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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Family Reunion

A dozen years ago, after some dabbling on, I connected with a same-last-name relative living on the West Coast. She wasn’t exactly distant or long lost, but I’d had only the vaguest notion of her existence, and I don’t think that she’d ever heard of me. Stephanie and I met her and a friend for dinner when she was in town to visit some other Princes with whom nobody on our side of the divide was currently in touch. It was quite a kick hearing somebody mention people I knew of, however slightly I knew of them, as if an authentic connection existed, even if it was basically by default. Everybody was very friendly to one another for an evening…and that was pretty much that for this briefest of Prince family reunions.

On Saturday afternoon, I took part in a different yet similar familial coming together. No offense to my cousin from 2011, but this one I felt more deeply, lack of bloodlines be damned.

Saturday at the Sheraton in Flushing was Queens Baseball Convention day, a highlight of the offseason calendar for the past decade. QBC is a Hot Stove miracle pulled off by a bunch of people, led by primary organizers Keith Blacknick and Dan Twohig, who bleed orange and blue and give their sweat and tears to the endeavor as well. Every offseason, I wander into a venue that they’ve transformed into a winter wonderland for Mets fans, which is to say it’s full of Mets talk and Mets stuff and Mets vibes and Mets personalities (Billy Wagner, Cliff Floyd and Terry Collins topped the bill this year) and, of course, more Mets fans. It’s easy enough to remember QBC is coming up while not wholly appreciating that this thing doesn’t happen without so many folks making it happen.

I show up every year to help present an award named for Gil Hodges. The award was conceived back when Gil was being unjustly ignored for the Hall of Fame. Then Gil was voted into Cooperstown. QBC still gives out the award, because Gil is still Gil and the sentiment behind showing appreciation for unforgettable members of the Mets family glows on.

This year’s version of the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award was dedicated to the mom of our clan, Joan Whitney Payson. I’d prefer to refer to her from here on out as Mrs. Payson, because it doesn’t feel right or respectful to call her “Joan” or “Payson”. She was Mrs. Payson in life (1903-1975) and is Mrs. Payson for all time, and not in that unctuous way reporters refer only to sports franchise owners and nobody else in earshot as “Mr. So-and-So”. If we’re all going to be super formal and call one another by title, fine. If we’re not, it’s a bit much to “Mister” up the owner just because they’re the owner. Nelson and Fred; Fred and Jeff and Saul; Steve and Alex. They were or are people, just like you and me, even if people who can own sports franchises may have access to a different level of resources than you or I.

But Mrs. Payson was Mrs. Payson, and the chance to take a few minutes at QBC to illuminate her story in the middle of winter for a roomful of Mets fans who relish a little Mets history is one I don’t forget to appreciate. Through this platform over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to offer some insights on Gil Hodges, Ed Charles, Tom Seaver and several other leading lights of the Mets family. Given that Mrs. Payson hasn’t necessarily been top of Mets fan mind since her passing from the scene, I loved that Keith and Dan wanted to bring this woman’s legacy center stage.

I also loved that accepting the award on behalf of Mrs. Payson were some very warm people named Payson and de Roulet…and that I got to meet them and talk to them and realize that their family may not own the Mets any longer, but the Mets never truly left their family. These relations weren’t long lost and they weren’t distant. Spending quality time with Mrs. Payson’s daughter-in-law Joanne brought me back to that dinner with my cousin. She knew the stories people like me grew up on. She sprinkled names into conversation that until Saturday were only anecdotal to me. She made clear the Mets still meant something in their family’s lives, and that this little honor from QBC wasn’t incidental. In their own way, they’d been waiting for the Mets to care about Mrs. Payson. Never mind that it’s been 48 years since she died or nearly 44 years since the family got out of the baseball business. This was bigger than business to them.

You aren’t related to the woman who brought the Mets to life without that life remaining embedded in your life. These members of the Payson family tree clearly value that bond. The modern-day Mets seem to understand it. Not only did they co-name a high-rollers speakeasy for her down the right field line at Citi Field at the outset of 2023 — Joanne laughed when I brought up that branding, reminding me of Mrs. Payson’s patronage of Toots Shor’s place — but a representative of current Mets ownership, Josh Cohen, son of Steve and Alex, accompanied the Payson/de Roulet contingent to QBC. You could almost hear a circle being squared.

Daniel de Roulet, Mrs. Payson’s great-grandson, officially accepted the Gil Hodges award. Joan (he can call her that) would have been very happy to have received this token of everybody’s esteem, he said, but the real award for her and those standing in for her on this day was the presence all these years later of so many Mets fans, still caring so much about this team it was her pleasure to put into operation.

That he made sure to wear an orange sweater over a blue shirt for the occasion made his words resonate that much more.

The following are the remarks I delivered at QBC Saturday. Here’s to the woman who provided the baseball team that inspires us to this day.

