A Moment In Time – 7/27/58

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Rocky Colavito of the Cleveland Indians “lets out a howl” (as the Sporting News put it) as he crosses home plate after crashing a grand slam in the bottom of the 6th inning off the Yankees ace (and eventual ’58 Cy Young winner) Bob Turley, putting the Tribe up 6-0 in the second game of a doubleheader at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, en route to a sweep of the defending AL champs, one of the highlights of an otherwise mediocre season on the shores of Lake Erie. Congratulating him are L-R Mickey Vernon, Russ Nixon with the handshake and Minnie Miñoso, who all scored on the blast, as pinch-hitter Bill Hunter (#7) steps up to bat next. While 1958 offered little promise at this point, could something be stirring for a Tribe insurgence in the years to come?

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1958 Topps card

While the Indians were flying high through the 1950’s, finishing at or near the top of the league for most of the decade, culminating in the 1954 AL pennant, 1957 saw a return to the second division, and more of the same in 1958, resulting in new manager Bobby Bragan being fired before the All-Star break. But things were looking up for Cleveland, as the 24-year-old Colavito was emerging as a superstar, with a stellar ’58 campaign that resulted in 41 home runs (1 behind HR champ Mickey Mantle) and leading the league with a .620 slugging percentage, finishing third in AL MVP voting (ironically, just behind Bob Turley).

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Colavito on the cover of Time, August 1959

And he continued his success in 1959, clouting 42 HRs (including 4 in 4 ABs in a row in Baltimore June 10, below), good enough to tie Harmon Killebrew for the AL crown, and was voted to his first All-Star game, as the Indians returned to the higher reaches of the American League, finishing only 5 games behind the destined Go-Go (White) Sox for the pennant.

Led by their young slugger, the 1960’s looked like high times for the Indians. But Cleveland’s GM Frank Lane had other ideas.

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Indians’ GM Frank Lane

While Lane had built a reputation by bringing the moribund White Sox from pretenders in the 40’s to contenders in the ’50’s, his was also an aggressive approach, averaging over 35 trades per season while with Chicago. And no star was safe; after joining the front office of St Louis after leaving the White Sox in 1955, he attempted to trade the Cardinals’ perennial superstar Stan Musial to the Philadelphia Phillies for Robin Roberts (an interesting trade in theory to say the least), but was quickly halted by Cards’ owner August Busch once it became public.

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Colavito with Detroit

Lane always favored consistent hitters over streaky sluggers, and while Colavito had had a great year, his late season slump (.207 in September) didn’t sit well with the GM, and despite his folk hero status in Cleveland, was dealt to Detroit in April 1960 for Harvey Kuenn, who won the AL batting crown in ’59. Tribe fans were irate, some swearing never to return to the ballpark, and to make matters worse, Kuenn was nagged by injuries that year; while having a fine season, his batting average fell over 40 points, and he was traded again at season’s end as the Indians stumbled to a mediocre finish under .500, 21 games behind the Yankees.

Colavito had some All-Star seasons with Detroit but was often derided for his inconsistency, even being benched on occasion. He did have an outstanding 1961 campaign with 45 HRs and 140 RBIs, both career highs, and helped the Tigers to 101 wins, although falling short (again) to the Yankees. He was strong but streaky in 1962, and after his power numbers fell further in 1963 and the Tigers tumbled to the second division, he was dealt to the Kansas City A’s in ’64. He finally returned “home” to Cleveland in 1965, having two All-Star seasons, but now on the tail end of his career.

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1958 Topps card

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1958 rookie card

As for the rest of the receiving party at home plate in 1958, unlike the HR hitter of honor, their times with the Indians were somewhat fleeting and nondescript. Mickey Vernon, at 40 years old, was enjoying his last starting season in the majors, playing 1B and hitting at a .293 clip, good for his last All-Star appearance. By 1960 he wound up as a 1B coach for the Pirates, being activated at year’s end for a few at-bats, and earning himself a WS ring.

