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HOW TO BUILD A BALL CLUB
Robert Shaplen
March 05, 1962
George Weiss can relax in the sun of St. Petersburg now, but for the last 12 months he has been in constant and furious motion, creating the New York Mets out of his own long experience and somebody else's $5 million
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March 05, 1962

How To Build A Ball Club

George Weiss can relax in the sun of St. Petersburg now, but for the last 12 months he has been in constant and furious motion, creating the New York Mets out of his own long experience and somebody else's $5 million

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Toward the end of the negotiations, Morris arranged for Grant and Weiss to meet with officials of the City Housing Authority, who already had begun condemnation proceedings of the land around the Polo Grounds, where a new housing project is planned. After several sessions, the city agreed to rent the Giants' old park to the Mets for one year, while continuing its housing surveys. Negotiations then had to be conducted with the Giants in San Francisco, who still owned the tower lights, seats and turnstiles and were responsible for dismantling them. The Mets agreed to assume these obligations and will spend more than $300,000 to put up new lights and a scoreboard, build a private club and restaurant, paint the stands and prepare the ground for playing. "We'll make the place sparkle," Grant says, "but just sparkle for a year."

Notwithstanding the intricate problems of the two leases, Morris, like Grant, was determined to work them through. "My feeling was, you go fishing, you gotta bring a fish home to dinner," he says. "The mayor had told us to bring in a ball team. I stuck to one thought—give the Mets what they want so long as the annual revenue they pay us, starting with $425,000 a year and breaking down to less over 30 years, plus what we get from parking fees and other sources, will bring in enough annually to amortize the project." At the end, Morris did have to go back to the Board of Estimate for an added million dollars, raising the stadium's total cost to $18,870,340. "When they looked at the final lease, a heavy package of print and legal doubletalk, a board member asked me, 'Who the hell wrote this?' ' Casey Stengel,' I said. 'I'll get him in to explain it to you.' That broke them up, and the deal went through."

Both leases were signed during the week of the World Series. It was, as Weiss says, a week of decision all around. At the start of it, the Mets still had no proved players, no park and no manager. Seven days later they had all three necessary components. Not the least was the redoubtable Stengel, who finally had been lured from his California bank to manage the Mets for at least a year.

"I had wanted Casey from the start, of course," Weiss says, "and I initially talked to him out on the Coast, before the first 1961 All-Star Game. He told me then, and later at the game, that he didn't know what he was going to do or how he would feel about coming back to New York. That's how it stood until just before the World Series, when I called him in Glendale and told him I had to have a manager before the player draft was made. 'If I had to tell you tonight, I'd say forget about me,' he said. I told him I hated to hear him say that. On Don Grant's astute suggestion, we then arranged for a conference call that was supposed to be at 8 o'clock in the morning, his time, but turned out to be 7 because the West Coast had already gone off Daylight Saving. Casey was full of sleep, so Mrs. Payson called him back alone an hour later and told him how much everyone in New York wanted him. Casey promised to call me the following morning, which he did, at 6 o'clock, his time. He said he had been up all night trying to make up his mind, and had decided that he owed a lot to baseball and that when nice people like Mrs. Payson wanted him and were willing to support the team so completely, he couldn't say no. His wife, Edna, later told us that he had really wanted to come and how glad she was we had called him again. He flew East right away."

Stengel, who spent years managing the lowly Dodgers and Braves in the '30s and early '40s before he joined the Yanks, was soon in top hot-stove-league form. Back in Glendale, explaining he had taken the job "because Weiss just got on the phone too often," he kept calling the Mets the Knickerbockers. "Everyone thinks this may be a losing ball club," he said, "but I always try to tell myself after, say, we blow a game, well, I tell myself like a swami that we'll win the next one." He returned to New York to ride on a special Met float in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

Stengel's decision, in his 70s, to return to the nervous pastime of managing—and managing what must inevitably be a second-division team—surely was predicated on three considerations: first, on his loyalty to Weiss, who gave him his job with the Yankees; second, on his belief in the future of baseball and in the good will of the Mets' rich owners; and third, and perhaps most important, on the fact that he would like to show the cold and unimaginative management of the Yankees that he is not too old to run a ball team and that he and his old friend Weiss can give their vaunted competitors a run for the money, at least at the box office.

