Thursday, February 4, 2010

Solly Hemus recalls his days with the 1962 New York Mets

The 21st annual BAT dinner in New York City provided me the opportunity to catch up with one of the coaches of the inaugural 1962 New York Mets. Solly Hemus, now 86, and living in Houston, was in New York to attend the dinner which supports former baseball players who are experiencing financial and medical hardships.

“I have been involved with the BAT for 20 years,"Hemus said. "Joe Garagiola got me involved. They're trying to help other ballplayers who have problems. I like to see the other ballplayers that you played with. We needle each other pretty well. It's a great gathering. We get together and tell a bunch of lies. Garagiola, he's getting ready to hit .400!”
Solly Hemus as a coach with the 1962 New York Mets / Author's Collection
After playing 11 seasons in the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies, Hemus served for three seasons as the manager of the Cardinals from 1959-61. One of those seasons was in the rare role of player-manager. After being fired halfway through the 1961 season, the opportunity arose to join the start-up franchise in Queens.

“George Weiss, the General Manager, brought me on board to the Mets in 1962," he recalled. "Casey Stengel was one of the smartest managers in baseball and Weiss was an excellent GM, so I knew I couldn't lose.”

Joining the “Old Professor” might not have been a losing situation for Hemus, but he sensed the ride for the 1962 season was going to be a rough one. The Mets brought in a lot of older players that resonated with the New York faithful, but were a bit long in the tooth to recapture the form of their glory days.

“I knew we were going to have a problem [as] a lot of ballplayers we picked up were for name recognition," he said. "New York always wanted the big names; Hodges, Ashburn, Craig, people like that. You knew they were coming to the end. Craig's fastball lost a little bit, Hodges was always a great first baseman, Ashburn had a little fire left in him, and Frank Thomas had a great year, but overall they didn't have the type of ballplayers you would like to stock a team with.”

Hemus recounted a bad luck story from his view in the third base coach's box with “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry that was typical of the 1962 Mets.

“It was about the eighth inning in the Polo Grounds, there were two outs, we were behind by one run and there were two men on base," Hemus recalled. "He hits the ball into one of the gaps, right center I guess. He comes all the way around to third base, makes a perfect slide and they call him safe. They then threw the ball to second base, and said Marv missed second base. Casey goes running out there, and Augie Donatelli the umpire stopped him and said, 'Casey, you better get out of here, because he missed first and second!'”

Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby was also on the coaching staff alongside Hemus during that season. As a fellow infielder, Hemus was able to work well with the gruff superstar.

“You knew he was a great ballplayer; his personality, you would like to see alot added to it," he said. "I got along with him pretty well. Certain ballplayers I'd mention to him, and we'd talk about them and then try to make them better.”

After the 1963 season, Hemus was let go as a coach from Stengel's staff. He later resurfaced with the Mets organization in 1966 with AAA Jacksonville in what would be his last year in baseball. He told the story of how he had the choice of mentoring two future Hall of Famers on their way to the big leagues.

“I had a choice of either taking Nolan Ryan or Tom Seaver," he said. "They wouldn't let me take both of them, even though I wanted both of them. I took Seaver, I thought he was a little further advanced. I think I helped him a bit. He was intelligent, he knew how to pitch. The only time I ever got after him was when he got the ball up and someone hit it out of the park off him. I tried to get him to slow down a bit. I saw a lot of great value in him. In fact, one of my reports I sent to the Mets on him read, 'For anything, just don't trade him, don't get rid of him.' They didn't and he went on to have a great career.”

Visiting New York for the BAT dinner brought back many fond memories from both his playing and coaching days in the Big Apple. He only wished his time with the Mets could have lasted to be a part of their World Championship team.

“It's a big city; you are kind of in awe with it as a ballplayer," he said. "I really liked Brooklyn; it had a short right field fence, and as a lefty, that helped me. When coaching the Mets, I used to live at a hotel near the ballpark. Now, I like coming up here with my wife; it's the place to be. ... I would have liked to be a part of the ball club that won the World Series in 1969 because that's what I had in mind when they hired me. I thought that they would eventually win it and they did just that. It was a fine organization.”

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