- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Fifty years ago, John Glenn orbited the earth, the Rocket entered the world and a New York baseball team burned up on re-entry to the National League.
That summer, Americans could hear Elvis Presley rock at Seattle's new Space Needle, Dodgers fans shout "Go, Go, Go!" to Maury Wills at brand new Dodger Stadium, and -- best of all -- Vin Scully broadcast a Sandy Koufax no-hitter on the radio. While Peace Corps volunteers traveled to Africa, Gene Conley went AWOL from Yankee Stadium and Marvelous Marv Throneberry got lost on the way to third base. James Meredith entered the University of Mississippi under armed guard and Jackie Robinson entered Cooperstown surrounded by applause.
And although the Supreme Court ruled against school prayer that June, it's safe to say that many school children nonetheless folded their hands on their desks, bowed their heads and silently asked for divine intervention several months later when the world's two superpowers and fiercest rivals went to the very brink of Armageddon.
And after the Giants and Dodgers finally settled the National League pennant race, the Americans and Soviets entered into a little crisis of their own as well.
Where were you in '62? If you were alive and a baseball fan, chances are you were listening to a game on one of those new-fangled transistor radios that were all the rage. (Imagine, an AM radio you could carry anywhere!) And you had more games than ever from which to choose. Thanks to expansion in the National League, baseball had 20 teams playing 162-game schedules for the first time. (Only American League teams played 162 games in 1961.). But even that wasn't enough -- the regular season had to be extended for a three-game playoff before a pennant winner was determined in the NL, meaning both the Giants and the Dodgers played a record 165 games.
"And I believe I played in every inning,'' recalls Wills, who indeed played all 165 games. "I was told that Vin Scully said at the end of the season, 'Maury Wills is so tired, his hair is tired.'''
Of course, if you were a Giants fan, you might not have had any hair left by the end of a World Series that went three days longer than scheduled, then abruptly ended in such a heart-stopping manner that Charlie Brown was still moaning about it three months later and Felipe Alou still is still feeling the pain five decades later.
But we're getting ahead of the story
Following tradition, President Kennedy threw out the season's ceremonial first pitch at the Senators opener in Washington, then told the team, "I'm leaving you in first place." (They didn't stay there long, losing 101 games and finishing last.) Three months later, JFK threw out the first pitch at the All-Star Game in D.C. as well, becoming the first president to ever do so at those two games in the same season.
He might've made even more appearances at D.C. Stadium that year, but evidently concerned about his high pitch count, Washington shut JFK down after the All-Star Game.
There was no such concern over Senators pitcher Tom Cheney's arm when he threw more than 200 pitches during a 16-inning performance in which he struck out a record 21 batters. Cheney struck out 13 in the first nine innings, eight the next seven and didn't allow a hit after the seventh inning. His game is even more impressive when you bear in mind that Cheney didn't get to face either Mark Reynolds or Adam Dunn.
There were other hints that an era of pitching dominance was fast approaching that year, too. For example, five no-hitters were thrown, including one by Bo Belinsky, who told reporters after the game, "If I'd known I was gonna throw a no-hitter today, I would have gotten a haircut."
Koufax also threw a no-hitter, the first of his career, striking out the first three batters on nine pitches that game. (Yes, he faced the Mets.) He also struck out 18 batters in another game and 16 in still another.
While Koufax was on the verge of becoming a legend, another great pitching career was beginning in 1962 as well -- Roger Clemens was born that August. We can only assume that doctors immediately checked to make sure the new-born Rocket had the proper number of fingers (10), toes (10) and ears (two, not three).
John Glenn and the Mets both received ticker-tape parades in New York in the spring of 1962, but the Mercury astronaut was probably a little more deserving after he became the first American to orbit the earth. The Mets received their parade before their home opener, which was rained out, making it one of the few days in 1962 the Mets did not lose.
Amazing? The '62 Mets were stupefying. Just nine games into their season, they were somehow 9 1/2 games out of first place; and three days after the season ended, they fell another half-game in the standings. (More on that later.) They traded Harry Chiti for Harry Chiti. Despite it being their first season, they held an old-timers game.
But perhaps the most amazing play of their season -- the one that pretty much summed up the entire 1962 Mets -- was when Marv Throneberry hit an apparent triple, only to be called out for missing second base. Manager Casey Stengel went out to argue with the umpire, but a coach told him not to bother because "Marv missed first base, too."
