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Mudville: December 2, 2022 2:45 am PDT
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Jay Hook II

" I thought, 'Maybe this won’t be so bad.' I really believed that."

There’s something special about being the first.

We all remember Neil Armstrong as the first man on the moon, Roger Bannister as the first man to conquer the 4-minute mile and the Wright Brothers as the first to take flight.

At one point, a Mets win seemed just as far-fetched as going to the moon or running a 4-minute mile, but alas, all of those thresholds have been crossed.

Jay Hook kept his feet on the ground for the most part on April 23, 1962 when he became the first winning pitcher in Mets history and he joins us this week for Part II of Spitballin’.

Last week, we looked at Hook’s time with the Reds and this week, we’ll dive into his place in baseball history as the Mets’ first winner.

Going into play on April 23, the Mets had lost their first nine games in franchise history. Hook was interviewed by Newsday the day before and he referenced the lyrics to the song “You Gotta Have Heart.”

Hook said he related most to the line, “When your luck is batting zero/Get your chin up off the floor” and the next day, he did just that.

The Pirates had won their first ten games of the 1962 season, but Hook wouldn’t let them get to 11. He hurled a complete game, allowing just one run and five hits to lead the Mets to win number one.

Mets manager Casey Stengel said after the win, “We sure was on a long nap. If we win 99 more, we’ll take the pennant.”

Unfortunately for Casey and Mets fans, they only won 39 more games that year.

But for one night, Hook lifted everyone’s chin up off the floor. National League baseball had returned to New York and the Mets were winners. That pennant would have to wait seven more years.

(Original Caption) It was a happy night for Casey Stengel and the New York Mets, as they won their first game after losing the first nine of the 1962 season. Casey gives the sign as winning pitcher Jay Hook looks on. They defeated the Pirates 9-1.

This summer will mark the 60th anniversary of the first season of Mets baseball. The team already has some dates set aside to honor their past. If you stop by a game, visit the Mets Hall of Fame in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. You’ll see the game ball from win number one, courtesy of Jay Hook.

For now though, let’s reminisce about that Summer of ’62 as we go Spitballin’ with Jay Hook.

Let’s pick up where we left off last week, Mr. Hook. You were driving home from the 1961 World Series with your wife and you heard on the radio that you were now a New York Met. They were going to be a brand new franchise in 1962. What were your first thoughts about that?

I could have looked at it as a downer, but when I looked at the roster of the players they were drafting, I thought there were some terrific players there. There were guys that had already made it in the Majors and some big names. Gil Hodges, Gus Bell, Frank Thomas and Richie Ashburn were on the roster and I thought, “Maybe this won’t be so bad.” I really believed that.

And you guys had Casey Stengel as manager plus a coaching staff that included Rogers Hornsby and Red Ruffing. What was it like being around some of the legends of the game’s early days?

We got down to Spring Training and Rogers Hornsby was one of our coaches. When I was at Northwestern, I would workout with the football team to stay in shape. They had this exercise they did and I kept it with me and would do it all the time. At St. Petersburg, I would go out in the outfield and do these exercises. Rogers saw me doing them and came out to ask about them. That’s how I first met Rogers Hornsby and he was a big help to me.

I said to him, “Rogers, would you help me with my batting?” He said he would. He saw that I batted lefty and suggested I learned how to drag bunt, so he taught me to do that. I think I tied with Robin Roberts for the best hitting pitcher in 1962. I wasn’t an automatic out and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to get complete games when I pitched so I figured that if it was a close game in the seventh, they would take me out for a pinch hitter if I couldn’t hit. For a long time, Casey would let me take practice with the extra position players on the bench. One time he put me in and I struck out, Casey got so angry he told me to quit hitting with the extra men.

I threw a low and outside fastball and Hank [Aaron] hit it about 540 feet to dead centerfield for a grand slam. Only the third guy to do it at that time. It was one of the farthest balls ever hit in the Polo Grounds.

That’s so awesome. I know you probably have a lot, but do you have any Casey Stengel stories you’d like to share?

I was elected the Player Representative in 1962. Why they chose me, I have no idea. One day, we got back to New York and a lot of guys had never been there before. I wanted to help them get them leads on some places to stay. I went to Lindsey Nelson and Ralph Kiner and asked them to announce on the broadcast that some of the guys were looking for places to live. People started calling the park but the operators at the stadium wouldn’t take their calls. I went in to Casey and told him that if I didn’t have a place to live with my family when we went on our next road trip, I wasn’t going. Casey went right through the roof.

