Throughout our history, we’ve had our fair share of great pitchers. The names Seaver, Gooden and Santana quickly come to mind. However, if there was one game that your life depended on, if you needed a big win, Jerry Koosman should be listed first.
The best lefty in team history, Koosman was always capable of shining in the national spotlight. By comparison, Seaver compiled a 1-2 record with a 2.70 ERA in his World Series appearances. Gooden, in 86, posted a disappointing record of 0-2. Jerry Koosman, however, was dominant. Facing the Hall of Fame bats of the Orioles in 69 and the dynasty of the A‘s in 73, he was 3-0 with a microscopic 2.39 ERA. Although he would spend his career overshadowed, constantly being second in awards and in recognition, in the Fall Classic, Koosman was unmatched.
Born in Appleton, MN on 12-23-42, Jerome Martin Koosman took an unusual route to the majors. While stationed at Fort Bliss, TX, an army buddy saw him pitch and thought he was pretty good. The friend wrote a letter to his father who happened to work as an usher at Shea. The letter made its way through the Mets back offices and ultimately, Koosman was signed on 4/27/64. En route to Spring Training in 1966, however, Koosman’s car broke down. He was stranded on the side of the highway, flat broke. He contacted his new team. The Mets wired him money so he could get to Florida. This instantly put a bad taste in the mouth of the frugal Mets due to shelling out cash to a nobody. They intended to cut him as soon as he arrived. However, assistant GM, Joe McDonald, pointed out that they should at least keep Koosman on the payroll until he gets his first paycheck. Then, they could dock him and at least get back the money they wired him.
Thankfully, Koosman had a good spring and management decided to keep him around–at least for little while. On April 14, 1967, he made his ML debut against the Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium. He pitched 2 2/3 innings in relief of Mets starter Jack Fisher, allowing 0 hits and striking out 2.
1968 was Koosman’s first full season and he immediately showed command of a wicked arsenal of pitches. He would go on to post a 19-12 record, a 2.08 ERA and whiff 178 batters while walking just 69. He made his first of 2 All-Star Game appearances but in spite of posting incredible numbers, he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. That award went to a catcher from Cincinnati named Johnny Bench.
In 1969, Koosman seemed to be suffering ‘The Sophomore Jinx.’ On August 12, the Astros shelled Koosman for 6 ER in 6 1/3 IP. He fell to 9-8 and the Mets fell 9 games behind the Cubs. However, ‘The Miracle’ was about to take shape. “Kooz” would go 8-1 in his last 9 decisions and help lead the Mets to the promised land. He would finish the season 17-9, a 2.28 ERA with 180 strikeouts and only 68 walks.
Game 2 of the World Series took place in Baltimore and on national TV #36 dominated. He was masterful and handled the big bats of Baltimore with ease. He conjured up images of Don Larsen’s Prefect Game as he took a no-hitter into the 7th before allowing a single to Paul Blair. The Mets won the game 2-1 and it was Jerry Koosman who gave the Mets their very first World Series win in franchise history. Tied 1 game each, the World Series now shifted to New York. Koosman would pitch again in game 5.
The date was October 16, 1969, a day that will live in infamy for Mets fans. Baltimore jumped out to an early 3-0 lead thanks to a solo HR by Frank Robinson and a 2 run HR by Orioles starter Dave McNally. However, Koosman remained tough and didn’t falter. With the exception of struggling in the 3rd inning, once again the Mets lefty shut down the Birds. The Mets won the game 5-3 to claim their first championship. Koosman pitched a complete game, allowing just 5 hits and 3 ER. It was his 2nd World Series “W” in 4 days.
Whereas the game is today dominated by the long ball, in the 70’s pitching was the name of the game. And there was arguably no better 1-2 punch than the right handed Tom Seaver and the left handed Jerry Koosman. They were dubbed ‘Tom and Jerry” in accordance with a popular cartoon at the time. As great as Koosman was, he would always be overshadowed by his teammate. Gehrig had Ruth. Drysdale had Koufax. Koosman had Seaver. On any other team, Jerry would have been the ace of the staff. But he always would be second best as long as # 41 was around. But he was fine with that. He and Seaver were good friends on and off the field. Koosman was not an ego maniac. He never demanded more money or more incentives. He fully accepted his role as #2 on our team knowing full well he could make more money and obtain more headlines elsewhere.