Russ Nixon, a young catcher up from the Indian’s farm system in 1957, had his best year in 1958, catching 101 games for Cleveland and batting .301. He would be somewhat less consistent after that, catching part-time for primarily Boston until retiring in 1968, then on to a managing career in the 1980’s.

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Minnie Minoso and Billy Martin celebrate with Colavito after he hit 4 HRs in 4 consecutive at-bats at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, June 10, 1959

And lastly, Minnie Miñoso, who needs no introduction, came up in 1949 with the Cleveland Indians, becoming the first black Cuban player in the major leagues; but with the Tribe’s crowded outfield he was traded to the Chicago White Sox in early 1951, becoming their first black player overall, and socking his first pitch with the Pale Hose for a 2-run HR at Comiskey Park off the Yankees’ Vic Raschi. After many All-Star seasons he returned to the Indians for 1958-1959, missing out on the 1959 White Sox pennant (but coming up 5 games short, above), again returning to the South Side as his career wound down, becoming a legend in Chicago, and a statue in his honor stands at the White Sox’s park (whatever it is named at this time) today. Miñoso, at age 40, also had the interesting honor of playing the final baseball game at the Polo Grounds, the first (and last) Hispanic-American All-Star Game, October 12, 1963 (the NL stars beating the AL stars 5-2, with 14,235 on hand).

But there was one person in that moment who meant a great deal to the city and its fans, and leaves one to lament for what might have been for the Cleveland ball club as they moved into the 1960’s. Could the Tribe have quelled the Yankees’ dominance of that era with their own Bronx-born warrior Colavito leading the way? Hard to say, but I’ll defer to what Indians’ fans would confidently declare back in the late 50’s –  “Don’t Knock The Rock.”

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A Moment In Time – 5/20/69

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Just a quick one to revisit the blog.

Tuesday, May 20, 1969, Memorial Stadium, Baltimore, a battle against the eventual participants of the inaugural ALCS that fall, and the Twins’ Bob Allison congratulates Harmon Killebrew for going deep (#406 career), a solo shot off of the Orioles’ Dave McNally in the 4th inning to open the scoring, as catcher Andy Etchebarren looks on. Runs would be at a premium most of the night as the Orioles tied it 1-1 in the 7th when McNally was done, and then two things from the It-Would-Never-Happen-Today Dept.: Kaat went 12+ innings, allowing only one earned run, and after the Twins scored in the top of the 13th to go ahead 2-1, with men on first and third Kaat stayed in the game to bat, and hit a sac fly for another run. The run was needed as Paul Blair homered off Kaat in the bottom of the 13th to make it 3-2, but Kaat finally gave way to Perranoski for the save, giving Kaat the well-earned victory. The win would move the Twins to within a 1/2 game of the Oakland A’s, while the Orioles already had a 3 game lead in the East en route to 109 wins.

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Jim Kaat

McNally got revenge by winning Game 2 of the ALCS against Minnesota to go up 2-0 in the series. While Twins owner Calvin Griffith directed manager Billy Martin to start future HOFer Jim Kaat at home for Game 3, a general distrust of Kaat (?) led Martin to go with long man Bob Miller, who got knocked around, as the Twins were swept and the O’s moved on to the World Series. Martin was then fired shortly after by Griffith after only one season at the helm, but with disagreements with ownership far from over in his managerial career.

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The Last Summer at the Polo Grounds

A while back I had found some great fan photos of the old park in Cincinnati, in its last season, and posted them as The Last Summer at Crosley Field. Well, here’s some newly discovered photos from YashicaD on Flickr of the Amazin’ 1963 season, with Casey, Duke Snider, and even Miss Rheingold on hand (click on photos for larger versions). So pop open that Rheingold, light up a Viceroy, and follow me…

First, I’ll double check my calendar…

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Yep, the day looks to be Friday, July 5, 1963, vs the Pirates. And yes, the Mets lost, 3-1, thanks to a 2-run HR by Clemente off Tracy Stallard in the 8th inning, which would be their 8th straight loss. They would go on to lose 15 straight before halting the streak, and lose 111 that year (3rd worse Mets total ever).

