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Mudville: May 28, 2024 1:37 pm PDT
Everybody Loves Shamsky

Everybody Loves Shamsky

BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI

There isn’t much debate, at least among older baseball fans, as to the team with which Art Shamsky is most associated. The slugging outfielder, whose career was cut short by a series of injuries, will forever be a Miracle Met; part of the team that shocked the world in 1969.

Being part of that club impacted Shamsky’s life in a way that he couldn’t have imagined. He remains an icon to generations of Met fans because of his role on that team – in addition to making guest appearances and giving talks about the season that captivated New York.

However, a big part of what shaped Shamsky took place in Cincinnati. It was the Reds who signed him as a teenager, helped him grow into a budding slugger in the minor leagues, and for whom he had a record setting few days in the summer of ’66. So, when discussing Shamsky, you can’t forget what took place in southwest Ohio; because his time there provided the foundation for what he would later do in New York.

It’s a point that Shamsky, 81, makes almost immediately when discussing his career. His admiration and love for the Reds is something that remains a part of him nearly 60 years after he broke into the big leagues.

“I’ll always be a Met, part of that team that will live in infamy,” Shamsky said. “It’s one of two teams that will live on forever, with the ’27 Yankees. That team had Ruth and Gehrig and a great cast of characters – and us in ’69 because of where we came from and how we won. We helped the city of New York get through a terrible time with the Vietnam War and all. I’ll always be part of that team and thankful that it keeps me out there.

“But I’ll also always remember those years with the Reds because they formed who I was as a big league player. I started with them in my late teens and it formed the basis of who I am. I had great friends over that period of time, guys who I will remember forever. Those were wonderful years and I love the city of Cincinnati. The combination of Cincinnati and the Mets is very special. Between the two teams I’m either a Met Red or a Red Met, whatever way you want to say it.”

WHEN BASEBALL WAS KING

Shamsky grew up in St. Louis, a rabid baseball city that remains enamored with the Cardinals. He idolized Hall-of-Famer Stan Musial and largely eschewed all other sports because of baseball. His father, Bill, got him hooked on the game as soon as he could walk and began soft-tossing with his son when he was just a young boy.

It wasn’t long before he developed a passion for the game, which marked the beginning of a lifelong love affair.

“My dad indoctrinated me into the game as soon as I could walk,” Shamsky said. “I fell in love with the Cards and they were the only team I knew about and cared about. All my friends were Cardinal fans. It was a rite of passage being a Cardinal fan; and I was lucky enough to grow up in an area that was serious about baseball.

“I was lucky enough to be with friends who only wanted to play baseball like me. We loved the game and would make up games. We didn’t need 18 guys to play; we just made it up and played with whoever we had. If there weren’t fields available, we’d just make up something. As a kid, we all had one thing in common. We all wanted to get to the big-league level if we could – but I was lucky enough to make it.”

Shamsky’s path to “making it” certainly wasn’t a traditional one. He only played high school ball as a senior though he did participate in many local leagues like the American Legion. He committed to play at the University of Missouri but injured his hand before his freshman season began. He never actually played for the Tigers and ultimately signed with the Reds toward the end of the summer of 1959.

His one season at University City High School, though, proved to be enough to get him noticed; despite the fact he was only 16 when he graduated. Shamsky’s enthusiasm was evident years earlier, though, when he began going to tryouts hosted by the Cardinals as a 14-year-old.

“Back in those days I was so enamored with the game but I didn’t know all the rules and regulations,” Shamsky said. “They had tryout camps and that was the first time I met Bing Devine [who was the general manager of the Cardinals at the time]. He told me on a number of occasions that I was too young. When I got traded to the Mets, he was their GM; so it was kind of full circle from when I was so young. I’ll never forget those conversation [at tryouts] when he would say ‘Are you here again? You’re too young, you have to come back in a few years.’”

