Is Jerry Koosman the most overlooked pitcher in the hobby? Ask a collector to recite Koosman’s career stats and see what happens. A lanky southpaw, he tallied 147 wins for the New York Mets during his 12-year tenure in the Big Apple. He went on to post 222 career wins before finally hanging up his spikes in 1985 at age 42. He helped lead the “Miracle Mets” to their first World Series title in 1969 – even closing out the series-clinching Game 5 against the Orioles at Shea Stadium – and tallied 14 wins four years later to help the Mets return to the Fall Classic. Despite his stats, including 2,556 strikeouts, and notable career, which included shorter stints with the Twins, White Sox and Phillies, “Kooz” is not yet a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. In fact, he is probably best known in collecting circles these days for simply sharing equal billing on the 1968 Topps #177 rookie card with flame-throwing Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.
Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of “The Amazing Mets” of ’69, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the coveted Koosman/Ryan RC. In my research, I discovered that this year also marks the 50th anniversary of Major League Baseball’s decision to extend its playoff format to include more than just the two regular-season champs from the National and American leagues. In 1969, MLB officials decided to break the leagues into four different divisions of six teams each (N.L. East, N.L. West, A.L. East and A.L. West) and orchestrate a pair of League Championship Series for the first time ever. In the A.L., the East-winning Orioles swept the West champion Twins in three straight games, while in the N.L., the East-winning Mets did the same thing to the West champion Braves. In the ensuing World Series, the upstart Mets (the first expansion team to win a pennant) defeated the heavily favored Orioles, four games to one. Mind you, the Mets unlikely world championship came just nine months after Joe Namath’s “guarantee” that the New York Jets would beat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, so 1969 was a good year to be a New York sports fan.
The 26-year-old Koosman was one of the team’s five starting pitchers. Coming off a 19-win campaign the year before, Koosman kept his fastball humming and posted a 17-9 mark in ’69 that included 180 K’s. Ryan, meanwhile, was a lesser-known, 22-year-old righty and not yet a starter. Still, he notched a 6-3 record to go along with 92 K’s. The team’s ace that season was another right-hander by the name of Tom Seaver. “Tom Terrific” enjoyed a fabulous season, one in which the 24-year-old notched 25 victories on his way to nailing down his first of three Cy Young awards. Interestingly, the Mets’ championship in ’69 would mark the only World Series ever won by any of the three pitchers. That’s remarkable when one considers they played for a combined 66 MLB seasons: Ryan for 27, Seaver for 20, and Koosman for 19.
There is no shortage of Koosman/Ryan rookie cards in the market. More than 11,000 examples have been graded by PSA including 1,520 in Near Mint 7; 712 in Near Mint-Mint 8; 63 in Mint 9; and only one submission has ever qualified for the elite Gem Mint 10 status. Between 2007 and 2012, PSA Mint 9 graded specimens of the card sold for between $3,500 and $5,500. Since then, the card has been on a rocket ship with multiple auction prices realized reaching upwards of $25,000. No doubt the allure of owning Ryan’s rookie card is powerful to collectors, given the fact that he remains baseball’s all-time strikeouts leader (5,714 K’s) and threw a record seven no-hitters. To no one’s surprise, Ryan was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1999.
Getting back to the other rookie card showcasing one of these three big league stalwarts, we see that Seaver also shared the spotlight on his first-year issue (1967 Topps #581) with a Mets teammate, right-hander Bill Denehy. The latter played just three seasons in the majors and recorded but one victory. Despite Denehy’s obscure career, the ascent of Seaver’s first-year cardboard continues its torrid pace with prices ranging from $300 in PSA Poor 1 condition all the way up to $25,000 in PSA Gem Mint 10 grade. Those lofty prices are helped in large part by the fact that Seaver recorded 311 career victories, struck out 3,640 hitters and had a lifetime ERA of 2.86. He was inducted into Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility (1992) with the then-highest percentage of votes ever cast for a single player (98.84%).
Whether or not Koosman ever gets inducted into the hallowed halls of Cooperstown remains to be seen. On the surface, his credentials certainly appear to be Hall of Fame worthy. Perhaps the Veterans Committee will agree with that assessment in the not too distant future.