History Of Shea Stadium In Queens, New York

Shea Stadium History

Feature Photo: Chris English, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

At first, Shea Stadium was to be called Flushing Meadow Park Municipal Stadium, naming it after the public park it was situated in. However, when there was a movement to name it William A. Shea Municipal Stadium, this multi-purpose sports venue was agreed to be named after the man responsible for bringing MLB’s Mets and NFL’s Jets to New York City. These historical events took place in 1964.

Goodbye Dodgers

When the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants left New York for California in 1957, this was a devastating experience for the Big Apple’s baseball fans. Granted, there was still the New York Yankees but they belonged to the American League. What about filling the void left behind in the National League? As impressive as the Yankees were as a team, it wasn’t enough. For as long as New Yorkers could remember, there were always at least two teams representing a big sport at a professional level.

Before the Dodgers left for Los Angeles, New York City official Robert Moses attempted to win the interest of the team’s owner at the time, Walter O’Malley, to keep the team in the city, but there wasn’t enough appeal in the offer to do so. Robert Moses hoped O’Malley would consider the old home of the New York Giants in Queens as a new stadium would be built for them. However, there were conditions in place O’Malley didn’t want to agree to. He wanted full ownership and management of anything and everything to do with his team.

However, the city wanted to rent out the stadium and use the revenue rights to pay off the construction costs. They also wanted it in Flushing. For O’Malley, he technically wanted to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn. With the city officials in Los Angeles, California paying attention, they offered O”Malley exactly what he wanted. As soon as that happened, he wasted no time picking up his team and together they headed west.

Goodbye Giants

The New York Giants were the first professional baseball team in Major League Baseball and they belonged to its National League. Their home games were held on the field belonging to Pole Meadows, in Flushing. When the Yankees joined MLB in its American League division, these two teams had to share the same ballpark. This continued until the rivalry between the teams became so great that it was only a matter of time before one of them had to find another spot to host their home games. In 1923, Yankee Stadium became the new home of the New York Yankees while the Giants remained at Pole Meadows.

However, as fate would have it, 1957 also witnessed Horace Stoneham relocate the baseball team he owned to San Fransisco, California. Originally, he intended to move them to Minneapolis, Minnesota, but the appeal of two National League teams in California won out. To this day, the rivalry between the Dodgers and the Giants remains.

Shea Stadium History

Feature Photo: New_York_World’s_Fair_August_1964.jpeg: PLCjr from Richmond, VA, USAderivative work: Delaywaves talk, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Hello Mets

The sting of losing both the Dodgers and the Giants had an incredible impact on New Yorkers, as well as baseball fans throughout the nation. When the National League agreed to grant an expansion franchise to the owners of the New York franchise belonging to the Continental League, there was hope the city wouldn’t have to contend with just cheering for the Yankees for long.

Starting in 1960, the momentum to build a new stadium in Queens began to pick up steam after the agreement of an expansion team was in place. This is where William A. Shea came in as he was the lawyer who championed bringing a National League baseball team back to New York. However, this wasn’t an easy task as the laws in the state didn’t allow cities to borrow money just to build a new stadium. The only way it could be city financed was to demonstrate the stadium was able to pay for itself.

Together, Robert Moses and Shea proposed a deal to have the new team pay high rent in order to pay off thirty-year bonds. At the time, this seemed like a good idea for the New York Mets. This would be a decision the team owners would later regret down the road but at the moment, the quest to restore a second team to New York City was a top priority. There was no hesitation when the Mets signed the lease agreement on October 6, 1961. This came with an optional ten-year renewal.

Originally budgeted for nine million dollars, the annual rent started at $450,000.00 USD which saw a reduction of $20,000.00 each year until it reached the annual $300,000.00 mark.

Hello Shea

1962 marked the first season the New York Mets played in MLB’s National League. At first, they played on the old stomping grounds belonging to the Giants. At the time, it was planned to move into Shea Stadium in 1963. However, due to a severe winter the city experienced at that time, along with a series of financial woes and labor issues, the Mets had no choice but to play at the Polo Grounds for one more season.

Overall, it took two full years and five months to transition Shea Stadium from dream to reality. On April 17, 1964, this new venue hosted its first professional baseball game that pitted the Mets against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Unfortunately for the 50,312 attendees who were there to watch it all witnessed their team lose 4-3.