We’re gathered here today to remember two people at the heart of the beginnings of our favorite baseball team, the New York Mets.

When the Mets first took the field in St. Louis, on April 11, 1962, their first baseman was Gil Hodges. He hit the Mets’ first home run that night, one of 370 in his magnificent career. Seven-and-a-half years later to the day, Gil was managing the Mets in their first World Series game in Baltimore. Within a week, he would be known forever more as the manager of the 1969 world champions, just as we know him now and forever as Baseball Hall of Famer Gil Hodges.

We are today, as we’ve been for a decade, monumentally proud to present an award in his name, the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award, to those members of the Met family who, like Gil, have warmed our hearts, brightened our spirits, and continued to light our way, and we remain incredibly appreciative that the Hodges family has blessed this endeavor. Gil Hodges Jr. joined us when the Queens Baseball Convention began in January of 2014, and Irene Hodges was thoughtful enough to spend some time with us here last December. They both represent their dad’s legacy so wonderfully.

There was little chance that if you were going to start a new National League baseball team in New York in 1962 that you wouldn’t find a spot for Gil Hodges. He’d been a Brooklyn Dodgers player since the 1940s, a Brooklyn Dodgers icon since the 1950s and a New York favorite for all time when some team from Los Angeles made him available in the 1961 expansion draft. Gil was on the verge of turning 38, but he still had some pop in his bat and no prospective Met could have loomed as more popular for a team that was still a blank slate. In fact, the first Met who was ever booed, during the introduction of the starting lineups at the Home Opener two days after Gil hit that first home run in St. Louis, was Jim Marshall. Marshall was a late injury replacement for Hodges, whose knee was acting up. Nothing personal against Jim, but the fans who trekked to Upper Manhattan on a chilly, damp day wanted to see the hero they remembered from Flatbush — and not just the old Dodgers fans in the crowd.

Said one former follower of the New York Giants on the eve of that first Mets game at the Polo Grounds regarding the presence of Gil Hodges, “It’s wonderful to be rooting for him after hating him for so many years.” Spoken like a true Giants fan. Spoken like a true baseball fan. Spoken like someone we can call the very first Mets fan.

Of course she was the first Mets fan. She more or less started the Mets.

And that’s the other person from the beginnings of our favorite baseball team whose memory we honor today, presenting the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award to the family of Mrs. Joan Whitney Payson, the founding owner of the New York Mets.

As important as a few other figures in Mets lore are to the foundation of our franchise — Bill Shea, the attorney who started working the phones the minute the Dodgers and Giants left town because he knew New York wouldn’t be whole again until it was back in the National League; Branch Rickey, who placed his reputation behind the Continental League gambit that paved the way for National League expansion; George Weiss, the club’s shall we say president of baseball operations, stocking a roster under less than generous circumstances and playing for time with familiar faces until a farm system could take root; and Casey Stengel, the most familiar face of all, with a persona the public could embrace while forgiving the new team’s competitive shortfalls — you can’t say anybody was MORE important to getting this thing we love off the ground than Mrs. Payson.

Quick question, please answer with a show of hands: how many people here would own the New York Mets if they could?

Quick followup: how many of you are in a position to make that happen?

Happily, Mrs. Payson had the ability to own a baseball team, and more critically, she had the desire to own one. She’d already owned a small piece of one, the ballclub she called her own from a heart-and-soul standpoint, the aforementioned New York Giants. That was no bloodless investment, either. “My mother used to take me to the Polo Grounds when I was a little girl,” she once reflected, “and I almost feel as if I’d grown up there.” Her childhood baseball home was vacated when the Giants moved to San Francisco — she was the only member of their ownership group to vote against it — so she did something productive about it.

This baseball-loving lady, in conjunction with the gentlemen mentioned above, started the New York Mets. After all, she told a reporter, “once you’re a National Leaguer, you’re always a National Leaguer.” This new bunch of National Leaguers whose existence as a unit Mrs. Payson made possible played at the Polo Grounds for two years while Shea Stadium was being built, and they caught on fast with old Giants fans, old Dodgers fans and the New Breed of Mets fans who found their spiritual home in whichever borough the Mets set up shop.

Sitting adjacent to the home team’s dugout, always keeping score and usually wearing a colorful hat you could make out from the Mezzanine, was the woman who didn’t need to own the team to adore it as she did. Not that ownership didn’t have its privileges. If she wasn’t at the game, she made sure the game came to her. The summer the Mets shocked the world and first contended for first place, in 1969, there was one TV station in Maine that aired Mets games under a special arrangement with a local seasonal resident. Guess who had a house in Maine.

Seven years earlier, when the Mets were new and only the flair and volume of their losing was shocking, Mrs. Payson traveled to Europe in-season. She left instructions to be wired the results of the games so she could keep up. The results in 1962 could be a little depressing, so she amended her guidance: please wire only when the Mets win. Let’s just say the transatlantic cables grew cold.

