curt Blefary, the former Rookie of the Year who had since regressed badly. Giusti was given up for Johnny Edwards, an over-30 catcher who hadn’t hit well or played regularly since 1965. And the Staub deal was the most curious of all.

At age 24, Staub was one of the league’s finest young hitters, but was nevertheless sent to Montreal in exchange for two uninspiring veterans: slap-hitting corner outfielder Jesus Alou and 33-year-old first baseman Donn Clendenon. In a bit of labor-movement history, Clendenon would refuse to report to Houston, and commissioner Bowie Kuhn would resolve the dispute by requiring the Expos to send young pitcher Jack Billingham to Houston in Clendenon’s place. Billingham would prove to be better than Clendenon, but still the package of Billingham and Alou wasn’t nearly as good as Staub, and overall the major 1968-1969 retooling of the lineup served little purpose.

Nevertheless, in 1969 the Astros had their best season yet, reaching .500 (81-81) for the first time. Their improvement was due to the continued blossoming of their home-grown stars (Wynn, Morgan, and Dierker, in particular) far more than their imported veterans. But a pattern was established that would persist for the next several years.

The Houston teams of 1970 and 1971 were similar to the 1969 edition: right around .500, better than the young mid-60s teams, but not strong enough to contend. So following the 1971 season, Richardson made his boldest moves yet in his attempt to transform the Astros into a winner right now. In the space of five days in that year’s winter meetings, in three separate trades, Houston surrendered nine players, most of them young, and acquired four players who were expected to fill key roles: power-hitting first baseman Lee May, Gold Glove second baseman Tommy Helms, left-handed starting pitcher Dave Roberts, and young right-handed relief ace Jim York.

All except York would do alright for the Astros. But the talent sent away was a shipload: Morgan would blossom into an all-time great, John Mayberry would be a major star for several years, and Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, and Derrel Thomas would all be productive regulars. The net effect of the frantic trading activity was to set the team back, not move it forward.

But impatience was the mood of the day in Houston. The 1972 team—primarily propelled by yet another homegrown young star, Cesar Cedeno—was their best yet. Nevertheless, in late August, with the team at 67-54 and in second place, scaling heights they had never explored before, Richardson fired manager Harry Walker. He replaced him with none other than 67-year-old Leo Durocher, recently fired by the Cubs after his stormy seven-year roller-coaster ride there.

But the going-for-broke mode yielded no ultimate success. In 1973 the Astros under Durocher were in contention through late June, but then faded to finish at 82-80, in fourth place. Durocher would be let go, and Richardson would pull off yet another ill-fated trade, sending Jim Wynn to the Dodgers for nearly washed-up southpaw Claude Osteen.

Overall the Houston approach over their second six seasons could hardly have been more different from their first, as they went from patiently building with homegrown talent to boldly dealing for the quick fix. The legacy they achieved was little more than one of the all-time “what might have been” cases; it’s worth pondering just what kind of success the Astros might have achieved in the early-to-mid 1970s, with a lineup featuring Rusty Staub, Joe Morgan, John Mayberry, Jim Wynn and Cesar Cedeno, with Mike Cuellar, Larry Dierker, Don Wilson, and Dave Giusti on the mound.

The Mets: Years Seven Through 12

After six seasons, the Mets remained right where they had so dismally started. But their bad ballclub now contained something that none of their earlier bad ballclubs had: the 1967 Mets included the first genuine star the team had come up with, in Rookie of the Year Tom Seaver.

Weiss had retired from the president/general manager role in November 1966, and his successor was Bing Devine, formerly the long-time GM of the St. Louis Cardinals. On November 27, 1967, the Mets traded pitching prospect Bill Denehy and a check for a cool $100,000 to the Washington Senators, and in return they received manager Gil Hodges. A week later—perhaps at least partly because he felt pressured by Mets’ ownership into making the Hodges deal—Devine resigned to return to the Cardinals.

He was replaced by Johnny Murphy. Ten days later, on December 15, 1967, the Mets sent a package that featured .300-hitting left fielder Tommy Davis to the Chicago White Sox, in exchange for the tremendous defensive center fielder Tommie Agee. (It isn’t clear whether this deal was truly Murphy’s, or whether it had been negotiated by Devine and its announcement was delayed for some reason.)

