The first New York Mets Old Timers Day in 28 years turned about to be one of the best days for Dunnellon resident Craig Anderson.
Anderson’s baseball career came full circle at the ceremonial game on Aug. 27, as he was one of four former players in attendance who were part of the Mets’ inaugural team 60 years ago.
“That weekend put a nice topping on the cake,” Anderson said from his Dunnellon home he shares with his wife Judy.
For decades, that first-ever Mets club was mostly noted for its record number of losses. But Anderson, a right-handed reliever who led the team in appearances and saves, began noticing a shift in recent years as baseball fans and historians grew to appreciate the contributions of Anderson and his teammates.
For Anderson, the Old Timers Game represented the culmination of that trend as the organization, led by new owner Steve Cohen, singled out those pioneering Mets and issued them rings.
The Mets hadn’t held an Old Timers Day in nearly three decades. That glorious August afternoon made up for all of it.
“I never expected that, but I’m very happy about it,” Anderson said. “It just seems like now we’re accepted as part of the baseball family of the New York Mets.
“(Cohen) did the right thing.”
Anderson pitched in the final game at the famous Polo Grounds and then played at Shea Stadium. He had never been to the Mets’ newest home at Citi Field.
The occasion was also a chance for him to catch up with old friends and share some of the stories he’s accumulated over the years. He’s been invited several times to speak to the Mets Club at The Villages.
“We had a lot of unfortunate – sometimes they call it humorous – things that happened to us (in 1962),” Anderson said.
Seven years after the 1962 season, the “Miracle Mets” won the World Series with some of Anderson’s former teammates, like Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver.
Anderson was elated at the Old Timers Game when he got to meet Seaver’s daughter, Sarah Zaske, in person. Anderson had sent Seaver’s family a sympathy card when the Mets longtime ace died in 2020.
Another highlight of the day for Anderson was being escorted onto the field by the daughter and granddaughter of the late Gil Hodges, a beloved Hall of Famer who won a pair of championships with the Dodgers and managed the 1969 champion Mets. Hodges and Anderson were teammates and friends. Anderson was shocked when he learned Hodges’ family would be his companion while he was introduced onto the field.
“I said, you’ve got to be kidding!” was Anderson’s response when he learned the Hodges’ family would escort him onto the field.
Anderson beamed with pride when he saw “Dunnellon” next to his name on the Citi Field scoreboard. The couple always knew they’d eventually retire in Florida, though they at first had no idea where Dunnellon was.
They settled here around 2003 after traveling the country for more than three years in a motorhome. They learned about the Dunnellon when a couple they were friends with in Pennsylvania invited them over to their parents’ house in Dunnellon when both couples were visiting Florida.
“As long as our health is OK, we’re going to stay here,” Anderson said. “It really is a nice place. We’re happy here.”
Anderson never left baseball. When he retired as a professional player in 1966, he returned to his alma mater in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Lehigh University, where he worked in the athletic department and as a pitching coach for 34 years. He threw batting practice every year until his hip gave out when he was 58 years old.
“Being around young people, that’s pretty much the story of our life,” Anderson said.
Anderson’s son, Mike, played professional baseball, and Craig and Judy Anderson are avid Tampa Bay Rays fans nowadays.
Anderson described their relationship as a “whirlwind courtship.” They were engaged in September 1961, when Anderson was a Cardinal, and they married a month later, after he was selected out of the expansion draft by the Mets.
“She was engaged to a Cardinal and married a Met,” Anderson said.
That offseason, Anderson played winter ball with Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in Puerto Rico, where the couple also held their honeymoon.
That first Mets team was mostly made up of recognizable veterans who were past their prime – a common fate for expansion teams. Anderson was unique as one of the few rookies. He came from a Cardinals organization which chose to put up younger players for the expansion draft (the Houston Astros were also an expansion team in 1962). Anderson’s break came from his success with the Cardinals’ Double AA affiliate in Tulsa.
The Polo Grounds had an unfriendly shape for pitchers, with its “short porches” in right and left field and alleys that seemed to go on forever in center. Anderson managed, however, with his sinker and slider, pitches that tend to force hitters to hit the ball on the ground.
In an era well before inter-league play, New York City had been missing National League baseball for five years, following the departure of the Giants and Dodgers to California in the 1950s. The Mets borrowed their orange from the former and their blue from the latter.
Despite the struggles – the Mets lost 120 games in 1962 – Anderson said the fans were kind to the inaugural club.
But the city had to acclimate to the brand-new New York team. When Judy was first looking for lodging with some fellow players’ wives and told hotel staff her husband was with the Mets, she was asked if he was “a baritone or a tenor,” in reference to the Metropolitan Opera.
The obscurity wouldn’t last. Sixty years later, in a small southern town far away from his former stomping grounds of D.C. and New York City, Anderson is asked to autograph baseballs with the trademark, “Original Met.”