A ‘Terrific’ Year at the Hall of Fame

Tom Seaver, the 2010 Membership Spokesman, landed with the Mets by chance 44 seasons ago

April 13, 2010
Tom Seaver was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992. (Rich Pilling/National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

He is known to the Mets and their fans as “The Franchise,” a title few other players of any sport can claim – and a nickname equal to his patented “Tom Terrific.”

His plaque in the gallery of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is the only one bearing the Mets’ logo. And this year, he’ll welcome thousands of fans to the Hall of Fame in his Mets uniform as the Museum’s Membership Spokesman.

And yet, Seaver’s connection with the Mets began as an accident, the first positive break for a team that had endured five years of absolute failure. They literally won a lottery to obtain the single player most responsible for the organization making a turn for the better that would climax with the Mets’ World Series Championship over the heavily-favored Orioles in 1969.

Seaver’s ride to the major leagues began back in his home town of Fresno, Calif., where he was an All-City basketball player in high school but had designs on a career in baseball. His father, Charles, was a renowned amateur golfer and encouraged his children to get involved in athletics.

“But it was a family that always stressed education,” Tom recalled. “One of my sisters went to Stanford, another to UCLA and my brother to Cal. I eventually got a scholarship to USC – but not right away.”

Before he would get to play for the legendary University of Southern California baseball coach Rod Dedeaux, Seaver served six months of active duty in the United States Marine Corps and played one season at Fresno City College.

“This was a town that had some good players go to the big leagues: Jim Maloney, Pat Corrales, Wade Blasingame,” Seaver said. “I got a call out of the blue from Rod. He asked me if I’d be interested in going to Alaska to play for the Alaska Goldpanners. I think that’s where I got showcased. Rod said, ‘I’d like to you to come to USC,’ and I said, ‘I can’t unless somebody pays for it.’ I couldn’t go unless I got a full ride, and I got a full ride.”

Seaver had a 10-2 record as a sophomore at USC and drew the attention of the Dodgers, who selected him in the first amateur draft in 1965. But the Dodgers and Seaver could not agree on contract terms. One year later, the Braves, who had just moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, tried to sign Seaver to a contract for $40,000, but then commissioner William “Spike” Eckert nullified the transaction because USC had played two exhibition games with professional teams.

“So now to the professionals I’m an amateur and to the amateurs I’m a pro, and I’m stuck,” Seaver said. “My dad got in the middle of it. There was going to be some legal action somewhere because I wasn’t going to be thrown in the street. I lost my scholarship and everything.”

Perhaps fearing a lawsuit, Eckert decided to allow clubs to match the Braves’ offer for Seaver and then choose the team in a drawing at the commissioner’s New York office. The Braves and the Mets were among four teams interested in Seaver along with the Indians and the Phillies. The Mets were literally picked out of a hat, and Seaver’s course was set for New York.

After one season in the minors at Triple-A Jacksonville, Fla., Seaver made the Mets out of spring training in 1967 and went on to win National League Rookie of the Year honors based on a 16-13 record, 2.76 earned run average and 18 complete games in 34 starts for a team that lost 101 games. The Mets had a legitimate star, which was borne out in July when Seaver was selected to represent the club in the All-Star Game at Anaheim Stadium – and where he believed he finally arrived as a major leaguer.

“I was one of the first players to show up at the ballpark and had to show my ID to get in,” Seaver said. “I looked like I was 12. I had two heroes growing up, Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax. I went in and put my bag down. I look at the locker next to me and it’s Henry Aaron.”

Seaver clumsily introduced himself to Aaron, who replied, “Kid, I know who you are, and before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will, too.”

It turned out the fans would know Seaver before the night was over. The game went 15 innings, the longest in the history of the All-Star Game (tied in 2008 by the game at Yankee Stadium). The rookie was called on to pitch the bottom of the 15th after the NL had taken a 2-1 lead on a home run by Tony Perez off Jim “Catfish” Hunter.

“I’m in the bullpen with Claude Osteen, who had pitched that Sunday against the Dodgers, so I knew when Perez hit the home run that when the phone rings it’s going to be me going into the game,” Seaver said.

Upon trotting to the mound, Seaver passed Pete Rose, who said, “Kid, you look nervous. You want me to pitch and you play second base?”

“But when I got to the mound, I knew I could do this,” Seaver said.

He retired Boston outfielder Tony Conigliaro on a fly to left but was not so lucky against another Red Sox outfielder. Carl Yastrzemski, in the middle of his Triple Crown season, walked to put the tying run on base.

Tigers catcher Bill Freehan was next, and Seaver got him out on a fly to center. White Sox center fielder Ken Berry batted for Hunter. Seaver seized the moment and struck him out on three pitches.

“All of a sudden, these guys that you can’t believe you’re playing with are all patting you on the back,” Seaver said. “That was the turning moment for me as a professional.”

But for a man who would one day wind up in Cooperstown, it was just the beginning of a magnificent career.

Jack O’Connell is the secretary-treasurer for the Baseball Writers’ Association of America