It seems almost folly to compare the 1969 Mets, the most beloved assemblage in the franchise’s history, to the 2019 Mets, their most bewildering successors.
Fifty years ago, Gil Hodges was in his second year as Mets manager, hailed as a miracle worker. (Mickey Callaway may need a miracle just to survive his second season in the Mets’ dugout.)
Likewise, there seems little in common with both teams’ top decision makers. The general manager of the ’69 Mets was Johnny Murphy, a genial straight-shooter who was in his second year on the job. He had been a pioneering relief pitcher with the Yankees in the 1930s and 40s, an early player representative, a farm system director and a do-everything organization man with the Mets since their inception.
Today’s Mets are run by a novice general manager, Brodie Van Wagenen, 45, who likes to schmooze with fans on social media and in the stands. He was a powerful player agent before becoming an unorthodox choice to lead a big-market franchise. He is uneasily navigating the learning curve in his new job, for which, he said, he had prepared all his life.
Baseball is a different game from what it was 50 years ago, but with the July 31 major league trade deadline approaching, it is worth considering what lessons Van Wagenen could learn from Murphy, the chief architect of the Mets’ amazing rise a half-century ago.
Murphy, who died in 1970 at age 61 after a heart attack, about three months after Cleon Jones made the final putout of the 1969 World Series, was not one to make headlines. But his premature death — followed by Hodges’s two years later at age 47 — foreshadowed a decline of the franchise in the 1970s.
“Dad was a baseball man every day of his life,” said John Murphy Jr., who believes his father should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, along with Hodges. “He was one of the first great relief pitchers, won seven world championships with the Yankees. And he had a great ability to evaluate talent and run an organization, as he did with the Mets.”
Here are a handful of Murphy’s principles. Brodie, are you listening?
1. Have a plan
Van Wagenen became the Mets’ G.M. in part because he convinced the Wilpons that the Mets were ready to contend, not rebuild. He made a few splashy off-season moves for veterans, then boasted, “Come get us,” to Mets opponents. Not exactly a surefire method of team building.
Murphy was a man with a plan: Build through the farm system. He was an old-schooler, befitting one of his nicknames, Grandma, for his fastidiousness. He was a fusspot about good scouting and player development, insisting the Mets would no longer be acquiring past-their-prime veterans and talent-short youngsters.
Even in the free-agency era, the importance of a strong farm system cannot be overestimated. Good minor leaguers can be an on-field asset. They can bring something back — a draft pick, a player, an international signing slot. Fifty years earlier, Murphy knew the Mets’ development of homegrown pitchers (Seaver, Koosman, Gentry, McAndrew, Ryan) would be their present and future. He resisted trading any of them.
2. Hire the right manager
When Murphy took over the Mets before the 1968 season, fans were getting restless. The losing had gone on too long; there was too little improvement in the team’s six seasons. Murphy felt the Mets needed an attitude adjustment. He had signed much of the young talent as the Mets’ chief scout. He had wrangled Hodges, a rising managerial star, from the Washington Senators, to New York with a trade. And he was convinced that the 1967 Red Sox — who jumped from ninth place to the World Series in one season — benefited from the gruff discipline of Manager Dick Williams.
“I’m a bad loser,” Murphy said once. “I’ve always been with winners, and we didn’t always have the best club. But we had the winning spirit.”
The 1967 Mets were managed by the uninspiring Wes Westrum on the way to a 61-101 record. Then a team vice president, Murphy was summoned during the 1967 World Series to coerce the Senators’ general manager, George Selkirk — his former teammate on the Yankees — into allowing Hodges out of his contract to manage the Mets.
A skilled negotiator — Murphy was the American League’s first player rep in 1946 and instrumental in getting owners to create the first pension plan — he was unrelenting in his quest.
Selkirk gave in after the Mets threw in $100,000 and pitcher Bill Denehy for Hodges. A month later, Murphy replaced Bing Devine as the Mets’ G.M.
3. Do your homework
Van Wagenen’s brief trade history — notably acquiring an aging former client, Robinson Cano, and a disappointing closer, Edwin Diaz — suggests an impulse shopper ignoring the warning label. As the saying goes, sometimes the best trades you make are the ones you don’t.
Murphy’s first trade — acquiring Tommie Agee, an American League rookie of the year coming off a sophomore slump, and Al Weis, a utility player, from the White Sox for the former All-Star Tommy Davis and pitcher Jack Fisher — seemed like a risk. But Murphy, determined to solve the Mets’ woes in center field, where they used 10 players over the previous two seasons, respected the judgment of others.
He consulted his scouts. He interviewed Jones, Agee’s boyhood pal. Davis was a proven hitter, but he was also seven years older than Agee and had to be worked on at the trainer’s table just to get on the field. Hodges urged Murphy to make the deal. He knew Agee from the American League and believed that all the 25-year-old needed was a boost of confidence.
“My father and Johnny Murphy,” recalled Gil Hodges Jr., “had great trust in each other.”
Agee became the Mets’ leadoff man and an all-around star in center, and the handy Weis hit .455 in the World Series.
Murphy’s acquisition of power-hitting Donn Clendenon — an early-season holdout — at the 1969 trade deadline was also a game changer. Clendenon, 33, who assured Murphy he wanted to be a Met, became the veteran leader and R.B.I. man they lacked, not to mention the World Series most valuable player. Murphy did not sacrifice any top prospects to get him.
4. Image isn’t everything
Van Wagenen, excepting his chair-throwing fit in a coaches’ meeting last week, seems an exemplar of California cool. He is media-accessible and a handsome face of the team, he buys doughnuts for reporters before homestands and recently joined the 7 Line Army, a group of Mets die-hards, for a game.
He is also the 10th Mets general manager (including last year’s interim triumvirate of John Ricco, Omar Minaya and J.P. Ricciardi) since 1998, when Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, took over the reins of that team.
Murphy’s style was more unassuming. A true New Yorker, he was raised in the Bronx, graduated from Fordham and pitched 11½ years with the Yankees, but he always kept a low profile. He wore tailored suits, drank fine wine and was “a bit remote” with the news media, recalled George Vecsey, who as a young reporter covered the Mets. Art Shamsky, a member of the 1969 team, did not remember Murphy as a visible presence, seeing him only during contract time. “He was always cordial, very fair,” he said.
Murphy was overshadowed even in his own family; his older brother, Thomas, was an assistant United States attorney, a United States district judge and a New York City police commissioner.
When it came to baseball business, Johnny Murphy simply did what needed to be done.
In 1962, he was assisting with player contracts when Marv Throneberry, the lovably inept first baseman and symbol of the first-year team’s futility, requested a raise.
“Don’t forget that I brought a lot of people to the ballpark,” Throneberry said. “Yes,” replied Murphy, “and you also drove a lot away.”
Ed Kranepool remembers Murphy, who attended some of his high school games, sitting at his family’s dining room table in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx the day after his graduation. “Johnny Murphy couldn’t have been nicer,” Kranepool said. “But he wasn’t going to leave the house until I signed a contract. And he got me to sign for less than I wanted.”
A few years earlier, Murphy was running the Red Sox farm system when several teams were bidding to sign a Notre Dame freshman named Carl Yastrzemski. Yastrzemski recalled: “There was no sales pitch. He didn’t offer the moon. I could’ve got more money from other clubs, but my father and I were so impressed with Mr. Murphy, with his sincerity and his honesty, we took less.”
Which is a good moral for Van Wagenen: Given the Mets’ financial operations over recent years, less is almost always more.
Dave Kaplan is the founding director of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, in Little Falls, N.J.
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