Casey Stengel’s actions set tone for Mets-Yankees from very start

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It was the baseball writers for New York’s seven daily newspapers who first felt the vibe that Thursday afternoon, March 22, 1962. Gone was the usual pregame fare in the press room at St. Petersburg’s Al Lang Stadium, a choice of sandwiches between baloney and spiced ham. Gone was the warm beer which they were given to choke them down. 

In its place? Steak, chicken, barbecue spare ribs. Oh, and caviar. And a fleet of premium bottles of whiskey, gin, and bourbon. Even the Rheingold was iced this day. 

“Just a day like any other day,” Tom Meany, the Mets’ first PR man, told the scribes with a wink. “Mrs. [Joan] Payson (the Mets’ original owner) wanted to make sure you enjoyed today.” 

Outside, the rickety old ballpark was stuffed with close to 7,000 people who had come to see a most remarkable thing: the Mets, barely five weeks old, would be hosting the world-champion Yankees. This would be the first time the teams had ever played. It was assumed it might be a public flogging. 

It wound up a 4-3 Mets win. The blue-hairs and graybeards who mostly populated the audience sounded like their grandkids had a few years earlier at their first sign of Elvis Presley, only this time they were squealing for Casey Stengel, the Mets’ 71-year-old manager, who’d been eased into the sunset by the Yankees less than two years before. 

“Sure I want to beat ’em,” Stengel said before the game. “Wouldn’t you?” 

Casey Stengel
Casey Stengel
Getty Images

Then Stengel managed the 12th exhibition game in Mets history as if it were the seventh game of the World Series, much to the delight of Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy calling the action on WABC radio, much to the curiosity of Mel Allen, Red Barber and Phil Rizzuto doing likewise on WCBS. He over-shifted against Roger Maris. He pitched around Mickey Mantle. He had his best pitcher, Roger Craig, rested and ready, and had him throw six innings and 110 pitches. 

And when the teams were tied, 3-3, in the ninth he sent up his best hitter, Richie Ashburn — nursing an assortment of nagging spring injuries, who on any other day against any other team would’ve spent the day in the whirlpool — to pinch hit after Joe Christopher laced a one-out triple over Hector Lopez’s head. Ashburn singled, the Mets won, the crowd roared. 

And Ol’ Case … yeah. He was fired up. 

“This may be the greatest, grandest game of my life,” he said, greeting reporters in the dugout seconds after Christopher crossed the plate. “It was just lovely. This will make my club believe if you can beat a great team like the Yankees, you should be able to beat numerous clubs in our league.” 

And thus was Mets-Yankees officially born. And for the first 35 years of the teams’ cohabitation of New York, that was all we had. We had a few spring training games — Mets fans of a certain age still remember a home run Dave Kingman hit off Catfish Hunter in 1975 that traveled around 875 feet — and we had the Mayor’s Trophy Game, which was conducted every year from 1963-83. 

It sounds funny now — almost corny — but for many of those years, the Mayor’s Trophy tilt was no joke. If the games didn’t always fill the ballparks, they came close. For many years, it gave the hapless Mets a chance to shake their fists at the imperial Yankees. In 1970, the tables were turned: the Yankees clobbered the defending-champion Mets, 9-2 at Yankee Stadium, and Yankees fans — a distinct minority in the city in those years — celebrated along with the players. 

“They may be champs of the world,” Yanks pitcher Fritz Peterson crowed. “But we’re kings of New York and they can’t say a thing about that.” 

Francisco Lindor celebrates during last year's Subway Series.
Francisco Lindor celebrates during last year’s Subway Series.
Robert Sabo for the NY POST

Later, the game became such a joke that, according to Sparky Lyle in “The Bronx Zoo,” Graig Nettles in 1978 purposely threw a ball away to avoid extra innings. 

(It didn’t work. The game went 13 innings, the Yankees won the game on a Fran Healy bunt. And Nettles still claims the story was false. Though it sure feels like it could’ve been true.) 

These last 25 years, we’ve actually gotten the real thing. There have been genuine moments of intramural rancor — the peak being the Roger Clemens-Mike Piazza passion play, presented in two acts in 2000 — and there have been plenty of years when as much fun as the fans may have had in the stands, and as much jazz as we tried to offer up on the back page, the games fell flat. 

Now we have 2022. Now we have two games in Queens, two first-place teams, both of whom will surely be eyeing each other closely because of the genuine possibility that they may see each other again (beyond the two-game rematch in The Bronx in late August). These games, and the ones that’ll follow, may not define their seasons. 

But they’ll want to win them anyway. As Casey asked 60 years ago: “Wouldn’t you?”

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