Aug 3, 2020

Cleon Jones (Part One- the Sixties): Mets All Time Left Fielder

Cleon Joseph Jones was born on August 4, 1942 in Plateau, Alabama just outside of Mobile Alabama.

In 1945 his father had to leave town after he beat a man who had grabbed his wife’s hair while waiting for a bus. Rather than stand trial in the South he relocated to Chicago, Illinois.

Cleon’s mother moved him & his brother Tommie Lee to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately she passed away unexpectedly and the two boys were raised by their grandmother back in Mobile.

Cleon was a natural lefthander, but he was losing to many baseballs as a kid when he hit left-handed. He began to bat right handed in order to save baseballs. He grew up a friend of Tommie Agee who would later be his team mate on the 1969 Mets.

Trivia: Mobile, Alabama also produced baseball greats like Hank Aaron, Billy Williams, Satchel Page & Willie McCovey. 

In 1963, Cleon was drafted out of Alabama A&M where he starred in both baseball as well as football by the New York Mets. He came up right away to the big league club in September 1963 debuting as a defensive replacement for Duke Carmel on September 14th against Houston at The Polo Grounds. 

He certainly wasn’t ready for the big leagues, only going 2-15 in a short six game stay. He spent 1964 in the minors at AAA Buffalo, hitting .278 with 16 HRs & 70 RBIs.

Trivia: Cleon Jones has two Mets Rookie Cards 1965 & 1966.

He made the 1965 Mets club out of Spring Training & was brought in as a pinch hitter on Opening Day, striking out against the Dodgers Don Drysdale. He got his first start in the outfield the next day in a game against Houston, where he went 1-5 with two runs driven in.

In early May he was only batting .156 after 13 games & was sent back down to AAA Buffalo. He hit 15 more HRs there & was brought back up in September. On September 22nd, 1965 Jones hit his first career HR, it came against the Pirates at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.

1966 Rookie Season: By 1966 he arrived in the big leagues for good as the Mets regular center fielder, bating lead off on Opening Day. He started out the season with a HR off Denny LeMaster of the Atlanta Braves on that Opening Day at Shea.

 On May 6th he hit a two run HR off Chicago’s Ken Holtzman in the bottom of the 9th inning for an exciting 2-1 Mets walk off win. Jones hit well during the first half, in June he had eleven game hit streak which got him over the .300 mark once again in the season.

On June 22nd he broke up a scoreless game in St. Louis, when he singled home two runs in the top of the 10th inning off former Mets pitcher Al Jackson in what were the only two runs of the game. He tailed off a bit in the second half but had a strong mid August where he drove in seven runs in an eight game span. In September he helped Bob Shaw to a 1-0 shut out over the Cubs by driving in the only run of the game at Wrigley Field.

Jones finished the year, second on the club to Chuck Hiller in batting, with a solid .275 average. He also led the team in stolen bases, setting a club record (at the time) with 16 steals. He drove in 57 runs with 8 HRs 16 doubles a .318 on base % & four triples, coming in fourth place in the Rookie of the Year voting.

1967: He struggled starting out in 1967, and was only batting .150 by the start of June. Mets Manager Wes Westrum benched him and blasted him in the press. Veteran Ken Boyer encouraged Jones, telling him things would turn around, that he had to hang in there. On June 18th he had a three hit game against the Cubs, and then went on a nine game hit streak (12 of 15) which raised his average up over the .200 mark. He also hit his first HR in almost a month in that stretch.

Tommie Agee Greets His Childhood Pal Cleon Jones at Home Plate
On July 26th he helped Rookie Tom Seaver to a win by driving in five runs in a game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

Jones hit a two run HR, singled & had a sac fly in the game. In August he had a 13 game streak & hit safely in 16 of 17 games.

He finished the year hitting .246 with 5 HRs 10 doubles 30 RBIs & a horrible .282 on base %. He led the team with five triples & twelve stolen bases (tied with Bud Harrelson). In centerfield he led the league in fielding with a .994% making five assists.

In 1968 Gil Hodges came aboard, and the Mets traded for Jones’ childhood friend Tommie Agee to play alongside him in the outfield. The two were happy to be reunited & it certainly sparked Jones.