“He said, ‘it’s not the Yankees, it’s the Mets;’ and that knocked me down a bit. The Mets were losing 100 games every year, the lovable losers”

Shamsky turned 17 during the fall of his freshman year at Missouri. He said there weren’t the types of indoor facilities then that there are today, so he and his teams would be practicing outside during the cold weather – and that’s when he injured his left hand. Shamsky underwent surgery and missed his freshman season but was able to play once the summer league season was underway.

He drew interest from as many as 10 teams and the assumption was always the same – he would sign with his beloved Cardinals. It was Cincinnati, though, that impressed him the most.

“I was treated so nice by the Reds,” Shamsky said. “I got the chance to meet [manager] Fred Hutchinson and [hitting coach] Wally Moses. I worked out with the Reds at Busch Stadium and had a chance to take BP with the big league players. I was young and nervous but I was mesmerized by the fact that they treated me so nice.

“I’ll never forget how Wally Moses took me aside and talked hitting with me. They threw a 17-year-old kid out there in a Reds uniform and let him work out with the club. I was so impressed and thankful that they treated me nice. Even though I had interest from the Cardinals, when I did get the chance to sign I really wanted to sign with the Reds because of the way they treated me.”

Art Shamsky of the New York Mets bats during a game on April 1, 1971. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

WELCOME TO THE PROS

The Reds sent Shamsky to the Class D New York-Penn League in 1960 and he performed well, finishing second in the league in homers [18] and sixth in RBIs [86]. He outperformed teammates and future Hall-of-Famer Tony Perez and all-time hit king Pete Rose as well as Elmira’s Dick Allen. Though the team performed poorly (they finished in last place, 29 ½ games out of first), Shamsky was thrilled by the experience not only from a baseball standpoint – but also in terms of the camaraderie.

“It was my first experience being around guys from different places and countries and upbringings,” said Shamsky, who led the league with 24 outfield assists and was one of four players on the circuit to have more than 20 outfield assists. “Pete joined us in June and it was the beginning of a friendship with Tony and Pete. And, I tell you, if you saw Pete play in Geneva in 1960, the highest I would have said he is ever going to go is Class D. The only thing he could do was run hard after a walk. He wasn’t a good hitter or fielder and he didn’t have a great arm.

“I played with him again in Macon in 1962 and by then he was transformed into one of the best players in the league. Something good happened to him in 1961 when he played in Tampa. He worked on his game and was a different player in ’62.”

While Rose was off finding himself in Tampa, Shamsky spent the 1961 season in Topeka of the Three-I League where he hit .288 with 15 homers and 66 RBIs. When Shamsky and Rose got back together in Macon of the Class-A South Atlantic League in 1962, Shamsky once again was playing well but injured his left hand again and needed surgery again, this time to remove a fibroid tumor, according to The Sporting News. The surgery caused him to miss eight weeks of the season. Still, he hit .284 with 16 homers and 61 RBIs in 275 at-bats.

The Cards bumped Shamsky up to San Diego of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1963 and it was there that he began to garner attention. The June 29 edition of The Sporting News ran a Shamsky feature on its Pacific Coast League page in which he was referred to not only as ‘promising rookie outfielder that puts home-run drives into orbit’ but also as ‘the handsome native of St. Louis’. The article quoted Jack McKeon, who was managing Dallas-Fort Worth at the time, as saying Shamsky was one of the top two prospects in the PCL.

Bud Harrelson, Al Jackson, Don Shaw and Art Shamsky of the New York Mets work out in the offseason at Shea Stadium on January 27, 1969 in Flushing, New York. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

Additionally, he was compared to Ted Williams for the wrist action he employed while swinging the bat. The story also detailed how Shamsky hit a nearly 500-foot homer on May 12 in San Diego’s Westgate Park. Shamsky hit 18 homers and drove in 68 that season, but was back in San Diego in 1964.

