Shea Stadium’s final season began ten years ago. If ever a ballpark were conceived in sin yet born to provide pleasure running the range from farce to finery, the Big Shea—as we Met fans since the day they were born called it—was it. It was long years since I’d last sat in the park, but whatever the beauties of its successor Citi Field something precious died when the last portion of the park came down at last.
The park in Flushing Meadows was conceived in the sin of New York’s then-planning and building czar, Robert Moses, moving hell, high water, and everything else he could think to move, to block Walter O’Malley from building a new Brooklyn ballpark for the Dodgers. With nary a thought to invite the New York Giants (who didn’t have the Dodgers’ specific borough identification) to think of moving there, Moses fiddled and diddled while the Dodgers and the Giants went west.
A year later, having failed to lure either the Reds (whose then-owner, Powell Crosley, was interested up to a point) or the Pirates (whose then-owner, John Galbreath, wasn’t quite as interested as Crosley) to move to New York, two insouciant masterminds—Branch Rickey and a New York attorney named William Shea—created a third major league, the Continental League, with the thought of bringing a second Show team back to New York.
The league existed only on paper and as a temporary nuisance to the Lords of Baseball, but its prospective owners included a former Giants stockholder named Joan Payson (she was the only vote against the Giants’ leaving the city) who was awarded the New York franchise. When the Lords snuffed the Continentals by agreeing to baseball’s first expansion, Mrs. Payson was awarded what became the Mets, and the Mets were invited to play in Shea Stadium as soon as it was finished, playing in the Giants’ former playpen (the Polo Grounds) until then.
Jack Fisher threw Shea’s first regular season pitch in the park in 1964. Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, of all people, was the park’s first strikeout, in the top of the first; Hall of Famer Willie Stargell collected the park’s first base hit—a solo home run leading off the top of the second. Jim Hickman was the first Met baserunner in the park, when he drew a second-inning walk; Tim Harkness picked up the first Met hit, a two-out line single an inning later. The first Met home run in their new house came four days later, against the Cubs, in the bottom of the eighth. By light-hitting infielder Ron Hunt. For the only run of a game in which the Mets were already down by five and lost, 5-1. It figured.
What a difference a ballpark’s lifetime made. On Shea Stadium’s final major league day, the Marlins’ Dan Uggla hit the park’s final home run. Mets reliever Pedro Feliciano recorded the park’s final strikeout in the ninth. (A called full-count strike three on John Baker.) Carlos Beltran hit the final Mets home run. (A two-run blast in the sixth, scoring one Robinson Cancel.) The last Met baserunner was Damion Easley drawing a ninth-inning two-out walk. (He was stranded.)
The Mets lost, 4-2—scoring one less run than when Bob Friend and the Pirates beat them, 4-3, to open the place in the first place. The first game at Shea featured three Hall of Famers (Clemente, Stargell, and Bill Mazeroski); the last, one. (Carlos Beltran, a Hall of Famer in waiting.) The managers in the first: Danny Murtaugh and Casey Stengel; the managers in the last: Fredi Gonzalez and Jerry Manuel.
After the game, following a few commemorative hijinks from assorted former and incumbent Mets, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver went to the mound, re-enacted his fabled Tom Seaver Day thank-you to the fans from 1988 by bowing in four directions to the crowd, then threw a ceremonial final pitch to fellow Hall of Famer Mike Piazza.
In between, the Mets—whose blue and orange uniform trim also trimmed the ballpark’s outside columns (in the earlier years) adjacent to the long ramps to the seats and the New York World’s Fair of 1964-65—managed to win two crazy World Series (both deciding games won at Shea), four crazy pennants, and lose a World Series to, of all people, the Yankees, in five games that were closer than a five-game Series usually indicates.
Mary Bunning and her daughter Barbara made the trip up from Philadelphia for Father’s Day 1964 to surprise their Hall of Fame husband and father, who surprised them and baseball with the National League’s first 20th Century perfect game. Father Jim suspected wife and daughter’s real interest was the World’s Fair. Later that season, another Phillie, Johnny Callison, won the All-Star Game at Shea with a game-ending home run. With a Mets batting helmet on his head.
Just over a year later, the Beatles chose Shea Stadium to launch their 1965 American tour, after which concert John Lennon wondered aloud, to one of the Beatles’ road managers, where else there was for them to go now that they’d been to the mountaintop.
The Beatles returned to Shea to open their 1966 American tour, the final concert tour they ever played. As Seaver and Piazza walked off the field and through a door in the center field fence, following that final postgame ceremony, the PA system played the Beatles’ “In My Life.” Then, it sounded Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The Mets’ original appeal was that they appeared more common, more human, albeit extraterrestrially anti-heroic, than the old, imperial, too-methodical Yankees.