Below, Casey and likely Ernie White chatting with what appears to be the new Miss Rheingold for 1964 (or at least a candidate)! Solly Hemus is at home plate hitting fungoes.

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Duke Snider comes to the the plate in the bottom of the 2nd inning, with Frank Thomas on deck. Don Cardwell pitching, Jim Pagliaroni the catcher, Bob Bailey at third, Johnny Logan at short. Snider would strike out.

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Bottom of the 5th inning. “Duke Snider, an All-Star Game outfielder currently batting .221, tapped the ball down to the Pirate first baseman, Donn Clendenon, and Clendenon decided upon a foot race. Snider won it. Clendenon stabbed the bag with his long left leg, but the Duke beat him by a foot.”, as the Mets fans rejoice. Tim Harkness then doubled him in for the early lead, but it would be Mets’ only run of the afternoon.

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Three more months at the old Polo Grounds, and it was over. Duke would go on to the Giants, the Mets would go on to Queens, and the Polo Grounds would fade into memory, but hardly forgotten.

Hal Smith: Bucs Bridesmaid, World Series Hero

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What a moment! Roberto Clemente and Dick Groat celebrate as the Pirates’ Hal Smith hits an unbelievably clutch 2-strike, 2-out, 3-run blast off the Yankees’ Jim Coates in the bottom of the 8th inning of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, to put the Bucs up 9-7, and to put them only 3 outs away from their third championship. Certainly the biggest HR in the history of venerable Forbes Field, and for the Pittsburgh franchise for that matter, and Hal Smith went down as one of the biggest Pirate heroes of all time, and it is often cited as one of the most memorable performances in a World Series. Or at least that’s the way it should have played out.

Hal Smith was signed by the Yankees as a catching prospect in 1949, and while he was a pretty fair hitter for a few years in the minors (albeit with limited power), someone named Berra was to be behind the plate for the Bombers for quite a while, so Smith was eventually packaging up in a staggering 10 player-for 7-player trade with the Orioles. The trade turned out to be a shrewd one for New York, acquiring two very good pitchers, Bob Turley, who would be a strong starter for the Yanks and eventually win the Cy Young in 1958, and another gentleman by the name of Don Larsen.

halsmith55_zps75fb32eaHal would eventually get his big league chance with the Orioles, as their starting catcher in 1955, and had a fair season, batting .271, but with little pop, and also unfortunately led the league with 14 passed balls. With the emergence of slugging catcher Gus Triandos, Smith was relegated to part-time status for most of 1956, until he was sent to Kansas City in August, swapped for the left-handed hitting catcher Joe Ginsberg.

Hal returned to the starting catcher role in 1957 and batted .303, with new found power, hitting a career-high 13 home runes, but the passed balls got him again, leading the league with 16 this time, so his future was as a utility man, splitting time between C, 1B and 3B for the Athletics in 1958, and 1959. And then, as luck would have it, he was traded to the Pirates for the 1960 season.

The Pirates were already set at starting catcher, with lefty Smoky Burgess coming over from Cincinnati and having a strong 1959 season, batting .297 and making the All-Star team, and would go on to have very good years for Pittsburgh well into the 1960’s. But for 1960, the Pirates would looking to upgrade in the backup catcher’s spot, and Smith, who could play other positions as well (although he only caught on the field in 1960), got the nod.

halsmith60_zps18b6486fAnd this time, he flourished as a backup, hitting .295 with 11 HRs and 45 RBIs in only 77 games, and even cut his passed balls down a bit. Also, his appearances were not based on a strict lefty-righty platoon, but mostly to give Burgess breaks along the way, and Smith performed equally well against both left-handed and right-handed pitching. And as the Pirates marched to the NL pennant, Hal Smith was one of the “steady performers” that made the 1960 NL pennant drive a “solid team victory” (NYT).

In the World Series, with the Yankees going with two right-handed pitchers in the first two games at Forbes Field, lefty Burgess would catch both games, but with lefty Whitey Ford going in Game 3 at Yankee Stadium, Smith got the start. Unfortunately, Hal would go 0-3 as the Yanks drubbed Vinegar Bend Mizell and the Pirates, 10-0. With two more rightys going in Games 4 and 5, Smith was back for Game 6, again against Ford, again a Yankee laugher, but Hal managed two hits off Whitey.

