When I was seven or eight or nine I'd often grab a bat or a broom handle or just an old stick and stand in the backyard in Yonkers imitating the batting stance and swing of Cleon Jones. While I dug in right-handed - a closed and upright stance - down the hill from the old crabapple tree, my voice would take on the twang of Lindsay Nelson or Bob Murphy as I described myself-as-Cleon taking his hacks against Fergie Jenkins or Bob Gibson. Unobserved for the most part, the solitary game always reached dramatic heights. Agee was almost always on third and Boswell or Harrelson on first, Mets down by two, ninth inning. Wouldn't you know it, Cleon - we were on a first-name basis like on Kiner's Korner - always went deep.
Cleon Jones was my favorite player on the Miracle Mets and the teams that came immediately after. He was a feared line drive hitter until his knees did him, and a fine left-fielder with a good arm - his left one actually; Cleon was one of those rare hits-right, throws left players. Jones batted .340 for the 1969 Mets (third in the league behind Rose and Clemente) with a .422 on-base percentage and was their best everyday player, starting on the All Star team. That was easily the best year Jones put up, though he was a productive player on some decent Mets teams, including the improbable '73 National League champs.
But he remained my favorite throughout - even as he seemed to attract the kind of attention and trouble that eventually led (along with sore knees) to leaving New York in the era of M. Donald Grant and Dick Young. There was the time Gil Hodges trudged all the way to leftfield to remove his best player from the game for dogging it after a base hit. The fight with Bud Harrelson. The feud with Yogi Berra. The prominent scar on his left cheek from a head-on crash in the early 60s. The woman in the van and the Met-mandated public apology. Cleon Jones would never back down.
Yet Jones also had his goofy but good moments: the shoe polish pitch in '69, catching the last out off of Dave Johnson's bat against the Orioles in the Series, that crazy play in '73 when a sure homer landed on top of the left-field fence - and bounced directly back to Cleon. I was reading some of the great stories about Cleon Jones on the excellent Ultimate Mets site, and this jumped out:
One sad incident in my life also involved Cleon. About 8 years old (I know it was before the '69 season) I was talking baseball with some friends, and stated that Cleon Jones was my favorite Met. Another kid looked surprised and commented, "But he's black!" (And all of us were white.) It was my first exposure to racism. Thankfully, it didn't affect my worship of the Mets greatest left fielder.
Yep, I remember that too - when the most coveted baseball card in my pack was No. 21 on the Mets - that huge thread of Jones stories proves I wasn't alone.
Last year, I was out at the old heap of Shea Stadium watching the new place rise in its beam ends and light towers out behind left-field - a short toss from where Cleon Jones caught the last out of the '69 series - and the team had a special guest on top of the visitors dugout to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Gravel voice, face like Google Earth set to 3D topography. Sunglasses. George Thorogood, bad to the bone at the old ballgame - which reminded me of his devotion to the Mets, and to my favorite player:
I liked the Mets, and the tough Cleon Jones. Not just Cleon Jones, see, but The Tough Cleon Jones. When ever my friends mention him to me it’s The Tough Cleon Jones. So they’re my team, and they’ve been my team since 1965.
When they won the World Series in 1969 it was the greatest thing to happen in baseball. It was David slaying Goliath. It was fantastic. After that, I was content for them to slide back into the second division.
Cleon Jones, like his buddy Tommie Agee and Hank Aaron, hailed from Mobile, Alabama, growing up during an era of legislated segregation. He was one of those young players in the era after Jackie Robinson, a time when black players could indeed be tough and outspoken. Three years ago, he told MLB.com a story about playing in Atlanta in the early 60s:
"Now, I was 20, 21 years old, and I hadn't been exposed to a lot. The year before I played in Raleigh, and we lived in a segregated area. The bus would drop us off at a family's house and take the white players to a hotel. But now we're in the big leagues, so to speak, and Atlanta is coming to town the next year and they have to integrate the hotels."
Jones said he and his teammates had no problems at their hotel during their stay. It was when they left the hotel to get something to eat that the issue of race arose. Jones and his teammates encountered bigotry at a nearby restaurant, which led to his first sit-in.
"[Elio] Chacon went across the street to eat and they wouldn't feed him because of segregation. He came back to the hotel, upset with tears in his eyes, saying he wanted to go back to Venezuela, saying how could he play ball if he couldn't eat. Ricketts was our captain, and he said we should all go eat there. So we went back there, sat in and they said they wouldn't feed us.
"We sat there until they called the police. But they said that civil rights had passed and they had to feed us. About that time I made up my mind that I didn't want to eat, that I was just going to sit there and see what took place. Finally, they said they would feed us, and they brought out food but I wouldn't eat."
The Tough Cleon Jones - I like that, Thorogood has it right - though I also remember his great sense of humor on Kiner's Korner. And I remember my grandmother sitting with me in front of the television in those Nixonland days yelling "C'mon Cleon, get a hit!"