Sunday, February 5th, marks the birthday of New York Mets co-founder, Mrs. Joan Whitney Payson.
A native of New York City, heiress Joan Whitney Payson was a true titan among men. But as one-time Mets second baseman Ron Hunt said of her, “She was just a nice lady.”
She was also a huge baseball fan, and grew to be known in diamond lure as the game’s queen mother.
Mrs. Whitney Payson made her first capital venture into the male dominated world of baseball during the early 1950s, purchasing one share of New York Giants Baseball Club stock from her friend, stockbroker M. Donald Grant. She would shortly thereafter come to own near ten percent of the club.
However, her days as minority owner of the New York Giants were short lived. Among the club’s board of directors, she and M. Donald Grant were the only two whom voted against the majority’s proposed relocation to San Francisco. After her failed bid to purchase the team outright, she and M. Donald Grant divested themselves of team stock.
The 1950s were a boom time in post war America. The country was expanding in almost every sense of the word, except in the business of baseball. Unchanged for over fifty years, the game’s two league establishment naturally came under attack (… again).
The Giants and Dodgers moving to California was only the latest example of owners in stagnating situations seeking greener pastures, yet still wishing to maintain their generations-old monopoly over the baseball establishment. The National League’s arrival on the West Coast was preceded by the American League St. Louis Browns resettling in Baltimore, and the Athletics arrival in Kansas City.
Throughout which time any and all interested magnate seeking membership in either circuit was summarily denied.
Only this time, conditions prevented a return to business as usual. The exodus from New York City and the establishment’s ongoing elitism triggered a revolution arguably inspired by one of the most powerful men of the game itself, Branch Rickey, whom long ago recognized baseball’s folly.
In 1958, New York City mayor Robert Wagner tasked prominent lawyer William Shea with leading a committee seeking out a replacement team. In turn, William Shea sought to lure an existing National League club to New York, albeit unsuccessfully. Mr. Shea was then advised by Branch Rickey to create a new baseball league. William Shea then turned to businesswoman and philanthropist Joan Whitney Payson to finance a New York franchise.
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In July 1959, William Shea announced the establishment of the Continental League of which Branch Rickey would serve as league president. The circuit was to launch in five cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver, Toronto, Houston, and New York), with plans of expanding to eight teams by 1961 (with the additions of Atlanta, Buffalo, and Dallas-Ft. Worth).
Sensing the gig was up, National and American League owners relented, inaugurating an extensive expansion program following where possible the blueprint set forth by the Continental League.
Having achieved his, and Mrs. Whitney Payson’s stated goal of bringing baseball back to New York City, William Shea disbanded the league.
The official naming of New York’s new National League club took place in Joan Whitney Payson’s Manhattan apartment. Among potential candidates, the name Metropolitans won out. They would commence play in April 1962, at Mrs. Whitney Payson’s old stomping grounds … the old Polo Grounds, that is.
I guess William Shea could have secured some other financier(s) other than Mrs. Whitney Payson, but only through an exhaustive vetting process, I’m sure.
What is certain beyond a reasonable doubt, there was none more perfect than she. Allying with a woman of her prominence gave the proposed Continental League immediate credibility, and posed a legitimate threat to major league baseball. Although the Mets matriarch was not the first woman to own a baseball team, she was the first woman to finance and purchase her own major league enterprise (owning upwards of eighty-percent of the team).
Mrs. Whitney Payson was indeed a force to be reckoned with among her male dominated contemporaries. Even the ‘Ol Professor, Casey Stengel, could not refuse her request that he manage the team. But to Mets fans she goes down as the affable, and altogether kind, caring, gracious grande dame, and fellow New Yorker whom brought National League baseball (… and Willie Mays) back to the city.
Joan Whitney Payson (and Casey Stengel) passed away in Autumn of 1975. After which, the organization fell on hard times during the remaining years her daughter, Linde De Roulet, served as team president.
The Payson Era officially ended when Doubleday Publishing purchased the club from her estate in 1980. In 1981, new ownership set about establishing a Mets Hall of Fame, and correctly enshrining Joan Whitney Payson and Casey Stengel as its inaugural members.
By 1986, transfer of ownership would be finalized from Doubleday Publishing, and into the personal hands of heir Nelson Doubleday, and present majority owner Fred Wilpon and family.
New York City would reward William Shea’s efforts in 1964, by naming the new municipal stadium erected in Flushing Meadows Park after him. In 2008, present ownership would acknowledge him once again by placing his name alongside the New York Mets retired numbers.
I’ve been a Met fan since 1973-74, and I submit the time is long overdue for the Wilpon Family to both commemorate and forever memorialize (our) late founding owner, Mrs. Joan Whitney Payson, with a statue erected at Citi Field.
This is not a rebuke of Wilpon Family ownership. Instead, in the spirit of New York Mets baseball, this is something, they should, and must do.
For if anyone is deserving of having a statue at Citi Field, one honoring the late Mrs. Joan Whitney Payson should unequivocally be first.
One depicting her wearing pearls, hat, gloves, toting her parasol, and welcoming all.