October 15, 2018

A Penultimate Farewell

September 28, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

While the events, places, people and quotes (where noted) in this story are all documented as actual, any other references to dialogue and thoughts of the people involved are 100% from the imagination of the author. No interviews were conducted for this work.

On a “cool, brisk and sunny”2 late-September Sunday afternoon, a crowd of 10,304 were gathered at the Polo Grounds to celebrate the New York Mets’ first year in existence and to “turn a season-long retreat into a rearward advance.”2 These 1962 Mets had lost 116 games to this point. The next loss would set a major league single-season record. With six more games to go, the Mets were sure to get there. Would today—their last home game—be the day?

With the Mets’ new home—Shea Stadium—being built in Flushing Meadows, the day’s celebration also included the end of an era as the last baseball game to be played at the Polo Grounds. The old place smelled of…history. Built in 1890 and renovated in 1911 after a fire destroyed much of the wooden structure, the upper Manhattan stadium had been the setting for: the first of Babe Ruth’s 714 career home runs on May 6, 1915—playing for the visiting Boston Red Sox  against the New York Yankees; Babe Ruth’s first home run as a New York Yankee, his 50th, on May 1, 1920— against the visiting Red Sox; Bobby Thompson’s famous “Shot Heard Around the World” home run to win the 1951 pennant for the New York Giants over their rival Brooklyn Dodgers; and Willie Mays’ iconic running catch in deep center field in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. The fact that Willie and the rest of the Giants team had abandoned New York in moving to San Francisco after the 1957 season further endeared these Mets to these fans.

And, celebrate they did. Pre-game ceremonies included a softball game featuring “some local radio announcers and a team of tasty pastries from various Broadway shows.”2 During his on-field interview after the game, Mets’ manager Casey Stengel spoke of getting “eight or six of them girls for my club.”2 Among the songs played during the game: This Old House (…ain’t gonna need this house no longer…); Come Ona My House in honor of Flushing Meadow Stadium and ended with Auld Lang Syne.2 In his book Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? Pulitzer Prize author Jimmy Breslin describes a pre-game ceremony1 whereby Marvin Throneberry and Richie Ashburn are each presented with luxury cabin cruisers as part of a promotion program by a local clothing store. Marv for a season-long contest related to the two “Hit One Here” outfield signs. Richie for being voted by sports writers as the team’s Most Valuable Player.

Acquired in early May from the Baltimore Orioles, “Marvelous Marv” had become a fan favorite whose play at first base seemed to epitomize the ingenious and inept ways that the Mets found to lose games. “Things just sort of keep on happening to me,’ Marvin observed at one point during the season.”1 Jimmy Breslin had said that having Marv play for your team was “like having Willie Sutton work for your bank.”1 His fans took to wearing T-shirts with VRAM (Marv spelled backwards) and sat along the first base line chanting “Cranberry, Strawberry, we love Throneberry.”1

Taking the mound for the Mets was Robert Lane Miller. Among the many records that were set by the Mets in 1962, they became the only team in history to have two players with identical first and last names.1 And, to distinguish this Bob Miller from the other Bob Miller—also a pitcher—manager Casey Stengel would call him by the “seemingly random name of Nelson.”5 With a season record of 0 wins and 12 losses, another loss would set a major league record for consecutive losses by a pitcher in starting a season. When two walks, a wild pitch and a scratch hit yielded the visiting Chicago Cubs a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, it seemed that Nelson was on his way to immortality. But, these Cubs had already lost 99 games this season and were in ninth place, 16 games ahead of the last place Mets and five games behind the other expansion team playing its first season, the Houston Colt 45s.

Staked to a 1-0 lead before he made his first major league pitch, George Alois Gerberman, Jr., a twenty year old from El Campo, Texas took the mound in the bottom of the first. George had recently joined the major league club after a successful 13-5 record with the league champion Wenatchee (WA) Chiefs of the class B Northwest League. Drafted out of high school two years earlier by the Milwaukee Braves, Gerberman was then selected in November 1961 by the Cubs in the Rule 5 draft6,7 after his rookie season with the Wellsville (PA) Braves of the New York-Pennsylvania League. Gerberman was actually the second youngest player making a first major league start on this day. Seventeen-year-old Ed Kranepool, signed out of James Monroe High School just across the Harlem River in the Bronx,2 who made an appearance the day before as a late-inning defensive replacement, would start at first base in place of Marv Throneberry, beginning what would be a 17-year career—all with the Mets.

