Joan Whitney Payson: A Pioneer for the New York Mets

By Leslie Heaphy

This article was published in the 2017 The National Pastime.

Joan Whitney PaysonIn late May 1957, the National League owners voted unanimously to allow both the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants to move out west, leaving a hole in the hearts of New York fans and in the market. Talks quickly developed about who might move in to take over the National League vacancy. A unique result came about when the winning group included Joan Whitney Payson among its shareholders. Mrs. Payson became the first female owner of a major league ball club who did not inherit a team but used her own money to buy the club. A lifelong sports fan, Mrs. Payson helped bring National League baseball back to New York and remained with the game until she died in 1975. During her tenure, the New York Mets went from the worst to the best. They started at the bottom of the league but won the World Series in 1969 and made the playoffs in 1973. So who was Joan Payson and how did she end up as the owner of the Mets, taking her place in history with a small number of female owners?

The number of female owners in baseball is slim. One has to go back to the early 1900s to find the first, Helene Hathaway Robison Britton of the St. Louis Cardinals. Britton became the owner of the Cardinals in 1911, inheriting the team after both her father and uncle passed away. She held the reins for six years, finally selling the ball club for a handsome profit to a group of local investors headed by Sam Breadon, who became club president. After Helene Britton, the next female owners include Phillies secretary Mae Nugent and widow Laura Baker who were left 500 shares of stock when Baker’s husband died in 1930. James Dunn’s wife inherited his fortune upon his death in 1922 and that included the Cleveland Indians though she did not get involved in the day-to-day operations. Barney Dreyfuss’s widow Florence passed on the running of the Pittsburgh Pirates to their son-in-law, Williams Benswanger in 1932. Grace Comiskey took over principal ownership of the Chicago White Sox in 1939 following the death of her husband and held the position until her death. After her mother’s death in 1956, Dorothy Comiskey served as owner of the White Sox until 1959 when the reins passed to Veeck’s syndicate and her brother Chuck kept his minority share after a legal battle.

Next in the annals of female owners is Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues in the 1940s, a team that also won a World Series in 1946. She owned the team with her husband Abe and was involved in all the daily affairs of the team. She even served as the league’s unofficial secretary/treasurer.

When Mrs. Manley sold the Eagles in 1948 there would not be another significant female owner until the 1960s when the National League expanded, creating the Houston Colt .45s and the NY Mets. Since then, Jean Yawkey, Joan Kroc, and Marge Schott have all been in ownership positions. Joan Whitney Payson is a pioneer within this small group, becoming principal owner of the expansion Mets by buying the franchise with her own money.

Joan Whitney was born in New York in February 1903 to a family with an impressive lineage. A few examples follow. Her father, Payne Whitney, came from a family line that included a democratic senator from Ohio in the 1880s and his own father, William C. Whitney, who served as secretary of the navy during the administration of Grover Cleveland and owned a streetcar line. His uncle, Colonel Oliver Payne, left his fortune to his nephew when he died in 1917. Her mother, Helen Hay Whitney (from Cleveland), was the daughter of John Hay. Hay began his career as assistant private secretary to President Abraham Lincoln and went on to serve as secretary of state to both Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Joan clearly came from a family of prestige, privilege, and wealth. How did she end up involved in baseball, a sport of the masses?

Both Joan’s parents were involved in various sporting endeavors. Her father crewed while at Yale (as his father did before him) and owned a number of stables and breeding operations. Helen loved horseracing and took over the tracks and breeding in 1927 when her husband died. Helen Whitney made a name for herself in the racing world with her horses running and winning in the Kentucky Derby twice: In 1931 with Twenty Grand and in 1942 with Shut Out. She was often referred to as the “Grand Lady of the Tracks.” Helen also loved baseball and often took Joan to see the Giants play as a child, starting as early as age six. Helen remained an avid fan until her death in 1944.

While her family had multiple residences, Joan spent most of her time at their home in Manhattan, on Fifth Ave between 78th and 79th Streets. She attended an all-girls school, Miss Chapin’s School, and then went to Barnard for a year. She also took a course or two at Brown’s business college. Since her family owned stables, she learned to ride as a child and spent lots of time at the races in NYC and Saratoga.

Just before her nineteenth birthday, Joan’s parents threw her a debutante ball at “The Plaza” and then when she turned twenty-one they announced her engagement to Yale graduate Charles Shipman Payson. Payson also came from a long and distinguished American family line. Their marriage at Christ Church was a huge social event in 1924, uniting two old-time wealthy families. During the course of their marriage they had five children: three girls and two boys. Their son Daniel died at the Battle of the Bulge.

As the wife of a wealthy and successful businessman, Joan played out her role as a social hostess. Their homes hosted many large balls and soirees over the years. They had at least five residences where they spent considerable time, though her favorites were in Manhattan and on the Greentree estate in Manhasset, Long Island: 600 acres of sprawling countryside, described as “unarguably one of the grandest residences in America.”

Mrs. Payson did not just spend her time raising her children and throwing parties. She had a number of her own businesses and philanthropic ventures as well. For example, she and friend Josephine Kimball started a bookstore in Manhattan in 1929, just before the stock market crashed. The store survived and remained in business, growing to include more than just children’s books. With her brother, Jock, Joan got involved in the newly emerging film industry, investing in scripts they read and enjoyed. The real opportunity they found there was buying the film rights for Gone with the Wind for an original investment of $50,000 with Selznick International Pictures, where Jock served as Chairman of the Board.

