Obituary: Tom Seaver (1944-2020)

RIP to Tom Seaver, a Hall of Fame pitcher and generally recognized as the greatest ever Met. He died on August 31 in Calistoga, Calif., at the age of 75. His family announced that he had passed away from complications of COVID-19 and Lewy body dementia. In March of 2019, his family had announced that he was retiring from public life due to his battle with dementia; Seaver played for the New York Mets (1967-77, 1983), Cincinnati Reds (1977-82), Chicago White Sox (1984-86) and Boston Red Sox (1986).

“We are heartbroken to share that our beloved husband and father has passed away,” said his wife Nancy Seaver and daughters Sarah and Anne in a statement issued by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. “We send our love out to his fans, as we mourn his loss with you.”

“Tom Seaver’s life exemplified greatness in the game, as well as integrity, character, and sportsmanship – the ideals of a Hall of Fame career,” said Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman of the Hall of Fame. “As a longtime member of the Hall of Fame Board of Directors, Tom brought dignity and wisdom to this institution that will be deeply missed. His love for baseball history, and for the Hall of Fame, was reinforced in 2014, when he pledged the donation of his personal baseball collection to the Museum. His wonderful legacy will be preserved forever in Cooperstown.”

Tom Seaver in his Fairbanks Goldpanners uniform. He’s smiling in this photo because he had just thrown a complete game win and his a grand slam home run. Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, August 29, 1964.

“Tom was nicknamed ‘The Franchise’ and ‘Tom Terrific’ because of how valuable he truly was to our organization and our loyal fans, as his #41 was the first player number retired by the organization in 1988. He was simply the greatest Mets player of all-time and among the best to ever play the game which culminated with his near unanimous induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992,” said Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon in a statement.

George Thomas Seaver was born in Fresno, Calif., on November 17, 1944. His father Charley was a champion amateur golfer in California. His son turned to baseball and pitched for the Fresno American Legion team as well as the Fresno High baseball team; he was also a high scorer on the basketball team. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1962 and 1963 before attending Fresno City College. As a sophomore on the Fresno City College team in 1964, he led the team to its fourth straight Valley Conference championship. He threw a complete game 3-2 win against the College of the Sequoias on May 7 and then threw a scoreless inning in the nightcap to preserve a 4-3 win, giving the Fresno Rams the championship. He ended the season with an 11-2 record and 1.78 ERA.

Seaver could have gone into pro ball in 1964. Instead, he traveled to Alaska to pitch for the amateur Fairbanks Goldpanners that summer.

“Three major league clubs have offered Tommy bonuses,” said Charley Seaver at the time. “But Tom has three years of college first, and I’m glad he realizes the importance of an education.”

Seaver went to the University of Southern California, but he didn’t get the three full years that his father promised. In his one season with the Trojans in 1965, he had a 10-2 record with a 2.47 ERA and 100 strikeouts. The Dodgers drafted him in ’65 to no avail, and the Braves did the same in 1966. Seaver signed with Atlanta for a $52,000 bonus and, but for a technicality, could have had Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro and Joe Torre as his teammates. The technicality was that he signed with the Braves after the USC Trojans had already played a practice game in 1966. The rule in baseball was that a college player could not be signed after the collegiate season had begun. USC protested the signing, and MLB Commissioner William Eckert had no choice to void the contract. The NCAA then ruled that Seaver had lost his college eligibility by signing the contract, leaving him unable to play baseball in the pros or in college.

Commissioner Eckert ruled that any team that wanted to match Atlanta’s original offer could make a bid for Seaver. Three teams did. “I got a call saying the Indians, Phillies and Mets wanted me,” Seaver explained in a 1966 interview. “The guy said the name of my team was about to be drawn out of a hat. He said, ‘You are now the property of… the New York Mets.'”

Yes, you read that right. The greatest player the Mets ever had joined the team because of a random hat draw. I know the Mets are a bad-luck team, but they were the recipients of one of the luckiest draws in baseball history. Maybe that’s why the Mets have had no luck lately. They used up all their karma all in one fell swoop in 1966.

