A play for its time: Ron Swoboda’s catch in the 1969 World Series

For baseball fans of a certain age, the play is etched into our memories.  

It is the top of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 1969 World Series. Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles hits a drive that looks like it will find the gap in right-center. The crowd at Shea Stadium roars.  New York Mets right fielder Ron Swoboda comes in from off the screen. Swoboda dives and catches it — just before the ball hits the ground. The crowd noise becomes deafening.

The play from 50 Octobers ago seemed to us to be one for the ages. But I wonder if it is a play for the aged?

Do fans under the age of 45 see the grainy footage of the catch that Swoboda made and say, “Meh”?

A good play, they might think — a great play, even. But plays every bit as good show up on YouTube or one of the nightly highlights shows all the time. With much better quality video.

The Athletic did a story on Swoboda’s catch last summer and tried to apply modern measurements to rate the play’s difficulty. An interesting idea.

But I think it doesn’t quite hit the mark. I think there is more to the play than its degree of difficulty, although that is important.

So what’s all the fuss about?

A magical time

To appreciate why that play reached iconic status with my generation, you need some context.

The obvious one is Swoboda’s catch came in the World Series. 

It was an important play, though it did not win the World Series or even the game — in fact, the Orioles tied the game 1-1 on the play. The game wound up going into extra innings before the Mets won 2-1. And it wasn’t the deciding game of the Series.

The play was more than good play in a big game. There was an emotional component.

Swoboda’s catch was a confluence of the man, the moment, and the magic of a team that had the country under its spell.

Repeat performances

The play was elevated by the media environment and the technical limits of the day.

I wrote at the beginning of this piece that the play was “etched” into our brains. Hammered might be a better word.

NBC showed the clip all the time. Whenever the Mets were on TV, NBC showed it. When the postseason came around the network showed it. The network used it in promos for The Game of The Week. Later, Major League Baseball used it in its “Baseball Fever: Catch It” campaign.

Well into the 1980s, if you were a sports fan it seemed like you couldn’t make it through a weekend in the summertime without seeing Swoboda swoop in and catch Robinson’s sinking line drive.

No highlight from any sport that got the repeat showings over the years that Swoboda’s catch received. The closest one was a long run by USC’s O.J. Simpson against UCLA in a 1967 NCAA football game.  

In fact, when Swoboda made the catch, there were few highlights on TV.

Before cable started to become a factor in the late 1970s, sports news on TV largely consisted of a local sports anchor sitting at a desk or a podium, taking a deep breath and reading as many results as he could while trying to vary the verbs. “In the National League, the Cubs beat the Reds, Giants walloped the Dodgers, the Padres whitewashed the Pirates …”

On weekends, the networks might report on whatever the big sporting event was of day and show some footage.

Camera work

The Swoboda play was perfect to be captured with the television technology of the time.

Part of what makes the play dramatic is Swoboda enters the frame after the ball is in the air.

When the ball was hit, the cameraman did not pull back so we could see where Swoboda was starting from. It’s likely that it was not possible for him to pull back. By 1969, NBC had cameras that could zoom in and out, but not the way they can today. 

And the flight of the ball is in spot where it could be tracked on the live TV feed. 

Brooks Robinson was the hero of the next year’s World Series, making spectacular plays at third base. But in that era, NBC often chose to view an at-bat with a shot from ground level behind home plate — horrible for seeing a ball hit down the line to third base.

There is broadcast footage, for example, of a play in Game 1 in 1970 when Robinson robbed the Cincinnati Reds’ Lee May of a hit. What you see is shot from behind the catcher of May hitting the ball and then trying to get get out of the batter’s box and head for first. The shot cuts to Robinson fielding the ball beyond the bag and throwing across the diamond to get May. You can tell it’s a great play. But you can’t tell just how hard May hit the ball or how far Robinson had to range to field it. 

Often what makes a fielding play exciting is that it looks like a base hit — until it isn’t. There is no sense of that.

How good was the catch?

As Tim Britton noted in his analysis of the Swoboda catch for The Athletic last summer, it is hard to judge how difficult the Swoboda’s catch was because we don’t know exactly where was positioned. Right before the play, announcer Curt Gowdy mentions that the outfielders are playing Robinson straight away. So we have an idea.

