Essay: Shea Stadium and the Moses Vision


Shea Stadium
and the
Moses Vision
 
--
Eric Paddon
--


Photo courtesy of www.ballparks.com ... read BALLPARKS' facts, figures and little known tidbits about Shea in their Baseball Park Section (National League).
BALLPARKS' photo of Shea Stadium

Of the few permanent structures that opened in Flushing Meadow in April 1964, the one that was intended as the greatest long-term legacy lay just outside the Fair's Main Entrance, across a walkway and parking lot: Shea Stadium, the brand new home of both the New York Mets baseball team and New York Jets (formerly Titans) AFL football team.

It was only coincidence caused by construction delays that saw Shea Stadium open at the same time the World's Fair did. The original planning had called for it to be ready the previous season (the Mets had even held a farewell to the Polo Grounds ceremony at the end of the 1962 season and then were forced to do it again at the end of 1963). In many ways the timing worked out perfectly as it allowed Shea to stand out as part of the aura of dynamic Space Age progress that the Fair symbolized. Shea Stadium was the first new stadium for New Yorkers in more than 40 years and it epitomized all the things that Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field were not.

At Shea a spectator could finally, for the first time, not have to worry about getting a seat with an obstructed view caused by a support post, that for all ballparks built before the 1950s was a necessary evil in order to accommodate a multi-level facility. At Shea a suburban visitor could make use of an ocean of available parking space for his car, something that wasn't available at Yankee Stadium or either of the bygone ballparks. And at Shea a visitor from the more upscale suburban communities could see a game without the uneasy feeling that he had put his safety at risk by coming to a game in a deteriorating neighborhood.

Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds had all been built in the early decades of the 20th Century in what had been middle-class urban neighborhoods with thriving homes and businesses surrounding the ballpark environs. The Concourse Plaza Hotel, located just beyond Yankee Stadium, was regarded as a luxury hotel and served as the in-season home for most of the ballplayers. But by the 1950s these once middle-class communities were spiraling into a state of decay and neglect caused largely by the changing demographics of post-World War II America. The great highways of the future predicted by the original New York World's Fair of 1939 had brought with them an exodus of the middle-class from traditional urban neighborhoods to new homes in the emerging suburbs that enabled a person to live in more quiet, pastoral settings while still working in the city. The departure of the middle-class meant that those from the lower classes inevitably moved into the abandoned neighborhoods. In the space of two decades urban decay had settled in, with a marked increase in crime in the very neighborhoods that housed New York's three venerable ballparks.

Despite the fact that from 1947-1956, all three teams were dominating baseball like never before (the Yankees won eight pennants and seven championships in that span, the Dodgers six pennants and a championship, and the Giants two pennants and a championship), attendance seldom rose above more than one and a quarter million for any of the New York teams after 1950. Inevitably, the blame was fixed on the deteriorating neighborhoods, which to a suburban fan took on added weight since he could now stay at home and watch a game on television without having to travel to a run-down community. Ultimately, for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, their belief that New York would never build a new stadium in a better neighborhood that could draw more fans led them to abandon New York for the untested regions of California after the 1957 season.

New York tried its best to convince the Dodgers, at least, that they could get a new ballpark that, while not situated in Brooklyn itself, would be located close enough to their natural fan base to allow for suburban fans from Long Island to make the trip with a greater sense of security. New York's Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had long viewed the construction of a stadium in Flushing Meadow as one of the keys toward achieving the rehabilitation of the site that had not taken place after the closing of the 1939-40 World's Fair. On April 10, 1957, he put forth a proposal to Dodger owner Walter O'Malley that called for $12 million of city funds for a new facility in Flushing Meadow that would satisfy the Dodgers needs for larger seating (Ebbets Field was a bandbox in size, seating no more than 35,000 which often meant smaller revenue streams during the many World Series the Dodgers participated in during the 1950s), safe parking away from any deteriorating neighborhood and access to a public transportation line that could bring fans to the stadium by subway.

O'Malley, however, was never interested in Flushing Meadow as a site for a new ballpark. His obsession centered on a piece of land at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn where he wanted to build a large domed stadium out of his own pocket. He needed to get the city to turn over the land to him and on this, both New York mayor Robert Wagner and Robert Moses, the two allies O'Malley needed, adamantly refused since it would have meant removing land from the city's tax rolls for O'Malley's use and would have put O'Malley in position to reap the rewards of development in the area immediately adjacent to the new ballpark. Irving Rudd, who worked for the Dodgers during this time as promotions director, later put it succinctly to author Peter Golenbock "If they had given O'Malley what he wanted, they should have gone to jail."

