1971 was the year of the Miracle Mets. New York’s National League club had been born in the expansion of 1962 and endured a string of awful seasons through the 60s before showing some signs of improvement by the end of the decade. Several years of high draft position coupled with selecting the right players with those picks begat a young and hungry club that jumped from 67 wins in 1969 to 102 in 1970. Unfortunately for the Mets, those 102 wins were one fewer than the total compiled by the Cardinals so the New Yorkers missed the postseason again.
That all changed in 1971. With a pennant race under the belt, the Mets scrapped it out in the NL East with the Phillies (who had also won 102 games in the crazy race of ’70) and won the division by one game over Philadelphia as the Cardinals toppled to fourth place. With a pitching staff built around a couple of #1 picks in Tom Seaver and Jon Matlack, another high pick in Jerry Koosman and a reclamation project in veteran lefty Mike Cuellar, the Mets had a fearsome foursome that led a staff that led the NL in runs allowed by a wide margin. Coupled with an offense built around catcher Carlton Fisk (another #1 pick), outfielders John Lowenstein (round 2) and Reggie Sanders (a gem plucked in rd 9) coupled with some trade pickups headlined by slugger Harmon Killebrew, the Mets outscored the opponents by 1.2 runs per game.
The NL West also saw a rising force claim the division for the first time. The Atlanta Braves stormed to a 108-win season, running away with the division in August and September. The Braves offense was led as usual by stars Joe Torre and Ralph Garr, but got a boost from rookie of the year winner Charlie Spikes in finishing second in the league in runs scored. But the pitching was the difference. A weakness for years, trades brought in Ken Holtzman from California and Al Downing from Montreal and both played huge roles in the stretch run as did graybeard reliever Joe Gibbon, brought in from Pittsburgh to be the closer. Gibbon dominated with an 8-1 record, 0.59 ERA and 10 saves for Atlanta.
Over in the American League it was business as usual with the Angels again running away in the West and the Yankees staving off early challenges from Baltimore and Boston to again win the East. For the third straight season (or all of them since divisional play began in ’69), the Yankees and Angels faced off in the ALCS. California won 113 games despite most of the pitchers missing time to injury and dealing Ken Holtzman and Harmon Killebrew to the National League. The Holtzman trade brought in Doug Rader, a veteran hitter who belted 12 homers while Killebrew brought back a younger outfielder in Ron Swoboda. With Richie Hebner now an established star and the patchwork pitching again dominating, the Angels finished second to the Yankees in both runs scored and runs allowed.
The Yankees won 107 games despite losing Mel Stottlemyre for the season in April and having Rudy May – again – miss significant time with injuries. Jim Kaat again anchored the staff and Joe Niekro, Stan Bahnsen and May all had good seasons as did Fritz Peterson, pushed into service by Stottlemyre’s injury. The offense got another MVP season from Bobby Murcer and solid campaigns from Jose Cruz, Cesar Cedeno and Davey Lopes, even as Mickey Mantle began to decline. Mantle finished with 18 homers and missed 50 games with injuries. Cruz played in every one of the 162 game season for the fourth-straight year, continuing to appear in every game since he joined the team.
In the ALCS the Yankees eked out a narrow win over the Angels as the series went the full five games. The same held true in the NLCS where the Mets downed Atlanta in five to set up the first Subway Series since the Yankees and Dodgers met in 1956. The Yankees won three of the first four games to lead 3 to 1 before the Mets pitching prowess shut down the Yanks and the Mets won three straight to claim their first-ever World Series title. Former Yankee Carlos May got revenge on the team that dealt him away with a monster series to earn World Series MVP.