The underdog is this week’s theme at Outsports and across SB Nation’s sites. We’ll be telling you about teams that were never expected to win and players whom we think didn’t get their due. Up first: Our managing editor makes a case for the “Miracle Mets,” winners of the 1969 World Series, specifically: one man who was recognized at the time as Most Valuable Player, but was soon forgotten to history.
Among the fans cheering on the Mets that year was a 5-year-old who was about to come out of the closet.
1969: the year of the Stonewall Riots, Woodstock, the moon landing and The Beatles’ final concert. One month after the band broke-up, the stadium where the Beatles played just four short years earlier was the scene of the most epic underdog story in all of sports, at least to my mind. And I haven’t changed that opinion in 51 years of spectatorship.
That day, Thursday, October 16, 1969, I was five and a half years old. And I was preparing to tell my mother the most important secret of my life.
I grew up in Queens, N.Y., just ten miles from Shea Stadium. My parents sat on our couch, swathed in protective plastic, while my 20-month old sister and I sat on the thick shag rug, just inches from our RCA Victor “New Vista” color television console. It was a humongous model that combined a stereo, a record player and a TV.
Even though the screen measured just 25”, it was a magical big box of a set that brought Lassie, the Robinson Family and Batman right into my living room. My best friend on the block, Joey Giudice, would play “Batman and Robin” with me, and never questioned why I always wanted to be Catwoman. He was my first ally.
Three months after our TV showed us Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, I was again transfixed, as the New York Mets defeated the Baltimore Orioles in four straight games to win the holiest of holies in Major League Baseball: the World Series, seen in black and white in archival photos, but in living color on NBC.
Thanks to the MLB Vault on YouTube, I binged the series this past weekend, and I’ll admit to smiling the first time I heard the sound of jets and propeller planes taking off from LaGuardia, drowning out the play by play announcers; old Shea lay directly in the airport’s flight path.
From Mutts to Underdog Champions in Seven Years
Those first few years were rough for the National League expansion team its detractors called “The Mutts.” The Mets had been a laughing stock since its founding in 1962, formed to replace the departed Brooklyn Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. June 1969 began with the Mets under .500, but within a few weeks, Gil Hodges’ “Amazin’ Mets” had done the impossible: they caught up to, then surpassed the dominant Leo Durocher-led Cubs to claim first place.
With a pitching staff that included Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Tug McGraw, and Jerry Koosman, the Miracle Mets won the NL East pennant and swept the NL West champion Atlanta Braves, including Hank Aaron, to punch their ticket to the World Series.
Pitching alone wouldn’t be enough, however. What turned the 1969 Mets from loveable losers into underdog champions, was hitting, especially in the NLCS.
New York’s sluggers hit .327 with six home runs in their three-game blowout of the Braves. Key to their success was the most underdog of underdogs: infielder and power hitter Donn Clendenon.
The Underdog Named Most Valuable Player
According to his biography, Clendenon (pronounced “klen-DEN-en”) was an athletic prodigy who learned at the knee of such legends as Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe, all friends of his stepfather, Negro Leagues veteran Nish Williams. At Morehouse College, Clendenon lettered in 12 sports and also had a mentor: a recent graduate who served as his big brother. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr.
Clendenon’s mother wanted him to be a doctor, his stepfather wanted him to be a baseball player, and he wanted to be a teacher. Williams encouraged him to pursue baseball with the idea that he could pursue other professions in the off-season.
And so he did: Clendenon spent his winters working at a bank, as a detective, at a pen company and at one point owned his own nightclub and restaurant. Then every spring, he’d return to the baseball diamond. In 1961, he was called up from the minors to join the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he and Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell became known as “the Lumber Company” for scoring so many runs.
Unfortunately, Clendenon was also known for swinging at just about anything. He led the National League in strikeouts in 1963 and again in 1968. That was the last straw for the Pirates, who left him unprotected. The Montreal Expos drafted Clendenon and then traded him to the Houston Astros.
Meet the Mets: 1969
I mentioned earlier that 1969 was a landmark year, and no less so for Clendenon. He was so happy in the off-season, attending law school and earning enough doing labor relations for the Scripto Pen Company, that he announced on March 1 that he was retiring.
It’s a complicated story. The long and short of it is, MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn had to step in to work out a deal between the fuming Astros and hapless Expos that eventually landed Clendenon back in Montreal for a few months, until they traded him, again, this time to the Mets, on June 15, 1969.
