In conversation with her future Mets chairman M. Donald Grant back in the late 1940s, Joan Whitney Payson mentioned that the one thing she would love to buy with her money was the New York Giants. Payson would later become a 10% stockholder in the team, and tried in vain to buy out the ownership group and keep that franchise in New York when they left for San Francisco.
This perhaps made Payson a natural choice for lawyer William Shea—empowered by committee with the goal of bringing National League Baseball back to New York—to head an ownership group for a team in the proposed Continental League. This proposed franchise would eventually become an entrant in the National League once Major League Baseball stopped balking at expansion. When the Metropolitans (besting out the owner’s preferred naming choice of Meadowlarks) were admitted into MLB, Ms. Payson—with her $1 million initial investment—became the third woman to own a professional sports franchise, and the first in baseball in four decades.
Payson was largely a hands-off owner, though not uninvolved or uninterested. A frequent attendee of games, Payson was known to carry a portable radio to listen to the team when visiting her other sporting passion, the racetrack. The old Yankee braintrust of George Weiss and Casey Stengel was brought in to run the fledgling franchise. The team initially focused on aging stars for attendance rather than team building, but the Mets would quickly rise from their early struggles to win a World Series in 1969 and another pennant under Payson’s stewardship in 1973.
The Mets’ first change in ownership was the unfortunate result of Payson’s death on October 4, 1975 from complications due to a series of strokes. But the team wouldn’t go far, as Joan’s husband Charles Shipman Payson bought her shares to become the team’s second majority owner. Not sharing his wife’s passion for baseball, Mr. Payson was an absentee owner who allowed first Grant—and then his daughter, Lorinda de Roulet, following Grant’s departure shortly after the fateful trade of franchise icon Tom Seaver—to run the team as president/chairperson.
With the team still struggling mightily, the Mets’ franchise was purchased for the first time in club history in January of 1980, when a the publishing house Doubleday & Company bought the franchise from the Payson family for a then-record $21.1 million. Nelson Doubleday, Jr. headed the group for his family’s company, who purchased an 80% stake in the team. Doubleday was joined by a minority partner in the real estate enterprise Sterling Equities Inc., which was headed by Fred Wilpon.
The franchise may have been at one of its many nadirs in 1980, but the new ownership group did hire a General Manager with a history of success—Frank Cashen, who helped build the Baltimore Orioles dynasty in the late 1960s. Cashen advised the new owners to expect four to five years for a turnaround, which proved quite precient.
As principal owner, Doubleday left the day-to-day decisions to Cashen, telling reporters he, “would prefer that nobody knew who he was.” As the Mets turnaround reached it apex in 1986, Doubleday & Co. was sold to a German company, Bertelsmann AG. At that point, Wilpon moved from a 5 percent owner to 50 percent owner, sharing control of the team with Doubleday.
The joint owners disagreed often on how to run the franchise, so it was no surprise that they ultimately had trouble agreeing on how to end their partnership. When the aging Doubleday was ready to sell, he was unable to solicit bids on the open market, as previous agreements stipulated he had to sell to Wilpon. Doubleday thought appraisers had put the value of the team too low, even accusing Commissioner Bud Selig of conspiring to keep the value low to lessen the amount that had to be borrowed—not the last time Selig would be accused of extending unfair assistance to the Wilpons. Ultimately Wilpon bought out Doubleday in 2002 for $135 million, becoming the single principal owner of the Mets.
The Wilpon stewardship of the Mets has been perhaps one of the most scrutinized in sports history. This is a testament not only to the passion of Mets fans, but to the quirky and frustrating manner in which the team has been run under the reign of Fred Wilpon (and, later, his son Jeff). Unlike most previous Mets’ owners, the Wilpons became notorious for inserting themselves not just in personnel moves, but in all sorts of franchise minutae—perhaps most damaging their insistence on players playing through injury.
Still, in the zero-sum game that most fans play, this likely would have been forgivable to most if it came along with a massive investment in player salaries and successful results. One need only look across town at the lionized George Steinbrenner for proof of that. But the Wilpons always seemed to want to cut corners financially even as the franchise was flourishing and a new stadium rising in the shadow of Shea. This tendency was exacerbated after 2008, when the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme came to light. The fallout from this would continue to affect the Mets for nearly a decade, and led to constant speculation—some would say fantasies—that owners propped up by loans from MLB might one day need to sell the team.
The fantasy suddenly became reality this past week, when news broke that hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen had reached an agreement to purchase an 80% stake in the franchise from the Wilpons over in a transaction that will value the team at—a once again record—$2.6 billion.
While Cohen will be the sixth unique principal owner in franchise history, most of these were permutations of two families, the Paysons and the Wilpons. This is essentially only the second time the New York Mets have been sold on the open market, and obviously represents a seismic shift in franchise history.