Oddly, there is no indication that Moses and Wagner ever thought of using Flushing Meadow as an opportunity to keep the Giants in New York once it was clear that O'Malley wasn't going to move the Dodgers to Queens (In rejecting the proposal, O'Malley said that if the Dodgers moved out of Brooklyn, even to Queens, it would be no different than moving to California. Many Brooklyn fans would certainly have taken exception to that). By that point Giants owner Horace Stoneham was so determined to leave New York (where he had real financial problems) that no doubt Moses and Wagner realized it would have been a futile gesture.

And so when the 1958 baseball season opened New York suddenly found itself reduced from three baseball teams to one. Almost immediately there was a clamor from city officials to get baseball to bring a National League team back to New York since it was clear that the deprived Dodger and Giant fans would not be swallowing their pride to become Yankee fans. But since no National League team was interested in relocating to New York and because there had never been an expansion of the league in the 20th Century, it seemed that such appeals would forever fall on deaf ears. What finally got Major League Baseball to do an about-face and bring the National League back to New York was the sudden threat of an independent third league forcing its way into the big time.

The proposed Continental League was the brainchild of New York attorney Bill Shea who, after failing to convince an established National League team to move to New York, decided to take action by organizing a proposed third league with franchises based in New York, Houston, Denver, Toronto and other cities without a Major League team. It was Shea who found a solid financial backer for the proposed New York franchise in Joan Whitney Payson, a former Giants minority stockholder. And with the presence of former Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey as President of the proposed league, it was clear that this endeavor was determined to succeed. Both the American and National League decided it would be easier to compromise and accommodate some of the proposed Continental franchises through an expansion of both leagues in 1961 and 1962. New York would be added to the National League under the formula starting in 1962.

Once New York had been approved, Mayor Wagner and Robert Moses wasted little time in dusting off the Flushing Meadow proposal for the new stadium that Walter O'Malley had rejected. By this point, Moses was already beginning his preparations for the overall rehabilitation of Flushing Meadow by a new World's Fair and the opportunity to further improve the park's long-term health with a stadium could only be a godsend. The New York legislature passed a bond measure that would pay for the construction costs and, on October 6, 1961, the new team, officially called the "Metropolitans" but from the outset referred to as "Mets", signed a 30 year lease to play in the new stadium. Not long afterwards the American Football League's New York Titans, which had come into existence with the renegade football league in 1960 and played their games in the Polo Grounds, signed on to play in the new stadium as well. The Flushing Meadow stadium would now have almost total year-round use.

The decision was made to name the new stadium in honor of Bill Shea recognizing that without his efforts to propose the Continental League, New York would never have received a second team again and the stadium would not exist. It was a very rare case where a new stadium's name was not tied to either location (such as San Francisco's Candlestick Park), a club owner or executive (Ebbets Field had been named for the Dodgers then-owner when it opened in 1912), or the team itself (Yankee Stadium). For many years afterwards Mets fans entered Shea Stadium with little idea of the man who the stadium had been named for. In a Mets team history video in 1985, Bill Shea chuckled as he recalled one occasion when he visited the ballpark not long after it opened, "There were two fans in front of me and one of them was asking, 'Who the heck was that guy Shea they named the place after?' And the other guy said, 'Oh, he was a ballplayer that was killed in the First World War.'"

If there was anyone else who could have conceivably earned the right to have the stadium named after him, it would have been Robert Moses. The Flushing Meadow site had been his brainchild as part of his overall vision to see Flushing Meadow Park transformed into a "super urban park," providing more convenience to the increasingly suburban tilt of New York's population that was moving eastward into Long Island. Once it was clear that National League baseball would be returning to New York, no thought was given to any other location than Moses'. And because Shea's opening would ultimately coincide with the 1964 World's Fair that was, unrealistically, expected to attract 70 million visitors, it seemed only natural to think that building Shea in the same location would help enhance Fair attendance.

Official Met's Program and Scorecard for the 1964 (l.) and 1965 (r.) Seasons. The Fair and Shea Stadium were in each other's best interests in '64 and '65.

