By W.M. Akers
Sunday will not only conclude the 50th anniversary of Shea Stadium's opening season, but it also marks the six-year anniversary of the final game played there. Fittingly, the Mets will take on the Astros -- who moved into the Astrodome, another multipurpose stadium which was considered a modern marvel, a year after Shea's first Opening Day -- on this much forgotten commemoration.
On April 12, 1960, the mayor of New York called a press conference to show off a new $14,000 toy. One hundred reporters crowded around to get a glimpse of the plastic model, as tall as the mayor's hand, which showed a C-shaped baseball stadium with symmetrical dimensions and an outfield open to the sky. Flashbulbs popped as Mayor Robert Wagner turned to a second model, a complete circle, with a gridiron on the field. Two models, two sports, one stadium: A miracle structure that he promised would cost taxpayers a mere $12 million.
"We are going to see this through," Wagner announced, with the blind confidence of every mayor who has ever caught stadium fever. "We couldn't turn back now if we wanted to."
Four years and five days later, Shea Stadium was open for business. It wasn't the first multi-use ballpark, but it was the benchmark for those that followed -- Three Rivers and the Vet, Oakland Coliseum and Busch II -- as sports teams forever lost the habit of paying for their own stadiums. Today, they are remembered as an embarrassment, called cookie cutters or concrete donuts, but in 1960 they were the future. As reporters crowded around, the mayor's message was clear. There was a new world waiting for us, and this ballpark would take us there.
Ebbets Field was gone, the Polo Grounds had been left to rot, and the Yankees were beginning to feel cramped in the house that Ruth built. Postwar prosperity had made teams richer than ever before, and baseball was spreading west on the wings of the jet. The old wood and steel ballparks, which architecture critic Mark Lamster describes as "rough and ready structures thrown up over the winter," would no longer do. Teams wanted something modern, and for the first time, they had the leverage to get it for free.
Modern meant more than symmetrical outfields and concrete concourses. It meant mimicking their fan bases by fleeing the increasingly black inner cities for the lily-white suburbs, where they could build big, and charge a fortune for parking. It meant escalators, and restrooms, and millions of dollars of taxpayer-subsidized concrete.
"This was the transition from a world in which teams owned and built their own stadiums to a world in which all stadiums were subsidized," said Stanford economics professor Roger Noll.
Today we laugh at the stadiums of the 1960s, but the way they were sold, built and paid for has more in common with the 21st Century than is comfortable to admit. Nowhere was this clearer than with Shea Stadium, when a city desperate to escape itself bent over backwards to give away every penny it could.
Robert Moses gave up on the city long before 1960. For decades he had built highways to carry New Yorkers away from the filthy slums they called home, and now he was planning his greatest demonstration: a World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, a onetime garbage dump that he had spent years crafting into the city's most highway-accessible park. Though held on the same site as the 1939 World's Fair, the 1964 exposition would be bigger in every way -- generating a projected $6 billion in economic activity for a mere $500 million, $100 million of which would go towards expanding the highways that swaddle Flushing Meadows Park. $12 million for a stadium would be no trouble at all.
The site picked for Shea Stadium bordered Flushing Bay, a sprawling park, and two vibrant neighborhoods, but Moses designed a loop of roadways that would isolate the stadium completely. It was the sort of site that, in the years to come, most cities would choose for their new municipal stadiums: far from downtown, convenient to the suburbs, with plenty of parking and no local business to draw money away from the team. Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist described such sites as "medieval cities," where endless parking lots wall off the stadium from the world outside.
"People said, 'We're building a new world and we're moving to the suburbs,'" said Lamster. "'A new way of life. We're driving everywhere, it's cleaner, it's opener.' And they brought their stadiums with them."
As head of the Parks Department, Moses had offered Flushing Meadows to the Dodgers, but Walter O'Malley was uncomfortable with the Brooklyn team playing in Queens. When Mayor Wagner introduced the model of the stadium to the press, there was no team booked to play there, but he was confident that the ballpark would be too good to resist. It would have clean air, good sight lines, and plenty of places to park.
"We are competing with the stay-at-home, the garden putterer," said the stadium's designer architect Richard Praeger. "We want to get him out of there. The first thing we have done is eliminate columns. Columns mean twisting and turning in seats to see the action. They can make a man hate a park. Then he won't bother going there any more. There are no columns in front of his TV set, and he doesn't have to climb three tiers to get there, either."
It would have the brightest lights in all of baseball, a modern scoreboard, a "photorama" video display, monumental escalators and dozens and dozens of bathrooms. (No small consideration after decades in Ebbets Field, which was known for its fetid restrooms, and the Polo Grounds, where the lack of accommodation in the home dugout saw a utility closet used as a urinal.) Praeger called it "a clean and airy stadium, the kind that will make a man want to return -- and bring his wife and children the next time."
