Meet the Mets: Renewal of the National League in New York City

by John Delach

Part Four

A barren spring devoid of National League baseball descended upon the Metropolitan area from Brooklyn to Fairfield, CT, to Garrison, NY, to Fair Haven, N J and to Port Washington, Long Island. Loyal Dodger and Giant fans could no longer live in denial by refusing to believe that the baseball loves of their lives had deserted them for California. The Dodgers and the Giants had sold out and were gone,  baby, gone; never to return.

Los Angeles and San Francisco celebrated the arrival of major league baseball with pride and joy, grand  parades down Sunset Boulevard and Market Street with their newly minted heroes and their families riding in the back of luxury convertibles to the cheers of the new faithful. Once their new heroes arrived in their temporary quarters, the air was filled by the sound of the umpires initiating West Coast Major League Baseball with shouts of:  “PLAY BALL!”

The Dodgers played their first three seasons in the LA Memorial Coliseum, a magnificent edifice constructed for the 1932 Olympics with a seating capacity of 101, 671 fans and not a good seat in the house. Because of its size, the baseball field had to be shoe-horned into a stadium with horrible sightlines for baseball. Still, these newbie and clueless aficionados flocked to opening day in unheard numbers. On April 4, 1958, 78,672 Dodgers fans filled this stadium to see their new hometown heroes defeat the rival Giants by a score of 6 to 5.  The Dodgers annual attendance for 1958 was 1,845,556.

It would be fair to write off this amazing attendance as a fluke, but in the summer of 1959, 93,105 fans came to honor retired Brooklyn Dodger great, Roy Campanella, who never played a game in LA.

When we add the attendance for the three World Series games of 90,000 each, in the Dodgers victory over the Chicago White Sox, we can imagine how happy this made Walter O’Malley. We had our joke, but he owned the baseball world.

O’Malley, always the trickster, set up Horace Stoneham and his Giants by convincing them to play their games in the Bay Area, a poor second to his Dodgers drawing power in LA with its vast metropolitan area connected by its infamous freeway system. Instead of having a capacity like vast seating area of  Coliseum, Stoneham’s only choice was Seal Stadium, the previous home of the SF Seals minor league ball club with a capacity of 22,900.

Despite this limited capacity the SF Giants inaugural opener on April 15 attracted 23,448 fans who delighted in watching their Giants trash their new, yet perpetual opponents, the LA Dodgers, 8-0.

The Giants finished the season in third place with a record of 80-74, but despite their so-so record and the limited confines of Seal Stadium, their total attendance for 1958 was !,272, 857. I doubt Stoneham regreted his move or gave a damn about O’Malley.

The Giants moved into their permanent home, Candlestick Stadium in 1960 and the Dodgers moved into O’Malley’s creation in 1962. Candlestick turned out to be a flawed ballpark. Designed for both baseball and football, it didn’t suit either and its location made it susceptible to dramatic wind and temperature changes on any given game day. The Giants solved their issues in 2000 when they moved to Pacific Bell, now ATT Stadium located right on the bay.

Dodger Stadium opened in 1962 and was an instant success and has always had the look and feel of a place to watch a baseball game. It is now the third oldest ballpark in MLB with only ancient Wrigley Field and Fenway Park  outliving it. Unlike these two senior citizens, Dodger Stadium has been modernized several times to include corporate boxes, club seating and electronic scoreboards and message boards. Yet, all these features were added without destroying its magnificent sight-lines.

Meanwhile back in Gotham City, once the weeping and gnashing of teeth  ran its course, the National League fans who also happened to be power brokers in a city of power brokers began to formulate their attack on MLB and the National League in particular. Early rabblerousers included Joan Whitney Payson, heir to the family fortune and a great baseball aficionado and her toady, M. Donald Grant, both minority partners in the Giants who refused  to endorse Stoneham’s move to the promised land.

Once it became obvious that the National League’s presence was gone, Mayor Robert Wagner turned to William (Bill) Shea, a well-respected and extraordinary deal maker to bring a team back to New York. After the league refused to consider placing an expansion team in the Big Apple, Plan B was to steal a marginal team. Shea concentrated on the Cincinnati Reds, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Pittsburgh Pirates. None were interested.

Shea didn’t become a brilliant fixer by being timid. Since neither an expansion team or moving an existing team were in the cards, why not blow-up baseball’s existing structure. Ladies, and gentlemen, may I present Plan C: The Continental League (CL). Shea started by naming a commissioner: seventy-eight-year-old Branch Rickey. He then signed on Mrs. Payson as owner of the New York franchise and between the two of them and other power brokers, they signed up five other owners:

Washington DC                              Edward Bennett Williams

Toronto                                           Jack Kent Cooke

Denver                                             Bob Howsam

Dallas / Fort Worth                        Amon Carter

Twin Cities                                       Wheelock Whitney

Shea announced that this new CL would commence playing ball in the spring of 1961. Note, other than New York and DC, the other franchises all would play in cities devoid of a Major League teams. Shea also let it be known that he had also lined up owners in nine other cities.

As Shea expected, MLB, the NL and the AL were ready to go to war to prevent the (CL) from getting off the ground. Shea used Wagner’s political clout to have Congress intervene. He enlisted the help of Senator Estes Kefauver, Chairman of the powerful Special Committee on Organized Crime. Simply called,  The Kefauver Committee, it was famous for grilling gangsters and union leaders on its open televised hearings.  Kefauver let it be known that he would consider opening these hearings to include MLB.

Wagner’s clout also prompted Brooklyn Congressman, Emmanuel Cellers to become involved. The 70-year-old Brooklyn Democratic Congressman was Chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee and he intimated that he may wish to have hearings to review changes to MLB’s anti-trust exemption.

MLB realized that they were in a fight that would only bring suffering and pain to the business of baseball. On June 18, 1960, the NL voted to approve expanding that league by two teams for  total of ten and the AL concurred on August 30. The AL in 1961 and NL in 1962.

The NL teams became the Houston Colt 45s (now the Astros) and the NY Metropolitans, aka the NY Mets , aka The Amazins.  Joan Payson headed up the syndicate that owned the Mets who played all of their 1962 and 1963 games in the ancient Polo Grounds  before moving to that ballpark Moses had proposed for the Dodgers in Flushing, Queens in 1964. Appropriately, it was named for the man who made this happen, Bill Shea.