Baseball

Memories of a perfect surprise at Father’s Day ballgame

In this June 21, 1964 file photo, Jim Bunning of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches a perfect game against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium in New York. The Phillies beat the Mets, 6-0. Bunning retired all 27 batters who faced him in the first game of a doubleheader to become the first pitcher in 42 years with a perfect game in regular season play.
In this June 21, 1964 file photo, Jim Bunning of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches a perfect game against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium in New York. The Phillies beat the Mets, 6-0. Bunning retired all 27 batters who faced him in the first game of a doubleheader to become the first pitcher in 42 years with a perfect game in regular season play. AP FILE PHOTO

The pencil marks are faded now on the scorecard at the center of the “1964 World’s Fair Edition” of the New York Mets official game program. Silverfish have nibbled the edges of paper replete with ads for alcohol, soda and warning-less cigarettes. The staples that bind the covers and 10 inside pages are rusted.

What hasn’t faded, though, are my memories of that warm, sunny June afternoon when my brother and I treated my dad to a Father’s Day doubleheader at brand new Shea Stadium, and we witnessed a baseball event as rare as a comet flashing across the sky.

My father, Ira, had taken me to cozy, 1913-vintage Ebbets Field to see my first Major League game before I enrolled in elementary school. Back then, with only 16 teams and scant player freedom, the Dodgers were loaded with talent, boasting future Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider. But what I remember best is how green the field looked, how colorful the ads were on the outfield fences and how we poured lemonade in the radiator when the car broke down on the return drive to the suburbs.

Somewhere, tucked away from sunlight, I still have a pennant celebrating Brooklyn’s 1955 world championship, the franchise’s only successful World Series appearance in nine tries. I have my father’s scrapbook of newspaper clippings from that season as well, along with the one he kept of the run-up to World War II.

After four years without a National League club in New York, my father adopted the Mets, a pitiful 1962 expansion team, and encouraged us to do likewise. Baseball was his favorite sport. He’d gotten the bug from his father, Joe Jacobs, who well into his 60s kept a baseball glove in the trunk of his Cadillac in case an opportunity to play catch presented itself.

My dad took pains to introduce us to all of New York’s major pro franchises: hockey’s Rangers and basketball’s Knicks at Madison Square Garden; football’s New York Giants, headquartered at Yankee Stadium; and the New York Titans, later the Jets, from the upstart American Football League. Before fleeing to Shea, the Mets and Jets shared the gloomy Polo Grounds in Manhattan, abandoned by baseball’s Giants when they joined the Dodgers in a 1958 California gold rush.

We did go to the Garden a few times to watch college teams compete in the NIT. In keeping with my father’s innate fondness for the underdog – presumably related to being a Brooklyn fan – he invariably rooted for the out-of-towners against the local favorites. During the dark years when the only Major League team in town was the haughty Yankees, we went to the Bronx and pulled for the visitors.

A new stadium

It was on a foray to Yankee Stadium that I saw right-hander Jim Bunning pitch for the Detroit Tigers. When I again saw the Hall of Famer in person, Bunning was the first-game starter for the Philadelphia Phillies on Father’s Day. On the mound for the Mets was Tracy Stallard, a castoff best known for yielding Roger Maris’ 61st home run in 1961, which broke the single-season mark held by fellow Yankee Babe Ruth.

The Phillies came to town with the best record in baseball. The Mets, as was their custom, had the worst. Even so, we were part of a respectable crowd of 32,026, about 60 percent of capacity.

Shea Stadium had opened two months earlier, five days ahead of the adjacent New York World’s Fair, which in 1964 and 1965 drew some 51 million people, including our family. The Mets wore World’s Fair patches on their jersey sleeves for both of those seasons, although it wasn’t evident in the drawing of a left-handed slugger swinging away on the program cover. The program’s back cover touted the Fair’s Sinclair “Dinoland” exhibit, a dinosaur being the oil company’s symbol.

Our $2.50 tickets were good enough for reserved seats in the second deck on the third base side, from which we saw Bunning mow down the Mets with ease. Leadoff batter Jim Hickman set the tone, striking out every time he came to the plate. My favorite, All-Star second baseman Ron Hunt, never got the ball out of the infield. In fact, assuming my scorekeeping was correct, the Mets hit only four balls to the outfield, only one over the final six innings.

Meanwhile, the Phils scored a run in each of the first two innings, then broke the game open with four runs in the sixth.

Rooting for perfect game

I learned to keep score from my father, but my scribbles were unsophisticated back then. I didn’t record whether a strikeout was swinging or looking, whether a popup was fair or foul. I didn’t record how long the game took (2:19) or the attendance. The fifth-inning shot smacked between first and second by the Mets’ Jesse Gonder, only to be snared by diving second baseman Tony Taylor, who threw out the ponderous catcher while on his knees, is recorded simply as “4-3” (second to first).

I don’t recall when it dawned on us that Bunning hadn’t given up a hit or allowed a baserunner. To that point there had only been six perfect games in Major League history, and none in the National League since 1880. (There have been 16 more in the majors since 1965.) Despite Don Larsen’s perfect game for the Yankees in the 1956 World Series – against Brooklyn, no less – perfection wasn’t something anyone expected to see.

But as the innings passed, the crowd not only realized what was happening but started pulling for Bunning to squelch the home team. Even my father was rooting for the perfect game.

The ballpark was abuzz when the Mets came to bat in the ninth. Fans cheered when shortstop Charlie Smith popped out in foul territory behind third. They cheered louder when left-handed George Altman, sent to the plate as a pinch-hitter by manager Casey Stengel, struck out on three pitches. Bunning was getting stronger. That was his ninth strikeout of the day, fifth since the seventh inning.

Now it was up to another left-handed pinch-hitter, rookie John Stephenson, to save the Mets from the ignominy of failing to get a runner on base for an entire game. Stephenson had made the majors after a single season in the minor leagues, including one game with the Raleigh Mets of the Carolina League.

We early N.Y. Mets fans were proud of our devotion in the face of near-inevitable defeat. I listened to or watched all 160 games during the team’s inaugural season. Only 40 produced wins. The Mets were inventive losers, which lent their games a perversely entertaining quality. Many nights I fell asleep with a transistor radio hidden under my pillow so my parents wouldn’t know I listened as the Mets dropped games several time zones away.

Yet I found myself strikingly isolated amid thousands as I urged Stephenson to generate a hit, a walk, anything. I was determined not to root for history, but for my team. A Mets fan, let alone Ira Jacobs’ son, by definition pulled for the underdog, for escape from an uncharitable fate.

At least Stephenson struck out swinging.

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