Thursday, April 17, 2008

This Day in Baseball History (Shea Stadium Opens)

April 17, 1964—Repeating the same result from two years before in their first-ever home game, the New York Mets dropped a 4-3 decision to the Pittsburgh Pirates. But this time, optimism pervaded the atmosphere, because after two years of spectacular ineptitude in the Polo Grounds, the baseball squad was making its debut in Shea Stadium, salving the wounds of New York baseball fans angered by the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants to the West Coast in 1958.

The new ballfield took $28.5 million and 29 months to construct, but even longer to bring to bring into being. For his efforts in doing so, the stadium was named for
William A. Shea, a New York attorney appointed by Mayor Robert Wagner to bring a National League franchise back to the Big Apple.

For a moment, I’m going to consider a word in that last sentence—“lawyer.”

A longtime friend and fellow Columbia has gently reproved me for aspersions I cast on his chosen profession in my
St. Patrick’s Day post. Well, it goes without saying that my friend is exempt from my jest on this subject.

I might also add that my gibe resulted from two tendencies, endemic to my Irish heritage, that got the better of me: 1) the urge to embellish and exaggerate, and 2) the instinct to play the comedian. The second tendency might be worse because, faced with the option of a subtle witticism or a cheap one-liner, I invariably choose the latter. I am, as Henry Higgins remarked of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, “so deliciously low.”

So okay! I give up! Uncle! No mas! Don’t sue me! Don’t taser me, bro! (Though, come to think of it, if you do, I can sue…) See what I mean about my tendencies?

What was I saying? Oh, yeah, about lawyers and Bill Shea.

Contrary to my St. Patrick’s Day post, there are good attorneys, a category in which I would place my friend, Abe Lincoln, John Adams, Daniel O’Connell, and Bill Shea.

Shea and his partner, Milton Gould, former classmates at George Washington High School in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, made a virtue of their gritty, up-from-the-city-streets background, to which white-shoe firms, to their shame and subsequent regret, gave the cold shoulder early in their career.

Mayor Wagner knew the right man to staff his franchise-locating committee when he selected Shea—the attorney was a walking rolodex of the rich and powerful, counting not only Wagner but also such other New York politicos as John V. Lindsay, Abe Beame, Nelson Rockefeller and Hugh Carey as friends. Not for nothing did New York Magazine writer Nicholas Pileggi describe him in 1974 in as the “unofficial chairman of the state’s unofficial permanent government.”

Gould was correct in noting that though his partner might be “incapable of parsing a sentence,” he also “could predict the direction of events and he had an incredible talent for inspiring talent and confidence in people."

Not to mention an incredible talent for bluffing. In July 1959, Shea announced the formation of the Continental League, a third major league, one of whose teams would be based in New York. The league would disband a year later, but not before major league baseball had committed to bringing a National League franchise back to the Big Apple.

For his tireless advocacy and adroit manipulations, the park that was originally going to be named Flushing Meadow Park came to be called Shea Stadium.

I think it’s only right that Shea’s connection to baseball and New York history be recollected one more time, because with the decision to sell the naming rights for their new home next year, the Mets’ current ownership sure won’t be doing so.

I should say that Bill Shea Jr. is being philosophical – dare I say sporting?—about this decision, even recalling how his father joked that it would be renamed 15 minutes after his death. As it happened, it was somewhat longer—17 years. But I’m afraid that, if the amnesia of Mets ownership had involved my father, I might have gotten my Irish up about this—maybe even have acted like the felicitously named Ferrovious in George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion.

At a party I attended nearly two weeks ago, some Mets fans were already waxing nostalgic about the park. Sure, it might have had a few problems with sightlines, they said, but now, all those new luxury boxes being put in by the Wilpons were going to result in some 10,000 fewer seats. And we’re not even going to talk about how much ticket prices will go up.

So the Mets (as the Yankees, the subject of tomorrow’s post) are about to get the latest in baseball stadium fashion, just as Shea was in its day, as the first stadium capable of being converted from baseball to football and back using two motor-operated stands that moved on underground tracks.

Ballparks are temporary phenomena, and even more so, in an age of constant corporate takeovers, are the companies that pay for naming rights. Like Citigroup, which is coughing up $400 million over 20 years to place its name on the Mets’ new park starting next April.

My rooting interests are well-known to longtime friends and inveterate readers of this blog. But today, I tip my cap to Shea Stadium and the man who brought it—and the great memories it inspired for legions of fans—into being.

By season’s end, like the Shea faithful, I’ll be singing the Ol’ Blue Eyes song “There Used to be a Ballpark Here” even as Citi Field takes shape close by. We’ll see how much everybody gets for the prodigious sums being expended (the Mets, $600 million; the City of New York, $90 million in capital funds; and New York State, $75 million in infrastructure costs).

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great read, Mike. You're writing is top notch as always.
Mike Smith