The big city can be hard on young athletes with the attention it bestows. Roger Maris from Fargo started losing his hair. The grating effect of the media was a primary angle in the Billy Crystal movie about the 1961 baseball season. That's when the quiet and unassuming Maris hit 61 home runs.
Koosman seemed much like Maris. He didn't exude charisma. He was the big lefty in the Mets' 1969 rotation. That rotation also included Tom Seaver who seemed to take to the limelight more. It's not that Koosman recoiled from the limelight. He didn't have the conflict that Maris went through. He was just a man of few words who wanted to win. The media had no trouble accepting him that way.
Our community of Morris burst its buttons to honor "Koos" in the afterglow of the 1969 World Series. It was a World Series for the ages. Why? It was a five-game series which suggests one-sidedness. The Mets handled the Baltimore Orioles. Today such a series would come and go and I'd barely pay attention.
Remember that in 1969, the Mets seemed like a still-new franchise. They were born in 1962 as an expansion team, bringing the National League back to the Big Apple. The Dodgers and Giants had left. New York City had gone from three big league teams to one, amazingly. The American League Yankees held forth for a time as that lone big league club. They had that monopoly when Maris hit his 61 homers in 1961.
Then in 1962, the brand-new Mets came on the scene. I'm puzzled why the Mets were allowed to start out as such a bunch of stumblebums. They were bad but as time went on, they came to be seen as charmingly bad. We wax nostalgic about the likes of Marv Throneberry. Or Casey Stengel, the aging old hand as manager. Stengel and Yogi Berra gained note for being "creative" with the English language.
The Mets were all good baseball people, of course. They were just typical of all expansion teams of that era (all sports): a combination of athletes on the way up or on the way down, or complementary players who couldn't shoulder a prime burden to lead. Who could knock Richie Ashburn? But those Mets of the early 1960s could take their lumps. It went beyond 1962. The mediocrity seemed pretty well embedded.
Much to appreciate in 1969
Then in 1969, you might say Pinocchio became a real boy. I was 14 years old. I had been captivated by the Minnesota Twins of course. And, 1969 was a quite fine season for our ballclub: it was the year Billy Martin managed and we won the American League West, in the first year of the divisional format. I don't recall any special mania gripping Minnesota in 1969 over the Twins. We did like Billy. Legend has it the Twins lost much of their sheen when Martin was fired after '69.
I would suggest we had gotten spoiled. We have always been blessed having the Twins. The '69 Twins with Billy were sent to the sidelines quite unceremoniously by the Baltimore Orioles. Those were the Frank Robinson years in Baltimore. When the Twins were done, we suddenly noticed that the Mets were quite firmly in the spotlight. The Mets had emerged as a division winner. They overcame the Chicago Cubs who for much of that season seemed like a team of destiny. The Cubs with manager Leo Durocher got into a commanding position, then they crumbled. They crumbled in the face of the Mets' dramatic advance.
Jim Bouton wrote that the Cubs' clubhouse had probably become like a morgue. He argued that the Cubs might have done better if they had just stayed happy and upbeat.
Our Jerry Koosman was a cog with those surging, charming New York Mets. Today I doubt the nation could get mesmerized by any big league baseball team. Baseball today is a huge money-making enterprise that doesn't let anything happen by caprice. It's a better situation for players who don't seem to be used up and discarded like in an earlier time. The empowerment of players, going back to when Curt Flood won his legal case, has been good for them.
Bowie Kuhn wrote that the owners lost the Curt Flood case just like the South lost the Civil War. In other words, there's no equivocating. One side crushed the other. But I doubt there are any holes in the owners' shoes. They never became "dead broke" like Hillary Clinton (LOL).
From WCSA to Gotham
"Big Koos" had ties to Appleton and Holloway as well as to Motown. He graduated from our West Central School of Agriculture in Morris. That's the campus we now call UMM.
Back in 1969 we all knew the story of how Jerry got discovered by the Mets: he was discovered by the son of a Shea Stadium usher who caught Koosman when he pitched in the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss TX. The son wrote to his dad. A mere usher? Maybe so, but the connection was good enough. The Mets offered a contract after Jerry's discharge. Perhaps the military instilled a sense of discipline that enabled Jerry to rise. The military has a way of doing that.
