The Hall of Fame Case for William Shea

William Alfred Shea never played in the major leagues nor did he manage, own, or work in the front office of a team.  Nevertheless, Shea made an invaluable contribution to Major League Baseball.  Without him, arguably, the National League would have had a more difficult path to fill the crater generated by the Dodgers and the Giants abandoning the Big Apple for the Golden State—the exodus happened after the 1957 season; baseball’s expansion to New York City happened in 1962.

Presently, Shea lacks the honor of membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  It’s an honor he deserves.

Tapped by New York City Mayor Wagner to lead the effort for securing another team, Shea, a leading attorney operated with the finesse of an orchestra leader—he knew how the city’s political, business, and legal arenas operated and, moreover, he had the required relationships with decision makers to get questions answered.  These were invaluable assets in an era when lawyers did not always bill by the hour; Shea’s connections proved as key, if not more so, than acumen in legal rhetoric, contract drafting, or appellate advocacy.

In his 2009 book Bottom of the Ninth:  Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme To Save Baseball From Itself, Michael Shapiro wrote, “Shea was neither a litigator nor a legal scholar.  Rather, he was the sort of lawyer whom powerful men trusted with their secrets and whom they could rely upon as a go-between.”

To be clear, Shea’s position in New York City’s legal circles was not an endowment through wealth, connections, or familial status.  Shea built a legal career that began a quarter-century prior to Mayor Wagner’s handing him the responsibility for establishing New York City as a two-team metropolis.

According to a Shea & Gould law firm biography circa 1982, Shea graduated Georgetown Law School, got admittance to the New York bar in 1932, and started working at the prestigious Manhattan law firm Davis, Polk, Wardwell, Gardiner & Read.  During the Depression, Shea received an appointment from New York’s Superintendent of Banks to work as counsel to the Liquidation Bureau, followed by an appointment from the Superintendent of Insurance to be the attorney of record for the New York Title and Mortgage Company—Shea later worked as the Assistant General Counsel to the superintendent.

Shea’s private practice yielded positions of stature with no pay, akin to the baseball job.  In 1954, for example, Mayor Wagner appointed Shea to be a Trustee of the the Brooklyn Public Library.

In Shea’s 1991 obituary in the New York Times, David Margolick quoted a 1974 piece by Nicholas Pileggi in the magazine New York:  “He is the city’s most experienced power broker, its premier matchmaker, a man who has spent 40 years turning the orgies of politicians, bankers, realtors, union chiefs, underwriters, corporate heads, utility combines, cement barons, merchant princes and sports impresarios into profitable marriages.”

Indeed, Shea had the innate ability to bring disparate interests together to close deals, a trait that was imperative to the baseball mission.  Contrariwise to the paradigm conceived of a power broker metaphorically snapping his fingers to make things happen, Shea received the Wagner appointment based on the integrity earned through 25 years of law practice.  There were other established lawyers, businessmen, and philanthropists with more power, certainly.  But the mayoral decision pointed to a well-respected attorney, not the men with loftier names and further reaches.  As part of the leadership of the Continental League, Shea worked with Branch Rickey to realize the idea of a third league to compete with the National League and the American League.  It faded from the drawing board, finally erased when Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley and the National League’s expansion committee okayed adding two teams to the senior circuit.  Thus, the Mets and the Colt .45s (later the Astros) emerged in New York City and Houston—they débuted in 1962.

For the first two years, the Mets played in the Polo Grounds, and then moved to a new stadium in Queens—William A. Shea Municipal Stadium.  A stadium in his name was not a tribute sough, such was Shea’s modesty.  It was, however, proper.  To be sure, a new professional baseball team in New York City was inevitable; the thirst of fans in the wake of losing the Dodgers and the Giants demanded an outlet for quenching.  However, it was Shea who played a highly significant role in making it happen by first working on the genesis of the Continental League, which led to the NL expansion.  Without Shea’s involvement, when would New York City have received a second team?  It’s a “what if” question that, of course, can only be speculated upon, but never answered.  In its first season, 1964, Shea Stadium hosted the All-Star Game.  It succumbed to destruction after the 2008 season.  Shea’s name lives on, though.  At Citi Field, the Mets’ present home, Shea Bridge is a walkway traversed by thousands of fans.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 23, 2016.

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