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  • Writer's pictureMaine Baseball HOF

Payson, Whitney, Joan (1970)

From SI Vault

The beautiful Lena Home sings a song in which the lyrics go, "Can't stand baseball. The game's insane." Therein she speaks for virtually her entire gender. Women go to baseball games with their men rather than stay home alone, and some even follow the results in the press so they can appear interested. But few really enjoy the game for its own sake. Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson of New York City, Long Island, Maine, Kentucky and Florida is a notable exception. Mrs. Payson is so fond of baseball that she has put up more than $4.5 million of the $5 million it has cost to install the New York Mets in the National League this year.

"Why did you do it?" someone asked Mrs. Payson.

"Because I'm a fan," she replied simply, "and I can't bear to see New York without a National League team."

During the first two weeks of the 1962 season, Mrs. Payson staunchly followed her new team through an eight-game losing streak. Then, on Easter Sunday, she took off for Europe and the Greek islands on a long-planned holiday, her chin in its usual forthright position. An optimist to her sporting fingertips, she hadn't even considered the possibility that the Mets could be anything but a huge success.

Mrs. Payson became addicted to baseball almost without noticing it. "I don't remember when I first saw the Giants play," she has said. "My mother used to take me to the Polo Grounds when I was a little girl, and I almost feel as if I'd grown up there. Mother, of course, adored the game. One of my earliest memories is of watching her playing baseball at Palm Beach in the old days."

It wasn't until 1941 that Mrs. Payson's interest in baseball became intense. That year she took a season box at the Polo Grounds, and for the next 16 years she was a fixture at Giant games, sitting in her seat opposite first base with a Giant cap perched on her head. Her loyalty reached some sort of high point when she allowed newsmen to photograph her chauffeur wearing a Giant cap as he drove her from the ball park.

The two qualities that most thoroughly explain and describe the Whitney family are loyalty and sentiment. Mrs. Payson's mother was brimming with both. She once directed everyone in all her households to eat Wheaties so she could collect the box tops and help Joe DiMaggio win the Wheaties award as the most popular major league player. Mrs. Payson's loyalty to the National League and her Giants was still so great after their western migration that she preferred to eschew baseball entirely rather than patronize Yankee Stadium.

It is no wonder, then, that she was so ready to help finance a new baseball team for New York when the Continental League was in its formative stages. At the urging of Dwight Davis Jr., son of the donor of the Davis Cup, she originally agreed to subscribe one-third of the stock; various others, mostly wealthy fans like herself, would hold the rest of the shares.

The Continental League, it will be remembered, died unborn in the fall of 1960 when the American and National leagues gobbled up its four best franchises. New York was one of these, and Mrs. Payson was anything but blue to learn that her new team would join her favorite league and bring it back to her home town.

Actually Mrs. Payson's role in the complicated negotiations that have preceded the birth of the Mets has been a passive one. Her friend Grant now serves as board chairman of the Mets and represents her interest in all matters affecting the team. G. Herbert Walker Jr., a New York investment banker whose father gave the Walker Cup to golf, is the only other of the original investors still owning stock. He holds 6%, Grant 5% and Mrs. Payson the rest. Naturally, she has had to get rid of her Giant stock, which was the largest individually owned block outside of the Stoneham interests. She has given it to New York Hospital, one of the charities to which she has donated many millions in past years.

Asked what her position is in the Met organization, Mrs. Payson gets a rather vague expression on her face and says, "I think I'm some kind of a vice-president or something."

Grant puts it another way. "Mrs. Payson likes to know what's going on, but she knows enough not to be a part-time interferer," he says.

There have been only a couple of times when Mrs. Payson seriously injected her opinions into the Mets' upper councils. As a Giant fan she admired Willie Mays above all other ballplayers, and she made it known to Horace Stoneham that no price would be too high if she could buy him for her new team. Stoneham, of course, laughed off the proposal.

Last summer, at the second All-Star game in Boston, Mrs. Payson was introduced to Mays for the first time in her life. "Willie," she said to him, "I wish you were back in New York."

"It's not time yet," was his reply.

"I really don't think he had any idea who I was," Mrs. Payson told a friend later.

It was fairly common knowledge both inside and outside the Mets organization that Mrs. Payson was eager to have at least one or two prominent National League players on her team, particularly ones who had previously made a reputation in New York. Among these was Gil Hodges, the once-great Dodger first baseman, and the Mets did acquire him for the draft price of $75,000. Another was Johnny Antonelli, who had helped pitch the Giants to their 1954 world championship. Antonelli was drafted from the Milwaukee Braves, but having suffered through several dismal seasons he finally decided to abandon his baseball career. Mrs. Payson was very impressed during last year's World Series by the flashy performance of Elio Chacon, the young Cincinnati second baseman, and he, too, was drafted for the team. Otherwise Mrs. Payson has kept her opinions to herself and left the decisions to George Weiss, the Mets' president. "He'd shoot me if I interfered," Mrs. Payson has said with conviction.

Just after last year's World Series Weiss offered the job of field manager to a reluctant Casey Stengel, who had spent the previous year in semi retirement, and Mrs. Payson helped talk Stengel into signing on. "Thank God you didn't take his no," Mrs. Stengel later told Mrs. Payson. "He's been miserable without baseball."

Joan Payson became the first woman in America to buy a majority share of a sports team. She was the NY Mets majority stock holder, team President actively involved in baseball operations from 1962-1975.

She loved her team, and was very good to her players. They also had a deep respect and admiration for her. The Mets organization was like a close knit family throughout her active years.

She was always seen in the front row of a Shea Stadium box seat rooting on her team, never in an owner’s box, away from the action. She would welcome bringing in New York players of the past, for nostalgia & box office draw. Former NY players came to close out their playing careers, or coach & especially Manager, Casey Stengel, Gil Hodges & Yogi Berra. Her dedication was rewarded with the success of the 1969 Amazing Mets winning the World Championship. In 1972 she got Willie Mays back to New York to finish his career as a New York Met. With him the 1973 Mets she enjoyed an NL Championship & another World Series.

Payson, Mrs. Charles S. (Joan) (70)

The Mets Could Have Been Named The Avengers, Bees, Or Burros

"That the fans already are deeply interested is manifested by the countless suggestions that keep pouring in daily. Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson, one of the principal owners in the franchise, is deeply interested. Right now she is working on a plan she hopes will eventually enable the best of these contributions to emerge.

As Mrs. Payson points out, “If you pick the wrong manager, you can correct that by paying him off. But when you pick a name, you’re stuck with it and it better be a good one.”

"When New York Mets left fielder Cleon Jones closed his glove around a fly ball from Oriole Davey Johnson to end the 1969 World Series, the scene at Shea Stadium was nothing shy of bedlam. But all was calm in the office of Mets manager Gil Hodges, a taciturn Marine who had seen combat in the South Pacific in World War II.

Among the crowd in his office was Joan Whitney Payson, the team’s owner, and when the phone rang, she was the one to answer it. On the line was none other than President Nixon, a devoted sports fan, calling to congratulate the team that had gone from a record-breaking 120 losses in its first season to being world champions in seven years. Payson, in her jubilation, was rendered speechless by the call. “Here’s Gil,” she fumbled, handing the receiver to Hodges — in that moment reflecting the opposite of her true self: the unflappable first woman to buy a major league team in any sport."

Cleon Jones New York Mets Shea Stadium 1969 World Series Final Out Photo

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