Even though the doors were open, ready to welcome the crowd, the stadium wasn’t entirely complete yet. This was a series of complications involved, including jurisdictional disputes between the labor unions belonging to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America. The wiring for telephones and telegraphs was not finished in time for the game opening day.

Furthermore, Shea opened five days before the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, which was across Roosevelt Avenue. Even though the stadium wasn’t technically part of the fairgrounds, it sported a series of steel panels on the exterior that featured the same colors as the fair. Blue and orange were also the team colors for the Mets. These panels remained in place until 1980.

Shining Shea

With the newly built Shea Stadium gracing Flushing, Queens, New York, it seemed only fitting it would serve as the location for MLB’s 1964 All-Star game. It was here Jim Bunning and Johnny Callison of the Philadelphia Phillies made history. Bunning pitched a perfect game against the Mets while his teammate scored a home run in the ninth inning during the All-Star game.

Starting in 1969, Shea Stadium hosted a total of seven postseason baseball series, as well as four World Series. The first World Series was held in the Queens-based field in 1969 when the “Miracle Mets,” led by former Dodger Gil Hodges defied impossible odds to win it. When the underdog Mets met against the American League’s Baltimore Orioles, it was assumed the team that had one shaky season after another didn’t stand a chance. However, this was not the case as the Mets caused the fifty-seven thousand-plus fans to flood the field in celebration as soon as it was determined who the 1969 World Series champs were. This was accomplished in just five games, putting both the Mets and Shea Stadium in the history books as baseball legends.

For the Mets, as well as Shea Stadium, just beating the Atlanta Braves in their first appearance in the National League Championship Series was a momentous occasion. When Robin Ventura made his infamous Grand Slam Single by batting the ball clean over the fence to win the fateful game that would send his team to their first World Series, this was epic. What technically should have been an easy run for Ventura around the diamond from base to base was met with teammates that simply weren’t able to hold back their excitement. That feeling was shared by Shea’s sold-out crowd that still carries an echo of this historical moment among New Yorkers and baseball fans who remember.

While Ventura was well known for hitting home runners, Tommie Agee’s history-making hit inside Shea Stadium was every bit as exciting. It was a slammer that saw the ball soar into the upper deck in left field. The spot was marked with a sign that showed April 10, 1969, as the date Agee made this historical hit. His jersey number, twenty, was also posted there.

Shea’s Songs

“Meet the Mets” was a fight song that was played in Shea Stadium before every home game hosted by the Mets. Jane Jarvis was the local jazz artist who performed this song before the crowd for many years. Using a Thomas organ, this was the team’s theme music that was first recorded in 1963 and sold at the Polo Grounds before the team moved into Shea. Before each ball game played inside the stadium, this song would be ritually shared by Jarvis and the crowd until it was tweaked and updated in order to keep up with the trends brought on by younger generations.

In 1986, “Let’s Go Mets Go” became the rallying song that supported the New York Mets as they entered the 1986 World Series. Created by Jerry Della Femina, the inspiration behind the song came when the Mets dominated the National League East. This also came at a time when the baseball team had Shea Stadium all to itself after the New York Jets football team moved out.

Singing the song was Tom Bernfeld and the song came with a music video that featured the team, the fans, and Shea Stadium. It also had a cameo appearance made by Joe Piscopo. It debuted on August 27, 1986, at the stadium when the Mets and the San Diego Padres squared off in what later saw the Mets advance straight to the World Series against the Boston Red Sox. In a series where the Sox hoped to put an end to the “Bambino Curse,” the Mets made sure Shea Stadium was not the place to do it. The seventh game of the series held in Queens resulted in what became the team’s second World Series title.

Shea Stadium History

Feature Photo: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

On July 13, 1977, Shea Stadium was hosting a game between the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs. Near 9:30 PM, the lights went out, plunging the venue into darkness. The Mets were down, 2-1, against the Cubs when Lenny Randle took his turn at bat. When the New York City blackout hit, Jane Jarvis took it upon herself to establish why she was affectionately known as the Queen of Melody. She played “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas” at the stadium. It wasn’t until September 16, 1977, the two teams would complete that game but the Mets were not able to come out on top. The Cubs won it, 5-2.