And, of course, the Mets lost 120 games, the most in major league history. Loss No. 120 came after their final rally ended when Joe Pignatano hit into a triple play in his final at-bat in the majors. (That is, if playing for the '62 Mets qualified as a major league appearance). Richie Ashburn, who was part of that triple play, batted .306 and made the All-Star team in 1962 but retired after the season rather than lose 100 games again.
Later, Stengel would recall of the '62 Mets, "I just wonder how we ever got to win 40 games."
While NASA's engineers and scientists at Mission Control were monitoring three Mercury space flights in 1962, their Houston neighbors were attentively listening to broadcasts of baseball's other expansion team. (Though, given Houston's dreary season, perhaps they didn't listen all that attentively.)
Houston's team was originally called the Colt .45s, a name that not only wouldn't fly today but didn't last long in the 1960s either. They became the Astros when they moved into the Astrodome in 1965. The Astrodome isn't highly regarded these days; but at the time, it was considered a miracle of engineering, especially compared to where Houston played its first few seasons.
Fifty years before Clemens would pitch for the Sugar Land Skeeters, Houston played in a miserable place called Colt Stadium and nicknamed Mosquito Heaven. The mosquito problem was so bad the team frequently had to spray the stadium with insecticide before games -- not that the spray got rid of the insects.
"There were mosquitos everywhere," Alou says. "And they were big. They were Texas mosquitos. ... There was a swamp in the outfield."
A player could sit in the clubhouse to escape the mosquitos, but it wasn't much of an alternative. The Colts were owned by Roy Hofheinz, who was so conspicuously rich that he was known to crank the air conditioning in his house high enough so that he could then warm himself by his fireplace. He did not, however, see reason to put air conditioning in the clubhouses. Alou says it would get so oppressively hot and humid that players needed to change uniforms in the fifth inning.
Little surprise that the Astrodome was considered the Eighth Wonder of the World when it opened three years later. It had air conditioning!
But the Astrodome came later. Baseball's grand new ballpark in 1962 was Dodger Stadium, which opened on April 10 when Los Angeles starter Johnny Podres took the mound in front of a crowd of 52,564, many of whom no doubt left to beat traffic five innings later.
"It was ultra-modern," Wills says. "Even today, it's one of the nicest ballparks in baseball."
It certainly was nice for pitchers. The Dodgers had previously played in the L.A. Coliseum, where it was just 250 feet down the left-field line. Dodger Stadium was far more pitcher-friendly, particularly for Koufax, who lowered his home ERA from 4.22 in 1961 to 1.75 a year later.
And, Alou says, the move to Dodger Stadium also heated up the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, the most bitter feud in baseball.
"We didn't like them. We didn't like the uniforms. We didn't like anything about them," former Dodgers outfielder Ron Fairly says.
Now, before anyone protests that the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has always been baseball's best and most intense, bear in mind that in 1962 Boston was in a stretch of eight consecutive losing seasons and barely attracted an average of 9,000 fans a game to Fenway Park. It was so bad that after a 13-3 loss at Yankee Stadium on July 26, outfielder Pumpsie Green and losing pitcher Gene Conley got off the team bus and didn't get back on.
Conley tried to catch a flight to Israel but was turned down because he didn't have a passport. He didn't return to the team for three days. And he was the Red Sox ace.
No one got off the Giants' team bus during San Francisco's pennant drive, though. The dramatic 1951 pennant race between the Dodgers and Giants is the stuff of legend, but their 1962 race had just as dramatic a finish even if you almost never hear about it. (Probably because it didn't happen on the East Coast.)
Alou says that he had friends on the Dodgers, but that when the games were played, "Every close pitch, it looked like everyone was ready to fight."
The rivalry was so contentious that one game at Candlestick Park was delayed when the Dodgers protested that the Giants had intentionally watered down the infield around first base to slow down Wills, who was on his way to stealing a record 104 bases. Wills says he didn't mind. In fact, he admired the Giants for seeking an advantage, just as some teams would let the grass grow longer or perhaps slope the foul line.
"I would have done it, too," Wills says. "I did that in Seattle when I was manager and I fiddled with the batters box [making it one foot longer] and I got suspended for it."
