Monday, February 20, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Joan Whitney Payson

All things considered, I've had a pretty fortunate run as a Mets fan.  Shortly after signing up to bleed Met blue at a very young age, they won a championship shortly into my run as a fan and were a very celebrated team.  An organization comprised of very colorful individuals (Mex, Kid, to name a few) and budding superstars (Straw, Doc, to complement the veterans) helped cement me as a Mets fan for life.

Thanks, Dad.

Being a student of history and literature as well, I was always fascinated by the Mets' overall past and how they came to be.  Little did I know, at age 10, that 1962 was just a mere 25 seasons prior in 1986.  As someone who celebrated her Tom Seaver birthday recently, 25 years is a drop in the hat.

Then by watching the video An Amazin' Era, I realized how the Mets were born.  It was hard for me to imagine at age 10, and even later in my 20s and 30s by reading books like Bums, Amazin', and Boys of Summer, what it might be like to see one of my teams (or my teams' rivals) leave town and go straight cross the country.  Because without the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers (now of Los Angeles) and New York (baseball) Giants (now San Francisco), the Mets may not exist.  I'm sure I'd still love baseball.  But the idea of no Mets is disconcerting to me, despite how much they like to mess with my feelings.                                                                                                                                             

In the 2007 HBO documentary, The Ghosts of Flatbush, an older fan who was quite young when the Dodgers left town in 1957 said that "Los Angeles may have been Siberia, it was so far away."  So from 1958 through 1961, there was no New York National League baseball team.  And according to many amateur baseball historians (like my father, who I have to blame for being in this mess), New York always was and always will be a National League city.  Despite what those pinstripe dummies in the Bronx try to tell you.

Meanwhile, in that same documentary, not to mention countless books written about those bums of Kings County, a few lines were devoted to "that other" National League ball club that shared success in the same municipality but rival boroughs, and their fans shared a heated passion that was reminiscent of the Hatfields and the McCoys.  You'd never know, given the ink and video devoted to reminding us about the Brooklyn Dodgers, that the other team that inspired the Mets' color orange played at the Polo Grounds, the Mets' first home.  The other team that won a championship as late as 1954 in New York.  And had storied players like Willie Mays, who made the infamous "Catch" in that same World Series. (And Mays is why I believe I'd have been a Polo Grounds inhabitant).

And the other team, that according to the many books written on the era, made majority owner Horace Stoneham out to be a "patsy" who was cajoled by Dodger owner Walter O'Malley to provide a natural rival to the Dodgers on the west coast, who had one proverbial foot out the door to L.A. 

Stoneham's team was his primary source of income.  It was an eat or be eaten situation for him to move the team to make it more profitable.  While he originally thought "midwest," to go further west wasn't much of a stretch for him.

Yet, a Giants' minority shareholder was very vocal about the team not leaving town.  In fact, hers was the only dissenting vote to move the team to San Francisco.  Several years later, that voter got her own wish: to bring National League baseball back to the Big Apple in a big way.

(Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

Joan Whitney Payson was not only a philanthropist, coming from a very well-known and well-to-do socialite family, but she was a huge baseball fan as well.  She was a known art collector, but she mostly wanted to collect ticket stubs to baseball games.  (I also believe her to be my spirit animal).

Yet for how revered Mrs. Payson (as she is still referred to this day by several prominent former Mets like Tom Seaver and Ed Kranepool) was and is in Mets lore, she presided over some of the most disastrous Mets teams.  While no one would ever question her Mets love and baseball fandom, her baseball legacy was tarnished by her family who inherited the team after she passed.  A family who didn't give a hoot about baseball or running a team, and allowed the team franchise player to be traded on their watch, a move that ultimately led to several years of hardship in Queens.

We know how the current front office ownership is viewed by most fans today.  But would Mrs. Payson been given the benefit of the doubt had she owned the team today?  I mean, would Joan Payson have been essentially "Frederica" Wilpon, someone who loved baseball so much that they just wanted to own a team, and thought fans were a means to an end to obtain that goal?

That may be a bit of an unfair judgment, but let's take a look at how the team operated in the Payson years.  (This also accounts for the de Roulet ownership after her death, since they inherited the team.)

It goes without saying that in 1962, the Mets were historically bad.  Monumentally bad.  Horrific.  Yet, fans were so hard up for National League baseball in the Big Apple, that they went and root root rooted for the Metsies (and went home not too happy 120 times in '62, but that's okay).  Though by 1968, they didn't have another 100+ loss season.  So that's a plus, I guess. 

