There's a sadness but there's also a light there because, you know, Tom represented our childhood and he was . . . a light . . . that we could all look to.—Gary Cohen, New York Mets/SNY announcer & lifelong fan
The brilliance of Tom Seaver was so evident from virtually the moment he stepped on the mound for the first time that every fourth or fifth day the Mets were championship material.—Howie Rose, New York Mets radio announcer & lifelong fan
It was early summer and the Big Red Machine had come to town. On the Shea Stadium mound, a right-handed pitcher, number 41, tossed warm-up throws. Four miles away, a ten year-old boy in a gray "Property of New York Mets" T-shirt performed his own pre-game prep: he slid on bright orange Mets wristbands, donned a shiny blue Mets batting helmet, and pushed his right hand into a white batting glove with its postage stamp-sized Mets logo. A pennant sat ready for waving atop its sturdy dowel. Select pages from the Mets photo yearbook sat neatly arranged on his living room floor.
The ten year-old boy had acquired most of these talismans as giveaways on their appropriate days at Shea; he wore them in order to assist his team.
The day was Tuesday, June 7, 1977. The contest between the defending world champion Cincinnati Reds and the lowly New York Mets turned into an 8-0 victory for the home team. Number 41 was Tom Seaver and the boy watching the game in a Woodside, Queens apartment was, of course, me.
For years, I've cherished the memory of that game, though I hardly knew what day it happened (when you're ten, every summer day is Saturday.) I've recounted it many times to defend my team's honor by illustrating how the woeful late-70s Mets could defeat the mightiest clubs . . . and then lose to the puniest.
And for a long time, the game remained just a memory.
Some years ago, I set out to find that game, to retrieve a piece of my childhood. I also wanted to see if boyhood memory squared with statistical fact. On a wonderful Website called Baseball Almanac, I found it. Lovingly assembled and maintained by enthusiasts, Baseball Almanac is an online encyclopedia, a well-organized trove of history, lore, feats, official rules, box scores, and statistics. There's even a section devoted to baseball-related poetry and songs.
Since I knew Seaver pitched a lopsided shutout versus the Reds and that I was around 9 or 10 when it happened, I began scanning the complete Mets schedule for 1976.
Then I clicked on the 1977 schedule and started looking. On Tuesday, June 7, the Mets won 8-0. Very promising. I clicked on the date to view the complete box score. Seaver pitched. Incredible: I'd found the game!
Memory had blurred the score by just one run: I thought the Mets had won 9-0. And here were the Reds, as formidable a lineup as ever graced a diamond–Pete Rose, Ken Griffey, Joe Morgan, Dan Driessen, George Foster, Johnny Bench, Dave Concepción, César Gerónimo–and "Tom Terrific" blanked them. What's more, the Mets scored eight runs against them; the great Seaver had a hit of his own and two RBIs.
A boy's memory affirmed.
Tom Seaver was my boyhood hero. By the time I was old enough to follow baseball on my own, he'd long since established himself as one of the game's greatest pitchers. When I played baseball I imagined myself being him.
Tom Seaver started his Major League career with the Mets in 1967, the year I was born. He pitched so well that he was named Rookie of the Year. Two years later and just months after Apollo 11 landed humans on the moon, Seaver propelled his fellow Metropolitans to a World Series championship. He pitched for 20 years, won 311 games (61 of them shutouts), notched a lifetime 2.86 Earned Run Average, was a 5-time 20-game winner, and amassed 3,640 strikeouts. He won the National League Cy Young Award in 1969, 1973, and 1975.
One April day at Shea Stadium in 1970, Seaver struck out 19 San Diego Padres in a nine-inning game, including the last ten in a row; 19 total stood as a record for 16 years, fanning ten consecutive remains unmatched.
I remember him talking about skills which he felt every Major League pitcher ought to possess. A pro, he said, should be able to consistently hit some part of a postcard. Now home plate sits 60 feet, six inches from the pitcher's mound. At that distance, the strike zone, an invisible rectangle 17 inches wide—the width of the plate—and extending lengthwise from the batter's knees to roughly chest-level, is a pretty small box through which to hurl a baseball. A standard postcard like the kind you'd mail from Paris or Waikiki measures a mere 4 inches by 6 inches.
