William A. Shea, known as the blarney to his law partner Milton S. Gould’s chutzpah, liked to poke humor at having his name adorn the home of the Mets.
He predicted that it would be renamed 15 minutes after he died. His name is still on the stadium nearly 17 years since his death, but it will soon disappear when the ballpark is razed.
He wrote about two fellow train commuters who thought he was an old ballplayer killed in World War I. (He wished they had thought he had been killed in World War II.)
And he laughed when he was introduced by a master of ceremonies as the man for whom Shea Stadium was named — “Bill Stadium.”
The Mets’ home opener Tuesday at Shea Stadium ends a 44-year run that spans an era when ballparks were traditionally named for cities, teams, owners and war veterans to another in which corporations spent millions of dollars to etch their names into concrete.
Citigroup is spending $400 million over 20 years to place its name on the Mets’ new park, Citi Field, which will open next April.
Shea’s legacy will be honored before Tuesday’s game for his part in the political gamesmanship that led to bringing the Mets to the city after the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants left in 1957. His son, William Jr., will throw out the first pitch (as his father did on the first opening day in Flushing), with 50 family members in attendance. “I think we could ask for anything we wanted from the stadium, but the seats belong to the fans to put their fannies in,” said the younger Shea, also known as Bill. “They should stick the seats in their basements or living rooms to watch their beloved Mets.”
The elder Shea had two sets of seats at the stadium, one at press level, one at field level. Kevin McGrath, a partner at the former Shea & Gould firm and now at Phillips Nizer, said: “He had an opinion on every pitch and every catch. And if you sat too close — it didn’t matter if you were Moses or the pope — he’d embrace you and slap you so much so that a judge said, ‘I’ll go to a game with him, but I won’t sit next to him.’ ”
Shea was one of the city’s best-connected lawyers, an adviser to several mayors and a confidant of Gov. Hugh L. Carey. He moved comfortably from courtrooms to back rooms to boardrooms with charm and shrewdness. “He said you disrespect a snake, but you don’t disrespect an opponent,” his son said.
Shea helped negotiate the state’s acquisition of the Long Island Rail Road; represented Teleprompter in its successful bid for a cable TV franchise; co-managed one of Abraham Beame’s mayoral campaigns; and served on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board. The writer Nicholas Pileggi described him in 1974 in New York magazine as the “unofficial chairman of the state’s unofficial permanent government.”
Shea loved sports; he rooted for the Giants football team; attended New York University, then Georgetown, on athletic scholarships; ran the Long Island Indians minor league football team before World War II; and did some legal work for the Dodgers. His father-in-law, Thomas Shaw, was a well-known bookmaker.
After delivering the Mets to Flushing, Shea was asked to do more in sports: bring a hockey team to the new Nassau Coliseum; find a football team to replace the Giants at Yankee Stadium; take the Jets-Giants exhibition from the Yale Bowl to Shea Stadium; and straighten out the tangled finances of the owner Roy Boe’s Nets.
Shea was already a savvy legal player in 1957, with strong ties to the Brooklyn Democratic party, when he was asked by Mayor Robert F. Wagner to be the chair of his four-man baseball committee. It cajoled existing teams to move and the National League to expand. But when those efforts failed, Shea created the Continental League in 1958 with Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ wise old general manager.
Shea optimistically said that it was “quite possible we could have a new franchise operating in New York by 1960.” Shea’s prediction was off by two years. But the prospect of a third major league, coupled with the possibility that baseball would not receive legislative protection for its antitrust exemption from Congress, persuaded baseball in 1960 to expand to New York and Houston in the National League and Los Angeles and Washington in the American League.
Shea Jr. said he did not believe his father used the new league as a bluff. “He taught me never to bluff,” he said, “because you’d better be able to do what you say you will.”
More than a year before it opened, the ballpark in Flushing had been named for Shea, an honor he felt Wagner deserved, but which McGrath said was the idea of Thomas Deegan, a public relations man for Robert Moses. “Moses liked Bill, and Deegan started a campaign to send thousands of postcards to the mayor,” McGrath said.
In 1965, Shea’s name was mentioned as a replacement for Ford C. Frick, who was retiring as the baseball commissioner. Bill Shea Jr. insisted that his father rejected the job; baseball went through 150 names before electing a little-known retired general, William D. Eckert, nicknamed Spike, who spent a nondescript few years in office.
Shea said his father would understand that their family name would not travel to the new ballpark. “We knew the Wilpons would be very kind until economics drove this,” he said. “A new stadium is costly. You have to get your money somewhere.”