Stengel, Snider, and the Sheriff – Swoboda’s Memories of Spring Training
Baseball fans get excited about the arrival of spring training. MLB players, too, look forward to the fresh start of a new season.
Baltimore, Maryland native Ron Swoboda played in the major leagues for nine seasons. It's his first six (1965-1970) campaigns as a member of the New York Mets that the outfielder is best remembered. As part of the 1969 "Amazin' Mets" that stunned the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles to win the World Series, it was his diving catch in the top of the ninth inning of a ball belted by Brooks Robinson that put Swoboda's name in conversation as making one of the greatest plays in championship history.
But, before breaking open a bottle of bubbly on October 16, 1969 in celebration of defeating the Orioles for baseball's ultimate prize, Swoboda had to earn his spot with the Mets. This meant an annual trek to St. Petersburg, Florida each March 1st, to Al Lang Field, to work himself into game shape.
Welcome to spring training.
Today, at a robust 77-years-old, a peppy-sounding Swoboda easily runs through memories of his earliest memories of doing his best to imperess New York's coaching staff that there was a place for him to play in Queens.
"When I signed with the Mets, before I ever played a minor league inning, I was invited ahead of spring training to workout. The Mets did this so Casey (manager Casey Stengel) could take a look at everyone. We were like meat on a hook", said Swoboda earlier this week while grilling hambugers at his New Orleans home.
"I was brand new to organized baseball. Us players were at the minor league site where they worked us out in exhibition games. We were just trying to look like professional ballplayers".
As the Mets prepared for their third season in existence (New York would finish 53-109), Swoboda recalls the club's hierarchy allowing him, as a 19-year-old, to "hang around" spring training for a week or so. Then, the outfielder, who the Mets signed out of the University of Maryland with a $35,000. bonus, had his ticket punched for Triple-A Buffalo.
Looking back to his baseball beginnings now 60 years, Swoboda labels his training done in Dunedin, Florida as primitived relative to today's conditions in both the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues.
Although Swoboda, who in 2019 released his memoir entitled Here's the Catch: A Memoir of the Miracle Mets and More, remembers amazing times playing in major league spring training games, and he is also quick to point out that times were different back then when he and his teammates were away from the fields and clubhouse. Much different.
"Duke Snider was great to me. He was a veteran (and future hall of famer) that made me feel welcomed. Jesse Gonder and I bonded, too", Swoboda remebers.
Gonder, who was an eight-season journeyman catcher from Oakland, California, was African-American. Playing parts of three seasons in a Mets uniform, while palling around with the rookie from Baltimore, Gonder wasn't allowed to stay in the same hotel as his White teammates.
"We didn't have a car, so we took a bus from camp to the hotel in St. Petersburg Beach. It was the Colonial Inn were we stayed", says Swoboda. "Jesse was dropped off on the other side of the tracks where the Black players stayed".
Fresh to pro ball, and learning his way around the south with fresh desires to make the big club out of spring training, today, Swoboda admits that he really didn't know what was going on in the minds of the Mets braintrust. And, as a rookie, he didn't ask questions. Wanting to be the best that he could, and be good enough to fit in, Swoboda was happy with Casey keeping him around.
Stengel, a nine-time world series champion as a player and manager, and elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, was at the tail end of his illustrious career when hired by the expansion Mets. But, going into his first spring training, even in his early '70's at the time, the prospect from Baltimore had a grasp on his future manager's history.
" Casey was an amazing character. Everyday in camp, (Casey) had the writers swarm around him, listening to everything he said".
Carl Willey, another veteran finishing up his career with the Mets when Swoboda arrived in camp, made this rookie feel welcomed. Willey, a teammate of the home run hero Hank Aaron with the Milwaukee Braves in the late 1950's, worked with Swoboda, by hitting ground balls to him in the outfield.
"Carl was using a fungo bat, and hitting them high in the outfield one day, and he let loose more than he wanted. Instead of a play where I was supposed to catch the ball, and hit the cutoff man, Carl let it go. The ball went through the window of the clubhouse door, right into Casey's office. I saw Casey look out at us through the hole".
Spring training, through Swoboda's eyes, was so much more routine as it was sophisticated. There were morning workouts, followed by an afternoon game, then lunch. Batting practice and fielding drills capped off a day's schedule. Exhibition games meant bus rides included to nearby cities of Clearwater and Bradenton. Rides were short but meaningful. Such rituals were all part of the baseball soup young players as Swoboda tasted before the big league life.
Frank Thomas, an original Met who was with the ball club in 1964 when Swoboda was in spring training with the major leaguers, was someone that offered wisdom to the rookie. A power hitter, Swoboda picked Thomas' brain around the batting cage.
" Spring training was always interesting. I knew nothing but wanted to learn. There was Buddy (future Mets All-Star Buddy Harrelson), Krane (first baseman Eddie Kranepool), Cleon (future all-star outfielder Cleon Jones), and Selma (pitching prospect Dick Selma). Oh, and Tug McGraw, and his brother Hank. We were all kids wanting to make our best impression to Casey", says Swoboda, who has enjoyed many years of broadcasting baseball games on the porofessional and amateur levels since retiring as a player after the 1973 season.
Memories of having Yogi Berra join the Mets in 1965 as a coach and player bring a smile to Swoboda's voice, as he flips the burgers he's working. He believes that Yogi was hired because of his success in the big leagues.
"The level of coaching back then was different than today", Swoboda states.
Rooming with Mets coach Warren "Sheriff" Robinson during spring training brings more happy memories for Swoboda. Labeling their time together as "terrific", Robinson's baseball experience of playing for a dozen-plus years in the minors, and managing on that level as well, was just another piece of Swoboda's baseball education gained in Florida.
As for Swoboda's plans come this spring, he's keeping his options open. Last summer, as part of the Tulane University's broadcast team of the Greenbackers Division-l baseball program, the baseball-lifer kept contributing to the game; to a new generation of fans.
Calling his spring training memories a "wonderful experience" for a kid from Baltimore County, Swoboda offers no regrets to his life experiences of so long ago. As a member of the immortal "Amazin' Mets", how could it be anything but baseball bliss for the guy that made 'The Catch' in arguably the greatest World Series of all-time?
Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter from the Mohawk Valley, now living in Florida. He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at WIBX950.com. Don can be contacted via email at Don@icechipsdiamonddust.com.