By Marty Appel
When the New York Yankees-Tampa Bay Rays series in September, 2017, was moved to CitiField, home of the Mets (due to Hurricane Irma), the Yankees were the road team, used the visitor’s clubhouse, and saw signage and scoreboard details designed for the “home team”Rays.
But to some, it evoked memories of the 1974-75 seasons when the Yankees called Shea Stadium home.
Indeed, when Shea was torn down after the 2008 season, many local documentaries were produced highlighting the Mets 45 seasons there, as well as other events like the New York Jets super bowl season and two concerts by the Beatles.
Few mentioned the 162 games played by the Yankees over two seasons. Not even the moment when the Yankees almost blew up the ballpark.
But more on that later.
The original Yankee Stadium, 50 years old, was due for renovation, and the project would eat up two full seasons, plus the fall and winter adjacencies. That left the Yankees with the question of where to play, and short of leaving New York for two years, there were not many options. They needed at least 30,000 capacity plus the parking and public transportation their fans required.
It did not take a Rhodes scholar to look towards Shea. It was the only venue to consider, the Polo Grounds having been torn down nine years earlier.
The Yankees knew it and the Mets knew it, and pieces were left to fall in place.
The two franchises could not share office space; the Yankees needed their own. I was the Yankees’ publicity director at the time, and driving to a dentist appointment one weekend just after the ’73 season, I noticed a flat-roofed, one-story building along the northern side of the Grand Central Parkway. I made note of it and explored it further the following week. It was a New York City Parks Department office building – the Parks Administration Building – and during the New York World’s Fair of 1964-65, it had served as fair headquarters. Robert Moses occupied the large office on the western flank, with a private entrance. I wrote a memo to our general manager Lee MacPhail, and within weeks, New York City (which was taking over ownership of the new Yankee Stadium), made arrangements for that to be our office space for two and a half years. It was not quite walking distance to Shea – about ¾ of a mile – but it was convenient and spacious enough. (In those days, the front office staff numbered about 30 people).
There were other logistical matters to negotiate. Whose ground crew would prepare the field? Whose electricians would run the scoreboard? Whose ushers and ticket takers? What clubhouse would the Yankees occupy?
We had to meet with the Mets vice president Jim Thompson to iron those things out. This was a great moment for Thompson, who had been shown the door some years earlier by the Yankees. Revenge was sweet. Almost all the labor functions – ground crew, ushers, ticket takers, electricians, painters, plumbers – would be Mets people. They would make a ton in overtime, and the Yankee people were essentially laid off for two seasons. (Some ushers, etc., typically worked both parks plus Madison Square Garden in the winter). The press room staff – Louie and John, worked both ballparks anyway. (Lou Napoli, the bartender, went back to Ebbets Field days).
The Yankees would use the clubhouse of the New York Jets. It was remarkably small, given that it was used by forty or more football players who mostly wore XXL size uniforms. But it was what it was , and at least the Yankees and Mets didn’t have to share a clubhouse, moving uniforms and equipment in and out after each homestand.
Somehow I remember it most for the night of April 26, 1974, when after a game, half our pitching staff – Fritz Peterson, Fred Beene, Steve Kline and Tom Buskey, were traded to Cleveland for Chris Chambliss, Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw, with Thurman Munson screaming at no one in particular about the folly of the deal, especially trading “Beenie.”
For press conferences, the Yankees elected to use the nearby restaurant Terrace in the Park (on the World’s Fair grounds), a picturesque scene about a mile east from our offices. The first one we held there was to announce that the reigning world champion manager Dick Williams would succeed Ralph Houk for 1974. (The ’73 World Series was played at Shea just weeks before).
I still remember that for catering the event, the shrimp cost $1 each. I needed Gabe Paul’s approval for adding this item to the tune of $100. He was feeling prosperous. The shrimp bowl was approved.
Alas, the signing didn’t hold. Outgoing American League president Joe Cronin (to be succeeded by MacPhail) vetoed it, saying that Oakland deserved compensation for Williams, who was walking out of his contract. A’s owner Charlie Finley wanted pitcher Scott McGregor and outfielder Otto Velez in return.
“McGregor? Velez?” fumed Paul. “They’re our crown jewels! Never!!”
And so the Williams deal was nullified. And we didn’t get our money back from Terrace in the Park.
