By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (July 17, 2019) — There are numerous 50th anniversary Man On The Moon remembrances this month, commemorating the first time that the Apollo 11 mission astronauts walked in outer space.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Amazin’ Mets’ journey to the top, and several books have been written to highlight the feats of the 1969 New York Mets. This interview highlights one of them.
Veteran sports journalist and author Wayne Coffey brings his time-tested skills as a gifted interviewer and chronicles of sports history to his latest book, “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: The ’69 Mets, New York City, and the Most Astounding Season in Baseball History.”
The book, which checks in at 304 pages in its hardcover format, was published by Crown Archetype in March.
During his prolific career as a writer, Coffey covered 12 Olympics and wrote countless superb long-form features for the New York Daily News, where he thrived as the tabloid paper’s man enterprise/feature reporter for three decades.
These are some of Coffey’s most well-known books: “The Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team,” “The Closer: My Story,” — an authoritative account of 2019 Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera’s one-of-a-kind baseball career.
Fifty years after the Gil Hodges-led New York Mets stunned a nation by winning the World Series, your book takes us back on the team’s journey and what led to that possibility. Was there a pivotal moment in 1968 that led to the team’s title chances in ’69? Was there a game during the’69 season that cemented that possibility?
The most pivotal moment in all of Mets history, I would argue, was the trade ($100,000 and a young pitching prospect Bill Denehy) that brought Gil Hodges in as manager. It was the first time in history a player had been traded for a manager. It changed the entire direction of the franchise.
As for a game in 1969, the most iconic game in Mets’ regular-season history was Tom Seaver’s ‘imperfect’ game against the Cubs on July 8. He lost his perfect game with two outs to go, but it symbolically stamped the Mets as a legitimate team with the best pitcher in the league.
What was the genesis of the book’s title? Did you hear someone utter the powerful phrase (They Say It Couldn’t Be Done) and say to yourself, “That’s the book’s ideal title?”
The book title came from a lengthy, and sometimes arduous, search. Many times they just come to you. This was not one of those.
Before you wrote one word for this book, what were your most vivid memories of the Mets from 1969? And how would you sum up their first six seasons of existence?
Without a doubt my most vivid memory was Game 5 of the World Series. I was there with my grandfather, and I ran on the field with all the other lunatics*.
*This scene is described in further detail on his website: “When Wayne’s publisher, Crown, suggested a book tied to the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Mets, he could hardly believe his good fortune; he had grown up rooting for the Mets, and in fact, was at Shea Stadium with his grandfather when the Mets beat the Baltimore Orioles in Game 5 to win the World Series. Wayne ran on the Shea field with tens of thousands of other miscreants, tearing up a four-square inch hunk of sod and running back to the safety of the stands. He planted the turf in his backyard in Huntington, watering it often until he went to college.”
The first six years? Laughingstock. Lovable somehow, but still a laughingstock.
How different was the coverage of the Mets in the run-up to the World Series during the 1969 season in the various New York metropolitan newspapers and magazines, as well as on TV and radio? Did it differ greatly? Did the day-to-day commentary fall into a number of schools of thought? For example, were there a few reporters and columnists who adapted a theme, say, of covering a joyride in their articles and/or broadcasts?
The coverage, in my mind, was remarkably similar. Plenty of people were skeptical, for sure, at the start, but once the Mets established themselves as a contender, the coverage was almost gushing.
How did you begin researching this book? What did you read, where did you go to do your research? What was essential material you needed to form the foundation of the book? And what additional info was sort of the gravy on top to take your reporting beyond the basics and enrich the stories behind the stories?
I read every Mets book out there, devoured clips and wore out the Hall of Fame research department. All of that helped prepare me to go around the country, traveling some 20,000 miles, to interview as many players as I could.
Indeed, people within baseball know former Mets PR guru Jay Horwitz as the guiding force behind the team’s public persona and history as it is disseminated to the public. Did he prove to be a vital point man for this project?
Jay was a great ally, especially at the outset, helping me get in touch with key people and connecting with former players. He’s one of a kind.
