" That wasn’t true, I hadn’t delivered a baby, but it stuck. The Stork.”
It’s hard to make an impression on a franchise when your entire playing career for them lasted about 100 games.
Nothing against guys like Dick Schofield, Alejandro De Aza or Andres Torres, but you’d be hard pressed to hear their names ever come up in a conversation about Mets baseball.
All three of those guys have played more games in a Mets uniform than George Theodore, and while their tenure in a Mets uniform was pretty anonymous, Theodore’s was anything but.
George “The Stork” Theodore joins us for this week’s installment of Spitballin’.
Theodore took an unlikely path to the Majors from his time growing up in Utah, not exactly a baseball hotbed. When the Mets made him the 717th pick in the 1969 draft out of the University of Utah, there had been a grand total of one player who had previously made the Majors out of the university.
That’s part of the appeal of Theodore as a player. He was an underdog that fans embraced and could relate to. In a way, he embodied that era of Mets baseball as well.
Like the Mets of 1969 and 1973, Theodore worked hard, played hard and gave his best effort when others had counted him out before. He was drafted during the Mets miracle run of 1969 and debuted as a rookie in 1973, another magical year for the team.
As the Mets’ productive run between 1969-1973 came to an end, so did Theodore’s career. He was famously injured seriously in an outfield crash with Don Hahn in 1973 and played mostly as a pinch hitter across 60 games in 1974. He spent one more year in AAA before returning to the University of Utah to finish his degree, which led to a long and successful career in education.
His time in Flushing may have been short, but his impact was large. If you say the name “George Theodore” to any Mets fan over the age of 50, you’ll usually get an enthusiastic response back of “The Stork!”
Whether it’s his enduring nickname, his attachment to the 1973 World Series team or just his nature as an everyday, likable underdog who got to live every fan’s dream, Mets fans love The Stork, as does the franchise itself. When the Mets recognize their alumni in big ceremonies, The Stork is usually there, and he always gets a big reception.
The same can’t be said for Bill Pecota, Ruben Gotay or Chris Carter, all of whom played about as many games in a Mets uniform as The Stork.
He certainly made the most of his 105 games with the Mets, so join us this week as we go Spitballin’ with George Theodore.
“Before then, the Mets were a laughing stock. Now, they were on top of the world, and I was part of it. ”
Thanks so much for joining me, Mr. Theodore! Growing up as a Mets fan, I always heard stories about The Stork, so it’s great to have the chance to talk with you. Let’s start at the beginning. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up in Utah?
I had an improbable path to professional baseball. I loved sports growing up, but I was kind of introverted. Growing up in the 50’s, the team that dominated everything was the Yankees, so I used to follow them. We lived in a new subdivision and there really was no baseball, so the fathers gathered around and decided to start a Little League. I was reluctant to even participate, but my neighbor from across the street, Kyle Cole told me to play. Kyle Jr., was my best friend and he was playing, so I figured we’d be on the same team. We went to sign up at a local school and they put us all in a line and counted us all off by numbers. Because of that, me and my best friend weren’t on the same team, so I was a little afraid.
How did you end up doing?
Our manager’s name was Orson Bailey and he didn’t have a son on the team. He just loved baseball and played some semi-pro baseball. He became my coach from 9-12, then 13-15 and then in American Legion. I have to credit him with a lot of my success. Other teams practiced once a week, but we practiced every day. He just loved baseball. One mother kept statistics and as an 11-year-old I batted .750. There was a man who would come around by the name of Nick Scanlan, who had been a birddog scout with the Yankees. He was about 80 years old and had this brochure that had Mickey Mantle on it. After hitting .750 as an 11-year-old, I had one of my biggest disappointments. I was ready to sign a contract with the Yankees with him, but nothing came my way!
Ha! The Yankees could have had a head start on you as a Major Leaguer! You were drafted out of the University of Utah in the 31st round in 1969. What was your draft experience like?