So we signed Bill Virdon to manage. This one was announced in the group ticket sales office of our new complex. There was no shrimp served.
We soon signed a new general manager in that same room. Tal Smith, a very bright young baseball mind, was introduced as succeeding the departing MacPhail. Alas, Tal was seldom heard from again, as Gabe Paul essentially assumed the role of GM.
Our move to Shea occurred during the gas line crisis of 1973, and one of the first things our office manager, Jimmy Conte, had to do was find a nearby gas station on Roosevelt Avenue where we could barter Yankee tickets for some process by which our staff could avoid the notorious gas lines. I don’t know how he did it, but we were able to jump the lines and no one shot us. It was Jimmy Conte’s finest hour.
The “look” of Shea was essentially unchanged. A few strategically placed billboards on highways leading to Queens announced that the Yanks would be at Shea in 1974, and the screen atop the Shea scoreboard bore a Yankee logo when we were home. The scoreboard was unable to show “DH” in the lineup, so a “B” (as in “batter”) was used. Our PR setup in the press box was to the third base side of home; the Mets occupied the first base side. Otherwise, it was all familiar stuff to the press who covered both teams.
The group sales office came to life again on New Year’s Eve as 1974 turned into 1975. All the desks were swept to the side, a “head table” was placed in the front, and Jim “Catfish” Hunter was presented as a free agent signing, a signing that would electrify the sports world. It was the first five-year contract ever signed in baseball, and the first for which the term “millions” would be applied. For many, it was the start of a new era of baseball, where dollars spoke louder than ever before.
Although we had a industrial strength Xerox copying machine in our complex, the cost per copy – ten cents – appalled Gabe, and he had instructed me weeks earlier to call the A.B. Dick Company and buy “their finest mimeograph machine.” It may have been the last mimeograph machine ever sold, and I suspect there was a good measure of rejoicing going on at A.B. Dick. And sure enough, our Catfish Hunter press release was rolled out on the mimeograph machine and I had ink all over my shirt at the press conference to prove it.
The Yankees added not only Catfish Hunter for the 1975 season, but Bobby Bonds, the gifted outfielder from the San Francisco Giants (Barry’s father), who was traded even-up for Bobby Murcer, the most popular player on the Yankees. (We said at the time it was the biggest one-for-one trade in baseball history.)
Bobby had found Shea to be “challenging.” He did not hit a home run there until September. The fans were loyal and shocked when he was traded. In Bonds, the Yankees acquired one of the best five-tools player in the game, but after one year he was traded to the Angels, and thus became the greatest Yankee player (at least since 1923) to have never worn the pinstripes in Yankee Stadium.
Virdon, the A.L. Manager of the Year in 1974, became the only modern Yankee manager who never managed in Yankee Stadium, for he too was gone in the summer of ’75 when Billy Martin became available for his first tour of duty with the Yankees. (He had five, plus an earlier one as a player). The ’74 Yankees won 89 games and finished just two behind Baltimore in the A.L. East.
Wheels were turning. The Yankees were on the cusp of returning to championship play, just as new owner George Steinbrenner had promised the fans. (He was largely out of the game in ’74-’75, suspended by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for actions caught up in the Watergate scandals, but his hands were clearly in the Hunter signing, something ownership needed to approve, and something Kuhn allowed).
On June 10, 1975, the Yankees staged a “Salute to the Army Day” (it was the Army’s 200th anniversary), which featured a 21-gun salute before the first pitch. Canons were placed in the outfield just three feet from the fence, and the firing of the blanks and the related percussion combined to set the fence ablaze. The Yankees promotion director Barry Landers stood hopelessly at attention, in good Army style, as it happened. The fire was quickly extinguished, a temporary fence put in place and the game went on. The Mets were not happy. (Video on this, anchored by Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor, can be seen on YouTube.).
For the two seasons, the Yankees drew only 2.5 million fans – combined. Few Long Island fans found their way to Shea on Yankee days, and the Yankee fans base from New Jersey, Westchester, western Connecticut, Manhattan and the Bronx, largely decided to wait it out until the team returned home.
That they did in 1976, drawing over two million in a ballpark that opened to great reviews, and winning their first pennant in twelve years. Perhaps it was worth the wait to celebrate on a true “home field.” The two year adventure at Shea was happily over.