Seaver had that kind of control . . . with pitches he threw his whole body behind. He pioneered the "drop and drive," powering the ball with his legs by dropping his body down to his right knee while driving his body toward home plate. The combination of pinpoint accuracy and fearsome velocity? Devastating. Fans will always picture him atop the mound with a signature dirt-stained right knee on his uniform pant leg.
After the 1986 World Series, in which my Mets beat the Boston Red Sox, I lost touch with baseball for a few years (ironically, Tom Seaver sat on that Boston bench, unable to pitch due to a knee injury.)
Then one October day in 1991 in the Army, I browsed a bookstore in Honolulu Airport while waiting to board a flight to Fort Lewis, Washington. The World Series would begin in a few days. A soft-cover edition caught my eye and I bought it. It was about old-time baseball back at the turn of the century. It turned out to be Lawrence Ritter's 1966 treasure, The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It.
I didn't know how legendary this book was. And I couldn't have predicted just how sacred to me this text would become. It blindsided me. By the time I stepped off the plane in Seattle, I felt like I'd been made privy to a lost world of astonishing feats and colorful characters. It seemed I knew the baseball of nearly a century ago better than the contemporary game.
Back in the early 1960s, Ritter realized that a generation of players was vanishing. They had played in the dead-ball era, roughly 1900-1919 and so called because the baseball was wound differently: it was not as hard and, thus, not as lively as the modern ball and the same ball was often kept in play until it was deformed and brown as shoe leather—the ball was dead.
Ritter drove around the country—75,000 miles in total—to interview as many former players as he could, preserving their recollections on a tape recorder for posterity. He interviewed Hall of Famers (Sam Crawford, Hank Greenberg, Edd Roush, and Paul Waner had been elected before the book's publication; Stan Coveleski, Goose Goslin, Harry Hooper, and Rube Marquard went in afterwards) and many more "ordinary" players, though they all seemed extraordinary to me.
But one player captivated me, though Ritter never interviewed him since he'd died in 1925 at the age of 45: Christy Mathewson. The old-timers spoke of this terrific right-hander with an admiration bordering on love. Larry Doyle, a former teammate, said of him:
The sight of him was something. My heart stopped for a moment. Just looking at him, he affected you that way. He looked so big and sure and, well, sort of good, like he meant well toward the whole world.
More than anyone, Mathewson seemed to epitomize Ritter's title, a phrase he plucked from Ecclesiastes: "All these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times."
Where to begin? An A student at Bucknell University (college-educated players were rare in baseball's early days), Mathewson pitched 17 seasons for the New York Giants and finished with the Cincinnati Reds. He won 373 games and lost 188, a .665 winning percentage. He's tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander for most wins in the National League. In the 1905 World Series, he tossed three complete-game shutouts over the vaunted Philadelphia Athletics: he pitched a 4-hit shutout in Game 1; did it again in Game 3; and two days later, in Game 5, threw a six-hit shutout to win the series.
At a time when the public considered ballplayers to be uncouth, hard-drinking, tobacco-chewing, foul-mouthed ruffians, Mathewson became the first whom parents were happy to have their sons emulate. He had several nicknames. The Gotham press called him "Matty" or "Big Six" (a nod to a famed Manhattan horse-drawn fire wagon), but he earned two more: "The Gentleman's Hurler" for sportsmanship and, relatedly, "The Christian Gentleman" for his virtuous play and a promise he'd made to his mother not to play baseball on Sundays (a promise not too hard to keep since many National League cities didn't allow Sunday games.)
Handsome, articulate, abstemious, Matty enjoyed reading books. He wrote them too (his entertaining Pitching in a Pinch, from 1912, sits on my shelf in the baseball section.) His other competitive passions were checkers and bridge. And in almost every picture you'll see of him, he smiles (most photos of dead-ball era players depict tough, stern-faced fellows whom you wouldn't want to accidentally bump in a saloon.)
Ogden Nash remembered Mathewson in his poem "Line-Up for Yesterday" with lines alluding to his formidable intellect:
In 1918, though 38 and exempt from military service, Mathewson enlisted in the Army and was commissioned a captain in the newly-created Chemical Service. While training in France, he was exposed to a near-fatal dose of mustard gas. His lungs severely weakened, Mathewson contracted tuberculosis. Though he nearly recovered, the insidious disease eventually claimed him, a delayed casualty of World War I. He displayed characteristic nobility to the end, telling his wife Jane: "Go into the other room and have a good cry. But don't make it a long one. This can't be helped."