In 1943 Joan created the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation to honor her mother. The foundation supported research in the biomedical sciences. She also donated land and money to a number of hospitals that today bear her name in various wings and endowments. She donated her time and money to the Women’s National Republican Club and party. Joan not only inherited millions from her parents, she also added to her fortune through her own business ventures and investments.

Joan’s real loves after her family seemed to settle around art, horses, and baseball. In 1950 she bought a single share of stock in the New York Giants. Over the course of the decade her stockbroker, M. Donald Grant, bought ten percent of the Giants’ stock for her. This became a dilemma for her when the Giants moved to San Francisco and she sold her shares after trying to convince Horace Stoneham to let her buy the Giants and keep them in New York. He refused.

Initially she helped fund a team in a third major league suggested by New York attorney William Shea, the Continental League. She invested with three friends (M. Donald Grant, G. Herbert Walker Jr., Pete Davis) in this New York team, and when the Continental League fell apart, the National League awarded them a franchise. Warren Giles, president of the National League, agreed to the franchise because Mrs. Payson was the majority stockholder and not Branch Rickey and his group. She paid an initial $1,000,000 for her controlling interest in the team.

In May 1961, Payson hosted a gathering at her Manhattan home to name the new club. According to some of those present, Payson’s personal favorite was the Meadowlarks but the New York Mets was chosen. The name was announced at the Savoy Hilton on May 8, 1961, by Payson herself. She had a huge interest in baseball and when she became involved with the Mets she was not a silent observer but lived and breathed the ball club’s successes and failures until her death on October 4, 1975.

From the beginning of her involvement with the Mets, the press sought her out and she often obliged in talking with them briefly. She was never known as a publicity seeker and in fact preferred to stay in the background. She did not call attention to herself by her clothing and style or by her actions. This did not mean she avoided the team or the stadium—in fact quite the reverse was true. She was often found in the owner’s box and when she was not in town she often sent her chauffeur, Arthur Desmond to sit in her place behind first base and send her the scorecards after the games. She carried a portable radio with her when she went to the race track and even in her purse at social events so she could stay abreast of what was happening. She kept score in her own unique style when she attended games and knew all the players and their successes and failures. It was her idea to bring in Casey Stengel to manage the ball club because he brought experience. She called his wife Edna and asked for her help in securing Casey’s services for the Mets.

To her ballplayers Mrs. Payson was the friendly mom/grandmother many of them missed. She took care of them and watched out for them. She sent gifts for special occasions like the birth of a baby or deaths, marriages etc… Ron Hunt’s wife Tracy kept the sterling silver Tiffany set Mrs. Payson gave them when their daughter was born. She rewarded her players with small tokens for their successes on the field as well—roses, tickets, etc.—for a game-winning hit, a home run and the like. She hosted parties and trips for the entire ball club—players, management, and other personnel. She also wore her affiliation to the Mets proudly, on her hats, her car license plates, and even redecorated some of her homes with Mets memorabilia.

To the fans she was a congenial, happy owner who loved to chat with them, wave, and sign autographs. She was an important face for the Mets in their early years, a key contrast to the stern president, George Weiss, and the less-than-trustworthy chairman of the board, Donald Grant.

Given her interest in the team, it is not surprising to note that she got involved in some of the decision-making, or at least voiced her ideas and opinions on trades such as Ron Hunt’s to the Dodgers, or the effort to get Willie Mays to join the team in 1972 and keep him on the payroll after he retired the following year. She also said on many occasions that she promised never to interfere directly in the team decisions. She did, however, visit the players in the locker room after they clinched first place in 1969, promptly sending them all scrambling to get dressed because that had never happened before.

As with many involved in the baseball world, she was a bit superstitious as well. One of her biggest concerns was not moving from her seat when the team went ahead until they either won or fell behind. Likewise, if she moved from her seat and the club went ahead, she had to stay where she had gone. Another quirk was to turn her back on certain players when they came to the plate so she would not have to watch them. This usually started when she was turned away and something big happened and she would take to repeating the action. She also had a bad habit of crossing her fingers when the Mets were behind and would not uncross them til they went ahead. Some speculate this led to her later arthritis.

When the Mets finally moved out of the cellar and ascended to the pinnacle with their World Series win in 1969, no one was happier than Joan Payson. After enduring many agonizing years, she was happy to see the losing at an end.

After her death, her son John gave away most of her art collection, mainly Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, to the Portland Museum of Art (1991) and her daughter Lorinda took over her role as President of the Mets. When Payson’s family later sold the Mets to the Doubleday group in 1980, she became one of the first two members of the Mets Hall of Fame, along with Casey Stengel. Her legacy continues to live on today in a variety of hospitals and schools that bear her name or which house collections of her artwork. For example, St. Andrews School (DE) hosts a lecture series called the Payson Art History Lecture Forum because her granddaughter graduated from the school in 2005. Just this past year her great-grand-daughter, Zoe Morgan Haydock, got married in New York City and the lengthy write-up in the New York Times mentions Joan and her role as the “founder of the NY Mets.” Yogi Berra was quoted after her funeral as saying simply, “She was a great baseball fan and a great woman.” She was the face of the Mets for so many in those early tough years.

LESLIE HEAPHY is Associate Professor of History at Kent State University at Stark. She is also the Vice President of SABR — currently in her seventh year of SABR board service — and has chaired SABR’s Women in Baseball committee since 1995.

 

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