The Magnificent Seasons
By Art Shamsky
St. Martin's Press 320pp., $24.95
For New York sports fans, 1969 stands out unlike any other year. Emerging from obscurity, three local teams proceeded to sweep world championships in professional football, baseball and basketball, lifting the spirits of a city and of a nation at a time of great political turmoil and civil unrest.
Fans still speak nostalgically about the gritty determination of quarterback Joe Namath, who led the New York Jets to their upset Super Bowl victory over the Baltimore Colts, and of the "Miracle Mets," who climbed out of the cellar and fought their way to World Series glory.
And then there were the Knicks, with legendary players such as Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Dave DeBusschere, who rounded out that storybook season by bringing home the NBA Championship to Manhattan.
But 1969 was also marked by internal discord and friction in American society. The Vietnam War was at its height, anti-war radicals and anarchists were running amok, and the country was still reeling from the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King the year before.
It was, perhaps, precisely because so much seemed to be going so wrong at the time that Americans, and especially New Yorkers, were hungering for some larger-than-life heroes to give them a reason to cheer.
In The Magnificent Seasons, Art Shamsky, a member of the fabled 1969 New York Mets, faithfully recounts the period and its complexities, painting a vivid portrait not only of the events themselves, but of the power of sports to uplift and inspire.
It is a timeless message, and Shamsky conveys it with enthusiasm, insight and wit, capturing the excitement of each team's march toward greatness while placing them in the context of larger historical events. He includes perspectives from athletes, coaches, historians, politicians and fans, touching not only on particular games or highlights, but on the meaning and significance that they had far beyond the confines of the field or court on which they were played.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post, Shamsky, who batted .300 for the '69 Mets with 14 homeruns and 47 runs batted in, described how the experience of being on a championship baseball team changed not only his life, but that of others, too.
Standing in the on-deck circle, waiting for his turn to bat in the World Series, he says, "you can't imagine what goes through your mind. As a kid growing up, you always say to yourself, 'I'd love to play professional ball.' And then when you do it, your next thought is, 'I can't wait to make it to the major leagues. What a thrill that would be.'"
Then, after breaking into the majors, "you say, 'I'd love to play in the World Series.' And when you finally do that, you have reached the top of the profession. You think to yourself, 'I worked at something, and I finally made it.'"
But beyond the personal satisfaction that it brings, Shamsky notes, there is also a more enduring sense of having touched other people in a deep and profound way.
IN A THEME that is central to his book, Shamsky recalls how, "Everybody thought of us as the laughingstock of baseball, so to uplift the city at such a difficult time meant a great deal to me." The '69 Mets, he says, are "a team that will be remembered for years to come. Their legacy is about these guys who came out of nowhere, and helped people to feel better about themselves and about their lives."
Vietnam War veterans related to Shamsky how they followed the Mets' progress that year as best they could, and that it served as a great source of comfort and even encouragement to them when they were off fighting in a foreign land, so far from home.
As a Jewish child growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, Shamsky had no idea he would one day take the field with the pros. "I was born into a typical middle-class Jewish family. There were no baseball players in the family, but I was a kid who grew up loving the sport." His grandparents were religious Jews who emigrated to the United States from Poland, and Shamsky attended Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah, though at the time he was not overly enamored with that particular educational experience.
"I hated my Hebrew school teacher," Shamsky says, in a refrain that many American Jews will find familiar. "I always felt that it was taking away from my chance to be outside playing baseball. But looking back now, I can say that it was a good experience, and it was wise for me to do it. I may not be the most religious Jew around, but the fact that I did it was important."
As a ballplayer, Shamsky never encountered anti-Semitism. Even during a year-long stint with a minor league team in the Deep South, "I can honestly say that I never had any problems, at least that I knew about. My teammates were very, very supportive. We were all just young kids trying to make it to the big leagues. I really never had a bad experience because of religion."
Indeed, Shamsky recalls how, in September 1969, he faced a difficult choice between loyalty to his faith and to his team. The Mets, who were battling with the Chicago Cubs at the time for the division title, had a doubleheader scheduled in Pittsburgh which coincided with Yom Kippur. "I really toyed with it," he says, "because I didn't want to let the team down but I also didn't want to do something that was wrong."
"So I talked to Gil Hodges, our manager, and he told me, 'you do whatever you think is right and I'll support you.' So I took off for Yom Kippur, and that meant a lot to me."
With a twinkle in his eye, Shamsky recalls that the Mets ended up winning both games by a score of 1-0, "and in both cases, it was our starting pitchers who drove in the winning runs, which is very unheard of in baseball." The next day, when he came to the ballpark after the holiday was over, he found that someone had posted a sign in his locker. It read, "Art, take off the rest of the season," an indication that his fellow players not only respected his decision, but also felt comfortable enough to tease him about it, too.
While Shamsky has never visited Israel, he plans to come here next spring for the first time. He hopes to run clinics for local kids under the auspices of the Israel Association of Baseball, and share his love for the game with Israelis, both young and old.
"Baseball is a wonderful sport for kids to play, as it is all about teamwork, and teaches them how to win and how to lose. If I could influence some youngsters over there about playing the game, I'd think it would be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to it."