“I went to Spring Training in ’63 and ’64 with the big club and had good springs,” said Shamsky, who had a career-high 25 homers in 1964. “Fred Hutchinson was the manager in in ’64 and he called me into the office the last day of Spring Training and told me ‘I think you’re ready for the big leagues now but where am I going to play you?’. We had Frank Robinson in right, Vada Pinson in center, and Tommy Harper in left; and Deron Johnson played some left. Where was I going to play?

“I felt like I should be there but in retrospect, back in those days it was tough to make the big leagues because there were so many good players in front of you. The years I played in Triple-A, I played against guys who were in the same position; they couldn’t make the big leagues because there was no room. It helped me out in the long run, though. I wasn’t going to beat out Robinson, Pinson, and Harper. I understand that and I have no qualms.”

There were no qualms and no worries as 1965 unfolded, though. Shamsky was on the Major League roster when the season opened and he got his first taste of big-league action, striking out against Bob Gibson as a seventh-inning pinch-hitter on April 17 in St. Louis. Gibson pitched a shut-out that day; but Shamsky would have his revenge on June 8 in St. Louis when he once again pinch-hit, this time hitting a home run.

“My first game against Gibson I took a couple of strikes and then swung at a pitch out of the zone,” Shamsky said. “There are two at-bats I’ll never forget and that was the first. The next time I hit a pinch-hit home run and I had friends and family there. I couldn’t have asked for a better setting. The guy was the best in baseball and he got the better of me and then I hit a home run.”

The second at-bat which he will never forget came in the World Series. But more on that shortly. As for ’65, Shamsky played sparingly but he played, collecting 96 at-bats over 64 games in what was primarily a pinch-hitting role. He had a pair of homers, 10 RBIs, and he hit .260. He even set a career high with a stolen base, a mark he would equal four more times.

It all set the stage for a 1966 season in which he would begin to blossom and set a record that may never be broken, especially with the silly extra-inning rules that Major League Baseball currently employs. While his average dipped to .231, Shamsky hit 21 homers and drove in 47 in just 234 at-bats. Translated to a full season that averages out to more than 40 homers and nearly 100 RBIs.

Art Shamsky #24 of the New York Mets scores as catcher Marty Martinez #2 of the Atlanta Braves waits for the throw as pitcher Ron Reed #38 of the Braves backs up the play during an MLB game on May 19, 1968 at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York. (Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images)

THOSE HOT AUGUST NIGHTS

The performance he put on in mid-August was the highlight of the season and one for the record books, when Shamsky became the first player to hit three home runs in a game that he didn’t start, on Aug. 12, against Pittsburgh at Crosley Field. He went into the game in the top of the eighth to play left field and connected for his first homer in the bottom of the inning, off Al McBean, to give the Reds an 8-7 lead.

Pittsburgh tied the score in the ninth and went ahead twice more in extra innings – but each time Shamsky hit another homer to tie the game. The first came in the 10th against Roy Face, while the second, a two-run shot off Billy O’Dell, tied the score at 11-11 in the 11th. Pittsburgh went on to win the game and Shamsky didn’t get another at-bat.

Shamsky’s power surge, however, wasn’t enough to get him into the lineup in the next game of the series against southpaw Woodie Fryman. He was not in the starting lineup for the final game of the series on Aug. 14 but did get into the game as a pinch-hitter and promptly hit a two-run homer off Vern Law, giving him homers in four consecutive at-bats. The feat has been accomplished nearly three dozen times and Shamsky shares part of the record along with the likes of Musial, Mickey Mantle, Mike Schmidt, and Ralph Kiner, who was the only person to ever do it twice.

“I hit four in a row and we ended up losing both games,” Shamsky said. “It was one of those times in your life when you don’t know if the ball looked bigger than it was. Everything was just working and it was a wonderful time. It was an incredible two-game period.

“We left Sunday night to go to Los Angeles and I wasn’t in the starting lineup the next night, either. I was not one to talk to the manager very much for whatever reason. I was too shy. I never really confronted a manager – but years later when I ran into [manager] Dave [Bristol], I asked, ‘after hitting three homers, not starting the next game and hitting another homer, what was the reason I didn’t start [in Los Angeles]?’ I don’t know if he said it jokingly or not but he said ‘We were just looking for more power.’ I just hit four in a row and you’re looking for more power. From that point on I decided I didn’t ever want to talk to a manager again.”

