The last-place Mets, already drawing nearly as many spectators as the first-place Yanks, have a spanking-new stadium Just a stone's throw from the nation's biggest 1964 attraction. Now the battle to capture New York's baseball fans enters a critical phase
March 02, 1964

Mr. Herman Ringler of Long Island is a New York baseball fan. For years he has owned a box seat at Yankee Stadium, but this year he has decided to buy a box seat at the Mets' new Shea Stadium instead. The Mets are delighted to have Herman Ringler. The Yankees hate to lose him and would love to get him back. The Yankees would also love to have the Mets drop dead. A state of unconditional war exists between the two New York baseball clubs, and the prize is Herman Ringler and his friends.

It is almost laughable that a war, a skirmish or even a good shouting match could develop between an organization as rich, established and obviously successful as the New York Yankees and one as weak, young and apparently inept as the New York Mets. But war there is and, what is more, the rich, powerful Yankees are losing it.

The war began when the Mets were formed in 1962, giving the Yankees box office competition from the National League for the first time since the Dodgers and Giants deserted to California four seasons before. In 1961, the last year the Yankees had New York to themselves, they drew 1,747,725 fans. With the arrival of the Mets, Yankee attendance slumped to 1,493,574. That same year the Mets, playing in the dank old Polo Grounds, set a major league record for failure on the field, yet they attracted 922,530 people. Last year the Mets were again last in the National League but, curiously, attendance rose to 1,080,104. The Yankees again won the American League pennant, but their attendance dropped again, down to 1,308,920, a loss of nearly half a million fans in two seasons. The Yankees are quick to point out that in 1961 Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle hit 61 and 54 home runs apiece, accounting for the high attendance, whereas last year both players were often injured—the reason for the low attendance. But the fact remains that in New York the 10th-place Mets attracted nearly as many people as the first-place Yankees, and this has the Yankees worried sick.

Bill Veeck, the onetime master showman of baseball, has studied the attendance war between the two New York clubs and has reached this conclusion: "It is a strange phenomenon," says Veeck, "a protest against the continued cold, machinelike excellence of the Yankees. It is difficult for fans to find human frailties on the Yankees to identify with."

The Yankees, taking a cold, hard look at themselves, obviously agree. As the first step in a counterattack on the growing popularity of the Mets, the Yankees have hired as manager the one man in their midst with enough human frailties for a whole ball club: Yogi Berra. The Yankees desperately need Berra's comic image to counteract Casey Stengel of the Mets (see cover), whom the Yankees fired three and a half years ago in a master stroke of bad public relations. Stengel, with his marvelous stage presence and his gift for creating newspaper copy, does more for the Mets' attendance than a pair of 20-game winners. Ralph Houk, as manager of the Yankees, was no match for Stengel in this respect. Houk was a major in the Rangers during World War II, and it's hard to find any human frailty in that. And so the Yankees made him general manager and turned" for salvation to Berra—short, dumpy, funny-looking Yogi Berra, the epitome of the common man.

Few people doubt that Berra will give the Yankees a warmer image, but many wonder if he will be able to manage. "Just wait until he takes a pal of his out for a pinch hitter," says Cleveland's Birdie Tebbetts. "Or until he tries to get out of a jam with a joke. Then we'll see what happens." Of course, there is nothing Tebbetts and the other managers in the American League would rather see than Yogi Berra falling flat on his face. But in Florida last week, as he took charge of the Yankees' rookie school, Berra showed two qualities he will need to be a successful manager and public relations man: command and humor.

On his first day as manager, Berra assembled his squad of rookies on the center-field grass and was launching into his inaugural address when a flight of photographers swooped down on him. Berra waved them away and kept his speech private. It was a smart move, simple and direct, and it showed the rookies and the world that Yogi Berra was in charge.

Later that day a photographer asked Berra to "take off your cap and hold your index finger to your cheek. It's September, and the Yankees are three games out of first place and you're worried." Berra smiled and said, "You must be crazy."

The Yankees do not expect Berra alone to swing the bulk of New York's baseball fans back to Yankee Stadium. This season the Yankees are going to try something they have never done before: make the fan feel welcome. "We are no longer sitting back and waiting for customers," says Dan Topping Jr., 27-year-old son of the Yankees' co-owner. "We're going out to get them. We want family groups, business groups, things like that. And when we get them into the ball park we're going to take care of them. We want to make going to Yankee Stadium seem like a wonderful thing to do."

Toward that end the Yankees are spending $1 million to improve concession stands and rest rooms. Polite service is promised, a radical departure from the past. Girl ushers dressed in baseball uniforms will add zest. The Yankees have planned 6 o'clock starts for six Thursday night games, so that businessmen from downtown can attend and still get home at a decent hour.

This winter, to drum up interest in the team, the Yankee brass made a series of one-day stands throughout New York state and New England. Berra was along, and so were Houk, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard and Clete Boyer. Everywhere the Yankees went their concern over the Mets stood out like a black eye. At one banquet in Connecticut, Toastmaster Howard Cosell, who was formerly associated with the Mets, said: "I have been authorized to say it's great to be back in the big leagues." Introducing Jimmy Piersall, a former Met, Cosell said: "I want you to meet the real No. 37 [Stengel's number]. Jimmy," Cosell added, "knows how the other half lives."

