Tribute to My Idol: Remembering Tom Seaver’s Greatest Game
The Hall of Fame pitcher and iconic New York Mets Baseball hero — who died last week at age 75 — won more than 300 games in his storied career. To a devoted Seaver fan who was there, this game Tom Terrific pitched 50 years ago is the most legendary.
[Author’s Note: This is an update of a piece originally written in April 2010 for the website Metsmerized Online.]
When on Wednesday evening September 2, I learned that my ultimate sports idol Tom Seaver had died two days before at the age of 75 (from a combination of Lewy body dementia and COVID-19), I was not only stunned and profoundly saddened by the news, but at a loss to figure out how I could express my thoughts in eulogy-like prose. So, I decided not to try. After shedding a few tears during the glowing tributes on the TV sports shows, I began making a mental list of all the iconic games I was fortunate enough to see Tom Seaver pitch in person. As a die-hard New York Mets fan since the second year of their existence in 1963 when I was eight, I made it my business to be at Shea Stadium whenever the Mets’ first superstar was on the mound after he joined the team in 1967.
In addition to witnessing a slew of run-of-the mill Seaver masterpieces from 1970 until he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in 1977, I also saw his first game against the Mets after the trade, his first game after the Mets re-acquired Tom in 1983, and his historic 300th victory against the New York Yankees in August 1985, when Seaver was pitching for the Chicago White Sox at age 40. But there was one Tom Seaver work-of-pitching-art that remains the most priceless — and I was there to see it.
There is a space atop two adjoining bookcases in my home office that serves as my shrine to the pitcher known as “Tom Terrific.” It’s nothing overly eccentric, just a bunch of vintage action photos and baseball cards, magazine covers, bobblehead dolls, figurines depicting that classic Seaver right-knee scraping the mound pitching motion, even an empty bottle of Tom Seaver Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, vintage 2005. But among all these treasures, there is one that bears special significance: the scorecard I recorded at Shea Stadium on April 22, 1970, the day the man I consider the greatest right handed pitcher of all time struck out 19 San Diego Padres, including THE LAST 10 IN A ROW.
It’s hard to believe it’s been a half century since that glorious afternoon, but not hard to believe how I ended up being an eyewitness to baseball history. Tom Seaver had been my baseball hero from the day he started his first game for the Mets in 1967, although I became aware of him during his one season pitching for the Jacksonville Suns in 1966. At that point, I was a 10 1/2-year old Mets fanatic desperate for a young star and baseball role model to cling to. I attended my first Mets’ game at the Polo Grounds in 1963, watched the entire 10-hour epic double-header, including the 23-inning second game, against the Giants in 1964, and spent my early childhood thinking my favorite team would never get out of last place. By mid-1966, my burgeoning adolescent hormones were contributing to take my Mets obsession to a fever pitch. And like all Mets fans who didn’t think the losing was cute anymore, I was hoping for a savior to finally change our fortunes.
I started scanning The Sporting News, which in those days was considered the “Bible of Baseball” and printed every Major League and Triple-A box score from the preceding week, in addition to all the league stats. I started noticing there was a 21-year-old named Tom Seaver on the Jacksonville pitching staff who was actually winning as many games as he lost. Even more impressively, he was striking out an average of eight batters per game, wasn’t walking a lot of guys, and had a great hits-to-innings pitched ratio. At that point, very few Mets fans knew about the bizarre circumstances that made Seaver a Met–the voiding of his contract with the then Milwaukee Braves while he was still at USC, and the Mets subsequently being selected out of a hat in a lottery staged by Commissioner William Eckert. All I cared about was that the Mets might finally be developing some semblance of a Major League pitcher and I followed Seaver’s minor-league starts religiously throughout that summer.
Although it was clear that Seaver was the Mets’ best pitcher going into the 1967 season, he started the second game against the Pirates, struck out eight in 5.1 innings and got a no-decision. By his next start, a 6–1 win over the Cubs, this hard-throwing right-hander with the picture-perfect delivery was my favorite player and probably the favorite of every other Mets fan. For me, Tom cemented his hero status on May 17, 1967. That year and until 1971, the Mets games on radio were carried on WJRZ-AM with a pre- and post-game show hosted by an intelligent and very congenial man named Bob Brown, who staged various fan contests.
