The political sociology of the NY Mets

By JAMES B. CHAPIN, National Political Analyst  |  April 3, 2002 at 4:22 PM
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NEW YORK, April 3 (UPI) -- Baseball writers who attend their home team's opening game tend to wax lyrical about the renewal marked by the annual "rite of spring" of Opening Day. Political analysts, like this writer, feel the same emotions but also can't resist pondering the historical significance of a team which this year marks its 40th anniversary.

Well, the game first.

It was April Fool's Day. Just as in last year's game, the sun broke through the clouds just before the game started. The Mets hit "seeing-eye balls" in places where the Pittsburgh Pirates weren't, and the Met pitcher, Al Leiter, threw well. Perhaps the most amusing moment happened to my wife as she came out of the women's room behind the center field bleachers only to see Jay Peyton's home run ball pass over her head. The Mets won, 6-2.

Now to the politics.

Baseball, famously, is a locally based sport. In that way, those who suggest that the football model can be applied to baseball don't understand the differences between the games. Football is essentially a national TV sport and it hardly matters any more where the teams call home. The owners can sell out their 16 games no matter where they are, and their only concern is to get free stadiums with all the trimmings from whomever is prepared to pay for it.

That's why football teams exist in Green Bay and Nashville, while none are in Los Angeles or Houston. No worry about "small markets' in football!

But baseball teams make their revenues locally, and it would be very difficult to parcel out TV packages or even to get TV packages for 162 games nationwide. Filling seats matters for baseball teams.

So while the location of football teams is incidental to any distribution of wealth and power in the nation, the location and performance of baseball teams does indeed have a connection to socio-political realities.

The original set-up of professional baseball, established at the turn of the last century, and lasting for more than half-a-century, was a tribute to the North's victory in the Civil War. Eight teams were strung along the Northeastern coast, two in Boston, three in New York City, two in Philadelphia, and one in the nation's still-not-very significant capital ("Washington -- first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League"). The remaining teams were clustered in two groups of four -- two each in Chicago and St. Louis, and one apiece in Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

The only city with major league teams whose state voted for Bryan over McKinley in 1896 was St. Louis.

New York, with its three teams, was, of course, the nation's dominant city even in 1900, but, after World War I it became the nation's financial capital as well. In the first two decades of organized baseball, the New York Giants won 6 of the 20 National League pennants, while the Boston Red Sox were the best team in the American League, also winning six pennants. The only World Series played between two teams in the same city was the 1906 series between the two Chicago teams.

Starting in 1921, however, the New York Yankees became the dominant team in professional sports, just at the time that professional sports, carried along by the new media of films and radio, became central to the American experience. They won 29 pennants in the next 44 years. The Giants won nine N.L. pennants, and the Dodgers seven.

No less than 13 times in these 44 years, BOTH teams in the World Series were New York teams. Only in the World War II year of 1944 did two teams from another city play each other, when both were from Saint Louis. In the post-war climax of New York baseball, which coincided with my childhood, New York City teams won every world championship from 1949 through 1956, with six "subway series."

Indeed, even in the 50s, it still seemed that New York ruled America. After all, both Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and Richard Nixon as late as 1968 were New York City voters when they were elected president. But the great socioeconomic changes wrought by FDR finally affected baseball after the 1957 season, when two of the city's three teams left for California.

It was a brilliant stroke for Walter O'Malley and the Dodgers, whose already large profits leapt upward in Los Angeles, although a stupid move for Horace Stoneham and his Giants, who forfeited their opportunity to monopolize the National League support in New York City.

The very existence of the New York Mets, one of baseball's first two expansion teams, and their location in their first season in 1962 in the Giant's old home, the Polo Grounds, was a sign that they were a not-very-good consolation prize for a city whose glory days seemed over.

The Mets were lovable because of their utter ineptness, and writing about them made Jimmy Breslin's career. But utter ineptness had not previously been considered a major aspect of New York City life.

It became more common, of course, after the Yankees fell off their own pedestal in 1965.

The performance of the Mets in their first four decades has been respectable -- in every one of those decades, they won one pennant, and twice the World Series. That didn't compare to the eight pennants won by the transplanted Dodgers, of course.

More important, when George Steinbrenner took over the Yankees, they won four pennants in the years 1976-81, and then five out of six between 1996 and 2001, as well as four World Series.

One of those wins, in 2000, was over the Mets, the first subway series since the Yanks beat the Dodgers in 1956.

It should surprise no one to learn Yankee fans and Met fans were different. Yankee fans were richer and more conservative. Polls in 2000 showed that Yankee fans were opposed to Hillary Clinton but Met fans supported her. The strength of the wealth advantage of Yankee fans was shown in the decisive fifth game of the 2000 series at Shea Stadium, when it seemed that there were nearly as many Yankee fans in the "scalped" house as there were Met fans.

The Mets have tended not to spend money as freely as Steinbrenner, but this year, carried along by the new competition with the once-more powerful Yankees, the Mets broke their original planned expenses by an additional $12 million, up to a $102 million payroll.

For the first time since the Dodger-Yankee rivalry of the 50s, both teams in New York are considered in the top handful of major league teams.

One can't help think that the new competitiveness of the Mets and the renewed dominance of the Yankees reflects the Indian Summer of New York City in the 90s, with the stock market boom and the success of Rudy Giuliani's crime-fighting strategy.

Whether this lasts through the first decade of this new century will be an interesting question -- not just for baseball fans but for political fans as well.

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