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Mudville: May 23, 2024 4:46 pm PDT

Out of a Hat

Feature image of Tom Seaver statue in front of the Mets' apple hat thing

The New York Mets pulled something much better than a rabbit out of a hat. They pulled Tom Seaver.

He was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1966 (who offered him a $50,000 bonus); but Commissioner William Eckert ruled the contract invalid because Seaver signed it during the college baseball season. After the contract was voided, Seaver planned to return to the University of Southern California, but the NCAA ruled him ineligible because he had signed a contract.

When Seaver’s father threatened to sue baseball, Eckert said any team that could match Atlanta’s original offer could sign him. If more than one team was willing to pay, there would be a drawing. When the Indians, Phillies and Mets all expressed interest, the drawing was held in the commissioner’s office and New York won the lottery when the Mets’ name was literally pulled from a hat.

After a season in the minors at Jacksonville, Seaver was invited to the Mets spring training camp in 1967, in which teammates, coaches and the media could see there was something special about him.

“Seaver had Hall of Fame written on him when he walked into camp and pitched his first game in ’67,” said Ron Swoboda in Amazin’, an oral history of the Mets by Peter Golenbock. “He was a finished product when he came there. I don’t ever recall the sense of him being a rookie. He came out of the box a big league pitcher, and there was this golden glow about him. This was clearly big talent, intelligent, capable, controlled, and awesome stuff.”

On March 7, the  New York Daily News referred to Seaver as “the predestined phenom.”

After his first spring training appearance, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young wrote, “Tom Seaver, the USC kid, looked good in his first outing. Only Tony Oliva, who doubled, hit him hard, and that’s nothing, Tony hits some others.” In three innings, Seaver gave up two hits, one strikeout, one walk and no runs.

Craig Anderson, a teammate in the minors who had previously pitched for the Mets, said he could see Seaver would excel. “I didn’t know he’d be a Hall of Famer, but you could tell he’d be real good,” said Anderson, one of only 14 living members of the 1962 expansion New York Mets.

What stood out about Seaver, said Anderson, “he was a mature young man. He was almost out of college, handled the pressure, he wasn’t nervous. Maturity was advanced for him. I’ve seen a lot of young pitchers, you move them up and they get rattled.”

Seaver was able to keep his demeanor calm even though he didn’t get much support in the minors.

“We didn’t have a very good team in Jacksonville, and we didn’t have a real good catcher at Jacksonville – that makes a big difference (if) you have total confidence in the catcher,” added Anderson.

At the the Mets’ AAA club, Seaver won his first three games, but was missing his girlfriend Nancy, who he met on the last day of the semester at college. He lost his next five games, called Nancy in California and said, let’s get married. The next day they did, and Seaver finished the season winning nine more games for a final record of 12-12.

On March 26, Young quoted Mets Manager Wes Westrum saying Seaver and another pitcher, “are going to be around here, meaning they have appeared to have made the club”

Manhattan Beach, CA: New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver's wife Nancy, waves as he leaves home for classes at the University of Southern California. They had just learned November 20th that he had been chosen 1967 National League Rookie of the Year. Seaver, 23, was the first National Leaguer to win the title while playing with a last place club.

Fifty-six years ago, in an unusual move, Westrum bypassed several veteran pitchers and had Seaver start the second game of the season, on April 13, 1967 against Pittsburgh. (Westrum and Mets GM Bing Devine had considered giving Seaver the opening day assignment, but decided against it, thinking it would put too much pressure on him.)

The game time temperature was 45 degrees, which was probably why the attendance was only 5,005, even though the highly touted prospect was making his major league debut. One newspaper account said film director Alfred Hitchcock was in attendance. (He might have been there to see the Mets’ new “futuristic” ballpark, Shea Stadium, built adjacent to the 1964’s World’s Fair.)

The first batter Seaver faced, Matty Alou, doubled to right. He then retired Maury Wills and Roberto Clemente on infield ground outs, walked Willie Stargell, then struck out Donn Clendenon to end the first inning.

He gave up RBI singles to Wills and Clemente in the third and fourth innings. In the sixth inning, with the score 2-2, opposing pitcher Vern Law doubled, and Seaver hit Alou for the second straight time. Westrum walked to the mound and took the ball from Seaver, who did not protest. “I just ran out of gas,” Seaver said afterward. He told reporters, “I’d rather win the game than stay in.”

