New York Mets moved into Shea Stadium 55 years ago today
By Matthew Silverman
On April 17, 1964, the New York Mets opened up the doors to their new home at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York.
Fifty-five years ago the New York Mets moved into Shea Stadium for the first time. Shea was considered the state of the art, a New Frontier ballpark that was smart, user-friendly, and multi-purpose—everything municipalities were looking for in the Mad Men era. It didn’t matter that the team that took the field against the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 17, 1964 had lost 231 out of 322 games in its first two years for a winning percentage of .283. What mattered was that they had a spanking new place to call home.
The Mets’ existence was as reliant on a stadium deal as teams that came before and after them. Stadium deals and leverage have been a part of baseball since the first ballyard had a fence put around it and money was collected, 150 or so years ago.
It was a stadium deal—or lack of one—that sent the Brooklyn Dodgers west. The Dodgers grabbed the Giants baseball club on their way out of town and New York was suddenly left with one team: The Yankees. I don’t have to tell this audience why that was an option that would simply not do.
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The Dodgers and Giants solved a logistical problem for having not one, but two clubs on the left coast. That New York didn’t have a team was not a big concern—except to New York. The National League had no thoughts about expanding, but Bill Shea changed their mind. A big-time New York lawyer appointed by the city to find a new baseball team, he went the long way around in pursuit of an alternative ballclub for the city.
Shea proposed a whole new league—the Continental League—with paper franchises scattered around the country. He had some big pockets to back him—including Joan Payson, from one of the country’s wealthiest and most prominent families (class was important in the 1950s, but money still carried the freight). Shea hired Branch Rickey, the most prominent baseball man available to head this new venture, as president of the Continental League. Rickey, a decade removed from pushing the Brooklyn Dodgers to break the color line, was like a fastball at the chin of the National League. It got their attention.
The elaborate dance took time, but Shea upped the stakes. When Shea was asked to speak at a Senate antitrust committee hearing that would have limited the number of players the existing leagues could control, Shea said no. You bet the National League took note of that. Not long after, NL president Ford Frick said yes to Shea.
Along the way, Shea got Shea—or, the city gave approval for a publicly-funded stadium to house the Mets, and on the very land in Queens that the Dodgers had refused when city planner Robert Moses had given Brooklyn owner Walter O’Malley an ultimatum: Take it or leave it. The Mets took it. Momentum helped push past all the red tape that was in place to keep New Yorkers from contributing tax dollars toward private entities. There were calls against the new stadium, but they were drowned out like a few boos just before that same guy hits the ball out of the park.
It was called Shea for the man who made it happen. And though he often said the place would be renamed 15 minutes after his death, the stadium remained Shea until its final day—17 years after Bill Shea’s death at age 84 in 1991. It kept its name even in an era when companies bought stadium naming rights throughout sports—even classy Bob Murphy was irked when he found out the ballpark named for his late brother, Jack, who’d helped make San Diego’s stadium a reality, was renamed Qualcomm. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
There were ideas about an enclosed stadium and a domed stadium in Flushing, but it came down to money. And this project was over-budget from the beginning. Mayor Robert Wagner insisted the stadium would cost no more than $12 million to build and it would be ready in time for 1963. He was way off on both counts. It cost more than double that amount and wasn’t ready until 1964. April 17, to be exact.
The paint was still wet on the outfield fence when the Mets took the field against the Pirates that first day in 1964. Jack Fischer got the start for the Mets against Bob Friend, who had beaten the Giants in their last game at the Polo Grounds in 1957. Friend won this time, too.
It was a day for pomp, bunting, traffic jams, and Willie Stargell lasers (one of 60 home runs Pops hit against the Mets in his career). Tim Harkness, the first Mets batter, was also the first Mets to get a hit at Shea. Ron Hunt was the first to cross home plate, on a fourth-inning single by Jesse Gonder. The first win would come two days later when Al Jackson did the honors against the Pirates.
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Shea would change not only the Mets’ fortunes but the Jets, who went from worst draw to toughest ticket overnight. It was because of Shea, not Namath—he came later. The World’s Fair, which opened across the way that summer, made even more people aware of Shea. Two generations of Mets fans thought of it as home. Ten years after the wrecking ball, some fans still feel that way.