The Full Nelson: The Man Who Saved The Mets

“There are still a lot of National League fans in this town. If you can show them a clean stadium where they can get a beer and a hot dog and have a good time, you’ve got a good thing going.” – Nelson Doubleday.

The year is 1979. The cheers from the magical summer of a decade ago have long grown silent. The New York Mets have the worst record in the National League. A stadium, that just 15 years ago hosted the All-Star Game and was a major attraction at the 1964bWorld’s Fair, is filthy, neglected and on most days, empty. With the exception of homegrown matinee idol and All-Star center fielder Lee Mazzilli; the once-Amazin’ Mets are an embarrassment.

John O. Pickett, the owner of the New York Islanders, knew something about what buying a downtrodden franchise and making it a champion. So he convinced his country club pal and publishing magnate Nelson Doubleday (a fellow investor in Pickett’s once-pathetic, now on the cusp of greatness hockey team), that they should buy a 40 percent interest in the woebegone Mets.

At first, the process seemed daunting; finding a group that made sense to partner with failed a few times, and there were plenty of other parties vying for a shot at rebuilding New York’s National League club. One of those groups included a real estate developer named Fred Wilpon, who was willing but unable to raise any cash. He and his brother-in-law Saul Katz had a little more than a million bucks, but the price-tag for the Mets was 21 million dollars, a record sum at the time.

In a decision he would later regret, Doubleday – at Pickett’s urging — agreed to allow Wilpon to become part of his ownership group. Doubleday Publishing would control 95 percent of the team and Doubleday himself would serve as chairman of the board. Fred Wilpon owned anywhere from 2.5 % or 5% of the club, depending on who you wish to cite at the time of the sale.

The Associated Press ran several stories on the sale of the Mets to the Doubleday group, one which mentioned Pickett as the other principal investor (the AP story was titled “Lowly Mets Sold To Printer”), stating he’d been “identified with Sterling Equities, Inc.”, the real estate firm owned by Wilpon and his brother-in-law Saul Katz.

Neither Pickett or Doubleday liked the limelight.

“We never wanted the spotlight and were never in the spotlight even when we were winning,” Pickett said of his ownership group during the glory days of the Islanders. “It just wasn’t important.” – NY Daily News, Feb. 15, 1998

Neither was putting his own personal stamp on the team. Like Doubleday, Pickett believed that he was a owner first, fan second, and the best way to build a champion was to hire competent professionals and get out of the way. Bill Torrey (who was hired as the team’s first-ever GM at Doubleday’s urging), and Al Arbour, the respective Hall of Fame GM and coach did their jobs, Pickett went to the games.

Pickett and Doubleday assumed that this would be the case with the Mets. That modesty would backfire, as their “front man” for the ownership group would be Fred Wilpon. The long-suffering Brooklyn Dodgers fan and childhood friend of Sandy Koufax was the spokesperson at the press conference introducing them to the New York media. Doubleday even gave Wilpon the title of team president and CEO, believing that like his own title, Wilpon would treat his role on the team as largely administrative. Pickett had his hands full with the Islanders, Doubleday was running one of the biggest publishing houses in the country, and figured Wilpon’s real estate company would keep him equally engaged. In fact, the second largest error made by the Doubleday ownership group (including Wilpon in the Mets purchase was far more egregious), was not hiring someone outside of the ownership group to serve as President and CEO.

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Most people who follow the team today simply refer to the purchase of the Mets in 1980 from Charles Shipman Payson as when “Doubleday and Wilpon bought the team.”

In the New York Times, however, Doubleday was the guy who bought the team. Joe Durso, the late Hall Of Fame sportswriter from the New York Times called Pickett “ the man who had brought all the investors together” and preferred “to stay in the background and probably would,”

Wilpon, in what would be a foreshadowing of decades of strange quotes, said at the press conference,” John Pickett was very instrumental in guiding us, but there is no definite role for him now.”

Implied or not, it gave the impression Wilpon was dismissing Pickett, rather than giving him credit for putting the group together. It would be the first of public gaffes by Fred Wilpon and his employees that would eventually define the “Wilpon Doctrine”; take a simple situation and complicate it with over-thinking, and defensive corporate-speak.

Doubleday owned 11% of the Islanders during their heyday, and saw firsthand how Pickett’s style worked superbly. With the Mets, by allowing Frank Cashen to build slowly and surely – — and keeping Fred Wilpon from becoming too involved in the day-to-day executive he was becoming — the Mets would become a champion.

Doubleday still gets far too little credit for being THE owner of the Mets during their rise to glory. Part of it was his own doing, as he distrusted the media and granted few interviews during his tenure. One interview he did give, however, to Nancy Perry of Fortune Magazine was incredibly revealing.

