The 1962 lovable loser smackdown

During the last weekend of the 1962 National League season, with three games left to go, all eyes were on San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Giants, hosting the Houston Colt .45′s, a first-year expansion team, were two games behind the Dodgers, who had won 101 games. Meanwhile, the Dodgers were hosting the Cardinals at Dodger Stadium, then in its inaugural year.

Predictably, there were some big crowds on hand, notably (51,064, 49,012 and 42, 325 in L.A.) and 41,327 for the final game in San Francisco. And there was drama aplenty. The Giants, thanks to a rain-out, had to play a double-header on Saturday. The Dodgers, having lost on Friday night, were defending a 1½ game lead at the beginning of Saturday, Sept. 29. They couldn’t get the bats going and were shut out Saturday and Sunday. Meanwhile, the Giants split their Saturday double-header and won on Sunday, so the two teams finished at 101-61, forcing a three-game playoff eventually won by the Giants. The first 162-game season in National League history actually required 165 games for a resolution.

Understandably, the final weekend on the West Coast riveted baseball fans’ attention. Indeed, it was about as good as it gets when the season odometer hits Game No. 160. Unfortunately, by focusing on the top of the standings, baseball fans often miss out on the dramas being played out at the bottom of the standings.

The Giants and Dodgers both finished at the top with triple digits in victories. At the other end of the standings were two teams with triple digits in losses. Said triple-digit twins were the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets.

The Cubs lost their 100th game on Sept. 23; the Mets were there waiting for them, as they had lost their 100th game on Aug. 29. Hundred-loss teams are not rare, but those that get there before Labor Day are truly exceptional. At the end of August, the Mets had a record of 34-102, good for a .250 winning percentage. They kept pace in September (6-18) to finish the season with the same percentage. So you can’t really say the Mets finished the season in a swoon.

If the Mets had a high point in 1962, it was probably the second and third weeks of May. On May 8, their record of 5-16 lifted them out of last place and ahead of the Cubs (6-20), albeit just barely. At the close of business on May 20, the Mets stood at 12-19 after winning three out of four over the Braves, including their second double-header sweep of same. After a disastrous 0-9 start, the Mets had gone 12-10. They weren’t going to win any pennants, but at least they were keeping pace with the Colts, the other first-year franchise. Then came a road trip to Houston, the beginning of a 17-game losing streak, and a one-way ticket to the cellar.

The Mets were officially eliminated from the pennant race on Aug. 10, and they broke the modern major league record for losses in a season with their 118th loss at Milwaukee on Sept. 26. They finished the season at 40-120 (40-120-1, to be exact), 60½ games out of first place.

The addition of the Mets and the Colts to the NL brought about a changing of the guard at the bottom of the league. The Phillies had finished last four years in a row and were coming off a 47-107 season, which featured a 23-game losing streak. They had not finished above .500 since 1953.

Thanks to a prosperous September (15-7) the Phillies finished the 1962 season at 81-80. The Mets and Colt .45′s played a big part, as the Phillies beat the Colts 17 out of 18 tries (the Colt .45′s sole victory came in the last meeting between the teams on Sept. 4 in Houston) and went 14-4 against the Mets.

The Phillies’ 81-80 record was good enough for only seventh place, however. With seven teams above .500 and three below, one can safely assume that the winners battered more than usual on the losers. Sure enough, the gap between the seventh-place Phillies and the eighth-place Colt .45′s was wide. The Colt .45′s (64-96, .400) were 16½ games behind the Phillies. Still, considering Houston was an expansion team, it was not a shameful showing. As for the two teams below the Colt ,45′s… well, let’s just say expectations were low and the performances were even lower.

Like the Phillies, the Cubs had been schlubs for years. They hadn’t had a winning season since 1946, just one year after their last World Series appearance. It was embarrassing to finish behind a first-year team, yet the Cubs, thanks to the worst season (59-103) they had ever experienced, finished six games behind the Colt .45′s. Clearly, owner Phillip K.Wrigley’s experiment with the “college of coaches” had been a failure. Accordingly, the fan base shrunk, and the Cubs finished last in the league in attendance at 609,822. Yes, baseball at Wrigley Field was a different experience half a century ago.

The ultimate poster child for National League incompetence in 1962, of course, was the New York Mets. Little was expected of the team, but fans couldn’t help but note that the Colt .45′s, saddled with similar handicaps, had finished 24 games ahead of the Mets. If Houston could win two games out of five, why were the Mets limited to one game out of four?

By the final weekend of the season, the Cubs were firmly entrenched in ninth place. As the schedule would have it, the final three games of the season were against the last-place Mets at Wrigley Field. Nothing that happened could change the standings. There wasn’t anything at stake. Or was there?

