On March 24, 1961, the New York State Senate approved money for the construction of a baseball stadium in Queens. On that anniversary, Richard looks back at New York’s “other” baseball stadium, one which also will be lost to the ages after this season.
When discussing the history of ballparks, Shea Stadium is often overlooked, in large part because it lacks the historical pedigree of Yankee Stadium. This always has struck me as a little bit like not choosing someone for a pick-up game of basketball at your local Y because he lacks the height of Yao Ming. Few stadiums around the world can match the history of Yankee Stadium. But Shea is a notable place in its own right and deserves more than the de rigueur tributes it is receiving.
After the Giants and Dodgers left New York in 1957, serious questions emerged about the viability of putting a new franchise in a city now without a National League team for the first time since 1882. New York Mayor Robert Wagner empaneled a group to find a way to bring a new team to the city.
The driving force of the committee was an attorney named William Shea. Shea himself conceded the law he practiced “ain’t white shoe,” while others decreed his firm as a “factory of graft.” Convinced that there was no other way to bring a team to the New York, Shea announced that he would form a third major league—the Continental League—and begin play in 1961.
Although the Continental League eventually would be headed by Branch Rickey and earn guarded support from Commissioner Ford Frick, it was never to be. Major League Baseball instead voted to accept a handful of the would-be CL cities. With popular consensus that the Mets franchise could never have existed without him, William Shea was chosen as the namesake of the stadium in Flushing Meadows.
To the benefit of Mets fans with positive memories of the park, but its detriment historically, it was not Shea Stadium that hosted the early Mets teams which prompted Casey Stengel to sardonically dub them “Amazin’.” Their first two seasons, the Mets played in the Polo Grounds and went a horrendous 91-231, a winning percentage well south of .300.
Moving into Shea did little to improve the team’s fortunes—the Mets lost a hundred or more (usually more) games in three of their first four seasons at their new home. In 1969, however, the Mets put together one of the most remarkable seasons in baseball history.
As late as June 1, the Mets were under .500 and nine games out of first place. By Aug. 25, they had all but guaranteed their best season, but were still five games behind the division-leading Cubs. However, in September, the Cubs faded badly, going just 8-17 (including an eight-game losing streak) and the Mets had the lead by Sept. 10.
On Sept. 24, in front of 54,928 at Shea, the Mets clinched the National League East. The large crowd was typical for Shea during periods of Mets success. Built to accommodate New York’s AFL franchise as well as the Mets, the stadium had a massive capacity. During the good times, the Mets often could fill the park. It was they—and not the Yankees, as might be assumed—that first drew both two (1969) and three (1988) million fans in a season in New York City.
A few weeks after clinching the NL East on the field at Shea, the Mets would have an even bigger celebration as the team, by now dubbed the “Miracle Mets,” triumphed over the Baltimore Orioles to win the World Series. By dropping only one game to the heavily favored O’s, the Mets allowed themselves to once more make merry on their home field.
Their co-tenants until 1983 were the New York Jets. Originally christened the Titans (in a thinly veiled tribute to its NFL neighbors), the team changed its name based on its home stadium’s proximity to LaGuardia Airport. (As anyone who has attended an event at Shea can verify, airplane noise is a constant feature.)
The same year the Mets had their greatest triumph, the Jets did as well, and once again at the expense of a Baltimore franchise: Joe Namath led the team to its upset win in Super Bowl III.
The Jets’ glory at Shea was generally limited, but the team did manage some notable moments in football history. In 1973, O.J. Simpson completed the NFL’s first 2,000-yard season during a game at Shea, and the Jets’ final Shea game in 1983 marked the final game of Terry Bradshaw.
During the 1975 season, the renovation of Yankee Stadium forced that park’s namesake tenants to play their games at Shea, as did the NFL’s New York Giants, who were still waiting on completion of their stadium at the Meadowlands. It is the only time a stadium has hosted two MLB and two NFL franchises in a single season.
Shea Stadium was also the site of a wildly successful Beatles concert (attended by my mother), which set records for both the size of the crowd and the gross revenue. The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, The Who and Simon and Garfunkel are among the other acts to have played Shea.
Finally, the non-baseball history of Shea would be incomplete without mention of an incident during halftime of a Jets-Patriots game in 1979. As part of a model airplane halftime show, an enormous plane—shaped like a lawnmower, of all things—crashed into the crowd. Twenty-year-old John Bowen died from his injuries.
But it is baseball to which Shea really belongs. Although the truly dramatic Game Six of the 1986 NLCS took place in Houston, Shea hosted two walk-off wins: Game Three on a Lenny Dykstra home run and Game Five on a Gary Carter base hit.
In the World Series, Shea hosted its unquestionably most famous game, Game Six of the 1986 World Series, the “Buckner Game.” It would be a long time after their victory in Game Seven the next day before the Mets tasted playoff glory again. But they did in 1999 with Todd Pratt hitting a walk-off, series-ending home run in the NLDS.
Later. in the NLCS, Robin Ventura would hit his “grand slam single” to keep the Mets’ pennant hopes alive, hopes that were dashed in Atlanta. The following season, the Mets made it back to the World Series and saw another title clinched at Shea, this one by the Yankees after another incredible bit of late-inning drama.
It is true that not quite the same level of history will be lost at Shea when it closes as can be said for the home of the Mets’ cross-town rival. But there is much to remember at Shea, and I hope not all those memories will be lost when it is replaced.