In July of 1964, my parents took my older brother and I to the New York World’s Fair. It was a big trip for us. Most of our family “getaways” involved heading 25 minutes down to Hartford to visit relatives or tooling around the Berkshires on Columbus Day weekend for an afternoon of leaf-peeping. Driving all the way to New York, staying in the Piccadilly Hotel near Times Square, taking the elevated subway out to Queens to see the Hemisphere, rows of international flags and the Futurama show in the Westinghouse Pavilion? Now that was exciting.
But I had an additional agenda. Up to that point, the only big league ballpark we had seen was decaying, pint-sized Fenway for a couple of Red Sox games. In person it had looked even smaller than it did on TV. We’d also been taken to Pynchon Park just north of downtown Springfield a few times, the miniscule Eastern League home of the Springfield Giants. That place was sweet, and a ticket to get in cost just a little more than a double feature at the Bing or Majestic Theatre, but come on, it was still the minor leagues.
From poring through my Street and Smith’s Baseball Yearbook for 1964 a few months back I had read about the spanking new, ultra-modern Shea Stadium, home of the lowly New York Mets. How stunned and delighted I was then, to discover from my brother that it was built right across the entrance walkway into the World’s Fair!
So we checked in at the Piccadilly, boarded the IRT line and headed out to the Willets Point stop in Flushing, which at that time was the end of the line. It was a warm afternoon, and as we rattled through a tunnel out of Manhattan and up to our elevation over the streets, I caught a glimpse of what was approaching. To 95 percent of the passengers in the crowded car, it was the giant metal globe and fountains of the Hemisphere, the signature symbol of the World’s Fair, emerging over the tops of tenements out the right side window. For me, it was the monolithic, four- or five-decked (I couldn’t be sure) Shea Stadium looming up on the left.
I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I’m sure I poked my brother a half dozen times and I’m sure he looked and was momentarily as excited as me, but then looked back over at the World’s Fair view. The train rolled to a stopped and I slipped outside with my family, peering through slats and around girders for another tasty shot of Shea.
We hit the wide outdoor concourse leading into the fair and fell in behind the throng advancing toward it. Without a moment’s hesitation, I turned 180 degrees and began walking backwards, gazing at Shea’s space-age magnificence as if I were an Indian beggar who had just stumbled out of the Periyar Jungle and come across the Taj Mahal. I was colliding with exiting fair visitors. Attempts by my brother and parents to turn me back around proved fruitless. I was babbling like a little baseball-obsessed nut.
Which, of course, is what I was. Just one year earlier I had made my first pilgrimage to Fenway and had become a miniature baseball lunatic hook, line, and sinker. I started reading box scores and standings and took up Strat-O-Matic. If we caught one or two Red Sox games a week and NBC’s Game of the Week on Saturday, we considered ourselves lucky. I didn’t realize it until that steamy day in Flushing, but what I really wanted to do was go to as many other major league parks as I could, and the sight of a structure twice the size of Fenway in which they actually played baseball had me over the moon.
So over the moon, in fact, that around 4 in the afternoon, after a very fun and fascinating day touring the World’s Fair—hours after I had given in and resumed walking forward—my arms suddenly began to itch terribly. As if I had been bitten by a swarm of mosquitoes or commando crawled through poison ivy. My mother looked at my arms and realized I had broken out in hives.
So while my parents went out to dinner in the City that evening, I was holed up in our Piccadilly Hotel room with my brother, watching Hans Conried host Fractured Flickers on our dinky little TV, powder and some kind of gooey ointment from a midtown pharmacy all over my arms, legs, and chest. My parents insisted it was caused by the excitement of the Fair and being in New York, but I knew better.
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One summer later, our dad took us to Shea for an actual ballgame against St. Louis. The traffic getting over the Whitestone Bridge was awful, the seats weren’t bad but seemed to be five miles from the field, and in 1966, for another Shea visit and July doubleheader against Pittsburgh, the temperature was 106 degrees and we had to flee to the shady upper deck, where even a Hubble telescope wouldn’t have helped.
There was little doubt about it: Shea Stadium completely sucked.
Still, that first time I saw the place? To this day I wouldn’t trade that case of the hives for anything.