Game 7 saw rightly Bob Turley take the mound for the Yanks, so Smith started the game on the bench. Burgess was having a good game, and led off the bottom of the 7th inning with his second hit of the contest. But Smoky being slow afoot allowed fate to intervene for the first time, and with the Pirates down by a run, the catcher was pulled for a pinchrunner. The Pirates didn’t score in the frame, and when Smith took over the catching duties as the Yankees tallied two more in the top of the 8th to go up 7-4, it looked bleak for the locals. But fate was not nearly done this October day in Pittsburgh, PA.

In the bottom of the 8th, Gino Cimoli, pinch-hitting for Elroy Face, led off with a single. Bill Virdon then hit the perfect double play ball to Tony Kubek at short, but as many of us know, the ball hit the most intrusive pebble in MLB history, and smacked Kubek in the throat, and there was no play. As Kubek left the game due to injury, Yankee pitcher Bobby Shantz was rattled, and instead of going for the third out of the inning with the bases cleared, allowed a single to Dick Groat with two men on and still no one out, to score the first run of the inning, and he was done.

Enter Jim Coates. Coates was a very good young hurler for the Yanks, and had a stellar year in 1960 as a spot starter, going 13-3 and being selected as an All-Star. Coates had appeared in two games in the Series already, and was less than stellar; after Art Ditmar got knocked out in the 1st inning of Game 1 at Forbes, Coates came in to put out the fire, and did for a while – until a fellow by the name of Mazeroski hit a 2-run shot off him in the 4th inning to give the Pirates a healthy lead that they would not relinquish. He fared better in Game 4, pitching the final two innings at Yankee Stadium and only allowing 1 hit, but the Yankees could not muster anything off of Elroy Face, who allowed no hits after coming in in the 7th, and the Yankees lost 3-2. Speaking of fate, had the Yanks pushed across a run or two against Face in this pivotal Game 4, the Bombers could’ve went up 3 games to 1 in the Series, and may never have had to even return to Pittsburgh to win the Series. But, such is fate.

Coates again had a chance to be a hero, but had his work cut out for him. With the score now 7-5 Bob Skinner sacrificed the runners to second and third, but now there was one away. He then got Rocky Nelson to fly to Roger Maris in medium right field, and Bill Virdon had to hold third as Maris fired a perfect no-bounce throw to Johnny Blanchard at the plate. Two out. Again, fate would lend a hand.

Roberto Clemente was up next, and it looked like Coates gave him a pretty good pitch – with Clemente almost bailing out, he hit a slow dribbler to the right side, and with no one getting to the first base bag soon enough, Clemente was safe at first, and another run had scored, making it 7-6. Coates has been blamed throughout history for failing to cover first on this play, but as one can see (below), Coates did made a quick jaunt to first – it appeared no one would have been able to catch the speedy Clemente in that footrace.


First and third, still two outs. Up stepped Hal Smith. While he had some pop this year, he was .222 in the Series, with only a pair of singles. Although Ralph Terry was warmed up, he had started and lost Game 4 (all hands on deck for Game 7), and the Yankees felt Coates had a good of a chance as any to get the Yanks out of the inning with the lead.

But on a 2-2 count, what happened should have been a highlight that any baseball fan would have committed to memory all these years, and maybe even had known Mel Allen’s call word for word:


As Terry then did come in, and got Don Hoak on a fly to left, all that was needed for the Pirates was to retire the Yanks in the 9th, and the Bucs even had an insurance run in their pocket thanks to Hal’s homer. Bob Friend, the Pirates’ All-Star ace, with a stellar return to form for the 1960 regular season with 18 victories, and a red hot September, with 3 complete games and winning 4 out of 5 decisions, was called upon to finish the game and secure the crown for the locals. Unfortunately, Manager Danny Murtaugh may not have checked the stat sheet before calling on Friend – he had had an absolutely awful Series, losing Game 2 after lasting only 4 innings, then being positively tattooed in Game 6 (just the day before), allowing 5 runs in 2+ innings.

