The 1962 Mets were one of the worst teams in the history of professional Baseball. They won 40 games and lost 120, while producing enough ineptitude to fill multiple volumes of literature over the years. The reasons for these foibles are many. One was the expansion draft itself. It was held only seven days after the end of the season. This is significant because it was also held prior to the last day of the offseason in which players could be added to the 40 man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 and Rule 3 drafts (since there was no amateur draft at the time, other teams could poach players from minor league rosters). So, most of the National League teams left their top prospects off of the 40-man roster until after the expansion draft. They, in essence, used the expansion draft as a means of culling from their perspective rosters players that they had limited or no intention of maintaining on the 40 man roster and thus made more room to protect players that were premium prospects in the minor league system.
What was left was a large group of older players, failed younger players and prospects that weren’t truly major league ready. This lead the early architect of the Mets, team president George Weiss, to make a decision that was very different from what Paul Richards of the expansion Houston franchise did. Weiss decided that he was going to stock his team with “name players” while working to develop a farm system that could eventually produce a quality product at the major league level. The idea was that having well known players on the roster would brining fans to the team while he was building the roster from the bottom of the minor league system up. It was a safe, but flawed plan as there were players available in the draft that Weiss could have selected that would have helped him build a more competitive roster sooner. Dick Allen, future Phillies all-star third baseman and borderline hall of famer, was available, but not drafted. Rusty Staub was selected by the Colt 45’s. Also not drafted was Vic Davalillo, a fleet footed center fielder who would hit .292 with a .746 OPS and outstanding defense in 1963 for the Cleveland Indians and make the all-star team in 1965. There wasn’t a lot there, but the Colt 45’s were much more competitive because Richards didn’t go with many names, but went with younger players or players who hadn’t been given opportunities, like Bob Aspromonte who became a solid third baseman for Houston for the next 6 years, a position the Mets struggled to man consistently until Howard Johnson came into his own in 1987.
Because of Weiss’ decision, the 1962 Mets roster was stocked with name players from yesteryears. Gus Bell, Richie Ashburn, Gil Hodges and Clem Labine were among the group of players who were past their primes or near retirement, that appeared in a Mets uniform in 1962. The adage has always been that the 1962 Mets would have been great if the roster had been put together a few years before. Let’s see how true that is.
Pushing the roster back to 1959, the lineup would have looked something like this:
First Base: Hodges
Second Base: Charlie Neal
Third Base: Combination of Frank Thomas, Zimmer, Mantilla and Lepcio
Right Field: Bell
Center Field: Ashburn
Left Field: Combination of Thomas and Gene Woodling
Marv Throneberry would have been a prominent bench back and back up, as he was for the New York Yankees in 1959, playing some first base (since Hodges couldn’t play every day) and some outfield. Lepcio was purchased by Weiss prior to the 1962 season and subsequently released but hit nearly .300 in a part time role in 1959 while playing solid defense at shortstop and other infield positions.
Other players would have made appearances, like Joe Christopher who debuted for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1959 and Elio Chacon, who debuted in 1960, but had been in Triple-A for two years prior to 1959 in the Cincinnati Reds system. Jim Hickman would have been a prominent outfield prospect in the Mets system and would have potentially debuted in 1959, but most likely in 1960, as on this roster, he wouldn’t have been blocked as he was in the Cardinals system. Some well known Mets, like Choo Choo Coleman, wouldn’t have been around because they were D-level prospects at the time.
If you look at that lineup, it’s pretty good. Ashburn and Thomas actually had inferior hitting years in comparison to 1962, but Ashburn was still productive and Thomas was forced into a utility roll in 1959 that he wouldn’t have faced on the Mets. Bell and Woodling were terrific in 1959 and Neal was an all-star who finished 8th in MVP voting. Although Hodges couldn’t play every day, he would’ve played a lot more than in 1962 and still managed to hit 25 home runs. The Chiti Taylor combination at catcher would have hit well and slugged 18 home runs as a combo, with Chiti being the better defender and showcasing a strong arm. Those two catchers would have risen above the muck that was the 1962 catching position for the Mets, which saw seven different catchers start games with very limited effectiveness. Zimmer still probably would have been traded, since he had an awful season, but the team would have gotten enough out of Mantilla, Lepcio and potentially Chacon for short stop to be mildly productive offensively, but solid defensively.
Defense was a huge problem in 1962 and would have been markedly better with 1959 versions of the players. Only third base, where Thomas would have seen a lot of time and wasn’t very good, and anywhere Throneberry was on the field, would have been a problem. Ashburn was still a plus centerfield and Bell was the same in rightfield. Neal and Hodges were a solid combo on the left side of the infield and the shortstop combination mentioned above would have done enough to not be solid at that position.
The pitching staff would have looked very different. Craig Anderson wasn’t even in the minor leagues in 1959 and Bob Miller, Jay Hook and Al Jackson were all either making debuts or in the top levels of the minor leagues. Most likely all three would have pitched for the Mets in different capacities, just probably not to the extent that they did in 1962.
Part of the reason for that would have been a group of pitchers that either didn’t even make the roster or had a very limited impact on the roster in 1962. Vinegar Bend Mizell, who threw 38 completely ineffective innings for the Mets in 1962, threw 201 innings in 1959, pitching to a 4.20 ERA in 31 appearances. Dave Hillman, who threw 15 just as ineffective innings as Mizel in 1962, pitched in 191 innings in 1959 over 39 appearances, posting a 3.53 ERA. Clem Labine was putrid in 4 innings in 1962, but was much more effective in 1959, posting a 3.93 ERA over 84 innings in 56 appearances in relief. Those three pitchers, in 1962, combined to throw 57.2 innings with a 7.33 ERA in 1962 and would have instead been inning eating cogs in the rotation or bullpen.
Two additional pitchers would have made marks that didn’t even make the team in 1962. In the offseason prior to 1962, Weiss purchased veteran pitchers Billy Loes and Johnny Antonelli. Neither made the roster and were returned to their perspective teams prior to the season starting. In 1959, Loes throw 64 relief innings, notching 14 saves and posting a 4.06 ERA. Antonelli was fantastic in 1959, winning 19 games, throwing 282 innings and posting a 3.10 ERA over 40 appearances.
Looking at all of that, just imagine how much better the pitching staff would have been. These 5 players either didn’t make the team or were horrific for the 1962 Mets. The 1959 versions would have buoyed the staff in a way that wouldn’t have put as much pressure on young pitchers like Hook, Miller and Jackson and would have allowed Roger Craig to be the swing man he was always best at being, which he was fantastic at in 1959, throwing 152 innings over 29 appearances (17 starts) and posting a 2.06 ERA.
That pitching staff would have been beyond superior in a way that’s even harder to comprehend than the lineup. The Mets hit decently in 1962 and obviously would have been superior with the 1959 versions, but the 1962 pitching was one of the worst ever compiled in baseball history. Just having the 1959 versions of Labine and Loes would have seriously improved a bullpen that posted a 4.76 ERA and the starting staff, lead by Antonelli and Mizell, would have far outdone the 5.18 ERA that was posted in 1962.
What does all of this mean? The adage is true. This team would probably have won at least 82 games and would definitely have been extremely competitive.
Obviously, this never would have happened this way. The vast majority of these players wouldn’t have been available to the Mets if they were playing at the level they did in 1959. It just goes to show not only how much an athlete can change in just a few years, but also how much Weiss’ plan put the Mets back so far that they weren’t truly competitive until probably 1968, prior to the glories of the 1969 season and championship. It’s interesting to look at though and imagine what a 1962 season with 1959 versions of these players, could have been.