Jun 29, 2016

1969 Amazing Mets Outfielder & World Series Hero: Ron Swoboda (1965-1971)

Ronald Alan Swoboda was born on June 30, 1944 in Baltimore, Maryland. Swoboda was the captain of his high school soccer team as well as a top player on the basketball & baseball teams.

The six foot two right handed hitting outfielder was signed out of Maryland University, as an amateur free agent in 1963. He signed for $35,000 after a strong AABA tournament performance.

Swoboda only played minor league ball for one seasons, impressing the Mets with his power on a team looking for a home grown slugger. He hit 14 HRs at AA Williamsport & then three more HRs at AAA Buffalo in 22 games. He earned the monikers Rocky & Swobo, as part of Casey Stengel's young Mets "Youth of America".

He made the 1965 Mets team out of Spring Training and made his big league debut as a pinch hitter on Opening Day ‘65. In the 6-1 loss to the Dodgers, he lined to second base off the legendary Don Drysdale.

In the second game of the year he hit his first career HR, a pinch hit blast over the bullpen wall, against Turk Farrell & the Houston Astros at Shea Stadium. He later claimed it was the longest shot he ever hit in his entire career. On April 18th He got his first start in right field, in a 4-3 win over the San Francisco Giants. That day hit another HR that night off Hall of Famer; Gaylord Perry. Rocky hit two more HRs on the road in San Francisco the next week finishing up April with four HRs batting .333.

On the poor ball club, with the fans waiting to embrace a hero, he was quickly embraced as a star like player. On April 30th he hit what appeared to be a grand slam HR in the old Crosley Field, but home plate Umpire ruled it a double. The problem was the outfield wall was made of concrete, with bright yellow line above the wall. Above that there was a plywood wall installed to block the glare of traffic from the elevated highway.

Swoboda's shot not only was visible hitting the plywood, it also made a loud bang. In the words of Mets coach Yogi Berra :" Anybody who couldn't hear that ball hit the wall is blind".

On May 8th he hit a pair of HRs & drove in all four Mets runs in their 4-2 win over the Milwaukee Braves. From May 16th through May 21st he drove in runs in five straight games & hit three more HRs.

In a game against the St. Louis Cards in May 1965, the bases were loaded late in the game with the Mets ahead 7-2. Dal Maxvill hit a fly ball to right, but Swoboda lost it in the sun. The ball got by him & all three runners scored. He struck out when he came up to bat in the next inning & was clearly frustrated. In the dugout he stomped on a batting helmet attempting to crush it, but it got stuck on his foot.

Manager Casey Stengel came out, grabbed him & said, when you missed that fly ball, I didn't look for your watch to stomp on it. So stop ruining the teams equipment, he then removed him from the game. Swoboda was devastated, he sat in his locker room in tears, thinking his big league days were over.

At the end of May he had already hit 11 HRs & was amongst the league leaders. It was quite a start for a team looking for a new star, & Swoboda became very popular very quick. He won over the fans hitting HRs & working hard to be a better player.

He hit three HRs in July & then another three in August where he had a stretch of driving in runs in six straight games. He slumped in September without a HR all month. Swoboda finished the year leading the team in HRs with 19, setting a Mets rookie record that stood until Daryl Strawberry came along in 1983.

Although he only hit .228, striking out over 100 times, he drove in 50 runs & hit 12 doubles, becoming one of the better hitters on the weak hitting team. He had the honor of making the Topps All Star Rookie team & was touted as having a bright future.

He started out with uniform #14 until the Mets got veteran Ken Boyer & he then switched to #14. Later on in 1968 when Gil Hodges arrived he took over uniform #14 & Swoboda was #4 permanently as a Mets player. He became known as a below average fielder with good power.

Quotes: Casey Stengel said of him “He will be great, super, even wonderful, if he can learn to catch a fly ball”.

Bud Harrelson once said he was afraid to go back on fly balls with Swoboda behind him, because Ron would get confused and run him over.

In 1965 Swoboda committed the second most errors in the league (11). In 1966 he struggled at the plate from the start, not hitting above the .200 batting mark until late May. It dropped below the .200 mark again and it wasn't until mid July when he brought it back up. That month he hit five HRs, one was a massive blast on the roof of Philadelphia’s old Connie Mack Stadium on the fourth of July off Chris Short. In that game he drove in five runs helping the Mets to a 9-7 win in the first game of a twin bill.

