The 1969 Chronicles: A Sports Writer's Notes  By Stan Isaacs


We all have heard of athletes' "Greatest games" and singers' "greatest hits." Here with apologies is my "Greatest Year." 1969 was a great year because three of the teams I covered, the New York Jets, Knicks, and Mets, won championships. It was mostly the best of times.

With the deft help of my daughter Ellen as cheerleader, facilitiator, and programmer, it is here online for friends, relatives, and wayward surfers.

I covered the original Mets in 1962. Little did I realize that on the very first day with the new team I would come into a bit of wisdom that would help justify my approach to sports through the years.

This was on the Mets' opening day of spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida. There was much anticipation of that glorious day. It followed the acclaimed birth of the team over the winter and the hot stove league talk surrounding the acquisition of flotsam and jetsam that arrived via the draft from the other National League teams.

Many projections surrounded the Mets and how good or bad they would be in their first season. There were those who cited Casey Stengel's success in his years managing the Yankees and allowed that his genius might work magic above and beyond what anybody had a right to expect of this collection of retreads who dotted the Mets squad at Miller Huggins Field.

One non-believer was Leo Durocher, the famed gadfly who once had been the object of love (by Dodger fans) and hate (by Giants fans) as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers; and the object of the same love (by Giants fans) and hate (by Dodger fans) after he moved from the Dodgers to the Giants in a tumultuous development in the middle of the 1948 season. Durocher scoffed at the optimism of some Met believers. The bounder dastardly predicted they would finish last.

I was one of the many in the press corps that day at St. Pete who giggled and cracked jokes as the athletes heard a speech from Stengel and then went through paces that in baseball pass for a workout. We would have our first crack at the sweaty ones when they came into the clubhouse for lunch.

When they finished their morning exertions and ambled into the clubhouse, they were greeted by photographers and reporters. I approached, for no particular reason that I can recall now, a tall, 6-foot, 4-inch light-skinned black man from North Carolina by the name of Sherman Jones. He was 27, a pitcher who had unsuccessful stays with first the Giants and and then the Reds.

He had a nickname. His name was Sherman (Roadblock) Jones. This distinguished him from baseball's other pitching Joneses. There had been two Sad Sam Jones in major league annals, and a Sheldon (Available) Jones who had pitched with a bit of distinction for the Giants of Leo Durocher in the late 1940s, and had appeared in the 1951 World Series.

I approached Roadblock Jones and, ballpoint pen and notebook in hand, introduced myself. "Stan Isaacs from Newsday."

Jones looked me over from head to toe. He said, "Newsday, that's a newspaper, isn't it?"

A little surprised, I said, "Yes."

He said, "I believe only 12 percent of what I read in newspaper."

I was taken aback.

"Twelve percent," I said. "Why 12 per cent?"

Roadblock's face took on a solemn mien as he nodded his head and repeated, "Twelve percent." He would say no more.

I thought to myself that this man is either a wise man or a fool. I tended to lean on the side of wisdom. And it dawned on me that his comment was something to remember. I considered this point: "What if, no matter what I wrote, people believed only 12 per cent of it?"

It dovetailed, I believe, with a wise comment I first heard a long time earlier from Gil Hodges, who was an original Met also in that Miller Huggins clubhouse that day. Hodges said, "I try to take my work, but not myself seriously." And I thought that this Roadblock fellow was letting me know that for all my best intentions there were skeptics like himself out there who would believe only 12 per cent of what I wrote. It seemed to tell me anew that I should never get too caught up with any solemn view of myself writing about people like Sherman (Roadblock) Jones.

Jones wouldn't ever explain his 12 percent figure nor would I ever find out how he got the nickname Roadblock. His notable achievement with the Mets was the honor of starting (and losing) their first home game in the Polo Grounds. He lasted one season with the Mets before dipping back to the minor leagues and fading out of baseball.

Many years later I came across his name again at election time. A small item noted that Sherman Jones, the former pitcher, was running for a local office in Kansas. A few days later I came across word that he had won. I wondered if he had won by 12 per cent. A bit after that I learned something else: he had run unopposed.

If Jones' 12 per cent dictum helped me to put my role in the sporting precincts in perspective, it was preferable to the experience recorded by Ira Berkow, the perspicacious New York Times sports columnist. Walking to work one day, he saw a woman carrying that morning's Times in one hand and her schnauzer on a leash in the other. Just as Berkow drew closer, the dog stopped to take care of business-which was conducted on Berkow's painstakingly wrought column of that day.

After my introductory session with Jones, I cast about the room for another eminence to talk to. Among that assemblage of gents, many unknown, an impish thought occurred to me.

I went over to Solly Hemus, one of the coaches assembled by Stengel, who had been a gamecock manager of the St. Louis Cardinals with no great success. I said to Hemus, "What do you think of this Walter Plinge?"

Hemus had a cliche-rich ready answer. He said, "He looks good, he's got the tools, he ought to help us."

