Shea it ain’t so… old ballpark a goner?

OK, stadia fans, what are the five oldest parks in the majors? The first three are easy: Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium. And then? Well, believe it or not, Dodger Stadium and Shea Stadium round out the quintet. Next question. Of these five, which one routinely makes the “worst in the majors” list? Unfortunately, it’s the subject of our study today, the home of the New York Metropolitans, “The Big Shea” in Flushing by the Bay.

The question is, does this survivor from the early 1960s deserve the grief it gets from many, even Met fans? Well, yes and no. One thing that is beyond question, though, is that Shea Stadium has witnessed some of the most dramatic moments in the sports and entertainment world, and that’s why it’s worth writing about. What we’ll do today is examine Shea’s past and present, and speculate on its future and how that will impact our hobby.

The Beginning and the Glory Days

The story of Shea Stadium and the Mets is rooted in the defection of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to the West Coast in 1958. Exactly who were the bad guys in this deal has been discussed ad infinitum, including in some of my past articles, but the bottom line was that for the first time, there was no National League franchise in New York. Mayor Robert Wagner, who got burned in the Dodgers/Giants fiasco, assembled a committee to try to lure another franchise to his town to fill the void.

The key player on this team was Bill Shea, a powerful New York lawyer who had openly disliked Dodgers boss Walter O’Malley and happily accepted the challenge of replacing his team. However, after overtures to the Reds and Phillies failed, Shea decided instead to start a new eight-team league, the members of which would include New York, Houston, and maybe New Orleans, Dallas and San Diego. This “Continental League” was considered such a threat that the MLB owners relented and allowed for expansion teams to join the fold. And so was born the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club in 1962.

It was decided that the “Mets” and iconic manager Casey Stengel would play at the vacant Polo Grounds in Harlem while a ballpark was built for them. At first it was to be called Flushing Meadow Park, after the area in the borough of Queens where it would sit, but it would later be named for the visionary Shea.

Ground was broken on Oct. 28, 1961, and it would open 29 months later at a cost of $28.5 million. As luck would have it, Shea Stadium’s opening would coincide with the New York World’s Fair which would be taking place right next door.

The stadium, whose footprint resembled a pizza with a couple slices missing, was designed to be expandable to 90,000 seats, but the missing decks were never added in the outfield. Its original dimensions were 338 feet to left, 410 to center, and 338 feet to right, with seating for 55,000. The architects were the firm of Praeger, Kavanaugh and Waterbury, and the owner was the city of New York, with Shea being a municipal facility. The surface would be grass, the wooden seats arranged in five tiers.

The ballclub, nicknamed “The Amazins” by the “Old Perfessor,” stumbled and bumbled through their first two seasons at the Polo Grounds, as Shea Stadium rose from the Queens asphalt. But the fans, many of them heartbroken ex-Dodger and Giant patrons, forgave their almost daily screwups and became a vociferous, dedicated legion. By the time 1964 rolled around, the Mets had established a solid fan base whose loyalty would eventually be rewarded.

To appreciate just how trendsetting a place Shea was at its inception, let me quote from the official dedication program, which featured the new ballpark surrounded by acres of parking lots for mobile suburbanites and the famous twin logos of the Mets along with the distinctive New York skyline inside a baseball and the 1964 Worlds Fair unisphere, which is still there in Flushing Meadows Park.

“…You are now sitting in a sports stadium which has been designed specifically for your comfort and pleasure…no other sports arena approaches Shea Stadium in vertical circulation…By means of ramps, elevators and escalators you can go from one level to another in seconds…Each seat averages more than 19 inches in width, which is larger than most stadium seats…There are no columns or pillars, hence none of the notorious “obstructed view” seats, and 96 percent of all seats are within the foul lines.

“One of the many unusual features of Shea Stadium is the rapidity with which it can be converted into a perfect oval for football. There are two rotating stands of 5,000 seats each, which rise 25 feet from the field level…They move on tracks to cover the outfield between the foul poles, making a perfect oval…There is ample parking space, which will be increased when the World’s Fair closes…a total of 54 rest rooms have been provided, 27 for men and 27 for women…The stadia-rama scoreboard is unlike any in the country. As tall as a seven- story building, it boasts an electronic brain…It can flash 270 illuminated characters within two seconds of transmission…complicated plays can be explained almost instantly through the medium of a Play-O-Gram on the board. Another feature of the board is the Score-O-Gram, which will enable a fan to keep score while the game is in progress.”