Designed at the dawn of the multi-use stadium experiment, Praeger's ballpark would be equipped with movable grandstands at the field level, allowing for a seamless transformation from baseball diamond to gridiron. In 1960, teams were more willing to share ballparks than they ever would be again. Just two years after the 1958 NFL championship -- the so-called "greatest game ever played" -- football was beginning its slow climb to the top of American sports, and baseball executives saw shared stadiums as a way to keep from being left out in the cold.
Even then, said SABR historian Gary Gillette, baseball "was perceived as old, stodgy and out of touch with modern America. Pro football was the coming thing. People didn't see why baseball and football couldn't co-exist."
Putting two teams in one stadium also helped lower the cost to the New York taxpayers, who were paying for a major league stadium for the first time. Praeger designed the ballpark to be as affordable as possible, forgoing the intricate detailing of the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field in favor of clean lines and symmetry. Instead of a costly ornamental façade, there would be blue and orange checked panels, a thoroughly sixties touch. This stadium would not charm. It would awe.
New York was still stung by the indignity of losing two teams at once, and to begin such a wonderful ballpark when the Giants were playing in a wind tunnel and the Dodgers' new stadium was mired in red tape would be a balm. To the Brooklyn borough president, it was an essential matter of civic pride.
"We must be prepared to build on a scale that surpasses anything we have seen in the city heretofore," he said, straining for eloquence. "We must match and surpass the standards set by other cities if New York is to maintain its position among the cities of the nation."
Only one irritant stood between the city and its gleaming new prize: the law. New York City was prohibited from borrowing money "for the building of a stadium, or docks, or anything similar." (How a stadium and docks are similar remains unclear.) If Wagner could prove that the stadium would pay for itself -- through rent from the sports teams and revenue from other events -- that law could be bypassed. As long as the main tenant was paying, say, $900,000 annual rent, the 30-year bonds would be paid off easily, and the city wouldn't actually have to borrow any money.
Even as the proposed cost of the stadium crept upwards -- from $12 million to $15 million, from $16 million to $18 million -- that magic number remained the same. Never mind that the Dodgers had balked at such a rent, or that the city comptroller predicted the final cost to be $25 million and the ideal rent closer to $1.1 million. Such concerns were brushed aside with the same implicit argument behind every government-funded stadium: this thing is gonna be really, really cool.
"I can't understand how anyone can oppose something that won't cost the taxpayers a penny," said Branch Rickey, called out of retirement to beat the drum for stadium and team. "Instead, 17,000,000 should be happy it's being done."
"To hear some of the critics, you'd think the city will be building this stadium with money that could be used for a school or a hospital," said lawyer William A. Shea, who was spearheading the search for a new team. "That's hogwash. This project won't cut into the city's debt limit a dime."
As local newspapers usually are, the New York Times was fully in favor of the new ballpark. The paper waited until the day after the stadium got final approval to ask whether other municipal stadiums were profitable -- most weren't -- and rarely quoted a skeptic, one notable exception being the local businessman who insisted, "Anyone who says the park will pay for itself is crazy. Every municipal stadium in the country is a white elephant."
That skeptic was George Weiss, general manager of the Yankees, who hated to see city money flowing to other teams. By 1961, Weiss had come around, after he was hired by the team finally chosen to occupy the stadium of the future: the New York Mets.
In 1961, the Mets barely existed. Owned by the effervescent, baseball-mad Joan Whitney Payson, the Mets had no players, no manager, and nowhere to play come next spring. Ground could not be broken on their shiny new stadium until they signed a lease, but what was meant to be a formality dragged on and on. New York would find that the team it had created from the mud of Flushing Meadows would be as uncooperative as any golem.
Although it was essential to making the stadium profitable, the Mets had no interest in paying $900,000 a year. In 1957, Robert Moses had refused to give in to Walter O'Malley's demands for a city-subsidized stadium in Brooklyn, but now Moses was busy with the fair, and the city was too far along in planning their stadium to back away from the deal. They may not have had any players, but the Mets had leverage, and Payson, Weiss and chairman M. Donald Grant were willing to use it.
"It shouldn't be long now," an anonymous source told the Times in April. "All the terms have been agreed on. Now it's just a case of straightening out some of the wordage. You know how lawyers are about wordage."
