The Yankees and Mets just completed the most recent edition of the Subway Series, but if past events had transpired differently, train travel wouldn’t have been needed to host the rivalry.
When the Dodgers and Giants left town after the 1957 season, there was an immediate push to return National League baseball to New York City. Although the Yankees had emerged as the dominant team in town, the senior circuit’s roots in the Big Apple were long and deep. So, even while the Bronx Bombers battled the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series, Mayor Robert Wagner commissioned a task force to find an immediate replacement for its two departing teams. In a sense, it was the city’s way of telling the Dodgers and Giants to not let the door hit them on their way out west.
Mayor Wagner’s Special Committee on Major League Baseball, which included four prominent members of the city’s business community, was charged simply with getting a National League team by any means necessary. Chaired by a well-connected lawyer named William A. Shea, the committee’s first course of action was to explore the possibility of poaching an existing team. In order to entice potential candidates, Shea and Wagner revealed plans to build a state-of-the-art ballpark on a city-owned plot of land in Flushing, Queens (ironically, it was the city’s insistence that Walter O’Malley use this site for his proposed new ballpark that forced the Dodgers to leave town in the first place). Meanwhile, the committee lobbied hard to have the territorial rules governing relocation amended so the Yankees couldn’t veto the arrival of a new neighbor. With the groundwork laid, attempts were then made to convince the Cubs, Reds, Phillies and Pirates to relocate to New York, but despite Shea’s best efforts, there were no takers.
When the relocation efforts stalled, Shea shifted the committee’s attention toward winning an expansion franchise. However, despite professing support for a new team in New York, Commissioner Ford Frick and the existing owners in the National League continued to drag their feet on the issue. So, Shea decided to take matters into his own hands. If organized baseball wouldn’t readmit New York, Shea reasoned, then the city might as well spearhead the creation of a brand new major league.
Shea’s brainchild was the Continental League. On July 27, 1959, the ambitious attorney revealed plans for a new circuit with founding franchises in New York, Houston, Minneapolis, Denver and Toronto, all cities that felt neglected by the current baseball structure. Because only New York had an existing major league team, Shea expected his Continental League to play alongside the NL and AL, not compete against it. Perhaps he was being naïve, or maybe he thought the threat of a lawsuit would force the hands of the existing 16 owners, but Shea fully expected his new venture to gain full acceptance and recognition as a third league that would eventually compete in the World Series.
We anticipate the cooperation of organized baseball, but we are all in this to stay and we are not going to back out no matter what happens.” – William A. Shea, quoted by UPI, July 27, 1959
In order to gain credibility, Shea appointed Branch Rickey as president of the Continental League. A long time advocate of expansion and former architect of the Brooklyn Dodgers ascendency to the National League’s elite, Rickey’s involvement turned what seemed like a far fetched plan into a viable alternative for New York. As a result, both Mayor Wagner and the influential construction coordinator Robert Moses embraced the concept and pledged the continued pursuit of a new stadium in Queens for the league’s New York flagship.
The Yankees already weren’t pleased with the countless attempts to usurp their territorial rights, but the city’s financial commitment to a nonexistent team was the tipping point. For years, the franchise had been battling with Moses over the construction of parking spaces, but the powerful urban planner refused to relent. In particular, the team had designs on Macombs Dam Park, the very site that it would use to build the New Yankee Stadium almost 50 years later, but Moses rejected every proposal.
Faced with a lack of cooperation from the city and the looming threat of a shiny ballpark in nearby Queens, the Yankees hatched a plan of their own. Instead of building a new $15,000,000 facility at the city’s expense, the incumbent team proposed to Mayor Wagner that he kill two birds with one stone by purchasing and renovating Yankee Stadium. The alternative idea included increasing capacity to 100,000 by extending the third deck over the bleachers and building extensive parking facilities. Then, the Yankees and the new Continental League team could share the municipally-owned ballpark and give the city a better return on its investment.
After hearing of the plan, Rickey reacted angrily to what he viewed as the Yankees’ attempt to maintain a monopoly on baseball in New York and dismissed the proposal by stating that Yankee Stadium was “antiquated”. In response to that shot across the bow, Yankees president George Weiss returned fire, criticizing not only the city’s neglect of his team, but Rickey’s presumptuous attitude as a leader of an organization that only existed on paper.
They’re coming in here without paying a penny. They say this open territory. This is our territory.”
“They’re trying to do everything for a new project and we can’t get to first base. Moses won’t give an inch toward helping us in our parking problems.” – Yankees President George Weiss, quoted by AP, February 13, 1960
Contrary to Shea’s initial expectation, the Continental League didn’t get an outstretched hand of support from Major League Baseball. When asked about the level of assistance extended by Commissioner Frick to the new league, Rickey replied, “Cooperation? You will have to define the word. Let’s say that there has been no aggressive help from the commissioner.”
As sabers rattled on both sides, it became clear that baseball could neither acknowledge nor ignore Shea and Rickey’s Continental League, so the decision was made to absorb it. On August 3, 1960, the National and American Leagues both agreed to expand to 10 teams, and the Continental League agreed to disband. Although the new cities weren’t announced at the time, there was a tacit agreement that the new franchises would come from among the current group of Continental League owners.
In October 1960, the American League announced that it would move the Washington Senators to Minneapolis and then add a replacement team in the nation’s capital along with a new club in Los Angeles (needless to say, Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley wasn’t thrilled about having company in southern California, so in some ways, New York’s insistence on expansion allowed the city to exact a bit of revenge). Then, after several more months of negotiations, the National League officially decided to add clubs in Houston and New York.
Once the official announcement was made, Mayor Wagner was finally able to break ground on his coveted Flushing ballpark. The next order of business was naming a president to run the new ballclub and, interestingly, the two leading candidates turned out to be Weiss and Rickey. Months earlier, the two executives had traded barbs over the Queens ballpark project, and now they were vying to head the team that would play in it. Ironically, Weiss, who opposed some aspects of National League expansion in New York, got the job instead of Rickey, who championed it.
Later in 1961, the new team was officially given a name, the Metropolitans, and ground was finally broken on the long-proposed ballpark, which would eventually be called Shea Stadium in honor of the man who spearheaded its creation. Although the Yankees weren’t thrilled about having the Mets across the river, there was nothing they could do to stop it. Instead, the team’s executives kept hammering away at the city by alternately demanding renovations and threatening to flee to New Jersey. When the New York football Giants made good on that threat, Mayor John Lindsay proposed scrapping Yankee Stadium and having both New York teams share Shea Stadium, but no one liked that idea. Instead, Mayor Lindsay finally made good on an earlier promise to buy Yankee Stadium and refurbish it at the city’s expense.
Two baseball clubs have never worked well in the same stadium. I don’t think Mike Burke wants to have his team in Shea Stadium any more than we want ours in Yankee Stadium. Would you like to give an important party in my house?” – Mets’ Chairman M. Donald Grant, quoted in the New York Times, August 28, 1971
After several close calls, the Yankees and Mets eventually wound up sharing Shea Stadium during 1974 and 1975, but their cohabitation was only temporary. When the renovated Yankee Stadium opened in 1976, the two teams again went their separate ways. Although both Shea Stadium and the original Yankee Stadium ultimately met their demise after 2008, the construction of brand new ballparks across the street ensured that the Bronx and Flushing would remain baseball’s permanent home in New York for the foreseeable future, and the Subway’s would remain prominent in a cross-town rivalry that was almost waged from across the field.