Gangs of New York

The 2000 World Series was held from October 21 to October 26. It was the first time and only time the New York Mets and the New York Yankees would be pitted against each other in MLB history. As far as New Yorkers were concerned, this was a neighborly rivalry that felt like destiny in the making. The division among the fans inside Shea Stadium as they witnessed the fifth and final game between these two teams resulted in what was a devastating loss for the Mets as the Yankees demonstrated once again why they’re one of the most celebrated teams in baseball history.

Nevertheless, Shea Stadium witnessed two of New York City’s baseball teams bring back a bittersweet moment they hadn’t felt since the Dodgers and the Giants left in 1957. Even though it took four decades to do it, the fact this was held on Shea’s field brought about sweet memories for fans who remember. It also brought a sense of pride to New York sports fans who thrive on neighborly rivalries that are brought on by a common interest. For Shea, this was a first. Sadly, however, it was also the last.

Double Duty

In addition to catering to the New York Mets’ home games, it also hosted the NFL’s New York Jets. It also served as the site that held boxing matches throughout the 1960s. As far as baseball purists were concerned, this was not good. However, even after the Jets relocated to Meadowlands Sports Complex in 1984, criticism against Shea Stadium remained. Despite the retrofits to make it a baseball-only stadium, apparently, this wasn’t enough.

The design of Shea Stadium had an upper deck that was the highest in the majors at the time. Furthermore, the lower boxes were situated further from the field than similar seating arrangements found in other parks. They were originally designed this way in order to accommodate football fans. It was also designed to be fully enclosed, which meant the outfield seating was limited.

At first, the foul territory in Shea Stadium was among the most expansive in the league. During the 1960s, this was common as it was normal for sporting venues to serve as a home for baseball teams and football teams at the same time. What was designed as a fully enclosed structure did have new seats added over the years along the lower level but this greatly compromised the amount of foul territory going into the twenty-first century.

One of Shea’s benefits as a stadium was it used a natural grass surface. This differed from the other multi-purpose stadiums that were also built during the 1960s as they were using artificial turf instead.

While the New York Mets made history in Shea Stadium, so did notable football players such as O.J. Simpson. On December 16, 1973, he was the first running back to gain two thousand yards in a single season. Fans inside the stadium were fortunate enough to personally witness such an event. Ten years later, the stadium also witnessed an eighty-five-yard touchdown scored by Eric Dickerson, the star rookie who played for the Los Angeles Rams. This was also the stadium that watched the epic brawl between the Jets’ Mark Gastineau and Rams’ Jackie Slater. This came about as Gastineau performed his infamous dance over the quarterback he sacked, Vince Ferragamo.

Rocking at Shea

When The Beatles began their 1965 North American tour, the first concert was held on Sunday, August 15, 1965, in Shea Stadium. Before the record audience of 55,600 fans, the height of Beatlemania filmed scores of teenagers and women unable to hold back their excitement for one of the most popular bands ever to rock the world in music history. The noise level from the crowd was so immense once the Fab Four stepped out into the spotlight that the security guards had to cover their ears. To say Flushing was the noisiest neighborhood in all of New York City that evening would be an accurate statement.

The boys from Britain also put Shea Stadium in the books as a historical landmark as the first major stadium to hold a concert of this magnitude. This put the world on notice that outdoor concerts at such a large scale were possible, as well as profitable. Thanks to such a successful debut, The Beatles returned to Shea Stadium a second time on August 23, 1966. That too became a major success.

After The Beatles came the Summer Festival for Peace on August 6, 1970. This was a day-long fundraiser that was held inside Shea Stadium that featured the biggest stars who were performing in that era. Musical giants from various genres rocked the stage inside the stadium that included Creedence Clearwater Revival, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin, Tom Paxton, John Sebastion, Paul Simon, Steppenwolf, and the James Gang.

Rolling at Shea

When Grand Funk Railroad performed their concert in Shea Stadium on July 9, 1971, this broke the Beatles’ record for the fastest amount of time to sell out tickets. This was filmed with Humble Pie opening up for the band but the people commissioned to film it never did release a finalized cut product. The footage seen was raw but epic. While some critics put the concert down, both the fans and keen observers of the music industry witnessed what became yet another evolutionary approach to how rock concerts were to be done. After Grand Funk Railroad was Jethro Tull’s July 1976 concert that found itself competing against the LaGuardia Airport and the noisy Boeing flights due to the location of these two buildings.