On that date, the lowly Mets were 11 1/2 games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs. But with Clendenon in the lineup, they had closed the gap to 4 1/2 games by the All-Star break.
“Clendenon was probably the key to our whole season, because when he came over we really came alive,” Mets third baseman Wayne Garrett told Stanley Cohen, author of A Magic Summer.
“He was the catalyst on the team,” outfielder Art Shamsky recalled. “He gave us the right-handed power we needed, some more experience, and we became a really good team from that point on.”
The World Series
Fast-forward to October 11, 1969. Tom Terrific’s second pitch of Game One got dinged by Don Buford, and the Orioles went on to win the first game of the series, 4-1.
It looked as though the underdog Mets had met their match in the Orioles.
But in Game Two, Jerry Koosman retired the first 18 Baltimore batters he faced, and notched a 2-1 victory. In Game Three, the Orioles were shut-out by pitchers Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan in relief, 5-0. Outfielder Tommie Agee robbed the Orioles of five runs with two incredible running catches, holding them to four hits. Interestingly, that game would be the only World Series appearance of strikeout king Nolan Ryan’s incredible 27-year career.
Seaver would return in Game Four to achieve a feat never seen in today’s MLB: going the distance, pitching 10 innings to beat Baltimore, 2-1. That victory would not have been possible without the stupendous diving catch by outfielder, Ron Swoboda, what some say is the greatest ever in a World Series game.
It was Clendenon’s bat that helped the Mets capture the world championship. He hit three home runs, including a two-run shot in the sixth inning of Game Five that put New York within striking distance of tying, then beating the Orioles. Had an umpire’s controversial call not sent Cleon Jones to first, there might not have been a miracle that day for my Mets. Here’s video of Clendenon’s clutch homer, the one seen at the top of the page in a black and white archival photo:
Clendenon was named the World Series Most Valuable Player. And maybe because I was five and a half, and his name was Donn and my name was Donnie, that’s when Clendenon topped my pantheon of Mets heroes, which has grown over the decades:
Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gil Hodges, Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Rusty Staub, Félix Milán, Nolan Ryan, Tug McGraw, Joe Torre, Lee Mazzilli, David Cone, Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Mike Piazza, Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, John Franco, David Wright, Pete Alonso, ❤️Noah Syndergaard❤️ and the list goes on.
Despite winning two World Series and playing in four — do not talk to me about 2000, just don’t. It’s still too soon — the Mets remain underdogs. And I consider myself one, too.
Coming Out at Five
My Mets proved to me nothing was impossible in 1969. And so, I decided to tell my mother I was not what everyone thought: I was not a boy, I was, in fact, a girl. The word “transgender” wasn’t in my vocabulary yet. Mom told me matter-of-factly that I was mistaken, despite the fact that five years earlier, she herself had been so convinced she was about to give birth to a girl, she had picked out only one name, and it was “Dawn.”
That’s not what she told me on this occasion, of course; instead of being a girl, she said, she believed I was “special.” It was useless to argue. Yet I was unswayed, and so, over the years, I made persistent, consistent and insistent pleas, to deaf ears.
Like Clendenon, I found something to do in my “off-season” — when I wasn’t in school, when other children were on the ballfield, my mom took me into Manhattan to work as a professional fashion model, starting in 1969. By age 8, I was a commercial actor on TV and radio. Before I quit at 17, I had appeared in more than 100 ads. One commercial had won an award, I appeared in a few soap operas and PBS films, and I came very close to being in the TV series “Alice” and the movies “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” and “Taps.” Some kid from New Jersey named Cruise got the part of cadet captain David Shawn instead of me. I hear he did well for himself after that.
Instead of becoming a star, I did fulfill my dream of becoming me: for a few years, in my teens, and then many years after.
My dad died a year after Clendenon, but both of these important men in my life lived long enough to bounce back from adversity and achieve their dreams: the baseball star became an attorney and counseled drug addicts after his own setback with cocaine. My dad retired to a golf course in Florida after a heart attack on the job, and enjoyed 20 more years of the links, including a hole in one. That was his miracle.
I got mine seven years ago when I came out. Like my Mets, I gained more than I lost, even though I lost a lot, and had more than my share of bad calls as well as unforced errors. But also like my Mets, I believe underdogs never quit. Perhaps another “Amazin’” year is not far off.
As Tug said, “Ya Gotta Believe.”