By Steve Silverman
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In an effort to make the hard copy of the daily newspaper more interesting for readers who have so many other options, the Chicago Tribune sports section often lists an interesting fact for each team in its presentation of the Major League Baseball Standings.
In the Aug. 25 edition, the Tribune sports editors list players who had a team’s last season with 20 home runs and 40 stolen bases.
The name that catches your eye is with the Chicago White Sox. In 1966, Tommie Agee had 22 home runs and 46 stolen bases for the White Sox. No player has ever accomplished that feat since for the Chicago’s South Side team.
While Agee was a good player for the White Sox – he won rookie of the year in that same ’66 season – he had his greatest seasons with the New York Mets.
He was the centerfielder on the great 1969 team, one that history often views as a “lucky” team but one that really was quite spectacular for the second half of the year and then even better when it got to the postseason.
That team had dominant pitchers like few others have ever had. Tom Seaver was the best but you also had Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Don Cardwell and a fairly hard throwing young pup by the name of Nolan Ryan.
The rest of the team was solid, but Agee had a spectacular impact. He was a brilliant base runner, a solid leadoff hitter with power and one of the best fielders ever at his position – particularly that season.
Today’s baseball metrics bear that out. We didn’t have benefit of Wins Against Replacement (WAR) in the summer of ’69 like we do today, but anyone who watched Agee that summer knows that it was in his glove where opposing rallies got buried. If Agee could see a fly ball, he could catch it.
During that magical summer for Mets fans, Agee hit .271 with 26 homers and 76 RBI. He also stole 12 bases and scored 97 runs. He slugged .464 and had an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .806. Any way you slice it he was a fantastic offensive force that season. The modern stats say he had a WAR of 5.1 that season. To tell you how good that number is, Ricky Henderson had a WAR of 5.0 in 1989, the season he stole a record 126 bases.
Those same modern stats will also tell you that he was worth an eye-opening 11 runs saved more than the average player in centerfield. What you really need to know about Agee if you didn’t get to see him play that summer is that he was a sparkplug in every way a player can be.
He ignited the offense with leadoff home runs, clutch extra-base hits and daring base running. In the field he was both smooth and spectacular.
Sadly, Agee died in 2001 at the age of 58.
Agee’s Mets were a sensational team. Chicago likes to look at the ’69 Cubs as the team that should have won the whole thing. However, while they may have slowed down in August and September as manager Leo Durocher failed to relieve the pressure, they were caught and passed by a much better team. Ernie Banks and Billy Williams wore down; the Mets gained new life with each day.
By the end of the season there was no comparison.
The Mets were supposed to get trounced by Hank Aaron, Rico Carty and the Atlanta Braves, but they simply looked past the Braves’ all-star credentials and eliminated them in three straight games in the first ever National League Championship Series.
Then came the big test against the Baltimore Orioles. For those of us who came of age in the 1960s and others who started watching baseball even before that, those Orioles were a spectacular team. They won three straight pennants and one World Series. The pitching staff included Dave McNally and Jim Palmer and they had Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell bashing baseballs all over the lot.
The Mets beat them in five games and it was no fluke. Led by Seaver, Agee, Cleon Jones, Ed Charles and Donn Clendenon, the Mets were the better team in that World Series.
They beat one of the five best teams of the last 50 years and that means that the 1969 Mets were in that group that is headlined by the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds.
Agee may have been one of the most underrated and under-appreciated players of his generation. His numbers were solid; his play was sensational.
Thanks, Chicago Tribune, for bringing Agee’s memory back to life.
Mets fans, what are your favorite Tommy Agee memories? Send Steve your thoughts at — @ProFootballBoy.