Westrum said he appreciated the rookie’s attitude.

Although Seaver didn’t get the victory, he caught the attention of sportswriters. Charles Feeney of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote “Young Seaver showed fine poise for a rookie. He had his strikeout pitch (he punched out eight hitters) and this kept the Bucs under control.”

The New York Daily News reported Seaver “looked mighty impressive in his big league debut.”

In his second start on April 20, 1967, he pitched 7⅔ innings in the Mets’ 6-1 win over the Chicago Cubs at Shea. Again, Seaver told his manager he was tiring and was willing to come out of the game.

A month later, Newsday stated, “The Mets more than likely have something special here. It’s a pity he can work only every fourth day.” The paper also noted Seaver had the highest batting average on the team.

(Original Caption) 10/30/1973-New York, NY- Mets' ace Tom Seaver is a most happy fellow October 30 after winning the National League Cy Young Award as top picther in 1973. Seaver also won in 1969. Seaver's credentials include a 19-10 record, and league-leading 2.07 ERA and 251 strikeouts.

Golenbock wrote that when Seaver pitched, the other Mets played better. At the All-Star break Seaver was 6-5 with a 2.68 ERA, and was selected for the game.

After Tony Perez hit a home run in the top of the 15th inning to give the National League a 2-1 lead, manager Walter Alston picked Seaver to close the All-Star Game – which he did – striking out Ken Berry for the final out.

“No Met had ever done so well in such an important ball game,” wrote Golenbock.

George Thomas Seaver was born November 17, 1944, in Fresno, California. When he was nine, he began playing for the Fresno Little League as a pitcher and outfielder. Within three years, he had pitched a perfect game while getting more hits than outs, batting .540.

Later, Seaver pitched for Fresno High, a school that had already graduated major league pitchers Jim Maloney, Dick Ellsworth and Dick Selma.

“Even … in high school, Tom was a thinking pitcher,” remembered Selma, later a teammate on the Mets. “He knew how to set up a hitter by working the corners of the plate and the batter would usually pop the ball … for an easy out.”

After graduating from high school in 1962, Seaver registered at Fresno City College. According to a biography by SABR member Maxwell Kates, scouts had begun to notice Seaver after his second year, when he won 11 consecutive games while setting school strikeout records. So did Rod Dedeaux, baseball coach at the University of Southern California who led his teams to 11 College World Series titles. Dedeaux asked Seaver to join the Trojans for his junior year. To prove his reputation and earn his scholarship, Seaver went to Alaska to pitch for the semi-professional Goldpanners.

At USC in 1965, Seaver went 10-2, striking out 100 batters in 100 innings. Kates writes, “the Atlanta Braves wasted no time the following year, drafting him in January and signing him a month later. The Braves had been Seaver’s team of choice growing up. Hank Aaron was his hero, and he told interviewer Marty Appel, “I loved their uniforms, and I loved their hitters … Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock.” But when the New York Mets won the lottery, he was with an organization that had lost more than 100 games in three of its first three seasons (and lost 95 in the fourth).

Seaver might have been from California, but the maturity Anderson spoke of helped him navigate the cauldron of performing in New York. Boyishly handsome, he was articulate, competitive in a good way and did not let the losing culture of the Mets overcome him. He was Jack Armstrong, the All-American boy on a ball field.

Tom Seaver, gets emotional during a press conference where it was announced that the New York Mets were trading him to the Cincinnati Reds - Shea Stadium, Flushing, New York. (Photo by Carl T. Gossett Jr/New York Times Co./Getty Images)

In his first big-league season with the still woeful Mets (61-101), Seaver won the NL Rookie of the Year Award, going 16-13 with a 2.74 ERA and 18 complete games. He accounted for a little more than 25 percent of the team’s victories and was one of only two Mets pitchers with a winning record (the other, Jack Hamilton, was 2-0).

He won 16 games again in 1968, and his ERA dropped more than half a run (2.20) even though he pitched 27 more innings than the previous season.

In 1969, the Mets were amazing, and so was Seaver: his 25 wins led the National League. The team won the first-ever National League East division title.

In the inaugural National League Championship Series, he beat his once-favorite team, the Braves, in the opening game as the Mets swept the best of-five series, 3-0.

