Seaver, greatest Met of all time, dies at 75

September 3rd, 2020

Tom Seaver, whose long knee-scraping strides toward the plate and aura of confidence and determination made him one of the best pitchers in the history of baseball, the greatest Met of all time and earned him the names "Tom Terrific" and "The Franchise," has died. He was 75.

“We are heartbroken to share that our beloved husband and father has passed away,” said his wife Nancy Seaver and daughters Sarah and Anne. “We send our love out to his fans, as we mourn his loss with you.”

Seaver pitched in the Major Leagues for 20 seasons, winning 311 games and recording a 2.86 ERA. A 12-time All-Star (10 times from 1967-77), he struck out 3,640 batters, which currently ranks sixth all-time but was third, behind only Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton, at the time of his retirement following the 1986 season. Seaver led the National League in strikeouts five times from 1970-76, and he and Walter Johnson are the only pitchers to record 300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts and an ERA below 3.00. Seaver's 16 Opening Day starts are a Major League record.

“I am deeply saddened by the death of Tom Seaver, one of the greatest pitchers of all-time,” said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. “Tom was a gentleman who represented the best of our National Pastime. He was synonymous with the New York Mets and their unforgettable 1969 season. After their improbable World Series Championship, Tom became a household name to baseball fans – a responsibility he carried out with distinction throughout his life.

“On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my condolences to Tom’s family, his admirers throughout our game, Mets fans, and the many people he touched.”

"We are devastated to learn of the passing of Mets Legend and Baseball Hall of Famer Tom Seaver," Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon said in a statement. "Tom was nicknamed 'The Franchise' and 'Tom Terrific' because of how valuable he truly was to our organization and our loyal fans, as his #41 was the first player number retired by the organization in 1988. He was simply the greatest Mets player of all-time and among the best to ever play the game which culminated with his near unanimous induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992.

"Beyond the multitude of awards, records, accolades, World Series Championship, All-Star appearances, and just overall brilliance, we will always remember Tom for his passion and devotion to his family, the game of baseball, and his vineyard.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Nancy, daughters Sarah and Anne and four grandsons, Thomas, William, Henry and Tobin."

Though he successfully pitched for other teams -- the Reds, White Sox and Red Sox -- Seaver is most closely associated with the Mets and is universally regarded as their greatest player. Seaver led the Mets to their miracle 1969 championship, won 20 or more games for them four times, won three National League Cy Young Awards, three NL ERA titles and the 1967 NL Rookie of the Year Award, all while with the Mets. His uniform No. 41 was retired in 1988, the first such honor given to a Mets player.

Seaver was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992 with 98.8 percent of the vote, the highest voting percentage for a candidate until Ken Griffey Jr. received 99.3 percent of the vote in 2016. Mariano Rivera was elected unanimously in 2019.

“Tom Seaver’s life exemplified greatness in the game, as well as integrity, character, and sportsmanship -- the ideals of a Hall of Fame career,” said Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “As a longtime member of the Hall of Fame Board of Directors, Tom brought dignity and wisdom to this institution that will be deeply missed. His love for baseball history, and for the Hall of Fame, was reinforced in 2014, when he pledged the donation of his personal baseball collection to the Museum. His wonderful legacy will be preserved forever in Cooperstown.”

Famous for his drop-and-drive delivery and powerful legs that kept his arm healthy and his right pant leg smeared with dirt, Seaver holds the record for most consecutive strikeouts by a pitcher, having struck out the final 10 batters in a win over the Padres in 1970. For a time he shared the record for most strikeouts in a nine-inning game, 19, with Carlton. He finished in the top three in Cy Young voting six times.

Seaver considered pitching to be art. He called it "an art form, a physical and mental art form.”

"I would like to be a great artist," he said. "I would quit pitching if I could paint like Monet or Rousseau. But I can't. What I can do is pitch, and I can do that very well."

Seaver ranks seventh all-time among pitchers in WAR, at 106.3. Those ahead of him: Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Roger Clemens, Pete Alexander, Kid Nichols and Lefty Grove. He is by far the Mets' all-time leader in WAR at 78.9, 28 points higher than David Wright.

Hank Aaron said that Seaver was the most difficult pitcher he ever faced.

"Blind men come to the park just to hear him pitch," Reggie Jackson once said.

