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Weeds: The magic season of 1969

There’s an age when a boy is old enough to admire his sports heroes and young enough to not care about the money and politics in sports. I put that at 13, the edge between childhood and adolescence. For me that was 1969.

Last year I wrote about 1968, surprised how much of that volatile year was stored clearly in the bins of my memory fifty years later. 1969 saw more protests and Vietnam, plus a moon-landing. But I’m going to go to the sports pages of my mind this year. Fifty seasons ago was a magical time to be a kid-fan.

Around that time, older brother Marvin or older brother Dale took me to my first Twins games at Metropolitan Stadium. I can’t remember which game was the first; memories blur. Whenever it was, Met Stadium was exactly as I “saw” it on the radio.

That began a love affair with a ballpark. I would go to dozens of games, meeting friends in the Baltimore lot. I still get sad if I think about it, knowing the Met would be torn down and the Twins taken hostage, held in a dank, plastic chamber for 30 years.

The 1969 Twins roster was speckled with legends. Harmon Killebrew was American League MVP. Rod Carew won the batting title and stole home seven times, which is crazy. Tony Oliva and Bob Allison had good seasons. Jim Perry and Dave Boswell each won 20 games.

Fans loved the players, but they really loved the manager. 1969 was the one and only year Billy Martin managed the Twins. Billy had played for the Twins, coached, scouted, and managed the AAA team. Even as a kid, I knew that fans wanted Martin to manage.

Martin was passionate, skilled, and knowledgeable. He was also a hothead and battled demons his whole life. He and owner Calvin Griffith were oil and water. When Calvin signed Billy to manage, he said, “I feel like I’m sitting on a keg of dynamite.”

The Twins played exciting baseball, and attendance soared. But as much as Calvin loved money, he couldn’t accept Martin getting in a bar fight with Boswell, kicking Hubert Humphrey out of the locker room, and ignoring requests to meet with him. Calvin fired Billy after the season, despite winning 97 games. Twins fans never forgave Griffith. Martin would go on get fired eight times, five by George Steinbrenner.

That was one of the best Twins teams ever. Unfortunately, the Baltimore Orioles were one the best Major League teams ever. 1969 was the first year of league playoffs. The East Division Orioles beat the West Division Twins in three straight games. They did the same thing in 1970, crushing the heart of a chubby Brown County farm kid two years in a row.

The Orioles surprisingly lost the 1969 World Series to the New York Mets. That was the Miracle Mets team that went from being the butt of jokes to nation’s darlings. The National League was like another continent back then that I followed from a distance.

The other tenants of Metropolitan Stadium were the Vikings. The Met was a baseball park, with a football field shoe-horned into it. Regardless, the stadium became part of the Viking’s mystique. There isn’t a fan my age who can’t picture Page, Eller, Marshall, and Larsen lining up, steam rising from their breath in the cold air.

The Twins and Vikings arrived in Minnesota in 1961, the Twins from Washington and the Vikings from thin air, otherwise known as expansion. The Twins were good most of the Sixties when only one team went to postseason from each league. The Vikings were a novelty under coach Norm Van Brocklin, but not very good.

That changed, seemingly on a Canadian weather front. General Manager Jim Finks brought in coach Bud Grant, who brought in quarterback Joe Kapp. All came from the Canadian Football League.

Finks came in 1964 and built the roster that would become the Purple People Eaters. Grant and Kapp came in 1967. The Vikings finished with the odd record of 3-8-3. This was when men were men, and ties were ties. In 1968, the Vikings made the playoffs, losing to Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts.

The 1969 season opened with a loss at Yankee Stadium to the Giants. Then came 12 straight wins and the best record in the league. (Interestingly, every Vikings game that year was in a baseball park: Tiger, Wrigley, Busch, Fulton. The one exception? A game at the University of Minnesota when the Twins had a playoff game. That’ll win you a bar bet sometime.)

I listened to each game intensely. Listened, not watched. Sports came to me mostly by radio 50 years ago. Usually I was with younger brother Dean who was blind. Having a blind brother may have had something to do with building the fields in my mind where my favorite teams played.

One visual does come to mind. Bud Grant, arms crossed, ball cap on, oblivious to the weather. Bud’s teams practiced outdoors no matter the conditions. There were no heaters on the sideline, gloves were discouraged, most of the players wore short sleeves in December. Bud played at the University of Minnesota after serving in the military. He hunted, he fished; he was stoic, he had a wry sense of humor. You couldn’t have scripted the archetypal Minnesotan any better.

Joe Kapp was Hispanic, breaking with the Norse theme. He was a tough-guy quarterback. He won a championship for British Colombia, and Finks and Grant knew him well. Kapp didn’t throw a perfect spiral, more of a drunken duck. So, it was a shock when he tied a record with seven touchdown passes against Baltimore early in the season, a harbinger to the Vikings’ success.

The playoffs were epic games in Vikings lore, two good, one not so much. The Rams, led by MVP Roman Gabriel, flew from Los Angeles to 11-degree Minnesota. The Vikings came from behind to win 23 to 20.

The next week (8 degrees), the Vikings beat Cleveland handily 27 to 7. The most memorable play was a QB scramble when Kapp hurdled over the Browns linebacker, taking him out of the game. Over, not under or around, classic Joe Kapp.

Unfortunately, the season ended with a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth Super Bowl. The 50th anniversary of that is coming up, which seems a perfect time for the Vikings to finally win one of those darn Super Bowls.

Soon after the season, film of Kapp declining the team MVP award went “viral.” Viral in 1969 meant it was on the 10 o’clock news. It also opened the Vikings highlight film that we got out of school to watch in the auditorium. Kapp insisted the award should go to forty players who played hard for sixty minutes each Sunday. “40 for 60” became the trademark affixed to that team.

Like Billy Martin, Joe Kapp would not return. There was some convoluted contract matter that couldn’t be resolved. The money side of sports reared its head. That’s all right. I was turning 14, and my perfect season was ending.

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