He lost game one of the World Series, in which the Mets were underdogs against the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. He rebounded with a 2-1 victory in game four, pitching 10 innings and giving up only one earned run. The Mets became known as “The Miracle Mets” by winning the series, four games to one.

Seaver won his first Cy Young Award, getting 23 out of 24 votes (one voter picked Phil Niekro), and finished second in the MVP vote behind Willie McCovey.

He was the dominant right-handed pitcher for the National League in his first 11 seasons, winning 203 games.

A publicized dispute between Seaver and Mets Board Chairman M. Donald Grant led to his being traded, a transaction New York Daily News writer Bill Madden 30 years later referred to as “The Midnight Massacre.”

The principals, Madden wrote, were Seaver, Grant, a Wall Street lawyer who he described as a tightfisted owner – not the best thing to be in the dawn of free agency — and Daily News columnist Dick Young. Seaver had been quoted as saying Grant had not done enough to improve the team, which had slipped since Seaver helped them win another pennant in 1973 with another Cy Young Award season. (The Mets finished no higher than third for the next three seasons and were on their way to a NL East last-place record in 1977.)

“In the end, it was a column by Young – in which he invoked the names of Seaver’s wife, Nancy, and Nolan Ryan’s wife, Ruth, and claimed the Seavers were jealous Ryan was making more money with the California Angels – that ultimately forced the June 15 trading deadline deal that would live in Mets infamy,” wrote Madden.

Madden quoted Seaver three decades after the controversy: “That Young column was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Bringing your family into it with no truth whatsoever to what he wrote. I could not abide that. I had to go.”

The Mets traded him to Cincinnati, where he pitched very well, but the Reds were no longer the Big Red Machine, making the postseason only once with Seaver (but he did pitch his only no-hitter with them).

Chisox Tom Seaver is mobbed by teammates after winning his 300th game, beating the Yankees, 4-1. That's Ozzie Guillen with outstretched arms.

In 1980, the Mets were sold to a consortium led by publisher Nelson Doubleday and developer Fred Wilpon. Their General manager Frank Cashen traded pitcher Charlie Puleo and two minor-league players to Cincinnati to reacquire Seaver on December 16. Kates wrote, “As M. Donald Grant had retired and Dick Young was reduced to journalistic obscurity, the coast was clear for Seaver’s return to New York.”

Seaver thought he’d finish his career there, until a gamble by the Mets management backfired in 1984.

Teams that lost players to free-agency could choose from a list of unprotected players on the rosters of other teams. The Mets figured nobody would select a 39-year-old pitcher with a good-sized contract. The Chicago White Sox blew up that thinking when they chose Seaver. While he thought about retiring, the Sox, who won the AL Western Division, convinced him to continue.

Even though he wasn’t particularly happy in Chicago, two notable events occurred there.

On May 9, 1984, he won two games on the same day, pitching the 25th inning of a game suspended from the night before between the Sox and Milwaukee Brewers, and then he won the regularly scheduled game he started.

And on August 4, 1985, he pitched a complete game to win his 300th victory against the Yankees in New York, 4-1.

“Tom Terrific” missed New York and would have been happy to be traded either back to the Mets or the Yankees, but nothing happened. The White Sox sent him to Boston, which was wrapping up the AL East Division Title.

His last game came with the Boston Red Sox against the Toronto Blue Jays on September 19, 1986. Seaver pitched four innings and gave up three runs before leaving when his knee balked. He finished the season a combined 7-13 with Chicago and Boston.

He was kept off the Red Sox’s postseason roster, and in Shea Stadium watched his Mets come from behind in games six and seven to win the World Series.

Seaver turned down an offer from Boston to return in 1987, but in May the Mets called. They needed a starter, and Cashen asked Seaver if he wanted to try a comeback. They agreed Seaver would go to the minors and play in simulated games against the Mets’ reserves. The results were not encouraging, and Seaver called it quits again in late June. For good.

When he retired, Seaver was only the second pitcher with more than 300 wins, more than 3,000 strikeouts and an ERA under 3.0 – the first being Walter Johnson.

Five years later, he made history when he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 98.8 percent of the vote, the highest-ever percentage in the Hall’s history that stood for nearly 25 years.

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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