With that unpleasantness settled, Seaver reported to the Jacksonville Suns of the International League in 1966. He was 12-12 with 188 strikeouts in 210 innings and a 3.13 ERA in what ended up being his only season in the minor leagues. Suns Manager Solly Hemus saw his potential immediately. “I see him as the Mets’ first 20-game winner. All he needs is work. He’s got brains, good attitude, control… he just keeps getting better.”

Hemus was spot on in his prediction. Seaver won 20 games four times with the Mets (1969, ’70, ’71, ’75) before another pitcher (Jerry Koosman in 1976) managed the same feat.

Seaver made the Mets team out of spring training in 1967. They were still an awful team and lost 101 games, but Seaver proved to be every bit the revelation he was expected to be. He was the NL Rookie of the Year and an All-Star, ending the season with a 16-13 record and 2.76 ERA. He was the only Mets pitcher with a double-digit victory total and was responsible for more than a quarter of the team’s 61 wins.

Seaver was an instant fan favorite. His pitching was a rare bright spot in a dismal season, and he was eighth on the team in stolen bases with 2. He played the game with a joy that hadn’t been seen before on a Mets team.

“Last night, he’s warming up and he’s throwing sidearm and underhand, and kidding around, and I’m thinking of going to [manager Wes] Westrum to tell him maybe he should get someone else ready,” coach Harvey Haddix told sportswriter Dick Young. “Then I think, hold on there. This kid is playing the game the way I used to play it. He likes it.”

There weren’t bright spots in Seaver’s first couple of seasons, but Mets fandom exploded in joy in 1969 when the team won 100 games and its first World Series. Naturally, Seaver was a big part of the “Miracle Mets,” winning 25 games, including 18 complete games and 5 shutouts. His ERA was a minuscule 2.21, and he fanned 208 batters in 273-1/3 innings. One of his best games of the year was a 4-0 one-hitter over the Chicago Cubs on July 9. He took a perfect game into the ninth inning before Jim Qualls spoiled it with a 1-out single. Still, the win was one more blow to the fading Cubs as the Mets overtook them in the NL East standings.

Seaver’s first postseason got off to a shaky start. He won Game One of the NL Championship Series against the Braves, but he was knocked around for 5 runs in 7 innings, including homers by Tony Gonzalez and Hank Aaron. After that 3-game sweep, Seaver lost Game One of the World Series against the Orioles by a score of 4-1. He redeemed himself with a 10-inning complete game win in Game Five, allowing just 6 hits in a 2-1 win at Shea Stadium.

Source: The Shreveport Journal, July 10, 1969.

Seaver was the near-unanimous choice for the Cy Young Award (Phil Niekro got 1 of the 24 votes, with Seaver getting the rest) and came in second place in the MVP vote behind the Giants’ Willie McCovey. McCovey had a fantastic season, hitting .320 and leading the NL in homers with 45 and RBIs with 126. However, the Giants didn’t make the postseason.

Seaver’s run from 1967 through 1976 shows just how dominant a pitcher he was at his prime. He averaged 18 wins during that span with four 20-win seasons. He led the NL in wins twice, walked away with three ERA titles, including a 1.76 in 1971 that was best in baseball, and he was named to nine All-Star teams in 10 years. He won Cy Young Awards in 1969, 1973 and 1975 and finished in the Top 5 in votes twice more. He also led the league in strikeouts five times, WHIP twice, ERA+ three times and Fielding Independent Pitching four times. He struck out more than 200 batters in nine straight seasons.

Seaver struck out 19 Padre batters in a 2-1 win on April 22, 1970. He fanned the final 10 batters he faced, which has never been equaled by any other pitcher.

Seaver become one of the game’s most recognizable stars. His wife Nancy became a celebrity in her own right, and even their dog Slider starred in a dog food commercial. Naturally, the tough New York media took occasional shots at him, particularly when he would lose his temper, and claim that baseball’s Golden Boy was getting tarnished. Seaver shrugged off the criticism.

