When Storks Collide
The day that changed George Theodore’s career trajectory and his life is one about which he is willing to discuss. It is a day, though, that he doesn’t think about often or with any bitterness or regret, largely because what took place on July 7, 1973 put him on a path that ultimately proved to be more rewarding than anything he may have achieved as a professional baseball player.
Theodore would qualify for many, at first mention, as a player who was just a blip on the Major League radar screen in the early 1970s. His 105-game career over the course of two seasons, neither of which were very memorable from a production standpoint, certainly could rate as nothing more than a footnote in New York Mets history.
The 74-year-old Utah native played on a World Series team that had stars and celebrities, including immortals like Willie Mays and Tom Seaver. So forgive history if it doesn’t celebrate a career .219 hitter with a mere 192 at-bats.
Theodore’s legacy, however, has more to do with statistics. His place in Mets’ history and that of baseball history in New York is secure, enough so that the man known as “The Stork” is somewhat of a folk hero in the Big Apple, remembered as much for his nickname and for what he endured one Saturday afternoon that July as anyone who starred for the club.
The seventh-inning collision that took place between Theodore and Don Hahn while chasing down a line drive by Atlanta’s Ralph Garr was as vicious and stunning as any that has taken place over the last half century. It was a play that remains talked about by an older generation of Met fans, many of whom still wince at the thought of Theodore and Hahn laying on the ground in Shea Stadium’s left-center field.
“People do talk about it, but I am kind of over it,” Theodore said. “Occasionally I’ll get cards with the pictures of the collision and they’ll ask me to sign it. It’s lasted a little while but it gets publicity it doesn’t deserve. I’m kind of over it but it is part of my lore.”
“If I hadn’t made an error on the play before I probably would have taken it easier going back for the ball. Ralph Garr circled the bases and got a home run and I ended up with a dislocated hip.“
MINOR LEAGUES, MAJOR DREAMS
The Stork’s story certainly looked to be a bit brighter when it began. He was a 31st-round pick out of the University of Utah , making him one of only 10 players from that school to reach the Major Leagues and one of fewer than four dozen Utah natives to play in the Majors. While the Mets were busy shocking the baseball world in 1969, Theodore was splitting his summer between Marion of the Rookie Level Appalachian League and Pompano Beach of the Class-A Florida State League, combining to hit .281 with 24 RBIs in 55 games.
His efforts over the next three seasons in the minor leagues would show promise and should have given the Mets and Theodore some hope that a solid Major League career was in the offing. Theodore hit .308 for Visalia of the Class-A California League in 1970 and was primed for a big 1971. He had that big year, just not where he thought it would come.
“The next year I got to Memphis [of the Double-A Texas League] but when I got there, the manager [former Major Leaguer Johnny Antonelli] and I didn’t click,” Theodore said. “He didn’t like the way I played and they were about to release me.”
Theodore hit .172 with an RBI in 11 games for the Blues. Whitey Herzog, who was New York’s director of player development at the time, intervened, though. He spoke to Visalia manager Joe Frazier [who would go on to manage the Mets in 1976 and part of 1977], for whom Theodore played the year before, and arranged to have him return to the Cal League. Theodore responded by hitting .333 with 28 homers and 113 RBI for Visalia and once again was filled with a sense of hope. And, once again, that hope was short-lived.
“I had a good year but the next spring I was stuck at Triple-A [Tidewater],” said Theodore of the season in the International League in which he hit .296 with 78 RBIs.
Theodore’s patience was rewarded, though, when he made the parent club out of Spring Training in 1973. He made his Major League debut on April 14 and picked up his first career hit five days later. Theodore had his moments that spring, going 7-for-15 with a pair of RBIs in a three-game series at Los Angeles. He had a three-hit game against the Phillies in June and cracked his first career homer on July 4 in Montreal at Jarry Park.
He was hitting .263 heading into the “Theodore-Hahn” game when he literally ran into a wall and Hahn, changing his life forever.
The Mets were a floundering team in the early summer of 1973. Injuries had decimated the roster and the thought that New York would, in three short months, take the mighty Oakland A’s to the seventh game of the World Series seemed as likely as Theodore becoming a beloved figure in Mets history.
New York was 11 games under .500 and in last place in the National League East, 12.5 games out of first, when it squared off against Atlanta on July 7, 1973. The Braves were an equally unimpressive group despite the presence of Hank Aaron. They, too, were 11 games under .500 and sitting near the bottom of the National League West in what should have been a largely uneventful affair.
Theodore was only in the starting lineup that day because Cleon Jones, the regular left fielder, was sick. The Stork made the most of the opportunity, though, drawing a walk and then coming around to score what was, at the time, the tying run on Hahn’s RBI double in the bottom of the sixth. Fate intervened, though, in the seventh.
Atlanta’s Mike Lum led off the inning with a single and was sacrificed to second, bringing up pinch-hitter Frank Tepedino, a journeyman outfielder who was in his first of the three seasons with the Braves. Tepedino, who grew up in Brooklyn and originally played for the Yankees after they selected him [from Baltimore] in the 1966 Rule 5 Draft, singled home Lum for one of his 29 RBIs that season. He also reached second base as Theodore misplayed the ball in left.
“The batter before [the collision] singled to left and I kind of fumbled and bumbled it,” Theodore said. “I made an error and the guy got an extra base. In my mind, it was a great insult. So I thought, no matter what, whenever the next ball comes this way, I’m going to get it regardless. And sure enough Ralph Garr comes up and hits a long ball into left-center field and I take off as hard as I can.
George Theodore dislocates his hip after colliding with Don Hahn in July 1973 game at Shea. (Photo: Dan Farrell/NY Daily News)
“Don Hahn was a good outfielder and he was going just as hard from centerfield. We ended up reaching the ball and the wall at the same time. If I hadn’t made an error on the play before I probably would have taken it easier going back for the ball. Ralph Garr circled the bases and got a home run and I ended up with a dislocated hip.”
The gruesome collision stunned the crowd of more than 30,000. There is no video of the incident, only stills that were run in the newspaper the next day. Images of the two colliding and then writhing in pain on the warning track have since become part of Mets lore. Hahn walked away with some bruised ribs but Theodore dislocated his hip and had to be removed from the field on a stretcher.
Theodore has never seen the footage of the play, if it even exists, only the aforementioned stills. He said he has seen in it in his mind many times, though, and doesn’t really need to see it again.
“I definitely left my mark there in Shea Stadium and so many people related to it and remember me for it,” Theodore said. “Here’s what I remember about it. Two weeks before it happened, I woke up with a night terror. I was sweating all over and I had dreamt that I was being carried off the field and Tug McGraw and Jerry Koosman were helping to carry me.
“As the incident happened, I don’t remember much but as soon as I hit the ground, I was in agony. And there was Koosman and McGraw, holding the stretcher, pulling me. For four hours they couldn’t give me any pain meds because they didn’t know if they had to operate. But then they x-rayed it and found out it was just dislocated. Today they just put it back in, or whatever they do. But I was in complete agony for four hours straight.”
(Photo: Dan Farrell/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
It appeared as if the collision would cost Theodore the rest of the season. He was in traction for a month and on crutches for a month after that but continued to gain in popularity with the fans when pictures of him playing his guitar in a Roosevelt Hospital bed ran in the local papers. Theodore worked to return to the club, which he did that September in time to witness the “Ya Gotta Believe Mets” rise from the dead and win the National League East.
He even got into a game, striking out as a pinch-hitter on Sept. 20 to drop his season’s average to .259. That game is also one of the most famous in Mets history and is simply known as “The Ball Off The Wall Game”.
“I came back in September for our wonderful run,” Theodore said. “I didn’t contribute at all. I was a cheerleader, just there for emotional support. That’s what I really was for the whole month of September. Then we get into the NLCS and I didn’t play against The Big Red Machine [Cincinnati], but of course we beat them and everyone said it was another miracle.