I was very ignorant of the whole process. I had wanted to play professionally for a long time, but I didn’t know the process. I was at home during the draft waiting and I didn’t hear anything. Maybe a month goes by after the draft and I got a call from a scout asking me if I was interested in signing my contract. I was one of the last players drafted, 717th overall. I said, “You bet I am!” He asked what it would take to sign me. I hadn’t thought about that, but I asked for $3,000, which would have gotten me through graduate school if I didn’t make it. That year me and two other players from Salt Lake City signed with the Mets, which was unheard of because you didn’t see many pro baseball players coming out of there. So, the three of us went to Marion, Virginia for the Rookie League.
1969 wasn’t just a big year for you, it was a huge year in Mets history as you know. Even though you had just been drafted a few months earlier, were you following along with the Big League club as they went on their miracle run?
I was focused on surviving because I knew that after a week or two, if you didn’t do well, you were released. The Mets were in the back of my mind though. At the end of my season around early September, I really started following the Mets and their improbable path to a wonderful season. Before then, the Mets were a laughingstock. Now, they were on top of the world, and I was part of it. I was very excited! They had been so unsuccessful, that when this happened and they became so competitive, it rose to a crescendo of excitement for everybody.
You had a great season in 1971 hitting .323 with 28 homers and 114 RBIs between AA and AAA. Was that season a turning point where you really believed you could be a Major Leaguer?
I had done well my first year, batting .281 and the next year, I hit .308 in Visalia. I felt like I was always a .300 hitter. The next year I was slated to go to AA Memphis. The manager there didn’t think I fit in with his thoughts though. They were about to release me when Joe Frazier said to send me back to him in Visalia. He thought I still had something in me. That was 1971 when I had a wonderful year and was MVP of the league. The team had a great year. We had a bunch of players who hit 20 home runs. That year was the pinnacle of my baseball achievement. When I got my contract the next year, usually I’d go up to AA. I told Joe McDonald that if I didn’t make AAA, I wanted to be released because I didn’t want to go to AA to play for that manager. I had a good Spring Training, so I went to AAA where the manager was Yankees great Hank Bauer.
You made the Major League club out of Spring Training in 1973. How were you able to make that jump?
That winter, I went to the Dominican Republic and played winter ball. The Americans on my team were mostly from the Houston organization. I had played in Mexico before, but that time I got sick after a month, and they sent me home. This time, I stayed. I ended up having a teammate who I thought was one of the most dominant pitchers I ever saw: James Rodney Richard. In those lights, in those conditions, he was impossible to hit. Because of that, I was in great shape when the Mets invited me to Spring Training in 1973. I remember them hitting me balls in right field and throwing better than I ever did. I could hear Yogi Berra saying, “That Theodore, he could throw.” I made the team with the understanding that within a few weeks when they needed another pitcher, I’d probably be the first to go.
You had an interesting Major League debut. According to Baseball Reference, you went in as a defensive replacement for Willie Mays, how many people can say that? Then had your first Major League at bat against Steve Carlton. What was that all like?
It was cold and I had a bad feeling about it. I went to hit and I always felt like I could hit any left-handed pitcher alive. I worked the count to 3-2 and the next pitch was six inches outside, so I started going towards first base. Shag Crawford called strike three though. Oh Boy, would I like to have a replay on that. I knew the ball was outside. That was a thrill for me. Another thrill came in Spring Training when we were playing the St. Louis Cardinals. A lot of our main players wanted to take the day off because we were facing Bob Gibson. I ended up getting to play and bat against Bob Gibson. The first pitch was high and tight to back me off. The next pitch, I almost hit a home run, but it ended up being a ground ball to third. Two Hall of Famers there that I got to know right away.
Carlton and Gibson were two of the toughest customers in the game too! About halfway through the 1973 season you famously collided with Don Hahn and it knocked you out for the rest of the regular season. What was it like to be out with an injury as the team was making that miracle run to the postseason?
We had so many injuries that we were losing games that we should have been winning. But come August, a lot of players started coming back. Guys like Jerry Grote, Buddy Harrelson, Willie Mays. Once we had our team together, we were as good as anybody. Our pitching held us up and we weren’t a bad hitting team either. I was in the hospital from July 7 for about a month and then was on crutches for another month. Then I got activated in September as a courtesy, so I could cheer the team end experience the excitement. It was a real thrill to win it, but I expected it. In Visalia we had won, in AAA we had won, so I was used to being on teams that won championships.
