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Former Mets owner Doubleday dies at 81

The traffic on the Major Deegan Expressway was at a standstill in both directions; it had been for close to 30 minutes. It was about 8:30 p.m. The Yankees were playing at the Stadium, and they were playing the Mets. It was June 1997, the first year of Interleague Play in the big leagues. And for the first time since the Giants played the Dodgers in 1957, two New York teams were playing in a regular-season game.

Those stuck outside on the paralyzed highway couldn't help but hear the raucous reactions of the 56,000 who had gathered to witness history. Hearing the crowd noise and the distinctive public-address introductions of Bob Sheppard wasn't enough for the robust and happy man who walked between the frozen lanes of traffic. He needed more, he needed to know what was happening.

So, as he moved down the Deegan on foot, Nelson Doubleday Jr. stopped at cars with windows open and radios audible and asked for updates. "I stopped only at the cars that had our guys doing the game," the former Mets owner would say by telephone after he had found his seat inside the enemy's fort. "If they had [Mets radio announcer Bob Murphy] on the radio, I'd stop and ask, and maybe listen to an at-bat."

That was Nelson Doubleday, a regular guy. Just your everyday, pedestrian multi-millionaire hoofin' it down a major thoroughfare on an early summer evening in the Bronx, giving up his ride about a mile from the Stadium and enjoying every step of the everyman experience.

"We'd scored a couple when I got out of the car," Doubleday said, "and I didn't want to miss too much."

Such was the telling snapshot of the man who financed the renaissance of the Mets in the 1980s. Doubleday was wealthy by any measure. And he was fun-loving by every measure. He was as generous with his money as he was with his smiles. It was his practice to buy more than one round.

And now the smile, that hearty laugh and vigorous personality are gone. Nelson Doubleday Jr. died on Wednesday at his home in Locust Valley, N.Y. After 81 years of living the good life, he succumbed to pneumonia, 13 years after he excused himself from the business of baseball.

The Mets released this statement after receiving word of Doubleday's death: "We were saddened to hear the news of the passing of Nelson Doubleday, Jr. Nelson had a love of baseball and the Mets. On behalf of everyone at the organization, we send our condolences and sympathies to his family."

"Where would we be without Mr. D?" Mets third baseman Hubie Brooks said late in the 1984 season when the guidance of general manager Frank Cashen, Doubleday's first hire with the Mets; the emergence of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry; and the Doubleday treasury turned the Mets from an annual 90-loss also-ran into a 90-victory team that, two years later, won the World Series and took over the New York baseball market.

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"I had nothing to do with it," Doubleday said three days after Jesse Orosco flung his glove skyward to initiate a wild celebration at Shea Stadium. And, aside from bankrolling the team, Doubleday's role was minor. He assigned the rebuilding project to Cashen, who had been working in the Commissioner's Office, and then stepped aside. He urged the acquisition of slugger George Foster after the 1981 season and pushed Cashen to bring Tom Seaver back to Shea. But mostly, he said yes to whatever Cashen proposed. Money was not an issue.

Weeks after the World Series, Doubleday decided no Mets player would take a salary cut and suggested New York clubs should routinely pay their players 10 percent more because of the high cost of living in the New York area. That pronouncement made Cashen's signature bowtie a tad tighter.

And, from overseas, Doubleday essentially ordered then-GM Steve Phillips to re-sign free agent Mike Piazza following the 1998 season. "Give him what he we wants, 'cause we want him," is how Doubleday later characterized his influence.

Doubleday & Company, the book publishers, had purchased a controlling interest (87 1/2 percent) of the Mets early in 1980. City Investing (6 1/2 percent) and Fred Wilpon's group of investors (five percent) bought from the Payson-de Roulet family that had owned the club since its inception in 1962. The sale price was $21.1 million, the most ever for a sports franchise at the time, and about $7 million more than the next-highest offer.

The publishing company eventually bought out City Investing, and in 1986, Doubleday himself and Wilpon became equal partners and then, over the ensuring years, adversaries -- in court and on those rare occasions when they shared airspace.

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Doubleday and Wilpon were at odds, particularly in 2002, when they couldn't agree on the value of the franchise that would come to belong to Wilpon. Doubleday eventually received $155 million for his share. He had put the franchise's value at $500 million.

The first notion of the publisher firm purchasing the Mets occurred while the publishing executives were on retreat and on a yacht. One of them asked, "Hey, Nellie, why don't we look into buying the Mets?" Doubleday's response was to have one of his lieutenants contact John Pickett, the former owner of the Islanders of the National Hockey League. Pickett brought the eventual owners together.

Within seven years, the Mets' one-year revenue more than quadrupled the sale price, and the team was in the midst of a seven-season sequence of great success that troubled the owner of the other baseball franchise in the city.

"I'm sure George is thrilled for us," Doubleday said after the '86 World Series.

Doubleday did refer to George Steinbrenner as "a pal," a term he saved for people he favored. He said he once invited the late Yankees owner on a trip to Europe to hunt quail.

"George said he was too busy trying to win back the city from the Mets."

Doubleday's involvement with the Mets' day-to-day operations was inconsistent. His interest faded at times when personal matters -- his daughter's wedding -- took precedence.

Early in his ownership years, Doubleday was a central figure in the successful effort to oust then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. 

* * * *

Doubleday was an intensely private man who, unlike Steinbrenner, was most comfortable when the spotlight shone on another. He gave orders to television cameramen that his family member were never to be shown.

He had the common touch. He made a point of introducing himself to Sheppard in his 1997 visit to Yankee Stadium, because "I like the way he does things, so refined."

Doubleday treated his players as he treated his children. Ron Darling noted Wednesday night that Doubleday was the same person when the Mets were the National League doormat and when they were World Series champions.

"He's no stranger to success," Cashen once said. "He knows how to handle it." Cashen was always grateful for the chance to rebuild the Mets and for Doubleday's patience during the reconstruction.

Doubleday had a special place in his heart for umpires and often visited them in their Shea Stadium dressing room.

He was a bear hug master.

He loved to throw parties and to make the arrangements himself. The night before the first game against the Yankees at Shea, Doubleday was checking a tent constructed beyond the left-field wall, where the party was to be staged. When someone suggested his guests would be uncomfortable in the forecasted heat and humidity, he pulled out his cellphone and ordered air-conditioning that he paid -- $75,000 -- for himself.

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The Mets' World Series party in 1986 was an absolute extravaganza, with Carly Simon, Glenn Close and Broadway performers entertaining. Doubleday had handled most of the arrangements, and the club added to the monies the Commissioner's Office had provided.

Doubleday had numerous other investments, including a partnership with Jack Nicklaus in the golfer's equipment. He enjoyed golf and often was dressed for it -- in case an emergency match developed. He wore bright green slacks with whale figures on them. "Does that make me preppy?" he'd ask.

Doubleday was a Republican who had a personal relationship with George H. W. Bush and who was quite comfortable among celebrities. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was a member of his staff at the publishing company. He was on a first-name basis with Sophia Loren.

He once compared her to Mets manager Dallas Green. "When she looked at you, you knew you'd been looked at. The same with Mr. Green."

Doubleday was the grandson of Frank Nelson Doubleday, founder of the publishing company in 1896. He was also a descendant of Abner Doubleday, the mythical inventor of baseball.

"I had nothing to do with that either," he said once.

Marty Noble is a columnist for
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