The virtual 1960s New York Mets (Part 1: The expansion draft)by Steve Treder
December 14, 2010
Several years ago, I wrote an article on THT that examined the founding and early years of the New York Mets. It did not treat them kindly:
It’s difficult to overstate just how horrible the early Mets were. Facing exactly the same competitive conditions as the Colt .45s, the Mets finished 24 games behind Houston in 1962. The Mets finished 18 games out of ninth place in 1962, and 15 back in 1963.
The ‘62 entry, losing the most games of any team in the 20th century, remains the benchmark of baseball futility. Rob Neyer’s analysis concludes, “After studying this issue for quite some time, I feel pretty comfortable in asserting that the 1962 New York Mets were the worst baseball team in the 20th century.” The only other ballclubs in history to be as wretched over a sustained period as the early Mets were the Philadelphia Phillies and Athletics in their bleakest periods, and the notorious St. Louis/Cleveland National League franchise of the late 1890s.
The article then discussed the issue that the egregiously poor performance of the Mets seemed to provoke the response that the disaster had in some way been inevitable.
... 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 [GM] George Weiss and [field manager] 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….
Then came some speculation as to how the early Mets might have been better than they were:
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.
So, how about it? Is this speculation plausible? Is it reasonable to assume that with a “sound organizational effort” the Mets “could have gained respectability before 1969”? Or, was it indeed the case that the Mets’ dreadfulness in their first half-dozen seasons was largely inevitable, the product of circumstances beyond their control?
Why don’t we see if we can find out. We’ll run an alternative scenario for the early Mets, and replace their most highly questionable management decisions with ones we deem more sensible. And we’ll determine if the results produced by our virtual Mets are any better—or any worse!—than those produced by the actual Mets.
We’ll start this time with the expansion draft. In future installments we’ll walk through the trades and other transactions the Mets made in subsequent seasons.
The actual draft
In the first-ever National League expansion draft, the two General Managers making the selections for the fledgling franchises could hardly have come with better qualifications: the Mets were in the hands of none other than George Weiss, the architect of the New York Yankees' spectacular 1950s run of success. And at the helm of the Houston Colt .45s was Paul Richards, the "Wizard of Waxahachie," who'd brilliantly conjured up a contending team in Baltimore out of the inert detritus of the St. Louis Browns.
Draft day was Tuesday, Oct. 10, 1961, immediately upon the conclusion of the World Series. The draft was held in three phases:
- A first regular phase, in which the two new teams would draft two unprotected players from each of the current eight NL 40-man rosters at the price of $75,000 per player (this was the means through which the Mets and Colt .45s paid their franchise-purchase fees to the league);
- A second regular phase, in which the expansion teams could each pick up to three additional unprotected players at the price of $50,000 per player, and;
- A final "premium" phase, in which each of the eight existing teams had to "unprotect" an additional list of players, and the Mets and Colt .45s would choose one from each team at the price of $125,000 per player
Using this process, here were the players drafted (via a coin toss, Houston had the first pick):
Regular Phase, $75,000 per player H O U S T O N C O L T . 4 5 s N E W Y O R K M E T S Pick Player Pos From Pick Player Pos From 1 Eddie Bressoud INF SF 2 Hobie Landrith C SF 3 Bob Aspromonte INF LA 4 Elio Chacón INF CIN 5 Bob Lillis INF STL 6 Roger Craig P LA 7 Dick Drott P CHI 8 Gus Bell OF CIN 9 Al Heist OF CHI 10 Joe Christopher OF PIT 11 Roman Mejias OF PIT 12 Félix Mantilla INF MIL 13 George Williams INF PHI 14 Gil Hodges 1B LA 15 Jesse Hickman P PHI 16 Craig Anderson P STL 17 Merritt Ranew C MIL 18 Ray Daviault P SF 19 Don Taussig OF STL 20 John DeMerit OF MIL 21 Bobby Shantz P PIT 22 Al Jackson P PIT 23 Norm Larker 1B LA 24 Sammy Drake INF CHI 25 Sam Jones P SF 26 Chris Cannizzaro C STL 27 Paul Roof P MIL 28 Choo Choo Coleman C PHI 29 Ken Johnson P CIN 30 Ed Bouchee 1B CHI 31 Dick Gernert 1B CIN 32 Bobby Gene Smith OF PHI Regular Phase, $50,000 per player Pick Player Pos From Pick Player Pos From 33 Ed Olivares INF STL 34 Sherman Jones P CIN 35 Jim Umbricht P PIT 36 Jim Hickman OF STL 37 Jim Golden P LA 38 (declined pick) Premium Phase, $125,000 per player Pick Player Pos From Pick Player Pos From 39 Joey Amalfitano INF SF 40 Jay Hook P CIN 41 Dick Farrell P LA 42 Bob Miller P STL 43 Hal Smith C PIT 44 Don Zimmer INF CHI 45 Al Spangler OF MIL 46 Lee Walls IF/OF PHI
The virtual draft
We'll conduct our own alternative version of the draft. For our exercise, the rule will be that we can't introduce any player into the draft who wasn't actually chosen, nor can we remove from the draft any player who was actually chosen. We'll work with the same list of 45 players who were actually drafted.