1964 Program and Scorecard

1965 Scorecard and Program

We can never know for certain how many visitors to Shea that first year also took advantage of the Fair's proximity. But in that first season of 1964 the Mets drew 1.7 million in attendance, nearly doubling the numbers they had drawn to the decaying Polo Grounds in 1962 and 1963. The new locale didn't improve their inept playing but for the first time the Mets began to look like the team of the future which fit in nicely with the theme of the "Space Age" World's Fair. 1964 saw the emergence of their first homegrown player, second baseman Ron Hunt, who was elected to the 1964 All Star Game (played at Shea, and won by the NL on a dramatic game ending home run by Johnny Callison of the Phillies), while the following year saw outfielder Ron Swoboda, later a key member of the 1969 "Miracle Mets" championship team, burst on the scene and set a rookie record for home runs in a month.

1964 All Star Game ticket and Souvenir Program
1964 All Star Game Ticket
LISTEN ! - From the original NBC Radio broadcast: Philadelphia's Johnny Callison hits a game-ending home run to win the 1964 All Star Game at Shea Stadium for the National League, 7-4. (Blaine Walsh, announcer).
1964 All Star Game Program

By contrast, the mighty Yankees dynasty that had won fifteen American League pennants in eighteen years since 1947 was beginning to crumble. In 1964 the Bronx Bombers of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford had to rally from far back to win one last pennant before bowing out to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. The next year, age and injury set in at once and the Yankees collapsed to sixth place, followed by a last place finish in 1966. During the second year of the Fair, New Yorkers now had a choice between an aged declining team playing in an increasingly dated facility in a bad neighborhood and a team that, while losing, was injecting more and more youth into the mix and playing in a comfortable modern facility. It was no contest and the Mets finally became the undisputed focal point of baseball in New York -- a status they would enjoy through their championship in 1969 and well into the 1970s before bad ownership decisions and the dawn of free agency sent them in a tailspin while the simultaneous rebirth of the Yankees in a modernized Yankee Stadium in 1976 shifted the focus back to the Bronx Bombers as New York's premier team.

Today, nearly forty years after it first opened as the symbol of what the "Space Age" World's Fair was all about, Shea Stadium is the third oldest National League ballpark still in use trailing only Chicago's venerable Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles (which opened in 1962). The impulse to build stadiums away from urban neighborhoods and in more outlying communities has long since passed with the emphasis now on building smaller "classic" style ballparks in downtown urban locations in the hope that they will bring a larger economic and cultural revitalization of the community. In effect, the vision that Walter O'Malley wanted to prevail in his Atlantic Avenue site for a ballpark in Brooklyn has now come to pass in such cities as Baltimore, Cleveland and Denver. By contrast, Shea Stadium, situated in a sea of parking lots across from a park that after the Fair's closing still failed to fully live up to what Robert Moses had envisioned, has become the kind of quaint relic from the past that Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field seemed in 1964. Several repaintings, and the partial enclosure of the outfield caused by two giant "Diamond Vision" screens, have only served as cosmetic attempts to conceal its age. The departure of the New York Jets football team for the New Jersey Meadowlands in 1984 further underscored Shea's inability to maintain the aura of up-to-date sophistication it projected during its first two years when the Fair was in full swing.

Today, when visitors come to Shea, they do so in general ignorance of why the stadium is so-named. And even if they look beyond the parking lots and see the nearby Unisphere they might not fully recognize how both structures are indelibly linked to the vision of one man, Robert Moses, to transform Flushing Meadow into the last word on urban park development. But so long as the Mets continue to play in Flushing Meadow, even if in a new stadium built one day on the other side of the parking lots, that part of the Robert Moses' vision will continue to endure.

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© Copyright 2002, Eric Paddon -- reprints of this essay without permission of the author are not allowed.
Eric Paddon taught American and World History at Joliet (IL) Junior College and at Wheaton (IL) College. His dissertation on Dr. Billy Graham's friendships with U.S. presidents will soon be published as a book. He grew up in Chatham, NJ and remembers his first view of the World's Fair site in the mid-1980s en route to a Mets game and being drawn to the sight of the eternally stopped Sky-Streak elevator in the New York State Pavilion. You can contact Eric by e-mail at epaddon@aol.com

Webmaster's note... Once again I'd like to thank Eric for providing nywf64.com with some wonderful material. I've heard it said by more than one person that there was many a Fairgoer who wondered what that big round "pavilion" was on the other side of the railroad tracks at Flushing Meadows. Although not a World's Fair structure, Shea's Space Age look and design fit right in with the Fair's image and the stadium deserves its feature on a World's Fair website. Thanks, Eric, for providing us with a look back at Shea's early years.

Bill Young
October 14, 2002