After the era of the classic rock of the 1970s entertaining the crowd at Shea Stadium came the wave of the 1980s when The Clash opened for The Who in October 1982. In August 1983, Simon & Garfunkel entertained the audience with their live concert. That same month also witnessed The Police do the same before a crowd of seventy thousand fans that had Sting describe the experience as “like playing the top of Everest.” He also openly thanked The Beatles for lending Shea Stadium in what was his way of paying homage to the iconic rock band.

Adding to Shea’s impressive roster of concert performances were the six concerts The Rolling Stones held in the stadium from October 10, 1989, until October 28, 1989. The revival of the Stones signaled Mick Jagger and his bandmates clearly demonstrated even though it’s only rock and roll, they still like it enough to keep the music going. No other band in history had the six-night run that won over as much attention as the Stones did as they rocked Shea Stadium. Nearby New Yorker fans not able to attend the concerts inside the stadium were fortunate enough to hear this legendary group in what was a historical moment on so many levels.

In 1992, Shea kept the momentum of rock and roll going inside its stadium with the pairing of Eric Clapton and Elton John for two nights on August 21st and 22nd. Eleven years later, it was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band choosing Shea Stadium as the final destination of The Rising Sun tour. It was a three-night concert event that began on October 4, 2003. Making this memorable event even more epic was the guest appearance Bob Dylan made on the third night as he teamed up with Springsteen to perform “Highway 61 Revisited.”

Shea Service

From July 12 to 16, 1978, Shea Stadium served as the host for the International Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In October 1979, Pope John Paul II of the Roman Catholic Church came to Shea Stadium as part of his American tour. Not even the downpour of heavy rain was enough to keep him and the Popemobile away from a stadium loaded with a crowd who idolized the man and what he represented.

When the NFL game between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots reached halftime on December 9, 1979, the show featured a model airplane group that put on a display before Shea Stadium’s live audience. The grand finale was supposed to have a forty-pound airplane resembling a flying lawnmower show off what it could do but the pilot lost control of it and it crashed into the stands. Two men were injured that day. While Kevin Rourke from Lynn, Massachusetts survived the incident, John Bowen from Nashua, New Hampshire did not. His head injuries were too severe and he died four days later.

Because Shea Stadium was built as a multi-purpose venue, it hosted Showdown at Shea on three separate occasions between 1972 and 1980. These professional wrestling events were hosted by the World Wrestling Federation before it renamed itself to World Wrestling Entertainment. The first witnessed Pedro Morales and Bruno Sammartino wrestle to a curfew draw that enabled Sammartino to keep his WWWF Heavyweight Championship belt. The match lasted for seventy-five minutes.

In 1976, the WWF/WWE were back at Shea Stadium that watched boxing legend Muhammad Ali take on Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki via closed-circuit television that was aired from Tokyo, Japan. Aside from this, the defending WWWF champion, Sammartino, defeated challenger Stan Hansen who failed to get back in the ring before he was counted out. In 1980, Sammartino and his fellow wrestlers returned to Shea Stadium once again. During this time, the main event featured him in a steel cage match against Larry Zbysko. He won that match, too.

Upon the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Shea Stadium became one of the staging areas for rescuers and relief workers. The stadium’s parking lots were loaded with food, water, and medical supplies. There were also makeshift shelters set up so the exhausted workers could rest. Right after the stadium opened up as a sporting venue again over a week later, the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves met in what became a win that featured Mike Piazza batting a classic home run.

Ending Eras

October 3, 2004, Shea Stadium witnessed what became the final game for the Montreal Expos. The Mets soundly defeated the team before it relocated to Washington, D.C., and renamed themselves the Nationals. For the Expos, this was the stadium that also witnessed their very first game on April 8, 1969. As a brand new expansion team added to the National League, the first Canadian-based team to do so won their first game inside Shea Stadium against the Mets, 11-10. However, their final game inside Shea Stadium sent them home for the last time with an 8-1 loss.

Four years later on September 28, 2008, the New York Mets would play their final game inside Shea Stadium. Their hopes to enter the postseason race in the World Series came to a devastating end when the Florida Marlins defeated them in order to earn the National League Wild Card berth. At the end of the game, there was a “Shea Goodbye” tribute that had many legendary players that previously donned the Mets uniform come out and touch the stadium’s home late one last time.