Teammates help carry New York Mets' George Theodore off field after colliding with new Met Don Hahn. (Photo by Dan Farrell/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
You guys beat the Pirates for the Division, the Big Red Machine in the NLCS and then took on the A’s in the World Series. Those are three historically incredible teams. What was it like to go on that run?
The miracles started to happen in September as we overtook the Pirates. Then we went against the Reds in the NLCS and I was there cheerleading. Out of the goodness of their hearts, the Mets activated me for the postseason and put me on the roster. It was a thrill to beat the Reds and go to the World Series. I felt like I could play and contribute because I had played that championship games in my head a thousand times in my backyard. This was a bit different though. Again, them Mets didn’t have to activate me for the World Series, but they did. Sure enough, I got a couple at bats in the World Series. What a thrill!
Can you take us through your World Series experience?
I got in a night game and played left field. It was about 35 degrees if I remember. Cleon Jones was throwing up in left field from the start. He was really sick. Come about the eighth inning, Yogi sent me out to left. I haven’t played in over two months and the temperature seems to be about 35 degrees. Sure enough, Sal Bando hits a ball into left center field. Just out of instinct, I went over and made the catch. I threw the ball back in like I knew what I was doing. It was quite a thrill to be a part of it as I look back. My whole time with the Mets was a thrill. To be able to play with Tom Seaver and Willie Mays. Rusty Staub and Cleon Jones. I got to play for Yogi Berra. That’s really something else.
What was it like being teammates with those guys?
Tom Seaver was a very serious and competitive man. He was all business, but he had a good sense of humor. He was a definite leader. I was a rookie, so I just stayed in the background. They started playing Willie Mays a lot more than they planned and he had a lot of pulled muscles. He didn’t even come to the park for two or three months. But he was a wonderful man. Looking back, I wish I could have spent time with Willie Mays. He was a brilliant player. How he could anticipate where the ball was going to be hit. He would get signals from the infield and position himself. He had so much knowledge that I wish I could have been a part of that. The same thing with hitting. I was so young, but I would have liked to pull the knowledge out of Rusty Staub. He was a scientist with hitting. Cleon Jones too. And playing for Yogi Berra. He had such an incredible career; I wish I could have asked him how he did it. That’s my regret. That I didn’t get to play long enough to learn more of the intricacies of the game from people like them.
I read that the Mets invited you back for Old Timers Day. Are you able to make it back for that?
No. I told them this year because of Covid, I was pretty much staying inside and not doing too much. I am at an age where I could be vulnerable. I also developed glaucoma, so my vision isn’t what it used to be. I had to turn them down for this year, but next year is the 50th anniversary of the 1973 team. If they do something for that team, I would like to participate in that.
What did it mean to you to be invited back for Old Timers Day, considering all the great Mets there have been over the years?
The Mets have treated me very well over the years. I have been back to several reunions and Old Timers Days. I was invited to the closing of Shea and the opening of Citi Field. It’s a nice feeling. They don’t have to invite me back, but they do. There’s always been a feeling of, “don’t forget your family.” Even though baseball players are like cattle in some ways, you can’t forget your family. It’s been heartening that people remember me.
Mets fans love you, Mr. Theodore. Do you have a message for the fans about the way they have appreciated you over the years?
Just thank you. I wasn’t a great player, but I tried my hardest any time I stepped on the field. No matter how I performed, I wanted to walk off the field knowing I gave it my best effort, even if my best effort wasn’t good enough that day. I always tried my best and appreciated the fans so much. I wish I could thank them all in person.
This has been so awesome. I speak for all Mets fans that I hope to see you at that ’73 Mets 50th anniversary celebration next year. One last question for you, sir. If you say the name “George Theodore” to a Mets fan of a certain age, their reply will always be “The Stork!” Where did your nickname come from?
It was given to me in AAA by my teammate Jim Gosger. I was holding a baby one time and giving an autograph. Gosger said, “You just delivered a baby?! You’re the stork!” That wasn’t true, I hadn’t delivered a baby, but it stuck. The Stork. Fans enjoy that nickname and I do too.