As important as the return of Stengel was, the most necessary event of that eventful Series week was the drafting by the Mets of 22 players from the other National League clubs. According to the rules of the draft, held in Cincinnati after the last game, the Mets and Houston each had to take two players at $75,000 apiece from each of the eight existing clubs; then, at their option, the newcomers could take another player valued at $50,000 from each club, and choose, if they wished, no more than four premium players from the total list at $125,000 per man.

Weiss had done his usual thorough job of preparation. During the spring and summer, despite having to give most of his attention to the stadium problem, he had gradually built up his general and scouting staff, and three of his aides were men with long and thorough National League experience. The first was Rogers Hornsby, now a Met batting coach, who was hired in April primarily to watch all major league games in Chicago and get a line on the men who might end up on the National League draft list and who might be traded for later with American League teams; Hornsby eventually filed reports on 450 players. When Cookie Lavagetto, who served out his playing career in the National League, was fired last June as manager of the Minnesota Twins in the American League, Weiss telephoned him and promised him a job of some sort (if Stengel had not become manager, the chances are that Lavagetto would have been the choice). At first Lavagetto, who is now a coach, was asked to scout National League games in San Francisco—he lives across the Bay in Oakland. When Solly Hemus subsequently was let out as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals last July, Weiss made a similar unpublicized deal for Hemus to scout games in Los Angeles; he, too, is now a coach. "I asked the three of them—Hornsby, Lavagetto and Hemus—to watch second-stringers especially and keep an eye on the bench," Weiss recalls, "to find out what was wrong with men who weren't playing and what their futures looked like. I went down to Philadelphia several times to see games myself, and we had some other scouts, like Murphy and Matthews, looking over the top minor leagues where the National League teams had men out on option. By the time of the draft, we had pretty thorough dossiers on the players we knew might be available."

A few days before the draft, when the lists were already known, Weiss, Stengel, Lavagetto, Hemus, Murphy and Hornsby met in Weiss's New York office and went over the potential draftees carefully. Consequently, when the draft took place in Cincinnati, he knew almost exactly the men he wanted, and he ended up by getting two-thirds of his original choices. They included, mainly, Gil Hodges, the Dodgers' first baseman; Hobie Landrith, the Giants' catcher; Elio Chacon, the Reds' second baseman; Felix Mantilla, the Braves' second baseman and shortstop; Don Zimmer, the Cubs' third baseman, who used to be with the Dodgers; Gus Bell, the Reds' outfielder; Joe Christopher, a Pirate outfielder; Pitchers Roger Craig ( Dodgers), Sherman Jones and Jay Hook ( Reds), Craig Anderson and Bob Miller and Al Jackson ( Cards), and Ray Daviault ( Giants).

Weiss's aim at the draft was to create "a presentable ball club of talent." He didn't feel, at the time, that he had enough choice to think in terms of balance, but he did keep in mind where the Mets would play this year, and in Hodges, Bell and Zimmer, and to a lesser extent in Christopher and Ed Bouchee, a left-handed-hitting first baseman drafted from the Cubs to spell Hodges, he chose men who are good pull hitters and can aim for the short Polo Grounds fences. Since the draft, which cost them $1.8 million, the Mets have notably filled out their roster by buying Frank Thomas, a long-ball-hitting outfielder, from the Braves, and Charley Neal, the Dodgers' second baseman, who can also pull the ball. With Thomas and Bell holding down the two flanking outfield posts, Weiss then wanted a man who could cover the endless prairies of center field in the Polo Grounds, and for this purpose he bought Richie Ashburn from the Cubs; while he doesn't hit the long ball, Ashburn, one of the finest fielders in the history of the game, has twice won the National League batting crown. Upon Ashburn and Hodges, who are 34 and 37 years old respectively, as well as on veterans Thomas, Bell, Zimmer and Neal, and on their young and untried pitchers, the Mets' fortunes will primarily depend this year. No matter what, Weiss undeniably has succeeded in building an attractive first-year team (it, incidentally, includes five ex-Dodgers—Pitcher Clem Labine being the fifth) that, conceivably, could finish as high as sixth. Its weaknesses are at catcher and in a shortage of experienced pitchers. Two that Weiss bought provisionally—Johnny Antonelli and Billy Loes—recently decided to quit baseball.

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