I sent in a bunch of postcards hoping to get selected for a call and before the game against the Braves that May night, my family’s phone rang. It was Bob Brown offering me a chance to win a baseball glove if I could pick three Mets to get a total of four hits in the game at Fulton County Stadium. So naturally I picked the Mets’ three hottest hitters at that point–Tommy Davis, Ed Kranepool and Jerry Buchek. Going into the ninth inning, Davis and Kranepool had combined for three hits (Buchek was shutout) but Davis came through for me with a single and I won a Bobby Shantz-autographed glove (Shantz was a pitcher who had retired three years before). You may think this whole story has been a digression, but the kicker is this: Tom Seaver got three hits that night, with two RBI, a walk and a stolen base. The best athlete on the team was a rookie pitcher.
Seaver won 16 games in both 1967 (when he was Rookie of the Year) and ’68 (with 32 complete games combined), and then led the “Miracle Mets” to the World Series in 1969 with 25 victories, including a near-perfect game against the Chicago Cubs. After celebrating my team’s improbable World Championship, which I watched from my home in the South Bronx not far from Yankee Stadium, my family moved that December to the spanking new Co-Op City middle class housing project in the Northeast Bronx. Now 14, I was old enough to get a job delivering the Daily News in my 33-story building and the gig earned me about $30 to $40 a week, a fortune for a kid that age at that time. My plan for spending my newfound wealth? Go to as many games of the defending champs as possible the following 1970 season, especially considering you could sit in the upper deck behind home plate for a buck and a half.
But I didn’t want to attend just any games. I wanted to see EVERY game Tom Seaver pitched at Shea Stadium (that wasn’t on a school night, of course) and the Mets’ five-man rotation made it pretty easy to figure out when Tom Terrific was going to be on the hill. Seaver was on a five-day cycle even when there were off days. So I knew that after opening day on April 7, Tom would pitch on the 12th, 17th and 22nd, the latter a Wednesday afternoon game I could attend because it would be the second day of Passover and public schools would be closed. I really splurged for that one and for six bucks got tickets for my brother and me in the first row of the loge (second deck) behind home plate.
After settling into our seats on a beautiful spring day (I don’t recall it being chilly), Tom proceeded to strike out two in the first inning. The way the sound of the Seaver fastball was reverberating after hitting Jerry Grote’s mitt only confirmed it was going to a long day for the Padres. Ken Boswell’s double off some guy named Mike Corkins drove in Bud Harrelson (who had singled), giving the Mets a first-inning lead. But the Pods’ cleanup hitter and leftfielder Al Ferrara led off the second inning with a home run to tie it (I think it scraped the back of the fence on the way down) until we got the lead back in the third on a Bud Harrelson triple that just missed going out. Given the Mets’ offense, which could disappear for innings or days at a time, I figured that run would have to hold up if Tom was to get a victory. (I can’t tell you how many times during Seaver’s Mets career I sweated out a game because of lack of run support. My mother once threatened to start giving me sedatives whenever Tom pitched because I’d pace around the TV room and scream at the set imploring the Mets to score a damn run.)
By the top of the 6th inning, Tom had yielded just one other hit and had nine strikeouts. Of course, the score was still 2–1 so the ace would really have to bear down. After a popup and a fly out, Tom struck out Ferrara for his 10th strikeout of the game. I don’t think I was aware of it at the time–and I could be corrected if I’m wrong–but by the top of the 7th, afternoon shadows were starting to creep over home plate while the sun was still shining over the rest of Shea. This would not be ideal for a Padres lineup that was already whiffing at Seaver’s fastball, which that day looked and sounded like it was in the upper 90s–and the fans in the stands didn’t need a radar gun reading on the scoreboard to tell us that.
