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Old Time Mets - John Stephenson

Barry DuchanSunday, February 17, 2008
By Barry Duchan

If Johnny Stephenson is remembered at all by fans of the early Mets, it's as the last out of Jim Bunning's perfect game. He was so overmatched in striking out, the Mets might as well have plucked a fan out of the stands at random and asked him to get a hit off Bunning. At the time, if I remember correctly, Stephenson was hitting a feeble .149 and it didn't get much better for him. Yet, almost amazingly Stephenson spent parts of ten years in the major leagues and was regarded as a decent lefty bat off the bench who could also fill in at a few positions by the time the Angels picked him up in the early '70's.

Stephenson came to the major leagues in 1964 solely because of the rule in effect at the time which required a big league team to carry second-year pros on their 25-man roster all season or risk losing them on waivers. To say that Stephenson was not ready is an understatement. He had a terrible "sweep" swing, the kind that's usually corrected in Little League, and although he was considered primarily a catcher, the Mets didn't play him there at all in the 1964 season. If Stephenson ever had a big hit for the Mets, I don't remember it. If ever there was a player I thought would never return to the majors after his one-year "trial", Stephenson was the one. But somehow after getting to the Cubs, his swing was reconstructed and he actually became kind of a threat as a lefthanded pinch-hitter. When you look at his lifetime numbers, a .216 average in nearly 1000 at-bats with little speed, and below average defense, you marvel at how he managed to have such a lengthy career. When anyone says it's a lot easier to get to the big leagues these days with more Major League teams and fewer farm teams, I point to the improbable career of John Stephenson, a player of minimal talent who managed to hang around for parts of ten years with four different teams.

Note: More of Barry Duchan's writings can be found on his own Metscentric blog.

About Barry Duchan: I've been following the Mets since 1962. Have to admit I was a Yankee fan as a kid, but I found it to be so much more interesting to see how a young team could build itself up rather than following a team where the season didn't really begin until October. I remember them all - Casey, Marv, ChooChoo, Don Bosch, The Stork, etc. As the years went on, I became more and more of a Mets fan, and a Yankee hater once Steinbrenner and Billy Martin entered the picture.   Read More -->

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Comments (3)

I didn't watch the Bunning game but I have seen the clip of Stephenson striking out hundreds of times - especially after I moved to Southern New Jersey which is very Phillies-influnced.

The question I always had, from even the first time I saw it, is didn't they have anybody better on the bench that day?

Backup catchers were a scarce commodity in the 60s, and it was hard to find one who could hit their weight. In 1966, when Stepheson was primarily a catcher, the other backups in the NL were Jeff Torborg (LA -- .225/.278/.275), Bob Barton (SF -- .176/.216/.220), Jesse Gonder (Pitt -- .225/.287/.388), Bob Uecker (Phil -- .208/.279/.338), Gene Oliver (Atl -- .194/.255/.377), Pat Correles (St.L. .181/.221/.208), Johnny Edwards (the starter at Cin -- .191/.269/.284), and Stephenson (.196/.248 /.238).

Only Houston and Cincinnati had any real production from their backup catchers, and Chicago's Randy Hunley played 149 games, so the backup didn't get much playing time (Chris Krug .214/.241/.250 and Don Bryant, whose numbers were good).

I always had a few questions about Jim Bunning.

He was clearly one of the very best pitchers of his era, and his era included some great pitchers. Can you imagine what Detroit might have accomplished with Lolich, Bunning and Denny McLain in the rotation? But Detroit was willing to trade him in mid-career for Don Friggin' Demeter?

Bunning averaged (off the top of my head) 230 innings a year for the five years prior to the trade; he would log even more innings for several years afterwards with the Phils. Bunning was an intelligent man who kept himself in great shape. As a kid I read a book he was supposed to have written, on the heels of the Phillie's collapse in 1964; he knew how to hire a good ghost writer. Of course we all know that he went on to a successful second career in politics.

You think maybe he was traded simply because he was an insufferable know-it-all? He IS one, you know; he keeps getting re-elected, but it's not because everyone loves him. "Know what to kiss and when," said the patron saint of politicians, but Jim BUnning never got the message.

That a player is simply hard to live with is dumb reason for trading a highly successful frontline pitcher, but Bunning WAS traded, traded on the cheap, the first time he had even a slightly down year.

It's as good an explaination as I can muster.

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