This article was written by Rory Costello
“Nobody has ever called Shea Stadium a cathedral,” wrote George Vecsey of the New York Times after the last major-league baseball game was played there on September 28, 2008.1 Even so, for many it inspired love and loyalty that its handsome but dull replacement, Citi Field, could not.
When New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. dedicated Shea in 1964, he called it “one of the most modern and beautiful sports facilities in the world.”2 The luster wore off quickly – commentator Peter Gammons said, “I think it was outdated by its third or fourth year.”3 The multi-purpose park in Queens was often derided. Shea was the second of the so-called “cookie-cutters” or “concrete doughnuts” built in the 1960s and 1970s. As time wore on, many visitors – including fans of its main tenant, the New York Mets – branded it a “dump.”
Shea had its drawbacks. Its location near Flushing Bay gave it something in common with San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. Winds swirled, and the cold could be fierce, especially in April – let alone during winter football games. The neighbors were noisy (LaGuardia Airport) and dirty (a forbidding maze of junkyards and automotive “chop shops”). The atmosphere in the concourse, stairways and tunnels was dank. The pitch of the upper deck was steep. The seats were cramped.
Still, this was a fun place to watch baseball. It had another extraordinary positive: peaks of intense excitement. The “Amazin’ Mets” of 1969 completed their most improbable run to a World Series championship there. When the Mets won their other World Series title, in 1986, Games Six and Seven at Shea both featured rousing comebacks. The two-out, three-run rally in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game Six – capped by the grounder that trickled through Bill Buckner’s legs – remains one of the most staggering episodes in Series history. When the house was packed to its capacity of 55,000-plus and “Mets Magic” was flowing, one could feel it swaying slightly on its foundation.
The excitement went beyond sports. The 2007 documentary “7 Ages of Rock” went so far as to name Shea “the most hallowed venue in all of rock music.” The case is strong, starting with The Beatles in 1965 and 1966. Other blockbuster shows included The Clash opening for The Who (1982), The Police (who crammed in more than 70,000 fans in 1983), and The Rolling Stones (1989). Shea Stadium was the birthplace of arena rock.
Shea also hosted boxing, soccer, pro wrestling, and religious gatherings. Scenes from various movies were filmed there too, including two with specific Mets references (The Odd Couple and Men in Black) and two with baseball-driven plots (Bang the Drum Slowly and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.)
To understand the history of William A. Shea Municipal Stadium, one must know for whom it was named. Bill Shea (1907-1991) was a lawyer. Author Nicholas Pileggi (Wiseguy) summed him up in a 1974 profile for New York magazine: “the most powerful unofficial manipulator of political influence in the state.” Shea was a tough guy — “a roomful of a man, a big, square-jawed, blue-eyed, brawling New York dead-end kid who made good.” He embodied his firm, then known as Shea, Gould, Climenko & Kramer: “If it takes a kick in the balls to win, we’re going to win. We ain’t white shoe.”4
Great irony underlies the history of the Mets and Shea Stadium. In 1934, Bill Shea became “the protégé of Brooklyn’s then-Democratic party patriarch, George V. McLaughlin.”5 McLaughlin was also an executive of the Brooklyn Trust Company, guardian of the half of the Brooklyn Dodgers held by the estate of Charles Ebbets, for whom Ebbets Field was named. Another McLaughlin protégé was Walter O’Malley, himself a lawyer. McLaughlin brought O’Malley into the Dodgers organization, and O’Malley came to control the franchise over time.
Of course, O’Malley moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. In the wrangling to keep “Dem Bums” in Brooklyn, discussions included the site in Flushing Meadows upon which Shea Stadium was later built. After initial interest, O’Malley’s enthusiasm for Queens quickly waned.6 Also, none other than George McLaughlin floated a proposal to keep the other local franchise, the New York Giants, in the city at the Flushing location. Compounding the irony, McLaughlin was a colleague and ally of O’Malley’s opponent, New York City power broker Robert Moses.
This article does not re-examine whether O’Malley or Moses could have kept the Dodgers (or Giants) from going west. By late 1957, it was a foregone conclusion. Mayor Wagner then enlisted Bill Shea to help the city fill the void. As Shea’s obituary put it, “In December 1957, with New Yorkers still smarting over the loss of the Giants and Dodgers and Mr. Wagner facing re-election, the Mayor named Mr. Shea to lead a four-member committee of ‘prominent citizens’ to ‘corral a National League team.’”7
Shea did so, using Branch Rickey’s would-be third major league, the Continental League, as a springboard. The Mets signed a 30-year lease for Shea Stadium on October 6, 1961, four days before their expansion draft. Construction commenced on October 28. However, “two bitterly cold winters in 1962 and 1963 and more than 17 different labor strikes forced Shea to open a year later than planned.”8
The facility’s original name was Flushing Meadows Municipal Stadium. Other names were considered, but Mayor Wagner and his administration decided to rename it for Bill Shea – over the latter’s protests.9 Queens politician Eric J. Treulich first made the proposal on October 30, 1962, and the City Council made it official on January 15, 1963.10 Department store executive Bernard Gimbel – another member of Mayor Wagner’s four-man committee – also gets credit for the renaming effort.
