The Heiress Who Loved Baseball So Much, She Bought Her Own Team
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Joan Payson paved the path for women managers in major league sports.
When New York Mets left fielder Cleon Jones closed his glove around a fly ball from Oriole Davey Johnson to end the 1969 World Series, the scene at Shea Stadium was nothing shy of bedlam. But all was calm in the office of Mets manager Gil Hodges, a taciturn Marine who had seen combat in the South Pacific in World War II.
Among the crowd in his office was Joan Whitney Payson, the team’s owner, and when the phone rang, she was the one to answer it. On the line was none other than President Nixon, a devoted sports fan, calling to congratulate the team that had gone from a record-breaking 120 losses in its first season to being world champions in seven years. Payson, in her jubilation, was rendered speechless by the call. “Here’s Gil,” she fumbled, handing the receiver to Hodges — in that moment reflecting the opposite of her true self: the unflappable first woman to buy a major league team in any sport.
Payson was the scion of a wealthy New York City family with roots all the way back to the Mayflower. Her maternal grandfather was John Hay, who had served U.S. presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt, and her paternal grandfather was a U.S. senator. Payson’s father, Payne Whitney, was one of the richest men in the world, and her brother, John Hay Whitney, would go on to own the New York Herald-Tribune and serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom.
She was the team’s lovable matron and was content to go to meetings and make sales pitches.
Baseball historian Matthew Silverman
Despite all her wealth and social position, Joan, who married Charles Payson in 1924, was “unspoiled and unaffected,” according to gossip columnist Cholly Knickerbocker. Payson spent her time as a philanthropist and art collector — and an unabashed baseball fan. As a child, she spent summer afternoons at the Polo Grounds, the Harlem home of baseball’s New York Giants. By the 1950s, she owned about 10 percent of the Giants, but after the 1957 season, the Giants, along with the Brooklyn Dodgers, left the Big Apple for California. Payson did everything she could to try to keep the Giants in New York. “She probably would have bought them, but I don’t think it was an option,” says Matthew Silverman, a baseball historian and author of New York Mets: The Complete Illustrated History.
For the first time in more than 70 years, New York City was without National League baseball — a big deal in an era when American League and National League players met on the field only for the All-Star Game and World Series.
Baseball executive Branch Rickey proposed a third major league, the Continental League, with teams in cities then unserved by Major League Baseball. To him, Payson was a perfect candidate to own a team in New York. “She had money, liked baseball and didn’t ask a lot of questions,” Silverman says.
Major League Baseball, trying to stave off the competition, elected to expand, and Payson became the owner of the new team, which would start play in the Polo Grounds in 1962. She personally selected the team’s name: the Metropolitans.
With Payson the principal owner of the Mets, she finally divested herself of her share — worth an estimated $680,000 then — of the now San Francisco Giants. She proposed a trade: Instead of the cash, she’d take her favorite player, Willie Mays. The Giants declined, but she succeeded in getting Mays back to New York City and onto her team’s roster a decade later.
Payson’s ownership was during a transitional time, Silverman says, as team ownership started to switch from baseball people who used the team as a source of income to wealthy people who treated it as a side business or hobby. “She wasn’t really a hands-on owner,” Silverman says. “But at that point, a lot of men who owned teams weren’t either. She was the team’s lovable matron and was content to go to meetings and make sales pitches.”
The Mets staggered out of the gate, losing a total of 737 games in their first seven years. But Payson could be found regularly rooting on the team in a box near the dugout, notably without her husband in tow. “He’s a Red Sox fan,” she explained to the press.
Finally, in 1969, a year after she’d been given the title of team president, the Mets overtook the Cubs late in the season to win the East Division on the way to a championship. It was a complete surprise to Payson, who had made plans for a trip to Europe in September. She refused to change her plans for fear of jinxing her team, but she returned from the trip in time for the World Series win.
The Mets won another pennant on her watch, in 1973, with Yogi Berra as manager, but were beaten by the Athletics in the World Series. She died two years later, following a series of strokes. Although Berra was famed for malapropism, he couldn’t have given a better epitaph than he did to a New York Times reporter outside Christ Episcopal Church after Payson’s funeral: “She was a great baseball fan and a great woman.”