In this summer of our discontent, a season of buckling banks and wheezing newspapers, it might be well to remember that as far as crisis years go, 2009 is a wimp. But when it comes to New York City, disaster breeds resurrection.
As in: 40 years ago, 1969. Richard Nixon had been elected president with bullet-headed, venom-spouting know-nothing Spiro Agnew as his vice president; the war in Vietnam was in full throttle; New York had lost its Senator Robert F. Kennedy; America’s cities were on the precipice of destruction; New York itself was churning as the white working class rose up, black communities roiled and city services creaked to a halt. The impossibly handsome mayor, blue-eyed, crooked-toothed WASP Republican John Lindsay, who had been elected as the white knight of urban politics in 1965, was running for reelection and had lost his primary to Senator John Marchi of Staten Island. He was suddenly a man without a party line.
The New York Yankees were playing without Mickey Mantle for the first time since 1950.
New York City, exhausted, filthy, hot, wheezing, broke and worn out, had gone from being the greatest city of winners in the world to looking like a grimy city of losers. The next mayor of New York was about to be an angry tough conservative Democrat with a pencil moustache named Mario Procaccino, who was pictured on the cover of Time leading the white working class as they stormed the Bastille of New York power.
And then history sneezed. For one weird, hot summer, events became a mad spasm in New York City.
There was, of course, the fact that man was about to drop his first boot on the moon. There was the massive, naked, muddy majesty of Woodstock, which was a cultural shock to the American consciousness.
But mostly the story of New York City in 1969 was the mysterious convergence of two weird partners: the scampy New York Mets and the aristocratic prep-schooled, Yale-educated, baseball-innocent mayor, John Lindsay.
The New York Mets, managed by the former Brooklyn Dodgers all-star first baseman Gil Hodges, began winning games, led by their two young starting pitchers, Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. And John V. Lindsay began to gain in the polls as the New York tradition of white limousine liberals, working-class voters and the black community began to assert itself.
“Locally, the city is being torn apart,” said Jay Kriegel, then a driven, black-spectacled aide to Mayor Lindsay in his City Hall Camelot. “Conflicts are raging. You go through a transit strike, three teachers’ strikes, the teamsters are opening up drawbridges so people can’t cross them by day. It was crazy!”
“I was chief of staff to Senator Jacob Javits and I knew John Lindsay from a few meetings at state caucuses,” said Richard Aurelio, Mr. Lindsay’s campaign manager that year. “He asked me, I guess, in the spring of ’69 to run his campaign. He showed me the polls, which had him at a very low margin.”
Mr. Aurelio immediately recommended that he forgo running from the Republican primary—he felt there wasn’t a chance he could win. But the base of Mr. Lindsay’s home district—the so-called Silk Stocking 17th Congressional District—insisted he run. He lost to John Marchi.
“Primary night when it was announced Marchi had won, it was one of the most dispiriting nights in my life,” said Sid Davidoff, the deputy campaign manager. “We had come in there as the first Republican mayor in forever and then we lost that primary.”
“The polls asked: What do you most dislike about John Lindsay?” said Mr. Aurelio. And the polls said “he was too preferential to the blacks, to minorities. That struck me as being just as something we could turn around. My experience in New York was that New Yorkers had a social conscience, and this to me seemed a little bit bizarre and atypical of the real New York that I knew. And so I agreed to take it on.”
“I thought there had to be three elements to our campaign:
“One he had to acknowledge mistakes in his first term in a way to humble himself; we had to bring him down to size,” he said. “You know, he was a huge in a kind of high-class elegant way and he was tall, handsome. We had to bring him down to size and show a little bit of humbleness.”
“One of the knocks on Lindsay was that he was an elitist and a tall guy in a suit who was out of touch with us,” said Ken Auletta, the New Yorker writer who was then a speechwriter for Democrat Howard Samuels. “Then he was in this ad where he appeared facing the camera, which was unusual then, with his sleeves rolled up, and he apologized and he was talking about the mistakes he made. It was a very compelling ad.”