Shea Stadium was home to the New York Mets and its fans for forty-five glorious years. During the stadium’s ceremonial farewell, it ended with Tom Seaver throwing the final pitch to Mike Piazza. This was followed by the Beatles’ “In My Life” as it graced Shea’s speakers while two former Mets stars walked out of the centerfield gate and closed it behind them. The celebration ended with a display of blue and orange fireworks that lit up New York City’s night sky.

On July 16th and 18th, 2008, it marked another end of an era for Shea Stadium. These were the two nights Billy Joel performed what became the final concert that would entertain in front of the venue’s crowd. Dubbed The Last Play at Shea, there were several guest appearances were made. Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, Roger Daltrey from The Who, Don Henley from The Eagles, John Mayer, John Mellencamp, and Steven Tyler from Aerosmith each appeared on stage with Joel throughout the concert as the infamous Piano Man played before an audience that was taking in this historical experience.

Approaching the end of the concert, the final performer to join the stage with Billy Joel was Paul McCartney, the man behind the very first band ever to perform at Shea. “Let It Be” would be the final song played in the stadium, which was an intensely emotional farewell to a venue that became so much more than a physical structure. Shea Stadium was the home that created legendary moments. While it didn’t have the luxury to become officially recognized as a landmark while it was still standing, its legacy still continues to pulsate as a genuine New York legend.

Billy Joel At Shea Stadium

Feature Photo: Anthony Correia / Shutterstock.com

Goodbye Shea

When the decision came to take Shea Stadium down, the City of New York gave a two-week allowance to the company with the legal right to salvage whatever they deemed sellable before demolition. Seats, signs, equipment, and various other collectibles were removed and sold to interested buyers who each wanted to own a piece of Shea’s history.

On October 14, 2008, the demolition of Shea Stadium officially began. On January 31, 2009, fans of the Mets came from all over New York to say one final farewell to where Shea Stadium once stood. This was a tearful occasion that was met with shared stories and songs among a somber crowd. When the final remnants were torn down at 11:22 AM on February 18, 2009, this officially became the end of Shea Stadium as a building that once upon a time stood proudly as a New York landmark.

Shea’s Soul

From 1964 until 2008, Shea Stadium served as the home base for the New York Mets. This was shared with NFL’s New York Jets until 1983. Now as the parking lot for Citi Field, the current home of the Mets, there’s a plaque that commemorates the location of Shea’s home plate. The plaque features a series of engravings of the neon ball players that highlighted the stadium’s exterior since 1988. Also marked on the lot is where the home plate, pitcher’s mound, and bases used to be.

Where Shea Stadium once upon a time stood, there was a proposal made in 2013 by the New York City Council to build a shopping and entertainment venue called Willets West in the Citi Field parking lot. The idea was to redevelop the Queens neighborhood of Willets Point. This was ruled against by the Appellate Division of New York State’s Supreme Court as it recognized this location as a parkland. This meant any commercial development for the area needs direct approval from New York’s state government before proceeding.

As a landmark, Shea Stadium commands respect, even if the building no longer stands. On so many occasions, Shea rose to so many occasions as a venue that did so much more than host a series of events. In 1975, this became a really crowded house when it had to cater to four major sports teams. The New York Yankees were waiting for the renovations of their old stadium to finish while the New York Giants were waiting for their new one to be built. The Mets and the Jets were not able to play in their own stadium until near the end of their own baseball and football seasons due to the scheduling issues that came about as a result.

Just like William A. Shea, the stadium named after the man was there for New Yorkers when they were needed most. Built-in 1964, it gave the city another baseball team after the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants left in 1957. When the towers were violently taken down in 2001, Shea was there for the men and women who worked tirelessly to pick up the pieces. This circular stadium served as an icon where it stood. Even though the building is no longer there, it still serves as a source of inspiration that continues to define New York for the soulful city it is.

Resources:

https://www.nytimes.com/1971/07/10/archives/grand-funk-railroad-presents-heavy-rock-in-concert-at-shea.html

https://www.concertarchives.org/venues/shea-stadium–5

https://secure.mlb.com/nym/ballpark/history.jsp

Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Haskell, David. The Encyclopedia of New York. New York: Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.

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