When Gotham was Eden: The great wins and good times of a magical year in Big Apple sports

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NEW YORK — When the Knicks routed the expansion Seattle SuperSonics by 25 points in the season opener at Madison Square Garden, Oct. 14, 1969, the Mets were two days away from winning the franchise’s first World Series title at Shea Stadium in neighboring Queens.

Shea’s football denizens had already done their part to electrify New York City sports fans earlier that year, when the Jets marched to Super Bowl III victory, their brash quarterback Joe Namath guaranteeing the win over the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts three nights before the big game.

With a young Tom Seaver at the front of a pitching-rich rotation, the Miracle Mets toppled the mighty Baltimore Orioles in five games. Davey Johnson — a future Mets manager who guided the club to its second championship — hit a pop fly to Mets left fielder Cleon Jones for the final out of the ’69 Fall Classic, and the Knicks and Rangers were officially on the clock.

“There was pressure. Cleon, Namath, they said, ‘Hey man, you guys got to keep it going,’ ” says Hall of Fame Knicks point guard Walt (Clyde) Frazier. “Everybody was saying, ‘Man, you guys got to do it. The Knicks gotta come through.’”

Rangers right winger and Hall of Famer Rod Gilbert says he and his Blueshirts teammates were “hoping every single year” to raise the Stanley Cup over their shoulders, but that the ’69-’70 season felt different.

“Yeah, we wanted to have an Impact, like, ‘We got to do that, too.’ I had faith,” Gilbert says. “I kept thinking, ‘We’re gonna add one piece, one guy, and then we got to go all the way.’ We came close. We had a really good, complete team.”

But while the Rangers lost in the first round to Bobby Orr’s Boston Bruins — the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the spring of ’70, immortalized by Orr going airborne for the clinching goal over the Blues — the Knicks fulfilled their end of the bargain, and kept the groovy sports vibes flowing throughout Gotham, after they defeated the Wilt Chamberlain-led Lakers in a thrilling Game 7 at the Garden on May 8, 1970. Frazier’s teammate Willis Reed stole the show when he limped out of the tunnel before the start of the game after there had been serious doubt he would be able to play at all on a gimpy right leg. The sell-out crowd erupted.

It was a golden era for New York professional sports, when Broadway Joe, Clyde, Tom Terrific, Dollar Bill, Gilbert and other New York players ruled the sports headlines and back pages, and, more often than not, were champions of the city’s nightlife scene. Namath was the devilishly handsome QB, and the first major athlete who had crossover fame in movies, advertisements, even owning his own Manhattan saloon (Bachelors III).

He and Frazier were also fierce competitors — as athletes, and when it came to making fashion statements. Who wore the mink coats better?

“I think I did because I’m taller,” Frazier says. “But I had the mink spread, the round bed, the mirrors on the ceiling. I told Joe I’m just happy with his overflow.”

Will the likes of that era ever be seen again, when during one calendar year three of the four major sports champions crowned were from the No. 1 sports market? The real stars all aligned perfectly during that stretch, for New York sports fans, that is. Baltimore became the punching bag. Besides the runner-up Colts and Orioles, the Knicks ousted the Baltimore Bullets in the first round of the playoffs en route to their first title.

“Pretty good run for the city of New York. Not so much for my hometown of Baltimore,” jokes 1969 Met Ron Swoboda. “They played the patsy. I have to be honest — I love Joe Namath, ’cause he was the first real superstar in that era, before Seaver came up. But I was a kid from Baltimore, man. I was rooting for the Colts!”


Il Vagabondo, a venerable Italian restaurant with a full indoor bocce court on E. 62nd Street in Manhattan, was one of the hotspots back in the day for the city’s most eligible athlete bachelors, according to Gilbert.

“We were hanging out there every Monday night. It was amazing. It was a good time,” says Gilbert, 79. “Every time I tell Namath, ‘You know, Joe, I used to get more ladies than you in February.’ He told me they named me Mr. February. You’ll never see those times again.”

Namath counters that the Rangers stud “beat me out for the night guy position in the town.”

“Rod is in first place. He out-suaved me, man,” says Namath. “He was suede, boy. The way he talked, he had that (Canadian) accent that the girls loved. And he was in good shape.”

Gilbert, like Namath, lived on the Upper East Side — “Bob Nevin (the former Rangers captain) and myself lived on 65th and First,” says Gilbert — but there were bachelor pads, and then there was Broadway Joe’s lair. Swoboda, who married his wife Cecilia in 1965, says he ended up in Namath’s pad through an invite from a friend of a friend. The interior and layout exceeded the hype.