Bristol did get Shamsky into that Monday night game, though, as a pinch-hitter. He didn’t homer but he did collect a single off Bob Miller, ending the streak.

“I have people come up to me and tell me they listened to that game on the Friday night when I hit those three home runs,” Shamsky said. “It’s very special for me to hear that.”

Mets get in line to cut an album in W. 54th St. studio. Art Shamsky, Ken Boswell, Tug Mcgraw, Ed Charles, Ron Swoboda harmonize. (Photo by Hal Mathewson/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

PRELUDE TO A MIRACLE

Shamsky may have fond memories of 1966, but ’67 was a year to forget as back problems ruined his season, ultimately leading to surgery. He hit .197 in 76 games with only three homers and 13 RBIs and was recovering when he was informed that the Reds had traded him on Nov. 8, just days after his surgery.

Reds general manager Bob Howsam, who had just completed his first year in the job, called Shamsky to break the news.

“I had just had an operation and I was back in St. Louis recovering,” Shamsky said. “Bob Howsam called and asked how I was feeling and I said good, even though I wasn’t five days after the operation. I told him I was looking forward to next year and he said good because we traded you this morning. After I got over that shock, I asked where to? He said New York and my first thought was ‘oh my God, Yankee Stadium and their history, Yogi, DiMaggio, Mantle and that short right-field porch.’

“He said, ‘it’s not the Yankees, it’s the Mets;’ and that knocked me down a bit. The Mets were losing 100 games every year, the lovable losers. He told me Bing Devine, who was the Mets’ general manager, was going to call me; and I knew Bing going back to when I was a kid. This was like déjà vu all over again. About an hour later he called and told me they had been looking to make a trade for left-handed power and that made me feel better. He even joked about remembering me when I was young trying to sneak onto the field. He said, ‘we’re going to bring you to New York and make sure the back is okay’ and that New York was a good situation. Two days later I pick up the paper and see Devine left the Mets and took the job as GM in St. Louis. In retrospect, though, it was the best thing that ever happened.”

The Mets also made another trade that winter – with Washington, for manager Gil Hodges. The Hall-of-Famer and former Brooklyn Dodger great was a serious manager who expected his players to perform and think in a certain way. He was the perfect person to show them how to be winners and to guide the young team.

New York had a young, talented group of pitchers led by Tom Seaver and were a scrappy group that simply needed someone like Hodges to push all the right buttons. After the initial shock wore off, Shamsky was intrigued.

“I had never met Gil and knew him only by reputation,” Shamsky said. “I remember that first day. He was an imposing figure, not tall but stocky and well built. He was a serious no-nonsense guy and you could see this wouldn’t be the same old Mets. He instilled confidence and we weren’t going to play bad baseball consistently. I saw some possibilities and you could see it was a beginning.”

Even beginnings take time, though. The Mets finished ninth in ’68, and while Shamsky didn’t hit for average [.238], he did hit 12 homers and drive in 48 in 345 at-bats, and appeared poised for a big 1969. However, Shamsky suffered another back injury the first week of spring, missed almost all of camp, and would up going on the DL as the team headed north to begin the season.

New York Mets' Ron Swoboda, Art Shamsky and Ken Boswell are in a lather after Mets clinched the National League Eastern Division with a win over the St. Louis Cardinals. Jerry Grote (right) looks on. (Photo by John Duprey/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)<br /> New York Mets' Ron Swoboda, Art Shamsky and Ken Boswell are

TIME FOR THE MIRACLE

Shamsky began the season at Tidewater of the Triple-A International League, where he appeared in 11 games, and hit .290 with four homers and 12 RBIs. The Mets recalled him in early May and Shamsky would go on to have arguably the best season of his career, hitting .300 with 14 homers and 47 RBIs. He also struck out only 32 times, while drawing 36 walks.