Meanwhile, the Mets played on in the Polo Grounds. So did the New York Titans of the American Football League. The team’s new owner, Sonny Werblin, renamed the Titans the Jets in 1963; one reason was Shea Stadium’s proximity to LaGuardia Airport. The Jets became the other longest-running tenant of the stadium – but they were second-class citizens until departing after 1983. They had to play many early-season road games – especially in 1969 and 1973, when the Mets made it to the World Series. Plus, “the stadium never reached its full seating capacity for football until the second month of each season because of the baseball configuration. Likewise, half the playing field consisted of the dirt infield which, combined with rain, produced treacherous footing and headaches for the players.”11
Shea Stadium also fit another of Robert Moses’ grand visions: the World’s Fair of 1964. Back in 1938, the “Master Builder” described his plan to transform Flushing Meadows “From Dump to Glory” in connection with the World’s Fair of 1939, which was also held in New York City. Moses was being literal – over 26 years, the site had accepted 50,000,000 cubic yards of refuse material. 12 Though Shea Stadium was not actually part of the fairgrounds in 1964, it was listed in the fair’s maps, guidebook, and related publications. The same city subway line (the No. 7 train) served visitors. During the 1964 and 1965 seasons, the Mets wore World’s Fair patches on the left sleeve of their home jersey and the right sleeve of their road jersey.13
The firm of architects and engineers that designed Shea Stadium was Praeger-Kavanagh-Waterbury of New York City. In yet another irony, Walter O’Malley hired this company to develop Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. When it was built, Shea was hailed as futuristic. As Richard Sandomir of the New York Times wrote in 2008, however, “Shea’s design might have been more memorable if not for compromises made by the city.”
Sandomir quoted Robert Schoenfeld, the project engineer for Praeger-Kavanagh-Waterbury. “The city said, ‘Design and build it for $15 million and make it convertible for two sports.’ It tended toward being a circle, which is not optimum for either sport, so seats are farther away from the activity than if you built it just for one sport. The Mets didn’t want it enclosed because they wanted it to feel like you were going on a summer’s day…if the football people ever got control, you could complete the circle with additional seats.” The stadium was designed to accommodate a dome, but that day never came.14
The job wound up costing $28.5 million. In the dedication pamphlet, Commissioner of Parks Newbold Morris proclaimed, “It is a stadium with many ‘firsts.’ It is the first of its size to have such an extensive escalator system carrying patrons to every seating level; it is the first capable of being converted from a football gridiron to a baseball diamond and back by means of two motor-operated stands movable over underground tracks; it is the first in which every seat in the permanently fixed stands is directed at the center of the field and not a single column obstructs the spectator’s view.”15
One progressive feature had side effects, as Paul Lukas noted in his 2008 column on Shea’s special elements. “The movable stands and underground tracks wreaked havoc on the field, so late-season Mets games often featured unsightly strips of dead grass where the seats had moved, providing a unique September tattoo on the Shea grass.”16
Shea Stadium continued the theme that the Mets were heirs to the city’s departed ballclubs. Until 1980, the stadium’s exterior bore steel panels in the team’s colors, blue (from the Dodgers) and orange (from the Giants). “We called them the laundry,” said Bob Mandt, an original Mets employee, “because they just hung up there like the laundry and rattled when the wind blew.”17 Shea was the only ballpark to have orange foul poles (something that Citi Field continued). Also, “for the christening ceremony, Mr. Shea filled two empty champagne bottles with water – one from the Harlem River, near the old Polo Grounds, and the other from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. Though you could not see the canal from Ebbets Field, he explained, you could always smell it.”18
The day after the christening, April 17, 1964, the first ballgame took place at Shea. The audience included National League President Warren Giles and Commissioner Ford Frick. Bill Shea threw out the first pitch. The field was marshy after rain the previous day – and because of the faulty placement of outfield drains, which plagued outfielders for years. There were other foul-ups on the first day. The immense scoreboard garbled messages due to short-circuits in the 80 miles of wiring. There were massive traffic jams before the game. Worse yet, the pumps in the boiler room failed and the bathrooms spilled over.19 But the clubhouse showers functioned. Mets starter Jack Fisher told reporters, “Oh, they’re working all right, and in a little while I may be the first to try them out.”20
Mets center fielder Jim Hickman beat “Fat Jack” to the taps; he left the game in the fourth inning after getting hit by a pitch. Two innings before, Fisher had served up Shea Stadium’s first home run, to Willie Stargell. It was Stargell’s third of 60 in his career against New York, easily the most of any Mets opponent. Of those 60 homers, 26 came at Shea. Another future Hall of Famer, Mike Schmidt, later tied Stargell’s mark for visiting players. Darryl Strawberry had more than any other home player with 127.
The Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Mets, 4-3, on a run-scoring single in the ninth inning by Bill Mazeroski. In the middle of that rally was Donn Clendenon, who became one of the heroes of the Amazin’ Mets’ 1969 championship. Veteran Pirates pitcher Bob Friend, whose career ended with the Mets two years later, earned the win.
That first year featured one of the rarest gems in big-league history. On June 21, Jim Bunning of the Philadelphia Phillies threw a perfect game, striking out 10, in the first game of a doubleheader. Shea Stadium had a name as a pitcher’s park, with its roomy outfield, above-average foul territory, and tough backdrop for hitters. “Park factor” statistics bear this out (though not as much as reputation suggests). Yet over the years, only one other no-hitter was thrown there: Bob Moose of the Pittsburgh Pirates did it on September 20, 1969. Alas, no Met pitcher ever threw a no-no at Shea – or anywhere else, for that matter – until June 1, 2012, when Johan Santana broke the drought at Citi Field.
