Shea Stadium rose from the ashes, literally.
Like the adjacent land at Flushing Meadows that power broker Robert Moses twice transformed into a World's Fair, the plot on which Shea Stadium rests was a former dumping ground for the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company. Although undeveloped, it sat at the intersection of major parkways and was served by an elevated transit line. The city offered the property to Dodgers' owner Walter O'Malley when he sought a replacement for aged Ebbets Field in the 1950s.
But O'Malley, denied the plot he desired in downtown Brooklyn, wanted no part of the site Moses was pushing and shifted his operation to the West Coast, convincing Giants' owner Horace Stoneham to join him. When attorney William A. Shea - at the behest of New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner - convinced the National League an expansion franchise in New York was in its best interest by threatening the formation of a third major league (the Continental League), the plan for a stadium in Queens was revived.
The original proposal called for a retractable dome but the cost was deemed prohibitive. What architects were asked to design was a multi-use facility that could accommodate both the Mets and a professional football team, the Jets, who were sharing the baseball Giants' former park - the decrepit Polo Grounds - until the new stadium was ready. The winning bid, from the firm of Praeger-Kavanaugh-Waterbury, envisioned a symmetrical, three-tiered structure with sections of seats on the field level reconfigured for each sport. It would influence a generation of doughnut-shaped stadiums in Houston, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, not necessarily for the better.
Groundbreaking ceremonies for "Flushing Meadows Municipal Stadium'' were held Oct. 28, 1961. A number of alternative names for the new stadium (one was Queens Stadium) were tossed about during construction, but it was on Jan. 15, 1963 that a vote by the city council officially named the place William A. Shea Municipal Stadium.
Although it opened more than a year behind schedule, the $26-million edifice forever wore the look of unfinished business. The concrete ramps and soaring escalators inside were open to view from the outside. The only decorative frills, a series of metal plates painted blue and orange (the official colors of New York and the Mets) and strung from vertical cables, would soon fade in harsh weather conditions and turn into an eyesore not corrected until the 1980s, when renovations produced a picnic area in left-centerfield and a top hat from which rose a big apple at the sight of a Mets' home run. The playing surface would be ransacked both by delirious Mets' fans seeking souvenirs in 1969 and frustrated Jets' fans angry at the team's departure in 1983.
Drab in appearance, Shea proved to be a stadium for all seasons. In 1975, it set a record that never will be approached when it housed four professional teams - the displaced Yankees and football Giants in addition to the primary tenants. A total of 173 games of baseball and football were played in Flushing that year.
Everything that happened at the stadium since its dedication - Shea himself symbolically sprinkled the field with water from Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal and Manhattan's Harlem River at a ceremony on April 16, 1964, the eve of the Mets' first game - was accompanied by noise. There were no observers, particularly in the early years of the Mets and Jets. Fans didn't just watch games, they participated as loudly as possible. While Yankee Stadium to many was a cathedral, the new stadium in town was a forum and marketplace teeming with opinion. Some were articulated on bedsheets, the best of which were reserved for the annual Banner Day, others were voiced loud enough to be heard above the din of takeoffs from nearby LaGuardia Airport.
Pitcher Jerry Koosman once credited Mets' supporters with willing the team to victory. "I sit in the dugout many times and the crowd will get going and along with it there's a chill down my spine," he said. "I've seen our fans wake our dugout up many times. Don't ask me how I know but our fans have been responsible for some of our wins.''
The enthusiasm of Shea Stadium crowds startled some opponents, most notably the Oakland A's in the 1973 World Series. "Where do you think Tug McGraw gets his energy from?'' asked Paul Lindblad, an Oakland relief pitcher. "It's adrenaline and this crowd helps pump it into him. This is a fantastic scene.''
When the Jets transferred their pads and helmets from the Polo Grounds, they were astonished by the greeting. An ignored team in a league (the AFL) perceived as minor in 1963, they were treated as conquering heroes when they moved to Flushing. When they played their first game at Shea against the Denver Broncos the crowd created a monumental traffic jam that delayed the start by a half hour.
"The stadium reverberated,'' running back Bill Mathis noted two decades later. "It's the first time we ever had to listen hard to hear the signals.''
Not only the team but the league gained a showcase. In the season before Joe Namath, the Jets sold all 60,300 seats for a game against Buffalo. "The stadium was something to identify with that was class,'' recalled Bill Baird, a defensive back who later became an assistant coach.
The class would be enhanc- ed in the future by visits from a President and a Pope. In the company of Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, and baseball commissioner Bud Selig, President Clinton presided over a mid-game, 50th anniversary celebration of Robinson's 1947 debut. During a whirlwind trip to New York in 1979, Pope John Paul II paused to bless a crowd estimated at 65,000. Appropriately, a heavy rain gave way to sunshine as he stepped into the stadium. "You have prepared for me this special weather?'' he said.
Shea also has served as a grand stage for musical offerings. The Beatles opened the eyes of promoters to massive outdoor extravaganzas with a landmark 1965 concert. The Fab Four returned to Flushing the following year and would be followed by, among others, The Who, Simon and Garfunkel, the Police, the Rolling Stones (six shows in 1989) and Bruce Springsteen. Long Island native Billy Joel will headline the final shows this summer.
All of it has been great theater, including the sports. There was unintended comedy on the night of June 10, 1975 when a crew celebrating the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Army fired a 21-gun salute from two 75-mm cannons before a game between the Yankees and Angels and blew down a section of the fence in left-centerfield while the right-centerfield barrier burst into flames. There was unanticipated tragedy when a large model airplane shaped like a lawn mower dived into the lower seats during a show at halftime of a Jets- Patriots game in 1979 and cracked the skull of John Bowen, a 20-year-old printer from Nashua, N.H. He did not survive.
There was the occasional animal act as well. A resident black cat cursed and/or taunted the Cubs when he strolled in front of their dugout during a critical series in 1969. The daughters of Lorinda de Roulet, who inherited the Mets upon the death of her mother, Joan Payson, displayed the depth of their baseball acumen in 1979 by introducing "Mettle the Mule'' as team mascot and driving him around the warning track before each game.
But mostly, there was drama. In its first summer, Shea was the site of a perfect game by the Phillies' Jim Bunning. Five years later, Tom Seaver pitched his Imperfect Game against the Cubs. The stadium was the place where O.J. Simpson surpassed Jim Brown's one-season rushing record and became the first NFL player to gain more than 2,000 yards in a season. And it was in Flushing that Billy Martin began the first of five terms as Yankees' manager, on Old- Timers' Day in 1975.
En route to their stunning success in Super Bowl III, the Jets won their lone AFL title at Shea. The stadium forever will be associated with the Miracle Mets of 1969 and, with a slight assist to Bill Buckner, it celebrated the team's return to the top in 1986. The last World Series conducted at Shea also was claimed by a New York team although it was the Yankees who drank Subway Series champagne in 2000.
Eleven months later, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Shea was turned into a staging area for the rescue effort at Ground Zero. It held the first massive outdoor gathering of New Yorkers after the catastrophe when the Mets hosted the Braves on the night of Sept. 21. With players wearing the caps of the city's true heroes, New York won, 3-2, on a home run in the eighth by Mike Piazza.
"I'm so happy I gave these people something to cheer,'' Piazza said.
The cheers will continue to echo even after Shea Stadium is reduced to rubble after this 2008 season. The land on which it stands will be turned into parking spaces, completing the cycle from ashes to asphalt. As for the 45 years in between, thanks for the memories.