Some might imagine that Felix Mantilla, the team's first-ever shortstop, might have cried too when he learned he’d become the Mets' 12th selection in the November 1961 expansion draft. After all, the 1962 Mets would go on to finish 40-120, a benchmark for futility that still stands today.
Playing in two World Series alongside Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews couldn’t possibly have prepared Mantilla for what was to come for him as a Met. When he first heard he’d been picked by the fledgling franchise, he actually thought he was on his way to a winner. Boy was he wrong.
"That’s what I thought—when we went to spring training, we didn’t play that bad," Mantilla, 81, said in a telephone interview from his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "We were a bunch of guys from different teams. We did a decent job, so I thought we were going to have a good year."
Before the Mets selected him, Mantilla was stuck in a reserve role with the Milwaukee Braves, with whom he signed as an 18-year-old in 1952 when they were still in Boston. Mantilla, born in Isabella, Puerto Rico, thought going to a new team would be an opportunity for playing time.
"I heard some of the veteran players that the Mets were getting, and I said, 'Well, this might be some good stuff.' But it didn’t work out that way," he said.
Mantilla cut his teeth in the big leagues playing alongside accomplished players like Mathews, who hit 512 home runs and became a Hall of Fame inductee in 1978. Mantilla's other teammates included Wes Covington, Bill Bruton, Red Schoendienst, and of course Aaron, still recognized by many as baseball’s true home run king.
On the mound, there was Warren Spahn, another Hall of Famer and a 13-time 20-game winner, who was named to 17 All-Star teams, and whose 363 victories make him the all-time winningest lefty in the history of the game. Mantilla played with these players in two World Series contests against the Yankees in 1957 and 1958, beating the Bombers in the first go-round.
To this day, despite his team setting a legendary standard for failure during their inaugural year, Mantilla insists that the 1962 Mets squad, led by the colorful Casey Stengel, was the greatest group of players he ever took the field with, and a team that never gave up. "That’s true," he said. Of course, he was speaking of character, and characters, as much as baseball skills.
That ’62 team was loaded with characters, and any discussion of such has to begin with Stengel, the ringleader of that pinstriped circus in flannel. Stengel entertained and bamboozled reporters after each mind-bending loss with what came to be known as Stengelese, a curious language aimed at deflecting attention from the shortcomings of his team while injecting a touch of optimism about better days ahead.
Nowadays, Mantilla recalls that Stengel used to say that Elio Chacon, a 25-year-old Venezuelan shortstop and Mantilla's roommate during the ’62 season, was one of his favorite players. "He used to say that the only player on the team that could understand him was Elio Chacon and someone asked him why is that," Mantilla began. "And Casey replied, ’He’s the only one here who can understand me because he can’t understand English!’"
Mantilla also confirmed that Stengel falling asleep on the bench during games is not an urban legend, but something that really happened. And more than once.
The first time Mantilla became aware of it was during a Grapefruit League game at the Mets' training complex in Saint Petersburg, Florida, when second baseman Charley Neal pointed it out to him. "Charley was the one that told me on that particular day. [Stengel] went to sleep from the first inning to about the seventh inning," he said.
And nap time often stretched into the regular season, too. "Oh a bunch of times, and (coach) Solly Hemus was the one who would take over," he said. Mantilla admired the Ol’ Professor, but says today that he was probably a little too old by that time to be managing a ball club.
Mantilla also mentioned Richie Ashburn—a future Hall of Famer who batted .306 in 1962 in what would be his final season—and two others, Choo-Choo Coleman and Hot-Rod Kanehl, as being great teammates and great guys.
But in the case of the latter two, they were players lacking in skills, and were exposed as such during games. For Coleman, one of seven catchers to appear in a game for the ’62 Mets, even something as basic as "One is a fastball, two is a curve" was a challenge.
"We were playing a game in Saint Pete, and the pitcher threw a pitch and it went by Choo-Choo, and everybody said, What happened here?" Mantilla began. "So they asked Choo-Choo what’s going on, and Choo-Choo said he put down a ‘1,’ which was a fastball, but then when the pitcher threw that he forgot what he’d put down, and he went the other way, and he thought it was a curveball and the ball got by him," he recalled, chuckling at the memory. Coleman's skills at the plate were just as flawed: Coleman hit .197 in 201 big league games.