“Two, his campaign had to be based on confronting the hostile neighborhoods, not his base,” said Mr. Aurelio. “We weren’t going to spend any time at rallies where he was going to be cheered. We were going to go to the boroughs where most of the hostility occurred. We were going to confront the people in Queens who were angry about the snowstorm and the Brooklyn Jewish neighborhoods that were angry about the decentralization ideas and his preference for the black neighborhoods. We needed to prick their conscience.
“Three, was his willingness to come out against Vietnam, which was unpopular in New York.”
But most of all, John Lindsay benefited from his competition.
There was Mario Procaccino, the Akim Tamiroff look-alike, a Bronx-native who was the city comptroller.
“The setup encouraged me the day after the primary,” said Mr. Aurelio. “We were essentially running against two conservatives. We had Procaccino and Marchi, two Italians, and they were kind of splitting the Italian-American vote and they were splitting the conservative vote, and splitting the anti-Lindsay vote. Procaccino … was linked to the old Democratic organizations and the so-called Democratic bosses, which were gradually losing their power. Marchi was a clear conservative and endorsed by Bill Buckley and that crowd.”
“Procaccino didn’t fit the occasion!” said Jimmy Breslin, the journalist who wrote New York magazine’s epochal piece “Is Lindsay Too Tall to Be Mayor?” that summer. “He’s your mayor? That fucking midget Procaccino would have said something crazy.”
“Procaccino was a funny-looking man and he was a total joke,” said Ronnie Eldridge, now married to Mr. Breslin, and a point person in recruiting Democrats to Mr. Lindsay’s campaign in the summer of 1969.
“Procaccino was a blustery guy and he had an attitude about other Democrats: fuck ’em,” said Mr. Auletta. “He didn’t reach out to Democrats. He was short, but he was also a very small man. Lindsay immediately had the sympathy of Democrats everywhere.”
One of those Democrats was Mr. Auletta’s boss, Howard Samuels. Mr. Samuels, along with a handful of others, like future Congresswoman Bella Abzug, defected to support Mr. Lindsay. Meanwhile, Mr. Aurielo secured Alex Rose, the man who ran the Liberal Party—the still-powerful vessel of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New York—to give their nomination to Mr. Lindsay.
“We had Democratic support, even though there weren’t a lot of them, and we scheduled their endorsements on almost a daily basis,” said Mr. Aurelio. “You got the impression that they were all supporting him even though there were 20 to 30 figures who backed him.”
“Somebody asked Frank Hogan”—the almost-permanent district attorney of New York—“at Gracie Mansion, at some freakin’ meeting, about John Lindsay,” said Jimmy Breslin, “and he said in the parking lot that Lindsay was the best mayor for the law enforcement we’ve had. Hogan’s name at that time was priceless. He was the big name in law enforcement in fucking America for crying out loud!
“It shut up a lot of people at once. Anybody that thought he was the limp-wristed John Lindsay, who won’t protect you from the blacks, the crimes, this and that, it shut everybody up.”
Then Golda Meir visited. The American-raised Israeli had become prime minister on St. Patrick’s Day and was a New York folk hero in the greatest Jewish city in the world. “The event that meant most to me was when Golda Meir came to New York City,” said Mr. Kriegel. “She is the pope for the Jewish community.”
Mr. Lindsay and his staff knew that she was set to come to the city. She would be coming in the early fall, right after Yom Kippur, and he wanted to plan a Sukkoth.
“Golda Meir is coming, we should build a sukkah and welcome Golda Meir to a state dinner run by John Lindsay,” said Mr. Davidoff. “So I’m looking at John Lindsay, this big WASP, and I’ve got to go and explain a sukkah to John and Mary Lindsay. Mary was very formal in a lot of ways, but when it came to stuff like that, she was like a diplomat’s wife. She understood that a state dinner should be at Lincoln Center.”
