The beautiful Lena Home sings a song in which the lyrics go, "Can't stand baseball. The game's insane." Therein she speaks for virtually her entire gender. Women go to baseball games with their men rather than stay home alone, and some even follow the results in the press so they can appear interested. But few really enjoy the game for its own sake. Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson of New York City, Long Island, Maine, Kentucky and Florida is a notable exception. Mrs. Payson is so fond of baseball that she has put up more than $4.5 million of the $5 million it has cost to install the New York Mets in the National League this year.
"Why did you do it?" someone asked Mrs. Payson.
"Because I'm a fan," she replied simply, "and I can't bear to see New York without a National League team."
During the first two weeks of the 1962 season, Mrs. Payson staunchly followed her new team through an eight-game losing streak. Then, on Easter Sunday, she took off for Europe and the Greek islands on a long-planned holiday, her chin in its usual forthright position. An optimist to her sporting fingertips, she hadn't even considered the possibility that the Mets could be anything but a huge success.
May 13, 1962
Mrs. Payson became addicted to baseball almost without noticing it. "I don't remember when I first saw the Giants play," she has said. "My mother used to take me to the Polo Grounds when I was a little girl, and I almost feel as if I'd grown up there. Mother, of course, adored the game. One of my earliest memories is of watching her playing baseball at Palm Beach in the old days."
In her youth Mrs. Payson, who is now a 59-year-old grandmother with graying blonde hair and the approximate proportions of a Wagnerian soprano, was not athletic in her own right. But she always loved to spectate, as Mr. Kennedy would say with a frown. The recollections that she carries of her early exposure to sport are a kind of hodgepodge of U.S. sporting history, mingled with the usual milestones in a woman's life.
"I remember I was pregnant at the first Dempsey-Tunney fight in Philadelphia," Mrs. Payson recalls. "In fact, I always seemed to be pregnant at championship fights. But I particularly remember it at the Philadelphia fight, because this man pushed me as we were leaving in the rain, and I yelled, 'Don't you dare push me, I'm pregnant,' and he quickly disappeared into the crowd. I think he thought I was going to hit him or something.
"The funny thing is that although I've seen just about every heavyweight championship fight since the big one at Boyle's Thirty Acres between Dempsey and what's his name—was it Carpentier? No, I don't think it was Carpentier. Yes, maybe it was Carpentier—well, anyway, although I've hardly ever missed a championship I still didn't see the most dramatic thing of all. That was when Dempsey knocked out Firpo.
"I was engaged to Charlie, my present husband, at the time. [Mrs. Payson has been married to Mr. Payson and only Mr. Payson for nearly 38 years, but every now and then she will refer to him as "my present husband."] Charlie had already arranged to go to the fight with someone else, so Father took me with some of his friends and we sat in the fourth row. Poor Charlie was so far back he had to borrow my field glasses to see what was going on. When the knockout came in the second round, Father's friends all jumped on their chairs to see better, and they kept pushing me down as they tried to steady themselves on my shoulders. I never saw a thing."
Mrs. Payson was particularly impressed by Abe Simon, the heavyweight challenger whom her brother, John Hay Whitney, owned in a partnership with Gene Tunney. Simon trained for a while at Greentree, the Whitney family's 400-acre estate in Manhasset, Long Island, and all the Whitneys and their neighbors used to enjoy watching his workouts. "He was a marvelous man," Mrs. Payson says, "and he had the best manners you ever saw. I remember once Mother went up to the ring to shake hands with him after he had been sparring, and he said to her, 'Pardon my glove.' "
A few months before Mr. and Mrs. Payson were to be married, in the summer of 1924, he took her on a skiing trip to his native New England. "It was awful," she says. "I didn't know anything about skiing, and all I can remember is Charlie yelling at me, 'Lean forward, lean forward!' I did my best, because I thought maybe he wouldn't marry me if I didn't do well, and then after it was all over I discovered that Charlie didn't like to ski either. Thank God! I loathe winter sports."
The winter ones are about the only sports that Mrs. Payson hasn't followed enthusiastically at some point in her life. When, as Joan Whitney, she was growing up at Greentree and in the family's Fifth Avenue town house, sport took up almost as much time as business among the elegant rich surrounding her. Beginning with W. C. Whitney, Mrs. Payson's grandfather, who was an extremely wealthy lawyer, street car magnate and politician, the Whitneys have occupied about the same position in sport for the last three-quarters of a century that the Wallendas have on the high wire for a somewhat shorter period.
