Joe Christopher, an original Met who was amazin’ in ’64, dies at 88
By Richard Sandomir
Joe Christopher, an original New York Met who achieved an unusual feat of competence in that often-bumbling, last-place franchise’s third season when he batted .300 in 1964, died Oct. 3 in Edgewood, Maryland. He was 88.
His daughter Kameahle confirmed the death, in an assisted-living facility, and said the cause was complications of a stroke.
Christopher, a stocky, 5-foot-10 outfielder, had been with the Pittsburgh Pirates for three seasons when he was part of the draft that stocked the rosters of two National League expansion teams, the Mets and the Houston Colt 45s (now the Astros), in late 1961. Christopher was the Mets’ fifth choice.
He was a part-time player in 1962 — the perfectly awful “Amazin’ Mets,” as their manager, Casey Stengel, called them, had a 40-120-1 record that season — when he got batting tips from a Mets coach, the renowned Rogers Hornsby, who hit over .400 three times in the 1920s.
“He was sitting in hotel lobbies,” Christopher recalled in an unpublished interview in 2010 with George Vecsey, a sports columnist for The New York Times. Christopher recalled Hornsby telling him that the secret of hitting was “Don’t let the pitcher jam home plate” and “It’s not about contact, it’s impact.”
If the advice sunk in with Christopher, it was not apparent in 1962, when his batting average was .244, or in 1963, when he hit .221, as a part-time player. But in 1964, when the Mets moved from the Polo Grounds in Manhattan to newly built Shea Stadium in Queens, Christopher, having become the Mets’ regular right fielder after an injury to George Altman, delivered his finest season.
In June, when he was hitting .307, he talked about getting a chance to play full time.
“I always knew I could hit, but nobody up here believed me,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I always hit well in the minors, but when I got to the majors, nobody had any confidence in me.” He added: “They just wouldn’t give me a chance to play regularly. There was always that worry that if I went 0 for 4, I’d be on the bench the next day.”
He finished the season at .300, 16th best in the National League and only the third time a Met had reached that level. (The Mets’ Ron Hunt hit .303 that season.) He also led the Mets with 76 runs batted in and was second in home runs with 16.
The hit that guaranteed that he would finish at .300 was a bunt that he laid down in front of the St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer during the final game of the season.
The Cardinals clinched the National League pennant with the victory and went on to win the World Series against the New York Yankees. The Mets’ loss was their 109th, good enough for last place for the third consecutive season.
Christopher had a less successful 1965 season: His batting average dipped to .249, he hit only five home runs and he drove in 40 runs.
Joseph O’Neal Christopher was born Feb. 2, 1935, in Frederiksted, St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. His father, Patrick, was a sharecropper. His mother, Sarah (Richards) Christopher, was a homemaker. Joe played baseball in high school and was signed as a shortstop by the Pirates in 1954 after a scout saw him play in a tournament in Wichita, Kansas.
He hit well in the minor leagues and joined the Pirates in 1959 but played sparingly for three seasons until he was placed in the expansion draft and chosen by the Mets.
After the 1965 season, the Mets traded Christopher to the Boston Red Sox; the Red Sox sent him to the Detroit Tigers in mid-1966. He barely played for Boston and not at all for Detroit; in 1967 and ’68, he played for minor league teams in the Pirates, Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies systems.
He had a career batting average of .260, with 29 home runs and 173 RBI.
After retiring, Christopher worked in insurance, health care and advertising.
In addition to Kameahle Christopher, he is survived by four other daughters, Cheryl, Michelle, Jo Anne and Arinna; three sons, Joseph Jr., Rael Jones and Ryan Christopher-Bear; and 14 grandchildren. His marriages to Ana Solares and Karen Matthews ended in divorce.
One of the enduring tales from the 1962 season was about the language help that Christopher provided to two of his teammates. Richie Ashburn, a center fielder, and Elio Chacón, a shortstop from Venezuela, were not communicating well on fly balls hit between them. Ashburn asked Christopher, who spoke Spanish, how to say, “I got it.”
Christopher told him to shout “Yo la tengo!” to alert Chacón that Ashburn would take control of a fly ball. During the next game, Ashburn rushed out for a fly, shouting, “Yo la tengo! Yo la tengo!” Chacón backed off. But as Ashburn prepared to catch the ball, left fielder Frank Thomas, who spoke no Spanish, rushed in and flattened Ashburn.
In the early 1980s, a Mets fan, Ira Kaplan, who had read about the incident, formed a rock band with his wife, Georgia Hubley. He called it Yo La Tengo.
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Diamondbacks 11, Dodgers 2
(Arizona leads series 1-0)
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