How the Worst Team in Baseball History Innovated to Win the World Series 50 Years Ago

Innovation Requires a Continuous Team Effort

To innovate successfully, you can’t just rally the troops or hastily assemble a task force when upper management suddenly identifies a need.

Innovation works best when a team is in place that is accustomed to repeatedly identifying customer experience challenges and producing solutions.

In companies that exhibit a great culture of innovation, all employees are allowed to contribute to this process in some manner.

But at the very least there needs to be a group in place, supported by upper management, that is dedicated to customer experience innovation.

To achieve greatness in any field, whether it’s playing piano or artificial intelligence programming, expert coaching and diligent practice is required.

Employees tasked with managing innovation likewise need appropriate direction, time to learn the process and repeated opportunities to apply their craft in order to reach the point where they can deliver superior performance.

The New York Mets of 1969

Just like a business innovation team needs support and must continuously practice their discipline to reach peak performance, so did the New York Mets.

Even if you’re not a baseball fan, the magical tale of the Miracle Mets of 1969 is captivating. It’s one of those “you’d never believe it if it didn’t actually happen” stories that reached its climax a half century ago this Fall.

From Worst to First

The New York Mets baseball club got their start as an expansion team in the 1962 season and promptly lost 120 games – a record that still stands. Over the next six seasons they averaged over 100 losses, regularly exceeding that threshold symbolic of complete ineptitude in major league baseball.

Culture Change Comes with New Leadership

The early Mets were facetiously nicknamed the “Amazins” and affectionately called lovable losers as the team’s moniker became synonymous with futility.

But all that began to change when a new manager was hired in 1968.

Gil Hodges had been a member of the great Brooklyn Dodger teams of the 1950’s. He played in the World Series 7 times. He knew how to win. When he took the helm with the Mets, he immediately looked to instill a new culture and mold the team to his vision.

The Mets suddenly made progress. In Hodges second season in 1969, instead of losing 100 games, they won 100 games, the most in the National League. They swept the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series. And then went on to face the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.

Hodges Turns the Mets Around with a Different Approach

Hodges applied, what we might call in this era, the Steve Jobs notion of “think different” when he started with the Mets. He implemented what in retrospect amounted to several strategic innovation practices, some of which were unorthodox, that led to the team’s success.

Each of these practices also happen to be advantageous towards creating strong functioning innovation organizations. In fact, the set of practices that Hodges implemented could be thought of as the building blocks to create a culture of innovation in any organization.

Naturally, given the baseball analogy, I am submitting a lineup of 9 practices I have uncovered that Hodges implemented with the Mets. All businesses could benefit from these 9 practices just as the Mets did in 1969:

  1. Hire facilitators to guide the process
  2. Allow the status quo to be challenged
  3. Instill a winning spirit
  4. Provide an opportunity for every team member
  5. Promote mutual trust
  6. Enable external sources of ideas
  7. Eliminate the fear of failure
  8. Identify underlying problems
  9. Create your own miracles

1) Hire Facilitators to Guide the Process

A Catcher as a Pitching Coach Serves as a Catalyst

Hodges started by hiring a facilitator to guide the development of the Mets core strength: young powerful pitching arms. But Hodges made an unorthodox selection. He hired a pitching coach who was a catcher by trade – Rube Walker. Hodges himself had originally been a catcher. And two of the three other coaches Hodges hired were also former catchers in the major leagues – Joe Pignatano and Yogi Berra.

In baseball, catchers are the on-field managers, handling the pitchers and suggesting what the next pitch should be. Rube Walker turned out to be the perfect fit to nurture the Mets promising homegrown staff of pitchers that included Tom Seaver – 1967 Rookie of the Year, Jerry Koosman – second in the 1968 Rookie of the Year voting to Johnny Bench of Cincinnati, rookie Gary Gentry and 22-year-old Nolan Ryan.

Dave Williams of the Society For American Baseball Research writes that, “[Walker] had an innate sense of the mental side of pitching and he used this to help his young stable of arms mature and get them to pitch with a savvy beyond their years.”1

Walker also taught the pitchers how to spot flaws in their delivery, how to set up hitters and which types of pitches to focus on developing vs. which ones to avoid. For example, he had Jerry Koosman stop pitching sliders in order to make his curveball more effective. The pitchers looked up to Walker. Koosman said, “We loved him. Rube was like my father.” 2

Walker essentially served as an innovation catalyst much the same way that Intuit (the makers of Quicken) deploys a team of innovation catalysts to drive innovative thinking and new product testing throughout their company.

At Intuit, the innovation catalysts are all current employees that are trained in innovation and design thinking. They specifically help by coaching teams in identifying customer needs, building rapid prototypes for new product ideas and conducting user tests. An example of the output of the innovation catalysts, that was documented in a Harvard Business Review article several years ago, is a product called Snaptax which enabled filing of taxes using a mobile app (note that Snaptax has since been integrated into Turbotax). 3

2) Allow the status quo to be challenged

Walker Implements a Pitching Innovation

Gil Hodges had challenged the status quo in baseball by hiring a catcher as a pitching coach. His pitching coach Rube Walker also bucked a long-standing baseball management practice. He believed there were only so many pitches in an arm. In an effort to keep his young pitchers’ fresher over the course of the season, Walker instituted the novel idea of the five-man rotation 4. Traditionally, teams had their top pitchers start every 4th game. But Walker made it every 5th game. Walker’s five-man rotation is now the norm in baseball.

He also instituted a regimen of conditioning during the season. He required his pitchers to run hard to keep in shape and strengthen their legs. On days between starts he limited the time pitchers would spend throwing and had some days in which they ran and did no throwing.