Another memorable blast that month, was a two run 8th inning HR in Los Angeles off hurler Claude O’Steen, securing a rare Mets 3-0 shutout against the reigning NL Champions. On July 20th, he hit a top of the 10th game winning HR off the San Francisco Giants Bill Henry for a 3-2 win. He only hit one HR in August but it was another memorable one against an old New York club.

On August 4th the Mets were trailing Juan Marichal & the Giants 7-1 in the 8th inning. They made a remarkable comeback topped off by Swoboda’s three run, 9th inning, walk off HR, once again off Henry, giving the Shea Stadium fan a huge thrill. He was linited to playing duties in September finishing up the year playing in 112 games.

He hit eight HRs, nine doubles, driving in 50 runs with a poor .296 on base %, while batting just .222, striking out 76 times in 342 at bats . In left field he improved to post the league's best fielding % (.985%) with seven assists (3rd most in the NL).

In 1967 he started out slow again, not hitting over .200 until early May & his first HR until June 6th. That was a tenth inning shot in Pittsburgh, off the Pirates Roy Face giving the Mets a 3-2 win.

He would hit two more that week in games against the Chicago Cubs & Cincinnati Reds. He went on a hot streak where he raised his average up twenty five points that month. On July 4th, in a memorable game against the old New York NL Giants team, Swoboda hit a bases loaded single off Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, driving in two runs. This gave the Mets an 8-3 lead, leading to a win, the first time they beat Marichal after he had beaten them 19 straight times.

In a July 19th doubleheader against the Houston Astros at Shea Stadium, Swoboda hit HRs in both ends of the twin bill as the Mets swept both games. In August he hit safely in 17 of 18 games, getting his average up above .280, driving in 15 runs in the first two weeks of the month.

He finished the year with career highs in batting (.281) & doubles (17), while hitting 13 HRs, with 53 RBIs and a .340 on base %. The Mets finished tenth going 61-1001 undr managers Wes Westrum & Salty Parker.

In 1968 Gil Hodges took over as manager in New York & things began to change for the better. Swoboda started out the year with a bang, hitting a HR on Opening Day off Juan Marichal, driving in all four Mets runs, although they lost to the San Francisco Giants 5-4. Later that month he hit HRs in each game of a four game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

His three run shot on April 20th off Bill Singer was enough for Tom Seaver to beat the Dodgers 3-2, while earning his first win of the season. He closed out the month of April among the tops in the league with seven HRs & 16 RBIs.

After the strong start, Swobo got some national media attention, making the cover of a May 1968 Sports Illustrated with the title "Slugger Ron Swoboda." But after the hot start, he began to hear the boo birds at Shea by summertime.

Once with an 0-2 count he watched a third strike right down the middle. When he got back to the dugout, Gil Hodges asked him why he didn’t swing; Ron replied “I was guessing ball?”. 

In one game Swoboda struck out five times, the fans cheered as he came up again. They cheered because they wanted him to break the record of striking out six times. He was quoted as saying “I should go home and blow my head off” in reply coach Rube Walker said “You’d probably miss”.

Trivia: That off season Swoboda participated in the annual sports writers show putting himself in a straight jacket and promised to break free in 10 seconds.

After eating his “Yaz” bread (named for Carl Yastrzemski in his Triple Crown season), he attempted to escape, but couldn’t.

Ron never became the superstar he was expected to be but hit some memorable HRs & had a decent career.

Quotes: After striking out five times in one game, Ron Swoboda said, "They booed the hell out of me and if I was them I would have followed me home and booed me there, too.” On July 23rd his 6th inning HR Off the Atlanta Braves Pat Jarvis ended up being the game wining runs. Three days later he drove in both runs in a 2-0 Jerry Koosman, shut out against the Reds at Shea.

He always seemed to hit well against the old New York teams, that departed to California, the Giants & Dodgers. He helped the Mets to wins against both teams by having two more multiple RBI games against them that summer.

On August 4th he broke up the Dodger's Mike Kekich’s no hitter, with the only hit of the day, a 7th inning single. On August 20th he had a five RBI day against the Giants at Shea Stadium topped off by a two run HR off future Mets pitching coach Bill Monbouquette. 