“We get to the World Series and sure enough, the second game we are playing in Oakland and [Mets manager] Yogi [Berra] sends me up to pinch-hit. I haven’t played in three months and haven’t seen any pitching except batting practice and he sends me up to pinch-hit against Vida Blue in his prime. I took the first pitch for a ball and it looked like I knew what I was doing but I didn’t even see the pitch.”
Theodore ended up grounding out to short but the Mets won the game and headed back to New York with the series tied. The Stork would also get into Game 4, which New York also won, and that proved to be his post-season swan song.
“Whenever I played, we won,” he said. “In the fourth game, it was cold and Cleon Jones was sick. He was in left field throwing up; he was just really sick. So Yogi sends me out there to take his place and I hadn’t played in forever. The first pitch Sal Bando hits a line drive to left center and I reacted and went over and snagged it. Gene Tenace gets up and singles to left and I’m going to throw it in and the ball takes a bad hop like it’s going over my head. I jump and catch it and throw it in like nothing happened. It was the greatest play in the Series, I thought.
“I did get one at-bat and flied out against Paul Lindblad. It’s a thrill looking back on it that I was able to play and be part of a World Series team. It would have been nice to win the World Series.”
(Photo: Continuum Magazine / University of Utah)
The game proved to be the final high point of Theodore’s career. The hip injury had healed but it curtailed his range of motion, causing him to lose speed. Theodore said he was never able to regain the form he displayed in the minor leagues.
Still, he played winter ball in Venezuela for a month in order to get back into what would now be game shape. The Mets, however, were uncertain about how effective he would be following the injury as Spring Training began in 1974.
“I had a pretty good spring and they released Jim Beauchamp,” Theodore said. “He was a pinch-hitter and that’s the role they put me in. I didn’t know that’s what they had in mind but that’s what they put me in and it was difficult for me. I was the kind of player that had to play a lot. It wasn’t a successful year for me.”
Theodore hit .158 with a homer and an RBI in 60 games, the last of which came on Oct. 2 when he went 0-for-2 with a walk. That game was the end of his big-league career, though he didn’t know it at the time.
“At the end of ’74 we went to Japan for a month and that was a great experience,” he said. “I got to see Hank Aaron, who had a home run-hitting contest in Tokyo against the great Sadaharu Oh [who had 868 career home runs]. But when we got back from Japan, the Mets out-righted me back to Triple-A. Triple-A was a great experience in 1972 but in 1975 I wasn’t playing.”
Theodore hit .253 in 106 games for the Tides and realized after that season that there wasn’t much point in continuing. The Mets were headed in a different direction and with his skills diminished because of the collision, Theodore decided to retire. He did have an opportunity to play in Mexico but said the thought of 26-hour bus rides in the summer months didn’t appeal to him.
“I wouldn’t say that there is any bitterness but of course I wished things went a little differently,” Theodore said. “I had so many opportunities, though, and so many experiences and there is no way you can measure that. I have a lot of gratitude towards the Mets. They treated me wonderfully.”
A NEW CAREER
Theodore earned his graduate degree in social work when he returned to Utah, ultimately applying for a position at a local school district. What he thought would be a stopgap job turned into a career, though, and he ended up spending 38 years in the Granite School District as a counselor.
“I loved it,” Theodore said. “I was energized working with young kids. I saw how much hope they have and how you can make changes in their lives. Eventually who I was comes out and they see a card. They [the kids] don’t care who you are. They care how you treat them. If you treat them good, respectful and caring, they respond.”
As for his Stork persona, Theodore jokes and says that “my dogs still call me Stork”. He still gets many cards and letters from fans asking for autographs, most of which ask him to sign it as “The Stork”.
“That nickname was really great for me,” Theodore said. “I was playing for Tidewater in 1972 and Jim Gosger saw me holding a baby and said you must be the stork. From then on they called me The Stork. That became my moniker. That didn’t really happen, though, that’s what I made up. I don’t really know why they called me that.
“It gave me a lot of connections, though, and I didn’t mind it. People seemed to relate to it and I had fun with it. It wasn’t an insult or anything like that.”
It was, however, the nickname that helped Theodore become an integral part of Mets lore.