Fifty years ago this January, New Yorkers and the rest of the tri-state area would have something to look forward to for the first time in five years–National League baseball. Since the end of the 1957 season, the only baseball show in New York were the Yankees. In January of 1962, NL fans in New York, left cold by the Dodgers and Giants departure, knew the new year would bring a new team to town, the New York Metropolitans.
The Metropolitans or the Mets as they quickly were to be referred to was one of two NL expansion teams. The Houston Colt 45s would also be joining the league as the NL went from eight to ten teams.
For most of the 20th century up to that point, three Major League teams called their home New York. The Yankees, actually began play in 1903 as the Highlanders, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the New York Giants played their games within a 15 mile radius. But in the mid 1950s it had become clear that the population of New York was quickly changing, moving out to the suburbs. The Dodgers, Giants, and even the Yankees were not drawing well.
Dodger owner Walter O’Malley, unhappy with dilapidated Ebbets Field, wanted to build a new domed stadium for the Dodgers on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn where trains from Long Island would deposit faithful Dodgers fans. City Planner Robert Moses would have none of it. He wanted to build O’Malley a stadium in Flushing Meadows in Queens. O’Malley refused and the rest is history.
O’Malley took the Dodgers to LA after the 1957 season. To make it work in California, O’Malley knew he needed another team on the west coast with him. He convinced Horace Stoneham, owner of the Giants to move to San Francisco.
Baseball teams had moved before. The 1950′s saw the Philadelphia Athletics move to Kansas City, the Boston Braves move to Milwaukee and the St. Louis Browns become the Baltimore Orioles. But can you imagine the outcry from New York NL fans when both the Dodgers and Giants left town the same year?There are Dodgers and Giants fans still living who have yet to get over it.
Immediately after the Dodgers and Giants skipped town, a four man committee was formed by New York major Robert F. Wagner Jr., with the task of getting at least one National League team to come to New York. Two teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds were targeted as potential new tenants but those plans proved futile.
William A. Shea, a Manhattan attorney, was in charge of the effort to get NL baseball back in New York. Surprisingly, at least by today’s standards,National League officials were not at all upset or concerned that New York had no team. The league felt little incentive to bring in a new or existing club to fill the void left by the Dodgers and the Giants. Shea realized he would have to do something radical to get the National League’s attention. Shortly after, a new league was born.
In 1958, Shea announced the formation of a new major league named the Continental League. The league was officially announced in August of 1959 and that it would be made of franchises from Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Toronto, and of course New York. Before the official season opener scheduled for April of 1961, three additional teams would be added. They would include Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Buffalo.
Some officials in the AL and NL may have thought that Shea was bluffing. If so, he was not showing his cards as the Continental League was beginning to gain steam. Eventually the established leagues blinked and capitulated to adding two expansion teams in the AL for 1961 and two in the NL for 1962.
The AL would increase their regular season schedule from 154 games to 162 in 1961 as they added their first west coast team, the Los Angeles Angels. The other team was an odd expansion as the new Washington Senators began play in the nation’s capital. The old Washington Senators, last seen a year before in 1960, moved to Minneapolis-St.Paul to become the Twins.
Houston would get a team in ’62 when the NL would also increase their schedule to 162 games. For one season, 1961, the two leagues played a different number of regular season games. The other NL expansion team would of course go to New York. Shea’s work was done. With the established leagues putting teams in three major cities that did not yet have major league baseball, the Continental League was abandoned.
It’s hard to know how successful the Continental League would have become. Once New York got its team, it was unlikely the committee run by Shea or Mayor Wagner cared. Ironically, all the franchises from the Continental League would eventually become part of Major League baseball through additional expansion through the end of the 20th century except for Buffalo which remains a AAA city to this day and to add more irony, Buffalo is currently the home of the Mets AAA afiliate.
Shea’s effort was so revered, the new stadium for the Mets, known during construction as Flushing Meadows Stadium, would eventually be named Shea Stadium. Shea, now deceased, was humbled when named for the stadium. Today his name lives on in Citi Field with a retired emblem on the left field wall and the Shea Bridge in right center field.
Where did the Mets get their name? Well there was a contest that fans got to send in their recommendations. Names were submitted such as the Boros (boroughs, get it?), the Jets, Skyliners, and others. Finally the name Metropolitans was selected after an American Association team from the 1880s that played their games on the opposite end of where the Giants played in the old “Polo Grounds” grounds in northern Manhattan.
Ground was broken for Shea Stadium in the winter of 1961 and was expected to open in 1963. Obviously the Mets needed a place to play the 1962 season. By then, Ebbets Field had been torn down (1960) but the Polo Grounds was still standing. New York would gussy up the old girl giving the Mets a temporary home that they ultimately played in for two seasons because Shea’s construction effort ran into delays.
The Mets chose their colors with history in mind. The original colors were taken from the Giants (orange) and the Dodgers (Royal Blue). The home uniform was white with a blue pin stripe, an homage to the Yankees. The name Mets was scripted across the front much like that of the Dodgers without the tail. The interlocking NY on the cap was a direct lift of the Giants logo that had it’s roots almost 100 years prior. The Mets gray road uniform was also spun from the Giants duds with a similar “New York” in block letters across the front with a single stripe around the color and bordering the buttons. A couple of differences compared to today’s version is that originally there was no number on the front of the jersey and no names on the back.
With only a couple of months to go before spring training in 1962, fans were already getting excited about their new team. Casey Stengel, the long time manager of the Yankees, was brought on board to be the Mets first skipper. Some former New York players, including Gil Hodges, were also acquired to make the team feel as “New York” as possible. But these players were aging and it was not clear how competitive the team could be in their first season.
The future was full of promise as the nation began to emerge from the innocence of the 1950s. The Mets would become one of the most popular attractions in New York. How they played would be a different story and one we will look at down the road as we celebrate the Mets 50th anniversary in 2012.