Mrs. Payson didn’t seek out attention as owner of a major league baseball club. It may not have fit her personality and it may not have fit the times. “I think I’m some kind of a vice president or something,” she demurred when asked about her role. Even at what would qualify as an owner’s most glorious moment, the acceptance of the Commissioner’s Trophy, in 1969, she stood before NBC’s cameras in the victorious post-World Series clubhouse only long enough to graciously accept congratulations. The extent of her remarks was to call out to her manager, Gil Hodges, to be careful and not trip on the temporary platform the network had built. Good to her word, she was still rooting for Gil.

At any moment, Mrs. Payson had every right to step into the spotlight, but left the daily operation of the franchise to others. Professional sports was an old boys’ network and perhaps she was content to mostly sit in her box seat, fill out her scorecard and cheer her team on. Still, she was no disinterested party. I’ve often wondered, had she lived beyond 1975, what Mrs. Payson would have done when free agency came along in 1976. We already know she spent a decade trying to pry loose from the Giants her favorite player from the Polo Grounds, Willie Mays, offering Horace Stoneham whatever it took in terms of cash to acquire his contract while Willie was in his prime. She finally got her man, albeit once he was at the tail end of his brilliant career. Willie Mays’s No. 24 hangs in the Citi Field rafters as testament not only to Willie’s unbreakable link to National League baseball in New York, but as a reminder of Mrs. Payson’s dedication, perseverance and fandom.

She was the woman who brought National League baseball back to New York, and she was the woman who brought the greatest National League baseball player back to New York. Pretty good accomplishments amid a crusty old boys’ network. If anyone harbored any doubts she could hold her own in a locker room atmosphere, I refer you to the team dinner she attended during the club’s first Spring Training. According to left fielder Frank Thomas, Mrs. Payson ordered herself a steak. When asked how she wanted it prepared, she said, “Just cut off its horns, wipe its ass and bring it out.”

Conversely, there was a distinctive touch Mrs. Payson brought to ownership that might have been absent from other hands. In her last year at the helm of the club, shortly before she passed away, there was a brief note in the Sporting News, informing readers that “sterling silver baby cups from Tiffany’s were sent by Mrs. Joan Payson to Bob Apodaca, Jon Matlack and Randy Tate, all of whom became daddies within the last year.” When you read that, you knew Mrs. Payson had nurtured an operation where “bring your kiddies/bring your wife” really meant something.

“Why do people fuss over me?” Mrs. Payson once asked. “I’m not important.” We’d respectfully disagree. Mrs. Payson was the first woman to own, on her own steam, a big-time professional sports franchise. That alone is pretty impressive. That it was the New York Mets, and considering what the New York Mets became in their first eight years — both an immediately beloved institution and the champions of the world — Mrs. Payson’s impact shouldn’t be understated. She gave us the Mets.

The least we can do as Mets fans at a Mets fanfest is say thank you and present her with the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award.

4 comments to Family Reunion

  • Mark Mehler

    Way back then, I knew she was really classy. Her steak preferences, however, open a new window on her Mets stewardship. Anyway, great remarks and thanks for the memory.

  • Seth

    What a great tribute Greg, and speech. Yep, we always referred to her as Mrs. Payson, and she’s part of Original Met Royalty. So glad she got to see the 69 miracle. Had she lived beyond 1975? Maybe we’d never have lost Tom Seaver.

  • eric1973

    Absolutely great speech and tribute to Mrs. Payson, Greg, and maybe Steve and Alex will soon put her name up there in the rafters. She’s more deserving than the recent lot they got up there. Put her right next to Willie Mays. How appropriate that would be.

    Gil Hodges and Mrs. Hodges are buried in Holy Cross cemetery in Brooklyn, and after paying my respects to my father and his parents, it is just a 30 second drive to the Hodges gravesite. There are baseballs and veteran tributes all around it, and it is something we do every year.

    I JUST missed out on watching Gil manage the Mets, and certainly Seaver would have still been there, and certainly the team would not have fallen into disrepair.

    Gotta say though, back then I had no idea that Lorinda deRoulet was Mrs. Payson’s daughter.

  • David P

    Thanks, Greg. It’s been bothering me more and more over the past few years how little has been done to honor Mrs. Payson’s role in Mets history. But saying “her role” doesn’t seem right, because all Mets history springs from her. There’s the name, of course, but that’s just the beginning. She hired Casey Stengel because she knew the team would likely be awful for a while (I doubt she knew how awful) and that he’d give people a reason to come out and watch until the Mets could finally begin to reap some talent from the farm.
    And if you haven’t read much about her, you really should–although, almost criminally, there’s not much out there. (Where is the Joan Payson biography?) That thing that makes so many people become Mets fans when they’re young–whatever it is–it comes from her.
    I very much hope that this season the Cohen’s give Mrs. Payson her own day and restore her to her place as the most important person (even if she’d deny it) in New York Mets history.