At this point in the game, I was totally transfixed on the man on the hill, picking up every nuance of that motion on the mound. As a Sandlot League pitcher finally playing on big league size fields (and hoping to make my high school team), I was already mimicking Seaver’s delivery, which was never better described than by Roger Angell in The New Yorker after Tom was traded on June 15, 1977 (still one of the worst days of my life):
“One of the images I have before me now is that of Tom Seaver pitching; the motionless assessing pause on the hill while the signal is delivered, the easy, rocking shift of weight onto the back leg, the upraised arms, and then the left shoulder coming forward as the whole body drives forward and drops suddenly downward–down so low that the right knee scrapes the sloping dirt of the mound–in an immense thrusting stride, and the right arm coming over blurrily and still flailing, even as the ball, the famous fastball, flashes across the pate, chest-high on the batter and already past his low, late swing.”
In the top of the 7th, Seaver struck out Nate Colbert, Dave Campbell and Jerry Morales, the latter two looking. While that was impressive, none of the 14,000 of us cheering madly at every strike thought it out of the ordinary for our Tom and when he led off the bottom of the 7th, he got the obligatory ovation. Of course, if this game had been played in 2020 instead of 1970, there would have been a pinch-hitter for Seaver because, hey, he might be reaching a predetermined pitch count. Thankfully, Manager Gil Hodges wouldn’t think of pulling his best arm and when Bob Barton, and pinch hitters Ramon Webster and Ivan Murrell all struck out in the 8th (the latter two swinging), there wasn’t a soul in Shea who thought we weren’t watching history, let alone believe the Padres would actually hit another pitch.
As Tom Terrific took the mound for the top of the 9th, the buzz in the park was palpable and my heart was palpitating. Van Kelly led off the ninth and when he struck out swinging for the 8th strikeout in a row, the crowd sounded like 40,000. With every strike that whizzed by a Padre hitter I felt as if I was being levitated out of my seat. I don’t have a pitch chart of the game (don’t know if there is one available), but it seemed as if every pitch in those last two innings were strikes and the crowd roared louder with every single one. Cito Gaston struck out looking for nine in a row and 18 for the game. One more strikeout and Tom Seaver would set a new record of 10 Ks in a row and match Steve Carlton’s 19-strikeout game in 1969 (which he lost thanks to two Ron Swoboda home runs) against the Mets the year before.
With all the screaming fans up on their feet, Tom fittingly blew away Ferrara for the record-breaking strikeout. By this point I was jumping up and down so wildly I almost fell over the loge railing. I carried that emotional high all the way to 7-train and for the entire trip back to the Bronx. It is still the greatest pitching performance I’ve ever seen live. Again, the man they called “The Franchise” didn’t just strike out 10 in a row; he mowed down THE LAST 10 IN A ROW.
I dutifully saved my scorecard of that game (and I wasn’t a kid who kept score much, so I must have had a premonition) and all of my handwritten annotations (including a note about catcher Jerry Grote setting a new putout record — 20) were added that day. There is one additional scribbling on the Mets side of the scorecard. In early 1983, I was about to launch my own magazine called NEW YORK SPORTS and the Mets gave me the best launch present I could imagine by bringing Seaver back from the Cincinnati Reds that winter. Putting my idol on the cover of my magazine’s premiere issue was a no-brainer and before spring training I hiked out to Shea with a camera crew to shoot Tom Terrific. As I was leaving my house that morning, I thought, “I’ve got to ask Tom to sign the 19K-game scorecard” and found it in a huge pile of Seaver memorabilia I had been collecting for years. After assuming my best professional editor’s air during the photo session (even pressuring my hero to smile), I reverted to sheepish fan mode and asked Tom to autograph the scorecard. As he turned my prized possession into even more of a collector’s item, he looked down at the card and said, “Hmmm, that was a pretty good outing.” Indeed.
There’s one more postscript. In 1997, I was editing an elementary school classroom newspaper and decided to do a feature on the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The executives from the Hall took me to lunch at a quaint bistro and we spent a pleasant hour or so talking baseball history. Naturally, Tom Seaver came up in the conversation and I told my story of attending the 1970 pitching masterpiece, mentioning that I still had the scorecard. The Hall’s curator perked up. “Wow, would you be willing to donate that scorecard to the Hall of Fame?” he asked wide-eyed. “What would I get for it,” I responded. “Well, we could give you a lifetime pass to the Hall of Fame.”
I’ve been to the Baseball Hall of Fame a few times since that lunch meeting. The scorecard still has an honored place in my own personal Tom Seaver Museum. Rest in peace, Number 41.