The origins of Shea Stadium go back to the Brooklyn Dodgers' and the New York Giants' relocations to the U.S. west coast in 1958, which left New York without a National League baseball team for the next four years.
Prior to the Dodgers' departure, New York City official Robert Moses tried to interest owner Walter O'Malley in the site as the location for a new stadium, but O'Malley refused, unable to agree on location, ownership, and lease terms. O'Malley preferred to pay construction costs himself so he could own the stadium outright. He wanted total control over revenue from parking, concessions, and other events.
New York City, in contrast, wanted to build the stadium, rent it, and retain the ancillary revenue rights to pay off its construction bonds. Additionally, O'Malley wanted to build his new stadium in Brooklyn, while Moses insisted on Flushing Meadows. When Los Angeles offered O'Malley what New York City wouldn't—complete ownership of a stadium—he left for southern California in a preemptive bid to install the Dodgers there before a new or existing major league franchise could beat him to it. At the same time, Horace Stoneham moved his New York Giants to San Francisco (although he originally considered moving them to Minneapolis), ensuring that there would be two National League teams in California, and preserving the longstanding rivalry with the Dodgers that continues to this day.
In 1960, the National League agreed to grant an expansion franchise to the owners of the New York franchise in the abortive Continental League, provided that a new stadium be built. Mayor Robert Wagner, Jr. had to personally wire all National League owners and assure them that the city would build a stadium.
Soon afterward, Moses and William A. Shea, the New York lawyer who had led the effort to bring National League baseball back to New York, faced a problem. New York state law of the time did not allow cities to borrow money in order to build a stadium. The only way for the city to finance a stadium would be to demonstrate that the stadium could pay for itself. With this in mind, Moses and Shea proposed to have the new team pay substantial rent in order to pay off 30-year bonds. This provision would come back to haunt the Mets years later; they would never live up to that monetary commitment, and the ensuing financial woes would be an albatross around the team for years.
On October 6, 1961, the Mets signed a 30-year stadium lease, with an option for a 10-year renewal. Rent for what was originally budgeted as a $9 million facility was set at $450,000 annually, with a reduction of $20,000 each year until it reached $300,000 annually.
In their inaugural season in 1962, the expansion Mets played in the Polo Grounds, with original plans to move to a new stadium in 1963. In October 1962, Mets official Tom Meany said, "Only a series of blizzards or some other unforeseen trouble might hamper construction." That unforeseen trouble surfaced in a number of ways: the severe winter of 1962–1963, along with the bankruptcies of two subcontractors and labor issues. The end result was that both the Mets and Jets played at the Polo Grounds for one more year.
Shea during its inaugural 1964 season
It was originally to be called "Flushing Meadow Park Municipal Stadium" – the name of the public park within which it was built – but an ultimately successful movement was launched to name it in honor of Shea.