“I was in that apartment one time that Joe Willie had with the llama-skin rug,” says Swoboda. “Joe wasn’t there at the time. But you could see where you could lose people in the nap of that rug. It seemed like everybody had a key to the damn place. You can imagine there were probably stewardesses hidden in every corner. It was pretty impressive.”

When the Knicks’ season started in the fall of ’69, Frazier says the Garden was “the place to be, man,” packed all the way to the rafters. Think the original celebrity row, but long before Spike Lee barked at Michael Jordan and other Knicks’ nemeses.

“All the celebrities were there, sitting courtside. Saturday night especially,” says Frazier, 75.

One New York VIP you wouldn’t find on the prowl at night, however, was Seaver. The California kid married young, and Namath and Swoboda say the Hall of Fame pitcher, who died last month, took an all-business mindset to the mound and when he left the ballpark.

“I knew Tom, of course, because we practiced in the same stadium. And I was a baseball fan,” says Namath, 77, who played high school baseball growing up in Beaver Falls, Pa. “He was a pretty quiet guy. We didn’t socialize in Manhattan. I’d run around a little bit but I never saw Tom.”

“No, no, no. Seaver was married to Nancy,” adds Swoboda, 76. “That wasn’t his gig. He had both hands on the steering wheel. That club scene would have never been Seaver.”

Seaver’s laser-like focus on his craft paid off that year and beyond. He compiled a 25-7 record and won the first of his three Cy Young awards in 1969.

“You have lions in the game of baseball, and you have lambs,” says baseball’s all-time hit king Pete Rose. “Lambs are guys you gotta get two or three hits off of. Lions are guys you gotta really work hard to go 1 for 4. We all knew Tom was a lion. Whenever he went out there, you just hoped he didn’t have his good stuff that day. That didn’t happen very often. That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame.”

After the Mets won the Series, the team appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and famously sang a rendition of “You Gotta Have Heart.” Swoboda says the appearance came right after the parade up the Canyon of Heroes, and that most of the players were not exactly in singing shape.

“We went into the studio, still hungover from the party at Shea Stadium, and they were playing all these Lawrence Welk songs,” says Swoboda. “They had a table full of glasses of champagne that they kept refreshing. We’re gulping champagne. Some of us were still half in the bag. If you listen to the record, it sounds like it. But it was fun.”


Namath’s Jets were unsuccessful in mounting a Super Bowl repeat win during the 1969 season — the team lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round — but Namath didn’t sit around and mope. He made his Hollywood debut in 1970 with two films, although no one probably remembers the release of “Norwood.”

Sixties screen siren Ann-Margret had already shot to stardom opposite Tinseltown heavyweights like Elvis Presley (“Viva Las Vegas”) and Dean Martin (“Murderers’ Row”), and even had a guest turn on the animated “Flintstones” TV show as Ann-Margrock. The Swedish-born actress was set to star in a biker movie called “C.C. & Company” with the screenplay written by her husband, Roger Smith. When it came time to cast the male lead, the couple knew exactly who they wanted: Broadway Joe.

“We always liked Joe. He was exciting. He wore fur. He had the restaurants. Quite the life,” says Ann-Margret. “I sure saw that he guaranteed that (the Jets) would win. I love sports.”

Ann-Margret says she was a high school football cheerleader growing up, and that Smith played football on a scholarship at the University of Arizona, so there were football-loving ties between the couple. The movie shoot started in April 1970 in Tucson, Ariz. Although the plot is not too complicated — Namath plays C.C. Ryder and rescues fashion journalist Ann McCalley (Ann-Margret) from a rival biker gang — Ann-Margret says Namath was like a seasoned pro.

“He was just a natural. Humble, and just polite and what can I say? He was a joy to work with,” says Ann-Margret. “We went to work every morning in the same car. He was always in front because he had to stretch his legs because, oh my goodness, he had surgeries. The fact that he had never done a movie before, it didn’t faze him a bit. He had this big smile. Always joking around.”

“He teased me about my shoes,” she continues. “They were very in-style. He had to tease me about something. Oh dear. He was wonderful! I never saw him in a bad mood. I always smile when I hear his name. He’s just a good guy.”

Namath’s guarantee would be his only one, and the Jets have never been back to the Super Bowl since. The Knicks, with roughly the same roster, won a second title in that same era, after the 1972-73 season. The Mets lost the ’73 World Series but won again in 1986. And the Rangers didn’t raise the Cup until 1994, their last championship.

“We never talked about the guarantee,” says Namath, referring to his conversations with Frazier and Seaver back then. “We just talked about the joy of winning the championship. It was terrific. I’d like to think when we were able to accomplish our goal of winning the championship it encouraged (former Met) Bud Harrelson and all those guys to think they could do it too, you know?”


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