How many players and staff members from the 1969 Mets did you interview for this book? What about family members and close friends for those who’ve passed away? Were there a few who were particularly challenging to set up a time and place to meet? Can you take me through a few of the stories of your most notable interviews and detail where you did them and what the experiences were like? Was there an absolute gem as an interview, someone who’s answers and ability to retell tales and dialogue shined the brightest?
I could write thousands of words in response to this question. So many players were incredibly generous with their time and their memories. I got to spend about five hours with Ed Charles before he passed, and that was as good as it gets. He was a lovely man, a very wise and moral man, and hearing his stories about how his life was impacted by Jackie Robinson was too powerful to even describe. (George Vecsey wrote a wonderful tribute after Ed Charles passed away in March 2018.)
Did you also speak to a number of baseball people from around the National League and also the Baltimore Orioles, the Mets’ Fall Classic foe?
I spoke to Boog Powell and Pete Richert, but couldn’t get the Robinsons (Brooks and Frank). I did interview as many people as I could find around baseball, from writers to front office people.
Because of the subject matter flashing back a half century, how helpful were news reels, old baseball movies and the game audio archives from the 1969 season? Were there few archival items that proved to be most revealing and/or filled in the blanks that people’s memories from 50 years ago couldn’t do?
Game audio archives were helpful, and so were the telecasts I could get my hands on. There weren’t too many of them available, however.
You’ve written 30-plus books now. Would you rank this one among your best? And is there a favorite book among them?
I’ve never thought to rate books, but this was a project of passion, and I am very happy with how it turned out, and gratified by the acclaim the book has gotten. I think probably The Boys of Winter is probably my all-time favorite, and it still is in circulation, selling, 15 years after publication.
Are you currently working on another book? Any details you’d like to reveal?
I have a couple of projects in the works, but nothing has been completely finalized, so I can’t really talk about them. Sorry.
Reflecting back on writing “Winning Sounds Like This: A Season With the Women’s Basketball Team at Gallaudet, The World’s Only University for the Deaf,” how did it help remind you that there’s no limit to the amount of time and energy it can take to write a quality book? (In prefacing the question, this was pointed out: Coffey attended each of the team’s games, riding the team’s bus and living in a university dorm while doing his research.)
There is no substitute for being there, ever. It’s easier than ever to write off the web, and Google, but the best insights and material always come when you are making a human connection and seeing people in their own environment.
As a young adult and early in your career as a sportswriter, were there a few mentors who were instrumental in helping you figure out how to do the job? Looking back, was there priceless advice you received one day in a press box or at a game?
I’ve had a number of mentors and wonderful writing teachers, so I don’t think I can single out one. I think the best advice I’ve gotten, and one I share with students when I visit classes is: Exceed expectations. Nothing bad ever happens when you exceed expectations. Make the extra call. Do the extra research. Do a careful edit, and then do about five more. The more you put in, the more you get out.
What is your favorite baseball books from the 20th century? A few favorites from the 21st century?
The Boys of Summer.
And almost anything by Jane Leavy.
A quick look at two of the more compelling books reviews for They Said It Couldn’t Be Done are posted below.
Mets announcer Howie Rose penned this review, which appears on the book’s Amazon page: “Having lived through the Mets’ 1969 World Championship in real time and re-lived it for fifty years, I thought I knew all I needed to know about my boyhood heroes, but in They Said it Couldn’t be Done Wayne Coffey has unearthed some fresh gems; most poignantly those involving the personal backgrounds of many of that wonderful team’s players. Wayne has done a marvelous job of allowing us to relive that epochal event through a fresh prism. This is simply a great read.”
TV analyst Ron Darling, a former Mets pitcher, echoed Rose’s general sentiments in his review: “In 1969, while much of the world was transfixed by Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step,’ Queens was experiencing its own giant leap-a leap of faith with its baseball orange-and-blue. Wayne Coffey has always had his finger on the pulse of New York City and its sports, and his take on the 1969 Mets proves it. If you want to know what it was like to live and witness a baseball miracle in tumultuous times, this book is for you.”
Follow Wayne Coffey on Twitter: @wr_coffey