But our Mets will be free to choose the players we think they plausibly should have chosen, while we'll assume that Richards's Colt .45s will continue to draft as they actually did, deviating only in response to the differences in the pool of players caused by different picks the Mets will make. But whatever picks we make for Houston will be made in the spirit of consistency with the strategy Richards employed, which was very distinctly to focus on defense and pitching, at the expense of power hitting.
So here we go!
The virtual Regular Phase, $75,000 per player
1. Colt .45s: Eddie Bressoud, infielder, San Francisco Giants
It’s intriguing that Richards devoted the very first selection in the draft to Bressoud. He was a good ballplayer, a competent defensive shortstop with some pull-hitting power. But his weakness was a proclivity for strikeouts which had him struggling to maintain a decent batting average, and for this reason he’d lost the battle for the Giants’ starting shortstop job.
This combination of skills would seem to make Bressoud a far better fit for the cozy-fenced Polo Grounds than ultra-spacious Colt Stadium, where home runs would be hard to come by, and thus a long sequence of base hits would be necessary to produce a rally. If he were available, our virtual Mets would have been eager to draft Bressoud.
But he wouldn’t be available, taken instead by Houston (who, interestingly, would quickly trade Bressoud to Boston, where provided with a home ballpark ideally accommodating his swing, the shortstop would produce three straight outstanding seasons).*
2. Mets: Bob Aspromonte, infielder, Los Angeles Dodgers
Aspromonte was a 23-year-old who didn’t project to deliver much power, but in every other way he was a slick prospect: a contact-oriented line drive hitter with sure infield hands and a strong arm. He was not only the best young infielder, but very likely the best young ballplayer at any position available in the draft. Our Mets will snap him up right away.
3. Colt .45s: Bob Lillis, infielder, St. Louis Cardinals
The slightly-built Lillis had no bat whatsoever, but even in his 30s “The Flea” was a middle infield defensive whiz. Houston’s investment in him so early in the draft made it crystal clear that Richards was prioritizing run prevention over run production just as surely as he had in Baltimore.
4. Mets: Al Jackson, pitcher, Pittsburgh Pirates
If Aspromonte was the best young position player available in the draft, Jackson was the best young pitcher, at least in the regular phase. The Pirates had never given the little control-artist southpaw a decent major league opportunity, but he’d spent three consecutive years performing wonderfully in Triple-A, and he wasn’t yet 26 years old. Our Mets won’t wait until later in the draft to take him.
5. Colt .45s: Dick Drott, pitcher, Chicago Cubs
Drott was half-a-year younger than Jackson, and as of 1957 he’d been one of the brightest young pitchers in the major leagues. But arm trouble had plagued Drott ever since, and by this point he was thoroughly in the category of “project.” For an expansion team, it was sensible to take a chance on a guy like this, particularly Houston with its forgiving pitchers’ environment.
6. Mets: Ken Johnson, pitcher, Cincinnati Reds
Though he was a big guy, Johnson didn’t throw hard, and had knocked around for a while. But the Reds had salvaged the 28-year-old from the scrap heap in mid-1961, and over the balance of the season he'd performed splendidly, demonstrating excellent control of an array of breaking stuff including a knuckleball.
In the actual draft, the Mets' quick depletion of both of their picks from Cincinnati meant that there was no need for Houston to pay attention to the Cincinnati players available until the final rounds of this phase of the draft, and thus the Colt .45s actually took Johnson nearly at the end. Our Mets won’t commit that blunder.
7. Colt .45s: Elio Chacon, infielder, Cincinnati Reds
Chacon was a little guy with zero power, good speed, and excellent strike zone judgment. The actual Mets picked him early. Our Mets haven’t picked him yet, so given that our Colt .45s hadn’t gotten Aspromonte, they’ll grab Chacon.