At first Cleon started out slow, with just 3 HRs & nine RBIs through May, while batting .223. At the time he was platooning in left field with Art Shamsky, but then he got hot. Jones hit six HRs in June including a four RBI day against the Houston Astros on June 20th, helping Tom Seaver each .500 with a 5-5 record.

On June 23rd he hit a three run HR off the Dodgers Bill Singer & drove in another run later on, leading the Mets to a 5-4 win over L.A. As the season went on he hit more, in September he had 13 multiple hit games.

He closed out the year hitting safely in nine of ten games, with five runs driven in during the last week. On September 28th he drowve in two of the Mets three runs in a 3-2 win over the Phillies. He went 1-5 on the last day of the season finishing up with a .297 average falling just below .300 for the season. 1968 was remembered as the Year of The Pitcher & Jones' .297 average was sixth best in the league.

He led the club in most offensive categories that season hits (151) doubles (29) runs scored (63) slugging (.452) & set a new team record of 23 stolen bases (5th in the NL) He also had 14 HRs with 55 RBIs & a .341 on base % second to Jerry Grote (.357). In his first full season playing left field Jones posted a .966% which was second best in the league, making seven assists.

1969 Championship Season: In the 1969 Mets Championship season, Jones had his best year becoming the team's best hitter and challenging for the NL batting title. On Opening Day he started out with three hits, while driving in a run in the Mets loss to the expansion Montreal Expos. Jones drove in two runs the next day & three runs two days after that. and hit safely in his first five games, having three games with three hits each.

During the month of April he also had a an eleven game hit streak, which included a double header against the Chicago Cubs where he drove in six runs. In the first game he had three hits with a double, driving in three runs although the Mets lost 9-7.

In the second game he provided all the offense with a three run walk off HR off Chicago’s Rich Nye helping Tug McGraw to the combine shut out win with Jim McAndrew.

On May 14th he hit a grand slam HR at Shea Stadium, coming against Atlanta pitcher (& future Met) George Stone, helping New York to a 9-3 win. Three days later he hit a three run HR off former Met Jack Fisher, driving in four runs against the Cincinnati Reds in an 11-3 Met win.

By the end of May Jones was batting .410, in the month he also hit five HRs & drove in 18 runs. Some of the pressure came off of Jones as the being the top Mets hitter when Don Clendenon arrived at the June trade deadline. The team now had a true power hitter & RBI man to go along with himself & Tommie Agee.

On July 8th the Mets were being noticed as true contenders & faced off in an afternoon game at Shea Stadium, in front of over 50,000 fans against the first place Chicago Cubs. The Mets were behind 3-1 against Hall of Famer; Fergie Jenkins in the 9th inning.

After Ken Boswell & Donn Clendennon both doubled, Cleon Jones drove them both in with a double to left field to tie the game. Shea Stadium erupted in madness & then Ed Kranepool dropped a hit into left field scoring Jones with the game winning run.

The next night Tom Seaver pitched his imperfect game, losing a no hitter in the 9th inning as the Mets moved to within 2.5 games of the Cubs. In that game Jone homered off Ted Abernathy in the 7th inning, icing the 4-0 shutout.

1969 All Star Game: By the All Star break Jones was batting .341 battling for the leagues lead in hitting. He made his first All Star game that year, starting in the outfield alongside Henry Aaron & Matty Alou. 

The NL won the game 9-3, played in the Nation's Capitol at RFK Stadium. Jones went 2-4 with a pair of singles. In the 2nd inning he singled off Mel Stottlemeyer & scored on Johnny Bench's HR. In the 6th inning, he collected a single off the Orioles Dave McNally. He also reached on an error in another at bat.

Drama: On July 30th, 1969 the Houston Astros pummeled the Mets 16-3 in the first game of a double header. In the second game the Mets again lost, this time 11-5 on a wet rainy field. By the top of the third inning, it was already 7-0 as Nolan Ryan replaced Gary Gentry on the mound for the Mets. 

Then Astros catcher Johnny Edwards doubled to left field scoring Doug Rader. Jones who had been nursing an ankle injury, slowly went after the ball and weakly tossed it back to the infield.

Next, Mets manager Gil Hodges was out of the dugout & walking past the mound. Ryan had just pitched to one batter, Gil didn’t want him as kept walking through the infield.

