Friday, March 16, 2012

On 50-Year-Old Tape, Sounds of Mets’ Awkward First Steps

[John Lindsay/Associated Press]

Gil Hodges signed a contract to play for the
Mets prior to their inaugural season. He was
interviewed by Howard Cosell before the game.
March 9, 2012; NY Times

It was 50 years ago Saturday that the Mets played their initial spring training game, an 8-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. There was nothing surprising in that result, considering the Mets went on to win only 40 games all season, a record for futility that still stands.

But what is somewhat intriguing is the identity of the first announcer to greet listeners of the game’s radio broadcast. It wasn’t Ralph Kiner or Bob Murphy or Lindsey Nelson, all of whom were on hand for the start of what would be their long collaboration chronicling the team’s fortunes.

Instead, the first voice coming out of the radio belonged to none other than Howard Cosell, still emerging at that point as a larger-than-life personality in American sports.

Cosell was the host of “Clubhouse Journal,” a pre- and postgame show, and now, as game time approached, he was interviewing pitcher Roger Craig some 20 feet behind the plate at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Craig had started his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers and was about to embark on a season in which he would finish with 10 wins for the Mets and an unthinkable 24 losses.

[Associated Press]
Mets Manager Casey Stengel, right, guided his team
during a spring training drill in February 1962.

Cosell wasted no time being unrealistic. “I get the feeling you think this Mets club could surprise a few people,” Cosell said to Craig, who at one point refers to Cosell as Howie.

“I’m sure we will, Howard,” Craig said. “We are going to surprise a few people, and I’m sure all the players feel like I do.”

But Cosell and Craig were not the only ones sounding overly optimistic that Saturday afternoon, with the sun shining, Richie Ashburn about to bat leadoff, and Stan Musial and Minnie Minoso in the outfield for the Cardinals.

On the WABC broadcast, Nelson sounded excited, too, as he welcomed fans aboard for the return of National League baseball to New York five years after the Dodgers and the Giants had bolted to California, breaking millions of hearts.

“Bob Murphy, Ralph Kiner and I are on hand to bring you every bit of the action,” said Nelson, while noting that the game was being sponsored by Rheingold Extra Dry and Brown & Williamson, a cigarette-maker. “Yes, the New York Mets are on the air in their first great season.”

From left, Ralph Kiner, Bob Murphy and Lindsay Nelson,
who broadcasted Mets games in 1962. [Bettmann/Corbis]
The rare audio time capsule of the game was preserved by Marc Gold, one of those abandoned Dodger fans who was instantly smitten with the Mets. Gold’s grandmother had bought him a Telectrosonic reel-to-reel tape recorder for his bar mitzvah about 18 months before the Mets began playing, and he was eager to put it to use. Gold’s father connected the radio to the tape deck to eliminate background noise.

“When they announced the Mets were going to come in, that was such exciting news,” said Gold, who grew up in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. “I had pictures of the Dodgers in my room and I put X’s on their pictures and immediately fell in love with the Mets.”

By his own admission, Gold, who works in the family’s horseradish business, is no historian. But he understood, even at 14, that the Mets’ first game was something worth commemorating. In addition to keeping score at home that season, he compiled a Mets-themed newsletter, which he periodically printed in his father’s office on McDonald Avenue in Brooklyn and sold for 45 cents.

Robert Lipsyte covered that first exhibition game for The New York Times and gracefully got to the point in the lead paragraph of his article. “Seven white yawls rocked idly and ineffectually at anchor in Tampa Bay today, in perfect harmony with the New York Mets at bat, in the field and on the mound,” he wrote.

The front page of The New York Times sports section
on March 11, 1962, featured a story about the
Mets' first game by Robert Lipsyte
“By the end of the fifth inning, with the Cardinals ahead at 7-0, the crowd of 6,872 began to stir,” Lipsyte observed later in the article. “Some of them got up and left. ‘Same old Mets,’ a man said.”
That sort of humor would come to define the early image of the Mets. But for a 14-year-old like Gold, trying to recapture the joy of rooting for a hometown team (switching allegiance to the Yankees was out of the question), it was difficult to poke fun at the Mets, even if others were doing so.

“The writers said the Mets are funny, but they weren’t funny, they were terrible,” Gold said. “Those years between 10 and 16 made its mark and rooting for a losing team, it does a job on a kid.”

Still, on that Saturday 50 years ago, when the Mets were taking their first steps, there was hardly a cloud in the sky, the games did not yet count and the future looked — and sounded — bright. And it all started with a hello from Howard Cosell.

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