Shea also hosted the 1964 All-Star Game on July 7. Mets second baseman Ron Hunt was a starter. Phillies outfielder Johnny Callison was wearing a Mets batting helmet when he hit the game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth off Boston’s Dick Radatz. In subsequent years, the Midsummer Classic returned to New York twice – but Yankee Stadium was the scene in 1977 and 2008. Citi Field became the venue for 2013.
Two special contributors to Mets lore came on the scene in 1964. One was Jane Jarvis (1915-2010), the talented jazz-based organist who had played for the Milwaukee Braves from 1954 through 1962 before moving to New York. For 16 seasons she delighted Mets fans, subtly spicing game action and making rain delays more bearable. Perhaps her finest hour came on the night of July 13, 1977, when she kept the fans at Shea calm after a blackout struck New York City. 21
The other was “The Sign Man,” a German immigrant and Queens resident named Karl Ehrhardt. When the graphic artist died in 2008, his obituary said, “Mr. Ehrhardt brought his big bag of 20-by-26-inch placards to dozens of games each year, from 1964 through 1981…Bob Mandt, the former Mets ticket manager and vice president for stadium operations, said that Mr. Ehrhardt ‘was able to reach into his bag and pull out something appropriate without missing a beat. He was part of the happening that Shea became.’”22
Ehrhardt’s signs often flashed acerbic humor. “Not all of the players were in love with him,” said Bob Mandt in 2006. “It all depended on what he was putting up there.”23 The most famous of Ehrhardt’s sharp-edged jokes came late in the 1965 season, when he displayed a 30-foot banner reading “Welcome to Grant’s Tomb.” That was a dig at team chairman M. Donald Grant and the Mets’ level of play in those years. Allegedly, Grant was amused – but Matt Burns, then chief of stadium operations, was not. Burns sicced six security men armed with penknives on Ehrhardt and they shredded the banner as the fans booed.24 But when the Mets paraded down the “Canyon of Heroes” to celebrate the 1969 World Championship, Ehrhardt was riding in one of the cars, brandishing a sign that read “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done.”
Ehrhardt publicly “resigned” in 1979, but after the Mets were sold in January 1980, he came back after dickering with the front office.25 However, he stopped coming out to the park in 1981. He said, “They [the new ownership] didn’t like me criticizing the team. They turned their backs on me, so I just packed up my signs and went home.” Mandt was able to lure Ehrhardt back in 2002, though, to celebrate the franchise’s 40th anniversary.26
On August 15, 1965, the first-ever stadium rock concert took place when The Beatles came to Shea for the first date of their U.S. tour. The lads from Liverpool arrived by armored car, and the Beatlemaniacs screamed so loudly that nobody could hear the 12-song, 30-minute show. The “Fab Four” returned to Shea on August 23, 1966, as part of their final tour.27
During the 20 seasons that the Jets played in Shea Stadium, they were over .500 in only five. As star quarterback Joe Namath observed, though, the team turned the tough conditions at Shea into a home-field advantage. The franchise’s peak remains its Super Bowl victory in 1969. To get there, the Jets had to beat the Oakland Raiders for the AFL championship on December 29, 1968. On a sloppy, muddy field at Shea, with the wind gusting up to 35 miles per hour, “Broadway Joe” & Co. won, 27-23.28
Many remarkable things happened at Shea Stadium in 1969, and the first of them came in the season’s third game, on April 10. In the second inning, center fielder Tommie Agee hit a tremendous home run off Larry Jaster of the Montreal Expos. It landed in the upper deck in left field – which was very hard to do, because only small portions of that deck were in fair territory. Shortstop Bud Harrelson said, “It wasn’t coming down when it hit those seats.”29 In fact, no other homer reached the upper deck – in left or right field – in the stadium’s history. The spot was marked with a circle bearing the date and Agee’s uniform number, 20.
Mets pitchers came close to no-hitters many times before Santana’s breakthrough. The most memorable near-miss was Tom Seaver’s “Imperfect Game” of July 9, 1969. In front of 59,083 fans – the biggest baseball crowd ever at Shea – Seaver retired the first 25 Chicago Cubs to face him before rookie utilityman Jimmy Qualls stroked a clean base hit to left center.
As the Mets’ momentum gathered steam in September 1969, one of the little legends that defined the team took place on September 9. The Chicago Cubs, who had been leading the NL East for most of the season, were visiting. In the first inning, a black cat wandered onto the field and in front of the Chicago dugout. The creature got credit for jinxing the Cubs, and the Mets won, 7-1, drawing within half a game of first. New York took over the lead the next day and did not let it go.
When the Mets defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, four games to one, they took the last three at home. Each of those games had distinctive highlights. Game Three belonged to Tommie Agee and his two spectacular running catches, Game Four had Ron Swoboda’s diving catch, and the turning point of Game Five was the sixth-inning “shoe polish incident.”
On August 6, 1970, the Summer Festival for Peace concert came to Shea. The acts included Creedence Clearwater Revival, Paul Simon, and Miles Davis – plus an unbilled Janis Joplin, who died two months later.30 The following July, another popular act of the day, Grand Funk Railroad, rapidly sold out the stadium. According to lead singer Mark Farner, as the band members arrived by helicopter, they could see the building bouncing up and down.31
In May 1972, the Mets majority owner, Mrs. Joan Payson, was instrumental in bringing superstar Willie Mays back to New York. (Mrs. Payson had been a minority owner in the Giants and had opposed their move west.) In his first game as a Met, “The Say Hey Kid” hit a solo homer in the bottom of the fifth at Shea, and it stood up the rest of the way as the margin of victory.