After a lead-off walk and a double put runners at second and third with no outs, Cubs catcher, Cuno Barragan, approached the mound to settle down his young pitcher. “One leg, my ass, Rook. Let’s get these guys.” He’d also come out to remind the infielders—Ron Santo at third base, Alex Grammas at shortstop, second baseman Ken Hubbs and first baseman Ernie Banks—of the base runners and the situation.

Thirty-year-old Facundo Anthony “Cuno” Barragan made his major league debut a year before. On September 1, 1961, in his first major league at bat and on the first pitch, he hit his first and only major league home run at Wrigley Field versus the San Francisco Giants. He had appeared in about a third of the Cubs’ games during the 1962 season, splitting time with two other Cubs’ catchers. But he was an experienced veteran catcher having played 450 games over a six-year minor league career, mostly at top level, class AAA. Before the game, Cuno and George had been sitting in the dugout reviewing the signals for calling pitches and talking about how they would approach the Mets batters, particularly their big clean-up hitter, Frank Thomas, who’d already hit 32 home runs.

Cuno pointed out the odd dimensions of the bathtub-shaped ballpark—slightly more than little league length down the lines (258 and 279 feet in right and left fields.)—and, a cavernous 475 feet to dead center. And, lots of room in the foul areas, especially behind home plate. This was particularly important as one of George’s out pitches was the knuckleball, an extremely difficult pitch for a catcher to handle and risky to throw with men on base. Before taking the field, Cuno asked George how he felt about facing major league hitters for the first time. He laughed aloud when George responded with “They all put their pants on one leg at a time.” It was the same thing that Cuno had said to a teammate when he returned to the dugout after his home run a year ago.

Watching from the mound as Cuno returned to his position behind home plate, George reflected on his appreciation for catchers and the difficulty of their job. He and his younger brother Billy— also a pitcher who, four months earlier, was the starting and winning pitcher in a 4-1 victory over Seminole for the El Campo Ricebirds’ first high school state championship, would catch each other while their daddy taught them both how to pitch. He’d even caught a few games, finding it to be way harder than it looked. And here’s Cuno who makes it seem effortless. Which is what his daddy would say about pitching—it should be effortless. Grip. Balance. Whip. “Stick your thumb in the mitt” he would say about controlling the release of the ball. The umpire ended the time out with “Play Ball.”

Runners at second and third with no outs. After the next batter popped to second, the following play typified the way the Mets had taken advantage of opportunities throughout the season. The clean-up hitter, Frank Thomas, hit a sharp ground ball to Santo at third. The runner on third had committed for home, was caught in a rundown, and tagged out. The runner on second base had also taken off when the other runner broke for home. He too was caught in a run down, and tagged out. In each putout, Cuno had chased the runner back to the base, making the last throw for the tag out in textbook manner. Double play. End of inning.

Nelson had seen this from his team before. He took the mound for the second inning with renewed resolve. Fly to left. Strikeout. Pop to first. The rest of the game was more of the same. Next day’s New York Times said “But the young right-hander settled down and pitched brilliantly. When he left in the eighth for a pinch hitter, he had yielded only one more hit and had struck out nine.”2

But the young right-hander from Texas also pitched very well, with a 1-2-3 second inning that ended with his first major league strikeout of Jim Hickman. He scattered five walks and did not yield another hit until the sixth inning when Frank Thomas led off with a home run on a pitch that should have been Gerberman’s sixth walk.4 After Ed Kranepool grounded out and Sammy Drake hit an infield single, George’s day was over. Handing the ball over to manager Charlie Metro, he began the long walk across the field towards the clubhouse in center field just beyond the 475’ marker below the stadium scoreboard and Rheingold beer sign. As was the custom, the “h” in Rheingold was lit signifying Drake’s hit, just as the “e” had lit up with George’s throwing error on Kranepool’s grounder in the fourth inning. Minutes later, as he sat alone on the bench near his locker, he realized that, after the time-out with two on and nobody out in the first, he had just pitched five innings of no-hit ball in his first major league game.

