Monday, February 6, 2012

One Season Wonders: Joe Christopher

When the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers packed their bags for California after the 1957 season, the New York metropolitan area was left without National League baseball for the first time since 1882, the year before the New York Gothams (who later became the Giants) played their inaugural campaign.

Three years after the defection of the Giants and Dodgers to the West Coast, New York was given a new National League team.  Along with the Houston Colt .45s, the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club (or Mets, for short) would be part of the first wave of expansion in the National League.  Naturally, both the Colt .45s and the Mets would need to stock up their major league rosters with players, so in 1961, a special expansion draft was held.

Former Brooklyn Dodger great (and future legendary manager) Gil Hodges was selected seventh by the Mets in the draft, two spots after another former World Series champion.  That fifth pick was a part-time player with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1959 to 1961, appearing in three games for the Bucs in the 1960 World Series.  In his sole plate appearance in the Fall Classic (he appeared as a pinch-runner in the other two games), he was hit by a pitch.  Of course, that made him a perfect candidate to be on the Mets.

Who was the player with a 1.000 career World Series on-base percentage who the Mets felt should be drafted before local hero Gil Hodges?  None other than outfielder Joe Christopher.

Joe Christopher, the man who was four picks behind Hobie Landrith in the expansion draft.

Joseph O'Neal Christopher was never much of a power threat in the minors, hitting a total of 24 home runs at various minor league levels from 1955 to 1960.  As a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he displayed even less of an ability to take the opposing pitcher deep, or to get anything other than a single.  In 254 at-bats as a Pirate, Christopher collected a mere 13 extra-base hits, of which only one was a home run.

As an original Met in 1962, Christopher more than doubled his career at-bat total, but was still considered a singles hitter, picking up 18 extra-base hits in 271 at-bats for the fledgling Mets.  Although his home run total went up to six, his batting average left a lot to be desired, as Christopher hit .244 in 1962, the same average he compiled in three seasons as a Pirate.

As a result, Christopher began the 1963 season in the minor leagues with the AAA-Buffalo Bisons, hoping to play his way back to the Polo Grounds.  That extra seasoning in the minor leagues awakened Christopher's power stroke, as he swatted 19 HR in 85 games with the Bisons, earning a July call-up to the Mets.  Alas, his minor league power did not translate well at the big league level, as Christopher only hit .221 with seven extra-base hits (one homer) in 64 games with the Mets.

It appeared as if Joe Christopher was never going to become a great hitter in the major leagues.  But the Mets were about to christen a new ballpark in Flushing in 1964.  The opening of Shea Stadium awakened the Mets fanbase, as attendance nearly doubled once the team moved from the Polo Grounds to their new stadium.  The fans weren't the only ones awakened by the move.  Joe Christopher was awakened as well and National League outfielders soon found out that they would have to position themselves just a little bit deeper whenever he came to bat.

Joe Christopher wore his Mets jacket to hide his budding power from opponents.

After beginning the 1963 season in the minors, Joe Christopher was part of the Opening Day lineup in 1964.  It didn't take long for Christopher to prove that he belonged in the major leagues, as his fourth inning home run against the Phillies provided the Mets with their first run of the new season.  Of course, this was before 1970, so the Mets lost their opener, 5-3, on the way to losing their first four games.

The Mets finally broke through in the win column in their fifth game, shutting out the Pirates, 6-0.  Of course, Joe Christopher was the offensive star of the game, reaching base in each of his four plate appearances.  Christopher singled, doubled, walked and was hit by a pitch.  He also scored two runs and stole a base.

Although Christopher was hitting .308 through the Mets' first 26 games, his Opening Day home run was still his only homer of the year.  Furthermore, he had only driven in three runs.  That all changed on May 14, when Christopher's power and run-production finally emerged from its month-long slumber.

From May 14 to the end of the month, Christopher batted .338 and had an impressive .493 slugging percentage.  In 19 games, he banged out three doubles, one triple and two home runs, but what was most impressive was his 14 RBI during the 2½ week stretch, a stretch that culminated with one of the most memorable games in Mets history.

On May 31, the Mets were scheduled to play a doubleheader with the San Francisco Giants at Shea Stadium.  The Mets lost the first game, with Joe Christopher going 1-for-4 with a run scored.  But in the nightcap (and we do mean nightcap), the Mets and Giants played for 7 hours and 23 minutes (still a National League record for longest game by time) before the Giants won the game in the 23rd inning.  However, had it not been for Joe Christopher's bat, the game might never have gone into extra innings.