Year W L W-L% Finish
1962 40 120 0.250 10th of 10
1963 51 111 0.315 10th of 10
1964 53 109 0.327 10th of 10
1965 50 112 0.309 10th of 10
1966 66 95 0.410 9th of 10
1967 61 101 0.377 10th of 10
1968 73 89 0.451 9th of 10
1969 100 62 0.617 1st of 6
1970 83 79 0.512 3rd of 6
1971 83 79 0.512 3rd of 6
1972 83 73 0.532 3rd of 6
1973 82 79 0.509 1st of 6
1974 71 91 0.438 5th of 6
1975 82 80 0.506 3rd of 6
1976 86 76 0.531 3rd of 6
1977 64 98 0.395 6th of 6
1978 66 96 0.407 6th of 6
1979 63 99 0.389 6th of 6

And yet the two standout seasons, 1969 and 1973, almost happened by accident.  The Mets were hardly world beaters during Payson's ownership, but they did have success that ultimately made the struggles worth it.  Some high highs, and low lows, if you will. 

On the back end of the operation, though, Payson seemed to be a shrewd investor, but establishing her own level of cronyism that impacted the team well after her death.  According to Amazin' by Peter Golenbock, Mrs. Payson was approached to be an investor in the "Continental League" team that would be based in New York.  Initially, she declined, until she was given a piece of information that this was a ploy to get the National League to expand in New York.  She later bought out the original minority shareholders, ultimately acquiring 80% of the team (A percentage, related in her obituary, that she wasn't even sure of, and responded with child-like glee, "Oh I think I own somewhere around 80-85%!").

The remaining 20% was held by a relative of the political Bush family, Herbert Walker...and M. Donald Grant, her personal stockbroker.


Yet, from a business standpoint, the Mets probably would not exist had she not been eager to bring baseball back to New York.  But she did not seem interested in fielding a winning team, or at the very least, not willing to invest much in the team.  Also according to Amazin', when Branch Rickey was approached to run the new team, he insisted on a $5 million budget.  (In today's dollars, it would be in the neighborhood of $41 million...which is chump change for today's baseball, but back then probably astronomical, pre-free agency era).

They declined Rickey's demands...and named Grant team president.  On the general manager front, they hired George Weiss to run the team who had a reputation of being, shall we say, "frugal."  Weiss was tasked with finding "retreads" (i.e. ex-Giants and Dodgers who were beloved by the fans who stayed behind).  These players were also tasked to bring fans back to the Polo Grounds.  Basically, every Mets game early on was a Old Timers' Day parade featuring old Dodgers or Giants.

Until 1967, though, when a young upstart pitcher named Tom Seaver joined the team, the Mets had a nondescript team fielding some flashy but mostly nondescript players. 

If you think about it, the team got lucky when they got Seaver.  THEY WON A FREAKING LOTTERY DRAWING, FOR PETE'S SAKE.

Sporting News/Getty Images)
Yet the drafting of Seaver, not to mention the breakout of 1968 rookie pitcher Jerry Koosman (who finished in second to future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench in the ROY awards that year...I just like throwing that out there), the addition of former Brooklyn Dodger great Gil Hodges as team manager, plus some trades that got the likes of Tommie Agee, along with Mets old schoolers Cleon Jones and Ed Kranepool got them to a 100-win season in 1969...AND a World Championship. 

Mrs. Payson, from most reports though, preferred to stay in the shadows, and was more than happy to just funnel the funds and be a matronly figure for her boys.  Yet, by anointing Grant (not a baseball guy) with decision-making powers, well, she may have had more of a Nelson Doubleday attitude towards being an owner (minus getting the correct baseball guys making the baseball decisions).  Grant himself certainly operated from a Wilpon very-hands-on perspective.

While the Mets finished in third place in each of the 1970-72 seasons, the only time Mrs. Payson "intervened," for lack of a better term, in baseball operations was to bring Willie Mays back to New York.  As legend had it, Mays was her favorite former New York Giant, and wanted him so badly on the Mets that, as Golenbock reported in Amazin', she offered to buy him from the San Francisco team for $1 million years before the actual trade went down.  Horace Stoneham ultimately acquiesced in 1972, and she brought Mays back to the city where he started defining his legacy as one of the all-time greats.

