Jerry Koosman won 140 games over 12 seasons with the Mets (1967-1978), ranks second on the Mets all-time list and first by any left-handed pitcher in wins in franchise history. He was the winning pitcher in Game 2 and the decisive Game 5 of the 1969 World Series. Koosman also a two-time All-Star with the Mets (1968 and 1969). In September 2019, the New York Mets announced that they will retire his No. 36 during a ceremony this season.
The following is an excerpt from Brian Wright’s new book, The New York Mets All-Time All-Stars, available now from Lyons Press.
Frugality can sometimes have its virtues. Jerry Koosman struggled mightily in the minors following a brief Army stint and management was on the verge of releasing the hard-throwing Minnesotan in 1966. Except the front office remembered he owed a sum of less than $100—money borrowed to fund a replacement vehicle after being involved in a small accident with teammates.
The Mets kept Koosman pending debt reimbursement. Nobody knows if he paid them back or not. And eventually, nobody cared.
Within a year, Koosman advanced to Triple-A — adding a curveball to his repertoire. By late 1967, he was promoted to the majors. He had a rough go of it in his nine-start trial period but got an opportunity to join the club when the ’68 season began.
Before long, it would be the Mets who owed him. Standing in Tom Seaver’s shadow was never a source of discontent. When Koosman concluded his Mets career after 1978, his final stat line was highlighted by 346 starts, 2,544.2 innings pitched, 140 wins, 1,799 strikeouts, 108 complete games, and 26 shutouts. In each of those categories, he was second to the legendary right-hander.
But the top left-handed starter in team history may be superior in this regard—as the Mets’ greatest big-game pitcher, evidenced most by his performance down the stretch during the magical championship carpet ride of 1969.
Before that season, the Mets took pride in trivial accomplishments—winning a home opener, for instance. And thanks to their rookie southpaw, they did it for the first time ever in their seventh attempt. A complete game shutout of San Francisco came four days after a blanking of the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
Any notion of beginner’s luck was dismissed when he stood at 11-2 on June 19—not having allowed more than three runs in any start.
Less than a month later, the 25-year-old protected a 1–0 ninth-inning lead in the All-Star Game at the Astrodome by fanning Carl Yastrzemski. Kooz capped his first full season with 19 victories, 178 K’s, and an ERA of 2.08 over 263.2 innings.
To many, it merited the NL Rookie of the Year, but not to most. He barely lost out on the honor to future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench. But bigger things—and a greater reward—lay ahead.
There was reason to feel positive going into ’69, and the pitching staff was the primary source of that optimism. Seaver, Koosman, Gary Gentry, Nolan Ryan, Tug McGraw, and others gave the impression that they’d be better than before — not that this was a high bar to surpass.
By mid-June, the Mets were at .500—a surprising development for a team typically out of contention by this point. Almost as surprising was that Koosman, too, had a break-even record. His struggles dissipated by summertime as he and the rest of the rotation dealt with a razor-thin margin of error. The
Mets offense never put fear into opposing pitchers, averaging less than four runs per contest. Still, by early September, a miracle was in the making. The Mets had narrowed the distance between them and the Chicago Cubs in the National League East to 2.5 games heading into a Shea showdown. Remarks from Cubs players, dismissive of New York’s recent resurgence, fueled the fire of a heated pennant race. Bill Hands, who opposed Koosman in the opener, added kerosene. In the bottom of the first, he threw toward Tommie Agee’s head.
“I knew right away I was going to go after their best hitter,” said Koosman. “You mess with my hitters, I’m going after your best one. I’ll go after him twice if I have to!”
He only needed to do it once. Ron Santo’s wrist bore the brunt of a Koosman fastball leading off the second inning.
“Kooz proved that he was the warrior I always thought he was,” Art Shamsky said. “And everybody on the team respected him for it.”
The Cubs soon realized the only effect their intimidation tactic had on the Mets was that it made them tougher. Koosman went the distance as the Mets won 3–2 and closed to within 1.5 games. They’d be in first place two nights later. While New York turned into an unstoppable force down the stretch, beating Koosman also proved to be an impossibility.
His start versus the Cubs began a stretch of five consecutive complete games—three of which were shutouts. He had pitched at such a high level for so long, a letdown seemed inevitable.
The Atlanta Braves put a few dents in Koosman’s invincible facade in Game 2 of the NLCS. Staked with an 8–0 advantage, Jerry was pelted with a run in the fourth and five in the fifth. The Mets hung on for an 11–8 victory and won two days later to punch their ticket to the World Series, where Koosman would show that the dud in Atlanta was a mere aberration.
Just when it looked like the Mets were drifting down to earth following Seaver’s opening game defeat, Koosman kept the Baltimore Orioles’ dynamic lineup hitless for six innings. He yielded two hits and a run in the seventh and stayed on the mound long enough for the Mets to give him a ninth-inning lead. Koosman would depart one out shy of going the distance, but his effort had swung the momentum back in the Mets’ favor. It built further as more outstanding pitching propelled New York to wins in Games 3 and 4 at Shea Stadium. Now one victory from cementing a fairy-tale season for the ages, Gil Hodges called on Koosman to write the final chapter.
Early on, celebratory plans were put on hold. Koosman allowed home runs to the usual — Frank Robinson — and the unusual—opposing pitcher Dave McNally.
“They’re not getting any more,” a frustrated Koosman told his teammates as he stormed into the dugout after the third inning. “Let’s go beat ’em!”
True to his word, the Orioles would score no more, limited to just one hit the rest of the way. The Mets, meanwhile, came to life in the sixth, tied the O’s in the seventh, and scored the winning margin in the eighth.
As Cleon Jones secured Davey Johnson’s flyball on the warning track in left-center field, Koosman jumped into the arms of catcher Jerry Grote as the celebratory masses congregated on the Shea turf. What seemed inconceivable in March came to fruition in October.