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Shea Stadium: Young but full of history

Shea Stadium: Young but full of history

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NEW YORK -- As the third oldest ballpark in the National League behind Chicago's Wrigley Field and Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium, Shea Stadium may be difficult to imagine as once being such a kid sister of New York City athletic venues.

It replaced the Polo Grounds, the former home of the New York Giants in upper Manhattan, as the place of business for the two-year-old Mets in 1964 and was located in an area once targeted as a possible home of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

By the time Shea opened its doors, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx was more than 40 years old and Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan was in its third of four addresses. Two other Queens sports facilities, Aqueduct and Belmont Park, were among the finest race tracks in the country.

It took time for Shea to rub elbows with its neighbors, but over the years the circular, outdoor arena created its own history, one that would equal a favorite nickname of its main tenants -- amazing.

It was on the field at Shea Stadium where the Mets clinched and celebrated their two World Series titles, in 1969 and 1986, and where the New York Jets won the American Football League championship in 1968 to qualify for the memorable Super Bowl III in January 1969. It was there on Father's Day in 1964 that the Phillies' Jim Bunning, a father of eight, pitched a perfect game and where in 1973 O.J. Simpson became the first NFL runner to go over the 2,000-yard mark in one season.

Tom Seaver came within two outs of a perfect game in 1969 at Shea, where fans also witnessed record-setting feats by Dwight Gooden (most strikeouts by a rookie pitcher in 1984), Todd Hundley (most home runs by a catcher in 1996) and Lenny Harris (most career pinch hits in 2001).

In 1975, Shea Stadium was the home to both New York baseball clubs and both New York NFL teams, the only time that has ever happened. In addition to the Mets and the Jets, the Yankees were in the second of two years there while Yankee Stadium was under renovation, and the Giants played at Shea for one year before moving into their own facility in the Meadowlands of East Rutherford, N.J., in 1976.

Apart from sports, Shea will always be identified as the birthplace of stadium rock, beginning with the 1965 appearance of the Beatles to kick off their United States tour. Pope John Paul II's 1979 visit to the U.S. included a memorable stop at Shea during which rain that fell all morning ceased upon the Popemobile's arrival.

Following the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001, the parking lot at Shea was turned into a rescue station where food, supplies and medical equipment were collected and disbursed. Helping load the trucks were manager Bobby Valentine and many Mets players wearing caps in honor of the police, fire and emergency service departments.

Farewell Shea Stadium

A moving memorial service was held Sept. 21 before the first game after the attack. A somber crowd of 41,235 was jolted in the eighth inning by Mike Piazza's two-run home run off Queens native Steve Karsay that carried the Mets to a 3-2 victory over the Braves.

And no matter what was going on at Shea, there was also plenty of noise, not only from the stands where cries of "Let's Go Mets!' accompanied rallies but also from the jets arriving and departing from nearby LaGuardia Airport.

Shea Stadium bears the name of a man considered most responsible for returning National League Baseball to New York City following the departure of the Giants and the Dodgers to California in 1958. Ironically, the ballpark is situated precisely where the Dodgers were offered to resettle from Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, an idea rejected by owner Walter O'Malley, who instead moved the team to Los Angeles and encouraged the Giants to relocate as well, to San Francisco.

William A. Shea, a prominent New York attorney, lobbied for a team to replace the Giants and Dodgers to such a degree that he pushed for the creation of a third major league. The Continental League did not became reality, but Shea and his backers won for New York an expansion franchise that would be called the Mets and begin play in 1962.

Part of the deal that created the Mets was a pledge from New York to build a municipal stadium. The site was next to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park where a World's Fair was held in 1939 and '40 and another was planned for 1964 and '65. Robert Moses, New York's powerful parks commissioner, considered the Flushing Meadows location ideal for a ballpark, but would not accede to O'Malley's proposal to own the property and privately build a baseball-only stadium.

Flushing Meadows Stadium, its working title, was a municipal facility with a seating capacity of 57,000 for baseball and 60,000 for football at a cost of $25 million. It would feature other sports as well as concerts and special events. Who knew then that four British musicians would ring in a new era of entertainment on this patch?

The Mets played their first season at the old Polo Grounds and had to play there in 1963, too, because Shea Stadium was not ready. It opened April 17, 1964, with a crowd of 48,736. Willie Stargell hit the first home run, leading off the second inning against Mets right-hander Jack Fischer in a 4-3 Pirates victory. Despite a third consecutive last-place finish, the Mets drew 1,732,597 in season attendance.

In that first season, Bunning pitched a perfect game in the first game of a doubleheader on June 21. A little more than two weeks later, Bunning's teammate, right fielder Johnny Callison, hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the National League a 4-3 victory in the All-Star Game, the only one ever held at Shea. Mets second baseman Ron Hunt, voted to the NL's starting team, had a single in three at-bats.

While the Mets were lingering in last place, the Beatles -- perennial first-place finishers on pop music charts -- ushered in a new era of entertainment with their concert Aug. 15, 1965, that attracted more than 55,000 fans. Rock 'n roll shows had been relegated to old movie houses and dinky clubs. The Beatles' show and a return engagement in 1966 opened the door to larger venues for rock bands. Over the years, a variety of groups played Shea, including the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Eric Clapton and Elton John.

Long Island rocker Billy Joel played sold-out concerts July 16 and 18 this year and was joined on-stage over the two nights by such music luminaries as Tony Bennett, John Mellencamp, Don Henley, Garth Brooks, Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, the Who's Roger Daltrey and, in a return engagement, Paul McCartney, 42 years after sharing the Shea stage with John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

"Came here a long time ago," Beatle Paul said. "We had a blast that night, and we're having another one tonight."

In 1969, it was the Mets' turn to rock the house. Under manager Gil Hodges, the former Dodgers hero, the Mets won 100 games, swept Atlanta in the first NL Championship Series and upset the Baltimore Orioles in five games in the World Series. Shea paid a dear price, however, as over-exuberant fans tore up the playing field and left it resembling a vacant lot.

The Mets remained contenders in the early 1970s but did not adapt to free agency. They toppled down the standings and cast aside fan favorite Tom Seaver in 1977. Two years later, home attendance bottomed out at 788,905. A fiscal crisis in the mid 1970s also resulted in Shea falling into disrepair, which required an extensive cleanup during the early 1980s when Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon bought the franchise.

A renaissance in the 1980s had Shea front and center once more. The Mets exceeded two million at the gate for the first time in 1985 and three million two years later. The 1986 World Series featured one of the most astonishing comebacks in history when the Mets rallied from a two-run deficit in the 10th inning of Game 6 with a two-out rally to beat the Red Sox with Ray Knight scoring the winning run when Mookie Wilson's grounder got through the battered legs of first baseman Bill Buckner. The Mets' second championship came two nights later.

By the early 1990s, that team had broken up, but the Mets rebounded at the end of the decade and gave Shea more special moments. They included game-winning, postseason home runs in 1999 by Todd Pratt and Robin Ventura and a World Series berth in 2000 against none other than the Yankees, whose victory in Game 5 marked the last time a Series was decided at Shea.

The Mets tried to rectify that the past two years but fell very short in 2006 and embarrassingly so in 2007. In what has been the last season before the Mets change addresses to Citi Field, Shea Stadium figured to have one more noisy year left. Fans are hopeful the Mets can extend this final season for as long as possible.

Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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