As one might expect, the Mets’ record against other NL teams was dismal—with one exception. At the opening of business on Friday, Sept. 28, 1962, the Mets had a winning record (8-7) against the Cubs. It was far and away their best record against an opponent. Their second-best record was against the Braves (6-12). So the stigma was that the Cubs couldn’t even beat the Mets, whose woes were of Biblical proportions.

But on that final weekend of the year, the Cubs could rectify that situation. They were in control of their own destiny. They could take care of business.

Did Chicago fans care? Apparently not. Only 595 fans showed up for the first contest on Sept. 28. Granted, it was a weekday game and fall weather in Chicago can be brisk, but this was a minuscule crowd no matter what the circumstances. Too bad because they missed a good game. The Cubs broke a 1-1 tie with two runs in the bottom of the sixth inning and held on for a 3-2 win. Paul Toth was the winning pitcher, giving up just one earned run in six innings.

Mets’ starter Galen Cisco took the loss. The Mets had taken him off the waiver wire on Sept. 7. Since he had a 6.71 ERA for the Red Sox in 1961 and a 6.72 mark for the Sox in 1962 before he was put on waivers, the Mets must have figured he would fit right in with their pitching staff. On this day, he was not that bad (three earned runs in six innings), but that wasn’t good enough to avoid his first loss as a member of the Mets.

For the Cubs, so far so good. They had evened the season series against the Mets at 8-8. The Sept. 29 game would break the deadlock, and when all the heads were counted, the attendance increase was more than fourfold! Yet in absolute numbers, that means only 2,870 people were on hand.

The two starters had more on their minds than just the season series, however. Mets starter Bob Miller had not won a game all year. As he took the mound for the last time in 1962, his record was 0-12 after 134.2 innings. His opposite number, Dick Ellsworth was trying to avoid a 20-loss season. On the brink of his last appearance of the year, his record was 9-19 after 201.2 innings.

Although each pitcher had weathered a disappointing season, on this day neither disappointed. The battle, however, was won by Miller. He pitched a complete game, giving up just one run on a solo shot by Ernie Banks. So by season’s end, at least Miller could say that he was responsible for one of the Mets’ precious few victories.

The game-winning hit was the handiwork of the redoubtable Marv Throneberry, who scored Jim Hickman with a two-out double in the seventh inning. It was Throneberry’s last RBI of the season and the next-to-last of his career. He would garner one more in 1963.

Here we should pause to point out that there was more than one bonus baby named Bob Miller pitching for the 1962 Mets. Our Bob Miller, Robert L. Miller, was a right-hander who enjoyed a 17-year major league career. Had he stuck with his birth name of Robert Lane Gemeinweiser, he could have saved fans a lot of confusion.

Arriving in New York via the expansion draft, his 1962 Mets experience was definitely the low point of his career, but he hit pay dirt when he was traded to the Dodgers in the offseason. He pitched for three pennant-winners during his tenure in Los Angeles, and he also pitched in the postseason for the Twins in 1969 and the Pirates in 1971 and 1972.

For the record, the other Bob Miller, Robert G. Miller was a left-hander returning to the majors after a six year absence. His motivation was to qualify for the major league pension plan, and he pitched only 20.1 innings for the Mets. Having accomplished his mission, he retired after the 1962 season.

Cubs’ starter Ellsworth was in his fourth season, though he was only 22 years old. On Sept. 29, he was almost as good as Miller, giving up just two runs in seven innings before being removed for a pinch-hitter. He was not able to avoid his 20th loss of the season, but he must have derived some benefit from his experiences, as he did an about-face in 1963, winning 22 and losing just 10.

The 2-1 Mets victory on Sept. 29 gave them a 9-8 series edge with one game left. It was no longer possible for the Cubs to have a winning record against the Mets, but could they at least avoid a losing record? The last game of the season would tell the tale.

On Sunday, Sept. 30, maybe the fans finally realized what was at stake: 3,960 turned out and were rewarded with a 5-1 Cubs victory, largely thanks to the efforts of Bob Buhl, who pitched a complete game and gave up just one run, on a homer by Frank Thomas. Apparently, the fates had decreed that when Bob Miller finally won a game, the Mets’ win column would be under lockdown.

Mets starter Willard Hunter was no match for Bob Buhl, not on Sept. 30, 1962, and not at any point in his career. A long-time (since 1955) Dodger farmhand, he had one bad outing (nine earned runs in two innings) with the big club in 1962 before being shipped to the Mets as the player to be named later in a deal that had gone down more than five months earlier. He went 1-6 (6.65 ERA) with the Mets in 1962 and was back in the minors in 1963. He returned to New York in 1964 when the Mets opened Shea Stadium, going 3-3 with a 4.41 ERA in 49 innings pitched. And that was the end of his major league career.