Payne Whitney, Mrs. Payson's father, was a devoted Yale man who captained the crew in 1898 and later coached it to victory over Harvard after the professional coach had quit in a huff and called the oarsmen "gutless." He built his own private golf course across the knolls of Greentree, and alongside the main house he put up an enormous sporting complex containing, among other things, an indoor swimming pool, a vast collection of sporting art and one of only seven court tennis layouts now in use on this side of the Atlantic. The $7.5 million Payne Whitney Gymnasium at Yale, which Mrs. Payson and her mother and brother gave in memory of her father, is still the most sumptuous and complete gym in the world.
Helen Hay Whitney, Mrs. Payson's mother, was a gay and friendly lady who bequeathed much of her own personality to her daughter. In addition to playing and watching baseball and hobnobbing with heavyweights, she founded Greentree Stable and raced its pink-and-black silks until her death in 1944; Twenty Grand, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1931, was one of her horses. Harry Payne Whitney, Mrs. Payson's uncle, was an early 10-goal polo player, and his Thoroughbreds were always among the country's best, twice winning the Kentucky Derby. C. V. Whitney, Mrs. Payson's cousin and the son of Harry Payne, was eminent in polo, conservation and racing, and still is.
Jock Whitney, as Mrs. Payson's younger brother is known to his friends, has been much in the news lately—first as President Eisenhower's ambassador to the Court of St. James's and more recently as the new owner-publisher-editor-in-chief of the New York Herald Tribune. Before that, Jock rowed in college, did some amateur boxing, twice captained the national championship polo team, raced Thoroughbreds and owned that piece of Abe Simon. From angling to yachting there was hardly a sport other than basketball and bowling that didn't engross the members of the Whitney family.
Not long after her marriage. Mrs. Payson and a friend of hers named Mrs. Thomas I. Laughlin bought a couple of Thoroughbred racehorses for $400 apiece and started the Manhasset Stable. From this modest beginning the two women developed Manhasset to a point where it figured prominently in some of the better stakes races on the East Coast. The nearest they came to a champion was a 2-year-old colt named Thingumabob, who won the Arlington Futurity in 1938. Only a week or so later the colt broke his leg in a fall during the running of the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga and had to be destroyed. Mrs. Payson, who is deeply sentimental about animals as well as people, was so shaken that she seriously considered giving up racing, but fortunately she thought better of it later.
After the U.S. entered World War II Mrs. Payson and her brother Jock merged their stables with their mother's Greentree. But before that there were so many Whitney horses spinning around the New York tracks that one day at Saratoga one of Mrs. Payson's daughters cried, "Look, Mummy, everyone in the family got a prize. Grandma's horse won, Uncle Jock was second, you were third—and Cousin Sonny won the booby prize."
The operation of the Greentree Stable and Kentucky breeding farm was taken over by Mrs. Payson and her brother after their mother died in 1944. Under their direction Greentree has remained one of the distinguished stables in American racing, and twice they have had the Horse of the Year—Capot in 1949 and Tom Fool in 1953. Thoroughbred connoisseurs particularly admire Greentree for the delightful names of its horses, many of which reflect Mrs. Payson's passion for baseball. Among others there have been Third League and Hall of Fame and One Hitter, the last by Shut Out out of a mare called Bold Anna. Greentree is more generous than most stables about retiring its old campaigners to a life of leisure on its farm in Lexington, and Mrs. Payson refers to these horses as the Gashouse Gang after the colorful St. Louis Cardinals of the early 1930s. The family racing tradition is now being carried into another generation by Mrs. Payson's daughter, Lorinda, and her husband, Vincent de Roulet, who race under the nom de course of Shelter Rock Stable.
It wasn't until 1941 that Mrs. Payson's interest in baseball became intense. That year she took a season box at the Polo Grounds, and for the next 16 years she was a fixture at Giant games, sitting in her seat opposite first base with a Giant cap perched on her head. Her loyalty reached some sort of high point when she allowed newsmen to photograph her chauffeur wearing a Giant cap as he drove her from the ball park.
During this time Mrs. Payson became friendly with a New York stockbroker named Donald Grant, who was a wintertime neighbor of hers in Hobe Sound, Fla. They discovered their mutual admiration for the Giants, and when Mrs. Payson mentioned that she would like to own the team, Grant replied that he would like to manage it. Soon after the war, Grant bought himself a share of Giant stock, and when he told Mrs. Payson about it she asked him to get one for her.