But the negotiations dragged on, and the official opening day was moved to 1963. Four months later, the wordage was settled, and the Mets and the New York Titans -- later known as the New York Jets -- signed on. As far as the Mets went, the lease was fairly balanced. The team would get every dime of concessions sales, but the city would control the parking. The annual rent, a percentage of the teams' gross receipts, was not to exceed $550,000 -- barely half of what the city had required.
To make up for that deficit, the city estimated the value of its parking rights at $300,000. Whether or not that had any basis in reality, it was enough to declare the stadium self-financing and commit to funding the project, no matter the cost. In a small way, New York set the standard for something that would become an epidemic in the 1990s: a city contorting itself to subvert its own laws, to allow a team to pay it less.
Three days before Halloween, ground was broken in Queens. As the Department of Sanitation Band played, Robert Moses joined Mayor Wagner and representatives from the major leagues to scoop dirt and fiddle with baseball bats provided for the occasion. Former Giants and Dodgers like Gil Hodges, Monte Irvin and Jim Hearn took bows, and Moses gave a speech that the Times called "rich in hyperbole and historical allusions."
"I am limp with the enthusiasm of victory," he said, a massive drawing of the stadium at his back. "My faith in the ultimate triumph of the democratic process has been restored. The Iron Duke said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Many a future American triumph will have its origin in the Flushing Meadow Stadium."
"This should be a lovely structure," said project engineer Robert Schoenfeld, who promised it would be far nicer than the stadium the Dodgers were building in Chavez Ravine. "It will stand about 130 feet high. It will cover about eight city blocks. It will be airy. It will breathe."
The winter was cold, and the work went slow, but by August, 1962, the stadium's skeleton was in place, and work was far enough along for Mets manager Casey Stengel to visit the park, and pose for pictures in a hardhat, balancing on a wooden plank like an acrobat.
"You have built us a fine new stadium," he said. "Now it's up to us to do the rest."
In November, Rickey came to New York to plead with the Parks Department to name the stadium after the man who had stood to the mayor's left when the model was first unveiled. The city relented. It would be Shea Stadium.
"Without Shea, there is nothing," said Rickey.
Another bad winter combined with a series of strikes made opening in 1963 an impossibility, and stranded the Mets in the Polo Grounds for another year. By late 1963, finishing in time for April, 1964, it began to look less and less likely. When the half-a-billion-dollar World's Fair seemed in jeopardy, Moses responded with typical outrage, declaring this "no time for merely captious criticism."
"The critics build nothing," he said -- words that could have been his epitaph -- and authorized as much overtime as it would take to get the two projects finished and sparkling by April.
A week before opening day, Shea's outfield was nothing but muck, and the pitcher's mound was under several feet of muddy water. The last push drove the final price tag for the city's great ballpark to $25,532,000 -- more than double the original estimate. But in the speeches at the dedication on April 16, 1964, no one was talking about cost. After the scheduled speakers had finished, Stengel was asked to say a few words. Sympathetic to the needs of the crowd, he kept his remarks uncharacteristically brief.
"We got fifty-four restrooms," he boasted. "Twenty-seven for men and twenty-seven for ladies and I know you all want to use them now."
Shea cracked two champagne bottles on the side of the stadium -- one filled with water from the Harlem River, the other from the Gowanus Canal, representing the neighborhoods fled by the Giants and Dodgers -- and Shea Stadium was open for business.
"It's a beautiful place," said one workman to the Times, "but they're crazy to play baseball here tomorrow."
They did anyway, as the parking lots snarled into a great traffic jam, and the first fans arriving to watch the Mets play the Pirates were greeted by the "usherettes" -- a corps of young women dressed in blue bowler hats and tri-colored blazers. The Mets were losers that day, but the stadium was a hit.
"Isn't it marvelous, simply marvelous," said Mrs. Payson, as her scoreboard flashed, "Isn't this the most beautiful stadium in the world."
The message had no question mark, because the city knew the answer had to be yes.
A jewel of the '60s, Shea was in decline by the late '70s, as the Mets faded from contention and attendance plummeted below 1,000,000 for the first time since the Polo Grounds days. Even when the Mets were setting attendance records, Shea was always a money loser, costing the city a reliable $300,000 a year. As inflation spiked, and the $550,000 the Mets paid annually bought less and less, it became clear that the 30-year bonds issued for the stadium could never be paid for as planned.
Of course, when it comes to some of the stadium wars we see today, the back-room dealings that led to Shea Stadium look quaint. Yes, it was a money pit, sucking up millions dollars of taxpayer money without ever turning a profit, but at least the team paid something. Like most of the multi-use stadiums, Shea aged hard and fast, and was discarded with few tears, but its impact on how ballparks are built is undeniable.
[Photos from the Collection of Jason D. Antos]