July 20, 1933 – June 17, 2015
Frank Nelson Doubleday, the founder of Doubleday & Co., wrote in his memoirs that the company’s reputation suffered “every time we put on our list a book which is unworthy.” One can only wonder what the publishing patriarch would have thought in 1980 when his grandson, Nelson Doubleday Jr. ’55, spent more than $16 million of company funds to buy a controlling interest in the New York Mets.
The Mets were, at the time, baseball’s equivalent of a critical and commercial flop: a last-place team with dwindling attendance. Even their ballpark, Shea Stadium, was in decline. “It wasn’t that old, but nobody had maintained it,” recalls New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey, a Queens native. “Everything was drab and uncared for — it was just falling apart. And that was symbolic of the franchise.”
But under Doubleday’s watch, the Mets began to improve, adding competent front-office professionals, signing a handful of veteran stars, and drafting an impressive crop of young talent. By 1986, the team had become a hot property. It outsold the Yankees by half a million tickets and made a memorable run to the World Series title. Nearly three decades later, that remains the franchise’s last championship.
The Mets improved under Doubleday’s watch — and won the World Series in 1986, six years after he purchased the team.
Doubleday, who died in June of pneumonia, could be gruff and garrulous in private, but in public, he was understated — the obverse of his cross-town counterpart, the bombastic, meddling Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. “He stepped aside and let the baseball people run the franchise,” says John O. Pickett, a friend of Doubleday and former lead owner of the NHL’s New York Islanders. “He was a cheerleader, and the players loved him.”
While Steinbrenner held court with newspaper columnists and fired managers with abandon, Doubleday spoke to the press only when necessary and helped the team in subtle ways. He borrowed the idea of deferred compensation from the publishing world to decrease the short-term costs of the Mets’ free-agent contracts. He also tried to preserve the advantages afforded to big-market teams, opposing Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ’48’s efforts to increase revenue sharing in Major League Baseball.
Doubleday, an economics major at Princeton, joined the family publishing business after serving in the Air Force. He moved up the executive ladder, becoming president and CEO in 1978. But as the Mets thrived, Doubleday & Co. struggled. In December 1986, the 89-year-old publishing house was sold to Bertelsmann, a German media giant that in turn sold its shares of the Mets. Nelson Doubleday acquired half of the franchise, with Fred Wilpon buying the rest.
After ’86, the Mets would reach the postseason three times during Doubleday’s ownership, including a second World Series appearance in 2000. There were periods of turmoil in the clubhouse and losing seasons in which a high payroll failed to translate to many wins. But whether beleaguered or beloved, Doubleday’s club maintained a healthy bottom line. When he sold his 50 percent stake to Wilpon in 2002, it was valued at $131 million — a worthy purchase after all.
Brett Tomlinson is PAW’s sports and digital editor.