As we all know Gil Hodges, the skipper of the 1969 world champion Mets, was chosen for the Baseball Hall of Fame in December. Even though his plaque will undoubtedly show him with a Brooklyn Dodger cap, he was a vitally important member of the Mets family as well. Perhaps when the Golden Days committee meets again in five years, they will consider another member of the Mets family, a real dark horse candidate.
That dark horse would be a filly, one Joan Whitney Payson, noted horse woman and the owner and eventual President of the Mets, from their inception until her death in 1975. There are a fair number of owners in the Hall of Fame, including some whose contributions to the game were monumental, such as Branch Rickey. But there are a few enshrined owners whose achievements are comparable or even less than Mrs. Payson.
Mrs. Payson was a baseball fan from childhood, often attending New York Giants games at the Polo Grounds, at first with her mother. In 1950 the wealthy Payson bought a small stake in her favorite team, and over the next few years her ownership rose to 10% of the club. However her holdings were dwarfed by the Stoneham family who had control of the franchise. In 1957, when it started to seem the Giants might move, Mrs. Payson made a serious offer to buy the team, but it was not accepted and the Giants moved to San Francisco, and she then sold off her ownership stake.
She then became involved with the Continental League, a planned competitor to MLB, with eight proposed teams including one in New York. The MLB owners, concerned about competition, then decided to expand, undercutting the upstart Continental League. The deep-pocketed Mrs. Payson became the owner of the New York franchise in the National League.
She was something of a pioneer, being the first female owner of an MLB team who acquired the team on her own, not inheriting it. Mrs. Payson wisely delegated the day to day operations of the franchise to her lieutenants, including ex-Yankee GM George Weiss. But she did have the final word, and occasionally intervened directly. It was Mrs. Payson who pushed for Casey Stengel to be the first manager. In fact she lobbied Stengel and his wife directly, and Stengel accepted the post. Stengel obviously was past his prime as a tactician, but he won over the fans and the writers resulting in a team that drew well despite the inferior product on the field.
She also pushed for Hodges to be selected in the draft of major leaguers before the opening season. The aging Hodges only played for the Mets in 1962 and early 1963, before becoming manager of the Washington Senators. Had Hodges and the Mets not established a relationship, he might never have become manager of the team in 1968, another move Mrs. Payson was strongly in favor of. The players on the ‘69 team, almost to a man, insisted there would have been no pennant that year without Hodges at the helm.
Let’s take a look at some of the team owners already in the Hall of Fame, and compare them to Mrs. Payson’s contributions. Jacob Ruppert, owner of the Yankees from 1915 until his death in 1939, and Tom Yawkey, owner of the Red Sox from 1933 until his death in 1976. Both men were wealthy, and both were baseball fans, not professionals in the playing or administration of the sport, much like Mrs. Payson as well. Both men acquired losing franchises, then opened up their checkbooks to better their teams. The Yankees bought the contract of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, and Yawkey bought stars like Jimmy Foxx and Lefty Grove, among others, from depression-ravaged AL teams.
The Yankees won a slew of championships under the Ruppert regime, but the Yawkey Red Sox had only three pennants and no WS wins during the 42 years of his ownership. Mrs. Payson, who started with the dreadful expansion 1962 Mets, was able to enjoy 2 pennants and one incredible WS title during her 11 year run.
Let’s sum up the legacy of Mrs. Payson as it pertains to her HOF case. She was a true pioneer among MLB owners by being the first female owner of a franchise bought with her own money. She was an important figure in bringing NL baseball back to New York. Interestingly, another owner in the Hall, one Walter O’Malley, was the one who was behind the move of the New York teams to the west coast. Mrs. Payson also has to receive some credit for the rise of the team from the basement to the pinnacle of the World Series win in less than a decade.
Not that it would affect her HOF legacy, but the wealthy Mrs. Payson suffered her share of tragedy. Her 18 year old son Daniel perished in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
Currently there are no women in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Mrs. Payson would be a worthy candidate to be the first inducted. She loved showing her support for her team, and she frequently wore team paraphernalia at the ballpark and elsewhere. Her image on the Hall of Fame plaque adorned with a Mets cap would be most fitting.