8. Mets: Felix Mantilla, infielder, Milwaukee Braves
A tall, slender infielder with an intriguing bat, Mantilla had once seemed destined to be something special. But in a golden opportunity to win a first-string job in 1959, Mantilla had flopped miserably, and ever since he’d been relegated to a strict backup role. But at the age of 27, he was a good choice in the draft, particularly for the Mets, given the quite reachable left field wall at the Polo Grounds.
9. Colt .45s: Al Heist, outfielder, Chicago Cubs
Another illustration of Richards’s defense-first orientation. Heist was a minor league veteran highly regarded for his center field glove, but hadn’t made the majors until age 32 due to a so-so bat.
(With the selection of Heist, the Colt .45s had just chosen their second player from the Chicago Cubs, meaning that Houston could no longer draft from the Cubs' roster in this phase. Therefore there would now be no reason for the Mets to prioritize picks from the Cubs in this phase; they would be required to take two, but with no further competition from Houston on picks from the Cubs, the Mets could wait until the last selections to take care of these if they wished.
10. Mets: Craig Anderson, pitcher, St. Louis Cardinals
A rarity for that era, Anderson was a very young pitcher being groomed as a reliever from the get-go. He had just two professional seasons under his belt, and though he didn’t blow anyone away with velocity, Anderson’s results had been superb, posting ERAs of 1.68 in double-A in 1960, 2.06 in a half-season of Triple-A in 1961, and 3.26 in a major league half-season in ’61.
11. Colt .45s: Roman Mejias, outfielder, Pittsburgh Pirates
Everyone had always been wowed by Mejias’ tools of speed, arm, and power, but he’d never mastered plate discipline or generally put a polished game together. The Pirates had finally run out of patience with him, but the Colt .45s were ready to find out what Mejias could do with a full-fledged major league opportunity.
12. Mets: Bobby Shantz, pitcher, Pittsburgh Pirates
Shantz was 36, yet still pitching entirely well in a reliever-and-occasional-starter role. A year earlier, the American League’s expansion Washington Senators had drafted Shantz for the express purpose of dangling him as trade bait for a contender. That had made sense then, and it made sense now. Our Mets will beat the Colt .45s to it this time.
(Shantz would be the Mets' second pick from Pittsburgh in this phase. Thus Houston could now wait as long as they wished to make their final selection from the Pirates in this phase.)
13. Colt .45s: George Williams, infielder, Philadelphia Phillies
This youthful second baseman had hit for a high average at every level of the minors. His availability in the draft suggests his fielding wasn’t as impressive.
14. Mets: Hobie Landrith, catcher, San Francisco Giants
It was nuts for Weiss to invest as early a pick as he did in Landrith, but the lefty-hitting catcher was a solid journeyman who, if spotted properly, could still be expected to provide capable work for a couple of years.
15. Colt. 45s: Jesse Hickman, pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies
A very young, very raw hard thrower who hadn’t yet reached Triple-A. The Colt .45s were clearly willing to invest draft picks in players unready for the majors.
(The Colt .45s were now finished drafting from the Phillies in this phase.)
16. Mets: Sam Jones, pitcher, San Francisco Giants
“Toothpick Sam” had for several years been a strikeout king and a major star, but at the age of 35 in 1961 he’d clearly begun his decline. Still he looked as though he might have enough left in the tank to attract something in the trade market.
(The Mets were now finished drafting from the Giants in this phase.)
17. Colt .45s: Merritt Ranew, catcher, Milwaukee Braves
A lefty-swinging catcher who hadn’t yet reached the majors, Ranew hadn’t shown home run power but had hit well over .300 several times in the minor leagues.
18. Mets: Gus Bell, outfielder, Cincinnati Reds
His All-Star days long past, the soon-to-be-33-year-old Bell could still provide adequate corner outfield defense, but his hitting had badly faded. The actual Mets chose him far higher in the draft than he was worth, as his value to an expansion team would likely be only what he might draw in a trade.
(The Mets were now finished drafting from the Reds in this phase.)
19. Colt .45s: Norm Larker, first baseman, Los Angeles Dodgers
A singles-hitting first baseman would be a much better fit for the Colt .45s than the Mets.
20. Mets: Chris Cannizzaro, catcher, St. Louis Cardinals
A light hitter even in the minor leagues, Cannizzaro was the epitome of a good-field, no-hit catcher.
(The Mets were now finished drafting from the Cardinals in this phase.)
21. Colt .45s: Roger Craig, pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers
This tall, broad-shouldered workhorse had ridden a roller-coaster of a career, and his 1961 performance had been one of the lowest points: he’d been bludgeoned for 22 home runs in 113 innings, and a 6.15 ERA. If he was to return to the heights again in his early 30s, a park with Houston’s big outfield would seem a more likely place to do it than the Polo Grounds.
