Sports Collectors Digest: Breslin

By Marty Appel

The original Mets, the 1962 reincarnation of National League baseball in New York, the team that lost 120 games and played in the Polo Grounds, is a team now glorified in New York folklore and sports history.

No expansion team since has managed to win over so many fans with such horrendous play. It wasn’t a pre-planned formula, but greatly aided by a wry and humorous Casey Stengel as manager, it worked. They lost five games a week and became fan favorites. Obscure players became household names. Today, it is almost a badge of honor to have been a ’62 Met.

The Mets were largely a happy creation of the New York sportswriters of the day, who were charmed by Casey (he had grown a little grouchy while with the Yankees). So effective were the writers in selling the team to New York fans, that by 1969, those guys who were still around received World Series rings.

And yet, they were somewhat less of a phenomena than met the eye. They drew 922,530, a record for a last place team – but almost half of that was for the 22 games against the Dodgers and Giants, who were returning to New York for the first time since they left after the 1957 season. So those weren’t Mets fans, and those small crowds for the rest of the games were just that – small.

Still, something special was going on there. The fans were the anti-Yankee fans, bringing signs and banners to the Polo Grounds that were often clever enough to be quoted in the papers (the Yankees forbade banners), and creating ad hoc fan clubs for journeymen like Marv Thronberry.

You could tell what was in the cards even before their first home game, when the Mets players were seated at City Hall, being introduced to the assembled fans by Bill Shea, the mover-shaker attorney who had led the fight to return a National League team to town.

As Richie Ashburn would tell the story, Shea spoke of the excitement in the air, the thrills still to come, and then, dramatically, with all the players seated behind him in their Mets jackets, he leaned into the microphone and said, “and folks, all we ask is that you just be patient with us until we get ourselves some real ballplayers.”

Imagine if you’re Gil Hodges or Don Zimmer or Roger Craig or Ashburn himself and you hear this!

Well, it WAS funny.

Gene Woodling was a player who had been on Casey Stengel’s five-straight world championship teams of 1949-54. Now, in a last hurrah, he was back for the Mets, reunited with his old manager.

“One day Casey is pacing up and down the dugout, we’re losing like 10-0, and he spots me,” Woodling told me one day. “He sorta winks at me so that no one noticed and as our eyes make contact he says, ‘ain’t like the old days, is it…..”

Pacing the dugout another time, Casey was said to have muttered to no one in particular, “I look up the bench and I look down the bench, and I say to myself, ‘can’t anybody here play this game?”

And that would be the title of a little book by newspaperman Jimmy Breslin, published in 1963, that would come to immortalize that line, and live as the best quickie book about a last place team ever.

Breslin, who would go on to great fame as a general columnist, better known for human interest stories, crime stories and down and out stories, than he was for sports. At the time he was with the World Telegram and Sun; his greatest fame came with the Daily News, and then he moved onto Newsday. He knew his baseball, he used the words well, but this was a rare foray into baseball writing for him, and he delivered.

The book would be the one that came to immortalize all of those sad failings of the original Mets, making you laugh and cry, and making you see the virtues of sticking together when times got tough. And for the Mets, the times were tough from opening day, when most of their starting lineup was stuck in an elevator in St. Louis, to the season finale which ended with Joe Pignitano hitting into a triple play.

This was only a 117-page book, broken into six chapters, with each of them reading like one of his columns. The style works, and you laugh along with their ineptness, which certainly couldn’t be appreciated by the players themselves.

I had a small connection to this book. Although I was only 15, a friend and I had written a diary of the Mets second season, a season was in many ways just as funny. An editor at Doubleday seriously considered publishing it, but in the end, suggested that portions be used in Breslin’s paperback version, due in 1964, to update his book. Breslin was off on other things, and hadn’t the time for an update.

So this was pretty cool, to have a chance while still in high school to add to a fairly popular book. What Ivy League school would fail to give me a full scholarship after this!?

For reasons I’ve long forgotten, it never came to be. Neither did my Ivy scholarship.

But “Can’t Anybody Here Play this Game” endures by capturing the fun of the ’62 Mets, the team’s instant acceptance by the New York fans, and Casey Stengel’s makeover as a fun-loving, colorful character after his bitter firing by the Yankees in 1960.