clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Shea Stadium, Robert Moses, and an era of ballparks

New, comments

Shea Stadium was the pinnacle of the stadium design in the 1960's, but using it to bring a baseball team back to New York was only part of the story.

Fans celebrate the Mets' 1986 World Series victory.
Fans celebrate the Mets' 1986 World Series victory.
Misha Erwitt/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Fifty years ago this past Sunday, one of the greatest marvels of public works in American history opened its doors in Flushing Meadows park. The stadium, which would eventually be named for lawyer William Shea, was considered an architectural and engineering masterpiece, and was supposed to be the design premise on which all future American stadiums would be built. This week, at Sports on Earth, W.M. Akers asserted that the marvel that was Shea Stadium was more about histrionics from politicians—and promises that the city knew it couldn't keep—than anything else.

Akers explains how famed city planner Robert Moses's grand vision took root in his trying to persuade Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley to move from Brooklyn to Queens, an idea O'Malley despised. Moses had spent years championing Flushing Meadows park as the perfect place for a stadium to be built because of its proximity to the quickly expanding Long Island suburbs. When O'Malley finally packed up and headed west, Moses saw an opportunity—a baseball stadium that he could totally control.

There was, of course, the issue of the legality of Moses's and then-mayor Robert Wagner's push. As Akers explains, the city couldn't use publicly funded money to build a stadium, but what if other ventures paid for the cost?

Only one irritant stood between the city and its gleaming new prize: the law. New York City was prohibited from borrowing money "for the building of a stadium, or docks, or anything similar." (How a stadium and docks are similar remains unclear.) If Wagner could prove that the stadium would pay for itself -- through rent from the sports teams and revenue from other events -- that law could be bypassed. As long as the main tenant was paying, say, $900,000 annual rent, the 30-year bonds would be paid off easily, and the city wouldn't actually have to borrow any money.

...

Robert Moses... was planning his greatest demonstration: a World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, a onetime garbage dump that he had spent years crafting into the city's most highway-accessible park. Though held on the same site as the 1939 World's Fair, the 1964 exposition would be bigger in every way -- generating a projected $6 billion in economic activity for a mere $500 million, $100 million of which would go towards expanding the highways that swaddle Flushing Meadows Park. $12 million for a stadium would be no trouble at all.

Moses managed to get notable names in New York City's inner circles, such as noted lawyer William Shea, Hall-of-Fame executive Branch Rickey, and New York icon Casey Stengel, to back the project. The project was to be a triumph of art and science and bringing in top names made it more palatable in the public eye, especially after the New York Times got on board.

There were dissenters, however, and Moses himself managed to mum many of the critics. The Times couldn't hold out on the story forever, though as it published an article after the stadium's approval with a notable name speaking off the record:

As local newspapers usually are, the New York Times was fully in favor of the new ballpark. The paper waited until the day after the stadium got final approval to ask whether other municipal stadiums were profitable -- most weren't -- and rarely quoted a skeptic, one notable exception being the local businessman who insisted, "Anyone who says the park will pay for itself is crazy. Every municipal stadium in the country is a white elephant."

That skeptic was George Weiss, general manager of the Yankees, who hated to see city money flowing to other teams. By 1961, Weiss had come around, after he was hired by the team finally chosen to occupy the stadium of the future: the New York Mets.

As Moses, Wagner, Shea, and new Mets owner Joan Whitney Payson smiled in front the camera and gave speeches about how Shea Stadium would redefine American architecture, one thing became increasingly clear: The stadium wasn't going to make money.

The last push drove the final price tag for the city's great ballpark to $25,532,000 -- more than double the original estimate. But in the speeches at the dedication on April 16, 1964, no one was talking about cost.

...

As far as the Mets went, the lease was fairly balanced. The team would get every dime of concessions sales, but the city would control the parking. The annual rent, a percentage of the teams' gross receipts, was not to exceed $550,000 -- barely half of what the city had required.

To make up for that deficit, the city estimated the value of its parking rights at $300,000. Whether or not that had any basis in reality, it was enough to declare the stadium self-financing and commit to funding the project, no matter the cost. In a small way, New York set the standard for something that would become an epidemic in the 1990s: a city contorting itself to subvert its own laws, to allow a team to pay it less.

...

Even when the Mets were setting attendance records, Shea was always a money loser, costing the city a reliable $300,000 a year. As inflation spiked, and the $550,000 the Mets paid annually bought less and less, it became clear that the 30-year bonds issued for the stadium could never be paid for as planned.

Ultimately, Shea Stadium was one of the few publicly financed parks where the team paid something, and was part of the beginning of a trend that saw public money being dumped into white elephant sports facilities despite the taxpayers generally balking at the idea. The masterful whitewashing of the media and critics by Moses still stands as one of his greatest feats en route to completing his master plan.

That said, Shea's impact on stadium design could not be argued. Veterans Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium, and Busch Stadium all followed suit, and the allure of the multi-sport facility drove city planners to continue to push for these complexes. In any regard, Shea still stood as a notable marker of the resolve of city officials to make New York the pinnacle of American city planning and construction, but perhaps for many of the wrong reasons.