When Shea Stadium was the newest game in town

By Greater Astoria Historical Society

In conjunction with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, the TimesLedger newspaper presents noteworthy events in the borough’s history

As baseball’s Opening Day approached in Spring 1964, the newpapers stated that Shea Stadium was ready to host the Mets but there wasn’t a moment to spare to get the $25 million facility into shape. As workers were placing the finishing touches on Queens’ new field of dreams, hundreds of fans roamed its grounds to get a feel for the place. It was so filled that the players themselves couldn’t work out. While the infield was deemed complete and in good shape, sod was still being laid into place at the extremities of the outfield.

The Star Journal was quick to observe, “the various colored seats and the vastness of the park make for quite a spectacle.” But in a prescient take on the luckless Metropolitans it also asserted, “Maybe the Mets won’t be worth the price of admission for a few years but the park certainly will be.”

After a scheduled parade through Flushing and Jamaica and a Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Whitman Hotel, the Mets were to go to Hofstra University to get some practice in. The Journal reported that Casey Stengel took 19-year-old Jerry Hinsley under his wing. The mighty Casey also looked toward Ed Kranepool to provide the power of his bat.

On April 14, 1964, standing beside local officials and the members of the upper Mets management, the Old Perfesser took center stage at a press conference at Flushing’s St. George’s Episcopal Church. Here, he gave all in attendance “a blast of ‘Stengelese’” while describing his players. In typical rambling fashion he depicted them “[as] a collection of beautiful dolls… running fools… real fine young men… the true youth of America.”

But he was also careful to stress that he’d do whatever it took to forge a winning team: “No team in baseball offers a young man the opportunity as the Mets… We’re building a fighting Mets team.” Acknowledging those fans watching the games from their homes, he joked, “Our games will be in color this year on television, so I’ll be using a new makeup.”

He was presented with a key to Flushing.

When asked about his new home at Shea, Stengel was effusive in his homespun praise: “Never anything like it before. They even have escalators so the folks… can get to their seats when they get into the ballpark on a pass. Nobody will have to watch a high pop-up, like it is in other parks where it’s mighty hard on a man like me. I’m 73, you know.”

The Star Journal observed that he had the rapt attention of everyone: “No matter what Casey said, the fans ate it up.”

The excitement generated by Casey and his Mets wasn’t lost to Queens Borough President Mario J. Cariello, who on behalf of the Queens Chamber of Commerce bestowed upon the organization a lifetime membership. To everyone’s laughter, he quipped that Casey and his Stengelese alone is worth the $25 million spent on Shea. But in a nod to the fans, Cariello asserted: “We have two million of the strongest, fiercest provincialists in the world in Queens, and we can assure you that there won’t be an empty seat at the stadium. Welcome to Queens… and let’s win!”

For further information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit their website at www.astorialic.org.

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