Britton came to the conclusion there was probably an eight percent chance to make the catch. So that puts in the category of a great play. Especially for the postseason.

Truly great fielding plays in the postseason are rare because there are not that many games. That season had the most postseason games to date — 11.

These days there are more MLB games on a Tuesday night than that. And it’s all caught on camera, preserved. That is a big reason we see great fielding plays all the time now. 

Why not The Catch?

Swoboda’s catch might not have been the most dramatic World Series catch to that point. Willie Mays had made a stunning over-the-shoulder catch more than 470 feet from home plate in the 1954 World Series.  As a kid growing up in the 1960s, I learned about Mays’ play, known as The Catch, by reading about it. It was written about it all the time. You saw the still photo of Mays with his back to home plate as the ball descends.

But you never saw footage of the play. I think the first time I saw a clip of The Catch was in the late 1980s or maybe even the early 1990s.

Though the 1954 World Series was televised by NBC, I am not sure if a copy of that broadcast exists. The footage that you see today is from the official World Series film, made each year by 1929 American League batting champion Lew Fonseca. Fonseca, who had become interested in making movies in the late 1920s, made his hobby into a business.

From 1943 to 1968, he made a promotional movie about the World Series each season. The films were shown at various civic organizations around the country through the long winter. (In 1969 Fonseca was given credit as a technical advisor, but he had been shoved aside.)

My guess is the networks and MLB didn’t have access to Fonseca’s footage of the Mays catch. And I don’t mean permission. I mean they couldn’t easily get hold of it physically to put it to air it. It probably was stored somewhere.

A day at the park with Ron

The staying power of the catch is something that has intrigued me for a while. Enough so that way back in 1984, I invited a new sports anchor at one of the Phoenix TV stations to go watch a spring training game and talk about the 1969 World Series for an article in The Arizona Republic. 

The anchor’s name was Ron Swoboda.

We sat the open-air press box at Phoenix Municipal Stadium and watched the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants play.

What I remember about Swoboda is that he was pleasant and patient with my questions about the play. And how he seemed oddly detached from it.

I started off by asking him about theory a friend of mine had — that a better fielder, say, Roberto Clemente, would have broken quicker, closed quicker and have made the play without leaving his feet.

I thought he might get defensive about such an assertion. He just chuckled and conceded that was probably true. 

The real highlight

I tried to draw out some recollections about the play from him. He didn’t seem irritated. I didn’t sense he was holding back. Swoboda really didn’t have much to say about the catch. 

“Actually the highlight of my career was hitting the two home runs to beat Steve Carlton,’’ he said.

Exactly one month before the catch, Carlton set an MLB record for most strikeouts in a nine-inning game (19, since broken five times) and lost 4-3 because of Swoboda’s blasts.

“He was throwing the ball as well as he’s ever thrown it,’’ Swoboda said. “I had no business hitting those two out, not the way I swung the bat. It gave us a boost we really needed at the time.”

The homers against Carlton and then later Sowboda’s World Series play — not only making the catch, but he batted .400 and drove in the winning run in the final game — put the career .242 hitter in the national spotlight.

Odd underdogs

I was a Mets fan in the fall of 1969. Never before. Never after. But for six weeks just about everyone was.

The Miracle Mets captured the nation’s imagination as the ultimate underdog.

Viewed from 50 years later, the Mets are in some ways an unlikely for that role.

They were a big-market team that played in a state-of-the-art facility, won 100 games that season and whose star player joked that God was part of their fan base.

True, they had never won a World Series, but their fans were hardly long-suffering. The team had only existed since 1962.  The Mets were, in fact, the expansion team that made it to the World Series in the least amount of time until the Florida Marlins in 1997. 

The Mets won the National League East over the Chicago Cubs, the team that should have been America’s darlings. The Cubs’ drought of World Series titles was 61 years at the time. They were led by all-around good guy Ernie Banks, who throughout his long and storied career had never played — and would never play — in a postseason game.

But outside of Chicagoland, the Cubs were the villains. 

Even the Orioles would have been better suited to be cast as underdogs. They had won World Series in 1966, but that was only the second appearance in the Fall Classic for the franchise, which for most of its existence had been the St. Louis Browns.

Laughing all the way

Up until the 1969 season the Mets were as much a punchline as a baseball team.

The franchise had taken losing to a new level — and somehow made it fun, even popular.

