Blackout At Home: When The Lights Went Out At Shea Stadium In 1977
40 years ago Thursday, the lights went out in New York and the city was plunged into 25 hours of chaos. Here's what that was like at Shea Stadium.
At 9:30 p.m. on July 13, 1977, with one out in the bottom of the sixth inning, Mets third baseman Lenny Randle walked to the batter's box for the third time that night. Four minutes later, New York City went completely dark.
"I thought it was my last day on Earth," Randle told a TV reporter at the time. "I thought God was calling."
There was a higher power involved, as it happened, but it was Mother Nature. Roughly an hour before, lightning strikes on a Consolidated Edison substation along the Hudson River tripped two circuit breakers, triggering a "cascading effect" that plunged Gotham into its darkest night. Years of municipal neglect, historic crimes spikes, and lost manufacturing jobs had left New York City's poorest neighborhoods isolated and desperate. In the dark, it all came to a head. Looting, rioting, arson, and a violent madness kicked civic responsibility to the curb, stepped over it, and then hauled out a free sofabed.
During the 25 hours of blackout, more than 3,700 people were arrested, a thousand fires were set, and more than 1,500 stores were ransacked and destroyed, adding up to a total cost of $300 million. It was a gut punch to a city that was already on edge in numerous ways. The city was teetering on the edge of several different kinds of insolvency, and serial killer David Berkowitz, aka the Son of Sam, was still on the loose murdering young New Yorkers for sport. His final victim was killed two weeks after the blackout.
The boozing, brawling, straw-that-stirs-the-drinking Yankees were the big sports story of 1977, culminating in Reggie Jackson's three-dingers on three-pitches from three-pitchers in the World Series-clinching Game Six. It's a tale brilliantly told in Jonathan Mahler's Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning . But on the night that the entire city was engulfed in flames, the Yankees were in Milwaukee. Randle and the Mets were at home, trapped in the dark with everyone else.
It's perhaps fitting the Mets were home during one of New York City's lowest points, because 1977 was arguably this wayward franchise's most depressing season. It was the year that board chairman M. Donald Grant was goaded into trading Tom Seaver, "The Franchise," by a curmudgeonly Daily News sports columnist named Dick Young, who didn't much like players trying to get paid what they're worth. When Seaver was finally dealt to the Reds in June's "Midnight Massacre," it cost the Mets dearly; they would lose 94 or more games in every full season until 1984. Fans stayed away in droves. On July 13, the official crowd was 14,626 in a stadium that held 57,000.
Still, there were people in the ballpark, including organist Jane Jarvis, who got everyone in Shea singing White Christmas in the dark, a bit of whimsy before folks headed out into the raging void.
VICE Sports spoke to six people who were in Shea Stadium on July 13, 1977, a night—if not a game—they'll never forget.
The Leadoff Man
The Mets were putrid, but you'd never know it when watching their new third baseman. In his first year with the Mets, Randle had 156 hits with a .304 average, and his animated personality made him a fan favorite. (And he hadn't even revealed his musical talents yet.) In a 2015 MLB Network documentary, Randle earned the label The Most Interesting Man in Baseball ; at the time, he was a lone light in an otherwise dreary season. Randle led off the July 13 game and was 0-for-2 when he stepped to the plate in the home half of the sixth. As the pitch from Cubs starter Ray Burris came in, he took his cut. You couldn't see a damn thing in Shea Stadium anyway, so why not try to steal one?
"It was pitch black, so I swing, make contact, and take off. What would you do? The Cubs Manny Trillo and Ivan de Jesus tackled me as I coming into second," says Randle, 68. "I'm from Compton so I'm used to playing with no lights, having games lit with candles and car high-beams. We had great eyes and great vision. I figured the game was going to continue, but I guess everyone in charge was too concerned about the ice cream melting."
Illumination or not, Randle wanted some baseball action. There was never pandemonium at Shea that night, but there was certainly confusion. So to keep folks entertained through their early steps into the unknown, Randle and four other Mets took phantom infield, turning the most gorgeous double plays of their life. And just like back in Compton, other players drove cars onto the diamond so that fans could see the show.
"We played imaginary baseball," the current co-owner/GM/manager of the Nettuno Italy baseball club says. "It was the best infield in the history of the Mets, it was phenomenal, the fans gave us a standing ovation. Back then, everyone had a better sense of humor about the game. We had fun… But I still want that hit back."
The Wide-Eyed Kid
For a baseball-loving kid, having a grandfather who supervised a ticket gate is a sweet deal. Mike Montaigne, 50, of Floral Park, NY, went to games all the time and sat in the upper deck, no charge. It wasn't like there was a big demand for tickets.