After Friend let the first two Yankees on with singles, and lefty Maris was coming up, Friend was done for 1960 and Harvey Haddix came in, in a tough spot. He got Maris to foul out, but when Mickey Mantle dunked one into short right, and Yogi Berra grounded a slow roller to first, the game was tied 9-9, and Smith’s heroics were quickly buried into the narrative of the game, instead of being its ultimate moment.

Of course, Ralph Terry, who came in the 8th, would have an even worse day than Friend and Coates, as he took the mound in the bottom of the 9th – and on his second pitch of the inning became part of the memory of Mazeroski’s historic blast over a drifting Yogi Berra to win the 1960 World Series, to the same spot where Hal Smith’s shot went. And Mazeroski became the hometown hero, complete with a nice statue, and a place in the MLB Hall Of Fame. And Hal Smith was largely forgotten, except to a few diehards in the Steel City.

But then fate intervened again.

In late 2009, in Bing Crosby’s old wine cellar in Hillsborough, CA, while an archivist was looking for footage of old holiday specials, he stumbled upon two dusty film canisters marked “1960 World Series”. And with that, the video of this long lost 7th game was available for the first time since it’s original TV broadcast, and legions of baseball fans and scholars could again revisit this classic contest, culminating in an exclusive screening of the game in Pittsburgh in November 2010, with many participants in attendance, including 79-year old Hal Smith himself. And as USA Today reported it, when his homer flashed on the screen, Hal Smith was given a standing ovation, not only from the fans in attendance, but from his fellow teammates as well, a gesture that brought Hal to near tears. And as fate would have it, Bill Mazeroski could not attend due to a short illness, so Smith, in effect, had the spotlight pretty much all to himself, at least for that day.

Catcher Hal Smith, Pittsburgh Pirates celebrate Game 7 heroics 50 years later

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So, as Mel Allen said on TV that day in 1960, Hal Smith’s home run will be “one of the most dramatic base hits in the history of the World Series…that base hit will long be remembered”. After a 50-year hiatus, and with a late-inning save from Der Bingle, I trust Mel was right, after all.

A Moment In Time – 5/17/64

 

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Sunday, May 17, 1964, Milwaukee Braves vs St. Louis Cardinals at Sportsman’s Park (renamed Busch Stadium by then). 1st game of a doubleheader, bottom of the 2nd inning, Eddie Matthews, in a rare start at first base, gets Dick Groat by a half-step to retire the side, as 2B Frank Bolling (behind Groat) looks on. Cards just went up 3-0 in the frame on home runs by Bill White and Tim McCarver, and then an unearned run initiated by a catcher’s interference by Joe Torre.

Matthews only played first base in 7 games for the Braves that year (after having only played 1B for a few games in 1962), and interestingly, would not play the position again until he moved there virtually full-time in 1967, after the franchise had already moved on to Atlanta. Rookie Phil Niekro would come in in the 8th inning here and pitch his last of 10 games in 1964 (giving up a couple of runs on a Groat triple), before he went back to the minors to give that knuckleball more seasoning. He would stick in 1965.

Cardinals would go on to win this first game 7-3, but lost the nightcap, 4-2, dropping them to 1.5 games behind the NL-leading Giants, who were sweeping a doubleheader from the Mets.

Even then it was a long season, but every game counts. Good thing the Redbirds had their hitting shoes on for this contest – the Cardinals would go on to win the NL Pennant by only one game over both the Reds and surprisingly the Phillies, who would complete the biggest late-season collapse in modern MLB history until the 2000’s (the ’64 Braves finished 5 off the pace), and took the Series in 7 over the end-of-dynasty Yankees.

Veeck – as in wrecked?

I’ve already had an earlier post about the crazy genius Bill Veeck in this blog’s youth, and I expect to have a few more. This was probably one of his better promotions, which seemed to get a little crazier as he got older.