Casey and his wife Edna never had any kids, so in Spring Training they would see me and my wife sitting at dinner with our two kids and they would take them away from us. So now when he heard about this, he was berating me saying that he didn’t want trouble with me and my family. Casey did the right thing. He went to Mets management and asked them to make that announcement again and made sure the calls were answered this time. We ended up with so many leads on places to stay. We had so many guys who had never been to New York before and they didn’t know what to do with their families when we went on the road, so it was good I got to work with Casey to help them out.

You mentioned you had a story about the ball from the first Mets win. Could you share that with our readers?

Well, at first, I took the baseball home with me and saved it. Around 1967, I was out of baseball and working with Chrysler Corporation. I had them make a display case for the ball, took it to New York and gave it to the owner M. Donald Grant in a ceremony at home plate. They had the ball for a while and then it disappeared. Years later, it ended up with the Rusty Staub Foundation. When Rusty passed away, his lawyers were instructed to sell his memorabilia and donate the money to charities. The Mets saw it and Jay Horowitz called me up. He said there was a baseball with my name on it and its being sold by Sotheby’s for $30,000. I told him that I had signed hundreds of baseballs and none are worth that much money. It turned out to be the ball from the first Mets win and it is now sitting in the Mets Hall of Fame. Wouldn’t you know, it’s in the same case from Chrysler from when I gave it to Donald Grant. I’m happy it’s back with the Mets because that’s who I gave it to in the first place!      

It’s incredible to talk to someone who was coached by Casey Stengel and Rogers Hornsby. It had to be an amazing experience to be around guys like that.

Yes it was. The old Yankee Red Ruffing was pitching coach and he was terrific too. Solly Hemus, the old Cardinal, was with us too. The whole coaching staff was great and of course they were led by Casey Stengel. There’s a story about when I got my first Mets win. I came off the mound and all the writers wanted to talk to me. Casey used to call me “professor” because I was in grad school. He said, “Professor, as long as those reporters want to talk to you, you keep talking to them.” By the time they were finished with me, I went to take a shower and the stadium had run out of hot water. Everyone was out on the bus waiting for me, so I couldn’t wait. I felt terrible that they were waiting, so I just jumped in the whirlpool and took a bath in there!

I wanted to ask a couple of questions about the era in which you played. First, there were so many great stadiums back then. Did you have any favorite stadiums where you like pitching?

I really liked to pitch in Wrigley Field. Back then, they were all day games. I grew up being a Cubs fan. My uncle Everette was a big Cubs fan and most times when I pitched there, he would come see me. It seemed that every time my uncle came to a game, I won. Somebody wrote a story about him once and in it they asked if there was any way we could pay Uncle Everette to come to all the games when I pitched. That was a fun memory.

At that time, the Bears played at Wrigley Field too, so the field had to be flat. During baseball season, they would put a mound up for the pitchers. If you look at most Major League parks, the field tapers off from the mound to the baseline. At Wrigley, because they needed it for football, that didn’t happen. The field was flat. Also, home plate was close to the backstop. So taking all of that into consideration, when you were standing on the mound, you felt like you could throw the ball through a wall. You had a feeling of empowerment because of all those factors.

You mentioned some of the guys you played against. Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Eddie Mathews. That era was so incredible to me. What do you think about the guys you had the chance to play with and against?

It was a great time to be playing. One of the problems with baseball now is that guys get traded so often. The real stars back then stayed with their club for quite a while or even their whole careers. They were just terrific players. I remember Roberto Clemente was an amazing hitter. He was a great fielder and baserunner too. Sometimes, you’d throw him a slider and he would look bad. Then if you threw him that same exact pitch, he’d rip it. I don’t know if maybe he was looking for it. Part of the time, I think he might have been setting pitchers up. You couldn’t throw him the same pitch very often, especially if he looked bad on it the pitch before.

Mets pitchers (left to right) Roger Craig, Jay Hook, Bob Miller, Craig Anderson, and Al Jackson during spring training. (March 5, 1962) Credit: UPI

I wouldn’t bet against the idea of him setting pitchers up. I always love hearing about how smart and instinctive he was. Do you have any other stories about some of the greats you pitched against?

Well, here’s one about Hank Aaron, who hit a lot of home runs. One game at the Polo Grounds I was pitching against the Braves. Centerfield was 483 feet away and at that point, only two balls had ever been hit over the centerfield fence at the Polo Grounds. The bases were loaded and Hank was coming to bat. Casey came out to the mound and said, “Professor, pitch him low and outside and make him hit it to centerfield.” Next pitch, I did just that. I threw a low and outside fastball and Hank hit it about 540 feet to dead centerfield for a grand slam home run. Only the third guy to do it at that time. It was one of the farthest balls ever hit in the Polo Grounds. A couple days later he hit one off Al Jackson that went a great distance too. I told my wife later I thought they juiced up those balls. They made the seams tighter or something because those shots really flew out of there.