Strong Pitching Fuels the Mets Drive to Win the Division

After a typically slow start to the season the Mets surged into 2nd place in the National League East by June. They were playing competitive baseball for the first time in the team’s history. But in mid-August, they were still 10 games behind the Chicago Cubs. With less than 50 games remaining in the season, it appeared their promising season would start winding to down to a quiet close.

However, with fresh arms and strong legs, the Mets pitching staff was superb down the stretch. During the month of September the staff threw 10 shutouts and allowed just over 2 runs per game. Meanwhile the first place Cubs, which had used the four-man rotation all season, began to tire. In September the Cubs allowed 4 runs per game and recorded no shutouts after having been dominating early in the season. The Mets took over 1st place on September 10th and kept on going, finishing 8 games ahead of the Cubs.

Rookie Wayne Garrett, who split time at third base with veteran Ed Charles noted, “while we remained fresh, the Cubs were wearing down.” 5

The Platoon System

In addition to instituting the five-man rotation, The Mets manager, Gil Hodges, did things differently by platooning most of his players. While it had been a practice in baseball to make substitutions to have right-handed batters face left-handed pitchers and vice versa, Hodges took this to an extreme. He created exclusive right-handed or left-handed lineups. Thus, he switched out nearly his entire line up from one game to the next based on whether the starting pitcher was a right or lefty.

Even in the World Series against Baltimore, Hodges stuck with his platoon system. Art Shamsky who led all Mets batting an astonishing .538 in the National League Championship Series, didn’t start games 1 or game 2 of the World Series simply because the Baltimore Orioles started left-handed pitchers in both of those games.

Netflix and Intuit also achieved success by altering the status quo in their industries

There are numerous examples in the business world of companies that were successful because they were willing to go against the status quo in their industry. Netflix introduced a new model for distributing DVDs to consumers with its internet mail order rental business at a time when Blockbuster and others dominated the business with a retail store model. Over time and with many incremental innovations to improve the internet ordering process, Netflix became the dominant player in the market.

When Intuit launched QuickBooks in the 1990s, they eschewed the complexity of all the leading small business accounting software programs on the market at the time in favor of a simplified tool that small business owners could more readily understand. QuickBooks shot to #1 in market share and has remained on top ever since.

3) Instilling a Winning Spirit

Left fielder Cleon Jones, who first joined the Mets in 1963, credited manager Gil Hodges with bringing about an immediate change of attitude. Jones said, “Hodges was making us think differently about ourselves… Gil was teaching us the fundamentals of the game. The proper way to play, how to win and how to think like a winner.” 6

Shortstop Bud Harrelson went further to say, “He was so upbeat it changed the culture of the team. Because of Hodges optimism, instead of being chronic and laughable losers… we began to think of ourselves as winners… when we started to win it was because of him” 7

Actions always speak louder than words however, and many of the Mets players cite a mid-season action by Hodges that helped instill the drive to play like winners. In a home game against Houston, the Astros scored 10 runs in the third inning. In the middle of the inning, Hodges walked slowly out of the dugout. It is normal for managers to visit the pitcher in the middle of an inning. But Hodges walked past the pitcher’s mound.

Shortstop Bud Harrelson suddenly thought Hodges was coming out to talk to him. However Hodges continued past Harrelson in a slow stride out into left field. He wanted to talk to Cleon Jones. Jones was the best hitter on the team and was one of the leading hitters in the National League in 1969 finishing with a .340 batting average. But Hodges treated everyone the same. And Hodges did not like that Jones had just put a lazy effort into tracking down a hit, softly tossing it back to the infield. He told Jones he was taking him out of the game. Hodges turned around and began another slow walk back to the dugout. Jones trailed behind him. The move stunned the players and sent a strong message to the team. Everyone must play hard all the time. 8

Ed Kranepool summed up the unspoken message Hodges had delivered, “It didn’t matter who you were or how big a star you were you were not bigger than the team.” 9

Just as the Mets players needed a new attitude to start thinking like winners, companies need to foster a “can-do” spirit to enable improvements in the customer experience.

Elon Musk has famously been able to inspire employees at his companies. Musk sets audacious goals and aggressive deadlines. And while he’s demanding of his employees, he pushes himself even harder, thus leading by example. A senior executive of Tesla said, “He’s the master of getting more out of people than they think they can deliver.” 10

Steve Jobs was also notorious for setting impossible deadlines and what has been termed his “reality-distortion field” regarding his ability to convince employees of what could be accomplished. Says a former Apple software designer, “In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything.”

One of Apple’s early employees, Debi Coleman, said of Job’s impact, “You did the impossible, because you didn’t realize it was impossible.” 11

End of Part 1

That’s three practices that have come to the plate, so that concludes part 1 of The Innovation Lessons from the Miracle Mets of 1969.

  2. Shamsky, Art. AFTER THE MIRACLE: The Lasting Brotherhood of the 69 Mets. SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2020, page 285.
  3. Martin, Roger L., The Innovation Catalysts, Harvard Business Review, June, 2011.
  4. Ibid
  5. Shamsky, Art. AFTER THE MIRACLE: The Lasting Brotherhood of the 69 Mets. SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2020, page 86.
  6. Shamsky, Art. AFTER THE MIRACLE: The Lasting Brotherhood of the 69 Mets. SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2020, page 37-38.
  7. Harrelson, Bud, and Phil Pepe. Turning Two: My Journey to the Top of the World and Back with the New York Mets. Thomas Dunne Books, 2012. Page 63.
  9. Shamsky, Art. AFTER THE MIRACLE: The Lasting Brotherhood of the 69 Mets. SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2020, page 102.