If you add in the fashionable multicolored metal panels which dotted Shea’s outer façade (somewhat obscuring those many miles of ramps and escalators) you can see why Mets fans preferred their modern digs over the Yankees’ staid, showing-its-age cathedral in the Bronx. After its initial success in ’64 there was an idea of adding a dome and 15,000 more seats but the foundation wouldn’t support it.

No question, Shea was a happening place in ’64. As wide-eyed newcomer Tug McGraw said, “…I was the luckiest guy in the world. Because every day when I came to work for the Mets, I would go to Shea Stadium, play big-league baseball. And then after the game, walk across the street and go to the World’s Fair. It was too good to be true.”

Indeed, then-Pirates skipper Danny Murtaugh called it a “showplace.” He added, “This will become one of the must-visit places for all tourists to New York, like the Empire State Building, Radio City or the Statue of Liberty.”

OK, so Murtaugh might have gotten carried away a little. But there were some interesting goings on at “the Big Shea” in those early years. Despite the fact that their team was still struggling, and the fact that a jumbo jet seemed to be performing low-level maneuvers over the park every six seconds, Mets fans packed the place, outdrawing the Yankees (who would go to the World Series that year) by more than 400,000. They were even encouraged eventually to bring and display banners, an idea deemed unseemly by the corporate Yankees.

The park’s early highlights came mostly at the home team’s expense. For example, in ’64, the Phils’ Jim Bunning hurled a perfect game on Father’s Day. No matter; it was just part of the joyful rebirth of the National League in New York.

But baseball wasn’t the only act at Shea. The Beatles gave what became known as the first stadium concert in 1965, though they had actually played at Kansas City Municipal Stadium on their 1964 tour. Their stage and woefully inadequate equipment was set up around second base and the lads were helicoptered into a cauldron of 53,275 screaming teens, who didn’t hear too much of the music, but didn’t care. They’d play there again in ’66 to a fewer crowd as part of their final USA tour. Other mega-bands, including The Who and The Police, would follow.

Football was an experience at Shea. The Jets, led by their glamorous, white-shoed, counter-culture hero, Joe Willie Namath, came over from the Polo Grounds and endured what in the fall and winter became a windblown, frigid, dust-clouded tundra. I attended a game there in November of 1981 and can recall only a few times in my life ever being so miserable, and I was a football coach at the time.

However, the mid-to-late ’60s was an exciting time for the Jets, and they capped off the decade with a heart-pounding defeat of the hated Oakland Raiders in 1968 at Shea, which served as the prelude to their stunning upset of the NFL’s Colts in Super Bowl III. The next year they would lose in the AFL semifinals to the Super Bowl-bound Chiefs, and then it would be mostly downhill, until they defected to Giants Stadium in the ’80s. The Giants played one season at Shea (1975) as well.

Shea has also hosted several huge prizefights featuring the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, in addition to pro wrestling, cricket, college football, and even roller derby. The Yankees even spent two uncomfortable seasons (1974-75) at Shea while their park was undergoing its facelift.

By the end of the ’60s, the “Amazins” had put together a respectable team, managed by the strong and steady Gil Hodges. With a stalwart pitching staff which included HOFer Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, a young Nolan Ryan, and exciting young position players like Cleon Jones and Ron Swoboda, the Mets went on a magic carpet ride which culminated in an improbable World Series triumph over Frank Robinson and the Baltimore Orioles in 1969.

Few who were around will ever forget the bedlam which ensued after the finale, as thousands of ecstatic fans stormed the field and proceeded to rip it to shreds. The Jets, who still had to play there in the ensuing weeks, were not pleased, but they were always second-class citizens at Shea.

There would be three more Fall Classics at Shea: the 1973 “You Gotta Believe” Series which resulted in a loss to the Oakland A’s and featured the last go-round of an aging Willie Mays and which was preceded by the NLCS defeat of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine”; the dramatic 1986 triumph over the Boston Red Sox, featuring a cast of characters led by Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez and immortalized by the legendary Game 6, when Bill Buckner became famous for all the wrong reasons; and the 2000 “Subway Series”, where the Mike Piazza-led Mets fell to the hated Yankees. Of course, with interleague play, every season now has two subway series, but that hasn’t curbed the enthusiasm or the crowds when these two teams clash.

Along the way there have been notable characters and fads: The “sign man” who had a suitcase full of placards that he’d prepared for seemingly any circumstance, the chants of “Lets Go Mets!” by youngsters and old-timers alike, the ubiquitous Mr. Met, the “Curly Shuffle,” played during the halcyon days of the late ’80s, Banner Day, Doc Gooden’s K-Corner, former coach Joe Pignatano’s bullpen tomatoes, and did I mention the All-Star Game in 1964?