The Mets won the NL East again in 1973 after another improbable September surge. A pivotal moment in the race took place at Shea on the night of September 20. New York came into the game in third place, 1½ games behind their opponent, the Pirates. In the top of the 13th inning, with the score tied 3-3, Pittsburgh outfielder Dave Augustine sent a long fly to left. The ball took a clean bounce off the very top of the fence, straight up, and back into the hands of an amazed Cleon Jones. The relay nailed Richie Zisk at the plate. New York then won in the bottom of the 13th, took over first place the next day, and held on the rest of the way.
What followed was an upset victory over the powerful Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS. In Game Three at Shea, a notorious bench-clearing brawl broke out after hardnosed Reds star Pete Rose took out Bud Harrelson on a double-play ball. When Rose returned to his position in left field, the fans heaved bottles, cans, and garbage toward him, nearly causing a forfeit. National League President Chub Feeney, in the stands, asked Mays to go out on the field and calm the fans, joined by Met manager Yogi Berra and team stars Cleon Jones, Tom Seaver, and Rusty Staub. The fans simmered down, with an extra hand from the soothing sounds of Jane Jarvis.32 The Mets took the game and ultimately, the playoff.
The 1973 World Series between the Mets and Oakland A’s was tense and suspenseful, if not one of the best ever. However, its best-remembered stories – Willie Mays reaching the end of the line, the scapegoating of A’s second baseman Mike Andrews – took place at the Oakland Coliseum. The three contests at Shea, Games Three through Five, were all held at night. Only three other World Series games before then had been held under the lights. When the reinstated Mike Andrews appeared as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning of Game Four, the Shea crowd gave him two standing ovations.
At the end of September 1973, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx had closed for major renovations. The prime tenants there – the Yankees and the New York Giants of the NFL – needed to find interim homes. The Yankees played at Shea during the 1974 and 1975 seasons. The Giants played most of their 1973 season and 1974 in the Yale Bowl in New Haven; they then moved to Shea for 1975. Thus, in 1975, Shea Stadium held an unprecedented four major sports franchises. Clearly, the groundskeepers had their work cut out for them. Plus, New York City faced a fiscal crisis and almost defaulted in 1975. The budget crunch contributed to a period of general disrepair for Shea that lasted several years.33
The Yankees found their time at Shea Stadium hard. Mets Vice President Jim Thompson assigned the Yankees to the Jets’ clubhouse, while the team’s administration had to operate out of offices in Flushing Meadows Park across Roosevelt Avenue.
The Mets’ scoreboard could not handle the letters “DH,” so the Yankees used “B” for batter when their designated hitter came to the plate. Little was done to make the Yankees feel at home beyond the big scoreboard display of the club’s logo during games. Many of their fans who lived in New Jersey, Westchester, and Connecticut were unwilling or unable to make the trek to Queens, so Yankee rooters found themselves often outnumbered in their “home” park by Met fans.
Another Yankee who found Shea Stadium unpleasant was their star of the time, Bobby Murcer. Murcer, who was used to the short right field fence at Yankee Stadium, saw his power numbers evaporate at Shea – he didn’t hit one out at “home” until September 21, 1974. After the season, Murcer was traded. One of the few bits of fun he had at Shea was raiding the vegetable garden in the bullpen, the pride and joy of Mets coach Joe Pignatano.34
The biggest bang the Yankees got for their two years in Shea Stadium came on June 10, 1975, when Yankee PR man Marty Appel organized a “Salute to the Military” night, with Gen. William Westmoreland, former U.S. commander in Vietnam, in attendance. The highlight was a pre-game 21-gun salute by artillery. The Army cannon’s first shots blew down the center field fence, set part of it afire, and covered the field with smoke. Repairs delayed the game’s starting time 42 minutes. Next day, a grim Jim Thompson slid the repair bill across his desk to the apologetic Yankee brass.
Three days later, Yankees center fielder Elliott Maddox slipped in the swampy outfield and severely injured his knee. Maddox’s season was over, and he never fully regained his talents. He underwent three operations and was shipped in 1977 to the Baltimore Orioles. He sued his doctors, the Mets, the Yankees, Shea Stadium’s maintenance company, and the City of New York for $12 million, claiming that his injuries were the result of negligence. Nonetheless, Maddox signed with the Mets in 1978, and played the last three seasons of his career with them at Shea, at third base and in the outfield. The suit wound through the New York State courts for years until the state’s Court of Appeals threw it out in 1985, in a 6-0 decision.35
Garo Yepremian, placekicker for the Miami Dolphins from 1970 through 1978, talked about turf conditions and why the “Flushing Freezer” was tough to kick in. “The wind was always swirling, especially toward the open end of the stadium. Once I aimed the ball 20 yards outside the left goal post. The kick had a slight hook, and the wind was blowing left to right. It hit the right goal post and bounced back. That field also wasn’t covered much, but when it was and they pulled the cover off, the dirt and grass would come off in chunks. There wasn’t any traction.”36 Longtime Jets kicker Jim Turner said, “That’s a mean ol’ son of a gun, that stadium.”37
The other most memorable event in Shea Stadium’s football history took place on December 16, 1973. O.J. Simpson, then the star of the Buffalo Bills, ran for 200 yards in the snow, becoming the first NFL running back to go over 2,000 yards in a season.
After Joan Payson died in 1975, her daughter, Lorinda de Roulet, became club president. The Mets and their fans endured several dark years from 1977 through 1983. Attendance flagged: whereas the Mets had regularly outdrawn the Yankees in the early ’70s, by 1976 the Bronx Bombers were riding high.