Koosman broke into the Mets' pitching rotation in 1968. I have written about 1968 as "the year of the pitcher." Koosman was happy to ride along. He struck out Carl Yastrzemski for the final out in the 1968 All-Star game, won by the Nationals 1-0. Just one run? Yes, it was the year of the pitcher. Baseball had to make adjustments after that season, including a lowered pitching mound. Koosman was runner-up to Johnny Bench (today a TV commercial pitch man) for 1968 Rookie of the Year.
In '69 the pitching couldn't dominate quite so much. But Koosman progressed just fine. He had a 17-9 won-lost record, a 2.28 ERA and 180 strikeouts. He won eight of his last nine decisions.
The Mets had to get past Atlanta before entering the World Series. Atlanta had Hank Aaron and Orlando Cepeda, along with the knuckleballing pitcher Phil Niekro. I remember a story where Niekro's manager was asked if Phil could really pitch on two days' rest, and the manager said "We're not worried about Niekro, we're worried about Uecker (Bob Uecker who was the catching specialist for knuckleballs)." Given Uecker's reputation as a character of the first order, that's quite the funny vignette.
Koosman actually had a bad game in the National League playoffs vs. Atlanta. He pitched in game 2. Truly the Mets were buoyed by destiny, because even though Koosman gave up six runs in four and two-thirds innings, the Mets won 11-6. That playoff series is barely remembered, and that's being generous.
Koosman pitches 1969 finale
In the "big show" of the World Series, Jerry Koosman starred. Tom Seaver lost game 1. After game 1 the Mets ran the table with Koosman winning the triumphant game 5. But game 5 wasn't wholly a cakewalk. The Mets fell behind 3-0 in the third. They took the lead with two runs in the eighth. Koosman got the complete game win. It was the days before "setup men" and "closers." Pitchers would strive for complete games.
I remember watching TV and seeing Cleon Jones catch a fly ball for the final out. He positioned himself like a statue, ready to squeeze his glove around the ball. He gave Koosman the game ball.
Koosman was inducted into the New York Mets Hall of Fame in 1989. He attended the 40th anniversary reunion of the '69 team at Citi Field on August 22, 2009. He has since had some legal problems. He was a Wesley Snipes type of tax denier. He pleaded guilty in May of 2009 to misdemeanor Federal tax evasion after failing to pay up to $90,000 in Federal income taxes for 2002-04. He admitted to having been "suckered" by anti-tax rhetoric. He was sentenced to six months in prison in September of 2009. He was released from a Federal prison camp in Duluth on June 30, 2010.
Big Jerry could overcome those Baltimore Orioles with Frank Robinson, but not the Feds. Those legal problems will be a mere asterisk with his life. We'll always visualize him as that towering presence on the mound, ready to uncork an unhittable pitch.
He always looked so relaxed. It must have been his peaceful rural background. From Holloway to New York City. Amazing.
Koosman is reported to enjoy joking about the value of his rookie baseball card. It's a 1968 card. Yes it's valuable, but keep in mind it also includes Nolan Ryan! Oh, I'm sure Koosman adds a little to the value. My generation of Morris kids bought cards at the old Stark's Grocery which is now a cemetery monument business. Times change.
Koosman would still be a great pitcher today. No PEDs needed.
We salute Jerry Koosman the "hayseed" out of West Central Minnesota, a cog with the baseball powerhouse representing the world's most important city. Only in America?
I played in the band for the big celebration in 1969 for Koosman, here in Morris. I was also a musician two years later for the big Morris Centennial. Those events have seemed to fade rather significantly in our collective memory. That's too bad because they were most gala. Our museum could develop an exhibit acknowledging both.
Halsey Hall was here for the Koosman celebration. He was the iconic "color man" for broadcasts in the Twins' early years. Those where the days.
Jerry Koosman was eventually able to pitch for the Twins, and when he was still in his prime. Those memories are quite fine, I'm sure, but in my mind his fantastical 1969 campaign was unmatched, still etched in the memories of boomers. The Mets win the World Series! We should hardly be surprised given the home base of New York City. But the Mets had been so forlorn just a few years earlier. Pinocchio, you're a real boy now!
Eventually us boomers would mature just like the New York Mets did, or at least I think we did.