I started out at the bottom of the baseball world – I was a fan. I became a baseball writer, covered several World Series and wrote a couple of books as well as countless articles on America’s national pastime before I moved on to television and business reporting. At one stage I was a columnist for the award-winning shareholder rights website eRaider.com. Occasionally I found lessons for investors from baseball history and legend. Here’s a column I wrote in December 2000 that I’d like to share on the eve of what promises to be an exciting 2009 World Series. (A note on the headline: a couple of years ago, for no apparent reason, my alma mater Yale awarded an honorary doctorate to Willie Mays, baseball’s greatest living player.)
Tommie Agee, centerfielder and leadoff hitter for the 1969 world champion New York Mets, died of a heart attack Monday at age 58, too young. I last saw Agee about 15 years ago, in the offices of New York’s Queens Borough President, where he was trying to find funding for a program for the underprivileged. A native of Mobile, Alabama, Agee embraced the city that embraced him, and as an alumnus of baseball before free agency, he needed to earn a living after his playing days and opted for a town where he remained a famous name.
Agee was the offensive leader on a team that won an unlikely championship with pitching and defense. After Agee sparked a victory over the Chicago Cubs, the team that looked to be running away with the National League’s Eastern Division in the summer of 1969, Chicago’s pitcher threw at Agee’s head in his first at bat the next day. Agee dove headlong into the dirt to avoid the bean ball, dusted himself off, and tripled, a symbolic moment that showed the Mets would not go away.
In Game Three of the 1969 World Series, Agee had what might have been the greatest day in Series history. (And as a 13 year old cutting school for a seat in the upper deck at the first fall classic game ever at Shea Stadium, it was certainly my greatest day in World Series history.) Agee homered leading off against the Baltimore Orioles’ Hall of Fame pitcher and underwear model Jim Palmer, then singlehandedly made that run stand up. In the fourth inning, Agee sprinted, back to home plate, to catch a slicing drive high above his head, backhanded, that saved two runs. In the seventh inning, his diving catch on the warning track with the bases loaded saved at least three runs. The Mets won 5-0, for a 2-1 Series lead, and put the Orioles away within 48 hours to win a most improbable championship.
But this Commentary is not about Tommie Agee or the indomitability of the human spirit that made the 1969 Mets the flesh and blood version of the little engine that could. Agee’s grabs drew immediately comparisons with the greatest in World Series history: Sandy Amoros’ mad dash in 1955 through a vacant leftfield in Yankee Stadium to pull in Yogi Berra’s bid for an opposite field home run; Brooklyn’s Al “Gionfrioddo goes back, back, back and makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen; oooh, doctor,” as Red Barber called it, to pluck Joe DiMaggio’s drive in 1947 (in a rare display of emotion on the field, DiMaggio kicked the dirt as he rounded second base, his sure home run transformed into out number three); and what is generally regarded as the greatest robbery ever, Willie Mays—whose 1972 acquisition by the Mets ran Agee out of town temporarily—on Vic Wertz in the 1954 classic.
Tie game, eighth inning, two men on. Indians slugger Wertz already has three hits off Giants’ starter Sal Maglie, so New York manager Leo Durocher calls for a relief pitcher, lefthander Don Liddle. Wertz says he never hit a ball harder, into the vast expanse of the Polo Grounds’ centerfield, where the fence was nearly 500 feet from home plate and the steps up to the clubhouse were in play. Mays chased down the drive like a wide receiver, made the catch with his back to the infield about 460 feet from the launch point, then threw a strike that kept the runner on second from scoring. Many witnesses (including Mickey Mantle worshipper Bob Costas) place Mays’ play in the realm of the impossible; there is no way a ball hit that hard and far could be caught.
The lesson for investors doesn’t come from Mays or Wertz, but from the pitcher, Liddle. After the catch, the Giants manager Leo Durocher went to the mound to remove Liddle, since he’d given up a blast that would have been a home run in any other park, including Yellowstone. As was the custom in those days, Liddle waited on the mound until his replacement came in from the bullpen. When the new pitcher reached the mound, Liddle offered these words of encouragement: “I got my guy.”
Sometimes the bottom line doesn’t quite get to the bottom of things.
Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.