That was just fine. Except that there was no Walter Plinge. I had made up the name just to see if Hemus, or the others for that matter, were any more knowledgeable about some of the assembled athletic talent than I was.

The name, Walter Plinge, by the way, had a history which made it appropriate for my little jest with Hemus. Plinge was the name used in programs in the London theater for roles which had not yet been cast at the time the program went to the printer. It was, in effect, the quivalent of the term "no boy" which used to dot horse racing entries in the days when newspapers went to press before jockeys were assigned to particular horses. Just as there might be a couple of "no boys" listed next to some horses in a field, so there might be a "Walter Plinge" or two in the opening run of a play in Britain. I thought Walter Plinge was a particularly noteworthy moniker to throw at Hemus.

In going through the columns I wrote for Newsday over a period of some 35 years, I think the year 1969 contained a representative sample of the "Out of Left Field" output of those years. And, in addition to my fervent scrivening, it did not hurt that 1969 was a great year in sports.

By 1969 I had been with Newsday 15 years. I had broken into the newspaper business out of Brooklyn College as a copy boy, then editorial assistant, then cub sports reporter and desk man, first with the New York Star and then the Daily Compass. Compass bannerheadThese two papers followed in the wake of the more substantial and worthy PM, Marshall Field's noble experiment in journalism that started in 1940. PM lasted until 1949 and was followed for short periods at the same Duane Street address in Manhattan by the Star and then the Compass. After the Compass folded in 1952, I puttered about with odd jobs, and some free-lance pieces of no great note before hooking on with Newsday. Newsday bannerheadI advanced from scholastic writing and desk work to the baseball beat with the Yankees, then the Mets when they started in 1962. I had started writing the column called, aptly enough, I believe, "Out of Left Field" a few years before the Mets came out of left field into the big leagues.

A comic sally in the days of the Mets inept nonage was that the United States would put a man on the moon before the Mets would win a pennant. Well, that was true. The U.S. Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon July 20. 1969 and the Mets didn't clinch their first pennant until Sept. 24.

It was also the year the Jets stunned the football world by upsetting the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. In that same year the Knicks, who had started to dazzle New York basketball fans the previous season, continued the sparkling play that would culminate in their first ever National Basketball Association championship at the end of the 1969-70 season. The seeds of the glory to come are hinted at in some of my less-than-reserved columns on the Knicks resurgence before they were eliminated in the 1968-69 playoffs.

Away from the sports pages in 1969 Americans read of escalating protests by college students against the war in Vietnam; there were two massive peace marches across the nation and in Washington on October 15 and November 15. Former President Eisenhower died on March 28 at 78. Charles DeGaulle resigned as President of France, April 28. President Nixon named Warren E. Burger chief justice of the Supreme Court, May 21. On July 18 Senator Ted Kennedy's car plunged off the Chappaquiddick Bridge on Martha's Vineyard Island in Massachusetts, killing Mary Jo Kopechne, the 28-year-old woman who was with him. Vietnam leader Ho Chi Minh died on Sept. 3. Samuel Beckett won the Nobel Prize for literature; the Peace Prize went to the International Labor Organization. Howard Sackler's "The Great White Hope", a drama inspired by the life of Jack Johnson, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The 1969 movie winners emerging at the 1970 Academy Awards were the movie "Patton" with best actor George Scott; Glenda Jackson won as best actress for "Women in Love." The Saturday Evening Post folded after its last issue on February 8. And on December 27 in Zambia rampaging hippopotamuses killed nine people by overturning their boats on the Namwala River.

In my bailiwick the favorite efforts were not about victories and defeats but those captured by the column head, "Out of Left Field." These are off-beat pieces about odd and colorful characters, about off-the-beaten-track subjects. Many are the products of a mind that some traditionalist sports page devotees would call "demented." I prefer to think they show an original bent. I like the comment of my English friend, David Geeves, who said I am a "lateral thinker."

Here I introduce many of the columns with introductory or subsidiary notes and comments that stem from the perspective of some 30 years later. The columns are not run chronologically but are arranged loosely in groups by subject. In a few cases I have cheated by referring to or including some excerpts of columns that ran in other years because they are relevant. In some cases, to spare the reader, I have cut verbiage that might be confusing or obscure, or seem irrelevant now.

I ran an annual collection of quotes that I culled from news reports or that I came across in my reading. It ran at the end of the year with the head: "The Spirit of 1969-Quote and Unquote." I have interspersed those quotes of 1969 in the right-hand column of the pages that follow.

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2. Yankee Fans
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4. Ali & Friends
5. People Are Funny
6. The Poetry Corner
7. The Glorious Knicks
8. Bill Bradley & Others
9. Horsing Around
10. An Angry Mother
11. Political Baseball
12. Fun and Games
13. The Sweet Science
14. Baseball, Gentlemen
15. Some Immortals
16. A Galleria
17. Ladies First
18. The Irrepressible Jets
19. The Sporting Culture

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I drink beer, I swear and I keep my hair short, so I guess you'd call me an All-American boy.
— Tom Seaver