1973 was Mays' last year in baseball, but he managed to be part of a wild run for the "Ya Gotta Believe" team that won the NL East, went on to win the National League Championship, but lost to the Oakland A's in a seven-game World Series. 

By 1975, the Mets had finished two seasons, finishing in fifth and third place, respectively, after their YGB run.  Yet, the biggest loss of all that was a catalyst for sending the team into relative obscurity in the late '70s was the loss of Mrs. Payson herself, who passed away in September of '75.   Unfortunately, her love for baseball wasn't inherited by her family, who were now in charge of the Mets.  The de Roulet family entrusted M. Donald Grant with more baseball powers, preferring to follow his lead.

Generally, the landscape of baseball as we know it today also changed after the 1975 season with the advent of free agency.  With Mrs. Payson gone, and her family knowing little about baseball and caring less, M. Donald Grant had more reign over the team's payroll than ever before.

Under her family's watch, the team lost Tom Seaver in the "Steve Henderson" trade (Joe Torre once referred to the deal as such, and it always made me laugh).  Grant got rid of basically anyone who contributed to the Mets' successful years, because Grant had unquestioned power, and therefore, wanted to keep the payroll as low as possible.  The new baseball team owners didn't know squat about running a baseball team.

I have to wonder, actually, if that Midnight Massacre trade that has defined so many Mets fans' identities, would have taken place if Mrs. Payson was still alive. Here's my genuine curiosity: if free agency existed on the level when Mrs. Payson was still alive, would she have encouraged Grant to write out the blank checks?  I have to believe she would have personally intervened with Seaver and not allowed that infamous hatchet job by Dick Young to happen.  Even she knew how important Tom Terrific was to the Mets' name.

Evidence points to the fact that while the team loved her and thought she was a good owner who didn't meddle, it's possible that she, too, might have listened to Grant's suggestions to keep payroll low.  The alternative is that she would have done what she needed to do to keep her players happy - namely Seaver, Koosman and Dave Kingman - and would've made sure they were paid to market standards.

Joan Whitney Payson, original Mets owner.  Source: Pinterest

There aren't many quotes attributed to Joan Payson, mostly because she let her front office do the talking for her.  Her talking was to sign the checks and go to the games.  Unfortunately, it wasn't enough.

But with the passing of Mrs. Payson, and the Mets being sold to the Doubleday/Wilpon consortium in 1980, it was the end of an era.  That era being a throwback to how baseball used to operate under a "gentlemen's agreement" where owners called the shots and were nice enough to give jobs to scrappy baseball players.

But one woman broke that glass ceiling, and it's a shame we never knew how the team would have operated had she not put cronies at the top who didn't keep her best interests and wishes for a successful team at heart. 

So to recap, Joan Whitney Payson was a wealthy woman who loved baseball so much, she owned her own team.  Preferring to stay in the background, she let people loyal to her do the baseball work for her.  Yet, under her ownership, the team had two very successful years culminating in a World Championship and a National League Championship.  For those "highest of highs," the team suffered some abominable lows, like their 120-loss inaugural season to the trade of the team's "Franchise player" after her death, whose loss took years to overcome, even after the team was sold by the surviving de Roulet family.

Since 1962, the Mets have had four major ownership changes: Mrs. Payson, the de Roulets (her surviving family), Nelson Doubleday/Fred Wilpon, then the Wilpon/Katz Sterling Equities consortium.  There's been some overlap, yet no owner was quite as beloved as Mrs. Payson, who was the old grande dame of the organization and of baseball.

As Terence Mann spoke in Field of Dreams, the one constant through the years has been baseball.  It has been erased, rebuilt and erased again.  Mrs. Payson's ownership brings us back to a simpler time of baseball, and clearly could adapt to changes that sadly the people she put in the charge were not able to do.  There are signs of Mrs. Payson around Citi Field today, especially in the Mets Hall of Fame, where she was enshrined as a member in 1981.

Yes, under Joan Payson, the Mets had the thrill of some victorious years, but there was plenty of agony to go around.

Editor's note:  In case you hadn't noticed, this piece was written by Taryn "The Coop" Cooper", because she knows a thing or two about being a woman who loves baseball.

Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman
January 23, 2017: Daniel Murphy
January 30, 2017: Frank Cashen
February 6, 2017: Ed Kranepool
February 13, 2017: Doug Sisk


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