In their inaugural season, the Mets set an MLB record for losses in a season with 120. Journalist and New York sports columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote a book that sold well about the team after that first season called  “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?” 

The title was from a quip by Casey Stengel. The manager who had amused the masses as he led the New York Yankees to seven World Series titles was at his comic best while piloting the Mets in their early seasons, constantly expressing bewilderment as his players found new ways to lose.

Most memorable Met

The ultimate Met of those early days was “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry, a 28-year-old first baseman who had not been able to stick as a regular in the majors before expansion.

Legend has it that Throneberry hit an apparent stand-up triple against the Cubs. Ernie Banks got the ball and stepped on second base, telling the umpire that Throneberry had never touched the bag. Throneberry was called out. 

When Stengel came out to argue the play the umpire supposedly said, “Don’t bother arguing, Casey, he missed first base, too.”

Throneberry hit 16 homers in 1962 in 112 games and committed 17 errors at first base, a pathetic .981 fielding percentage. Yet Mets fans loved Throneberry. He had a 5,000-member fan club.

A sinking feeling

Throneberry got his “marvelous” nickname from center fielder Richie Ashburn, who had been a star with the Philadelphia Phillies and was the best player on the 1962 Mets team. One season with the Mets was enough. He retired at 35 after hitting .306.

Ashburn was voted the team’s most valuable player.

”To be voted the most valuable player on the worst team in the history of major league baseball is a dubious honor, to be sure,” The New York Times quoted him as saying in his obituary. ”But I was awarded a 24-foot boat equipped with a galley and sleeping facilities for six. After the season ended, I docked the boat in Ocean City, N.J., and it sank.”

Success at the gate

The Mets drew 922,530  fans in 1962 at the time when drawing a 1 million of success for any baseball team. Losing teams just didn’t do that. And the Mets’ attendance kept going up from there.

In 1964, their first at Shea Stadium, they lost 109 games and attracted 1.7 million fans, outdrawing the New York Yankees, who won the American League pennant, by more than 400,000. 

The Mets had their first season with fewer than 100 losses and for the first time didn’t finish last in 1966. They drew 1.9 million.

In 1967, the Mets lost more than 100 games again, but in 1968 they had their best season going 73-89.

Low expectations

The Mets hoped to improve on that 73-win total in 1969. But the expectations weren’t too high.“The Mets will do better than the previous year, but they still will not do very well,’’ said Maurice Woodruff, an English astrologer the New York Daily News consulted on the eve of the 1969 season.

The more conventional prognosticators at what was then the largest-circulation newspaper in the United States, 13 of its writers, made picks in line with the astrologer’s prediction. No one picked the Mets to win the new six-team National League East division. Most picked the Mets third or fourth.

On June 3, the Mets beat the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers 5-2 to take over second place in the division and raise their record to 24-23. It was the latest point in a season that any Mets team had been above .500.

The Mets held onto second place as the summer wore on. In August the Mets caught fire. They went 21-10, but the Cubs still held a 4.5-game lead as the calendar turned to September.

The final push

The Cubs players later recalled how the Mets seemed to never lose as September wore on.

Well, it wasn’t just perception. The Mets went 23-7.

Perhaps nothing contributed to that feeling of inevitability of the Mets winning the NL East as their victory over the Cardinals in St. Louis on Sept. 15. 

The Mets had just seen their 10-game winning streak stopped.

Carlton fanned 19 Mets, and the Mets made four errors — and they still won. 

Swoboda had set a club rookie record with 19 homers in 1965, but he never hit more 13 in a season after that. He only hit nine in 1969 and batted .235. Those homers were his last two of the season. 

By that time, the Mets had leaped over the Cubs and led by 4.5 games with 15 to play.

“If that doesn’t put a lock on it, it’s at least a hinge,’’ Dick Young wrote in the Daily News.

The Mets wound up winning the division by eight games.

The team everybody loved

“God is living in New York, and he’s a Mets fan,”  Mets star pitcher Tom Seaver said that fall.

Seaver was not called out for arrogance nor for blasphemy. That shows just how popular the Mets were.

Was there anyone outside of Maryland rooting for the Orioles?

It was the only time I remember where it seemed everyone was rooting for one team in the World Series — at least everyone outside the home area of the other team. At a time when the nation was largely divided  — yes, more so than today — we could unite behind the Mets.