For many reasons, the 1979 season was the nadir for the Mets. When Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at Shea Stadium on October 3, 1979 – the rain stopped almost exactly as he entered – it was only the second time all year the stands were filled. That year, the team drew less than a million fans. To save money, the upper deck was not opened; instead, mezzanine seats were designated as “general admission.” Barring the strike season of 1981, no Mets club ever drew so poorly.
Symbolizing this time was an ignoble mascot. During the 1979 season, the de Roulet daughters obtained a mule, later named “Met-Al” or “Mettle.” It lived in Shea Stadium and drew one of the daughters around the warning track in a small carriage before games. During the game, the beast grazed beyond the outfield fence, inspecting home run balls that were smacked into the open space. The penny-pinching club ownership laid off their press-box major-domo to cover the costs of the mule, its feed, and wrangler.
Another example of parsimony came on the season’s final home game in 1979. On “Fan Appreciation Day,” the surprise giveaway to all fans in attendance was cups of ice cream that would have otherwise gone unsold amid fog, rain, wind, and cold. July 1979 also marked the departure of Jane Jarvis. “I thought I was leaving on my own volition,” she said in 2008. “It turns out they would have let me go, because there was no organ anymore. The new owners didn’t want it. They made it clear they didn’t want the music.”38
In January 1980, Doubleday & Co. bought controlling interest in the Mets from the Payson family. (Fred Wilpon, who later bought out Nelson Doubleday, then held just a 5% minority stake.) The Doubledays took steps to revitalize the public face of the franchise, which included a massive full-color instant replay screen beyond the left-center field fence. The new regime also exiled Mettle the Mule to another pasture. That May, with hope not yet in sight, a true Shea Stadium icon emerged: The Home Run Apple. Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News described it as “a nine-foot mass of fiberboard slathered in red paint that, whenever a Met blasts a homer at Shea, pops out of a 10-foot, upside-down black top hat made of plywood.”39
Soon after the Apple was installed came one of the few instants from this period that Mets diehards could cherish. On June 14, 1980, the Mets came back from a 6-0 deficit to beat San Francisco, 7-6. Outfielder Steve Henderson – one of the four players received in the 1977 Tom Seaver trade – hit a two-out, three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to cap the winning five-run rally. The fans (“Nobody left the park,” said manager Joe Torre) stood and demanded a curtain call, and Henderson ultimately did so. A new slogan was born – “The Magic Is Back” – though the Mets didn’t really live up to it for another four years or so.
The original Apple, in all its cheesy splendor, lives on at Citi Field – though it was relegated to a spot near the bullpen entrance gate. “The new Home Run Apple is significantly larger and is adorned with LED lights,” according to its designer, Uni-Systems.40 It’s sleek and shiny and in keeping with its surroundings – yet for many, it doesn’t have the same heart. The Apple is the gentrification debate in microcosm.
On October 12-13, 1982, Shea held its first rock shows since Jethro Tull had played there in 1976.41 The Clash, one of the definitive punk rock bands, opened up for The Who, the so-called “godfathers of punk.” Drummer Terry Chimes said, “I remember playing ‘Career Opportunities’ at Shea Stadium in 1982. It was odd, thinking back to when we used to rehearse in a tiny place in Camden and here we are bashing it out in front of tens of thousands.”42 The concert recording, a popular bootleg for many years, received official release in 2008.
Simon and Garfunkel took their successful reunion tour to Shea on August 6, 1983. But 12 days later, on August 18, a show headlining The Police turned out to be a big moment in ’80s rock history. Frontman Sting said, “We’d like to thank the Beatles for lending us their stadium.”43 The first support slot went to a then-obscure “college rock” band from Athens, Georgia, R.E.M. – whose name wasn’t even printed on the tickets. Booking agent Ian Copeland (the elder brother of Police drummer Stewart Copeland) saw the huge crowd go berserk and recognized that R.E.M. was going to become a superstar act. The show also marked a peak for The Police. Afterwards, Sting said to guitarist Andy Summers, “It doesn’t get any better than this. We should really stop.” Summers replied, “Yeah, you’re right. It can only go down from here.”44
On December 10, 1983, the Jets played their final game at Shea Stadium. The Pittsburgh Steelers trounced New York, 34-7. As a result, the Jets finished at .500 on the nose during their history at Shea: 70-70-3. The Associated Press wrote, “The Mets themselves, and what Jets management perceived as favored contractual status for the baseball team, as well as the general disrepair of the stadium, led the Jets to join the New York Giants at the football-only facility across the Hudson River.”45 That was Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands, which has since also been demolished.
After the Jets moved, the Mets retrofitted Shea Stadium for baseball-only use (probably when the motors for the movable stands came out) and painted the exterior blue. Before the 1988 season, neon signs of baseball player silhouettes were added to the windscreens.
Meanwhile, a turnaround was in sight for the Mets by mid-1983 – general manager Frank Cashen had made some outstanding trades, including deals for Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez. The farm system was yielding young stars, including Darryl Strawberry. Another phenom, Dwight Gooden, arrived in 1984 and sparked a new craze at Shea. Gooden – also known as Dr. K for his phenomenal strikeout rate in his early years – inspired a fan named Dennis Scalzitti to start the “K Korner.” Scalzitti and his friend Leo Avolio hung out K signs in a row from the upper deck railing (backwards Ks for called third strikes). Their act incited the crowd, became hugely popular, and spread to ballparks across the country.46 In the late 1980s, the Mets obtained another fine strikeout pitcher in David Cone, and his fans – the Coneheads – hung out little orange road cones.