Veeck made the Cleveland Indians a quick success after becoming owner of the club in 1946 (first AL black player, Larry Doby, in 1947, and a championship in 1948), but it would be short-lived; after getting divorced in 1949, he had to sell the Tribe to fund the settlement, but wouldn’t stay on the sidelines for long.

Veeck remarried in 1951, and then promptly purchased 80% ownership in the St. Louis Browns. The Browns would be a tough test for the budding marketing whiz, as the Cardinals shared the same park, and were far more popular. His first moves were to hire legendary Cardinals Rogers Hornsby (as manager) and Dizzy Dean (as an announcer), although Veeck fired Hornsby by June.

Thinking of more ideas to get fans into the ballpark, Veeck held a “Drink On The House” Night at Sportsman’s, July 1951. In a press photo below, Veeck is seen himself passing out free brews to the surprised Browns’ faithful. Somehow, I can’t imagine Fred Wilpon coming down the aisle at Citi Field to hand me a free Brooklyn Lager any time soon.

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It was actually a good way to get the word out about one of the local beer sponsors, Falstaff, St. Louis’ own. Below, a Falstaff beer ad with ol’ Diz.

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Either way, it seems to have worked out better than future Veeck promotions, which grew increasingly unusual. Only a month later was the famous Eddie Gaedel game, in which Veeck used the services of a “little person” to go up for an at-bat for the Browns (he walked).

Unfortunately, Veeck’s grandstanding would have little effect, and he himself would be largely responsible for the demise of the St. Louis Browns. When beer giant Anheuser-Busch purchased the Cardinals in 1952, with endless resources, Veeck knew the writing was on the wall, and looked to bidders to move the franchise. Milwaukee was the first choice, but the Boston Braves beat them to it, so the next choice was Baltimore – and Veeck planned on remaining majority owner, but the other owners were not very keen on it, and voted him down, so he sold the team anyway, and the Orioles were born.

Landis ShortsVeeck would go on to bring success to the Chicago White Sox (during two tenures), but also more unusual ideas, both good and bad, including introducing the famous exploding scoreboard in Comiskey Park and putting players’ names on their uniforms for the first time, both in 1960, and later the infamous “shorts” uniform from the 1970’s, the beginning of Harry Caray (then White Sox announcer) singing Take Me Out To The Ball Game, and last but not least, Disco Demolition Night in 1979, in which disco records were blown up on the field, and resulted in a near riot and the forfeit of the second game of a doubleheader by the White Sox.

Veeck finally sold the White Sox in 1981 and retired from baseball, passing away in 1986. He is responsible for many of the craziest things that have happened on a baseball field, and I’d have to admit, baseball history would be a lot less interesting without him.

The Last Weekend at the Polo Grounds – but the first Mets Banner Day!

Earlier I posted some great fan photos from the last summer of baseball at old Crosley Field in Cincinnati, but how about the last weekend (specifically the last Sunday) of baseball at the late, great Polo Grounds (Mets would move into brand new Shea Stadium in 1964)? And what better way to send off the old park, but to have the very first Mets’ Banner Day!

Sunday, September 15, 1963, a doubleheader against the Houston Colt .45’s (wouldn’t be the Astros until ’65). Between games, the Mets elected to have fans come out on the field and parade banners for all to see. Photos are mainly banners taken in the stands afterward. Notice the one banner hoping for a Mets championship in the 1970’s (they wouldn’t have to wait that long!), others don’t particularly care for the Mets’ catcher Choo-Choo Coleman, and the Mets’ own banners, spelling out TO THE METS FANS! WE LOVE YOU TOO! Also, the last one is poignant, a nice tribute to the two years the Mets spent there. Photos are a little deteriorated but still great; from a cool Mets blog. As always, click on the photos for larger versions. So pop open a Rheingold, light up a Viceroy, and enjoy.

Incidentally, the Mets lost the doubleheader, 5-4 and 5-0, and were already firmly in last place (they wouldn’t escape the cellar until 1966). And sadly, there would be only two more baseball games at the Polo Grounds, with the final game that Wednesday, when only 1,752 fans saw the Mets lose to the Phillies, 5-1. And in March 1964, the wrecking ball came.