Nobody can say that Shea hasn’t had its moments. And, at present time, things are looking up for the Willie Randolph-led squad which includes future HOFers Mike Piazza and Pedro Martinez, along with promising newcomers Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes. Something tells me the old girl will see a little more “Mets Magic” before it comes down.

Shea Today

Although I’m a Yankee fan, I get out to Shea about twice a season. It’s a little more accessible from Connecticut, and the tickets aren’t nearly as hard to come by. Indeed, I usually attend games with tickets others didn’t want or couldn’t use. My most recent visit involved watching Pedro Martinez stifle the Mets’ tormentors, the Braves, 8-1. The visit is still fresh in my mind, and I made sure to walk around and refresh my memory on the things I like and don’t like about the park. I also started scouting potential collectible fixtures which I’m sure will be offered to the public in a mega-sale if, and when, the new Mets park is built (more on that later).

Upon approaching Shea, which sits in the middle of a huge parking lot adjacent to the US Open Tennis Center and 1964 World’s Fairgrounds, you can’t help but be struck by the royal blue color of the outside façade, which replaced the original multi-colored panels of the ’60s. There are also huge neon light representations of a pitcher, hitter and catcher (added in 1987) which look pretty sharp at night. Parking is $12 – not bad, not great. The outer walls of this C-shaped bowl contain a myriad of elevators and concrete ramps, some of which become somewhat slippery on wet, humid days like the one I’d just experienced.

Lines at the concession stands are really long and the selections only average. This doesn’t preclude the eats from being expensive, of course. The concourses are rather dim and a little dreary, despite the Mets’ efforts to liven them up with huge vertical full-color banners portraying the franchise’s all-time greats, including managers Stengel and Hodges and players such as Seaver, Piazza, Carter and Strawberry. The restrooms are pretty grungy, and cramped – the less said about them, the better.

Once inside, you’re immediately struck by the brightness of the color-coded seats – red in the top deck, green in the mezzanine, then blue, and on the bottom, orange, with some royal blue cushy seats directly behind home plate. The sightlines aren’t bad, and I’ve sat everywhere in the park except the aluminum bench outfield bleachers. The upper deck can be a bit distant, though. Former co-owner Nelson Doubleday once said, “If you sit up in some of the red seats, you’re in another zip code you’re so far from home plate.”

The most dominating feature, by far, of the park’s interior is the majestic scoreboard (175-by-86 feet) which rises from beyond the outfield wall in right center. The Diamond Vision board to its left was refurbished in 2004 and augmented with two “ribbon boards.” When my daughter was 12, we took her to a game around the time of her birthday, so I called the Mets and had her name added to that day’s “Happy Birthday” greetings which are flashed on the main scoreboard. We took a photo of it, and blew it up to 8-by-10. Very cool.

The Mets have also installed a continuous blue-and-white photo mural which wraps around the stadium’s between-decks façade, and two giant murals which adorn the end walls of the outfield grandstands depicting the championship clubs of 1969 and 1986. There is also the huge, black, inverted top hat in centerfield from which an equally huge apple pops whenever a Met smacks a home run (a leftover from an old “Mets Magic” promo campaign years back). Some fans love it, some hate it. Personally, I think it’s corny, but if you are familiar with Bernie Brewer in Milwaukee, or Chief Nokahoma in Atlanta, the top hat isn’t all that bad.

Another thing Shea is noted for is the jets. No, not the football Jets who used to play there, the jets that fly overhead every few minutes due to the fact that Shea lies directly in the flight path of nearby LaGuardia Airport. But the planes hardly matter because the somewhat forced music, announcements and crowd participation games that occur, it seems, between every at-bat are deafening. One thing I wish was different is the view beyond the outfield wall: dreary expressways and industrial buildings. Not quite PNC Park or Camden Yards; and it’s a shame because you do have a water view on the other side. I guess it was a sun glare thing.

To their credit, the Mets do try to liven up the place for their fans. I mean, it seems like every week there’s an ethnic night or giveaway of some sort. During the game I attended, they were trumpeting an upcoming “Meringue Night.” Last year I went to “Oktoberfest Night” and was treated to a German rock/traditional band, accompanied by a huge troupe of folk dancers in lederhosen, feathered caps and pigtails (the girls, that is) who oompah’d their way around the diamond. It was hilarious, and all 11,000 of us in the stands enjoyed it immensely.