On Opening Day 1985, the last big piece of the championship puzzle, catcher Gary Carter, hit a game-winning homer in the 10th inning to send the fans home happy. The opposing pitcher for the Cardinals was Neil Allen, the former closer who’d been dealt away in the Hernandez trade. Yet despite Dwight Gooden’s superlative pitching, the Mets lost a tough race to St. Louis in 1985. In 1986, though, the Mets blew the doors off the NL in the regular season.
They really had to dig deep, however, to win the pennant and World Series. Game Three of the NLCS against the Houston Astros featured a game-ending two-run homer by Len “Nails” Dykstra into Shea’s right-field bullpen. As thrilling as that was, Game Six of the World Series outdid it. October 25’s drama began in the first inning, when parachutist Mike Sergio landed on the Shea infield bearing a GO METS banner. A few hours later, with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning, the Diamond Vision screen in left field flashed premature congratulations to the Boston Red Sox. The astonishing rally then unfolded, capped by the ball that got by Sox first baseman Bill Buckner. In Game Seven’s concluding comeback, the home crowd was clearly an influence, unsettling another ex-Met, Red Sox reliever Calvin Schiraldi.
The Mets didn’t make it back to the playoffs in 1987. On September 11, a ninth-inning homer by Terry Pendleton of St. Louis silenced nearly 52,000 ebullient fans at Shea, and the eventual loss blunted New York’s pennant-race momentum. A similar deflating homer came a little over a year later. This time it was Mike Scioscia of the Dodgers who struck a stunning blow to tie Game Four of the NLCS. The Dodgers eventually took the series in seven games, and eleven years passed before the Mets returned to the postseason.
In October 1989, the Rolling Stones brought their Steel Wheels tour to Shea for six nights. They were the first concerts at the stadium since 1983. Living Colour, the all-black hard rock band from New York City, was a potent opening act. Mick Jagger, the Stones’ lead singer, liked Shea. He said, “If we had a set we didn’t have to move, we could have sat it in Shea Stadium for three months, which is my idea of a really good tour.”47
In April 1991, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin named his first child Brielle D’Shea because he enjoyed playing at Shea Stadium so much. At some point, third baseman Gary Cooper followed suit by naming his youngest daughter Shea.48 The best-known major-league child named for Shea arrived in 2004, though. That was the son of Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves.49 Jones had a well-earned reputation as a Mets-killer, and New York fans sought to get under his skin by chanting his given name, Larry. This was an offshoot of the “Darryl” chant for Darryl Strawberry in previous years – but showed that heckling had become one of baseball’s lost arts.
On October 2, 1991 – four days before the end of the season – Bill Shea died of complications from a stroke he’d suffered two years before, which had put him in a wheelchair. Yet as his obituary noted, “whoever was in charge, from Casey Stengel to Bud Harrelson, each Opening Day Mr. Shea presented a floral horseshoe to the Mets manager.”50 Shea’s self-deprecating prediction that the stadium would be renamed 15 minutes after his death did not come to be.
Seven players hit regular-season homers at Shea for both the Mets and Yankees: Bill Sudakis, Elliott Maddox, Darryl Strawberry, Robin Ventura, Shane Spencer, Tony Clark, and Ricky Ledée. Interleague play enabled the latter four to do it, but Strawberry’s achievement came amid unusual circumstances. On April 15, 1998, the Yankees had to play a “home” game at Shea because a 500-pound concrete and steel beam had collapsed at Yankee Stadium. When Strawberry took one deep in the fifth inning, stadium operators partially raised the Home Run Apple before lowering it again.51 That night, the Mets played their regularly scheduled game, capping an unusual four-team, two-league doubleheader.
The Mets’ playoff run in 1999 featured two more of Shea’s most dramatic moments. The first was Todd Pratt’s homer to end the NL Division Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Eight days later, on October 17, came Robin Ventura’s “Grand Single” in the 15th inning of Game Six against the Atlanta Braves. The Mets failed to win the pennant that year, but Shea hosted its last World Series – a “Subway Series” against the New York Yankees – in 2000.
The tragedy of September 11, 2001 – or simply, 9/11 – traumatized New York City. In the aftermath of the terror attack, Shea Stadium was a staging area for relief efforts. Met players and front-office staff helped to unpack and sort supplies. When baseball resumed at the park on September 21, the Mets wore hats used by the city’s service agencies, such as the Fire and Police Departments (they did so for the duration of the 2001 season). Star catcher Mike Piazza made it extra-heartwarming with his game-winning two-run homer in the eighth inning. It’s also well worth noting that another longtime fan favorite at Shea, Rusty Staub, had started a charity called the New York Police and Fire Widows’ & Children’s Benefit Fund in 1985. The events of 9/11 took his effort to a whole new level.
Postseason play did not return to Shea until 2006. The seventh game of the NLCS against St. Louis provided two more of the most vivid images in the ballpark’s history: left fielder Endy Chávez’s leaping snow-cone catch that stole a home run from Scott Rolen and Adam Wainwright’s beautiful 0-2 curveball that froze Carlos Beltrán and knocked the Mets out.
