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Former Mets owner Nelson Doubleday dead at 81

Nelson Doubleday, co-owner of the Mets, attends batting

Nelson Doubleday, co-owner of the Mets, attends batting practice prior to a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Credit: Newsday / Kathy Kmonicek

Nelson Doubleday Jr., the publishing giant who bought the Mets and oversaw their World Series championship in 1986 and later separated from the Wilpons in 2002, died Tuesday at his home in Locust Valley. He was 81.

"We were saddened to hear the news of the passing of Nelson Doubleday, Jr.," the Mets said last night in a statement. "Nelson had a love of baseball and the Mets. On behalf of everyone at the organization, we send our condolences and sympathies to his family."

Doubleday, who grew up in Oyster Bay, took over the family's book publishing business started by his grandfather, Frank Nelson Doubleday, and maintained by his father Nelson Doubleday. He also famously was a descendant of Abner Doubleday, the mythical inventor of baseball, a lineage that carried over into his eventual purchase of the Mets as a majority owner in 1980.

Doubleday partnered with the Mets current owner, Fred Wilpon, in buying the team from the family of Joan Payson, for $21.1 million -- with Doubleday putting up 80 percent of the sale for a 95 percent stake in the franchise. The Mets lost 99 games the previous year, and had only three winning seasons after falling to the Athletics in the 1973 World Series.

But Doubleday and Wilpon essentially rebuilt the franchise from those ashes, and the Mets kept climbing the standings during the early 80s, eventually taking New York back from the Yankees during that period. In 1986, when the Mets beat the Red Sox in a classic World Series, the transition was complete.

"When you see it turn around, it's a special feeling," Doubleday said back then.

Unlike the Yankees' George Steinbrenner across town, or even his partner, Fred Wilpon, Doubleday operated more behind-the-scenes, but still was heavily involved in the significant decisions for the team. In a 1999 Newsday story about his relationship with Wilpon, staff writer Mark Herrmann wrote:

"Doubleday's appearances take the form of slapping people on the back at the batting cage before games. He is the sweater-over-the-shoulders-and- tied-at-the-neck type. He is the kind of owner who doesn't mind swinging for the fences."

The phrase he uttered last year might have been one that will reverberate for years. When Mike Piazza became available, Doubleday told general manager Steve Phillips: "Look at him and look at him hard."

Doubleday is the son and grandson of the men who ran Doubleday & Co., prompting the tongue-in-cheek prediction in his Princeton yearbook: "Hopes to have a career in the publishing industry." After he got out of the Air Force, he ran the company.

But building the Mets into a contender again probably wasn't the most difficult part of Doubleday's ownership tenure. That had to be his strained relationship with Wilpon during its final days, when Doubleday sold his 50 percent share of the Mets for what he initially thought was an undervalued price. Ultimately, that ended one of the most prosperous runs in franchise history, with Doubleday reluctantly heading for the door.

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