He died October 7, 1925, the day the World Series began. Pictures from that contest show the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators wearing black armbands in his memory.
Just as Christy Mathewson legitimized baseball, Tom Seaver legitimized the New York Mets. His other nickname is simply "The Franchise." When the Metropolitans brought National League baseball back to New York City in 1962, the fans embraced these lovable losers. Lacking their own park, they played in the Polo Grounds, that legendary diamond where Christy Mathewson once ruled and which the Giants abandoned for San Francisco. And in that first season, with an aged Casey Stengel as their ever-quotable skipper, they won 40 games and lost 120, a modern record.
In just seven years they morphed into the best team in baseball, the "Miracle Mets," 1969 World Series champions over the mighty Baltimore Orioles. No player contributed more to that miraculous transformation than George Thomas Seaver. He went 25-7 in the regular season. One of his postseason feats was a 10-inning, 2-1 victory in World Series Game 4. Like the great pitchers of yore, he tossed all ten frames. And he led his team back to the World Series in 1973.
Seaver became the face of the franchise, literally and figuratively. He followed up his confidence on the mound with unusual poise in front of reporters: "There are two places in the league: first place and no place." His self-assurance rubbed off on teammates and fans alike. Even as a 10 year-old I knew that if Tom was on the mound we could beat anybody.
And much like Christy Mathewson, Seaver possessed many talents and interests. He was a multi-faceted man.
He served in the US Marine Corps Reserve from 1962-70, which further bolstered the integrity of his declaration: "If the Mets can win the World Series, the United States can get out of Vietnam."
Along with eloquence, his unsurpassed knowledge of the game made him a superb color commentator. He called games for both the Mets and Yankees, as well as nationally televised games on NBC. His career actually began as a player; he worked as a World Series analyst in 1977-78, 1980, and 1982, as well as calling the National League's division and championship series with Dick Enberg in 1981. He announced Mets telecasts up through 2005.
He started his own winery in 2002, Seaver Family Vineyards, on his estate in Calistoga, California. His Cabernet Sauvignon vines grow down the side of a sloped 3.5-acre plot on the aptly named Diamond Mountain.
In 2013, he began to experience memory loss. He fought a bout with Lyme disease. In early 2019 his family announced that Tom had dementia and was retiring from public life. Especially sad, he could not attend the 50th anniversary celebration of the "Miracle Mets" World Series victory.
On August 31, 2020, Tom Seaver died in his sleep at the age of 75 from complications of Lewy body dementia and COVID-19.
So many accolades, so many compliments have been justly heaped upon this man. His peers—teammates and rivals—recognized his excellence. At the 1967 All-Star Game, Henry Aaron introduced himself to the rookie: "Kid, I know who you are, and before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will, too."
Johnny Bench, who both faced Seaver and caught him, said: "I never knew a pitcher with such great knowledge of pitching. He had such a great mind, he could out-think the hitters."
Sparky Anderson, the "Big Red Machine" manager known as "Captain Hook" for his alacrity in pulling pitchers out of games, said: "My idea of managing is giving the ball to Tom Seaver and then sitting down and watching him work."
But Cleon Jones, a fabulous outfielder on that '69 Mets squad, spoke of the complete man: "Tom does everything well. He's the kind of man you'd want your kids to grow up to be like. Tom's a studious player, devoted to his profession, a loyal cat, trustworthy—everything a Boy Scout's supposed to be. In fact, we call him 'Boy Scout'."
Sounds like what Larry Doyle said of his New York teammate over a century ago.
Each year sees mortality's inevitable design, the passings of famous people we've admired, people who have brought us joy or enlightenment or inspiration and for whom we feel a deep regard even though we've never met them. Happily, I keep adding to my personal pantheon of heroes, but Tom Seaver was my first. As an athlete, as a persona, as a face familiar to me as any in my family album, as a voice I'd know in a second, he forms an essential thread in the fabric of my youth.
I'm no longer a boy, haven't been for quite a while, but it's still hard saying goodbye to a boyhood hero—because it means saying goodbye to boyhood.