“We are proud to call this team the New York Mets, and are proud to name Mr. Brach Rickey as its first President and General Manager. Mr. Rickey will build the club the way he did with the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates and we hope it will build a powerhouse in New York.”
- Joan Payson May 8, 1961
If everything went according to Hoyle, the Mets would not have been run by former members of Yankee management when they started in the early 1960s. Rather, the club wanted Branch Rickey to take control of the operations.
The Mahatma was first recruited by Bill Shea to run the Continental League, the precursor of Major League expansion, which forced the owners to accept new teams into baseball, rather than getting competition from the outside.
But when MLB decided to expand and named a National League club in New York, Payson, Shea and M. Donald Grant offered the job of running the Mets to Rickey. Ultimately he refused because of a difference of philosophy. Where ownership wanted to put familiar names on the club, Rickey would have built from within.
And then there was the choice of manager, which probably wouldn’t have been Casey Stengel.
So, what if Branch Rickey ran the Mets in the 1960s?
First and foremost, understand Rickey was 78 in 1961, and he passed away in 1965, so his time with the Mets would have been short, yet as an old man, set in his ways, he was going to do it his way. The father of the minor league farm system, he would have built the Mets from the ground up. Yes, the Major League club would have still been terrible in 1962, but there would have been some fresh youngsters coming up early on.
Think about how the Colt .45’s did it when they started and you will see the point.
Taking Houston as an example, you can see how they did in the beginning. They were 8th in their first year, finishing above the Mets and Chicago Cubs, and they were a solid ninth for the next three years and finished 8th in 1966. (Note: remember back then there were no Divisions, rather just the National League with 10 teams.)
Figure the Mets would have been somewhat of the same, as they wouldn’t have lost so many games, but at the same time they’d have been bad enough to finish towards the bottom.
Then again, if you look back towards the Pittsburgh Pirates of the 1950s, Rickey’s work took at least 5 years to manifest itself. They were at the bottom of the league until 1958, when Rickey’s farm system kicked in.
The same would be true with the Mets, as Rickey wouldn’t really have cared that much for the big club, but used his resources in scouting for young talent. The expansion draft would not have had any of the old Dodgers and Giants we have grown to love, rather, the Mets would have been filled with young players from the Pirate, Dodger, and even the Cardinal organizations, since Rickey still had relationships there.
Ever the pioneer, Rickey also would have looked to new territories for players. In the 1940s and 1950s, he looked to the Negro League, but by 1961, baseball was fully integrated. Now he would have looked towards Latin American countries for talent.
And forget about Stengel. Instead of the Ol’ Professor, Rickey would probably have gone with either a younger manager or even Leo Durocher, since there had to be some sort of name in New York that Mrs. Payson, a former lifelong Giants fan, would have signed off on.
With Durocher as the manager, the salesman of Stengel would have been gone. Instead, you would have had a caustic baseball man, who didn’t get along with the media and not sold the club to the New York faithful.
Instead of being beloved by every reporter, Durocher would have treated them with mistrust. Perhaps only young Howard Cosell, who didn’t like Stengel, would have accepted Durocher with open arms.
But the Mets would have played very hard every day. He was that era’s Bobby Valentine, a brilliant baseball man, who at the same time wore out his welcome after a while. Leo the Lip would have gotten the most out of his limited talent, putting those early Mets ahead of the Astros. Since he also had a keen sense on how to manage in the Polo Grounds, Durocher would have been able to make different decisions in the dugout, including not sleeping through some games – a notable Stengel trait.
It’s very possible, the Mets would have finished above the Colt .45s and Cubs that first season and even higher in the years after that, the groundwork would have been set.
But much like a tapestry, changing one thread changed the whole design. Rickey was dead by 1965 and someone else would have taken over the club. There likely would not have been a relationship with Gil Hodges, who probably would have stayed in Washington and the groundwork of the 1969 club would not have been there.
Yes, the Mets would probably have still signed Tom Seaver – he was not subject to the draft – but probably wouldn’t have had Nolan Ryan, Jerry Koosman, Cleon Jones, and Buddy Harrelson on the club.
And the Miracle Mets wouldn’t have happened.
That’s not to say, Rickey’s Mets wouldn’t have won a championship, they might have, as the groundwork of a strong farm system was there. But at the same time, events that currently happened, such as 1969, may not have been played out in the same way.
Yet, it very well could have happened that way. If Payson and Grant wanted to relinquish control of the day-to-day operations of the club, Rickey would have been the first General Manager of the New York Mets with Durocher as his manager.
Instead, they started with George Weiss, the former Yankee General Manager, who selected his man, field general Stengel, at the helm.
Stengel surely made the Mets much more entertaining, but Durocher would have given them more wins with a younger club.