Silverman, Matthew. Shea Stadium Remembered: The Mets, the Jets and Beatlemania. Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press. 2019. Pp. 232. Bibliography, appendix, introduction, and index. $29.95 hardback.
Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo.
At first glimpse, there was nothing really special about Shea Stadium.
Certainly, when it opened as the home of the New York Mets in early 1964, it was a welcome alternative to the crumbling Polo Grounds. The Mets, born in 1962, were a group of miscasts and has-beens, but the new stadium promised better things. And fans who visited Shea from 1964 until 2008 always had a story to tell. It rarely had to do with the ambiance of the place, which was rather sterile. Shea did not generate the nostalgia associated with Ebbets Field in Brooklyn or the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. But oh, what memories were generated. The Ol’ Perfessor. The Amazin’ Mets. You Gotta Believe. The Fab Four. Broadway Joe.
Those moments are the focus of Matthew Silverman’s tribute to the old ballpark in Flushing Meadows, Shea Stadium Remembered: The Mets, the Jets and Beatlemania. The book contains 61 chapters and an appendix, and plenty of fun facts and sentimental journeys.
Shea Stadium’s existence can be traced to the vision of New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, the most powerful public official in America’s largest city. Moses liked the idea of a multipurpose stadium at Flushing Meadow; when Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley sought a new stadium in downtown Brooklyn during the 1950s, Moses suggested his proposed spot as an alternative. O’Malley, perhaps believing Moses was geographically challenged, rejected the idea of the Brooklyn Dodgers playing in Queens. He preferred an area in Brooklyn near the spot where the Barclays Center now stands. O’Malley offered to build a domed stadium with a retractable roof — the idea of a domed facility predated Houston’s Astrodome by nearly a decade — as long as the city allowed him to lease the land in Brooklyn. The site, near Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, was crisscrossed by nine subway lines, which would have eased the parking problems O’Malley faced at Ebbets Field.
Moses said no, telling O’Malley, “we don’t speak the same language.” O’Malley eventually pulled up stakes and moved the Dodgers west to Los Angeles in time for the 1958 season. Moses got his stadium built, however, and Shea Stadium opened just in time for the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York, which was conveniently located next door to the new ballpark.
That is the back story for Silverman’s book. Major League Baseball was content to operate without National League franchises in New York until the idea of a third major league — the Continental League — took root in 1960. With proposed franchises that included large-market cities like New York, Houston and Denver, the Continental League seemed like a legitimate threat. Only then did the National League consider expansion, and New York was rewarded with a franchise that would begin play in 1962.
Some reward. The Mets went 40-120 in 1962, but the fans still came out in droves.
Silverman has plenty of Mets-related books under his belt, including Mets Essential: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Fan (2007), 100 Things Mets Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die (2008), Mets by the Numbers(2008), Shea Goodbye, with Keith Hernandez (2009), New York Mets: The Complete Illustrated History (2011) and Best Mets (2012). Silverman is knowledgeable about the Mets and Shea Stadium. He confessed he has nostalgia about the old structure, “which is imagination backwards.” Who can blame him?
Writing for The New Yorker in May 1963, Roger Angell noted the Mets were “an organic civic development … excitable and untamable precisely because of their youth.” The same could be said for the fans who streamed into Shea Stadium when it opened in 1964. The Mets were lousy on the field but were a hit at the box office. Shea Stadium provided an upbeat, wild and crazy alternative to the businesslike approach at Yankee Stadium. The new generation fans in the 1960s and ’70s had compassion for the lovable losers.
Silverman’s book is upbeat. The early Mets were lousy, but they “offered fun.” There was Banner Day, when Mets fans would parade around the stadium with bedsheet banners, and the ultimate sign-maker, Karl Ehrhardt, who told the Journal News of White Plains in 1970 that he had 705 different signs in his inventory. One could say these fans traced their ancestry from the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Sym-Phony Band and the cowbell-clanging Hilda Chester. There was Mr. Met, the team’s mascot, and Mets manager Casey Stengel, who doubled as the team’s cheerleader, talking in circles but promoting the team with every fractured bit of syntax. The Beatles, who played at Shea Stadium on Aug. 15, 1965, performed 30 minutes of music before 55,600 fans. The crowd began screaming even before the first notes of “Twist and Shout” and kept up the din until the final strains of “I’m Down” (does anyone remember John Lennon playing the organ with his elbow near the end of this fast-paced song, which sounds even more frenetic at the ballpark?).
