In honor (if we can call it that) of the New York Yankees visiting Shea Stadium for almost certainly the last time ever, here are some superfun facts relating to their history as our guests from long before anybody was annoying enough to institute Interleague play.
• Shea Stadium was considered awesome and thrilling when Yankee Stadium was considered lame and passé. For any self-respecting Mets fan, this would describe any moment at any time right up to and including the present. In 1967, it was a fact of the competitive marketplace, relates Philip Bashe in Dog Days, an engaging account of the Yankee dynasty's fall from grace. Yankee Stadium was painted and freshened up as a reaction to Shea Stadium's modern allure four decades ago, “but 3.7 million square feet of brightly painted walls and seats alone wasn't enough to enliven stagnant Yankee Stadium, which in the absence of a winning club had none of Shea Stadium's Mardi Gras ambience,” Bashe wrote in his 1994 book. “Outfielder Ron Swoboda played for both New York teams during losing eras. Now a TV sportscaster in New Orleans, he compares the atmosphere in each venue in the light of his new home: 'Yankee Stadium was like a funeral; Shea Stadium was like a jazz funeral.'”
• The Bugs Bunny curve was for real. For one day it was. On September 29, 1969, the Mayor's Trophy Game between the National League Eastern Division Champion Mets and the fifth-place Yankees was played at Shea Stadium using what Red Foley of the Daily News referred to as a “new experimental baseball” that promised “10% more hop than the normal ball now in use”. The umpires had sixty of the rabbit balls at their disposal, all designed to enliven offense at the end of the year that came a year after the Year of the Pitcher. Once the five-dozen spheres had come and gone, regular N.L. balls were put in play. As Foley put it, home plate umpire Paul Pryor switched from those “autographed by 'Bugs Bunny'” to the regulation kind “signed by Warren Giles,” the senior circuit president. By then, the Mets were en route to a 7-6 exhibition win in front of 32,720 fans…and on their way to the world championship.
• Maybe there was enough room for another New York team besides the Mets. One of the seminal moments in my life as a fan was an article that ran in the June 1972 edition of Baseball Digest. It was titled “The Battle for New York,” and it traced the history of our city's game from the supremacy of the Giants in the early 20th century to all that went wrong when Babe Ruth came to town to the salvation wrought by Casey Stengel in the 1960s. This piece, which I recently reacquired through eBay, is what
a) made me an after-the-fact New York Giants fan
b) made me despise the New York Yankees more than I already did for ruining John McGraw's good thing
c) allowed me to connect the Giants to the Mets by what author Richard Watson wrote regarding 1964 at Shea Stadium: “Where once McGraw had watched chagrined as the public had veered away to the Yanks, Casey now watched joyfully as the turnstiles clicked and the Mets topped the Yankee attendance records. The man they had shoved aside had returned to shove them out of their number one spot in New York baseball and it was now the Yankees' turn to find out that popularity does not rest on victory alone.” Then, of course, came '69 when triumph married lovability and the Mets “were at the very top of the entire baseball heap. Meanwhile, the Yankees continued to struggle for victories just as they had been doing a full half-century previously” when McGraw's Giants were the toast of old New York.
The kicker, from the vantage point of '72, was that recent Yankee strides toward competitiveness signaled that it was beginning “to look as if New York was again the possessor of two competing ball teams who were both reaching for stardom” and that “there is still enough interest in New York to support two vigorously competing teams.” Yes, you read that right: the Mets were a given as New York's team. The Yankees, whom Watson noted were still negotiating for the renovation of Yankee Stadium and threatening to move to Jersey if they didn't get it? If they tried real hard, they could stick around.
I can't stress enough for purposes of historical context that this was the local Zeitgeist amid which I grew up as a baseball fan, leading me to sincerely view any alterations in the early '70s dynamic between the mighty Mets and their scuffling cousins to the north as merely temporary and clearly aberrational. The Mets are nobody's little brother. They are, in the worldview that was confirmed for me at the age of nine, a singular sensation of an only child.
• Baseball even sounded better here. When the Mets graciously shared Shea Stadium with those who were renovating in 1974, Toby Wright played the organ at Yankee home games. Fans, said the Yankee scorecard, could look forward to “enjoying the improved sound system offered by Shea Stadium”. Improved versus 1973 at Shea or improved versus what the Yankees left behind? I'm going with the latter. Nothing but the best for Jane Jarvis.
• Scoreboard like it oughta be. In Marty Appel's classy memoir Now Pitching for the Yankees, the team's longtime PR man recalled that the Shea Stadium scoreboard was National League all the way: “[It] couldn't handle the letters DH in the lineups, so we settled on an awkward B (for 'batter').” The interlopers might have seen that as a flaw. Those of us who've called Shea home would say it was intelligent design.
• Our house — in the middle of 126th Street. For every Mets fan who gnashes teeth at the sight of a vertical swastika in the stands at Shea, just remember: we started it. Well, kinda. Philip Bashe on the Yankees' sublet years: “Because of Shea Stadium's accessibility, bored Mets fans got into the habit of infiltrating the stands when their darlings were out of town. Bobby Murcer, Thurman Munson and other Yankees favorites suddenly heard boos at 'home.'” Many these days complain it's bush that Mets fans chant “Yankees Suck!” when the Mets aren't playing the Yankees, as if the Yankees somehow stop sucking when they're not around. But there was a moment in time when Mets fans showed up at Shea to tell the Yankees how much they sucked and the Mets weren't playing?
Excuse me, I think I've got something in my eye.