That was the last postseason game at Shea, for both the 2007 and 2008 seasons were marred by the Mets’ collapse down the stretch. The curtain came down with a disappointing 4-2 loss on September 28, 2008. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Mets finished with a record of 1,859 wins and 1,713 losses at Shea Stadium.52
After the final defeat, the Mets honored their past, introducing a long and impressive array of former players in a post-game ceremony. To cap the sendoff, Tom Seaver threw the final pitch from Shea Stadium’s mound to Mike Piazza behind the plate. They put their arms around each other, waved, and walked out to deep center. Then they stopped before the wall, waved again, and left the ballpark for the last time.
In those last two years, the Mets’ attendance was far higher than ever. As the fans trooped in, they could see Citi Field (where construction had begun in July 2006) arising in the adjoining parking lot. The irony was coming full circle. As was true of Walter O’Malley and Ebbets Field, Fred Wilpon had been looking to replace Shea for years. Wilpon – who was well known for having loved the Brooklyn Dodgers in his youth – purposely had the exterior of the new park designed to resemble Ebbets. As with O’Malley, an ongoing debate arose regarding Wilpon’s motives, bona fides, and the need for a replacement.
On July 16 and July 18, 2008, amid a year-long wave of nostalgia, the last big concerts took place at Shea Stadium. It had been nearly five years since Bruce Springsteen visited, and more than 11 since Elton John and Eric Clapton came. This time the headliner was Billy Joel; one special guest star was Paul McCartney, who talked about his visit over 40 years before with The Beatles.53 “It’s an honor to help throw Shea the ultimate concert farewell party,” said Joel. “As a sports fan and a music lover, I will always have a place for Shea Stadium in my heart.”54 The 2010 documentary Last Play at Shea used these concerts as a vehicle to tell the ballpark’s story.
Shea Stadium’s demolition began on October 14, 2008, and concluded on February 18, 2009. Again in common with Ebbets Field, a small band of diehards came out on a winter day to witness the end. Though Shea never attained the mythic status of Ebbets, odd similarities echoed almost half a century after the little Brooklyn bandbox had been razed. Both were built on former dumpsites. Both eventually became known as dumps themselves – but wore the label in a contrary sense of what George Vecsey called “lumpen outer-borough pride.” The satirist Wilfrid Sheed said of Ebbets, “It might be a dump, but it was a baseball dump through and through.”55 In Last Play at Shea, Darryl Strawberry repeated what many others had proclaimed about Shea: “It’s a dump…but it’s our dump.”56
The late Dana Brand, who expressed his feelings as a Mets fan wonderfully in two books, captured this ambivalence in his 2006 tribute “For Shea.” To present the essay in its entirety is not possible here, but if there’s any one excerpt to be chosen, perhaps it is this:
“I like how big Shea is. I like it when it has 55,000 people in it. I like how noisy it can get. I like its awkward incoherent immensity, which never feels oppressive because so many things at Shea are so silly, like Mr. Met and the apple in the hat and the t-shirt launches and Lou Monte singing Lazy Mary at the seventh-inning stretch. Shea has a personality. It is big and goofy and unsophisticated…It inspires sentimentality and manic energy. It is very New Yorky in an old-fashioned way.”57
Thanks to David H. Lippman for his input during peer review.
The New York Mets have inspired a wealth of books, websites, and other creative endeavors. The following small selection (plus some works on the Yankees) was of particular help in compiling this short history.
Jason D. Antos, Shea Stadium, Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.
Dana Brand, Mets Fan, Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006.
Dana Brand, The Last Days of Shea, Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2009.
Peter Golenbock, Amazin’, New York, New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2002.
Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals, New York, New York: Walker & Company, 2006.
Marty Appel, Pinstripe Empire, New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Marty Appel, Now Pitching for the Yankees, New York, New York: Sport Classic Books, 2001.
James S. Hirsch, Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend, New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Last Play at Shea (2010), written by Mark Monroe and directed by Paul Crowder.
“History of Shea Stadium” (http://mlb.mlb.com/nym/ballpark/history.jsp)
Dana Brand, “For Shea” (formerly visible at the now-defunct website danabrand.com)
www.loge13.com – This blog was established a couple of years before Shea Stadium was demolished. Among other things, it has detailed write-ups of Shea’s history as a rock venue.
1 George Vecsey, “A Bitter Acceptance as Mets Fall,” The New York Times, September 28, 2008.
2 Dedication – William A. Shea Municipal Stadium, (http://www.worldsfairphotos.com/nywf64/booklets/shea-dedication-4-16-64.pdf)
3 Kristian Dyer, “Shea Stadium: New York’s other MLB home bids farewell, too,” ESPN.com, September 24, 2008 (http://espn.go.com/espn/thelife/news/story?id=3595733)
