Amazin’ career turn
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Amazin’ career turn

'Miracle Mets' star Art Shamsky is now Israel's baseball ambassador

“Meet the Mets, meet the Mets, come on out and meet the Mets” was one of the background songs of my Queens childhood, the song that accompanied the bumbling young team as it belly-flopped from game to game.

Out of self-defense, I changed the lyrics, at least in my own head.

“Step right up and meet the Mets,” became “and beat the Mets.”

Simple reportorial accuracy.

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At his baseball clinic, former Mets star Art Shamsky works with children. Some are lifting a bat for the first time.

The Mets, the team that in 1962 replaced the once-beloved, more recently deeply loathed Brooklyn Dodgers, who had decamped to Los Angeles, taking thousands upon thousands of vivisected bloody hearts with them, were not very good at first.

They were funny, though, those Mets. They were charming. They were picturesque. They had great names – Choo Choo Coleman, Marvelous Marv Throneberry. The incomparable Casey Stengel, late of the Yankees, presided over them, emitting malapropisms like a sparkler emits glitter and flash.

Then, in 1969, the lovable losers became the Miracle Mets, the Amazin’s, as they improbably, miraculously, amazingly won the World Series.

That day, October 16, 1969, was the day when the life of one of the Mets’ outfielders, Art Shamsky, a nice Jewish boy from St. Louis, changed just as surely as did his team’s fortunes.

Shamsky was born in 1941; his parents, William and Sadie Yaffe Shamsky, were first-generation Americans, the children of Polish immigrants. “My family was religious, but I just wanted to play baseball,” Art Shamsky said. “I was bar mitzvahed, but I hated my Hebrew school, because all I wanted to do was be outside.”

He was an athletic boy, but there was no question about which sport would be his. “From the time I could walk, it was baseball,” he said. “I was a big St. Louis Cardinals fan, and my father took me to a lot of games.

“I lived and died with the Cardinals.

“My favorite player was Stan Musial. I would lie awake at night, listening to the Cardinals games, until either the game was over or Stan batted for the first time. I always knew that I wanted to be a baseball player.”

St. Louis was a serious baseball town. Shamsky played in its little league, called the Khoury League after George Khoury, another man who was serious about baseball. The Khoury League is the longest operating youth baseball league in the United States. “I was fortunate in coming from an area that developed a lot of good baseball players,” he said. From Little League, he went on to the American Legion Baseball League, also stocked with good amateurs. “I had the opportunity to play quality baseball,” he said. “Good competition always makes you better.”

Shamsky graduated high school when he was 16 – his family moved from the city, where he had been on track to graduate in January, when he would have been 17, to another school district, where students did not graduate midyear. He was pushed ahead – “I ended up going to the University of Missouri when I was 16, and I was too young,” he said. “Much too young.”

He had been recruited to play baseball there, but he hurt his hand, needed surgery, and was out of commission for some time. He could play that summer, though, after a year of college, “I had the opportunity to sign with a team,” and he did.

Back then, in the fall of 1958, there was no draft for baseball players. A young man could chose to sign with any team that offered him a contract. Shamsky had a number of offers from which to choose, but because it was “a great team, had great players, and I liked the uniforms,” he signed with the Cincinnati Reds. He was 17 years old. (The uniform had a vest.)

What did his parents think of this? “My father was very happy that I was playing baseball,” Shamsky said. “I’m sure he was a frustrated baseball player himself.” His mother, on the other hand, “wanted me to be successful,” but “she really didn’t care” about his team’s fortunes.

In early 1960, Shamsky played in the lowest level of the organization’s farm team, Class D, for a team in Geneva, N.Y.. “I was on a team with Pete Rose and Tony Perez,” he said. “They were two great players. Pete got more hits than anyone else in the history of the game, and Tony is in the hall of fame.” (Rose, nicknamed “Charlie Hustle,” a record-breaking favor, is banned from the game and the Hall of Fame because of his betting history.)

“Still, the team was so bad that eventually we got the manager fired. But that team sent three of us to the big leagues.”

The next year, Shamsky, Rose, and Perez played Class B ball in Topeka, Kans., and then the three were teammates again the next year in Macon, Ga., and the year after that they played triple A ball together in San Diego. The year after that, Rose went to the Reds, and Shamsky and Perez spent their last summer in San Diego.

Finally, in 1965, after five years spent growing up in Cincinnati’s elaborate training system, Art Shamsky went up to the major league team, the Cincinnati Reds. He played there for three seasons. “I really enjoyed my time there,” he said. “They were a very good team.” But the Reds never won a pennant during his time there, and he never had any postseason experience.

And then, in the winter of 1967-68, Art Shamsky was traded.

To the New York Mets. The lovable losers. Baseball’s clowns.

“It was a culture shock for me,” he recalled. It was the first time he was traded, the first time he left his baseball womb, the Cincinnati Reds’ organization, to face baseball life on his own. “You kind of grew up with your teammates,” he said. “You’re leaving your friends. And New York was not a city I really liked at that time.

“And the Mets were a bad team.”

But the team was changing. Its new manager, former Brooklyn Dodger first baseman Gil Hodges, started at the same time Shamsky did. “It was a transition period,” Shamsky said. “They brought in a number of new players. Gil indoctrinated us with his philosophy of baseball, and of winning, and of how to conduct yourself.”

Still, there was much to overcome.

“Up until that point, the Mets had been the laughingstock of baseball. Coming over to them was upsetting.” And, in case the point hadn’t been made clearly enough, Shamsky added, “The Mets were not a good team.”