“I would say the halo was put there by the writers in New York, and if they think it’s being tarnished, it’s their prerogative to say that it is,” he commented in 1970 after a couple of outbursts following losses to the lowly Montreal Expos. “The halo is an illusion of their own fabrication. But they built it and they have the right to tear it down.”

Seaver won 2/3 of the pitching Triple Crown in 1973 by leading the NL in ERA (2.08) and strikeouts (251), and his 19 wins were second-best behind Ron Bryant’s 24 wins for the Giants. The ’73 Mets returned to the World Series, losing to the A’s in seven games. Though he had a loss and a no-decision in the Series, Seaver pitched well, striking out 18 A’s in 15 innings while allowing 4 earned runs for a 2.40 ERA.

Seaver and the Mets fell back to earth after the 1973 season. The team lost 91 games in ’74, and Seaver dropped to 11-11. His ERA rose above 3 and he missed out on the All-Star Game, both for the first time in his career. He battled hip pain for much of the season and inevitably faced questions about whether he was washed up. Seaver proceeded to win the Cy Young in 1975 with 22 wins and a 2.38 ERA, so he answered those questions with a resounding “NO.” He became only the second pitcher to win three Cy Young Awards, putting him on the level of his pitching hero, Sandy Koufax.

While Seaver was continuing to dominate the National League, the Mets were falling into the middle of the pack. The team’s ownership was reluctant to pay Seaver the kind of money that he wanted. He eventually signed a three-year, $675,000 contract, but it was soon eclipsed by other free agent deals. Seaver was unhappy both with his pay and with the Mets inactivity in signing new players. The relationship between him and Mets chairman M. Donald Grant fell apart. Finally, on June 15, 1977, the seemingly impossible happened: Tom Terrific was traded out of New York.

The Mets sent Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds for a package that included Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, Dan Norman and Pat Zachry. At the time of the trade, Seaver was 7-3 for the Mets with a 3.00 ERA. His new team, the Reds, were in the thick of the pennant race, and Seaver went 14-3 for his new team. The Reds didn’t make it to the postseason, but Seaver had a combined 21-6 record and a 2.58 ERA to finish third in the Cy Young vote.

For old-school sportswriters and old-school owners like Grant, Seaver represented the worst aspects of ballplayers — the greedy mercenary. He actually represented the modern-day ballplayer who wanted to be paid his actual value, and some people never could accept it. Grant allegedly referred to his ballplayer as his “boys,” so he was a few decades behind the times as far as baseball executives go.

Now in his 30s, Seaver wasn’t quite the unstoppable force with the Reds as he was with the Mets. He did win 16 games with Cincinnati in 1978 and ’79 and made his final postseason appearance in 1979, as the Reds lost to the Pirates in the NLCS. He had a no-decision in Game One, pitching 8 innings of 2-run ball. He also threw a no-hitter, after several near misses, against the Cardinals on June 16, 1978.

As his fastball slowed, Seaver had to deal with an aching shoulder and arm. Injuries limited him to 26 starts and 168 innings in 1980. He was brilliant in the strike-shortened 1981 season, leading all of baseball with 14 wins and an .875 winning percentage. He followed that up with his worst season, winning just 5 games while losing 13 with a 5.50 ERA, as he dealt with assorted injuries. Despite reports he was through, Seaver returned to the Mets in 1983 via a trade. It made sense, that he would finish his career with the same team where it all started.

Seaver’s 1983 season with the Mets was not that successful, with a 9-14 record and a 3.95 ERA. However, he pitched 231 innings as the workhorse of the Mets staff, which was the most he’d thrown since 1978. Reaching the 300-win mark, which looked impossible a couple of seasons ago, suddenly became an achievable goal again. Seaver re-signed with the Mets for another year, but the Mets left him unprotected in a free-agent compensation draft. The White Sox, who were due a pick because they lost pitcher Dennis Lamp to the Toronto Blue Jays, chose Seaver.

