FROM 50 MOMENTS THAT DEFINED MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
Tom Seaver: The Franchise’s Best
April 22, 1970
In the pitching-rich era of the late 60s and early 70s, the names at the top of the leaderboard contained some of the best hurlers in the game’s history, and many were just getting started. The veteran intimidator Bob Gibson led the way in many categories and was followed closely by future Hall of Famers like Jim Palmer, Ferguson Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro and Bert Blyleven. As impressive as that group is, the leader of the dominant young pitcher movement of the early 70s was Tom Seaver. “There’s only one Tom Seaver,” said Rod Gaspar, a teammate of Seaver’s between 1969 and 1970. “What a stud. He and Jerry Koosman, as far as winning games, there was nobody better.”
Seaver burst onto the scene in 1967 when he won the NL Rookie of the Year and was named an NL All-Star as a 22-year-old rookie for the Mets, on his way to winning 16 games while sporting an ERA of 2.76. He followed it up with another 16-win season in ’68 and then broke through for what was arguably his most dominant season in 1969 when he went 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA. In ’69 he won his first Cy Young Award, receiving all but one first place vote. Seaver finished second in the NL MVP voting behind Willie McCovey, who hit .320 with 45 homers and 126 RBIs. He also led the Mets to their miracle World Series victory over the Orioles.
Benny Ayala, a teammate of Seaver’s in ’74 and ’75 noted Seaver’s work ethic and determination as two key factors to his greatness: “Even back in spring training, Tom Seaver always worked very hard,” said Ayala. “He laughed and had a good attitude, but always worked so hard. He had great mechanics and was also a great family man off the field. The best thing about Seaver was when someone got on base against him is when he was at his best. He really focused at that point and was determined not to let anything else happen.”
Throughout his legendary career, Seaver had many signature performances on the mound. He lost three no-hitters in the ninth inning, including a near-perfect game against the Cubs in 1969. In total, he threw five complete game one-hitters before finally breaking through on June 16, 1978 when he finished a no-hitter against the Cardinals. As dominant as those performances were, Seaver’s signature performance may have come on April 22, 1970 in a game against the completely overmatched San Diego Padres.
Seaver was off to a good start in ’70 as he stood 2-0 with a 2.55 ERA in the early going. He shutout the Phillies in his third start of the year on April 17th, and was set to face off against the Padres, who were in just their second year of existence. The Padres finished with the worst record in the majors in ’69 and would finish last again in the NL in 1970.
The game was the second in a quick two-game series that ended the first Mets home stand of the season. It was played on a Wednesday afternoon in front of 14,197 at Shea Stadium. Seaver imposed his will on the Padres right from the start as he struck out two of the first three batters to retire San Diego in order in the first.
The Mets got Seaver a quick lead in the bottom of the inning as Buddy Harrelson singled with one out and came in to score on a double by Ken Boswell. However, Al Ferrara, a role player with good power over his career, connected for a homer against Seaver in the second to tie the game. Whether the homer ticked Seaver off or forced him to become more focused, he was a man pitching against children.
After the home run by Ferrara, Seaver retired the next three batters and set himself on a path of destruction through the Padres lineup. The Mets gave Seaver the lead back in the bottom of the third when Tommie Agee singled to lead off the inning and Harrelson tripled him home for a 2-1 lead. Through the middle three innings, Seaver allowed just one hit and struck out six Padres to bring his total number of strikeouts through six innings to ten.
Seaver’s strikeout of Ferrara to end the sixth started a record-breaking run of dominance that baseball had never seen before, and hasn’t seen since. Seaver would go on to strikeout the next nine batters he faced, as he and the Shea crowd fed off each other. After Seaver struck out the side in the eighth, his strikeout total stood at 16. At the time, the major league strikeout record was 19, by Steve Carlton. To that point, only five pitchers had even struck out as many as 18 batters in a game in the post-1900 era. Even though Seaver was facing the Padres’ three best hitters, he mowed them down with ease, striking out Ferrara for the last out of the game to seal the 2-1 win.
Seaver’s pitching line was nine innings, 19 strikeouts, two hits allowed, one earned run and two walks. He also became the first pitcher to strikeout ten batters in a row. Aside from Ferrara’s home run, the only other hit was harmless two-out single by Dave Campbell. Seaver’s performance also allowed Mets catcher, Jerry Grote, to set two major league records. By official scoring rules, catchers are credited with a putout for each strikeout, so Grote set records with ten straight putouts and 20 overall in a game, as he also caught a foul pop by Van Kelly in the sixth inning.
Seaver had 11 more double-digit strikeout games in 1970, but overall fell off from his early-career domination. He ended the ’70 season with an 18-12 record and didn’t get much consideration for the Cy Young Award, finishing seventh without any first place votes. He bounced back in 1971 and began a stretch during which he was generally considered the best pitcher in the National League.
Over the next six seasons, the remainder of his stint with the Mets, Seaver went 107-63 and pitched to an ERA of 2.46. He was an all-star in five of those six seasons and won the Cy Young Award in 1973 and 1975. He also finished second in the 1971 Cy Young voting and had three top ten MVP finishes. “Seaver was a big-time competitor,” said Gaspar. “He was the nicest guy, but as tough as they came. He threw harder in the ninth inning than he did in the first.”
Although Seaver was rolling through the National League and was putting up a career that was drawing comparisons to Christy Mathewson, Mets management and Seaver never truly got along. With free agency pending for Seaver, he wanted to renegotiate his contract with the Mets, looking for a contract extension and a raise. However, Mets chairman M. Donald Grant refused to hear Seaver’s pleas. Seaver himself tried to bypass Grant and approach majority owner Lorinda de Roulet. She, however, would not move forward on the deal without Grant.
Unfortunately for Seaver, and in the long run the Mets franchise, the contract squabble played out through the media, particularly through Daily News columnist Dick Young, who wrote scathing anti-Seaver articles. Finally, when Seaver’s family began to get drawn into the mix, he felt he had no recourse but to approach Grant and demand a trade. Grant obliged and shipped him to the Reds in one of the most lopsided trades in major league history, setting off a period of darkness for the Mets franchise that lasted nearly a decade.
Seaver went on to win 122 games after his trade from the Mets, including his 300th win in a memorable 4-0 shutout of the Yankees in which a 40-year-old Seaver seemed transplanted to his younger days with a ten-strikeout performance. It was one of the signature days for a pitcher who not only dominated, but possessed that which makes stars into Hall of Famers.
According to a story from former Expos pitcher Don DeMola, Seaver could be considered the best righty of all-time and Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson agreed: “Seaver was probably the best ever to walk out on the mound from the right side,” said DeMola. “I love Pedro, but Seaver, he played with teams. At the Baseball Writers Association dinner after my first year, I was sitting next to Sparky Anderson and I asked him, ‘Who is the best pitcher in the league in your opinion?’ He replied, ‘Tom Seaver, because nobody walks out on the mound with more confidence than him.’ Well, I started to watch him like that, and he was right. He was a control pitcher, hardly ever gave up more than ten homers a year. Check ‘em all out, Fergie, Catfish, Maddux all gave up dingers, but solos. Seaver gave up flukes, he made very few mistakes. Home run hitters hit mistakes and Tom made very few.”
Whether he was a 40-year-old pitching for the White Sox, or a 25-year-old striking out 19 batters against the Padres, Seaver could command his amazing ability and will his way to victory more often than not over his 20-year career. It was evident many times over those 20 years, but maybe never more so than on April 22, 1970 when he struck out 19 Padres, including the final 10 of the game.