"I was there with my mother, father, and older brother, and it seemed like there was nobody up in our section. Shea was so big, if you had a small crowd, it just felt empty," Montaigne recalls. "It was weird when the lights went out. I think I was too young to be scared, but it was strange having the only light in Shea coming from the single emergency lights at each section. I had no idea what was happening but then the organ kicks in, players drive their cars onto the diamond, and they're pantomiming taking infield practice without a ball… I'm 10, this is the craziest thing I've ever seen. I thought everyone was having a great time. I realized years later, it was to keep people calm."
Montaigne and his family were some of the last people to leave the stadium because, with the 7 train out, his grandfather needed a ride to his home in Jackson Heights. He says the drive down Roosevelt Avenue was fine, nothing out of the ordinary except local guys directing traffic in the absence of police officers. But Montaigne did learn learn a new word.
"We had the radio on and the announcer said the city is worried about looting. I'd never even heard the word looting before," he says. "We drove home safely and uneventfully to Greenlawn, out on Long Island. I remember passing the Nassau County border and all the lights were on. It was the last we heard of the blackout that night. Next morning, I watched the news. Now I truly understood what looting meant. "
The Opposing Hurler
As the Wednesday night game got underway, the Cubs were riding high, with a 53-32 record that was good for a four game NL East lead over the Philadelphia Phillies. The last place Mets were already 20 games back. Coming off back-to-back 15-win seasons, righthander Ray Burris was 10-8, and throwing a two-hitter when Randle stepped up.
"Lights had gone out during games before, so I just stood there on the mound," says Burris 66, who is now the Phillies rehab pitching coach. "I noticed Lenny had taken a phantom swing, pretended he hit the ball, and started running the bases. I thought, 'What in the world is he doing? I had the ball in my hand. If memory serves, I tried to hit him as he rounded second. Lenny was a colorful character, loved to compete, and it was great having him as a teammate on the Yankees a couple of years later."
The Cubs were staying at the Waldorf-Astoria, and they couldn't shower in the dark, so the team boarded the bus and headed down Northern Boulevard after the game was officially postponed. Burris can still see the ride as clear as day.
"Seeing the rioting and looting firsthand was unbelievable, guys everywhere just walking down the street with stolen TVs and stuff. It was like people were possessed," Burris says. "We didn't say a word, but you start thinking 'This is not good, this is not good.' What if they storm or hijack the bus? Or they realize there's professional athletes making good money on here? Being young men, we would have protected ourselves. We told the bus driver, do not stop. I don't know the driver's state of mind, but he did an amazing job getting us through the mayhem."
Upon arriving at the Waldorf, Burris breathed a momentary sigh of relief, but his room was on the 16th floor and the elevator was out. He and a teammate on the 15th floor walked up with candles, but Burris's flamed out on his floor. He had no matches.
"I can't see my hand in front of me and I don't know which way to go. I was scared to death," he says. "I didn't know if there was someone hiding in the hallway or what. I went room to room looking at the numbers up close until I found mine. There was no air conditioning, so I hardly slept. The next morning, I was so happy we were headed to Philadelphia, but I still had to carry everything back down the stairs."
After the suspended game, the Cubs weren't the same for the rest of the season. The team, worn out for obvious reasons, dropped a doubleheader to the Phils on July 15th. From that day forward, the Cubs would go just 27-47 to finish at an even 81-81.
"The record is what it is, but we definitely started a downspin following the blackout," says Burris.
The Weary Traveler
In 1965, when Jim Hague was a mere lad of four, his father took him out to Shea to see Sandy Koufax pitch. Tug McGraw would best Koufax on that day, as the Dodgers lost 5-2, and the Mets had made a fan for life. Jim's father died when he was 10, so at the age of 14, unbeknownst to his mother, he started making the trip from Jersey City out to see the Flushing Nine. He was 16 in July of '77. That night, at least, his mom knew he was at Shea. She knew nothing of his whereabouts in the wee wee hours, or of his long night's journey into day.
Like everyone in the park, Hague, now 56, didn't know exactly what to do, but he was probably the only solo teenager who needed to cross state lines, and the Hudson River, to get home. Hague left Shea, saw the subway was kaput, and went back into the stadium, where he sat with roughly 25 other stranded Met fans until 1 a.m. (Hague, a sportswriter by trade, credits the club for giving away sodas, peanuts, and hot dogs.) They were told that buses were going to come get people—Hague guesses there were a thousand people milling about Shea—and those buses finally rolled up at 5:30 a.m. The sun was rising. And the buses were only going as far as Port Authority Terminal.
"I didn't have money to take a cab home or anything, so I walked to the PATH station at 33rd, and there were another 250 people waiting to be told what to do," Hague says. Finally, at 10:30 a.m., different buses took the weary traveler to New Jersey. There he found out that he needed another local bus to cross the finish line. Hague made it at around 1 p.m. The 38-mile round-trip took Hague nearly 24 hours.
"Needless to say mother was a combination of terrified and thrilled that I was home," he says.