The Hodges and Agee acquisitions, completed less than three weeks apart and under (at least technically) two different GMs, would have tremendous positive impact. Agee would have a bad year with the bat in 1968, but his glove in center field would be one of the keys to a dramatically improved defensive Mets’ team. And Hodges’ calm, strong presence, which had quietly lifted the Senators out of doormat status over the previous few years, would stimulate a similar transformation in the young Mets.

The 1968 team wasn’t a winner, but at 73-89, ninth place, they were significantly better than any prior Met team. And the manner in which the team improved was portentous; even when not winning, the 1968 Mets were competitive, overall allowing only 26 more runs than they scored (for a Pythagorean record of 77-85). And most importantly, even within the extreme low-scoring environment of 1968, the Mets were a very tough team to score against, finishing second in the NL in runs allowed (499) and ERA+ (111), and first in defensive efficiency (converting 71.9% of batted balls into outs). The Mets’ pitching and defense became legitimately outstanding pretty much overnight.

We all know what happened the following season. The Mets team that brought home the World Championship in 1969 was lucky in many ways, but it was a genuinely good ballclub. The main reason they won was that they were blessed with a Hall of Fame ace pitcher in Seaver, but he was maximally effective because he was in the midst of good, deep pitching staff, and backed by strong team defense, especially at shortstop (Bud Harrelson), center field (Agee) and catcher (Jerry Grote).

Hodges provided quiet yet forceful leadership, and adroitly platooned his assortment of meager bats. The presence of a superstar like Seaver is never something a team can count on, but the other elements that made the Mets victorious in 1969 were the eternal fundamentals: with pitching depth, sound defense up the middle, and strong management, a team has the foundation for success in place. Until 1968, Mets’ teams contained none of these elements.

In 1963 the Mets had traded Gil Hodges (then on his last legs as a player) to Washington, for an over-the-hill Jimmy Piersall. The Senators immediately retired Hodges as a player and named him manager. If, instead of casting off Hodges, it had been the Mets appointing him as manager, quite likely their purposeful march toward success would have begun much sooner than it did. It’s impossible to conclude that they would have won a pennant earlier than 1969—no other 1960s or 1970s expansion team won a championship before their eighth season—but it’s very reasonable to believe the Mets could have gained respectability before 1969.

By not digging themselves into such a deep chasm at the outset, the Mets could have relied upon their farm system to supplant “one-year men” in an ever more competitive environment. When the Mets’ first championship would eventually arrive, whether in 1969 or in a different season, it wouldn’t have been a stunning “miracle,” but rather, as with the Kansas City Royals in 1976, it would have been recognized as the logical result of a sound organizational effort.

The farm system bounty that arrived and developed in Shea Stadium in the late 60s and early 70s was truly, to use a Metsian term, amazing. Not just Seaver, Harrelson and Grote, but Jerry Koosman, Cleon Jones, Tug McGraw, Nolan Ryan, Gary Gentry, and Ken Singleton all became impact players. But upon winning in 1969, the Mets immediately shifted to an impatient, win-now mode that would see them see them make several highly questionable trades of young talent. In the two-and-a-half-year period from December 1969 to April 1972, Amos Otis and Bob Johnson were swapped for Joe Foy; Nolan Ryan and Leroy Stanton for Jim Fregosi; and Ken Singleton, Tim Foli, and Mike Jorgensen for Rusty Staub.

The Mets won 100 games in 1969, but never more than 83 in a subsequent season. Their blockbuster acquisitions largely bombed, and they remained a good team but not a serious contender. Their division championship (and pennant and near World Championship) in 1973, for all its delightful “Ya Gotta Believe!” thrills, was in fact nothing more than a fluke, a lucky circumstance combining an historically weak division and a mediocre team getting hot at the right time. Beyond Seaver, the 1973 Mets weren’t impressive in any regard. Their collapse the following season was no surprise.

When the Mets won their stunning championship in 1969, the irony was lost on no one that the ugliest of the expansion ducklings had emerged as the swan. But the plain truth is that after having been incomparably bad in their first half-dozen years, the Mets were more lucky than good in their second.

References & Resources
The George Weiss quote is from Jerry Mitchell, The Amazing Mets (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1970), pp 231-232.

The Roger Angell quote is from The Summer Game (New York: Popular Library, 1972), p. 66.

The Jerry Mitchell quote is from The Amazing Mets, p. 3.

Many thanks to Jon Springer (“Roadblock Jones” on BTF Primer) for providing informative insight on the Mets’ tumultuous Bing Devine/Johnny Murphy transition period.

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