Cleon Jones played both football and baseball at Alabama A&M when the Mets signed him in the summer of 1962 to report the following year. Unlike Kranepool and Swoboda, Jones was not a big-money bonus player who was touted as a surefire big leaguer from the day he signed, but in his first year in the minor leagues, Cleon quickly vaulted to the top of the Mets’ prospect list. He even made his way to a cameo appearance in centerfield for the Mets at the Polo Grounds that same year, 1963. I remember it well because I was at that game.
In a young organization, short of prospects, Jones was a standout, batting over .300 at both Class D Auburn and Class B Raleigh. He showed that combination of speed, power, and arm that was truly rare in the Mets’ system in those early years. He wasn’t ready for the big leagues and struggled for a few years shuttling between the Mets and AAA Buffalo.
Prior to the 1968 season, the Mets made two moves which turned out to be turning points for Cleon. First, they hired Gil Hodges as their new manager. Then, on Hodges’ recommendation, the Mets swung a deal for Tommie Agee, former AL Rookie of the Year, a true centerfielder, and a childhood buddy of Jones. Agee was a more outgoing personality than the shy Jones and he seemed to help bring Cleon out of his shell.
If Jones never quite became a superstar, he did indeed have some excellent years, with 1969, of course, being his best, as he battled Pete Rose, Roberto Clemente, and Matty Alou for the batting title. Jones wound up hitting .340 as one of the Mets’ integral players in that great Championship year.
Fondly remembered for his contributions to the 1969 Championship team and the 1973 NL Pennant Winners, Jones also was the focus of 2 negative incidents. In a one-sided loss to the Astros in 1969, Manager Gil Hodges walked on to the field to remove Jones for not hustling, a move that seemed to help bring the team together and pump Cleon up for a strong finish. Later in his career, Mets Chairman of the Board M. Donald Grant thoroughly humiliated Jones when he made him apologize to his wife and Mets fans for being caught in the back of a van with another woman during Spring Training. That was probably the beginning of the end for Jones with the Mets.
Jones is deservingly a member of the Mets’ Hall of Fame and remains one of the best hitters to be developed by the Mets’ organization. He was certainly one prospect who, if he didn’t quite reach the lofty expectations fans may have had, certainly made his mark as an all-time great Met.