Shea Stadium also hosted concerts featuring Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Paul Simon, and Creedence Clearwater Revival (the Summer Festival of Peace, August 1970); Grand Funk Railroad (1971; and, yes, they were the second headline act behind the Beatles to sell the place out); Jethro Tull (1976); what was beginning to pass for the Who (1982); a temporarily reunited Simon and Garfunkel (1983); the Rolling Stones (1989); Elton John and Eric Clapton (1992); Bruce Springsteen (2003); and, Billy Joel, to close the stadium permanently in 2009.
Seaver lost a perfect game on the final out one year but eclipsed the then-single game strikeout record the next at Shea. Robin Ventura hit a grand slam single there, in the 1999 National League Championship Series. The National League’s biggest boppers couldn’t do what Tommie Agee (remembered best as an outfield acrobat, especially in 1969) did during the run to the miracle World Series—drove one fair into the upper deck above left field, off a set of steps to the uppermost seats, 10 April 1969. In 2002, Mets pitcher Shawn Estes—after weeks of harrumphing from the talking heads about his having to do the “right thing” and avenge Roger Clemens’s drillings of Mike Piazza—threw behind Clemens’s can, then hit his own two-run homer to help the Mets beat Clemens.
When New York and the nation needed a hug and then some, from God or anyone else who happened to have one available after the 9/11 atrocities, Piazza gave them one in the Mets’ first game in New York to follow. He ripped a home run in the bottom of the eighth, off a television camera scaffolded behind the left center field fence, that only coincidentally proved the game winner while he was at it.
And it may have been the Mets’ broadcasting that first turned the standard television view from behind the plate to out from center field when Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner first called a game from that view at Shea early in the 1970s.
Casey Stengel managed his final major league game at Shea and Yogi Berra managed his second and last pennant winner there. It made Yogi only the second man ever to manage separate New York teams to pennants. (The 1964 Yankees, and the 1973 “You Gotta Believe!” Mets. Leo Durocher, with the 1941 Dodgers and the 1951 and 1954 Giants, was the first.) There might have been more Shea Stadium pennants but for the sad fact of how many discarded Mets became pennant winners if not Hall of Famers elsewhere. If the old joke was that the team with the fewest ex-Cubs won, the parallel seemed that the team with the most ex-Mets won.
Casey. Marvelous Marv. Choo-Choo. Yogi. Tom Terrific. Nolan Ryan. Tug McGraw and You Hadda Believe. Killer Krane. The Sign Man. Trusty Rusty, the ill-fated Stork, and King Kong Kingman. Doc, Straw, El Sid, Mex, the Kid, the Scum Bunch, Nails, and Mookie. Generation K. Mike Piazza. The Miracle Mets, the Subway Series, and the ’06 Collapse. From grandmotherly Mrs. Payson to indifferent Lorinda de Roulet, from crotchety Frank Cashen to (fill in the blank) Fred Wilpon and Sandy Alderson. From the Comedy of Errors (1962) to the Miracle (1969) to You Ain’t Out of It Until You’re Out of It (1973, and thank you, Yogi), from the Bad Guys (1986) to the Worst Team Money Could Buy (1993).
Being a Met fan in Shea Stadium, as also since in Citi Field and before in the Polo Grounds, has been many things. Boring isn’t one of them. Maybe we weren’t quite as insouciantly berserk as Hilda Chester or the Dodgers Sym-Phony Band of Ebbets Field legend (though the Game Six parachutist opening the 1986 World Series got close enough), but we had our moments, and then some. Mine include an outing with my day camp in the summer of 1965 for which our buses home from the game were delayed, enabling us to meet, greet, and get Nelson’s autograph. He was an amiable chatter with a gaggle of young kids. It was the next best thing to being in the booth while he called a game.
But my moments also include, especially, a singular maternal grandfather who loved sitting in the Shea mezzanine section on any given afternoon or evening’s occasion. To sit with Grandpa Morris watching and talking the game, as we so often did, was equal to learning suspicion of the State from Moses Mendelssohn. He would never admit that one reason he allowed the Mets to seduce him was that theirs was the same cap logotype once brandished by his former beloved Giants.
A former Beatle joined Joel on stage to close out that final concert before Shea came tumbling down. Paul McCartney ended the evening singing “Let It Be.” Met fans only too often had such words on their lips, even as Shea still lives in a small shipload of surviving clips on YouTube, and in memories. But often as not we had other words on our lips: Let’s Go Mets! And still do.