Joan Payson: Mets' unheralded 'matriarch'
NEW YORK -- On the final day of Women’s History Month, it’s important to mention the contributions of Joan Payson. Long before Kim Ng became the first woman to be a general manager in Major League Baseball, Payson was the principal owner of the Mets -- starting in 1962, the team’s inaugural season, until her death in '75 at the age of 72.
Payson was the first woman to buy an MLB team without inheriting it from a spouse or relative, according to the Society for American Baseball Research’s Leslie Heaphy. It was worth the investment for Payson during her 13 years with the franchise.
Her money was first put into the Mets' farm system, which produced players like Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Cleon Jones. Those players developed and helped her win two National League pennants (1969 and ‘73), a World Series championship (‘69) and the adoration of many fans who went to Shea Stadium and chanted, “Let’s go Mets.” In fact, during Payson’s tenure, the Mets had a four-year streak (’69-72) of finishing first in the NL in attendance. On top of watching winning baseball, the fans came in droves for Helmet Day and Banner Day.
For all her success, Payson’s name doesn’t come off the tip off the tongue like George Steinbrenner, owner of New York’s other MLB franchise, or Marge Schott, whose controversial ownership of the Cincinnati Reds spanned from 1984-99. For Payson, what was most important was for baseball to take center stage.
Payson saw to it that her baseball operations department and on-field personnel received credit for the Mets' success. Minutes after winning that 1969 World Series over the Orioles, the trophy was presented to Payson, who was being congratulated by play-by-play announcer Lindsey Nelson. She smiled and said to Mets manager Gil Hodges, “This [trophy] is yours, Gil.” She then walked away from the podium, letting Hodges and general manager Johnny Murphy receive the glory.
“She didn’t want to be known,” said first baseman Ed Kranepool, who played for the Mets from 1962-79 and was one of the ushers at her funeral. “She was not looking for publicity and didn’t have to make the newspapers as a principal owner of the Mets. She let [chairman of the board] M. Donald Grant be in the forefront.
“She wanted to be a fan, and she was. When she came to the ballpark, she was like a little kid cheering in the front row. … If anybody had a child when they were with the Mets, she would always send a gift. She was a very thoughtful person, a kind person. You couldn’t say a nasty word about her.”
Jones said the Mets were lucky to have Payson as an owner and called her a student of the game. He also said that winning the World Series in 1969 started with her.
“I had a chance to have a conversation with her at the ballpark. I [went] over to her box sometimes and had conversations with her before the ballgame. She loved the game,” he said. “She is a pioneer for women, but a successful pioneer. She won a World Series. To be a millionaire is not a small feat. She was revered by other owners because of her love for the game.”
Payson’s love for baseball was well known in New York. She was a minority owner of the New York Giants and sold her stake in the team after they moved to San Francisco. Her favorite player was Willie Mays and she vowed to get him back to New York before his playing days ended. She made it happen in May 1972, when he was acquired by the Mets for right-hander Charlie Williams and $50,000.
“We knew Willie was at the top of the food chain,” Jones said. “She was the reason he came back to New York, because she loved the way he played the game and who he was.”
Payson was more than just a baseball owner. She came from a wealthy family -- the Whitneys -- but didn’t rely on family to be successful. She was an astute businesswoman and philanthropist. She was a horse breeder and once invested in movie scripts. One of those scripts was “Gone with the Wind,” according to Heaphy.
“She did a lot of philanthropic stuff for people around her,” Kranepool said. “She did a lot of work at North Shore Hospital [in Long Island]. Every Christmas, we used to go over to the hospital and bring toys to the kids that were in the hospital during the holiday time. She was a giving person. She was a sweetheart. She was like your grandmother.”
With all that Payson accomplished in baseball, New Jersey assemblyman Jay Webber -- also a die-hard Mets fan -- put out a resolution to have her inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“She was instrumental in bringing back National League baseball in New York City, which I think was the essential health of the league,” Webber said. “She was the matriarch of the ’69 Miracle Mets, one of the most iconic teams in Major League history. When you add that all up, considering her contributions to the New York Giants baseball club and her tenure with the Mets into the mid-’70s, I think she is worthy of consideration [for the Hall].”