Bud Harrelson thought he was coming for him but couldn’t figure what he did wrong. Then Hodges walked past the short stop. He was now heading for Cleon Jones, who also thought Gil was going to Harrelson for something. He now knew the manager was coming to him. The rest of the team held their breath; “I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of this” thought Tom Seaver.

According to Cleon Jones he said Hodges told him “that ankle is bothering you, you better come out, if you’re nursing it like that”. Jones at first said “I told you I can play through it Gil, the grass is just wet”. Hodges said “no you better come out if it’s bothering you” and pulled him from the game.

He walked away with a dejected Cleon Jones a few feet behind him with his head hung low. Hodges just proved to his team that he would not settle for anything else but 100% from his players, no matter what the score is. Keep in mind, at the time Jones was leading the N.L. in hitting. The rest of the players said, if he can remove the league’s batting leader he could remove any of us.

From this day on the 1969 Mets went 45-19, the best record in baseball. As for Jones, he gave it 110% every day forward. Cleon Jones holds no grudges; he still says Gil Hodges was the best manager he ever played for. Mrs. Gil Hodges said many years later, it was one of the hardest things Gil had to do, he didn't mean to embarrass the player at all. 

Throughout the season Jones stayed atop the NL in batting average, alongside Pete Rose, Roberto Clemente, Matty Alou & Willie McCovey, all in the hunt.

As the Mets rolled along so did Jones, in August the team went on a win streak of winning 12 of 13 games, Jones had hits in all but two of those games. In a three game series against the San Francisco Giants at Shea, Jones tore up their staff with seven hits, & two walks in the series. 

In September he missed some time with an injury but was ready to go as the Mets won the NL Eastern title & headed to the playoffs.

Jones finished the year third in the league in batting, setting a Met record with a .340 average. The Mets record stood for almost three decades. He had career bests in on base percentage (.422) which was 5th best in the N.L. Also in RBIs (75) runs scored (92) hits (164) and walks (64).

He also hit 12 HRs, stole 16 bases & posted the league’s best fielding % in left field (.991%). He led the team with ten game-winning RBIs & strangely enough was the oldest regular on the team at 26 years old.

1969 Post Season- NLCS: In Game #1 of the 1969 NLCS vs. the Atlanta Braves, he singled in the 8th inning off Phil Niekro to tie the game at 5-5. The Mets went on to a 9-5 win.

In Game #2 at Fulton County Stadium, Jones singled in the 5th inning off Milt Pappas driving in Wayne Garrett. He then homered off Cecil Upshaw in the 7th putting the Mets up 11-6 which was the final. He went 2-4 scoring a run in the final Game #3 at Shea Stadium. Overall in the NLCS, Cleon hit .429 going 6 for 14 with a .467 on base percentage.

1969 World Series: In the World Series Jones hitting machine was shut down by Baltimore Orioles pitching. Jones was only 3-19, batting .158 with no RBIs. But Cleon always seemed to make his way to the middle of some of the most defining moments in the Mets glory days.

The Shoe Polish Play: In the 6th inning of Game #5 at Shea Stadium, the Mets were down 3-0. Oriole’s pitcher Dave McNally threw a hard breaking ball to Jones that bounced off his foot or into the dirt. 

Cleon claimed to the umpire he was hit by the pitch on his foot. Mets manager Gil Hodges quickly emerged from the dugout showing umpire Lou DiMuro a shoe-polish smudge on a base ball. The umpire was convinced that Jones had been hit and awarded him first base.

The Orioles were up in arms, but manager Earl Weaver had to keep his calm during the argument since he was ejected from Game #4 the day before. 

Trivia: Years later Jerry Koosman claimed the ball landed near him & manager Hodges told him to rub it on his shoe to put polish on the ball.

In the next at bat, Donn Clendenon hit a two-run home run that brought the Mets within a run. As everything else that went the Mets way in the Miracle of the '69 season, so did this, they went on to win the game & the World Series that historic day.

Jones will forever be remembered for kneeling on one knee and catching Davey Johnson’s fly ball for the last out of the Series. “Come on down baby, come on down” he said to himself as he made the out then ran over to celebrate with his childhood friend Tommie Agee.

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