The nice thing about writing for a weekly paper is that your work is featured for more than the Internet's customary fifteen seconds. Since last Wednesday, I've been smiling about the fact that the twenty or thirty people silly enough to buy a copy of the New York Observer at the newsstand held in their hands a few hundred words I wrote about my greatest affliction: the New York Mets. Specifically, a few hundred words about Jimmy Breslin's Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?, a slim, bracing story of the Mets' 120 loss first season. It came out five decades ago this week, and remains (I assert) a must-read, not just for Mets fans, but for anybody who's ever failed at anything. A sample:
In the summer of 1962, New York fell in love with a man named Marvin Throneberry. A subpar first baseman who had washed out with the Yankees, he was sliding toward early retirement when he was rescued by the fledgling New York Mets. As thanks, he played worse than ever before—once getting called out on a triple for failing to step on first andsecond base—but each time “Marvelous” Marv came to the plate, the city chanted: “cranberry, strawberry, we love Throneberry!”
It was a third-rate chant for a third-rate player, but in the Mets’ first season, it didn’t take much to make the fans cheer. The team was on its way to 120 losses—a baseball record that stands to this day—but with the Dodgers and Giants five years gone, New York was desperate for something to scream about. Throneberry’s Mets were more than lovable losers—they were spectacular. “Name one loyal American,” writes Jimmy Breslin, in Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? (Ivan R. Dee, 128 pp., $12.95) “who can say he does not love a team which loses 120 games in one season.” Published 50 years ago this week, this beautiful little book remains the ur-text for Metsian blundering. Here is the franchise’s origin story, writ in Mr. Breslin’s trademark barroom prose and cast with enough devils, heroes and clowns to fill out a pantomime of Faust. They are gamblers, toughs and crusty baseball lifers whom Mr. Breslin rallies in opposition to “the era of the businessman in sports,” when America’s postwar success led to a “dry and agonizing” focus on the bottom line.
Even in 1963, Mr. Breslin’s style was a throwback, a nostalgic echo of sportswriters who were chomping cigars and torturing metaphors before he was born. His New York is deliberately larger-than-life, as though he is trying to mold the modern city into a Damon Runyon story, and his prose is sweet enough to make the ’62 debacle an American epic.
There's a whole lot more, and I'm pretty pleased with it. Check it out if you have the time. And if you don't, take in this anecdote about Babe Ruth. It's my favorite from the book, but because it has nothing to do with the Mets, I couldn't let myself force it in. Here it is, reprinted in full:
In fact, in eighteen years of being able to look at things and remember what I have seen, the only sports legend I ever saw who completely lived up to advance billing was Babe Ruth.
It was a hot summer afternoon, and the Babe, sweat dripping from his jowls and his shirt stuck to him, came off the eighteenth green at the old Bayside Golf Club in the borough of Queens and stormed into the huge barroom of the club.
"Gimme one of them heavens to Betsy drinks you always make me," the Babe said in his gravelly voice.
The bartender put a couple of fistfuls of ice chunks into a big, thick mixing glass and then proceeded to make a Tom Collins that had so much gin in it that the other people at the bar started to laugh. He served the drink to the Babe just as it was made, right in the mixing glass.
Ruth said something about how heavens to Betsy hot he was, and then he picked up the glass and opened his mouth, and there went everything. In one shot he swallowed the drink, the orange slice and the rest of the garbage, and the ice chunks too. He stopped for nothing. There is not a single man I have ever seen in a saloon who does not bring his teeth together a little bit and stop those ice chunks going in. A man has to have a pipe the size of a trombone to take ice in one shot. But I saw Ruth do it, and whenever somebody tells me about how the Babe used to drink and eat when he was playing ball, I believe every word of it.
Yes—I've already printed that once before. But it's my blog.