(The Colt .45s were now finished drafting from the Dodgers in this phase.)
22. Mets: Johnny DeMerit, outfielder, Milwaukee Braves
DeMerit had once been a highly-touted Bonus Baby, but in several tries with the Braves, he'd never hit well, and his hitting in the minors had only been so-so.
(The Mets were now finished drafting from the Braves in this phase.)
23. Colt .45s: Don Taussig, outfielder, St. Louis Cardinals
Taussig was a solid defensive outfielder without much of a bat, but had emerged in 1961 with a fine year in a backup/platoon role for the Cardinals, hitting .333 in 96 at-bats against LHP.
24. Mets: Ed Bouchee, first baseman, Chicago Cubs
Since debuting with a terrific rookie season in 1957, Bouchee’s road had been decidedly bumpy. But he was still just 28, and some regular exposure to the Polo Grounds short porch in right field might be just the thing to get his career back on track. Had the Colt .45s not exhausted their picks from the Cubs so quickly, our Mets would have been drafting Bouchee earlier.
25. Colt .45s: Joe Christopher, outfielder, Pittsburgh Pirates
Christopher wasn’t a bad player. He ran well, and was a pretty good line-drive hitter. But he lacked the power to justify regular play as a corner outfielder, and despite his speed he lacked the defensive acumen to handle center field on anything more than a fill-in basis.
26. Mets: Sammy Drake, infielder, Chicago Cubs
A switch-hitter with speed and defensive versatility, but Drake’s major league upside looked to be as a utility man.
27. Colt .45s: Ray Daviault, pitcher, San Francisco Giants
After many years of toiling in the minors without distinction, in 1961 the 27-year-old Daviault had produced an excellent season as a triple-A reliever. He was a very sensible draft pick.
28. Mets: Bobby Gene Smith, outfielder, Philadelphia Phillies
Comparable to Taussig (pick No. 23 above): a good-glove, light-bat right-handed-hitting journeyman outfielder.
29. Colt .45s: Paul Roof, pitcher, Milwaukee Braves
The most extreme example of Houston’s long-shot picks, Roof had just turned 19 a month before the draft, and had pitched in Class B in 1961.
30. Mets: Choo Choo Coleman, catcher, Philadelphia Phillies
This diminutive left-handed-hitting catcher had some pop in his bat, but his defensive skill left quite a bit to be desired. Though he was quick on the basepaths, as Roger Angell so mordantly put it, “this is an attribute that is about as essential for catchers as neat handwriting.”
31. Colt 45s: Dick Gernert, first baseman, Cincinnati Reds
He’d delivered some pretty good years for the Red Sox in the ‘50s. At this point in his career, Gernert was strictly backup material.
32. Mets: Gil Hodges, first baseman, Los Angeles Dodgers
The enormously popular Hodges had always been a natural leader, and was obviously a prime coach/manager candidate. This was good, because he was just as obviously washed up as a player: he was nearing 38 years old, his knees were shot, and he hadn’t hit a lick in two years. Weiss's actual Mets devoting their seventh draft pick to Hodges was ridiculous.
The virtual Regular Phase, $50,000 per player
33. Colt .45s: Ed Olivares, infielder/outfielder, St. Louis Cardinals
This youngster had hit for average and with power working his way up the Cardinals’ chain. What sort of defensive acumen he displayed as a third baseman is suggested by the fact that he spent a lot of time in the outfield.
34. Mets: Jim Golden, pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers
A garden-variety grade-B prospect who’d sat at the back end of the Dodgers’ bullpen bench as a rookie in 1961.
35. Colt .45s: Sherman Jones, pitcher, Cincinnati Reds
The same manner of roster filler as Golden, the only real difference being that Jones was a year older.
36. Mets: Jim Hickman, outfielder, St. Louis Cardinals
He’d knocked around the St. Louis system for six full years and had never gained an inning of major league exposure. Hickman had legitimate home run power, but struck out a lot and struggled to hit for average, and didn’t really have the range for center field. He projected as nothing better than a utility man.
37. Colt .45s: Jim Umbricht, pitcher, Pittsburgh Pirates
An over-30 minor league veteran, Umbricht had produced some good performances in triple-A, but had never managed to stick at the big league level.
38. Mets: Declined to pick
This decision by Weiss is among those with which we're in agreement. There was no point investing 50 grand in any more of the remaining unprotected players, as we're pretty clearly into the waiver-wire fodder at this point.
