Like millions of American boys, I once dreamed of being a Major League Baseball player. That dream faded almost as fast as the pitcher’s curve, which I could not hit with consistency. I thought a bit about those youthful days last week as the new season opened and local papers began recalling the amazing Mets of 50 years ago.
During the New York Mets’ phenomenal run in 1969, topping it off with a World Series victory, centerfielder Tommie Agee was a pivotal player. His two catches in the third game of the series reminded me of the great, over the shoulder one made by Willie Mays against the Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series.
Tommie Lee Agee, like Mays, was born in Alabama on Aug. 9, 1942, in the city of Magnolia. There he starred in baseball and football at the Mobile County Training School. One of his teammates then was Cleon Jones and they would be reunited on the Mets.
After one season at Grambling State University (1961), he signed with the Cleveland Indians for a bonus of $60,000. He played for the Portland Beavers, the Indians minor league team, and was called up to the majors in 1962. This was a short stint toward the end of the season and this pattern would follow in successive years, giving him only a mere 31 games in total and a batting average of .170.
In 1964 he was traded to the Chicago White Sox and eventually—after a brief stop in the Pacific Coast League—played in 10 games in 1965 for the Sox, batting .226. A year later he began to blossom as a player, becoming the only White Sox member to perform at the 1966 All-Star Game. At the end of the season he had compiled an average of .273, 22 home runs and 86 RBIs, and was named the American League Rookie of the Year. His defensive prowess in centerfield also earned him the Golden Glove Award. (It should be noted that Agee was eligible for the Rookie of the Year award since his appearances in the majors were minimal and not enough to make him a qualified member of the roster.)
With a batting average of .247, 10 home runs and 35 RBIs, he earned a spot again on the American League All-Star team in 1967, but unlike the previous season, there was a dramatic decline in his performance. His lack of offense did not help a team mired in hitting slumps, and by 1968 he was shipped off to the Mets in exchange for outfielder Tommy Davis and pitcher Jack Fisher.
When Agee stepped up to the plate to face pitcher Bob Gibson in the first spring training game in 1968, he was beaned. That was an inauspicious beginning and by the end of the season his numbers were not impressive.
But things were different in 1969. In the third game of the season he had a multi-home run game against the Montreal Expos, one of which went halfway up in section 48 of the left field upper deck, a feat never matched again. (And it cannot be since Shea Stadium was later demolished and the marker where the ball landed sold to a private owner.)
Agee’s hot streak at the bat matched the team’s soaring achievements and by May the franchise was above .500. Later, they went on an 11-game winning streak, highlighted by Agee’s two-home run, four-hit performance against the San Francisco Giants. By then, the Mets were only seven games back of the Chicago Cubs. The Mets continued their amazing climb with Agee as a crucial component into September, clinching the NL East by the end of the month. He led the team with 26 home runs, 76 RBIs and 97 runs scored. Along with two of his teammates, including Jones, he was a top contender for MVP.
In the Championship series against the Atlanta Braves, Agee batted .357 with two home runs and four RBIs as the Mets swept the series. Even so, they were deemed heavy underdogs against the American League’s champion Baltimore Orioles. The series was tied one game apiece when Agee had, what SPORTS ILLUSTRATED termed, the greatest single performance by a centerfielder in World Series history. Here’s one recounting: In the first inning against Jim Palmer, Agee hit a leadoff home run. Later in the game he made two sensational catches saving a potential five runs. His first catch was a backhanded one near the base of the wall in left centerfield. The second came in the seventh inning with the bases loaded when he made a headfirst dive after a sinking line drive in right centerfield. (Both catches have been shown countless times on television.)
On the momentum acquired from the World Series, Agee began the following season with a 20-game hitting streak from April 16 to May 9, and June 12 he went four for five with two home runs and four runs scored. His numbers were enough to earn him the player of the month in June. Overall, it was a glorious season with him excelling in the field and at bat, setting a Mets season record for hits at 182, runs with 107 and 31 stolen bases. There was also a Golden Glove award, making him the first African-American to achieve such an honor in both leagues.
During the next two seasons, his exploits were hampered by knee injuries, although he still managed to hit a respectable .285 and tied for the lead in home runs in 1971. The following year he finished with 47 RBIs, but hit only .227. The decrease in production may have been decisive in his trade to the Houston Astros. There was a measure of revenge when the two teams clashed later and Agee went two for three, scored a run in the Astros’ victory.
Over the next several seasons, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, and then to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and then released during spring training.
After retiring, Agee opened a lounge near Shea Stadium, while participating in a number of charitable and civic events for the Mets, both in New York and elsewhere. He even made an appearance in the television show “Everybody Loves Raymond” with several other former Mets.
He suffered a heart attack on Jan. 22, 2001, and died later that day at Bellevue Hospital Center. He was 58 and is buried near his hometown in Mobile. In 2002 he was inducted into the New York Mets Hall of Fame.