The Mets fell behind early, trailing the Giants by five runs after three innings.  But after scoring two runs in the sixth, Joe Christopher hit a game-tying three-run homer with two outs in the seventh.  It was one of four hits by Christopher in the game, who also scored two runs and drove in three in the 8-6 loss to the Giants.

Even after a 23-inning loss, Joe Christopher still had reason to smile.  He was having a great season.

Joe Christopher's power came out in full force as summer arrived.  Although his batting average took a tumble in June, going down to a season-low .280 (well, not quite - he was actually hitting .250 after beginning the season with one hit in his first four at-bats), he had a tremendous month with power and run production.  In the month of June, Christopher hit six homers and drove in 19 runs.

His mini-slump in the batting average department probably cost Christopher a spot on the National League All-Star team.  By the break, Christopher's batting average was down to .277 even though his other numbers (.438 slugging percentage, 9 HR, 36 RBI, 32 runs scored) were all All-Star-worthy in this pitching-rich era.  Although Christopher was denied the opportunity to play in the only Midsummer Classic played at Shea Stadium (that honor went to Ron Hunt, who only had three home runs and 22 RBI at the break, but was hitting .311), he used his snub as motivation to have an even better second half.  And what a second half it was.

In his first 19 games after the break, Christopher hit .377, with six doubles, a homer and 13 RBI.  Then, from August 7 to August 18, Christopher went on an absolute tear.  Over the 11-game stretch, Christopher hit .477 (21-for-44).  But what was most impressive was how the extra-base hits just kept on coming.  Christopher banged out seven doubles, two triples and three homers over the nearly two-week period, scoring 11 runs and driving in nine more.  The final game of the hot streak, in which Christopher went 4-for-5 with a double, two triples and a homer, coincided with the Mets' longest winning streak of the year, a five-game skein that matched the franchise's longest in their short history.

The Mets weren't going anywhere in 1964, other than another last place finish.  But Christopher kept on hitting even after the Mets were officially eliminated from contention in the 10-team National League.  From August 28 to September 18, Christopher hit .315 and had a .534 slugging percentage, rapping out nine extra-base hits, crossing the plate 12 times while picking up a dozen RBIs.  At season's end, Christopher's numbers were far better than anything he had accomplished before.

For the year, Christopher hit an even .300, with 26 doubles, eight triples, 16 HR, 76 RBI and 78 runs scored.  He became the first player in Mets history with at least 500 at-bats to bat .300 over a full season.  Christopher also set franchise records for base hits (163) and runs scored (78).  Prior to 1964, Christopher had played parts of five seasons in the major leagues, accumulating 674 at-bats for the Pirates and Mets.  Over those five seasons, he had hit .239 with 24 doubles, six triples, eight home runs and 57 RBI.  He surpassed all of those numbers in 1964 alone.

Joe Christopher was the first Shea superstar, but his star fizzled almost as fast as it rose.

Unfortunately, Christopher could not produce a similar campaign after 1964.  The following season, Christopher played in 148 games, but was only able to hit .249 with 18 doubles, three triples, five homers and 40 RBI.  His slugging percentage also went down from .466 to .339.  Figuring he was done, the Mets traded Christopher to the Boston Red Sox after the 1965 season for utility infielder Eddie Bressoud.  Bressoud only played one year in New York, batting .225 with 10 HR and 49 RBI before being shipped off to St. Louis.

Christopher only collected one hit as a member of the Boston Red Sox in 1966 before being traded to the Detroit Tigers.  For the next two and a half seasons, Christopher bounced around from team to team, playing for the minor league affiliates of the Tigers, Braves, Cardinals, Pirates and Phillies.  He never played in the major leagues again.

Joe Christopher was one of the first players the Mets drafted to play for the team in their inaugural 1962 season.  It took him three seasons, but he finally had his breakout year in 1964, albeit for a 109-loss team.  One year later, the promise Christopher showed as a 28-year-old was all but gone and by the time he was 30, he was out of the major leagues.  Joe Christopher was a true one-season wonder for the Mets, but for that one year, he gave the fans who packed into the newly-opened Shea Stadium something to cheer about.  It was a welcome change for a team whose only "star" had been their septuagenarian manager.

Note: One Season Wonders is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets who had one and only one memorable season in New York.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:
January 2, 2012: Bernard Gilkey
January 9, 2012: Terry Leach 
January 16, 2012: George Stone
January 23, 2012: Roger CedeƱo
January 30, 2012: Frank Viola

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