The Dodgers entered the final week with a four-game lead, but lost six of their last seven games and the regular season ended in a tie, forcing a three-game playoff (which is how the Mets fell another half-game in the standings after their season ended). Just like in 1951, the Giants faced a 4-2 deficit in the ninth inning of the final game, played 11 years to the day after Bobby Thomson's three-run "Shot Heard 'Round the World" home run gave the Giants the pennant with a 5-4 win. And just as in 1951, the Giants rallied in the ninth to win, though this time they did it in the top of the ninth.
"We had two men out and a two-run lead in the ninth and the Giants came back and beat us," Fairly grouses. "We had Don Drysdale warming up in the bullpen, but Walter Alston didn't bring him in. He wanted to save Don for the opening game of the World Series. Well, we never got there."
The New Yorker's Roger Angell wrote this after the Giants won that day: "The circulation manager of the San Francisco Chronicle approached the news editor and said, 'What's the headline?' 'It's WE WIN! -- white on black,' the news editor said. 'How big?' 'Same size as Fidel Dead!'"
As you might recall, Cuba would be back on the front page later that month, though the headline would not read "Fidel Dead."
The Giants played the Yankees in the World Series, a matchup of two old rivals who once shared the Polo Grounds and whose stadiums later were separated by only the Harlem River. Now they were separated by an entire continent in the first coast-to-coast World Series ever played -- and what is still the longest distance between World Series teams.
The Yankees won Game 1, and the two teams alternated victories from there so that New York led the series 3-2 when it returned to San Francisco for Game 6. This time, there was no need for the groundskeepers to saturate the infield because Typhoon Freda had slammed the West Coast in the famous Columbus Day Storm, dumping seven inches of rain on San Francisco. Winds of 170 mph were recorded on the Oregon coast. (Just a little less than they normally blow at Candlestick in the late afternoon.)
Game 6 was postponed for three days until the field dried enough to resume play. The Giants won to force a deciding seventh game. In Game 7, starter Ralph Terry and the Yankees took a 1-0 into the bottom of the ninth. Matty Alou led off with a single, bringing up brother Felipe.
Felipe was instructed to sacrifice his brother to second, but he wasn't accustomed to bunting -- he hit .316 with 25 home runs that season -- and didn't get the bunt down.
"I struck out on three pitches," Alou says. "That was very bad. It hurts to this day that I didn't get the job done."
That failure proved costly. Willie Mays doubled with two out, but Matty Alou was only able to get to third base. And that's where he stayed.
Still, for an instant, it appeared the Giants would win the series when Willie McCovey hit a screaming line drive. Terry is the pitcher who had allowed Bill Mazeroski's series-winning home run in 1960, but this time he was a winner. McCovey's line drive was hit directly to second baseman Bobby Richardson, who caught it for the third out.
McCovey's line drive lives on in the memory of Giants fans. It was so painful that "Peanuts" cartoonist and passionate Giants fan Charles Schulz twice mentioned it in his strip.
In a December comic that year, Charlie Brown and Linus sit silently for the first three panels before Charlie Brown screams, "WHY COULDN'T McCOVEY HAVE HIT THE BALL JUST THREE FEET HIGHER?" A month later, Charlie Brown and Linus sit silently for the first three panels until Charlie Brown screams, "OR WHY COULDN'T McCOVEY HAVE HIT THE BALL EVEN TWO FEET HIGHER?"
McCovey, by the way, still has copies of the strips.
Ironically, famed San Francisco columnist Herb Caen wrote after the game, "The Yankees beat the Giants, but it was baseball that shut out the world. The only way Cuba and Berlin could have crossed anybody's mind would have been if the Giants sent up a pinch-hitter named Felipe Cuba, and if the Yanks had a Whitey Berlin warming up."
Little did Caen know as he wrote those words that the man who threw out the 1962 season's first pitch (and at the All-Star Game) had received word that very day that the Soviet Union was placing nuclear missiles in Cuba. One week later, President Kennedy informed the nation about the Cuban Missile Crisis, a saga that would bring the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war.
Unfortunately, even after a season as gripping as 1962, the world does not stay shut out for long.
Looks like it'll be a wild finish to the 2012 season. But chances are, it won't be as wild as the way the season unfolded in 1962. (Hint: That one started with ticker tape for Casey Stengel.)