The Lindsay people understood that the Jewish middle-class Brooklyn and Queens base that felt so alienated by Mr. Lindsay, could be turned around. They would throw a lavish dinner for Golda Meir and it would be hosted by Mr. Lindsay. But Mr. Davidoff knew that if it were indoors at Lincoln Center, significant Jewish leaders wouldn’t come. So they planned a lavish affair in the parking lot behind the Brooklyn Museum.
“Every prominent and influential Jew from New York was there,” said Mr. Aurelio.
More than 2,000 people were invited to the event; Mr. Lindsay walked in wearing a yarmulke. He stood right next to her.
“There were thousands and thousands of people outside the Brooklyn Museum that night,” said Mr. Davidoff. “Afterwards, the sukkah was available for the public, and we put out a booklet explaining the sukkah … and we had John Lindsay write the prologue.”
Ms. Meir was up on the dais and did everything but endorse John Lindsay. “They didn’t say it, but they didn’t have to say it,” said Mr. Davidoff.
A few days after she spoke, the Mets would play their first playoff game.
THE METS WERE born in 1962, the laughably disastrous team that tickled the broken heart of New York National League baseball after the Dodgers and Giants moved west in the late 1950s. They lost and lost and lost.
“Being traded to the Mets in those days was not a good option,” said Al Weis, a Mets utility infielder who became a hero of the ’69 series. “I was with the White Sox and we were always in contention. The Mets were a last-place club.”
“In ’69, I thought we would take the next step forward,” said Ron Swoboda, the Mets right-fielder. “I thought we’d be a little better than we were in ’68 … around .500, a little above, a little below.”
And for the most part that’s how the Mets played for most of the year, around the .500 mark. But on June 15, the Mets brought in a veteran first baseman.
“Donn Clendenon was a lawyer who engineered a deal that got him traded for the Mets,” said Ron Swoboda. “He physically engineered the deal. There weren’t many baseball players who were lawyers! The Pirates were trying to trade him to the Expos, and he told them that ‘I’ll give you a couple teams I’ll go to, but one of ’em ain’t the Expos; otherwise, I’ll go be a lawyer.’ And they believed him and traded him to us.
“When he walked in, everything changed,” said Mr. Swoboda. “He was a veteran thumper, a real hitter. He rode everyone in the clubhouse, he could get everyone in the clubhouse. … He was to me the missing link. When he came in here, everything changed.”
The Mets surged in the summer. They had Tom Seaver, the Mets Franchise, who had a career-high 25 wins; Jerry Koosman became one of the most sure-handed No. 2 men in baseball. And Gil Hodges, the manager, was a cool hand who, like Joe Torre now, had universal respect.
“Gil was a very good manager, an honest manager, I’ll tell ya,” said Yogi Berra, who was the Mets first base coach in 1969. “When we started in spring training and we were doing signs, I said to Gil, ‘Want me to help them teach the signs?’ He said, ‘No, if they don’t know the signs by now, they get fined. And if you give them the signs, I’ll fine you.’ But everyone appreciated it, I’ll tell you. He did a great job and he was a good manager.”
When September rolled around, the Mets had a two-game series with the Cubs at Shea, and they were trailing by 2.5 games. People began to say that the Mets had magic.
“Everything didn’t come to a head until the latter part of the season,” said Al Weis. “We were plodding along winning a few ball games, and then all of a sudden we got into a hot streak.”
“The turning point was when we played the Cubs right there at the end,” said Wayne Garrett, the Mets red-headed rookie third baseman. “It was a series that really meant something. That’s when we really played well.”
They also had Black Magic. During one of the games, a black cat came out from the stands at Shea, circled the Cubs’ third baseman, Ron Santo, walked in front of the Cubs dugout, and then ran back underneath the stands. The Mets never looked back and took the division.
“There were cats all over that stadium,” said Mr. Garrett, the Mets rookie third baseman. “It was a freak accident. It happened to be a black cat, too! There were probably a few rats underneath that stadium, a few cats. They would come out on the field once in a while. They would come out momentarily and run back underneath he seats. It happened half a dozen times.”