In his final start in the Mets’ final game of 1962, Hunter was removed in the second inning after giving up four walks. Still, the Mets kept it close (they were behind 2-1 after four innings) but were done in by their own miscues in the fifth and seventh innings, as the Cubs scored three unearned runs off Craig Anderson. At least Anderson didn’t get tagged with the loss (which went to Hunter). Anderson’s 3-17 record (including 16 losses in a row) for the year was punishment enough.

The fans who showed up that day were rewarded with much more than a Cubs victory. For one thing, they got to see Richie Ashburn’s last game (and last base hit, No. 2,574). Wonder what they thought when he took the field as the starting second baseman! It was a strange way for the future Hall of Fame center fielder to exit the stage, but not entirely unprecedented. Eight days before, he had taken over at second for Rod Kanehl late in a game. That was the first time in Ashburn’s major league career he had played anywhere other than the outfield.

But for a truly lasting impression, the last play of the game can’t be beat. In his only plate appearance of the day, Joe Pignatano brought down the curtain on (1) the game; (2) the season; and (3) his playing career—by hitting into a triple play! He later returned to the Mets as a bullpen coach. He was there in 1969 when the Mets won it all.

The triple play surely must have tickled Bob Buhl’s fancy. His victory over the Mets was a satisfying way to cap off the season, but it was hardly the high point of his career. Though he was often overshadowed by Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette in Milwaukee, Buhl had been a mainstay of the Braves’ rotation throughout the 1950s. As a rookie in 1953 (also the team’s inaugural year in Milwaukee), Buhl went 13-8 with a 2.97 ERA. He had back-to-back seasons of 18 victories in 1956 and 1957 (the Braves’ title year) and was an All-Star in 1960.

At the dawn of the 1962 season, he had a 121-72 record to show for nine full seasons. Today a record like that would net a 33-year-old pitcher a pretty sweet contract. In Buhl’s case, he was traded to the Cubs, only about 75 miles south of Milwaukee, but in terms of talent, way south of the Braves during Buhl’s tenure.

The Braves likely thought they were unloading a veteran for a younger starting pitcher, namely Jack Curtis, who was eight years younger and had gone 10-13 for the Cubs in his rookie year of 1961. In theory, the trade made sense for the Braves. Unfortunately, the trade, like Buhl, also went south.

Curtis went 4-4 for the Braves in 1962 and pitched in just four games (18.00 ERA) with Cleveland in 1963. Thus ended his career. Meanwhile, Buhl led the Cubs staff in victories (12) and innings pitched (212) in 1962, even though he didn’t make his first start till May 2.

Buhl finished the season at 12-13 and won 11, 15, and 13 games with the Cubs from 1963 to 1965. The Braves must have had second thoughts, as they spun their wheels during those years, finishing in either fifth or sixth place with 84-88 victories. With the reliable Buhl still on their staff, they might have remained in contention. Arguably, that might have forestalled their move to Atlanta after the 1965 season.

During that last game of 1962, Buhl had some personal history at stake. He went 0 for 4 at the plate that day, adding to his hitless season record. He finished the year 0 for 70, the most at-bats ever for a hitless season. Just one dribbler, blooper, or seeing-eye grounder could have ruined his perfect season.

You almost have to wonder if Buhl was actually going for the record and just went through the motions in his four at-bats. It would be hard to tell, as Buhl’s lack of proficiency with the bat was well known. Even so, his 1962 offensive performance was well below his modest standards. His lifetime average was .089, based on 76 hits (74 singles and 2 doubles) in 857 at-bats. In case you’re wondering, that works out to a slugging percentage of .091.

Curiously, Buhl tied a personal best at the plate by drawing six walks in 1962. One can just imagine the anguish of an opposing manager who was forced to witness his pitcher issue a base on balls to the likes of Bob Buhl!

So at season’s end, thanks to Bob Buhl, the Cubs finished 9-9 against the Mets. If the Cubs could not achieve a winning record against the Mets, at least they could deny them the only possibility they had of a winning record against another National League team in 1962. For the record, the Cubs did manage a winning record (10-8) against the Phillies.

Otherwise, the Cubs had little to cheer about in 1962. Their second baseman, Ken Hubbs, did win the Rookie-of-the-Year award. He also won a Gold Glove, highly unusual for a first-year man without an established reputation. Sadly, Hubbs didn’t have a chance to expand that reputation; he was killed in a plane crash after the 1963 season.

Other young players, notably Billy Williams and Ron Santo, came through for the Cubs as the 1960s unfolded—in fact, just one season later, the Cubs would finally finish above .500 at 82-80. Like Williams and Santo, Lou Brock also ended up in the Hall of Fame, but he built his career in St. Louis after several (1961-1964) nondescript seasons with the Cubs.