He still remembers how desperately he wanted to crash in his bed. Looking back, he enjoyed the adventure, primarily thanks to his fellow Mets fans.
"We became a band of brothers out at Shea," he says. "We were telling stories about our favorite players, best games we'd seen, commiserating about how losing Seaver was like a death in the family, life as Met fans, laughing, joking, reminiscing… We consoled each other, and sang songs off a little transistor radio that picked up a station from Cleveland."
The Disgruntled Employee
For a couple of seasons, Mark Trost was the top souvenir seller at Shea Stadium. He chalks that up to having prime real estate. His stand was on the field level, third base side, which stood in the path of exiting fans. It certainly wasn't due to his dedication to the franchise. A self-described nerdy comic book guy, Trost, 61, was uninterested in baseball and despised the Mets and their followers.
"I couldn't stand it," he says with a disdain seemingly untampered down forty years on. "The fans tortured me every day. It wasn't an upscale clientele like today, it was the dregs. And the owners were no better, they tormented us. They'd make us stay until the end of a doubleheader with nobody left in the ballpark. The worst was Banner Day. Stupid thing went on for like 15 hours. It wasn't fun"
Both sides of Trost's bitter equation came to a head the night of the blackout.
"Within probably 15 minutes, the bosses came running over and said shut it down, so we pulled the garage door-style gates, because they were afraid fans were going to go crazy and loot the joint," he laughs. "Then they made us wait an hour or longer to see if the lights popped back on, even though everyone was gone."
Trost says the experiences of that night isn't what sticks in his craw. It's what Mets management did some 12 hours later, with broad swaths of New York City still without electricity.
"They made us come back! It was a hot, humid day and I basically walk through Flushing to Shea, and I'm thinking, 'Why are they doing this? You can't play a baseball game without power,'" Trost says. "So I get there, and there's a fair number of concession people and ticket takers who made the trek, and they don't let us in the ballpark. We stood outside baking for a while and they just sent us home. Of course, the lights came on that afternoon and they could have played."
Trost, who is president and founder of Film Archives, doesn't look back on his Mets years fondly, but at least he got a solid nickname out of his miserable experiences.
"You know my brother-in-law Greg Prince, #1 Mets fan in the world? He calls me Mr. Stem, the Bizarro world version of Mr. Met. Because I hate everything about that team so much."
The Familiar Voice
Howie Rose has been with the Mets, either on radio or television, for more than two decades. But back in 1977, he was a 23-year-old reporter for WHM radio, which had him doing reports throughout the morning, catching an afternoon nap, and taking in games at night. He and a handful of other radio reporters didn't sit in the press box, but rather in a box with Thornton Geary, the Mets vice president of communications who also happened to be Dick Young's son-in-law.
"It was a great summer night at Shea, even if there weren't many people there. The fans made good on their promise to stay away, but I was reveling in being at the ballpark," recalls Rose, 63. "When the lights went out, nobody knew what to expect. We were in a different place than the previous blackout in 1965, which was a quiet night, or later in 2003, when everyone feared terrorism. At first, I thought it was just Shea, but you could see out to Flushing and everything was dark. There was a lot of improvisation, with the upbeat organ music and the cars on the field, to keep fans calm and entertained as it became evident this extended far beyond the stadium. Nobody knew if the subways were running, and if not, how were they going to get from Point A to Point B. There wasn't a sense of panic in the ballpark, but within a half hour, there was a creeping trepidation."
Rose was still living with his parents in Bayside, Queens, a 15-minute drive from Shea, and he knew the side-street route home. It was a restless sleep that night, though, because Rose had to be at the radio station, in midtown Manhattan, by 5 a.m. One part of the morning commute had him going through Long Island City, which was a much dicier neighborhood in those days than it is today. The whole experience compounded a creepy feeling that Rose had felt acutely over the previous few months.
"I didn't know from the looting until I got in the car and turned on the radio, so I'm listening to the reports as I go through a rough section of Queens, with no traffic lights or cops. So there was visceral fear, but there was also a lingering one that summer," says Rose. "My girlfriend at the time lived in the Bronx, very close to where Son of Sam had hit a couple of months earlier. You were told don't park, don't make out in the car. If we went out on Saturday night, we would sprint into her building before the motor was off. That was the backdrop to the blackout morning. It was frightening."
Rose doesn't remember anyone losing their cool or acting out inside of Shea that fateful night in 1977, but he's pretty sure that he can put to rest one story of attempted robbery.
"I've gotten to know Lenny Randle a tiny bit," Rose says. "I think I'd recall a ball in play because it would've been a uniquely hairy situation. I think Lenny might be the only guy in the world who remembers it that way."
On September 16, 1977, the game was resumed in the bottom of the sixth inning. The Cubs beat the Mets 5-2, and Ray Burris got credit for a complete game victory. In the bottom of the eighth, Lenny Randle stroked a triple to right field. It remains his only official hit of the blackout night.