Today in Baseball History: Shea Stadium gets greenlighted

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On March 16, 1961 — 59 years ago today — the state of New York approved a bond issue for the construction of a 55,000-seat stadium on the site of the 1939-40 World’s Fair in Queens, in an area called Flushing Meadows. It was the same site that the city offered Walter O’Malley and the Brooklyn Dodgers to build a new stadium in an effort to keep them from moving the west coast a few years before. That didn’t take, but there was a new team getting ready to start play in New York the following year — the Mets — and the park that would be built would be named after the man who had a great deal to do with that team’s existence: William Shea.

William Shea was a lawyer. He wasn’t really the kind of lawyer who went into court or did the paperwork for the big deals. He was a relationships guy. A go-between for the city’s and the state’s powerful elites. If you wanted to make something happen in New York in the 1950s, it was a good idea to have Shea on your side.

Robert Wagner, the mayor of New York, wanted to get something done: to get a National League team back in New York after the Dodgers and Giants moved to California. To that end he asked Bill Shea to form a committee to make that happen. Shea approached the Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies, and Pittsburgh Pirates about moving to New York but they weren’t interested. So, in the summer of 1959 Shea announced that he would start a third major league called the Continental League. He helped the theoretical league gain a good deal of credibility by luring the legendary Branch Rickey out of retirement to be the league’s public face. In addition to New York, Shea and Rickey announced seven cities for Continental League teams: Atlanta, Buffalo, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Toronto. Play was to begin in 1961.

Publicly the American and National League owners and brass were dismissive of Shea and Rickey’s efforts. They scoffed at the idea that anyone could compete with the two established major leagues and noted that, just because you called yourself a “major league” didn’t make you one. Behind the scenes, however, the Lords of Baseball were worried. Those seven cities were all growing, vibrant areas at the time and a growing, vibrant postwar America and American economy could, absolutely, support more baseball teams. There was a thirst for big league baseball in more places than the big leagues operated and if the NL and AL didn’t sate it, someone would.

So the Lords of Baseball offered a deal: if the Continental League were to disband, Shea would get the team for New York that he wanted and three other expansion teams would be created. He and Rickey agreed. In 1961 the Los Angeles Angels and new Washington Senators team would begin play, with the old Senators franchise moving to Minnesota to become the Twins. The following year the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s would join the National League. Of the eight Continental League locations, Buffalo is the only one which never got an expansion team.

Ground was broken on the new ballpark in Queens on October 28, 1961. During the course of its construction, a successful push took place to name the park after Shea, in gratitude for his efforts and bringing National League baseball back to the city. The Mets were supposed to begin play in Shea Stadium in their second season, 1963, but bad weather and multiple construction worker strikes delayed completion of the stadium. On April 16, 1964 Shea christened the Mets’ new home with two symbolic bottles of water: one from the Gowanus Canal, near Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and one from the Harlem River, near the Polo Grounds, where the New York Giants had played and where the Mets played during their first two season. The first game in Shea Stadium took place on April 17, 1964. They lost to the Pirates 4-3, thanks to Willie Stargell doubling, homering and driving in two and Bob Friend pitching a complete game. The Mets would “only” lose 109 games in 1964. It’d be their best showing in their first four seasons of existence.

For its first several years of existence Shea would be more notable for a concert than any baseball that was played there. It was the Beatles, of course, who played to 55,000 screaming fans on August 15, 1965. It’d be the first rock concert played in a stadium, serving as proof of concept for what is now commonplace among music’s biggest acts. The New York Jets would call Shea home from 1964 through 1983, but they were always second fiddle to the Mets in the ballpark due to the rather draconian terms of their lease. A lease which prohibited them from playing any games there until the Mets season was done. That was well and good when the Mets were assured of going home at the end of September, but their successful 1969 World Series run caused the Jets to play the first five games of their 14-game season on the road.

The Mets won both of the franchise’s two World Series appearances while calling Shea home, winning the clinching Game 5 in 1969 and the winning Game 7 at home in 1986. By the mid 1990s, however, the era of multipurpose stadiums like Shea was coming to an end and a ballpark building boom had overtaken Major League Baseball. In 2001 New York mayor Rudy Giuliani agreed to give the Mets and the Yankees hundreds of millions of dollars to build new ballparks. That particular deal would be nixed by his successor, Michael Bloomberg, but after several fits and starts, financing and a plan for a new Mets park, right next door to Shea, was eventually approved. Construction began in 2006.

The last concert played at Shea was Billy Joel in the summer of 2008. The last ball game played at Shea Stadium was a loss to the Florida Marlins on September 28, 2008, this time losing 4-3. Following the game, a tribute took place in which players from the Mets’ past touched home plate one final time. The ceremony ended with Tom Seaver throwing a final pitch to Mike Piazza. After that the Beatles’ “In My Life” played on the stadium speakers. As the song played, Seaver and Piazza walked out of the center field gate and closed it behind them, after which  blue and orange fireworks went off.

There were 45 years of Mets memories at Shea. And it all began, really, on this day in 1961 when the deal to build it got the green light.

Also today in baseball history:

1900: At a meeting in Chicago, the American League — then still a minor league seeking to achieve major league status —  president Ban Johnson announces that an AL team will begin play in Chicago, joining the other league franchises in Kansas City, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo. This was a big move as it was the AL’s first foray into a market in which the established National League played. Johnson was able to make it happen without litigation pursuant to an agreement with NL officials in which he agreed that the team would play on the south side of the city rather than on the north side where the Cubs played. The White Stockings were also prohibited from using the word “Chicago” in their official name.

1953: Fifty-three years later, the AL was not so accommodating to one of its own owners, as the other seven owners rejected Bill Veeck’s request to move the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore. The move was aimed at forcing the maverick Veeck out of the league by forcing him to sell his financially unstable franchise. As soon as he did it the AL happily approved the new owners’ application to move the Browns to Baltimore, where they became the Orioles, the following year. It would not be the last the AL heard from Veeck, of course.

1985:  1968 and 1969 Cy Young Award winner Denny McLain is convicted of racketeering, extortion, and cocaine possession in Tampa, Florida. He’d go on to serve 29 months of a 23-year sentence before an appeals court overturned the decision. It would not be the last the criminal justice system heard of McLain.

1994: Eric Show, who won 100 games pitching for the Padres and most famously gave up the single that allowed Pete Rose to break Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record, died of a drug overdose at age 37. Show’s life was a weird one and a sad one. Worth a read today.