Legendary Ladies: Joan Payson

In the history of New York Mets owners, before the Wilpons, Nelson Doubleday, and M. Donald Grant, there was Joan Payson.

Joan Payson was at the helm from their inception in 1962 until her death in 1975. She was instrumental in bringing National League baseball back to New York after the departure of the Giants in 1957, and her friendly presence at Mets games helped cement their image as the lovable team from Queens. Payson was not the first female owner in MLB history (that title goes to Helene Britton, who took control of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1911), but she was the first woman to purchase a Major League Baseball team.

Joan Payson was born into a dynastic American family. Her maternal grandfather had been John Hay, who began his government career as private secretary to President Abraham Lincoln, and went on to serve both Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt as their Secretary of State. Her paternal grandfather was a United States senator, and her father Payne Whitney was one of the richest men in the world.

Throughout her life, Payson used her fortunate position to impact the world in a multitude of ways. The Payson family bred horses at Greentree Stables on Long Island and at another stable in Kentucky. Several of their horses went on to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.

Payson was an enthusiastic patron of the arts. She and her brother Jock invested in many iconic films from Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” including Gone with the Wind, A Streetcar Named Desire, and A Star is Born. Payson also collected art herself, purchasing many valuable paintings by Van Gogh, Toulouse-Latrec, Manet, Gauguin, and Cezanne over the years. On this subject in particular, I am sure that Payson and the Mets’ owner-to-be (approval pending), Steve Cohen, would have had a lot to talk about. Cohen is a well-known art collector himself, making headlines for purchasing a sculpture by Giacometti for $141.3 million in 2015.

Philanthropy was another passion of Payson’s, and she devoted an extraordinary amount of time to charitable causes. She served on the board of trustees for several hospitals and medical funds in the New York area, and a rehabilitation wing in the New York Presbyterian Hospital is named after her.

But Payson’s first and primary love was always baseball. She grew up in the era when Joe DiMaggio, Mel Ott, and Carl Hubbell were the talk of the town in the Big Apple. In Payson’s day, fans gathered eagerly around the radio to listen to their favorite teams and paid only a few cents to attend games. She spent many summer afternoons at the Polo Grounds. In several interviews, Payson credited her mother for igniting her lifelong baseball fandom.

“Mother used to take me to the ball park all the time,” Payson once recalled, “We would even go to Brooklyn when the Giants were playing there. She was the greatest fan around. Once she wanted to vote for Joe DiMaggio in a box-top contest. I didn’t know about it, but she told the cook to feed our children Wheaties and save the box-tops for her.”

Later on in life, Payson dove headfirst into the baseball world by buying stock in the New York Giants in 1950. She owned roughly ten percent of the team, investing along with her stockbroker, M. Donald Grant, who had yet to etch his place in Mets infamy.

“We started talking baseball,” Payson said of her first meeting with Grant. “He said he always had wanted to run a team, and I said I always had wanted to. It was just one of those things you say at a dinner party.”

Payson strongly opposed the Giants moving to San Francisco. It meant New York was without a National League team for the first time in over 70 years. But once they were gone, she shifted her focus on expansion. Payson gradually gained more and more clout in the ownership world until her efforts to bring National League baseball back to New York were successful. By 1962, Payson had sold her shares in the now-San Francisco Giants to become the Mets’ owner full-time. They’d be playing in the ballpark of her childhood, the Polo Grounds, and Payson chose their name: the Metropolitans.

Joan Payson might have been a team owner, but she was a woman of the people. She was known for mingling with the fans at Mets games, sitting in the stands near the Mets’ dugout rather than in an owner’s box, and willingly signing autographs for eager spectators. Mets players adored her motherly presence and generosity; she showered every one of the Amazins with gifts for on- and off-field accomplishments.

But despite her friendly stadium presence, Payson made it clear that she did not accept losing; she was not just in the baseball business for the fun of it. “I expect to win every day,” said Payson during the Mets’ first spring training in St. Petersburg in 1962. Of course, this did not happen, but Payson was good-natured about the team’s chances going into 1963. “If we can’t get anything,” she said after the 40-120 inaugural season, “we are going to cut those losses down–at least to 119.”

“In the old days, it wasn’t funny, the way people think. It broke our hearts,” Payson once commented regarding the Mets’ early “lovable losers” moniker.

Seven years later, they’d be calling them the ‘Miracle Mets’, and they’d be the 1969 World Series champions.

Joan Payson watches proudly as the 1969 goes up at Shea Stadium (NY Daily News Archive)

She knew that her place as owner was to hire the best possible baseball minds to run the team on the field. Off the field, she worked hard in the team’s early days to make up for their “new” status by bringing in as many familiar New York baseball figures as possible. Payson hired legendary New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel to manage the team. She brought Brooklyn Dodgers hero Gil Hodges to the Mets, where he finished out his playing career with 57 games at first base between the 1962 and 1963 seasons.

Payson also fought hard to bring her favorite player, Willie Mays, back to New York, where he had been a star for many years with the Giants. When she had divested her Giants shares years before, she proposed a different arrangement: instead paying her the estimated $680,000 her shares were worth, Payson wanted to take Willie Mays for the Mets instead. The Giants declined, but eventually, she got her wish in 1972, when team owner Horace Stoneham agreed to surrender Mays’ contract. Though Mays’ best days were behind him, he was a memorable figure on the 1973 pennant-winning Mets, who came within one game of winning a second World Series title in their first 12 years as a franchise.

At that time, Payson was also in the twilight of her career. Her health began to suffer over the next couple of seasons. The first woman to buy any major-league sports team died on October 4, 1975, in a hospital to which she had donated $8.3 million throughout her life.

Payson was the “grande dame” of the baseball world for her tenure of Mets ownership. She was one of the last prominent baseball figures from an era of “old money” gone by, when the Vanderbilts lived up and down Fifth Avenue and many of today’s NYC museums still housed their original wealthy tenants. Yet she was warm, approachable, and always a genuinely enthusiastic fan of the game, and she brought class, dignity, and respect to an upstart Mets franchise that, largely thanks to her passion, needed only seven years to ascend to the top of the baseball world.

Joan Payson is, without a doubt, the most influential woman in Mets history. For all that she did to bring the team to New York and build up their early legion of fans, she deserves a statue right alongside Tom Seaver’s future effigy at Citi Field, not to mention consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Elizabeth Muratore is a lifelong Mets fan, editor at the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, and contributor to Girl At The Game and Fansided’s Rising Apple.

Photo: New York Mets Twitter account

One thought on “Legendary Ladies: Joan Payson

Leave a Reply