But he had no choice, so Shamsky, who then was married and the father of two small daughters, rented a house in Queens. The next year, they moved to Manhattan, “and I fell in love with the city,” he said. “That next year, 1969, in spring training, I continued to adapt to being with the Mets.”

The Mets also adapted – to winning.

That whole amazing summer led inexorably toward October 16, when the Mets won the World Series for the first time. (They’ve only won it once since then, in 1986.) “No matter what else you accomplish in your baseball career, it’s not like playing in the World Series,” Shamsky said. “And history will show that this team was one of the most remarkable ever.”

It was a year of remarkable sports reversals in New York; during that same period, from 1969 to 1970, the Jets won the Super Bowl for the first time, and the Knicks won the NBA championship. It was not a good time for the city or the country, but it was a good time to be a New York sports fan. (Shamsky and coauthor Barry Zeman wrote about that period, in a book called “The Magnificent Seasons: How the Jets, Mets, and Knicks Made Sports History and Uplifted a City and the Country.”)

For Shamsky, that experience of starting as the underdog and ending at the pinnacle of his world has shaped the rest of his life. “I meet people today who talk about that team, who express feelings about it, even though they weren’t even around to see them,” he said. “There is not a day when someone does not talk to me about the 1969 Mets.

“Shea Stadium” – the Mets’ home in Queens until it was replaced by the nearby Citi Field, right next to Flushing Meadow Park, home of the 1939 and 1964 worlds fairs – “held about 53,000 people, but about a quarter of a million people come up to me to tell me that they were there,” he said.

His career peaked that year. “I played for 13 years, but very rarely does anyone talk about the other 12,” he said ruefully. But baseball is a game of statistics, and Shamsky racked up some very impressive numbers. He batted .300 in 1969, and he led the Mets in the National League Playoffs, batting .537 against the Atlanta Braves, with seven hits in 13 at-bats. While he was still with Cincinnati, he tied a Major League record by hitting four consecutive home runs in four at-bats over two games. There is more – too much for here.

Shamsky retired in 1972, at 30. The toll the game had taken on his body was beginning to show, and he often was out with injuries. “In retrospect, I think it was a mistake,” he said. “I could have and should have played more, but I was so banged up physically! But I was not prepared to leave the game. You always think that it will last forever.”

Shamsky has had both hips replaced, and last month one of his shoulders was replaced as well. “I don’t think people generally realize how tough the game is when you play it every day,” he said.

So Art Shamsky was a good player on a surprisingly superb team. But what made him stand out for so many Mets fans was not only his statistics but the fact that he was Jewish.

At the beginning of his career, his Jewishness was no big deal. “I never had any problems being Jewish,” he said. “Macon” – the Georgia city where he played in the minors – “was in the Deep South, but even there I never had any problems. I know that some people who played before me had problems, but I didn’t. I always looked at myself as a baseball player who happened to be Jewish.

“The way I looked at my life at that time, although religion was important I was a baseball player first. I never looked at it differently until I came to New York.”

Ah, New York. “Obviously it was different for me here, with the big Jewish community,” Shamsky said.

But it’s a different time now, he added. “In the last 15 or 20 years, this phenomenon of Jewish baseball players has become so big.” It didn’t used to be that way, he said, Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg notwithstanding.

The High Holy Days fell during post-season play in 1969, and after much soul-searching Shamsky decided to take them off. It was a decision that many people remember. “It was a tough decision,” he said. “We were in the middle of a pennant race. I didn’t know whether it was right or not. I had a conversation with Gil Hodges, who was the stabilizer for me, and he said, ‘Look, you do what you think is best, and I will take care of the rest.’

“We happened to be playing a double header in Pittsburgh. I decided to take off, and I was just thinking that God forbid we would lose both parts of the double header, that would be the worst scenario. A split would be okay. It turned out that we won both of the games, 1 to 0. That really took the pressure off me.

“The next day I was really happy to see my teammates, and I hope they were really happy to see me. There was a note in my locker that said ‘You took the day off and we won both games. Why don’t you take off the rest of the year?’ To this day I don’t know who put it there.” That was the closest to an anti-Semitic jibe that he ever received, he added.

His decision has been retold and embellished over the years. “People who weren’t even born then come up to me and say, ‘I know you took off for the Jewish holidays,'” he said. “It’s become folklore, but when I did it that was because I thought it was the right thing to do.”

“I’m not sure I understand why” there were not as many Jewish baseball players then as there are now, Shamsky said. “You always get the comment about how parents want their kids to be a doctor. My parents didn’t do that. They didn’t want me to be a doctor.

“I think that’s changing, though, and I think that the doors are opening more. I think it’s just a matter of time, and I’m glad I’ve been a part of it.”

After he retired from baseball – this at a time when players did not become rich from their on-field work – Shamsky did many things. Among other ventures, he owned restaurants, tried his hand at investment banking, and worked for years as a sportscaster. In 2007, he went to Israel to manage a baseball team called the Modi’in Miracles; the team was one of six, part of a league that lasted just one year. (Two of the other managers also were Jewish one-time major leaguers – Ron Bloomberg and Ken Holtzman.)

More recently, Shamsky was named as the ambassador for baseball for the Israel Association for Baseball. “The league only lasted a year, but it was a steppingstone for the development of the game in Israel,” he said. “There are enough transplanted Americans in Israel, so baseball is growing.” Some native-born Israelis are interested as well, he said, so the goal now is to build the infrastructure – ballparks and other facilities – that will make it possible to play the game.”

He hopes that more Jews will want to play baseball, both here and in Israel. Because there are so many more teams than there were in his day, it is easier to break into the game, he said – a listener has to remind herself that “easier” is a relative term – and “it’s a great time. There are so many opportunities.”

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