The virtual Premium Phase, $125,000 per player
39. Colt .45s: Joey Amalfitano, infielder, San Francisco Giants
Amalfitano had never played as a true first-stringer in the majors or minors, but had established himself with the Giants in 1960-61 as a capable handyman, delivering competent defense at second or third and getting on base reliably.
40. Mets: Dick Farrell, pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers
Inconsistency had been the hallmark of relief ace Farrell’s career, and 1961 had been one of his down years. But when he’d been good, he’d been very good, he was still one of the harder throwers around, and he wasn’t yet 28 years old.
41. Colt .45s: Jay Hook, pitcher, Cincinnati Reds
Everyone had expected Hook to become a star, based on his combination of impressive stuff, workhorse durability, and keen intelligence. The Reds had provided him with more than an ample opportunity. But Hook had achieved nothing other than poor results at the big league level, serving up too many gopher balls—especially in 1961, when opposing hitters teed off on him to the tune of 14 homers in 258 at-bats.
Still, as of draft day Hook hadn’t yet turned 25, had demonstrated pretty good control, and had never experienced arm trouble. He remained a worthy project to be undertaken by an expansion team—particularly one preparing to operate in a ballpark with distant fences, such as Houston’s.
42. Mets: Bob Miller, pitcher, St. Louis Cardinals
Miller was a 1957 Bonus Baby whom the Cardinals had been bringing along prudently. Though he didn’t wow anyone, the right-hander was doing pretty well until 1961, his first full big league season, when for the first time Miller struggled with his control, and in a long reliever/spot starter role he’d been less than effective.
Nevertheless, though he didn’t have Hook’s front-line starter upside, at the age of 22 Miller was a fine prospect.
43. Colt .45s: Hal Smith, catcher, Pittsburgh Pirates
His defensive limitations had prevented Smith from becoming a front-line catcher, because few catchers hit better. In 1961, at the age of 30, Smith encountered his first down year with the bat, prompting the Pirates to leave him exposed in this round of the draft. He was definitely the best catcher selected by either team.
44. Mets: Don Zimmer, infielder, Chicago Cubs
The stardom that had been predicted for him had never materialized, but the ultra-scrappy Zimmer had finally seemed to have settled in as a useful mid-grade performer.
45. Colt .45s: Al Spangler, outfielder, Milwaukee Braves
Spangler’s height is always listed as six feet, but as someone who watched him play a little bit, I’m not buying it. And in any case, he “played” much smaller than that: he was a contact hitter devoid of power, but with outstanding ability to work bases on balls. He covered decent ground in the outfield, but didn’t have the arm to handle center regularly. Spangler was the best “on base guy” selected in the draft.
46. Mets: Lee Walls, infielder-outfielder, Philadelphia Phillies
Though Walls was only in his late 20s, his days as a regular were distinctly behind him. At this point he was a corner infield/corner outfield utility guy.
In our virtual draft, the following players are taken by the Colt .45s, who were actually taken by the Mets:
- Infielder Elio Chacon
- Outfielder Joe Christopher
- Pitchers Roger Craig, Ray Daviault, Jay Hook, and Sherman Jones
- Infielder Bob Aspromonte
- Pitchers Dick Farrell, Jim Golden, Ken Johnson, Sam Jones, and Bobby Shantz
We’ll go through the rest of our virtual Mets’ 1961-62 transactions, and see how things go in the inaugural '62 season.
References and Resources
* Richards's first-pick investment in Bressoud, despite the fact that the ballplayer's mix of skills ran counter to the strategy Richards employed throughout the remainder of the draft, and indeed throughout nearly all of his four-year tenure in the Houston GM role—eschewing home run hitting—suggests an interesting possible explanation.
This is sheer speculation; I've never found any evidence for this. But it wouldn't be at all out of Machiavellian character for Richards to have chosen Bressoud simply because he knew or strongly suspected that Weiss and the Mets were keenly interested in him. By taking Bressoud off of the draft table right away, Richards would deprive his competitor of access to a valued asset.
Richards could then offer Bressoud in trade talks with the Mets. Whether he did or not is unknown, but what did ensue was that just six weeks after draft day, Richards completed the trade of Bressoud to the Red Sox, in straight-up exchange for Don Buddin, a shortstop with slightly less pop in his bat and less defensive aptitude than Bressoud, but with greatly superior ability to draw walks and reach base.
Rob Neyer's analysis of the 1962 Mets is found in Neyer and Eddie Epstein, Baseball Dynasties: The Greatest Teams of All Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), pp. 162-164.
The quote regarding Choo Choo Coleman is from Roger Angell, The Summer Game (New York: Popular Library, 1972), p. 62.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.