The Mets would go on to win 2-1 in celebratory fashion on Frank Thomas’ ninth inning two-out walk-off single. The next day New York Times reported that “After the game, as Thomas and the Mets and Cubs ran toward the center field clubhouse, the spectators merely stood. They did not rush off to exits or cheer. They merely swayed to the strains of ‘Till We Meet Again.’”2

With the win, the march towards setting the single season loss record was stymied for a day. They would go on to lose 120 games that season. And Bob Miller would have one more “chance” at going 0-13 against this same team the following Saturday at Wrigley Field. He pitched a complete game, winning 2-1. His last complete game had been more than three years ago.

But a walk-off win for the home team would not be the final farewell for this old ball park. Construction delays at Shea Stadium resulted in another year for the Mets at the Polo Grounds. At what would be their final farewell on September 15, the Mets lost their 104th game of the 1963 season.  As reported in the next day’s New York Times “Hardly anyone cared. The smallest crowd to watch the Mets at the Polo Grounds—1,752 paying customers—turned out for this finale at the Harlem ballyard. Maybe the fact that there had been two previous major league ‘last games’ at the Polo Grounds took a bit from the occasion.”3 Frank Thomas and Jim Hickman were the only two Mets in that game’s starting line-up who had also played in the ’62 farewell game. In fact, Frank Thomas had played in all three farewell baseball games at the Polo Grounds—first, playing for his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates against the New York Giants in 1957’s final home and farewell game. Having also homered in that game, and again in the ’62 game, he was primed to accomplish a rare feat. And the Mets’ lone run in the final farewell game did come by a home run by Jim Hickman.

 

Epilogue

It’s been said that legends die hard, and this old, legendary ball park has exemplified that sentiment. It turns out that the Mets’ finale would be followed a month later with the “first (and last) annual Latin American major-league All-Star Game”8 at the Polo Grounds on October 12, 1963. Starting at catcher for the National League All-Stars, playing in his final professional baseball game, was Cuno Barragan. According to the starting pitcher, Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, “He was a pretty good catcher, and a real nice guy.”9

A spectator that day wrote: “Which brings me to a closing thought. Years ago, it was common for sportswriters to refer to the outfield as a ‘pasture.’ Although that was probably to be expected in more bucolic times, I always regarded it as rather corny. But, as I gazed onto the field from my upper-deck box, I thought that for Latin Americans on that day, the term was apt. There’s a section of land in Southern California where the Spanish settlers thought so beautiful that they called it “Las pasturas de los cielos.” With national heroes such as [Luis] Aparicio, [Roberto] Clemente, [Orlando] Cepeda, and Marichal gamboling on the brownish-green field, it was at least for that one day, “the pastures of heaven.”8

Over a period of four months in 1964, the Polo Grounds stadium was demolished- making room for a public housing project which stands today in its place. Rest well, hallowed grounds.

 

References

    1. Breslin, Jimmy. Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?- The Improbable Saga of the New York Mets’ First Year. New York, Viking, 1963.
    2. Lipsyte, Robert. “Mets Beat Cubs, 2-1, in Farewell to Baseball at the Polo Grounds- An Ott Plays Right Field as 10,304, Many Memories Attend Last Game”. New York Times, September 24, 1962, p. 55.
    3. White, Gordon S., “Era of Mets Ends at Polo Grounds- 1,751 See Phils Win 5-1, As Season Winds Up Here”, New York Times, September 19, 1963, page 32.
    4. Thompson, Mark. “El Campoans Recall Days As Minor Leaguers” El Campo Leader News, June 24, 1987, page 1-B.
    5. Treder, Steve. “Not Just Any Bob Miller”. The Hardball Times. September 6. 2005.
    6. “Cubs Enroll 2 More.” New York Times, January 25, 1962, page 48.
    7. “Complete Draft List”, New York Times, November 28, 1961, page 44.
    8. Mandt, Edward. “Latin American All-Stars: Los Niños De Otoño”. Baseball Research Journal 17, published by Society for American Baseball Research, Inc., 1988, pages 23-24
    9. Cabral, Rick. “Cuno Barragan”. baseballsacramento.com. February 2, 2010.
    10. Baseball-Reference.com, various.
    11. Wikipedia, various.

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