The New York Mets clinched the division, swept the Braves and went to the World Series. The city was in disbelief.
Above all, there was the one magical moment that symbolized the Miracle Mets. In Game 4, with the Mets leading the heavily favored Orioles two games to one, the Mets had their ace in the hole: Tom Seaver. And, after a rough start in Game 1, he was brilliant again. Through eight innings, he was pitching a shutout. But there was trouble in the ninth.
There were runners at the corners. The Orioles’ superstar Frank Robinson was at third, and the Orioles tank of a man, Boog Powell, was at first. This was before the days of bringing in the closer; it was the era when the starter, an ace, was his own stopper. And the Mets were coming dangerously close to disaster. If the Orioles could bring home two runs, they would take the lead, the Mets momentum would be dead, and they wouldn’t be able to clinch the Series at Shea Stadium.
With late-afternoon shadows eating up home plate, Tom Seaver delivered a beautiful pitch to Brooks Robinson. It was a two-seam fastball, and it sank hard. But Robinson, always known for his glove, was a man who knew how to hit in the clutch. He hit a screaming liner to right center field. It was hit with such laser-beam precision, it looked like it could go into the gap, and if Mets center fielder Tommie Agee didn’t cut it off, it could score Boog Powell.
Worse, it was going in the direction of Ron Swoboda, a solid hitter who was a mess in the outfield. He went in the wrong direction. Balls bounced over his head. He’d twist his body left and right, head pivoting and twirling like a screw top. Robinson hit his liner to right.
For years, Swoboda had been practicing fly balls. He was learning when a ball was hit and you couldn’t judge it, you waited a second. He learned which way to put out his glove, and which way to turn his head.
He cleared his mind, he conjured up nothing, he didn’t think, he reacted.
“I just broke immediately and I had a great jump on it,” said Mr. Swoboda. “When he hit it I said, ‘Oh shit! I got nothing to do but to run after this one.’ You want to intercept the ball at the earliest point. I realized I’m going to have to lunge at this sucker and it hit right in the web of the glove, which is the best place. I made a perfect break, I never stopped, I never faltered and I caught it back-end, fully laid out and kept rolling and I came up and threw into the infield.”
All who saw it agreed: one of the great catches ever. By the time Swoboda wound up, his cap fell off, and he got the ball into the infield, Frank Robinson tagged up and had scored the tying run. But it didn’t matter. Anyone who saw that play knew the Mets were going to win the game.
By the time the bottom of the 10th inning rolled around, the Mets had it won, and the next day, Cleon Jones fell to one knee and then bedlam broke loose. The New York Mets were the World Champions of baseball.
“I was running in clear space, and I was never sure I was going to get there,” said Mr. Swoboda. “I dove at it. It was clearly an example of your reach exceeding your normal capabilities—your reach exceeding your wildest dreams. Wasn’t that true of 1969 in every way?”
“I’ve seen replays of Cleon dancing up and down and all the players jumping up and down, but I got into that dugout and the clubhouse as fast I could,” said Al Weis. “Most of the players got off that field fast.”
“Anytime you win, boy, there’s commotion, I’ll tell you,” said Yogi Berra.
JOHN LINDSAY was dumbfounded.
“John Lindsay knew nothing about baseball, and he didn’t like it,” said Richard Reeves, the biographer and author of the forthcoming history of the Berlin Airlift, who was the New York Times City Hall bureau chief in 1969. “Literally at the end of each inning, he’d pop out of his seat and ask, ‘Is this over?’ And then he had to be pulled back down.”
“In one of those playoff games, he said, ‘If the game stays tied, then what happens? Who wins?’” said Shelly Brosoff, a member of the mayor’s staff who was sitting with him at Shea Stadium.
“He was crew in college, his twin brother was a boxer, and baseball was not his game of choice,” said Mr. Davidoff.
As Shea Stadium’s field was mobbed with delirious Mets fans, Mr. Brosoff guided Mr. Lindsay from their seats behind the dugout, onto the warning track, into the clubhouse.
