The year was 1979 and America was in a time of turmoil.
An unpopular Democratic President sat in the oval office. Gas Prices were out of control, while there were upheavals in the Middle East, especially in Iran.
Closer to home, the New York Mets were about to endure another terrible season.
Charles Shipman Payson had enough. Joan Payson’s widower, had little interest in owning a baseball team, letting his daughters run the club and wanted to shed himself of this losing proposition. He put the team up for sale.
Although the asking price of $21 million was considered high back then, John O. Pickett, who owned the New York Islanders seemed to be interested and brought the idea a friend at his country club, Nelson Doubleday.
According to Mark Healey, the Executive Editor of Gotham Baseball and writer of an article on the Doubleday ownership of the Mets, said because of the purchase price, the potential ownership group had trouble with gathering investors.
“At first, the process seemed daunting; finding a group that made sense to partner with failed a few times, and there were plenty of other parties vying for a shot at rebuilding New York’s NL club,” Healey wrote. “One of those groups included a real estate developer named Fred Wilpon, who was willing but unable to raise any cash. He and his brother-in-law Saul Katz had a little more than a million bucks, but the price-tag for the Mets was 21 million dollars, a record sum at the time.
“In a decision he would later regret, Doubleday – at Pickett’s urging — agreed to allow Wilpon to become part of his ownership group. Doubleday Publishing would control 95 percent of the team and Doubleday himself would serve as chairman of the board. Fred Wilpon owned anywhere from 2.5 % or 5% of the club, depending on who you wish to cite at the time of the sale.”
Wilpon was named president of the club and ran the day to day operations. Something Doubleday would later regret. Pickett dropped out, even though he was one who put the group together. Doubleday was named Chairman of the Board.
Since he owned 95 percent, Doubleday had the final say and ran the club from the background. When money was needed, he put it up, but essentially allowed his baseball people to make the decisions.
Even when it came to dealing with the City of New York with renovations on Shea Stadium, Doubleday wanted a certain amount and the City wanted to pay less. The Mets new owner put his own money up to make up the difference.
“Doubleday said tell me how much you want to spend and I will pay the rest,” said the late Bill Shannon in an interview not long before he died.
Doubleday’s first decision though was hiring the right people to do the baseball operations, and went to commissioner Bowie Kuhn for a suggestion. His choice was former Baltimore general manager J. Frank Cashen, who was working in the Commissioner’s Office until an opening occurred.
Cashen had a free hand in running the club over the first six seasons of ownership. He took the first year to observe the club and then started to make moves. He drafted Darryl Strawberry, John Gibbons, and Billy Beane in the first round of the 1980 draft (Yes, the slugger, manager and GM) and started to make minor tweaks with the club, while rebuilding its farm system.
His most famous trade during those first few seasons was in April of 1982 when he shipped slugger – and the team’s biggest star – Lee Mazzilli – to the Texas Rangers for minor league pitchers Ron Darling and Walt Terrell. Darling eventually became a mainstay with the club from 1983-1991, winning 99 games, and Terrell pitched 1983-84 with the Mets but then was traded to the Detroit Tigers for third baseman and slugger Howard Johnson.
Although the results on the field were not the best and manager Joe Torre was dismissed after the 1981 season, Cashen stayed the course. He kept stockpiling the minor league system, so by 1984, there was enough talent to keep disgruntled first baseman Keith Hernandez from demanding a trade – after he was acquired at the deadline in 1993 – and the club could absorb the loss of Tom Seaver to Chicago White Sox in the compensation pool.
In fact, losing Seaver meant new manager Davey Johnson had some leverage in getting 19 year-old Dwight Gooden on the 1984 staff, something Cashen didn’t really want to do, especially after seeing 22 year-old rookie Tim Leary injuring his arm in his first start in Chicago in 1981.
But Johnson promised Cashen to baby his young pitchers of Gooden, Darling, and eventually Sid Fernandez, who was acquired with a trade from the Dodgers by installing pitch counts on their starts.
“I only allowed those guys to pitch 100 pitches,” Johnson said before he was inducted in the Mets Hall of Fame. “I had pitch counts before it became the norm.”
Johnson was also the first manager to use computer analysis of stats in his managing style, making him the first SABR-matrician in the majors.
And it helped. Behind the young pitchers, a rejuvenated Hernandez, who embraced New York and young slugger Darryl Strawberry, the Mets won 90 games in 1984 and were well on their way to their World Series championship 1986.
Of course Cashen made his mistakes along the way. He overpayed for George Forster before the 1982 season and the clause in his contract, which allowed him to be chauffeured around in a limo, proved divisive. He also erred by hiring former Baltimore manager George Bamberger, who seemed not very interested in managing the club and eventually quit during the 1983 season citing heart problems.
And of course the Seaver and Leary debacles, which hurt the club on the field and in the public eye.
But everyone makes mistakes and all along Doubleday would not interfere. In fact during a press conference in the 1980s after the Mets failed to sign Gary Matthews, Doubleday was asked where the money would go they going to spend on the outfielder.
“Right back in this pocket (tapping his pocket),” he declared, “until we need it.”
That was his ownership style. Willing to spend but not recklessly. When the money was needed it was there. Doubleday gave Cashen free reign to do when he wanted and ultimately he was rewarded.
So as the muck of the 1970s turned to the revival of the 1980s, the Mets were there mirroring America and enjoying their best years.