In 1951—what Mrs. Payson describes as "the Bobby Thomson year"—the Giants won their first pennant in 14 years, and Mrs. Payson got to know Horace Stoneham, the owner of the team. By now she was so thoroughly smitten by baseball and began investing so much money in Giant stock that she eventually owned about 7½% of the team and was represented on its board of directors by her friend Grant. So it was with shock and sadness that she learned in the fall of 1957 that Stoneham had decided to move the team to San Francisco.
"I said to Mr. Stoneham, 'Please don't go, please don't go,' " Mrs. Payson remembers. Once she even offered to buy the team, but to no avail. Just to show that there were no hard feelings, she flew to San Francisco the following spring to see the Giants play their opening game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Seals Stadium.
The two qualities that most thoroughly explain and describe the Whitney family are loyalty and sentiment. Mrs. Payson's mother was brimming with both. She once directed everyone in all her households to eat Wheaties so she could collect the box tops and help Joe DiMaggio win the Wheaties award as the most popular major league player. Mrs. Payson's loyalty to the National League and her Giants was still so great after their western migration that she preferred to eschew baseball entirely rather than patronize Yankee Stadium.
It is no wonder, then, that she was so ready to help finance a new baseball team for New York when the Continental League was in its formative stages. At the urging of Dwight Davis Jr., son of the donor of the Davis Cup, she originally agreed to subscribe one-third of the stock; various others, mostly wealthy fans like herself, would hold the rest of the shares.
The Continental League, it will be remembered, died unborn in the fall of 1960 when the American and National leagues gobbled up its four best franchises. New York was one of these, and Mrs. Payson was anything but blue to learn that her new team would join her favorite league and bring it back to her home town.
Actually Mrs. Payson's role in the complicated negotiations that have preceded the birth of the Mets has been a passive one. Her friend Grant now serves as board chairman of the Mets and represents her interest in all matters affecting the team. G. Herbert Walker Jr., a New York investment banker whose father gave the Walker Cup to golf, is the only other of the original investors still owning stock. He holds 6%, Grant 5% and Mrs. Payson the rest. Naturally, she has had to get rid of her Giant stock, which was the largest individually owned block outside of the Stoneham interests. She has given it to New York Hospital, one of the charities to which she has donated many millions in past years.
Asked what her position is in the Met organization, Mrs. Payson gets a rather vague expression on her face and says, "I think I'm some kind of a vice-president or something."
Grant puts it another way. "Mrs. Payson likes to know what's going on, but she knows enough not to be a part-time interferer," he says.
There have been only a couple of times when Mrs. Payson seriously injected her opinions into the Mets' upper councils. As a Giant fan she admired Willie Mays above all other ballplayers, and she made it known to Horace Stoneham that no price would be too high if she could buy him for her new team. Stoneham, of course, laughed off the proposal.
Last summer, at the second All-Star game in Boston, Mrs. Payson was introduced to Mays for the first time in her life. "Willie," she said to him, "I wish you were back in New York."
"It's not time yet," was his reply.
"I really don't think he had any idea who I was," Mrs. Payson told a friend later.
It was fairly common knowledge both inside and outside the Mets organization that Mrs. Payson was eager to have at least one or two prominent National League players on her team, particularly ones who had previously made a reputation in New York. Among these was Gil Hodges, the once-great Dodger first baseman, and the Mets did acquire him for the draft price of $75,000. Another was Johnny Antonelli, who had helped pitch the Giants to their 1954 world championship. Antonelli was drafted from the Milwaukee Braves, but having suffered through several dismal seasons he finally decided to abandon his baseball career. Mrs. Payson was very impressed during last year's World Series by the flashy performance of Elio Chacon, the young Cincinnati second baseman, and he, too, was drafted for the team. Otherwise Mrs. Payson has kept her opinions to herself and left the decisions to George Weiss, the Mets' president. "He'd shoot me if I interfered," Mrs. Payson has said with conviction.
Just after last year's World Series Weiss offered the job of field manager to a reluctant Casey Stengel, who had spent the previous year in semiretirement, and Mrs. Payson helped talk Stengel into signing on. "Thank God you didn't take his no," Mrs. Stengel later told Mrs. Payson. "He's been miserable without baseball."