A native of Fresno, Calif., George Thomas Seaver wound up with the Mets as a result of pure luck. He did not sign with the Dodgers after they drafted him in 1965 out of the University of Southern California, and he was drafted again, this time 20th overall, by the Braves in the January 1966 phase of the Draft. He signed with Atlanta for a $50,000 bonus but the contract was voided by Commissioner William Eckert because USC had already played two exhibition games that year, though Seaver had not appeared in either one. The NCAA then ruled that Seaver could not return to USC because he had signed a professional contract. When Seaver's father, Charles, a one-time Walker Cup golfer and multi-sport athlete himself, threatened legal action, Eckert decided that any team willing to match the Braves' $50,000 offer would be placed in a lottery to determine Seaver's future.

The Mets, Indians and Phillies joined in on the game of chance, and the Mets -- entering their fifth season -- came out the winner.

Seaver transformed the Mets, then a hapless expansion team with a copious number of losses. He debuted in 1967 and won 16 games for a team that went 61-101, earning the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Joined by left-hander Jerry Koosman in '68, the Rookie of the Year runner-up that year, Seaver won another 16 games as the Mets improved to 73-89 but still only moved up to ninth place in the 10-team National League.

Behind Seaver and manager Gil Hodges, who had begun the practice of regularly giving starting pitchers four days of rest, the Mets blossomed in 1969, coming from behind to pass the Cubs and win the NL East title as Seaver went 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA, winning his last 10 decisions in 11 starts. Seaver lost Game 1 of the World Series against the 106-win Orioles, but pitched a 10-inning complete game for a 2-1 win in Game 4 that put the Mets in position to win the championship the next day.

Though other players starred that season, Seaver, with his charisma and good looks in addition to his performances, was the darling.

"He was the leader. He was Spanky and we were the gang," Mets shortstop, roommate and close friend Bud Harrelson said.

"Tom does everything well," left fielder Cleon Jones said. "He’s the kind of man you'd want your kids to grow up to be like. Tom's a studious player, devoted to his profession, a loyal cat, trustworthy -- everything a Boy Scout's supposed to be. In fact, we call him 'Boy Scout.'"

On July 9 of that year, Seaver was working on a perfect game against the Cubs with one out in the ninth at Shea Stadium. Jimmy Qualls, a seldom-used rookie outfielder whose big league career wound up consisting of 31 hits in 139 at-bats, hit a clean single to left-center field. It was dubbed "The Imperfect Game." Seaver threw five one-hitters for the Mets before finally completing a no-hitter, while pitching for the Reds, against the Cardinals on June 16, 1978.

Seaver and the Mets faltered down the stretch in 1970, though despite losing seven of his final nine decisions, Seaver still won 18 games. He was back to winning 20 games in '71 and '72, leading the Major Leagues with a 1.76 ERA in '71. Seaver won his second Cy Young Award in '73 after going 19-10 with a Major League-leading 2.08 ERA for a team that won its division and then the pennant despite a regular-season record of 82-79.

Seaver held the Reds, another vaunted postseason opponent, to two runs -- one earned -- in 8 1/3 innings as the Mets won the decisive Game 5 of the NL Championship Series. He lost 3-1 to the A's and Catfish Hunter in Game 6 of the World Series on three days' rest, a game that many believed should have been started by left-hander George Stone, which would have enabled manager Yogi Berra to go with a fully-rested Seaver in Game 7. Oakland won that game, too.

A third Cy Young Award came about in '75, when Seaver went 22-9 for a team that went 82-80. But by '77, trouble was brewing -- free agency had come about, and Seaver, working on a three-year deal worth $225,000 per, wanted to negotiate a contract extension so that his overall compensation would better align with those of free agents who were signing lucrative contracts. M. Donald Grant, the Mets' chairman of the board who was fully in charge of the Mets following the death of owner Joan Whitney Payson, refused.

“Trade him?" asked Maury Allen of the New York Post. "One does not dispose of a Picasso for a schoolboy drawing in a moment of blister.”

A deal reportedly was brokered between Seaver, Payson's daughter Lorinda de Roulet and general manager Joe McDonald, but before its completion, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young wrote that Seaver was demanding more money because his wife, Nancy, was jealous that former teammate Nolan Ryan was being paid more by the Angels.

“Nolan Ryan is getting more now than Seaver,” Young wrote, “and that galls Tom because Nancy Seaver and Ruth Ryan are very friendly and Tom Seaver long has treated Nolan Ryan like a little brother.”

Convinced that Grant had planted such a notion with Young, Seaver demanded to be traded.