While he didn’t always appreciate Hodges’ platoon system that kept him out of the lineup against lefties, Shamsky couldn’t argue with the results.

“He was into small ball and he was right, we knew how to lose but we didn’t know how to win,” Shamsky said. “He instilled in us the way to play the game and though we didn’t play great until the end of July-beginning of August, he was the catalyst that taught us to do the right things on and off the field. He didn’t tolerate mediocrity. He didn’t pat you on the back when you did something well but he didn’t embarrass you, either.

“Even though he platooned our position and it wasn’t good for your career, we accepted it. It was him. He was really the one. And, it didn’t hurt to have Seaver and Koosman and Ryan and some of the older guys. We would not have won if you picked one guy off that team. We wouldn’t have won without [Donn] Clendenon, [Tommie] Agee, and we certainly wouldn’t have won without [Cleon] Jones. Everybody contributed and Gil was the catalyst. He inspired all of us – and we were not the same old Mets team.”

The Mets were eight games out of first on July 1st, but stormed through the summer before taking over first place on September 10. Shamsky’s RBI single against Montreal in the first game of a doubleheader on the 10th contributed to the 3-2 victory that put New York in first. He started both games and went 3-for-7. New York would go on to win the division by eight games.

While the World Series is what most people talk about when discussing the ’69 season, New York still had to get through Atlanta in the first-ever National League Championship Series. The Braves had a potent lineup that featured Hank Aaron, Rico Carty, Felipe Alou, and Orlando Cepeda; but it was Shamsky who had the series of lifetime. He hit .538 [7-for-13] with three runs scored and an RBI in the three-game sweep.

“That series gets glossed over,” Shamsky said. “It’s hard to find footage of those games. Sometimes you scratch your head about things. We won the division but the Braves had a heck of a team. They just didn’t have the pitching. Our pitchers didn’t pitch well either, but our left-handed hitters came through.

“You don’t hear a lot about it – I guess because the World Series in the scheme of things is much bigger, and we beat a terrific team in Baltimore. It [the NLCS] was a great series for the hitters but I think people gloss over it and take it for granted.”

More ink has been spilled over the 1969 Mets in general and that World Series in particular than just about any team in history. Shamsky even wrote two books about the experiences he had because of that team and that season: After The Miracle, The Lasting Brotherhood of the ’69 Mets and The Magnificent Seasons: How the Jets, Mets and Knicks Made Sports History and Uplifted a City and the Country.

The World Series wasn’t so memorable for Shamsky, though. He went 0-for-6, including the experiencing the second of the two at-bats he will never forget.

The Mets were trailing 4-1 in the ninth inning of Game One and Shamsky was sent up as a pinch-hitter with two on and two out. He grounded out to second to end the game as Mike Cueller completed a six-hitter to give Baltimore the early lead in the series.

“That at-bat is the one I think about almost every day,” Shamsky said. “I made the last out in the first game of the World Series. I had a great series against Atlanta and was discouraged because [Ron] Swoboda was playing [Game One]. I grounded out to Davey Johnson on a ball I could have easily hit out of the park. I think about that at-bat every day of my life. If I hit one out, it changes my life. We lost that first game but won the next four though, and the rest is history.

“On October 16, 1969 [the day the Mets clinched] my life changed. I now get to talk to all these wonderful sports people and do all these wonderful events and share moments and memories, so it changed my life.”

Cleon Jones, Art Shamsky and Ed Kranepool of the 1969 World Series Championship New York Mets baseball team are reunited while dressed in uniform during Spring Training in Port St. Lucie, Florida on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. (Photo by Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

AFTER THE MIRACLE

Shamsky correctly points out that the Mets didn’t sneak up on anyone in 1970. They experienced a 17-win drop-off to finish in third place in the National League East. Shamsky had another solid season, though, hitting .293 with career highs in games [122], at-bats [403], hits [118], runs [48], doubles [19], RBIs [49], and walks [49].

