NY Sports Day

Esposito: ‘69 Mets Launch Anniversary Celebration At Cradle of Aviation

Andy Esposito

Amidst the artifacts and aircraft that pioneered and piloted the history of aviation, which culminated with the historic landing on the Moon in 1969, the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island was the perfect setting for the returning members of the 1969 World Champion New York Mets to meet their fans and regale with stories from their historic endeavors.

A dozen members of the ‘69 Mets made their way to the Cradle, literally positioned under actual fighter jets and replicas of turn of the century – the last century – aircraft, the team dubbed the Miracle Mets entertained hundreds of fans at a dinner emceed by Ed Randall, the longtime host of WFAN’s Talking Baseball series and MLB’s Remember When show.

Randall appropriately wore an actual colorful Lindsey Nelson jacket, one that he acquired through the estate of the longtime Mets broadcaster (1962-78).

It was such an occasion that even ‘86 Mets Champ Doc Gooden felt it important to battle over two hours of rush hour traffic from New Jersey to attend with his family – as a fan.

The night’s roster included Jim McAndrew, Jack DiLauro, and Ron Taylor from the pitching staff, Wayne Garrett and Ed Kranepool representing the infield, outfielders Cleon Jones, Ron Swoboda, Art Shamsky, and Rod Gaspar, and the entire catching corps – Jerry Grote, J.C. Martin, and Duffy Dyer.

A cocktail reception found many of the former Mets stationed near exhibits that included the actual Moon lander that was scheduled to take part in the Apollo 18 Mission before that launch was scrapped, where they answered questions and signed autographs.

Soon after, Randall assembled the special guests in groups to the dais where he peppered them with questions.

The medical Miracle man, Ed Kranepool, just seven weeks removed from obtaining a new kidney, paid homage to the skipper, Gil Hodges.

“We would have won more pennants had Gil not passed on,” said Steady Eddie. “Before he got there, and we would lose 100 games, we used to celebrate rainouts.”

The Mets made the unusual move of trading for their next manger after the ‘67 season, sending pitcher Bill Denehy to the Washington Senators for Hodges.

“I think that trade changed the culture of the ballclub,” remarked Kranepool. “No doubt about it. He was the leader of the ballclub. He taught me the fundamentals of the game in 1962 when I first got there as a teenager. We were a young ballclub, all about the same age. But you have to learn how to win. He taught us how to win. He should be in the Hall of Fame.”

Cleon Jones seconded the notion. “You win from the top down. Every player up here had the utmost respect for Gil. When we left spring training, we were still a young ballclub trying to find our way. He didn’t allow us to make mistakes.

“And all of us had a common denominator. We had (Tom) Seaver. We had (Jerry) Koosman. We had (Nolan) Ryan. And we had the best catcher in baseball.”

After a purposeful pause, Jones joked, “Don’t tell Jerry Grote I said that,” knowing a smiling Grote was just a few feet away.

Ron Swoboda was asked about his early days with the Mets. He first joined the club in 1966, when the team lost 95 games, and in ‘67, they lost 101 games.

“Any resemblance to major league baseball was purely coincidental,” he likes to joke. One liners like that and the background on his career can be found in his new book which was recently released, “Here’s the Catch,” referencing one of the most memorable defensive gems in World Series history.

Swoboda saved runs and arguably the Series when he launched himself horizontally to snare a Brooks Robinson line drive in Game 4 of the Fall Classic.

“He was never in the conversation for a Gold Glove,” remarked Randall in his introduction of Swoboda, “yet when you look back at the seminal moments of the postseason and World Series, there’s Thomson’s home run, Mays’ catch, Larsen’s perfect game, and Swoboda’s catch.”

Swoboda was immensely impressed with the museum, as his father once flew B-29s in WW II, and is fascinated by air travel and the history summed up by the team’s association with the two other major events of ‘69, in particular, the Moon Landing.

“We were in the Montreal airport at the All-Star break when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Collins were sitting in the lunar lander,” remembered the outfielder who also answered to the nickname of “Rocky.” “We weren’t going to see it but the plane had a mechanical breakdown so we went up to the lounge and watched that incredible accomplishment live. I was thinking, we couldn’t get from Montreal to New York, but these guys are up there making footprints on the Moon.”

In the informal Q & A sessions, Jerry Grote was asked about comments he made in spring training of ‘69 that made bold predictions the team could win.

“A writer asked me in spring training,” Grote recalled, “what do we need to do to win? And I said we need a slugger, someone to drive in runs. So needless to say, when (Donn) Clendenon joined us (via trade in June of that year), he scored in his first 14 games he played for us. And that was the spark that sent us on the way.”

Before wrapping up this fun remembrance of the ‘69 Mets and the celebrations kicking off the 50th Anniversary, it is not an exaggeration that the Cradle of Aviation is one of the most enjoyable Museums you’ll ever attend and we highly recommend a visit. Hundreds of exhibits, dozens and dozens of actual planes, jets and spacecraft are displayed both on the ground and suspended from the ceiling, close enough to touch and portrayed in a manner that both educates and entertains.

From the time Man first attempted to defy gravity with hot air balloons, to the Wright Bros. and their successes to the Spirit of St. Louis – Charles Lindbergh actually took off for Paris in 1927 literally walking distance from the Museum, less than a mile – to military crafts and of course, the LEM (Lunar Module) and Moon rocks, the Museum is a wonderful site to explore for a few hours.

For more info, and the extensive list of programs and promotions that dot the calendar, click on: cradleofaviation.org, or call 1-516-572-4111.

There’s several programs honoring the 50th Anniversary of the Moon landing coming up in July, including events on July 2, 11, and 20 – the actual 50th Anniversary.

The Cradle of Aviation Museum is located on Charles Lindbergh Blvd. (what else?), in Garden City, NY, next to Nassau Community College and a stone’s throw from Hofstra University and the Nassau Coliseum, on Museum Row.

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And as many fans know who have listened to Ed Randall’s broadcasts, he is a strong advocate for men to get prostate exams, which require only a simple blood test to provide early detection of any problems with the prostate. His foundation, Fans4TheCure, will host another evening with members of the ‘69 Mets in September. Kranepool, Swoboda, Shamsky, and Jones will be on hand at the SVA Theatre on West 23rd Street in Manhattan on Sept. 12 at a benefit raising funds and awareness.

To attend, please contact Karen Rosenberg at events@fans4thecure.org, or call 1-212-625-1025.


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