Author’s Note: In memory of Tom Seaver, who passed away this week, I include this article I wrote 28 years ago to honor Seaver’s induction into the Hall of Fame in 1992.
On Sunday, August 2nd, The Baseball Hall of Fame rolls out its red carpet for Tom Seaver, winner of 311 major league games, and arguably the best pitcher ever to wear a New York baseball uniform.
Baseball is a team game but often the exploits of one player overshadow the performance of a team and the related events of a given year. So it is that New York City baseball fans remember 1951 as the year that Bobby Thomson hit the “shot heard around the world”; that 1956 is the year Mickey Mantle won the Triple Crown; and that 1969 is the year that Tom Seaver led the Mets to a World Series championship. No matter that Thomson, Mantle, and Seaver had excellent supporting casts, “51 and Thomson,” “56 and Mantle,” and “69 and Seaver” are irrevocably linked.
As an avid grade school reader of The Sporting News, I kne3 about Tom Seaver before he threw his first major league pitch. I knew that Seaver was 12-12 in 1966 at Jacksonville, which was then the Triple-A farm club of the Mets. I knew the scouting report said that Seaver threw strikes, which was more than could be said about the majority of Mets’ pitchers in the ‘60s. I also knew that Tom had wife named Nancy, though I was too young to appreciate the newspaper accounts that always put “beautiful” before her name. I even knew Seaver named his dog “Slider,” after the favorite pitch of his early career.
So it was with more than curiosity that I listened to my transistor radio as I ran to the local baseball field on a Thursday afternoon on April 20th, 1967. I had a 3:30 batting practice appointment with Bob Johnson and Eddie Connors, two of my fifth grade classmates. Batting practice was our daily ritual during those springs of pre-adolescence on Long Island, as we rotated pitching, hitting, and fielding roles. We turned into starts of the baseball diamond and forgot about concerns raised during the school day as we sweated and imagined our way toward dinner.
I was running a little late on this day. Usually 15 minutes was ample time to shed myself of St Anne’s grammar school uniform (with its white shirt, blue pants, and blue tie) and replace it with the sartorial splendor of youth—dungarees, sweatshirt, and a Ken Boyer’s model glove. But on this afternoon I paused too often to listen to Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner broadcast the afternoon’s Mets-Cubs game. In his second major league start, Tom Seaver had a two-run lead against the feared Cubs from Chicago.
As I approached the ballfield, I felt the pursed lips and disdainful eyes of Bob and Eddie. “Sorry I’m late,” I yelled. Then I brought smiles to their faces as I motioned to the radio and explained, “The Mets are beating the Cubs, 3-1 in the seventh. Before assuming my position in the field, I turned the radio volume to its maximum level.
Some images of that afternoon are still clear in my mind, almost frozen. I remember the afternoon as one of delight, playing baseball in the sun and rooting for a Mets victory. With each pitch that Seaver threw, Bob, Eddie, and I grew happier. We huddled around the radio as Wes Westrum walked to the mound in the eighth inning. We communicated silently with concerned glances and crossed fingers as we hoped Westrum would stay with Seaver. But a complete game was not to be this day. As we listened to the Shea Stadium fans give Seaver a rousing ovation, we also stood and applauded, forgetting about our game and taking time to smile and pat one another on the back. Tom Seaver had become real for millions of New Yorkers.
Now, more than 25 years later I find myself looking at microfilm of the New York Times to check the box score. When Westrum visited the mound, runners were on first and second with one out and future Hall of Fame left fielder Billy Williams was due to hit. Don Shaw, a lefty reliever whom Casey Stengel had dubbed the ‘worm killer” because of his ability to throw a nasty sinker, got Billy Williams to hit into a double play and went on to preserve Seaver’s first big league win. Seaver pitched 7-1/3 innings, giving up eight hits and one run, without walking a batter. Appropriately, Buddy Harrelson, Seaver’s roommate and close friend, went 1 for 4 and knocked in two runs. If I close my eyes I can still hear Bob Murphy exhorting fans to stay tuned for the “happy recap” of the game.
Through the years, Seaver and the Mets have provided me with a backdrop of life’s inherent changes. Long Island is no longer home and Bob and Eddie have become lost boyhood friends. On August 2nd, along with thousands of other baseball fans, I’ll witness Seaver’s induction into the Hall of Fame. Cooperstown is a village focused on reflection. Perhaps Bob and Eddie will be somewhere in the crowd of thousands and will also recall the spring day in 1967 when Seaver started his journey to the Hall of Fame. For no matter how well Dwight Gooden pitches and how many championships the Mets may win, baseball for me, and I suspect for Bob and Eddie as well, will always translate into an image of number 41 in the center of the diamond, in the orange and blue uniform of the New York Mets.