The end was closer than Shamsky could imagine, though. He had an injury-plagued 1971, appearing in only 68 games, his lowest total since his rookie season.

“I had a pretty good year in ’70; I was hitting over .300 most of the year playing hurt,” Shamsky said. “I went through periods that I wasn’t healthy but I had a pretty good year. In ’71 I was banged up again and got traded that winter.”

Shamsky was dealt to his hometown Cardinals in an eight-player deal on Oct. 18 but he was released before even appearing in a game. He signed with the Cubs and played sparingly before Oakland purchased his contract at the end of June. Shamsky went hitless in seven at-bats in eight games for the A’s before getting released, thus ending his career.

“I don’t know how that deal with the Cardinals got consummated,” Shamsky said. “I hurt my back every year. I was 30 years old, I had gotten traded a couple of times and I didn’t want to deal with it anymore. I should have stayed with it and hung on because the DH was coming. It was a mistake on my part not to stay in the game longer.”

Shamsky said he got no offers to coach so he concentrated on business ventures and ultimately had the chance to do some broadcasting for the Mets at the end of the decade and in the early 80s. He was also a sportscaster on a local New York television station before the cable television boom of the 80s.

“I did the Met games for three years but I was a novice at it,” Shamsky said. “I learned a lot from Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy. I enjoyed broadcasting, but the Mets weren’t a very good team then. It’s not easy to broadcast for a bad team. You can’t fool people because they know what they see. It was great to work with Bob, though, and I idolized Ralph as a kid. I loved his stories.”

Shamsky got the chance to create some more stories of his own, though, in 2007, when he agreed to manage Modi’in in the Israeli Baseball League. They finished with a 22-19 record.

“I got a phone call from someone who asked if I was interested in the Israeli League and my first reaction was ‘Are you crazy?’” said Shamsky, who is Jewish. “But the guy called back and said what if we meet? I was still apprehensive, but then I thought it could be a good experience and I went over there. There were six teams and few big leaguers [like Ron Blomberg and Ken Holtzman]. The league was haphazard, though, and there were no fields. The one park that was decent was actually owned by a Baptist church, which I found ironic.

“It only lasted one year but I found it to be an incredible experience. We lost in the championship game to Blomberg’s team and I got the chance to manage. It was the beginning of Israel wanting to develop the game and now they’re in the WBC. All of us who were a part of that year were catalysts in what Israel has accomplished. They have some stadiums and fields now and I don’t think it will be too long before you see an Israeli-born player in the big leagues.”

EVERYBODY LOVES SHAMSKY

While Shamsky is known to a whole generation as one of the Miracle Mets, he is known to another generation because of his association with the long-running television sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s the story of a Long Islander who grew up as a Mets fan before going on to become a sportswriter for Newsday. The show stars Ray Romano as the title character who, in the show, had a dog named Shamsky while growing up.

“After the questions about the Mets and who was the toughest pitcher you faced and whether Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame, the one question I always get is how do I feel about having a dog named after me?” Shamsky said. “I’ve gotten so much publicity about that dog and being part of the ’69 team. To be able to talk about being on that show is great and I watch it all the time. People always tell me you know they named the dog after you and I say it’s been 23 years.”

“But I still get little residual checks, sometimes for $5, sometimes for 25 cents. It keeps my name out there and it’s just another perk of being on the ’69 team. That show is so funny, even if you’ve seen it 100 times. It was great to be on set with Ray and Brad [Garrett]. I was in makeup one time with the woman who plays the mom [the late Doris Roberts] and we talked about the Mets. Everybody wants to talk about the Mets.”

Shamsky encourages fans to find him on Twitter [@ArtShamsky] and on Facebook or to visit his web site, ArtShamsky.com.

“When I look back on my career, I just wished I could have stayed healthier,” Shamsky said. “I have no regrets, though.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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