Former Baseball Hall of Fame librarian and researcher Russell Wolinsky is our guest blogger for a special three-part series on “The Dark Years: The Demise of the New York Mets—June 15, 1977, to June 15, 1983.” Please welcome Russell, and look for parts 2 and 3.
Between the evening of June 15, 1977—the infamous Midnight Massacre, when Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman were dealt from the New York Mets to Cincinnati and San Diego, respectively—and June 15, 1983, the date New York acquired Keith Hernandez in a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Amazin’s compiled a won-lost record of 339-520 (.395)—a mark that placed them securely in sixth, and last, place in what was then the National League East. During that dismal era, the Mets avoided the cellar only in 1980—finishing fifth, three games in front of the Cubs—and both halves of the strike-shortened 1981 campaign, a “split” season which found them nestled in fifth and fourth place respectively. In 1979, possibly the low point of the franchise, manager Joe Torre’s hapless squad lost 99 games, avoiding the ignominy of 100 defeats only by winning their final six on the road; “A hell of a trip,” the Mets skipper only half-joked about that closing streak.
By then, attendance at home had dipped to 788,905, nearly 2 million fewer than the almost-2.7 million that flocked to watch the club in 1970, following the 1969 “miracle” World Championship. Only once in 1979 did the Amazin’s draw a single-game home crowd of over 28,000. Many evenings the upper deck at Shea Stadium was closed off. New York’s American League club, the Reggie Jackson-era “Bronx Zoo” Yankees once again dominated the town’s baseball landscape. Over in Flushing, a smattering of diehards sat in a rapidly decaying ballpark watching a colorless crew that didn’t hit, pitch, or field particularly well; a team that often just seemed to go through the motions. Ed Kranepool, a Met since 1962, succinctly noted, “We used to have a romance with our fans, but it seems to have died out.”
New York scored fewer runs than any NL club in three of those seven seasons. They hit the fewest home runs, struck out the most times, and committed the most errors twice. Their pitching staff allowed the most runs and walked the most batters once. No Mets moundsman won more than fourteen games in a season. The club suffered through losing streaks of thirteen games in 1980, fifteen in 1982. (“Dancing in the Aisles at Shea,” announced Newsday when the latter streak was broken on September 1, a day after Nolan Ryan no-hit the New Yorkers for eight innings.)
On August 14, 1980, New York somehow found themselves within seven-and-one-half games of the division-leading Phillies with Philadelphia coming to Shea for five games. Philly swept that series by a cumulative score of 40-12. “Our starting pitchers didn’t do the job. It’s as simple as that,” summarized Torre following the sweep. Mets starters got racked for 23 runs in 18 1/3 innings pitched, no starter lasted more than five innings. Following that collapse, the Amazin’s played 11-38 ball the rest of the way.
Management did what it could to attract fans to Shea while at the same time trying to distract them from paying too much attention to the product on the field. They gave away sports bags, mugs, jackets, batting helmets, seat cushions (which fans tossed on the field), Lee Mazzilli and Bob Gibson posters, and Twinkies (which fans tossed at each other). A plan to give away Lottery tickets was nixed by (especially) gambling-phobic Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Jane Jarvis’s organ was replaced by prerecorded music, played through a crappy PA system; a nod to “the kids.” They presented “dot races” on a ridiculous two-line matrix board in left field. Often, the cheering that accompanied the race was louder than that for the ball club.
They offered fireworks, Freddie Fender, Playboy Bunnies, Karl Wallenda (rained out), the San Diego Chicken, “celebrity” softball games, and “This Magic Moment.” They added a picnic area in left field. They unveiled Diamond Vision in 1982, the third U.S. baseball franchise to do so. They spruced up Shea and brought back Mr. Met (after a brief dalliance with something called the Goony Bird or Met Maniac). They offered cut-rate tickets and freebies to NYPD employees, stuffing the gratis ducats in their pay envelopes. They even gave the scourge of Shea, Pete Rose, a “Day” in his honor.
Perhaps the most preposterous gimmick was the miniature mule who took a lap around the warning track before each game in 1979. Management ran a contest to name the mule. Four-thousand entries and they settled on “Mettle.” No one liked the name (suggestions Frank Taverass, after the often lackadaisical shortstop; Ed Kranemule; Donnie the Donkey, M. Donald Donkey, and Adios Victory were, it is assumed, ignored). One could even purchase a Mettle T-shirt featuring a drawing of the mule and the declaration: “I’m a stubborn Mets fan.” Oy.
They tried slogans; nearly every season brought a new one. In 1978 newspaper ads pleaded, “Come to Shea and see our exciting new team.” By 1980, new ownership informed us that the Mets were “the People’s Team.” “The magic is back,” they promised for two years running. In 1982, with Kingman and George Foster on their side, Mets management assured fans that, “There’s no power shortage at Shea” (a less-than-subtle jab at the Yankees who, in an ill-conceived plan, were emphasizing speed rather than power). “Now the fun starts,” we were happy to learn in 1983. They didn’t say where.
In 1980, the new owners hired a Madison Avenue advertising firm—DellaFemina, Travisano, & Partners. “[G]ive your kids an experience they’ll still remember when they’re your age,” a series of newspaper ads in April suggested. The agency’s president, Jerry DellaFemina, said some rude things to the press about the Yankees in general, Reggie Jackson and Bucky Dent in particular, and questioned the safety of attending a baseball game in the South Bronx. George Steinbrenner and Bowie Kuhn both over-reacted as usual, the Commissioner slapping a $5,000 fine on the Mets for “conduct detrimental to baseball.” Despite the publicity the comments and reaction generated, a total of 43,996 turned out for the first six home dates.
The exodus was not limited to players and fans. Lindsey Nelson, radio and TV voice of the Mets since their inception in 1962 left following the ’78 season, breaking up the 17-year radio-TV trio with Bob Murphy and Ralph Kiner. Organist Jarvis, “Shea’s Queen of Melody” since the park’s inception in 1964, announced her retirement in July 1979 (ironically, one day before the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” incident at Chicago’s Comiskey Park). Even Karl Ehrhardt, the sign man, abandoned the club in 1981. Looking around at the Spartan turnout of 10,406 on opening day, 1979, Ehrhardt held up a placard that read: “Not Many of Us Left.”
Seemingly, the only success the franchise enjoyed during those years was either on opening day, or when they faced Philadelphia’s Steve Carlton. They won all six of their season bows between 1978 and 1983 and split twenty decisions against the silent southpaw. That doesn’t seem like much until one considers the future Hall of Famer recorded a 10-52 log versus the rest of the NL.