That season he led the club in RBIs (59) triples (6 which were 8th most in the NL) & walks (52) while hitting 11 HRs with 14 doubles a .242 batting average & a .320 on base %. He struck out 113 times (6th most in the NL), grounding into 14 double plays. In the outfield his strong arm had him make 14 assists (third most in the NL). He posted a .975 fielding % while making six errors.

In the miracle year of 1969 Swoboda was in a right field platoon in right field by manager Gil Hodges. He played 78 games in right field & then 23 games in leftfield. He shared time with Art Shamsky who hit .300 & Rod Gaspar who was a solid defensive late inning replacement.

On Opening Day he went 0-1 as a pinch hitter, in the first ever game featuring a team outside the USA. The expansion Montreal Expos beat the Mets at Shea Stadium 11-10. In April he hit well, batting .320 with seven multiple hit games & nine RBIs. On May 30th he hit a 7th inning HR off the Giants Mike McCormick, then put the Mets ahead for good with a two run single helping New York & Tom Seaver to an exciting 4-3 win at Shea Stadium. Two days later in the last game of the series, he walked in the bottom of the 9th inning with the bases loaded scoring Bud Harrelson for the game winner & series sweep.

When the California teams came to Shea in late August, Swoboda got hot again. First he drove in two runs against the Giants then as the Dodgers rolled in, he greeted them with a two run HR in the first game of the series off Bill Singer, as the Mets won 5-3. Two days later he drove in four runs off Don Sutton, helping the Mets sweep the series in the midst of a six game win streak.

On September 13th he hit a grand slam HR at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, helping Tom Seaver to a 5-2 win & his 22nd win of his Cy Young season. On September 15th, he hit another of his memorable HRs, this time off the St. Louis Cardinals Steve Carlton in a record setting game at Busch Stadium. That night Carlton set a record by striking out 19 batters, Swoboda being a victim twice himself. But Swoboda also spoiled Carlton’s effort by hitting a pair of two run HRs, driving in all four Met runs, in the 4-3 victory.

During the Mets August & September stretch drive, Swoboda drove in 30 runs, more than half of his season RBI total. He finished the year with nine HRs, eight doubles, two triples, a .326 on base % & 52 RBIs batting .252 playing in 115 games.

Post Season: He did not play against the right handed pitchers of the Atlanta Braves in the 1969 NLCS. But in the World Series he got to play against the Baltimore Orioles left hander's.

He arrived back in his home town of Baltimore, to play in the World Series, a huge thrill for the young outfielder. He had many friends & family in the stands cheering for him that day. 

As the Series opened Don Buford hit a HR over Swoboda’s head in right field as he fell back into the fence, on ball he may have been able to catch. In the 9th inning he got his first World Series hit off Mike Cullear.

He went hitless in Game #2 & did not play in Game #3. In Game #4 back at Shea Stadium he had three hits off Mike Culler and then two more in Game #5 against Dave McNally. His biggest hit came in the 8th inning of Game #5, with the score tied 3-3. Swobo doubled off pitcher Eddie Watt, bringing home Cleon Jones with what turned out to be the games winning run, sealing the championship.

In the '69 World Series, Swoboda hit .400, and his six hits were the most by any player on either team. He also drew a walk & posted a .438 on base %. But his not remembered for his hitting, it was his great catch in Game #4.

In the top of the 9th inning, Tom Seaver was tiring and the Mets were holding onto a 1-0 lead. O's sluggers, Frank Robinson and Boog Powell each singled for the Orioles, bringing up Brooks Robinson. Manager Gil Hodges kept Seaver in the game, believing in that year's Cy Young winner.

Brooks blasted a line drive toward right center that Swoboda raced for. He ran as far as he could, stretched, and made a full length diving backhanded catch. Swoboda looked in his glove, and there was the ball. He said to himself “that was one hell of a catch, and this is the World Series”. The Shea crowd roared, and Tom Seaver sighed.

Although Frank Robinson tagged and scored the tying run, Swoboda's catch stopped the go-ahead run from scoring. This came one day after Tommie Agee made his two amazing catches the day before. The Mets won the game in the 10th inning, on J.C. Martin's bunt, scoring Rod Gaspar. Tom Seaver got the victory, the only World Series victory of his career.

