Tuesday September 25th, 1973: It was a super special night at Shea Stadium on this Tuesday evening, the New York Mets were 1/2 game up in first place over the Pittsburgh Pirates & they were to honor the great Willie Mays.
54,000 fans showed up to say goodbye to Mays on "Willie Mays Night" in a pre game ceremony before a very important match up with the Montreal Expos.
The 42 year old Mays, grew tired & was hurting by this point of the season. Mays had always said he felt manager Yogi Berra had used him too much earlier on in the '73 season. Mays had not been in a game since a September 9th, 3-0 win over the Expos in Montreal.
He had planned to leave the team & call it quits, but the Mets owner; Joan Payson, who adored Mays, convinced him to stay with the club & finish out the season.
Now the Mets were in a pennant race & Mays, truly an inspiration to the young players, would get to go out a winner, on the National League Champion Mets.
He would end playing in the World Series in the two cities that defined his career, as the Mets took on the Oakland A's of the San Francisco Bay area.
In the 1973 NLCS against the Cincinnati Reds, Mays would have an RBI single at Shea Stadium in clinching Game #5. In the Fall Classic he would get his final career hit, an RBI game winning single in Game #2 at Oakland.
In the pregame ceremony on September 25th, 1973, Mays was joined by his wife May Mays & their son Michael, donning a military cap & uniform. Mets broadcaster; Lindsay Nelson hosted the ceremonies in which Willie was showered with gifts from the organization.
Some former New York Giants team mates as well as respected rivals were on hand standing behind Mays, to honor the future Hall of Famer.
Bobby Thompson, Monte Irvin, Ralph Branca, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Joe DiMaggio, Larry Doby (now a coach with Montreal), Roy McMillan (now a Mets coach), & Mets manager Yogi Berra. As Nelson said "Ladies & gentleman Willie Mays" in his classic drawl, the crowd went wild.
An emotional Mays stepped up to the microphone saying: "I hope that with my farewell tonight, you would understand what I'm going through right now. Something that I never feared I was to ever quit baseball, but as you know they will always come a time for someone to get out. And I look at these kids over here, the way they are playing & the way they are fighting for themselves, tells me one thing. Willie say goodbye to America."
He stepped back, wiped a tear from his eyes as other rolled down his face. The crowd cheered & he tipped his cap to the Shea Stadium fans. He then walked over to greet Mrs. Joan Payson. It was a big emotional night for all.
After the ceremony an important game was scheduled between the New York Mets & Montreal Expos.
The NL East standings now said:
New York Mets 79-77 -
Pittsburgh Pirates 77-76 / 0.5 games back
St. Louis Cardinals 76-80 / 3.0 games back
Chicago Cubs 75-80 / 3.5 games back
Montreal Expos 75-80 / 3.5 games back
Philadelphia Phillies 69-87 / 10.0 games back
Jerry Koosman (12-15) would go up against Steve Rogers (9-4). Koosman was 4-1 in his last five decisions, but had recently taken a loss & three no decisions since September 3rd.
Prior to that he had set a Mets record that lasted thirty nine years, pitching in 36 consecutive scoreless innings, going 4-0. He would finish out the year going 6-1 from mid August on through the pennant drive in September.
The revved up Shea crowd watched Koosman shut out Montreal through the first five innings. On the other side, Steve Rogers held the Mets down through the first four innings.
In the Mets 5th they produced a run, playing their style of small ball.
Bud Harrelson led off with a base hit & was sacrificed over by a Koosman bunt. Wayne Garrett then singled but Harrelson was unable to score from third. Then the steady Felix Millan hit a sac fly to left field, getting Harrelson home from third, making it 1-0.
In the top of the 6th, Montreal also scrapped for a run as Ron Woods singled & stole second. Bob Bailey drew a walk & then Manager Gene Mauch called for a double steal. Bailey was nailed at second but Woods stole third. Hal Breeden then hit a grounder to Harrelson, but the usually sure handed short stop made an error, as Woods scored tying the game.
In the home 6th, the Mets took the lead right back as the hot hitting Cleon Jones hit his 9th HR of the year. Jones had missed almost two months with injuries, in the first half of the season.
Jones was now healthy & was the clubs best hitter in the final two weeks of the season. In the last ten games of the year, he blasted six HRs with 14 RBIs & had ten hits. In 92 games he hit 11 HRs with 13 doubles 48 RBIs & batted .260.
In the top of the 7th, Koosman gave up a pair of two out singles & with Felipe Alou coming to bat, Yogi Berra went to his bullpen ace; Tug McGraw. McGraw was now one of the best pitchers in the league, since August 22nd he was 5-0 with ten saves, allowing just three earned runs in 38 innings.
McGraw quickly put out the fire, getting Alou to fly out to left field. He pitched two more scoreless innings, getting Ron Fairly to fly out to end the game.
He walked off the mound, tapping his glove on his upper thigh, earning the save (his 24th).
Trivia: The glove tapping on the thigh after a big out or win, was a secret symbol of love, to his wife Phyllis.
On this night in Pittsburgh, the Phillies & Steve Carlton beat the Pirates 2-1 on HRs by future Mets hitting coach Bill Robinson, as well as Mike Anderson. T
he Mets had their biggest lead of the season, up by 1.5 games.
In St. Louis the Cubs beat the Cards dropping them four games back & out of the race.
The Cubs had some life, 3.5 games out, with a four game set to be played against the Mets on the final days of the season at Wrigley Field.