The Glory Days: First NL Expansion Draft
The New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s stocked their rosters with players selected in the expansion draft held by the National League on October 10 of 1961 at the Netherland-Hilton Hotel in Cincinnati. The Mets’ brain trust was headed up by general manager George Weiss and manager Casey Stengel, both of whom had been dismissed by the New York Yankees after they lost the 1960 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Mets spent $1.8 million to draft 22 players. They used their first pick to take San Francisco Giants catcher Hobie Landrith. Stengel justified the selection of Landrith – a lifetime .237 hitter with 28 home runs in more than 1,600 at-bats – by saying, “You have got to start with a catcher or you will have all passed balls.”
New York chose speedy Elio Chacon, an infielder who had trouble communicating with outfielders on fly balls because he spoke so little English, from Cincinnati in the second round. The biggest name on the Mets’ list was Gil Hodges, the slugging first baseman for so many of the fine Dodger teams. Others who had enjoyed considerable big league success were outfielders Gus Bell and Lee Walls, infielders Don Zimmer and Felix Mantilla, first baseman Ed Bouchee and pitchers Roger Craig and Jay Hook.
Hodges, who was 38, had hit 361 home runs for the Dodgers, helping them win six National League pennants and the 1955 World Series. Bell had hit 200 homers, most of them for the Cincinnati Reds. Craig, a right-handed pitcher, had won 49 games for the Dodgers and was with them for three pennants. He earned one of the victories over the Yankees in Brooklyn’s ’55 Series championship. Craig was 32 when the season opened.
The Mets added Charlie Neal, Richie Ashburn and Frank Thomas in late 1961 transactions, and they dealt for Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell after their inaugural season began.
Ashburn, the fabulous leadoff hitter, was the only eventual Hall of Fame member among the original Mets. The Mets purchased Ashburn, a lifetime .308 hitter who played 12 years with the Philadelphia Phillies, from the Chicago Cubs. Thomas, who played third base, first and the outfield, had hit 223 home runs. The Mets obtained him from the Braves for cash and a player to be named later (Gus Bell).
Neal, who was 31 when the 1962 season started, had been the Dodgers’ regular second baseman for four years. He was Brooklyn’s shortstop most of the 1957 season, when an aging Pee Wee Reese was moved to third base. Neal was acquired by the Mets for Walls and $100,000. Mizell, a southpaw, had notched 89 victories and had played a big role in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1960 pennant push. The Mets got him from the Pirates in a May 1962 trade for part-time first baseman Jim Marshall.
The Mets also bought pitcher Billy Loes from the San Francisco Giants for $25,000. A right-hander who was plagued by arm problems throughout his career, Loes won 10 or more games four straight seasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers and had 80 big league victories in 11 years.
He pitched in three World Series for the Dodgers, including an eight-inning, eight-strikeout performance when he beat the Yankees in the 1953 Fall Classic. Considering the amusing incidents that would typify the franchise’s early years, Loes would have fit in well with the Mets. Once, after bobbling a grounder back to the mound, he explained that he had lost the ball in the sun.
Quoted in the newspapers before the 1952 World Series as having picked the Yankees to win in seven games, Loes was confronted by his Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen. Loes told Dressen that he had been misquoted, that he had picked the Yankees in six games. He said that he never wanted to be a 20-game winner because then he would be expected to do it every year.
When notified that his contract had been purchased by the Mets, Loes said, “The Mets is a good thing. They give everybody jobs. Just like the WPA (Works Progress Administration).” In February, 1962, Loes told the Mets that his sore arm would prevent him from pitching, and he retired from baseball. The Giants had to return the $25,000 to New York.
In a transaction that was amusingly symbolic of their first season, the Mets even traded a player for himself, the only time that has happened in major league history. They acquired catcher Harry Chiti from the Cleveland Indians in April of 1962 for cash and a player to be named later. That player turned out to be Chiti, who was returned to the Indians two months later.
Marv Throneberry became somewhat of a mascot for the Mets as his frequent blunders symbolized the team’s ineptness, and his initials (his middle name was Eugene) spelled M-E-T. A first baseman who came up in the Yankees’ farm system, he slammed 82 home runs in two seasons for triple-A Denver.
Throneberry played part-time for the Yanks for two years and also spent time with Kansas City and Baltimore, hitting 37 homers and striking out one out every four trips to the plate. In May of 1962, the Orioles traded him to the Mets for Hobie Landrith and cash.
Marvelous Marv, as he adoringly came to be known to Mets fans, played 97 games at first base for New York that season. He made 17 errors, giving him a .981 fielding percentage which would be the lowest for first basemen in the majors over the next 17 years.
On more than one occasion, he smacked an extra-base hit, only to be called out for missing a base. Once, when he wound up on third with an apparent triple, he was called out for failing to touch second base. When Stengel came out to argue, an umpire told him, “Don’t bother, Casey; he missed first, too.”
New York signed Ed Kranepool for $85,000 in June of 1962 right out of James Monroe High School in the Bronx, where he was born and grew up. He was only 17 and was the same age when he got six at-bats, including a double, in a September call-up.
He played his entire 17-year career with the Mets and endured some rocky times along the way as he was sent back to the minors for parts of the 1963 and 1970 seasons. Kranepool’s best overall season was 1971, when he batted .280 with 14 home runs and 58 RBI and led National League first basemen with a .998 fielding percentage.