4 Nicholas Pileggi, “No Matter Who Loses the Elections, Bill Shea Wins,” New York, November 11, 1974, 45-46.
5 Pileggi, “No Matter Who Loses the Elections, Bill Shea Wins,” 45.
6 Henry D. Fetter, “The Queens Dodgers?” New York Times, August 14, 2005.
7 David Margolick, “William A. Shea, 84, Dies; The Lawyer Behind the Mets,” New York Times, October 4, 1991.
9 Eric Barrow, “Shea Stadium: Mets’ first miracle,” New York Daily News, September 25, 2008.
10 Jason D. Antos, Shea Stadium, Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2007, 8.
11 Joe Resnick, “Shea Stadium bidding farewell to pro football,” Associated Press, December 4, 1983.
12 Robert Moses, “From Dump to Glory,” The Saturday Evening Post, January 15, 1938, 12-13, 72, 74.
14 Richard Sandomir, “Stadium’s Appeal Lay in Futuristic Functionality,” New York Times, September 27, 2008.
15 Dedication – William A. Shea Municipal Stadium
16 Paul Lukas, “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like Shea,” ESPN.com, September 26, 2008 (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=lukas/080926)
17 Sandomir, “Stadium’s Appeal Lay in Futuristic Functionality”
18 Margolick, “William A. Shea, 84, Dies; The Lawyer Behind the Mets”
19 Barrow, “Shea Stadium: Mets’ first miracle”
20 Leonard Koppett, “50,312 see debut – Motorists and Mets are the losers,” New York Times, April 18, 1964.
21 Filip Bondy, “Jane Jarvis recalls the happy times and tunes at Shea,” New York Daily News, May 9, 2008. Lee Lowenfish, “Jane Jarvis: The Mets’ One and Only Organist,” Booktrib.com, April 18, 2012 (http://leelowenfish.booktrib.com/2012/04/18/jane-jarvis-the-mets-one-and-only-organist/)
22 Dennis Hevesi, “Karl Ehrhardt, 83, Sign Man and Shea Stadium Fixture, Is Dead,” New York Times, February 9, 2008.
23 Vincent M. Mallozzi, “Recalling the Time of the Signs at Shea,” New York Times, June 18, 2006.
24 Robert Love, “Oh, Shea Can You See?” New York, August 4, 1980, 11-12.
25 Love, “Oh, Shea Can You See?”
26 Mallozzi, “Recalling the Time of the Signs at Shea”
27 “Shea Stadium Concerts,” New York Daily News, July 31, 2008.
28 Edwin Shrake, “Joe Passes The Big Test In A Breeze,” Sports Illustrated, January 6, 1969.
29 Jesse Spector, “Tommie Agee’s upper-decker remains singular Shea swat,” New York Daily News, September 20, 2008.
30 “Shea Stadium Concerts.” By some accounts, Jimi Hendrix also played; by others, that is apocryphal.
31 Doug Miller, “‘Funk’ frontman recalls Shea Stadium gig,’ MLB.com, May 27, 2008 (http://sanfrancisco.giants.mlb.com/content/printer_friendly/mlb/y2008/m05/d27/c2779701.jsp)
32 Lowenish, “Jane Jarvis: The Mets’ One and Only Organist”
33 Jack O’Connell, “Shea Stadium: Young but full of history,” MLB.com, September 25, 2008 (http://newyork.mets.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080314&content_id=2426194&vkey=news_nym&fext=.jsp&c_id=nym)
34 Bob Hertzel, “Comic relief,” The Pittsburgh Press, June 30, 1985, D3.
35 “Sports People: Maddox Fails in Suit,” New York Times, November 22, 1985. Writing for the court, Judge Bernard Meyer stated that Maddox had been aware of the conditions when he took the field before the game, even though he had complained about them. “His continued participation in the game in light of that awareness constituted assumption of risk as a matter of law,” said Judge Meyer.
36 Garo Yepremian with Skip Clayton, Garo Yepremian’s Tales from the Miami Dolphins, Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 2002, 70.
37 Resnick, “Shea Stadium bidding farewell to pro football”
38 Bondy, “Jane Jarvis recalls the happy times and tunes at Shea”
39 Anthony McCarron, “Mets’ Home Run Apple loved to core,” New York Daily News, April 21, 2008.
40 “New York Mets Home Run Apple,” Uni-Systems.com (http://www.uni-systems.com/en/projects/featured-projects/new-york-mets-home-run-apple)
41 Mark Ian Wilkerson, Amazing Journey: The Life of Pete Townshend, Lulu.com, 2006, 374.
42 Nick Johnstone, The Clash: “Talking”, London, England: Omnibus Press, 2006, 88.
43 Jon Pareles, “Rock: Police Perform for 70,000 at Shea Stadium,” New York Times, August 20, 1983. It’s interesting to note that Pareles didn’t give R.E.M. a word in his column, though he raved about The Police and dismissed the other opener, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, as “the same old arena rock with a gender change.”
44 Johnny Black, Reveal: The Story of R.E.M., San Francisco, California: Backbeat Books, 2004, 86.
45 Resnick, “Shea Stadium bidding farewell to pro football”
46 In 2006, Scalzitti told the story in his own words on his blog (http://djcojo.blogspot.com/2006/11/memories-of-k-korner-by-man-who-created.html)
47 Lisa Robinson, “On the Road Again,” SPIN, December 1989, 56.
48 Cooper’s nine-game big-league career with the 1991 Houston Astros did not include any appearances in New York.
49 “Jones has 17 home runs at Shea Stadium,” ESPN.com, August 31, 2004 (http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=1871546)
50 Margolick, “William A. Shea, 84, Dies; The Lawyer Behind the Mets”
51 McCarron, “Mets’ Home Run Apple loved to core,” Murray Chass, “Strawberry Gets the Apple to Rise,” New York Times, April 16, 1998.
52 “Another collapse befalls Mets as bullpen allows key homers,” Associated Press, September 28, 2008.
53 Ben Sisario, “Paul McCartney Joins Billy Joel at Shea Stadium,” New York Times, July 19, 2008.
54 Hank Bordowitz, Billy Joel: The Life and Times of an Angry Young Man, San Francisco, California: Backbeat Books, 2011.
55 Robert E. Murphy, After Many a Summer, New York, New York: Sterling Pulishing Co., 2009, 67.
56 Glenn Gamboa, “‘Last Play at Shea’ documentary tells stadium’s story,” Newsday, April 20, 2010.
57 Dana Brand, Mets Fan, Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006.