Such dull darts have only made more friends for the Mets. "It's curious," said Actor Horace McMahon recently. "When you talk about the Mets the laughter that comes back from an audience is something like the warm kind of laughter that comes after you tell stories about little children. It's a nice sound."

However frantically the Yankees work at creating that same warm image, it is doubtful if they can stem the flow of New York fans to the Mets. At least not this year. For this year the Mets will be playing not in the Polo Grounds but in Shea Stadium, their brand-new $21 million jewel in Flushing, Queens. New stadiums mean increased attendance, as proved in recent years by the Dodgers, Angels, Giants and Senators. People are as curious to see a new stadium as they are a friend's new house.

By moving to Queens, the Mets have landed smack in the eye of a population hurricane. Queens itself is the fastest-growing of New York's five boroughs, yet it is just a subway ride away from Manhattan. Nassau County (pop. 1,394,000) is only a short drive in the other direction.

Already signs of warmth for the Mets have sprung up around Queens. One Charlie Rivolta, manager of a small hotel five minutes from Shea Stadium, stands ready to tape every Met radio broadcast and then eliminate the losses. "The Mets will never lose in my place," Charlie says. "If a guy feels low after they lose he can come in my place and say, 'Hey, Charlie, lemme hear 'em win one,' and I'll put them on winning."

Shea Stadium has 55,000 seats, and each one of them has an unobstructed view of the field, in sharp contrast to Yankee Stadium, with its broad girders and peculiar angles that in some places eliminate from sight wide areas of the playing field. The five levels of the new stadium are colored green, blue, orange, yellow and white. Tickets and escalators—yes, escalators—will be colored to correspond with the proper levels, so that no fan should lose his way.

Like most new stadiums, Shea has a special club for season box holders, equipped with a pair of fancy bars and a restaurant. There is also an extra-special hangout called the Combo Room with its own bar and escalator. But of more interest to the average Met fan will be the series of attractive concession stands serving decent food instead of the tired fare that New York sports crowds have been held captive by for so long.

Big, expensive scoreboards are nothing new these days, but Shea Stadium's is something else again. On top of it is an 18-by-24-foot screen that could show movies when rain delays a game. It could also replay on video tape the home run that was hit just seconds before, plus a closeup view of the man who hit it.

If the new stadium does not lure people out to watch the Mets play, the little place on the other side of the tracks will. The tracks in this case belong to the Long Island Railroad, and right on the other side is the New York World's Fair. Both the fair and the baseball season are scheduled to open in April, a happy coincidence. Say what you will about the fair—it has been called "the most horrendous hodgepodge of jukebox architecture ever assembled"—it will draw people, about 70 million of them in two years. On some days there will be as many as 500,000 at the fair, all of them looking for a place to sit down. And there, just across the railroad tracks, will be Shea Stadium, with its 55,000 seats and a major league ball game starting in just an hour. (Statistics will probably not be kept on how many people wander into the stadium thinking it is a part of the General Motors exhibit.)

Of course, the World's Fair could turn out to be a Frankenstein for the Mets. People mean traffic and, although $125 million has been spent to improve roads close to the fair, Traffic Commissioner Henry Barnes has already made this cheery prediction: "I suspect the first man to start home from the fair in 1964 may well pass the last man on his way to the fair in 1965." The fear of getting caught up in a world champion traffic jam may discourage some potential Met fans from attending attractive games. Memorial Day 1964 will be a good test case. It should be a 500,000-tourist day at the fair, and Aqueduct racetrack just down the street will draw another 70,000. There will be the usual Memorial Day rush to the beaches, plus normal amusement-park, golf-course and airport traffic. That afternoon, in the midst of what may well be the greatest automotive logjam in history, the Mets will play the San Francisco Giants.

While the Mets are quite willing to risk a few traffic jams against the prospect of all those World's Fair crowds, they do not want to become dependent on those same crowds, for in two years the crowds will be gone. It is fans like Herman Ringler that the Mets want to keep, and to do this they, like the Yankees, are working hard. The Mets, too, have had their big names—Stallard, Kranepool and Bearnarth—out in the bush country, singing the glory of the team. And the Mets are also thinking up promotions, the most bizarre of which is "Boat-in Day," on which Met fans with boats can sail up to the marina 150 yards from home plate, tie up, watch the game and sail home. In an attendance war such as the Mets and Yankees are waging, anything is possible.

Bill Veeck ponders the effect on the American League should the Mets pass the Yankees in attendance this season. "The Yankees have provided a certain stronghold of defense for the league these many years," Veeck says. "Anything that tarnishes that image is going to hurt the league. If the Yankees win the pennant and get outdrawn at home, it's bound to hurt them on the road. It's a chain-reaction sort of thing."

If the American League is worried now about the situation in New York, it had better brace itself for the worst. The Yankees, with Mantle, Maris, Ford and Howard, will undoubtedly win another pennant, while the Mets, with Carmel, Selma, Kanehl and Haas, will probably finish last again. But in the war for New York's baseball fans the Mets and Casey Stengel are going to beat the Yankees and Yogi Berra.

PHOTOA few steps from World's Fair, as model shows, Mets' stadium should attract customers from nearly half a million expected to visit exhibits daily. PHOTOIn managerial pose and wearing wristwatch, which a catcher could not do, Berra has spring training conference with his first appointee, Pitching Coach—and still a starter—Whitey Ford.

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