Very little attention was paid to the Mets picking up Rod Kanehl. In the minor league draft of November 1961, they selected him from the New York Yankees, who had signed him in 1954. Kanehl was not given much of a chance of making the Mets, but he stuck and ended up playing all four infield positions and all three outfield spots for the new National League team.
A rookie at the age of 28, he was a fan favorite, perhaps the most popular Met in 1962, and a favorite of Stengel as well. Casey loved Kanehl’s hustle and feistiness, and he continued to play him in spite of Weiss, who did not feel Kanehl had big league talent. But, then, not many other Mets did, either.
The Mets’ biggest star was the 71-year-old Stengel, who came out of a one-year retirement to be their manager. He was not hired because of his fabled success with the New York Yankees, and there was no hope that his craftiness could turn a bunch of has-beens into a winning club.
Old Case was hired to provide entertainment and to keep the Mets in the headlines even if their performance on the field did not. He was a delightful distraction, and he uttered one of his more famous quotes after watching a typical performance by the Mets: “Can’t anybody here play this game?” Jimmy Breslin used the quote as the title for his book on the Mets’ first season.
Stengel’s final record as a manager was 63 games above .500 despite the Mets losing 229 more games than they won while he was with them. They lost at least 109 games in each of his three full seasons as their manager.
Weiss put together a team of over-the-hill guys for the first edition of the Mets. Of course, there was no farm system to develop players, and the other National League clubs certainly were not going to place glittering prospects on the draft market. So, that first year, it was mostly a matter of putting a team on the field.
There was an obvious Dodger look to the Mets, whose debut season included appearances by six former Brooklyn players. The hope was that fans would come out to enjoy some nostalgia as they recalled what Hodges, Neal, Craig and Clem Labine had accomplished at Ebbets Field.
The average age of the eight position players in New York’s 1962 opening-day lineup was 32.5 years. Their future was behind them, evidenced by the fact that those eight players combined to total less than eight full seasons after the 1962 schedule concluded. The original Mets used 20 players, nine of them pitchers, who never again appeared in the majors after the season ended. Nine others lasted one more year, with three seeing extremely sparse action in a second additional season. Of the 45 players used by the Mets in their first year, only 13 were playing appreciable big league roles two years later.
Houston won the coin toss for the NL expansion draft and used the first pick to take shortstop Eddie Bressoud from San Francisco, trading him five weeks later for Red Sox shortstop Don Buddin.
The Colt 45s added infielders with their next two selections, getting third baseman Bob Aspromonte from the Dodgers and Bob Lillis, still another shortstop, from the Cardinals. Roman Mejias, a fine outfielder destined to be no more than a backup with the Pirates, was Houston’s sixth pick. Mejias led the first-year Colt 45s in hitting, runs scored, home runs, RBI, and stolen bases, but he also committed the second-most errors of any National League outfielder.
The first three pitchers drafted by the Colt 45s vanished quickly. Dick Drott, a right-hander who showed tremendous promise as a Cubs rookie before encountering arm problems, was Houston’s fourth pick. He went down with an injury after pitching 13 innings.
Left-hander Bobby Shantz, who joined Gene Woodling as the only players picked in the initial expansion drafts of both the American and National League, went at number 11. Shantz threw a complete game on opening day, then was traded to St. Louis in early May. In return, the Colt 45s got outfielder Carl Warwick, who won a starting outfield job and hit 16 home runs.
Righty Sad Sam Jones – he of the amazing curveball – was grabbed by Houston with its 13th selection, and he was traded to Detroit in December for two players. One of them was Bob Bruce, another right-hander, who tied Turk Farrell with 10 wins to lead the 1961 Colt 45s.
Although they finished at or near the bottom of the National League in most of the offensive categories, the Colt 45s were able to finish in eighth place in the standings because of solid pitching. Led by Farrell, who struck out 203 batters and had a 3.02 earned run average despite losing 20 games, Houston’s staff posted a 3.83 ERA and notched the second-most K’s in the National League. Manager Harry Craft had a capable bullpen of veterans, led by former Braves closer Don McMahon, who bailed the starters out of numerous jams.
The club played its first three seasons in Colt Stadium, known for poor lighting, a constant monstrous swarm of mosquitoes and unbearable high temperatures and humidity. The park was built for pitchers as it measured 360 feet down each foul line, from 395 to 427 feet in the alleys, and 420 to straightaway center field.
The Mets lost their first nine games and won no more than nine in any one month. They placed last in the National League in hitting, pitching and fielding, and they finished 60 and a half games behind San Francisco, which defeated Los Angeles two games to one in a playoff series to win the pennant.
(Ironically, the Giants rallied for four runs in the ninth inning to win the 1962 league title on October 3, the same date they had beaten the Dodgers in 1951 on Bobby Thomson’s shot-heard-round-the-world home run.)
In the four opening games by the expansion teams in 1961 and ’62, Houston and Los Angeles won as Roman Mejias and Ted Kluszewski hit two home runs apiece for the Colt 45s and Angels, respectively. Washington made four errors and New York three in their losses. The Mets gave New York writers something to excite old-days fans as ex-Dodgers Gil Hodges and Charlie Neal hammered home runs.
The Angels were the youngest of the four expansion teams. The average age of all the players used by them in 1961 was 28.2 years. The 1962 Mets were next at 29, with the 1961 Senators averaging 29.4 and the 1962 Colt 45s, at 29.5 years, were the oldest.