Conducted over a course of several conversations with Doubleday in January of 1986 months before the amazing summer and fall that was to follow, it is by far the most complete interview ever done with the former Mets owner.

Six years ago, he says, everybody thought he was crazy to pay $21 million for a team that had finished last in the National League’s Eastern Division for three seasons in a row and was losing money. Friends laughed. Some Doubleday directors questioned his judgment. Worst of all, the “Cuckoo Convoy” thought he was nuts.

Back then Doubleday was in a group of citizens’ band radio freaks who met over the airwaves on their daily commute into Manhattan. A diverse group ranging from a maintenance man to a phone booth manufacturer to a big-time book publisher, they nicknamed themselves the Cuckoo’s Nest Convoy. Doubleday’s on-air name was the Bookworm. For five years, before CBs gave way to cellular car phones, he and his good buddies met to kibitz, talk sports, and tell jokes. He invited them to lunch at ”21,” greeted them at Shea Stadium by flashing ”Welcome Cuckoos” on the scoreboard, and chattered with them nonstop on the CB.

”It seemed a hideaway for him,” says Miles Godin, an advertising executive known to CBers as Magic Pencil.’ At Doubleday, everyone did things because he was Doubleday. But with us he was just the Bookworm.”

The day after he bought the Mets, Doubleday stopped as he did every morning for coffee with the Cuckoos at the McDonald’s on Astoria Boulevard in Queens. ”What are you buying a crummy team like the Mets for?” they razzed him over Egg McMuffins. His reply was prophetic. ”Just you wait,” he retorted. ”Give me five or six years, and they will be a first-place team.”

The Doubleday Publishing heir eating Egg McMuffins at McDonald’s in Astoria? Hanging out with a bunch of his CB buddies? Now this is a guy who should have let us peek behind the curtain more often.

In any event, he went out and made good on his boast, hiring former O’s executive Cashen to run his team. He was “the best guy for the job”, or so said MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, for whom Cashen had been working for several years.

For the next six seasons, Cashen would have a free hand in creating a World Series-winning team. The front office dynamic was baseball first, everything else secondary and was cited by many as the reason for the consistent progress made by the new regime.

“Nelson made sure the baseball people were left alone,”said one former team employee, who asked that her name not be used. “In the beginning, Nelson deferred to Fred on things of a baseball nature because Nelson always thought himself as a fan and Fred had played in college. But as time went on, Fred wanted more than just a seat at the table, he wanted policies put in place that would give him more day-to-day contact with the baseball people. Nelson wouldn’t allow that. It caused problems.”

Not on the field, though, as the 1984 Mets, led by new manager Davey Johnson, started to reap the benefits of great drafts and solid trades. For all of the mistakes it made and would make (and they made plenty), Cashen’s front office was full of talented evaluators and administrators who knew their roles. They also worked well with others, as many got themselves hired by other teams. For the most part, it was an operation allowed to function without ownership interference.

New York Times columnist Joe Durso would write in 1986 that the Mets were a model franchise:

In an era when some owners of baseball teams not only telephone the dugout but also summon the manager and feud with the players, the Mets are pursuing their destiny these days in a remarkably benign relationship with their owner.

It is even more remarkable because Nelson Doubleday is the present and future chairman of the Mets: He is the man who bankrolled the team when it languished on the bottom six years ago, and the man who reflects its soaring success at the top today.

Like most owners, he is the Boss. Unlike most, he keeps his distance. He rarely visits the locker room, never second-guesses the manager and never, never calls the dugout.

”When the dugout telephone rings,” Ron Darling was saying the other day in Shea Stadium, ”you never imagine it’s Nelson Doubleday. It isn’t, and it never could be.”

”Not with that owner,” he added, with meaning. ”And not with that manager.”

”If I ever tried it,” Nelson Doubleday said, wincing at the thought,”Davey Johnson would probably take me apart.”

There’s no mention of Wilpon in that piece. Nor should there have been. Doubleday set the tone of the organization, and despite the growing presence of Wilpon (especially in Cashen’s office), Doubleday still sat at the head of the table.

But things were already starting to change.

***

Jesse Orosco’s triumphant pose after the final out of the 1986 World Series is remembered by every Mets fan who witnessed it at Shea Stadium, or who watched it on NBC. What’s forgotten is that Doubleday was nowhere to be found afterwards. He was not present in the clubhouse after the game, did not accept the World Series trophy from Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, and did not attend the ticker tape parade.

In the aforementioned interview with Fortune, he was quoted as saying that he didn’t want the publicity, and that his feelings when the Mets clinched the championship was “tough” for him.

”The thing I never realized during the last two weeks,” he finally says, ”was the involvement of the city of New York. I think I was involved with the Mets and with winning, but . . .” His voice quavers and he breaks off, unable to continue. Tears glisten in his eyes, trickle down his cheeks.

”I had no concept,” he whispers after a moment. ”I really had no concept of just how much this meant to a lot of people.” He brushes the tears from his face, embarrassed, but they keep coming. ”I guess I surprise myself when I do something right,” he says.

It wasn’t until the year 2000, with the Mets facing the Yankees in the World Series, did anyone put some of the puzzle pieces together. Yes, Doubleday was a man who cherised his privacy, but according to Andrew Rice in the New York Observer, the emotion and lack of attendance during what should have been a triumphant time for Doubleday might have been borne out of anger, outrage and a sense of betrayal.

“ … around the same time, Mr. Wilpon was outmaneuvering Mr. Doubleday, parlaying his 5 percent stake into half-ownership. At the time, Mr. Doubleday was selling the publishing company that owned the Mets to the German firm Bertelsmann A.G. But Mr. Wilpon had a right of first refusal in the event of any sale of the team, and his lawyers made it clear he was ready to exercise it. In a settlement, the two men agreed to become equal partners, paying Bertelsmann $81 million for the team. It has been said that Mr. Doubleday never forgave Mr. Wilpon.”

We now know that during the 1985 season, while Doubleday was busy revamping his family’s publishing company (impressively enough to start a bidding war for its eventual purchase), Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz started investing with Bernie Madoff, and had lots of new money to play with.

When Bertelsmann purchased Doubleday Publishing, Doubleday not include the Mets in the sale because was planning on purchasing the club for himself. He had grown weary of playing offensive line for his GM against Wilpon, who clearly wanted his children to start getting involved in the team. It was not a situation Doubleday wished to continue. He felt “ambushed” said another former employee, who still works in baseball and did not wish to be identified.

In 1993, Doubleday would resurface after the Bud Selig/Jerry Reinsdorf-led ouster of then-Commisioner Fay Vincent, disagreeing vehemently with the decision and the people he believed to have led the movement.

Doubleday not only questioned loyalties, but vote-gathering tactics of three anti-Vincent owners: Bud Selig of the Milwaukee Brewers, Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox and Peter O’Malley of the Los Angeles Dodgers, even though all three have been quoted as saying they were not the leaders.

“They got 18 votes,” Doubleday said. “They conned 18 votes. Even the people who said, ‘The commissioner did a lot for us,’ they voted against him. That includes two of the newcomers. I don’t know what those guys promised them, but they must have promised them some sweet candy.”

As Doubleday predicted, the machinations of the owners would prove catastrophic. Vincent was more inclined to work with the MLBPA, whereas Selig and the owners were not, which would ultimately result in the 1994 player’s strike that would wipe out the World Series.

Unfortunately for Doubleday, his anger got the best of him. John Helyar, a Wall Street Journal reporter who co-wrote the best-selling “Barbarians at the Gate,” quoted Doubleday in his book making a racial slur. In the “Lords of the Realm”, Doubleday, angry that NL President Bill White and AL President Bobby Brown agreed to letting the owners call the meeting to vote to oust Vincent, yelled at both of them. “Well, I guess the Jewboys have gotten to you,” referring to Selig, the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, and Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago White Sox.

What Doubleday didn’t know, and what most still don’t realize, is that Fred Wilpon very quietly was allying himself with both Reinsdorf and Selig in the ouster of Vincent. Wilpon may not have ever been as savvy a baseball man as he thought he was, but he was very good at creating networks of influence. It would prove very useful in the years to come for Wilpon, especially with regards to his relationship with Selig, who would become the next Commissioner.

Doubleday was extremely embarrassed and upset by the incident, and again removed himself from the public eye. It wasn’t until the Mike Piazza trade, a deal he pushed for, that Doubleday was back in the picture.

”Absolutely I’m getting more involved,” Doubleday. ”I’m around. I am back. I’m going to be much more involved. I had a lot of family stuff I was doing. It took up a lot of my time and I’m now able to concentrate on baseball.”

Doubleday would make news again during the 2000 World Series by publicly stating he did not share his partner’s vision of a new Ebbets Field.

“I’m not particularly interested in seeing a whole lot of taxpayer money going into a New York Mets fancy-dancy stadium,” Doubleday told the Observer while watching batting practice before Game 3 of the 2000 World Series. “We could [renovate Shea Stadium] over three years, section by section. This is a pretty nice place to play ball.”

The stadium issue was the last straw for Doubleday, who spent most of the last few years of his ownership trying to find the highest bidder for the Mets.

Last year, Mr. Doubleday was ready to sell 80 percent of the team to Cablevision for $400 million-a deal that could have shielded his children, who are uninvolved in the Mets’ affairs, from huge estate taxes. But Mr. Wilpon scuttled the deal, out of a concern that, as a minority partner once again, there would be no assurance that he would still run the team. Jeff Wilpon, who is closely involved with the day-to-day planning for the new stadium, is said to be eager to take over the team one day. – NY Observer

In 2002, Doubleday based the value of his franchise on the Cablevision offer in 1999, which was reported to be $500 million. So when he finally decided to sell to Wilpon and Katz, it seemed a fair valuation of the franchise could not be agreed on by the two parties, so a mediator was appointed. When he came back with a figure of $391 million, it appeared to Doubleday that the very agreeable “independent” mediator (who had once worked for an accounting firm hired by Fred Wilpon at Sterling Equities) and the MLB Commissioner were working in “cahoots” to lesson the value of the franchise.

He filed suit, claiming Robert Starkey’s valuation of the Mets was related to the owners trying to keep the Major League Players Association in the dark about the real value of baseball’s franchises, and that he was being shortchanged because of it. When Wilpon countersued, Doubleday finally sold his share to Wilpon and Katz for far less than he (and Forbes magazine, who valued the team ar $454 million ) thought his share of the franchise was worth. The reason for his quick capitulation is not known, but it’s not hard to speculate whether the strong relationship between Fred Wilpon and Bud Selig played a role.

Defeated, Doubleday would not go out quietly, angrily lashing out in what would be his last interview for very long time, unleashing a tirade of bitterness at the Newark Star Ledger’s Larry Rocca on July 21, 2003.

It has been almost 11 months since he completed the sale of his half of the Mets to Fred Wilpon, and Nelson Doubleday misses being involved in Major League Baseball, which is not to say he misses being involved with the Mets.

“I think it’s been awful out there,” Doubleday said by phone early Friday night from his Long Island home. “I don’t want to fire shells at somebody, but we’re 22 games out. It’s so close that it gets you nervous. We might fall into a minor league. We might not even make it into Triple-A.

Doubleday has great disdain for Fred Wilpon, but maybe even more for his son, whom he single-handedly kept out of the organization in recent years.

“I saw a comment in another paper after the (Roberto) Alomar trade, that it was a very good trade, but it would have been an excellent trade if they had included Jeff Wilpon. (John) Franco and (Al) Leiter meet with Mr. Jeff Wilpon everyday. Mr. Jeff Wilpon has decided that he’s going to learn how to run a baseball team and take over at the end of the year. Run for the hills, boys. I think probably all those baseball people will bail.” …

Doubleday also said he “felt badly” that Steve Phillips and Bobby Valentine were fired. “I mean, Art Howe?” Doubleday said. “Come on. This isn’t Padooka.” … Doubleday misses baseball, but not the Wilpons or the Mets.

The real tragedy isn’t that Nelson Doubleday isn’t the majority owner of the Mets anymore, because had he not been forced to bring Wilpon in as an equal partner in 1986, he likely would have sold the team once his health issues became serious during the early 1990’s.

Instead, it is that the 1980-1986 period of Mets history isn’t remembered as “The Doubleday Era”. Whether its revisionist history mandated by a Wilpon administration that has spent much of its existence ignoring Mets history, the Payson Family, Bill Shea, the 1973 NL pennant winners, or go-along, get-along journalists who have been scarred by the thin skins of the aforementioned ownership group, it’s always Wilpon and Doubleday this, or Wilpon and Doubleday that.

Sorry, folks, it was Nelson Doubleday, with or without Bernie Madoff’s favorite investor, who stepped in when Shea Stadium became a ghost town.

For years, Mets fans have been complaining that people like Davey Johnson, Frank Cashen, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden deserved to be in the Mets Hall of Fame, a modest display once housed in the old Shea Stadium Diamond Club. When Citi Field opened to mixed reviews, with many wondering if the Brooklyn Dodgers were returning to the borough to play there, there was no Mets Hall of Fame to be seen. When asked, Fred talked about vague plans for its future.

“We’re intending to have a Mets Hall of Fame,” Wilpon said after the dedication of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda in April. “We haven’t put it into practice. We’ll have a Mets Hall of Fame, Mets memorabilia. Things of that nature.” … Asked where the new display would be, Wilpon said, “We haven’t really exactly said where it’s going to be. We think it’s going to be out in the food court, where so many people will get to see it.”

Citi Field, whose opening was marred by a Jody Gerut home run which beat the Mets, and a season where the Mets would lose 92 games, would be vilified more as the terrible season wore on. So the food court idea was transformed into a very nice Mets Hall of Fame for the 2010 season, and Cashen, Hernandez, Strawberry and Dwight Gooden were enshrined in a very nice ceremony.

Yet the person most responsible for the 1986 World Series trophy, a prize that the franchise has yet to regain, is nowhere to be found.

If anyone deserves a spot in the Mets Hall of Fame it is Nelson Doubleday. He probably wouldn’t attend the ceremony, would likely turn down the honor even if he was so honored, but future generations of Mets fans should know and appreciate his place in New York Mets history.