When the umpire awarded first base to New York Mets player, Cleon Jones in the 8th inning of the 1969 World Series, the Baltimore Orioles objected.
They insisted the ball hit the dirt, but the ball had a spot of shoe polish on it, implying that it bounced off Jones’ foot.
There was only one problem. That same ball bounced into the Mets’ dugout before making into the ump’s hands.
Oh yeah, and the Mets won that game and the ’69 World Series so there’s that too.
To further confuse the issue, years later, a former Mets player admitted that he scuffed the ball with polish to ensure the ump’s call.
The question history may never answer, outside of the assertion that the 1969 Mets were cheaters and everyone knows it, is whether or not the ball actually hit Jones.
The ’69 Mets were not a championship franchise. They’d started the season proving it, but in the end, they beat the odds using a technique dubbed the “shoe polish call,” earning them the pennant like it or not; they won.
The New York Mets
When the Mets first appeared in the sport, it was 1962. They were one of four teams in New York. It was a saturated market, no doubt, but one that could support four teams at the time.
The New York Giants and Dodgers moved to California by the 1969 season, reducing the New York lineup to the Mets and the Yankees by 1969.
The Yankees were a venerable team, champions in their own right, but they played for the other league. The Mets were New York’s National League team.
Nobody expected the eight-year-old team to even make the league pennant let alone the world series, but they would surprise them all in the end.
For the first ten years of any team in any professional sport, expectations are low. The prior year the Mets finished ninth place, one notch above last place.
The 1969 Season
The 1969 season introduced divisional splits in both the American and National Leagues. There would be Western and Eastern Divisions for each, adding divisional pennants to the season.
Experts believed the ’69 Mets could finish closer to sixth because of this change, but then they stumbled out of the dugout.
The first game of the season they ate dust, losing an expansion team, the Montreal Expos, 11 to 10. The Chicago Cubs seemed they would be the National League Eastern Division champions until the last three weeks of the season.
Dusting themselves off, the Mets passed the Cubs for the division spot. They had a decent, underrated pitching lineup that season: Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Gary Gentry. Seaver, in only his third season, won a Cy Young Award in ’69.
Also, they had their secret weapon, star player Cleon Jones, an outfielder with a good swing, and fast, well-polished wheels. Jones hit a .340 that season, a club record at the time.
The Sixth Game
When Baltimore and New York went into game five of the ’69 World Series, the Orioles only had one win, game one. The Mets beat them in game two on the Orioles’ own diamond.
Then, in Shea Stadium, the Mets took games three and four. Well into game five, it looked like the Orioles might take it back. They had the Mets three to zero going into the 6th, and it was well nigh.
By any analyst’s account, the Orioles should have had the Mets already anyway. Despite the Mets’ start players, the Orioles had a better lineup with stars in almost every position.
Then, Cleon Jones stepped up to bat.
The Shoe Polish Incident
The pitch came in on the inside of the plate, causing Jones to dodge the ball, which bounced into the Mets’ dugout.
According to Mets’ player, Jerry Koosman from Peter Golenbock’s book, Amazin’, it was a fake.
“That baseball never hit Jones. The pitch bounced in the dirt and rolled into our dugout. Immediately Gil Hodges [the Mets manager] told me to pick up the ball and rub it on my shoe. I did and put a black shoe polish mark on it. Hodges in a split second grabbed the ball and ran out to the umpires arguing that the ball hit Jones and here was the mark to prove it.”
Twelve years prior, in the ’57 World Series, Braves player Nippy Jones (no relation) suffered an identical foul.
A ball hit Nippy Jones, but the ump told him to keep swinging until presented with a ball scuffed in shoe polish.
Some think Hodges took inspiration from that incident.
In the ’69 game, the ump awarded Cleon Jones the base, which didn’t mean they won the game, but they eventually took the Orioles in the eighth inning, four to three.
Arguably, the ball could have hit Jones. He’s never said either way, and there was no instant replay in ’69.
We may never know for sure unless Jones spits out some alternate truth on his deathbed. He’s still alive by the way. It could happen.
Here’s a video of the incident: