The New York Mets, legally known as the Metropolitan Baseball Club Inc., have known sporadic success in their four decades of existence, with two world championships to their credit and two other appearances in the World Series. The Mets generally play in the shadow of their cross-town rivals, the New York Yankees, only on occasion eclipsing the more storied franchise in media attention. Like the Yankees, the Mets are one of the most financially powerful clubs in Major League Baseball and now aggressively compete for the top free agent players that come onto the market. Enjoying stable management, the Mets have rebounded from a stretch of disappointing results in the early 1990s to emerge as a team looking to match the Yankees and the Atlanta Braves, its main competitor in its division, as consistent winners.
The 1957 Departure from New York
The birth of the Mets is also the story of two departures, that of the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Giants joined the National League in 1883 and played their home games at the Polo Grounds near Harlem. The Dodgers joined the National League in 1888. It was not until the Western League declared itself to be a major league (changing its name to the American League) and challenged the supremacy of the National League, that the Yankees (then known as the Highlanders) began play in the city in 1901. The Giants, winning pennants and championships under the leadership of the legendary John McGraw, were the toast of the town until the 1920s when Babe Ruth would revolutionize the game of baseball and launch the Yankees to unparalleled success. The Dodgers, meantime, were generally ignored, except in Brooklyn where they forged a deep bond with the residents of the borough.
By the 1950s the Dodgers were perennial winners, generally outshining the Giants and facing the Yankees in the World Series year after year. But a number of factors were converging that would eventually lead to both National League teams departing New York. For 50 years, Major League Baseball had been limited to 16 teams located in ten cities, none of which were further west than St. Louis. With the advent of air travel and the rise of new population centers, there seemed to be no reason to limit Major League Baseball to its traditional confines. The less popular teams in two-team cities, struggling to draw fans and remain solvent, saw relocation as a matter of survival. The first to move was the Boston Braves' franchise, which in 1953 relocated to Milwaukee where the club soon led the league in attendance. The next year, the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles; and in 1955 the Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City. All three enjoyed new or renovated municipal facilities. Teams like the Giants and the Dodgers were left to play in outdated ballparks in declining neighborhoods. The Giants found themselves increasingly more reliant on their interborough rivalry with the Dodgers to boost attendance. The team remained profitable, mostly due to television revenues that were second only to the Dodgers in the National League. Although somewhat better off than the Giants, the Dodgers still could not match the Milwaukee Braves in attendance. The Dodgers' owner, Walter O'Malley, knew that the Braves would soon translate attendance into the cash that could build a ballclub that would surpass the Dodgers. His fears proved legitimate, as the Braves would win the World Series by 1957.
O'Malley's dream was to escape Ebbets Field and its crowded neighborhood for a domed stadium in downtown Brooklyn where a number of subway lines and a terminal for the Long Island Railroad met. He was willing to pay for the new park; all he said he needed from the city was help in acquiring the necessary land at a reasonable price, via eminent domain. That help could only come from two men: Mayor Robert Wagner and Robert Moses, the autocratic head of parks, highways, and urban renewal. Of the two, Moses was arguably the more powerful. While mayors came and went, Moses stayed, bolstered by his ability to raise money independently by issuing bonds through the Triborough Bridge Authority. Moses thwarted O'Malley's plans at every turn. His dream was to make Flushing Meadows in Queens a true 'Central Park' of the five boroughs, as well as a lasting tribute to himself. Only there would he allow a new stadium for the Dodgers to be built. O'Malley felt that if his team played in Queens, they would no longer be the Brooklyn Dodgers. Instead, he opted to relocate to a new territory that offered immense potential: Los Angeles. According to some accounts, he also convinced Giants owner Horace Stoneham to move his club to San Francisco in order to keep alive their rivalry and to make road trips more convenient for the other teams in the league. When the Dodgers left Brooklyn, O'Malley was vilified, and the borough suffered a blow from which it would never truly recover. The Giants were not offered the ballpark in Queens, and their fans seemed to accept the loss of their team with little emotion. When the Giants Board of Directors voted to move to San Francisco, financier M. Donald Grant, who held a minority interest, cast the only dissenting vote. Earlier, he had helped a wealthy friend and Giants fan, Mrs. Joan Whitney Payson, to purchase a single share of stock for sentimental reasons. Both were destined to play a major part in the history of the Mets.
With an election looming, Mayor Wagner in October 1957 announced the formation of a committee to immediately return National League baseball to the city. The group of citizens was headed by attorney William Shea. Using the lure of a new stadium in Flushing, Shea at first tried to land an established club, but Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati declined the offer. Furthermore, the National League seemed content to remain an eight-team league, seemingly uninterested in being represented in the nation's largest media market. Shea then tried a different tactic. He decided to form a third major league: the Continental League.
Returning to New York in 1962
In all likelihood the Continental League and its proposed eight teams was never more than a paper organization, but it proved to be a creditable enough threat to Major League Baseball, especially when Shea induced 80-year-old Branch Rickey, a venerable baseball executive, to serve as president. The Continental League eventually dissolved when the majors agreed to absorb four of its franchises. Thus Houston and New York were slated to begin National League play in 1962.
To find backers for the New York entry in the Continental League, Shea had turned to wealthy Long Islander Dwight F. 'Pete' Davis, whose family was responsible for the Davis Cup tennis competition. Davis in turn brought in Mrs. Payson and Mrs. Dorothy J. Killiam, a wealthy Canadian sportswoman and Dodger fan. Each of the three controlled 30 percent of the team, with lesser amounts owned by G. Herbert Walker and William Simpson. Soon Mrs. Payson would buy out her partners, so that she owned 80 percent of the new franchise. She arranged for Grant to look after her interests.
Originally named president of the franchise, Grant became chairman of the board and led a search for someone to take over day-to-day control of the club. He turned to George M. Weiss, who had assembled the great Yankee teams of the 1950s and who had recently been eased out by management. As part of the terms of his 'retirement,' Weiss was unable to become general manager of another major league team for five years, so instead Grant named Weiss to be president, a move that would not endear the franchise with the Yankees, especially since the Yankees had to continue to pay a man who was now trying to compete for their fans. The Yankees also were not pleased with the announcement that their ex-manager, Casey Stengel, would manage the new club. As colorful a figure in all of baseball, the 72-year-old Stengel was a sportswriter's delight and virtually guaranteed press attention.
Everything about the club, in fact, was big news, worth backpage spreads in the city's tabloids, especially the selection of a nickname for the club. Sportswriters were invited by Mrs. Payson to a cocktail party at her Manhattan apartment to select the ten finalists in a nickname contest. They chose: Continentals, Skyliners, Mets, Jets, Meadowlarks, Burros, Skyscrapers, Rebels, NYBs, and Avengers. Although Mrs. Payson preferred the Meadowlarks, the fans chose Mets, with Skyliners a close second.
More important than picking a name, however, was finding a place to play in 1962 and signing players to fill the roster. It would take two years for the new Queens ballpark to be completed, and the Yankees refused to share Yankee Stadium. The only option was the decrepit Polo Grounds. Weiss lured away another Yankee employee, James K. Thomson, who had been stadium manager at both Ebbets Field and Yankee Stadium, to restore the old grounds to playing condition. Many of the players made available to the Houston Colt .45s and New York Mets were reclamation projects of their own. After seeing the names in the expansion pool, Houston almost boycotted the draft. The Mets opted for former Dodger and Giant players who were more likely to help at the gate than build a foundation for long-term success. The result would be years of futility, but successful futility. The Amazing Mets, as Stengel called his team, would perfect the role of lovable losers and within three years would outpace the Yankees in attendance.
Much of the spike in attendance was a result of the 1964 opening of Shea Stadium, which at the behest of Mayor Wagner had been named after the attorney who was instrumental in bringing the National League back to New York. Shea Stadium cost $20 million to build and seated 55,300 for baseball and 60,000 for football. Although the Mets shared the facility with the New York Jets football team, baseball took precedence.
After years of poor results, the Mets began a rapid climb to respectability in the late 1960s, proving especially adept at developing young pitching talent. In 1969 the 'Miracle Mets' would climb from the bottom of the standings the previous season to win the National League pennant, then upset the highly favored Baltimore Orioles to win the franchise's first World Series. The Mets would make a second Series appearance in 1973, but would lose the championship to the Oakland Athletics. For the next dozen seasons the team would not seriously challenge for the pennant, finishing last in its division as often than not. In the mid-1970s baseball was undergoing a revolution. After years of suppressed salaries, due to restrictive contracts, players won the right to negotiate with clubs for their services through free agency. The Yankees embraced the new system and bought high-priced talent that would bring two more World Series championships to the Bronx. Despite the advantage of playing in a big market, however, the Mets only made token efforts at signing free agents.
The Mets also underwent a change in ownership. In 1975 Mrs. Payson died and control of the club passed to her husband, Charles Shipman Payson, who had little interest in baseball and turned the team over to a daughter, Mrs. Lorinda de Roulet, who was named president of the Mets. Granddaughters Bebe and Whitney de Roulet also would become involved in the management of the team, but essentially Grant continued to make the major decisions. Hopelessly out of step with the changes in the game, however, the Mets struggled on the field and saw attendance steadily decline. Finally Grant was forced out, and in January 1979 Mrs. de Roulet became the first woman owner to be directly involved in the running of a major league baseball team when she was named the club's new chairman of the board. The Mets made gestures at playing the free agent game, but little came of it. The team barely escaped finishing in last place for the third straight season and saw attendance plunge to an all-time low of 788,905. The newspapers began to report rumors of investors groups that were looking to buy the team. Then on November 19, 1979, Mrs. de Roulet and her family announced that they were selling the Mets and that a three-person committee would screen the bids.
New Ownership in 1980
Over the course of the next two months some 20 rival groups bid against one another for the right to own a team that had become a chronic loser of both games and money. The Mets' greatest asset was the city in which it played. In the end the team would fetch a record $21.3 million, 25 percent more than any previous sale of a major league franchise. The new owners were Fred Wilpon, a real estate developer, and Nelson Doubleday, Jr., of the family-owned Doubleday publishing house, plus a coalition of minority shareholders. It was the inclusion of Doubleday when the auction was already under way that gave Wilpon the edge in buying the Mets. Although Doubleday controlled 80 percent of the club, Wilpon, who owned ten percent, would run the daily affairs of the team.
To revive the fortunes of the Mets, Frank Cashen was hired as executive vice-president and general manager. He had spent ten years in the front office of the highly successful Baltimore Orioles, and another three as administrator of baseball for Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn. Cashen patiently rebuilt the Mets, developing young players, trading wisely, and judiciously adding free agent talent. After finishing last in their division in 1982 and 1983, the Mets finished second in 1984 and 1985. In 1986 the team would win its division, as well as the National League pennant, then defeat the Boston Red Sox in the World Series to earn the second championship in franchise history.
The Mets of the late 1980s were the top team in New York. With the financial clout that comes with playing in a large market, the club also looked as if it was poised to dominate all of baseball for the foreseeable future. Injuries, off-field controversies, and free agent signings that did not pan out, however, would lead to another stretch of frustrating results. A chronicle of the Mets' 1992 season would be titled, The Worst Team Money Could Buy. The Yankees, meanwhile, were building a new dynasty, and the Orioles were building Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a retro-ballpark that was ushering in a new era of enhanced revenues for those franchises that could entice local governments to build new facilities that produced entire seasons of soldout games and additional income from luxury suites.
Cashen restored the talent level of the Mets in the mid-1990s. In 1997 the team would enjoy its best season in seven years. Also in October 1997 the team announced plans to build a new stadium, an idea that had been floated for a decade. This ballpark, to be built a mere 100 feet from Shea, would be a 40,000-seat tribute to Ebbets Field, but with a retractable roof and the requisite luxury boxes. The cost, most of which would be picked up by city taxpayers, was estimated to be $450 million. The facility would be ready for opening day, April 2001.
But by the fall of 2000 the Mets were no closer to having a new stadium than they were in 1997, although the team on the field was vastly improved. The Mets won the National League pennant and made the club's first appearance in the World Series in 14 years. It also would be the first 'subway series' in a generation, as the two New York baseball teams would meet for the first time in postseason play. It would be the Yankees who would prevail, taking their third World Series in a row, but the Mets and their hefty payroll looked prepared to remain a stiff challenge for years to come.
Whereas Forbes estimated in 1998 that the Yankees were the most valuable franchise in Major League Baseball, the Mets ranked only 12th. Every team above them by 2001 was playing in new stadiums, with the exception of the Yankees. For the Mets to realize the potential worth of the franchise, the question of Shea Stadium had to be addressed. During the 2000 World Series, Wilpon was once again sounding hopeful about building a new ballpark that could be ready for play in 2004. Shea, under Wilpon's plan, could be converted into a football-only stadium. Mets co-owner Doubleday, however, stated a preference for rebuilding Shea, at much less expense than the $700 million to $1 billion it was now estimated to cost for a new stadium. With the Yankees and other area sports teams also seeking government assistance in building new facilities, the future of the Mets' hopes for a new home, and the enhanced wealth that came with it, was far from certain.
Principal Competitors: Atlanta National League Baseball Club, Inc.; YankeeNets L.L.C.; The Philadelphia Phillies.