Kanehl, who spent eight years toiling in the minors for the Yankees before getting his shot with the Mets, made a positive impression with Mantilla. "He was a guy that hustled all the time, and he knew the game," Mantilla said. "Even though he wasn’t one of the greatest second basemen that ever lived, he knew the game." Reportedly a favorite of Stengel for his all-out play, Kanehl made 22 errors in 62 games for the Mets that first year.
The Mets found all kinds of ways to lose that first season and often did so bunches, including 17 in a row from late May to early June. And while they are remembered today for wacky fielding—who could forget "Yo la tengo!" after all—quite often the relief crew was the culprit.
A check of the box scores reveals a startling fact: That year, the Mets lost 44 games in which they either had the lead or were tied after six innings, with 23 of those losses a direct result of a relief pitcher allowing inherited runners to score or having the runs charged to him.
But looking back on it, Mantilla says all the losing was truly a team effort. "It seemed like it was everything: the relief pitchers, sometimes the starting pitchers, sometimes it was the infielders or the outfielders screwing up," he said. "I remember Pittsburgh had a guy named Danny Murtaugh, the manager. Danny told me once, 'If you guys played only seven-inning games, you guys could be in the World Series,’" Mantilla said, laughing.
Mantilla insists that fellowship remained within the clubhouse, in spite of the endless losses. The 1962 Mets, he said, never gave up. "I was surprised that, for a team losing that many games in a row or during a season, I never saw anyone finger-point at anybody because everybody was screwing up one way or another," he said.
After manning shortstop in the Mets' first-ever game—an April 11 contest against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium—Mantilla settled in primarily at third base, hitting .275 with 17 doubles, 11 home runs, and 59 RBIs in 466 at-bats. Maybe Stengel should have played him even more. In the Mets' 40 wins that year, Mantilla batted .359 (42-for-117), with six doubles, one triple, four homers, and 20 RBIs.
Mantilla was dealt to Boston following the season for pitcher Tracy Stallard, third baseman Pumpsie Green, and a player to be named later, who turned out to be shortstop Al Moran. Mantilla didn’t play much in 1963, but he was useful for the Red Sox, hitting .315 in 66 games. His big opportunity eventually came the following year.
"I think we were in Chicago, and I think our left fielder got hurt," Mantilla said, looking back. "I got a couple of hits and I never stopped hitting." Mantilla displayed power in 1964, clubbing 30 homers to go along with 20 doubles and a .289 average in 133 games. And while his average and power numbers dropped in 1965, he still managed to hit a respectable .275 with 18 homers, while driving in 92 runs in 534 at-bats.
"I had more times at bat—the chance to hit more," Mantilla explained. The Green Monster in left, he said, made for an inviting target for a righty hitter. "The ballpark was tailor-made for me. I was a pull hitter," he said.
Mantilla began to feel pain in his right throwing shoulder when the Red Sox gathered for spring training in 1966. He today attributes the pain to not having played winter ball leading up to camp like he always had done before. "Maybe after so many years, your arm gets used to that punishment and you have to keep on playing, and I didn’t," he said.
Boston dealt Mantilla to the Astros on the eve of the season, but his shoulder proved his undoing. After batting .219 in 77 games, Mantilla was released. He then signed with the Cubs in February 1967, but a torn Achilles tendon suffered during spring camp was the final blow, and he was released in July without ever appearing in another game.
The infielder tried again with the Cubs the following spring, but was again released. It was the end of his career. He finished with a .261 average in 969 games played.
Mantilla couldn’t tear himself completely away from the diamond: He served as a player-manager for a year in the Canadian Provincial League, but walked away for good when the team insisted on his continuing to serve as a player as well as a manager. He was replaced by Tim Harkness, a native Canadian who played for the Mets in 1963 and 1964.
Mantilla later worked for the Boys Club in Milwaukee, where he still lives today. He said he enjoys seeing his former Mets teammates at alumni events. While they weren’t the most talented team, they were special to him. "They were the greatest guys that I played with," Maintilla said.