Mr. Lindsay didn’t look much different from former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, who was standing inside the Mets clubhouse with his arms crossed and a stoic, somewhat bewildered look on his face. Mayor Lindsay didn’t know what to do.
“Tom Seaver was sitting on a stool and guys were around all around him and Champagne was flying everywhere,” said Mr. Brosoff.
“I gave the mayor a bottle of Champagne and I said to him, ‘You see that guy on the stool?’—he didn’t know anybody, he wasn’t a baseball fan—and I said, ‘See that guy over there? Go over there and pour this bottle of champagne on his head.’
“He looked at me and said, ‘Shelly are you crazy?’ I said, ‘No, no, go over there and pour on its head! Go and do it!’
Then Champagne was everywhere, and suddenly the tall dry mayor was in the middle of the wet Mets melee.
“It wasn’t something that was totally spontaneous,” said Mr. Aurelio, the campaign manager. “In the locker room, we kind of urged them to soak Lindsay. Here’s this patrician-type guy who some people, some of the ethnics, had turned against in the city, and now these white ethnics suddenly are seeing him being doused with Champagne over his face.”
Suddenly John V. Lindsay was a man of the people, a baseball fan, drenched in Queens, beloved in Brooklyn, the cross-cultural political phenomenon that he had been when elected in 1965.
“I remember John Lindsay was in political trouble and he had this complete embrace of the team,” said Mr. Swoboda, the Mets right fielder. “He came in the clubhouse and he had himself doused in Champagne and he used all of it for the campaign: ‘The Mets can do it, I can do it! The Mets are an underdog, I am, too!’
“He even had guys on the team doing commercials and doing personal appearances for him. He totally used that whole event as a trigger for a campaign that was in big trouble.”
Then the Mets had a ticker-tape parade, the first time it happened for a World Series champion.
“It was touch-and-go until the last three or four weeks of the campaign,” said Mr. Aurelio. “In October, after the Mets victory, in the three weeks before the election, we felt the momentum going our way. Up until then, while I was hopeful and optimistic, I thought I was prepared to lose by a small margin.”
“I don’t know if he picks up a single vote for being at Shea and being in the locker room with Champagne,” said Mr. Kriegel. “This is a city that is very beaten down and just endlessly consumed in racial conflict and tension and recrimination. What the Mets do is create some sense across the city of a breath of fresh air, they feel good, a relaxer. It relieves the tension. It cuts it like a knife.”
“There was anger, a lot of anger,” said Mr. Davidoff. “The snowstorm, the teacher’s strike, the claim that Lindsay was giving away the city to minorities, there was decentralization—how many things do you have to go through! And with the Mets the city felt better, and when there’s a better feeling about the city, there’s a better feeling about the mayor.”
“The city went from being anti- this tall, handsome, WASP, debonair patrician,” said Mr. Aurelio, “into seeing him as a guy that was fighting the bosses and was attracting Democrats and fighting the radical right and who was fighting against the Nixon Vietnam policies and his insensitivity to the plight of the city,” said Mr. Aurelio. “And then with the Mets, it just was this dramatic change. A lot of it we were lucky to have happen to us, and a lot of if we inspired ourselves in clever ways. It was a lot of things coming together in a way that created the perfect comeback campaign.”
“Everything came together for that one shining moment,” said Mr. Reeves. “It was our Camelot. It all came together. And even with all that union and racial stuff, the Mets pulled those people together, and to a lesser extent, the Jets and the Knicks. It pulled together for that moment. The fact is Lindsay was a lousy mayor and the recession began in 1970, and Ford told the city to drop dead and then people abandoned the city. It was this kind of peak.”
So attention, Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Paterson, Fred Wilpon and the Steinbrenner Boys: Don’t worry about the banks and Tim Geithner, pay no attention to the subways and the Fed. Give us a little magic. It doesn’t need to last forever. Just a few innings. For this summer and for this fall, if you want to save your butts, give us a few wins.
We’ll love you for a month or two.