The thing is, if you strip away all that superfluous fluff, Shea really isn’t a bad place to actually watch a game. Sure, the somewhat small seats (at least the metal parts are rusting away, and if you’re in the back rows of the mezzanine your view of the sky is obliterated by the rusting roof, and the security guys are notorious for not letting you move down even when the crowd numbers are in the low teens, but what the hay. The field itself is emerald green, the scoreboard is cool, and almost all the seats are in foul territory so there are ballhawking opportunities aplenty. And if you’re lucky, you might even meet Mr. Met, he of the oversized baseball noggin who roams the stands meeting and greeting the Shea faithful.

As far as collectibles, you can find prints of Shea, as well as porcelain miniatures, all over the Internet, as well as in the Mets team store. Two rather interesting pieces I have in my collection are the dedication program from 1964, which I picked up at one of the Ft. Washington shows, and a wooden laminate plaque put out by Rheingold Beer (a former Mets sponsor; boy, was it bad) which pictured both an overhead view of the park and an early ’70s color-coded seating chart. I found that at a flea market in Long Island for $10 a few years ago, and it’s a neat piece – you can tell how the colors of some sections changed when they made the transition from wood to plastic seats.

Now to fixtures. The seats were produced by the Arlington Seat Co., which as far as I know, only provided chairs for one major league park: Shea. The majority of seats in the park are risers, with floor mounts in the bottom level. I have seen a few wooden models which must’ve slipped out in the ’60s during minor renovations, but from here on out, it’s all plastic, and believe me, there will be a ton of them for sale because the side posts are in such sorry condition from 40 years of painting and some outright neglect that no minor league facility (or any other kind of facility) would want them.

So, my advice is be patient for a few years and you will be rewarded. On the inside chance there will also be section signs aplenty, as well as attractive circular signs on each level that will beautifully take up most of a wall for any Met lover. It’s my prediction that the Shea Stadium sale/auction, when it occurs, will be a mammoth event.

The Future

It’s no secret that the Mets have been lobbying for a new ballpark since the mid-1990s, spearheaded by then co-owners Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday (who has since sold out). Back in 1998, Wilpon unveiled a working model of a retractable-dome stadium, which resembled Ebbets Field from the outside, and was slated to open in the 2002 season. It was supposed to feature a grass surface that could be rolled out of the stadium in 15 minutes, thereby ensuring its exposure to sunlight, even during periods when the roof was closed to the harsh elements of New York’s winter months. The stadium could be reconfigured to host concerts, tennis matches, basketball and other events. It would hold 45,000 seats and 78 luxury boxes. Capacity could be increased to as much as 60,000.

Wilpon, who as a younger man (he was a high school teammate of Sandy Koufax) pitched batting practice at Ebbets Field, envisioned a red brick and limestone façade, and a configuration which would bring its upper deck seats closer to the action than Shea’s current mezzanine. He revealed the projected cost as between $450-$500 million and stated the Mets would pay “some” of the bill. Then-NL President Leonard Coleman called the proposed Mets stadium “a park for the new millennium.”

Wilpon’s ex-partner, Nelson Doubleday, argued that a complete renovation might be the more feasible alternative (at one point a test had been done to see if the current structure could support a roof. It couldn’t).

“I kind of like this place and I don’t see a ballpark in downtown New York City,” he said, adding, “I don’t see a great deal of taxpayer money to build the Mets a stadium.”

Then came 9-11 and everything changed. Suddenly, Doubleday’s claim that Shea could be redone “for one tenth or one hundredth of the money” wasn’t all that out-of-line.

But as time has passed, the drumbeat for a new park began again, and when the Jets’ proposal for a new football stadium on the west side of Manhattan was shot down this spring, Mayor Michael Bloomberg hitched the Mets wagon to his push for the 2012 New York Olympics, stating that the public’s costs for the structure, which would rise from the acreage of the current Shea parking lot, would be capped at $180 million “for land and infrastructure” (Overall, the city and state would kick in $280 million). The Mets would pick up the $600 million for the park itself, which would seat 45,000, but would expand to 80,000 for the Olympics. And, yes, it would still have that Ebbets Field look.

There was just one problem. London was awarded 2012 Olympics on July 6, 2005.

But the Mets are undeterred. Casting an eye to their crosstown rivals, who recently unveiled grandiose plans for a new Yankee Stadium, the Mets are still going to build their own park, and tear down Shea. The when and how parts have yet to be crystallized. And so, “The Big Shea” just keeps on keepin’ on, and collectors will have to wait like the rest of us. In the meantime, Mets fans can enjoy what appears to be an up-and-coming, exciting team, and will have to live with the inadequacies of their venerable park. Oh well, they always have Meringue Night.

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