The participants

It was the first year of the League Championship Series. The Mets swept the Atlanta Braves, the NL West champions, and the Orioles swept the Minnesota Twins in three games.

The Orioles were heavy favorites in the World Series. The had won 109 games in the regular season despite losing five of their last six games. The Orioles had an impressive pitching staff. Baltimore led the league in team ERA (2.83), and they could hit.

They were second in the AL in runs, third in homers and first in OPS.  They had star power, with Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, a young slugger in Boog Powell, and future Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer.

The Mets had strong starting pitching rotation (second in the NL in ERA, 2.99) but were weak at the plate. They had three regulars (Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, and mid-season pickup Donn Clendenon), with an OPS-plus over 100.

They ranked 8th in the 12-team NL in runs scored, 11th in OPS.

Their ace was Seaver, a future Hall of Famer. They had another future of Hall of Famer in Nolan Ryan, who pitched 2.1 innings of relief during the Series. Mets manager Gil Hodges platooned heavily and relied on timely contributions from role players.  

But the Mets entered the Fall Classic with momentum or mystique or … something.

“I have never seen anything build like this,’’ Swoboda, who grew up in Baltimore County, told The Baltimore Evening Sun before Game 1.

The Series

The Orioles quickly overcame the Mets’ mystique in the opener in Baltimore. Don Buford led off with a homer against Seaver, and the Orioles won 4-1. In Game 2, the Mets even things up. Jerry Koosman held the Orioles to two hits in 8.2 innings, and the Mets won 2-1.

Game 3 was the turning point.  Agee made two running catches incenter field and homered, and Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan combined on a shutout as the Mets won 5-0. That set the scene for the fourth game.

The play

Swoboda didn’t play at all in the NLCS, and he was on the bench for Game 3. But he was back in the starting lineup  Oct. 15 for the game the would change his life.

Clendenon homered in the second inning.  That was the only scoring until the ninth inning.

With one out, Frank Robinson singled. Powell followed with a single and Robinson took third.

Brooks Robinson followed with his drive, and Swoboda followed with his dive.

The play, as captured for TV, is perfect symbolism for the 1969 Mets. Like his team, Swoboda seems to appear from nowhere.  He is a role player who stretches to the limit of his abilities to seize the moment. Seaver got out of the ninth with no more damage and held the Orioles scoreless in the tenth.

In the bottom of the 10th, the Mets got two runners on. Backup catcher J.C. Martin bunted. Reliever Pete Richert threw to first and hit Martin in the arm. Pinch-runner Rod Gaspar scored. The Mets had won on a walk-off bunt and now led the Series 3-1.

The clincher

The Mets fell behind 3-0 early in Game 5. But they came back and tied it. In the eighth inning, Swoboda hit a double to score Jones, and the Mets went on to win 5-3. They were champs.

Swoboda was the go-to guy for the press.

“The only thing I missed was sitting home with a beer and watching all this on television,” he said.

He mentioned St. Jude. “That is our saint of last causes. From now on we’re the saints of lost causes; we, the Amazin’ Mets.”

Second career

His heroics in 1969 led to his post-baseball career, which is still going. He does color commentary for the Pacific Coast League’s New Orleans Baby Cakes, the Triple-A affiliate of the Miami Marlins.

The Atlanta Braves released him before the 1974 season. He was not quite 30, and he figured maybe he could find a spot somewhere else and scratch out a season or two more. Beyond that, he had no solid plans.

“I was kind of in trouble for a second career,’’ he told me during our interview in Phoenix back in 1984.

WCBS-TV in New York offered him a job.

“It was kind of a thing of, ‘Hey kid, wanna be in broadcasting?”

By the time he got to Phoenix to work at KTVK Channel 3, his name recognition had faded with people who weren’t hardcore sports fans. The station ran promos with people in a mall being asked if they knew what a Swoboda was. (My favorite response was “I think it’s that green thing in the back of my refrigerator.”) 

Swoboda got up to leave our interview and go work on a piece.

“Gotta go play TV,’’ he said. 

 As he was walking away, a Bay Area writer approached him and asked him a question about the catch.

“My whole career in 10 seconds of highlight film,’’ he said as he looked back at me and grinned. “Better that than no highlights at all.”

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