Mrs. Payson tells this only to point out that it was one of the few times she has really done anything herself to assist in the formation of her baseball team. In her own mind, Mrs. Payson is just a typical bridge-playing New York matron, albeit one who can afford certain hobbies and luxuries that are out of the reach of most. Her major concern is her family—three married daughters in their 30s, a 21-year-old son who likes racing cars, and eight grandchildren. (Her firstborn child, Daniel Carroll Payson, died an infantry hero's death during the Battle of the Bulge when he was only 18.)
To fill up her spare time, Mrs. Payson is a partner in galleries for contemporary art on Long Island and in Palm Beach and serves on the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. She is also a founder and partner in the firm of Payson and Trask, which invests capital in promising new enterprises around the country.
As if this were not enough to occupy her mind, Mrs. Payson is also one of the most awesomely generous philanthropists in the world today. In recognition of the support she has given to so many New York charities, particularly hospitals, Hofstra College has awarded her the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Mrs. Payson is so conscientious about helping others that some years back she approached a friend of modest means and said, "You must run into people from time to time who are badly in need of some financial help. If you ever do, please let me know, and maybe I can do something for them."
Home to Mrs. Payson is the large, comfortable house in Manhasset that she and her husband built in 1928, alongside Greentree. In the summertime she always moves her household to a spacious seaside place at Falmouth Fore-side along the southern coast of Maine, spending the month of August, however, in a house in Saratoga so she can follow the racing. At Kentucky Derby time she takes a few friends in her private railroad car, the Adios II, to the impressive antebellum house on Greentree's 1,000-acre breeding farm in the Bluegrass country outside Lexington. In the winter months she is in residence at Hobe Sound, an isolated and quietly fashionable resort island a few miles north of Palm Beach. A penthouse apartment on the corner of 88th Street and Fifth Avenue accommodates Mr. and Mrs. Payson whenever they want to stay in New York City.
Mr. Payson is a Yale graduate like all his Whitney in-laws, and during his college years he was a good amateur boxer and rowed on the crew before taking his law degree. "He's a businessman," is the way Mrs. Payson describes her husband's occupation. "I don't know exactly what he does; he's just a businessman. I remember once I asked Father what he did, and he said, 'I'm a businessman.' Well, that's what Charlie is."
Five years ago, FORTUNE magazine listed Mrs. Payson's wealth at somewhere between $100 million and $200 million, and it could be more than that without her even knowing. Her father's estate of nearly $200 million was the largest ever probated in the U.S. until that time, and that was back in the hard-dollar days of 1929. Yet you will seldom find her activities charted in the society columns, nor will you find her fraternizing in the pages of Town and Country with the rich who like to see pictures of themselves in print. The small snobberies of life escape her; she doesn't seem to need them for herself, and she doesn't seem to understand them in others.
One of her favorite friends is Joe E. Lewis, the comedian, who likes horse racing almost more than she does. In the days when Lewis used to arrange to play an engagement at Saratoga during the racing season, Mrs. Payson hardly ever missed a night at his show, and she can still recite many of his routines by heart. One of them about "Linda at the two-dolla winda" is among her favorites, since it kids their mutual hobby.
Mrs. Payson first took an interest in Joe E. Lewis' act because, in her characteristic fashion, she thought it was something her children would enjoy. "Some friends took me to the Versailles to hear him," she recalls, "and I thought it was one of the cleanest and funniest shows I'd ever seen in my life. So the next night I took the children to see him, and we got a terrible shock. He was altogether different, and not exactly what you might pick for children. But of course he was terribly funny. It turned out that the first time I had heard him some friends of his had brought their child to the dinner show, and he had dug up every clean routine he knew just for that one time."
The late Jack White, who used to run a small Manhattan nightclub without benefit of oxygen, was another of Mrs. Payson's favorites. White, like Mrs. Payson, had been a fanatical Giant fan, and whenever the team lost he would drape his saloon in mourning crape. "He was wonderful," Mrs. Payson sighs as she thinks back on the days when the irreverent comedian used to insult, badger and humiliate the entire clientele at his Club 18. "I used to love to go there. And I'll never forget how he and all his friends like Jackie Gleason and those others would sit there sunning themselves in the afternoon at the Polo Grounds."
Mrs. Payson's life—a relaxed blend of family, sports, philanthropy and friends—is, to her, as normal as blueberry pie and stock splits. "I don't know what in the world you would ever write about me," she said with complete sincerity to an interviewer not long ago. "I don't do anything interesting."