Seven years later, Santo, Williams (and Banks) were still with the Cubs when they appeared on the verge of winning the first-ever National League East pennant in 1969, and their first first-place finish since 1945. It was not to be, however, thanks to a late-season push by the only NL team other than the Cubs to lose more than 100 games in 1962.

The Mets won exactly 100 games in 1969. The Cubs could not get out of double digits, finishing in second place, eight games behind the Mets at 92-70. They were in first place at the beginning of the month, but they went through a 1-11 stretch (they were 8-17 for the month) while the Mets enjoyed a 13-1 stretch (and went 23-7 for the month). Unfortunately, while there is room for more than one lovable loser at the bottom of the standings, there is only room for one erstwhile lovable loser at the top of the standings.

In 1969, as in 1962, the Mets and Cubs met at Wrigley Field for the final series of the year. This time, it was a match-up between the two top teams rather than the two bottom teams. The Cubs were 7-9 in the season series, and with a two-game sweep, they could tie the Mets once again at 9-9. But this time around, it didn’t really matter. Blowing a pennant tends to dwarf moral victories.

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Comments

  1. Paul G. said...

    Ah, Ken Hubbs.  How did he win Rookie of the Year in 1962?  Both bWAR and fWAR rate him as a replacement-level player and he led the league in strikeouts and GIDP.  The Gold Glove is nice but neither WAR rating sees him as anything other than an average fielder that year.  He’s not terrible for a 20-year-old, of course, but was that a thin rookie class?

  2. Frank said...

    Re: Hubbs wining Rookie of the Year. Considering it was 50 years ago, the voters obviously looked at things differently than today’s voters do. The mail thing Kenny Hubbs did that year was to set a record for consecutive errorless games at 2B, with 78 (and chances with 418). This also led to Hubbs being awarded the Gold Glove that year, over Bill Mazeroski.

  3. Michael Caragliano said...

    Pignatano’s triple play actually came in the top of the eighth inning, so there was one more inning of boring baseball to endure before the curtain dropped on 1962. Curiously, one of the Cubs who batted in the home half of the eighth was Buhl, who couldn’t do anything with the extra shot at breaking the skid. I wonder how many of the 3,960 who showed up were still there by the eighth.

    BTW, one often-overlooked tidbit about that triple play: the two base runners who were erased on the play, Richie Ashburn and Sammy Drake, were also playing in what would be their final game.

  4. Paul G. said...

    Ah, that explains the Gold Glove.

    I remembered that Bill James Win Shares book had an article on ROY Awards.  Hubbs scored 9 Win Shares that year which is quite mediocre for a full-time starter, though it probably treats him better than the WAR scores.  According to WS the best rookie that year was Tom Haller, who went on to have a fine career, but the best career belonged to the young (and aforementioned) Lou Brock.  Actually rates him as Hubbs equal that year; WAR has him a bit better than his teammate.

  5. baycommuter said...

    I remember watching the Saturday game on TV as an eight-year-old. There weren’t anywhere near 2,870 people there, as noted by my father, a Bears fan who disliked baseball in general and hated the Cubs in particular.

  6. Johnny P said...

    I’ve never understood how the 1962 Cubs could’ve lost 103 games. I mean, they had Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, and Lou Brock, plus ROTY Ken Hubbs and 1962 All-Star George Altman. It’s made worse by the fact the 1962 Mets were there (and the Colt .45s).

    They may have been the most talented 100 loss team ever.

  7. Paul G. said...

    Yeah, it sounds like a lot of talent but not well coordinated.  Santo was terrible at the plate, having his worst offensive season with the Cubs.  Brock would not blossom until he became a Cardinal.  Banks was in the serviceable first baseman portion of his career.  Williams was good but not yet great.  Altman was good that year but his prime was brief.  Hubbs… wasn’t good, or really even mediocre.  Throw in an OK shortstop, get nothing from the catching corps, suffer a bad bench, and boast of a mediocre pitching staff and it is a recipe for losing 100 games.  I suspect there are lots of really bad teams with an all-star roster of not-yets, has-beens, and not-my-years.

  8. baycommuter said...

    Another screwy thing Wrigley did was hire a college sports administrator to become the Cubs’ athletic director… no one had any idea what the guy was supposed to be doing and he wound up charting pitches.

  9. Jim Clark said...

    A more recent counterpart to the 1962 Cubs losing “despite all that talent” is the 1993 Mets. They also had 103 losses in an expansion year and had Eddie Murray, Bobby Bonilla, a pretty good young Jeff Kent, Vince Coleman, Howard Johnson two years removed from leading the league in HR and RBI. Dwight Gooden and Bret Saberhagen as starters, John Franco as closer.  But the latter three were injury prone and not good and the atmosphere under manager Jeff Torborg was poisonous.
    The Cubs in the early 1960s must have had one of the real screwball ideas with the “College of Coaches” instead of a manager and competent assistants running certain areas.

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