After struggling with injuries in 71 and 72, he returned to form in 73. Even though he posted a losing record (14-15), his ERA was 2.84, his lowest since 69. It was Koosman who was on the mound for game 3 in the NLCS against the Reds. Although he shut down the Reds en route to a 9-2 win, the game was better remembered for the on field brawl started by Pete Rose. After outlasting the Reds in 5 games, the Mets faced the defending World Champion A’s. Just as they’ve done in every World Series in our history, the Mets lost game 1. Koosman took the mound in game 2. However, he could not silence the big bats of Oakland. He was chased early, allowing 6 hits, 3 ER and 3 walks in just 2 1/3 innings. But the Mets battled back and also had their way with A’s lefty Vida Blue. The Mets won 10-7 in 12 innings, thanks in large part to closer Tug McGraw pitching 6 innings in relief.
Jerry would take the mound in game 5 and returned to his traditional World Series form. He allowed 0 ER and just 3 hits through 6 1/3, picked up the win and put the Mets up 3 games to 2, just one win away from another ‘miracle.’ It was the last World Series game we’d win for 13 years.
Throughout the 70’s, Tom and Jerry continued to dominate the NL. Koosman’s best season came in 1976. He became a 20 game winner, going 21-10 and finally reaching 200 K’s. He ended the season with an impressive 2.69 ERA and seemed to have a lock on the Cy Young Award. However, Koosman was once again in the shadows, finishing 2nd in the voting to Randy Jones of San Diego.
As the late 70’s approached, the Mets were sinking into the abyss. One by one, our stars were being traded and/or outright discarded. On June 15, 1977, the Mets sent Tom Seaver to the Reds. By default, Koosman now ascended into the #1 spot. He did not do well.
Perhaps it was his age. Perhaps it was his workload catching up with him. Or perhaps he was just tired. As he looked around, his teammates and friends from the glory days of 69 and 73 were all gone; Seaver, McGraw, Cleon, Harrelson, Garrett. After winning 21 games the previous year, Koosman became a 20 game loser in 77. Things did not improve the following season. It was not his fault. The Mets were next to last in the majors in team BA and dead last in runs scored. For 77 and 78, Koosman fanned 365 while walking only 165. His ERA was 3.63. Yet, his won-loss record was an embarrassing 11-35.
After the Mets lost 96 games in 78 and with no sign of things improving, Koosman raised the ire of some Mets fans by demanding to be traded. He wanted to go home. The Mets obliged his request and sent him to the Twins for pitchers Greg Field and Jesse Orosco. Kooz returned to form in Minnesota and showed that even at age 36 he was still a force to be reckoned with. He would go on to win 20 games in 79 and 16 the year after. In 1980, he recorded 15 K’s in one game. Jerry would go on to pitch until 1985 for the White Sox and Phillies. Perhaps his most notorious feat outside of New York was giving up Pete Rose’s 4000th hit. Jerry’s career spanned 19 years and over that time he compiled 222 wins and 2556 strikeouts. He frequently jokes about the fact that his Topps Rookie Card is worth ‘a fortune.’ Of course, also appearing on the card was another young Mets pitcher, Nolan Ryan.
Although Koosman did not have the natural gifts of Tom Seaver, he was a true workhorse and quite possibly the best #2 pitcher in his day. He was an intelligent pitcher. Crafty. Whereas most hitters hated batting at Shea cause of the airplanes, Koosman used it to his advantage. Only a few years ago, long after his retirement, he admitted that he tried to coordinate his delivery with the planes screaming overhead. He led the Mets in wins 3 times, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts twice and ERA once. He was 3-0 in The Fall Classic and the Mets never lost a World Series game in which Koosman started.