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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Payson’s Legacy

Casey Stengel, the New York Mets’ manager in their inaugural season, was one of the first two individuals inducted into the Mets’ Hall of Fame. I imagine few Mets fans, however, can name the other.

Yet Joan Payson (1903-1975), a Manhasset resident who purchased a nearly 80 percent ownership stake in the Mets when they were first created, is finally getting her due thanks to two native New Yorkers now working at academic institutions in Ohio and Connecticut.

“She’s very unique in that there are very few women who have owned major league baseball teams, and even fewer who bought them with their own money,” said Leslie Heaphy, who grew up a Mets fan in Livingston Manor, NY, and is an associate history professor at Ohio’s Kent State University. Heaphy’s paper, A Pioneer for the New York Mets: Joan Whitney Payson, was presented last month at Hofstra’s conference marking the Mets’ 50th anniversary (1962-2012).

Payson’s stockbroker, M. Donald Grant, was instrumental in having Payson purchase a 10 percent ownership stake in the New York Giants during the 1950s, the paper explains. “This became a dilemma for her when the Giants moved to San Francisco and she sold her shares after trying to convince [then Giants majority-owner] Horace Stoneham to let her buy the Giants and keep them in New York,” Heaphy writes.

With the Giants and the Dodgers having moved to California from New York, Payson would, a few years later, pay $1 million for her controlling interest in the Mets. Minority ownership stakes were held initially by Grant, G. Herbert Walker, Jr, and Pete Davis. Heaphy reports that Payson wanted the team to be called the New York Meadowlarks but relented when a consensus emerged around the New York Metropolitans, subsequently condensed into the Mets. Payson herself announced the official name in May 1961 at a Manhattan press conference.

But Payson’s interest in sports also extended to thoroughbred horse racing, a passion Payson’s mother, Helen Whitney, the owner of two Kentucky Derby winners (Twenty Grand in 1931, Shut Out in 1942), instilled in her.

Joan Whitney and Charles Shipman Payson were married in 1924 at Christ Episcopal Church in Manhasset, a huge social event which united two wealthy families with a long history of public service, the Kent State academic’s paper explains. Joan’s maternal grandfather, John Hay, for instance, was secretary of state in the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations.

The Payson’s had five children, three of whom are still alive: a son, John, and two daughters, Lorinda and Payne.

Sam Rubin, Yale University’s assistant director of sports publicity and the author of two sports books, is writing a Joan Payson biography. The Manhattan native and Yale alumnus has already met with the three surviving Payson children. Rubin came to the project after the agent for the retired New York Times sports columnist Joseph Durso, who was working on a Payson biography at the time of his death more than seven years ago, suggested that Rubin continue Durso’s work. There is a great New York sports story waiting to be told.

“Without Joan Payson, we might not have had the New York Mets,” Heaphy said.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net