If Rob Manfred was commissioner back then, that probably would have been true! That’s so great you got to pitch against these guys and can share these stories. It’s a badge of honor to say you gave up a home run to Hank Aaron.

You know, when Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth, I was out of baseball and working in Detroit. I got home from work that day and my oldest son Wesley used to play Strat-o-Matic baseball. He knew all the statistics. When I got home from work, Wesley asked me how many of Hank’s 715 home runs I gave up. I said I had no idea, but it was quite a few. Wouldn’t you know, the next day in the Detroit Free Press they printed every home run Hank Aaron ever hit. It went on for three pages! It gave the date, the team and pitcher. I got home from work that day and Wes said, “Hey dad, you gave up eight home runs to Hank Aaron! If you had been in the league longer, you might have had the record!”

Jay Hook presenting the first win ball to Mets owner M. Donald Grant in 1967.

Wesley sounds like he was a pretty smart kid. I wanted to ask you too about one of your former teammates, Gil Hodges. What did you think a few weeks back when you heard he finally made the Hall of Fame?

You know, I was surprised. I thought he had been admitted long before. He was a terrific guy and was a great player with the Dodgers and Mets. Of course he managed the Mets in 1969. He was just a terrific New York guy. I have no idea why the writers never voted him in. I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t already in because he was such a wonderful player and a fantastic guy. But I’m glad he’s in. It should have happened long ago.

You mentioned 1969 and you were out of baseball by then, but what was your reaction watching the Mets win the World Series? It wasn’t that long before when you were part of some Mets teams that were historically bad, now all of a sudden a few years later they were champions. What was your reaction?

I was so happy for them and I was pleased that Gil was the manager. I didn’t know a lot of the guys, but the ones I did, like Ed Kranepool, I was happy for. It was a thrill to see them come from being the worst team in baseball history in 1962. That was just remarkable. The fans in New York were terrific. That first year, we lost all those games, yet the fans were always there. They were so supportive during those tough times. We still had Banner Day and the fans had fun. I attribute that to those young sportswriters. They wrote about us and kept it interesting. So I was really happy for the fans too when they won. They stuck with the team and deserved it.

I have one non-baseball question for you. You mentioned that you played college basketball against Wilt Chamberlain. Could you tell us that story?

I learned very young that no matter how good you are, there are always better guys than you. We have 13 grandkids and if you ask any of them what advice I always give them, they’ll say, “The harder you practice, the luckier you get.” We played against Wilt Chamberlain his first game in his first game at the University of Kansas. I was a guard and I could jump pretty well, but I wasn’t a tall guy. Wilt scored 52 points and our center scored 38 points. We went into a zone press defense at the end of the game. Four guys went into each quadrant of the court and then one guy chased the ball. Being the guard, I was the guy who chased the ball. So Wilt gets the ball and I was about five feet away when he caught it. I went running up to him to knock it out of his hands. He didn’t throw the ball. He didn’t run. He didn’t do anything. All he did was raise the ball up in the air and I hit him right about at his bicep. There was nothing I could do. The moral is that no matter where you are, you learn that there are terrific people who can do a lot of neat things.

It has been absolutely incredible for a Mets fan like myself to talk baseball with you. I could listen to your stories all day, but I one final question for you. What is your lasting reflection on being the first winning pitcher in Mets history?

I still get about ten letters a month sent to me with baseball cards in them asking for an autograph and a lot of them want me to put “first Mets win.” That’s 60 years ago. There’s no way that anybody would be remembering me if I hadn’t done that. The postmaster in my little town always teases me about getting too much mail. That was my second start. My first start I went eight innings and we almost won that game, but I got taken out and we lost in extra innings.

If you look at the box score from that first Mets win, you’ll also see that I got one hit and drove in two runs. I was proud of that. I got a hit with the bases loaded. I have asked Jay Horowitz and other people if there was any video of the first Mets win. All our games were televised back then; there must be a clip somewhere of that game. One of the local towns in Northern Michigan was doing an interview with me once and I asked them if they ever saw video from that game. They actually found a clip of my base hit. That’s the only clip they could find and that I’ve ever seen about that game. There’s no other footage that I know of, but if anyone finds any, I’d like to see it!

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book will be out in April 2021.

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