This Date In Mets History: December 25 — Happy Birthday (And Merry Christmas) To “Little Al” Jackson

Tom Pennington

The left-hander was arguably the best pitcher on those early Mets teams.

It is one of the grave injustices inflicted by the baseball gods that Al Jackson, an original Met who turns 77 today, couldn't last the season with the World Series-bound Miracle Mets, as he and his 10.64. ERA were released in mid-May. Poetic justice should have demanded that at least one original Met was on the roster to celebrate their glorious triumph. (Ed Kranepool played briefly in September 1962, but was not an original draftee.)

Jackson, “the little lefthander from Waco, Texas” as Bob Murphy called him, was a pretty good pitcher for some very bad early Mets teams. Over the Mets’ first three seasons, his .376 winning percentage outstripped the team’s .298. In 1962 he was third in the NL in shutouts, and the 13 wins and 142 strikeouts he registered in 1963 were club records that stood until Tom Seaver came along.

He seemed to save his best stuff for opponents’ aces. He was the starting pitcher in the first Mets game I ever attended, out-dueling Mets nemesis Larry Jackson at the Polo Grounds on July 7, 1962. (The Mets won; Jackson got a no-decision.) He twice beat Bob Gibson 1-0, including the next-to-last game of the 1964 season that dropped St. Louis into a tie for first place with one game to go. That must have impressed the Cardinals, because they traded for him in 1966 and Jackson was a member of the Cards’ 1967 pennant-winning team, though he didn’t see action in the World Series that year. He served stints with the Mets as a minor league pitching instructor and big league coach. Ron Darling and Al Leiter are among those who credit Jackson with improving their game. He finally made it to the World Series as a Met in 2000, albeit as a bullpen coach.

Birthdays

Righthander Jack Hamilton, 74, had a decent season-and-a-half with the Mets in 1966-67, but he is more famously, or infamously, remembered for a pitch that, for all intents and purposed, ended Tony Conigliaro’s career and, some conjecture, led to Hamilton’s demise as well when he appeared reluctant to pitch inside to batters after that incident and thus lost much of his effectiveness.

After impressing the Mets with four scoreless relief outings in July 1965, Dennis Musgraves, who is 69 today, earned a start, yielding a lone run in seven innings. But he hurt his elbow and, though he toiled in the minors for six more seasons, never made it back to majors.

Happy 54th birthday to Rickey Henderson. In 1999 he proved to be a difference-maker, helping the Mets reach the postseason for the first time in 11 years. The 40-year-old left fielder not only posted a .423 on-base percentage and swiped 37 bases, but he had a profound effect on young speedster Roger Cedeno.

Journeyman Tom O’Malley, 52, finished his big league career with the 1990 Mets. His shining moment occurred on June 5 of that year at Shea Stadium: a walk-off 11th inning home run to beat the Expos 6-5.

In 2007, many of us thought the Mets should have rolled the dice with Ruben Gotay, who turns 30 today, at second base. He didn’t fare well after leaving the Mets and has spent the last four years in AAA ball, but at least they wouldn’t have wasted nearly $33 million on Luis Castillo. And Gotay probably catches A-Rod’s pop-up. Ruben’s dad, Julio Gotay, was on the field as the Cardinals' shortstop in the Mets' first regular season game ever.

Amazin’-ly Tenuous Connection

Among the iconic Americans who share a Christmas birthday are Robert L. Ripley (1890) and Rod Serling (1924), the creators of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” and “The Twilight Zone,” respectively. Many memorable Mets moments, good and bad, fall under the heading of the former, and the Amazins have spent too many seasons seemingly playing in the latter.

Then there’s Humphrey Bogart (1899), who once said in a promo for major league baseball, “A hot dog at the game beats roast beef at the Ritz.” We can’t help but wonder what he would think of a burger at Citi Field’s Shake Shack.

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