“We come and we go, don’t we?” Seaver said when he was given the news. He was stuck between either pitching for a new team or retiring, 27 victories away from 300. He considered walking away from baseball but opted to join the Sox. Meanwhile, the Mets were left looking bad once again, and the blame fell on general manager Frank Cashen.

“If I had any personal indication that the White Sox would pick Tom Seaver I never would have left him unprotected and bring this embarrassment to the organization. This is devastating to the franchise — not so much to the body of the team, but to the soul of the team,” said Cashen.

Seaver won 15 and 16 games for Chicago in 1984 and ’85, respectively. He credited his late-career success to changing his pitching. His fastball that used to be clocked at 97 mph or more now ended up the high 80s. “I’ve had to make a gradual transition, and it became necessary to mix up the pitches more than ever,” he told Ira Berkow of the New York Times. “A back-door slider, a slider down and away, a hard curve, a flop curve, and different speeds on the fastball. The last four or five years I’ve developed a change-up, and I never had one, or needed one, before.”

On August 4, 1985, Seaver recorded his 300th career win in New York City like he imagined. However, it came in a White Sox uniform against the Yankees, as he went the distance in a 4-1 win. That same day, Rod Carew recorded his 3,000th hit, and Dwight Gooden won his 11th straight start, breaking the Mets record that was once held by… Tom Seaver.

Seaver ended up in the thick of the AL pennant race in 1986 when he was traded from the White Sox to the Boston Red Sox for Steve Lyons. He won 5 games for Boston in 16 starts and had an ERA of 3.80. Unfortunately, a knee injury forced the Red Sox to keep him off the postseason roster. One has to wonder if the ’86 World Series would have changed at all if Seaver had been healthy enough to pitch against his old Mets team.

The Mets signed Seaver in June of 1987 when the team was hit with injuries to David Cone and Rick Aguilera, and Dwight Gooden’s season was halted by drug rehabilitation. Seaver gave it a try but finally was forced to admit, “there were no more pitches left in this 42-year-old arm that were competitive.” At least Seaver was able to officially retire as a Met.

In 20 years in the major leagues, Seaver had a 311-205 record with a 2.86 ERA. He had 231 complete games and 61 shutouts, and he struck out 3,640 batters. No slouch at the bat, Seaver hit 12 home runs while hitting .154. Per Baseball Reference, he was worth 109.9 Wins Above Replacement in his career. He was selected to 12 All-Star Games and is ranked 18th all-time in wins and 6th all-time in strikeouts.

Seaver was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992 with 98.8% of the vote, the highest amount a player had ever received at the time. The record has since been broken by Ken Griffey Jr. and Mariano Rivera. He was also the first Met to have his number — 41 — retired.

In his retirement, Seaver and his wife founded a vineyard in California called Seaver Vineyards. It wasn’t a vanity project; he and his family worked hard there. He described himself as just one of the worker bees. He still made public appearances until his health declined, but it became a new and fun career for him.

Seaver, partcularly early in his career, had the power to get the ball past pretty much any hitter. He had the brains to go with the brawn, though. His longevity can be directly attributed to his willingness to learn and adapt as his fastball faded over time. He was always one of baseball’s most cerebral ballplayers. Many interviews with him referred to the latest book he was reading or the crossword puzzle he had just completed. He was unafraid to speak up about political issues, whether it’s civil rights or his disagreement about the Vietnam War. When the Cincinnati Reds prepared for a goodwill tour to Japan, Seaver prepared by reading up on Japanese history and culture.

Seaver was also quick with a quip. In 1978, he ended a Sunday prayer service in Pittsburgh when the speaker, Walter Leeper, concluded his sermon with, “I’d like to wish you fellows good luck, but I’m a Pittsburgh native, so I have to root for the Pirates.”

“If you do, God will punish you!” Seaver responded.

For more information: Baseball Hall of Fame

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23 thoughts on “Obituary: Tom Seaver (1944-2020)

  1. Loved watching Seaver, Brock, Gibson, Morgan, Niekro and Ron Fairly whose father played ball with mine. These men will be so greatly missed by those of us who cherish America’s Pastime but more importantly by their family members who loved them so much.


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