The result was the "Midnight Massacre," in which Seaver was traded to the Reds and slugger Dave Kingman to the Padres at the June 15 Trade Deadline. It set in motion a downfall in which the Mets finished last five times in seven seasons, and in fifth place in the other two, as the average attendance at Shea Stadium, mockingly called "Grant's Tomb," fell below 10,000 by 1979. The "Midnight Massacre" turned out to be just the first painful departure of Seaver from the Mets -- another one would occur in 1984.

Seaver finished the season with a 21-7 record and a Major League-leading seven shutouts, finishing third in Cy Young voting. He helped the Reds to the NL West title in 1979, taking a no-decision in his one start as Cincinnati lost to the Pirates in the NLCS. He led the Majors with a 14-2 record in the strike-shortened 1981 season, finishing three points behind Dodgers rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela in Cy Young voting. Despite having the best overall record in the big leagues, the Reds finished second in both halves of what became a split season due to the strike and did not make the postseason.

"Tom Seaver was one of the best and most inspirational pitchers to play the game," said Reds chief executive officer Bob Castellini. "We are grateful that Tom’s Hall of Fame career included time with the Reds. We are proud to count his name among the greats in the Reds Hall of Fame. He will be missed."

Seaver's no-hitter finally came on June 16, 1978, at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. He walked Keith Hernandez and Ken Reitz in the second inning, but was then perfect for the next six innings. Jerry Mumphrey walked to lead off the ninth, but Seaver got Lou Brock to fly out and induced groundouts by Garry Templeton and George Hendrick to complete the no-no.

"The best pitcher I ever caught was Tom Seaver -- better than all of them," said Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, who did not catch the no-hitter (backup Don Werner did).

"My idea of managing is giving the ball to Tom Seaver and sitting down and watching him pitch," Reds manager Sparky Anderson said.

Seaver struck out only three batters, getting 15 outs on the ground and nine in the air.

"My job isn't to strike guys out; it's to get them out -- sometimes by striking them out," Seaver once explained.

Under the new majority ownership of Nelson Doubleday and leadership of GM Frank Cashen, the Mets reacquired Seaver via trade in December 1982. Seaver started on Opening Day '83, his 14th such assignment -- tying Mathewson's record -- and shut out the Phillies for six innings in a 2-0 victory.

But Mets fans were stunned again in January 1984. As a result of the '81 strike, a free-agent compensation system was arranged by which teams losing free agents could select players from a pool of unprotected players. Cashen thought that no team would want a 39-year-old pitcher who'd just gone 9-14 and was making almost a million dollars a year. Cashen was wrong and Seaver was taken by the White Sox.

“Tom Seaver joined the White Sox in 1984 and his class and character immediately impressed all who encountered him," White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said. "Tom was respected by everyone in the game and that respect was so well deserved. He was the consummate professional in everything he did, and at the same time, he had a fantastic sense of humor that reverberated around the clubhouse. Tom was an artist on the mound, who loved and respected the game of baseball with an unmatched passion. Tom won his 300th game on August 4, 1985, appropriately in New York, and we were all so happy for him. While his time in Chicago was relatively brief given his long Hall of Fame career, the friendships and impressions he left have lasted a lifetime. Our thoughts go out to Nancy, their daughters and all of their many friends and family.”

Yankee Stadium was packed with Mets fans for Seaver's 300th win that Sunday afternoon. Ironically, it was Phil Rizzuto Day, and Seaver would later work with Rizzuto on Yankees telecasts. Don Baylor, representing the potential tying run, flied to left for the final out.

"If you could hear him right now, his voice is at such a high key, only the dogs can understand it," said Lindsey Nelson, the longtime Mets broadcaster who was invited to call the final half-inning, as Seaver celebrated on the field with teammates and family.

In 1986, the White Sox traded Seaver to Boston. A knee injury prevented him from one last go at it in the World Series -- against the Mets.

Following retirement, Seaver worked on Yankees, Mets and national broadcasts before returning to Northern California, where he developed Seaver Family Vineyards, which produces cabernet sauvignon. One is named GTS, after Seaver himself; another is NLS, named for his wife.

Seaver was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 1991. It recurred in 2012 and led to Bell's Palsy and memory loss. He was diagnosed with dementia in March 2019, at which time he retired from public life, three months shy of the Mets' 50th anniversary celebration of their 1969 championship.

In a 2011 interview with Bob Costas on MLB Network, Seaver explained why, to him, success was about “the journey, not the destination.”

“It's what's on the field,” he said. “That's where the art form is. That's where the competition is. That's where the intellectual input -- as a team -- makes this happen. On the field.”