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The Man Behind The Name

Posted By Greg Prince On December 5, 2006 @ 11:35 am In Main Page | Comments Disabled

Last year, according to the company Web site, Citigroup, its subsidiaries and its foundation gave more than $126 million to philanthropic causes worldwide. Even though a corporate name on the Mets ballpark strikes some of us as not quite kosher, I thought it was worth pointing that out.

There are also a few things worth mentioning about another name attached to another Mets ballpark.

Bill Shea liked to laugh and tell the story of how he overheard two guys wondering who this Shea fellow was and why they named a stadium for him. One has no idea. The other suddenly remembers.

“Shea? I think he died in the first world war.”

Given his relatively low profile among the public at large, the Shea presence in the Shea spotlight boiled down to an annual appearance. From 1964 through 1991, Bill Shea greeted every home opener by presenting a good-luck horseshoe of flowers to the Mets’ manager. After his passing, members of his family maintained the floral tradition. There’s always been a Shea at home plate to start the season. One hopes there always will be…and, as previously suggested [1], that Citi Field sit at the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and Bill Shea Way.

(Incidentally, June 21, 2007 will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of William Alfred Shea. Renaming a slice of 126th Street for him wouldn’t be a bad way to mark the occasion.)

We usually get only the shorthand version of why the old ballpark was named for him: He was the lawyer who helped New York get a team after it lost two; next thing you know, Shea Stadium.

There’s a little more to it and him than that. Peter Golenbock’s Amazin’ (admittedly a rather weak attempt at an oral history of the franchise’s first four decades in most respects) contains several excellent interviews with people who knew Bill Shea. I wanted to share a bit of what I learned there.

• Shea was a protégé of George McLaughlin, the banker whose Brooklyn Trust Company long ran the Brooklyn Dodgers. McLaughlin had installed Walter O’Malley to oversee business operations in 1933 and, Dodger fan that he was, ultimately felt personally betrayed by O’Malley moving the club to Los Angeles after the 1957 season.

• Shea was a friend and informal advisor to politicians from both parties, including New York City Mayor Robert Wagner. Wagner tasked Shea with leading a committee that would find a replacement for the Dodgers and Giants. After putting out unsuccessful relocation feelers to existing National League teams, Shea turned his energies to expansion.

• When rebuffed by baseball — “we don’t need New York,” huffed N.L. president Warren Giles — Shea concocted the Continental League, a third major league that would conceivably compete with the National and American for players and profits. It would play in New York as well as markets left out of big-time baseball to date.

• McLaughlin, who remained an upper-echelon power broker in New York, brought Shea together with Branch Rickey (another of his old Dodger hires) to give the Continental League scheme some oomph among baseball men. It was the threat of this new league and all its implications for baseball’s antitrust exemption that shoved the sport’s recalcitrant establishment to agree to expand.

• Shea’s trump card was attracting serious investors in markets like Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth for the Continental. Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth are in Texas, home to Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and House Speaker Samuel Rayburn. They absolutely ran Congress and would not look kindly on a sport/business that arbitrarily blocked Texas from making the majors.

It was an intricate plan, but it worked essentially as Shea wanted it to. Baseball caved. You know we don’t play in the Continental League and you know we entered the National League — along with Houston — in 1962, less than five years after millions of New Yorkers were left baseball-barren presumably forever.

We take it for granted today, but it was the first miracle in Mets history. In executing this catch of an expansion franchise for a city whose National League roots stretched back to the circuit’s founding in 1876 yet were unconscionably severed in 1957, Bill Shea played the role of Endy Chavez, Tommie Agee and Ron Swoboda combined. It was one of the best plays anybody had ever seen.

As for the stadium and what it’s been called since the day its gates opened, Kevin McGrath, an associate of Bill Shea’s, told Golenbock the idea can be traced publicly to Tom Deegan, publicity man for the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. He floated the then-irreverent idea of naming the structure for a living person; undertook a postcard campaign to demonstrate widespread enthusiasm; and brought Mayor Wagner on board. Shea Stadium gained momentum and Shea Stadium it would be.

Except, according to McGrath, it wasn’t Deegan’s doing, not at heart. There was another man behind the scenes, a cloutful commissioner on the Triborough who appreciated more than anybody else what Bill Shea did to reverse the curse laid on New York baseball by Walter O’Malley. It was the same man who felt responsible for placing O’Malley in a position to take away his favorite team in the first place.

It was Bill Shea’s mentor from the 1930s, George McLaughlin.

With the honor of having his name attached to a brand new ballpark came a responsibility. Though he didn’t advertise it, Bill Shea was known in certain circles as an extraordinarily charitable man. Those who relied on his generosity — including many religious, educational and residential institutions — called on him for donations of tickets to see the Mets at Shea Stadium. They automatically assumed he owned the joint. Never correcting their misconceptions, he enthusiastically agreed to purchase thousands upon thousands of Mets tickets for underprivileged kids over the years.

Shea attached a non-negotiable condition: Each boy and girl would have to be handed not just a ticket, but an envelope with a few bucks — the amount rose as prices did — so he or she could buy food and drink at the game. Though he had become an immensely successful attorney with friends at every precinct of power in the city, the state and the nation’s capital, he never forgot what it felt like to sneak into Ebbets Field as a child but have no money for peanuts, Cracker Jack or anything. Bill Shea never wanted another kid to feel like he or she wasn’t experiencing everything there was to experience about going to a baseball game. The groups asked for tickets. Shea sent them tickets and checks. Never put out a press release about it either.

Anyway, I thought it was worth mentioning a few things about that name.


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[1] as previously suggested: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/blog/_archives/2006/11/28/2534186.html

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