Shea Remembered is full of fun facts, and Silverman presents them in bite-sized chunks that are easy to digest. For example, Shea Stadium’s first chief electrician, Lou Beal, estimated the candlepower of Shea Stadium’s lights were 2,341,000 — making the field “bright as day,” even at night. And despite the constant planes flying over Shea into nearby LaGuardia Airport, there was only one fatality — and it did not include a jet. But in 1979, during the halftime of a New York Jets-New England Patriots game, a radio-controlled plane — in the shape of a lawnmower — went out of control and struck two fans. One of the fans, John Bowen, died several days later from his injuries. “Though sad, it is ironic that of the countless thousands of planes of every size and shape that flew over Shea, the lone fatality involved a radio-controlled flying lawnmower,” Silverman writes.
There were so many great memories at Shea Stadium, and Silverman hits all the high spots: Tom Seaver’s near-perfect game in July 1969; the miraculous catches by Ron Swoboda and Tommie Agee during the 1969 World Series, and the sight of Cleon Jones taking a knee (reverently) when he caught Davey Johnson’s fly ball to end the ’69 Fall Classic; the Mets rallying from two runs down with two outs in the 10th inning of Game 6 in the 1986 World Series; the return of Willie Mays to New York; and Mike Piazza’s emotionally charged home run when baseball resumed in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He also highlights how Mets fans have tended to attach pet names to their players. There was the Kid, Mex, Doc and Straw. Jesse Orosco threw his glove skyward after the final out of the 1986 World Series but does anyone ever remember it coming down?
The included memories continue. There was Joe Namath throwing for a heavenly 4,007 yards for the Jets in 1967, and evangelist Billy Graham looking toward the heavens as he preached before a packed house in 1970. The Jets’ New York Sack Exchange could cleave an offense, and eccentric left-handed reliever Tug McGraw made you believe. There was a 23-inning loss to the Giants on May 31, 1964, and Jim Bunning’s perfect game three weeks later on Father’s Day, the first National League perfect game since 1880. And while Shea Stadium had its share of professional boxing matches — Jose Torres defeated Wayne Thornton to keep his light heavyweight title in a 15-round decision on May 21, 1966 — the 1973 dustup between Mets shortstop and the Reds’ Pete Rose during the National League Championship Series was certainly more memorable.
The only real glitches in this book are Silverman’s erroneous labeling of the popes who came to Shea. He writes that Pope John Paul XVI became the first pontiff to visit the United States in 1964 (it was Pope Paul VI) and Pope John II came in 1979 (it was Pope John Paul II).
Silverman bounces off some good lines in his prose, comparing Mets fans’ attendance at Dodgers and Giants games — the former teams they rooted for — to “going to dinner with your ex at your neighbor’s house.” He also enhances his work with some interesting appendix items. One is a tale-of-the-tape comparison of Shea Stadium to Citi Field. Another showcases the all-time records at the park. Not surprisingly, Ed Kranepool — who spent his entire 18-season career with the Mets — played in the most games (906) at the stadium. Another cool statistic in the appendix concerns attendance. In baseball and football games, 107,741,048 fans clicked the turnstiles at Shea. That does not include the Beatles’ concerts, boxing matches, and even the 1972 pro wrestling “Match of the Century” between WWWF (now WWE) good guys Pedro Morales and Bruno Sammartino.
Silverman’s bibliography is diverse and reflects authors beginning to lean more on digital material. There are plenty of books used as sources, with notable sportswriters like Ira Berkow, Jack Lang, Bob Klapisch, Leonard Koppett and Peter Golenbock. Silverman even manages to use information from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Newspapers, magazines and media guides were also mined for information. On the digital side, twenty-nine websites were used in Silverman’s research, and he also references six YouTube videos.
Shea Stadium weathered the good times and bad during its history. Now, the Mets play at Citi Field, which was built adjacent to the old ballpark. “The Mets at Shea were 44 acts in a very long Greek tragedy,” Silverman writes. Silverman documents all the comedy, tragedy, drama — and lots of fun — in Shea Stadium Remembered. The only thing missing is Basement Bertha, but she was a cartoon drawing immortalized by Bill Gallo of the New York Daily News. Bertha and Shea Stadium had a lot in common — kind of homely, but well-loved. Silverman brings back that nostalgic feel with a loving look at a stadium that is gone, but not forgotten. As Stengel used to say, you could look it up.
Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.