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On This Date in Sport January 24, 1980: Sale of the Mets

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

A group headed by Doubleday & Co. purchases the New York Mets from the family of Joan Whitney Payson for $21.1 million, setting a record for the highest price paid to buy a baseball club at that time. Heading up the new ownership group is CEO Nelson Doubleday Jr. and real estate investor Fred Wilpon. In looking to turn the team’s fortunes around, the pair of new owners hire Frank Cashen, who previously ran the Baltimore Orioles as the Mets’ new General Manager.

When the New York Mets we founded as an expansion team, they were ahead of their time as they became the first major professional sports team in North America to be owned by a woman. Joan Whitney was born to a prominent New York family on February 5, 1903. Her grandfather had served as secretary of the Navy under President Grover Cleveland. She married Charles Shipman Payson, a decedent of a pilgrim who settled Massachusetts. Mrs. Payson was devoted baseball fan and a minor investor for the New York Giants, who attempted to block the team’s move to San Francisco.

After the Giants moved to San Francisco, Joan Whitney Payson became involved with efforts to bring National League baseball back to New York. Payson, along with M. Donald Grant, another Giants investor who opposed the move, and George Herbert Walker Jr. put together an investment team called the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club. With the help of attorney William Shea and the threat of a new league, the group successfully lobbied the National League to grant them an expansion team in 1962.

Joan Whitney Payson took the primary role in running the expansion team as she was the face of the new franchise group. She was the Mets first President, while Grant served as CEO, and Walker, the uncle of future President George HW Bush, took a smaller role. Payson was well-liked by all involved with the Mets, as she helped the team succeed in the box-office, while it lost record amounts of games, as she hired heroes, of New York’s baseball past to run the club in the early years. The Mets would stun the world and win the World Series in 1969, as Payson’s patience and guidance proved to help the upstart franchise go from 120 losses in 1962 to the toast of the world in seven years.

In 1972, Joan Whitney Payson played a significant role in the Mets acquiring Willie Mays. While the former Giants legend was well past his prime, he served with the Mets organization as a coach in the years after he retired, becoming a valuable club ambassador, to whom she promised that no player would ever wear #24 again on the New York Mets.

The Mets rebounded to post a record of 82-80 in 1975, bouncing back from a dreadful season in 1974. Tom Seaver won his third Cy Young that season as the Mets finished in third place. On October 4, 1975, six days after the season ended, Joan Payson, who had been ravaged by a series of strokes, died in a New York hospital. Her death came just five days after the passing of Casey Stengel, the club’s first manager. It was the most difficult week in the history of the Mets and would begin a rapid decline for a team that had, in many ways, become the kings of New York.

While the Mets managed to post a record of 86-76 in 1976, finishing third for the fifth time in seven years, trouble was on the horizon. Charles Shipman Payson, who never shared his wife’s devotion to baseball, moved down to Florida, becoming an absentee owner. Their daughter Lorinda de Roulet became the new President of the team, though she too lacked the passion for the team, which led to CEO M. Donald Grant gaining greater control of the franchise. Grant had openly been hostile to the new era of increased baseball salaries and began feuding with players, including Tom Seaver. Things came to a head when Grant made statements critical of Seaver through sportswriter Dick Young, leading the Mets no option than to trade the man who became known as “The Franchise.”

Echoing the decay of New York, Shea Stadium withered in the late 70s as the Mets finished in last place three straight seasons, losing 96 or more games in the process. As attendance dropped off, fans began referring to Shea Stadium as “Grant’s Tomb.” In 1979, while posting a 63-99 record, the Mets had the lowest attendance in team history, drawing just 788,905 fans on the season. By then, Grant had been forced out, leaving the Payson family with a team they had no interest and no ability to run.

The headliner of the Mets’ new ownership group was Nelson Doubleday Jr. His company Doubleday and Company, had been one of the most prominent publishing company for years. It marked the first official connection to Doubleday and the sport of baseball, though Abner Doubleday, a distant cousin, was erroneously credited with inventing the game in Cooperstown in 1839. Doubleday and Company paid a record $21.1 million to buy the downtrodden Mets in 1980. Serving as club President was Fred Wilpon, who held just a small one-percent stake at the time. Wilpon was the founder of Sterling Equities as a Real Estate company; he had grown up as a childhood friend of Sandy Koufax and was a passionate baseball fan.

The Mets needed a complete rebuild as the new ownership group took control in 1980, using the slogan, “The Magic is Back.” Over the next five years, they put money into renovating Shea Stadium while leading Frank Cashen, who had previously built the Baltimore Orioles in charge of turning around the Mets fortunes. The Mets struggles continued over the next four years, but in 1984 they finally turned things around and became contenders again.

While the Mets were winning the 1986 World Series, a shakeup was happening in the team’s ownership. Doubleday and Co. were being sold to Bertelsmann AG. The new corporation wanted to rid themselves of the Mets as part of corporate downsizing. Nelson Doubleday, having received $425 in his family’s company sale, chose to purchase the team on his own. Much to his chagrin, Fred Wilpon, who up to then had stayed in the background leveraged his way to buying a 50% share, giving him more control and creating a permanent rift between the two Mets owners.

Over the next 16 years, Nelson Doubleday took a decreased role in the operation of the Mets as Fred Wilpon seized greater control of the team’s baseball and business operations. As the Mets’ success of the 80s faded, Doubleday was seldom seen involved with the team, though he did step in and have the Mets trade for Mike Piazza, a move that was opposed at the time by Fred Wilpon. As the new century began, Fred Wilpon actively sought to get a new stadium for the Mets, built to resemble his beloved Ebbets Field. Wilpon had been influential in the Mets getting a minor league stadium built in Brooklyn and began to involve his son Jeff in the team. Eventually, Fred Wilpon paid $391 million to secure Nelson Doubleday’s other half of the team in 2002.

As the Mets reach the 40th anniversary of the sale, Fred Wilpon appears to be ready to selloff his final shares, as a deal is in place with Steven Cohen to take control of the team over the next five years. The Wilpons’ finances have yet to recover from their dealings with Bernie Madoff, which has cost the team dearly over the last decade.