Baseball Weekly later ranked the catch as one of the "10 Most Amazing Plays of All-Time."

After all the years of poor play in the outfield and earning the name Rocky due to it, Swoboda had worked hard to get better. It all paid off in the big spotlight. Seaver and Swoboda never had the greatest relationship neither, it was ironic the play took place during his only World Series victory.

A silhouette of Swoboda making his famous catch is featured at the right field gate section of Citi Field in his honor.

Swoboda was in the Mets Opening Day lineup in 1970,as the Amazing Mets raised the World Champions flag. In May he had a big three hit, three RBI day on May 16th, in a 6-0 win at Philadelphia. In a ten day stretch he drove in a dozen runs, including a four RBI day on May 26th, leading the way for a 5-1 win over the Cardinals.

On July 9th he hit a grand slam HR off Montreal's Rob Nye, leading Tom Seaver & the first place Mets to a 7-1 win at Shea Stadium.

He hit three HRs in the last two weeks of July, hitting his last Mets HR on August 2nd in the night cap of a double header. He missed action in parts of the final two months, as the Mets finished third 83-79.

Overall he played 115 games in 1970, hitting .223, with two HRs, 8 doubles, 26 RBIs & a .340 on base %in 245 at bats. That winter the Mets decided young Ken Singleton was getting the right field job. Swoboda was traded to Montreal for centerfielder Don Hahn just before the start of the 1971 season.

Later that year, after 39 games in Montreal, the Expos traded Swoboda to the A.L. New York club. Swoboda played there for three seasons (1971-1973) as a reserve outfielder. In 1973 he hit his last career HR, it was on September 12th off Boston's Roger Moret in a 7-1 loss to the Red Sox. In 43 at bats he hit only .116 and played his final game on September 30, 1973.

Swoboda finished his nine-year playing career, batting.242 with 624 hits, 73 HRs, 344 RBIs, 84 doubles, 24 triples a .24 on base % and 285 runs scored playing in 928 games. His lifetime slugging average was .379 and he averaged a home run every 36 at bats for the Mets.

In the outfield (767 games) he posted a .972 % with 53 assists making 37 errors in 1308 chances.

Retirement: After his retirement he worked as a television sportscaster in New York, on WCBS-TV and later in New Orleans on WVUE. Ron was then the analyst for the New Orleans Zephyrs, the former AAA affiliate of the New York Mets.

He worked there when New Orleans was the Mets farm team & still holds the position, as they are now under the Florida Marlins organization.

He still appears at baseball card shows and various 1969 Mets events. In 1999 he appeared with other members of the 1969 Mets team on an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.

He was at the closing ceremonies of Shea Stadium in 2008 & the 40th anniversary of the 1969 team at Citi Field in 2009.

Honors: In June of 2007 Swoboda took a weeklong tour of Okinawa, Japan. The tour was sponsored by the USO in support of the Special Olympics on Okinawa.

He stopped by the US troops stationed there and US Marines and airmen took time from their duty of the day to have Swoboda sign baseballs and photos. Swoboda first set foot on Okinawa while en route to South Vietnam in 1969, just after the Mets won the World Series. Swoboda’s message to troops on Okinawa was the same as it was in 1969: “We care about you being here, to sacrifice the time to make a visit.”

Quotes: “I have my glove that I made the catch with in Game Four of the World Series. I've got some stuff that came to us as a result of the World Series, as well as the last pair of baseball shoes I wore.”

Hurricane Katrina: For Ron Swoboda, New Orleans has been his home since 1981 and when Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the Big Easy, he knew the worst was coming. “My whole family got out,” Swoboda said “If you had the means and watched the warnings, you could not stay. As soon it was in the Gulf, it was aimed right at us. None of it was good.”

Swoboda is often seen at New Orleans jazz clubs & has made friends with many of the musicians. The Swoboda family evacuated their home before the storm. His house sustained no damage because, as it was situated on higher ground “uptown by the river,” no flooding occurred.” I have affection for that town for a person who is from the outside.”

Swoboda has said "I'm kidded, occasionally, by folks who say: 'How long are you going to keep living off of one catch?' My answer: 'How long have I got left?"

Trivia: He is a big opera fan & has occasionally filled in as an usher at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

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