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[The Apple is] ... one of the most electrifying home run displays in all of baseball!
Will McKinley of The Villager was able to get Joe Donohue (aka, The Applefather) on the phone for this exclusive interview. Enjoy!

AUGUST 9, 2007

WILL McKINLEY: When did you join the Mets front office?

JOE DONOHUE: I joined the Mets the same day as Jay Horwitz (current Mets Vice President of Media Relations). I think it was March 20 of 1980. It was late in the game. Opening Day was just a few weeks away.

How long were you with the team?

I was the Director of Promotions in 1980, ’81 and ’82.

How did you get the job?

Back in the mid-1970s I was the P.R. director at Mount St. Mary’s College – now University – in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Frank Cashen was on the board of trustees. Frank is one of the classiest guys in baseball, if not in all of life. He ought to be in the Hall of Fame.

I met Frank and we stayed in touch. Then a few years down the road I joined a big P.R. firm in Manhattan, and Frank joined Bowie Kuhn as baseball’s administrator. So there we both were in Manhattan. We would spend time together. We would socialize.

In January of 1980 I’m reading the Daily News and it says, “Rumored to be the new Mets general manager is Frank Cashen.” I was always interested in getting a job in baseball, so I called Frank. One thing led to the other and there I was, in March, as the Promotions Director.

I spent a good deal of time at Shea Stadium during the dark days of 1977, ’78 and ’79. How much work did you have to do to get fans to come back to Shea after those awful years?

I heard stories that, in the days when you were out there in the late ‘70s, when a foul ball would go in the stands, the previous ownership would say, “Why don’t they give it back?”

I think everyone knew you had to start somewhere. Frank and his gang were going to do what they could to get the product on the field as good as it could be. In the meantime, it was things like cleaning up the ballpark, making it more fan-friendly. These things are all taken for granted now, but back then, it was fairly novel. There was nowhere to go but up, really.

Who came up with “The Magic is Back” advertising slogan?

“The Magic is Back” campaign came about courtesy of an advertising agency (Della Femina, Travisano & Partners) that Frank had been talking with after he was named general manager in January of 1980. So that wasn’t me. I cannot take any credit for that slogan. But “The Magic is Back” was a very audacious statement to make.

It certainly was.

We had to do anything and everything to get the attention of the baseball fans in New York, even if it meant getting a lot of derision. And we took it hard with “The Magic is Back” campaign, absolutely got creamed by the late (Daily News columnist) Dick Young and (New York Post columnist) Jack Lang, God rest them. Every day we would get pounded in the newspapers. We’d get pounded on the field too. But I would rather be on the back page being given a hard time than to not be on the back page at all.

In retrospect, was the Magic truly back?

Yes. The magic was back in terms of respectable National League baseball being back in New York. That was an attempt to make the Mets respectable again, not something that you would be ashamed to go to.

It was tough. The Daily News had a campaign called “Mets vs. Maris.” They would track the home run output of the 1980 New York Mets against Roger Maris in 1961. Every day we would be reminded of how far the whole team was behind one man.

But talk about perseverance and professionalism. I can still see Frank at the 21 Club saying, “It’s going to take four or five years. Please be patient.” In the meantime he was saying to fellas like me, “Just do what you can. Give things away. Come up with any ideas that you think will work. I’m probably going to sign off on most of them.” And he did.

Let’s talk about how the Apple was born. Tell me how it all began.

To my best recollection, the primary players are Frank Cashen, James Plummer (current Mets Vice President for Corporate Relations) and yours truly. It was some time after the season had started. I took the “Magic” theme and thought about how to extend it to the stadium. I came up with every possible song that had “magic” in it to use over the public address system. And we introduced music at Shea in 1980. (Note: From 1964-1979 music for Mets games was primarily provided by organist Jane Jarvis.)

Then I thought about the symbols of a magician – the cape, the cane, the hat. One of us came up with the idea that New York is the Big Apple. And presto, there’s the Apple in the hat. Then we took it and ran with it. Jim and I went over to New Jersey, where they make the floats for the Macy’s parade. We talked to them and put some sketches together.

So the float makers from Jersey came out and looked at the area behind the center field fence and determined what the appropriate dimensions would be?

I’d say that was fairly accurate. We had to get the electricians and stadium engineering involved. I think we had to dig a ditch from home plate all the way out to center field. We may have had to run wires out or around the circumference of the stadium. It involved a lot of people. It involved digging the role, pouring the concrete, a lot of mechanics, and there’s a hydraulic out there, which is obvious. It was more involved than just a pencil sketch. I think the hat originally said “Mets Magic” over the brim. I don’t have the exact date when we christened it though.

Do you recall how long the Apple and the hat were intended to be there? Was this going to be a forever thing or was it intended as a half-a-season thing?

I don’t think anything was a half a season thing. We didn’t know how long this “Magic” campaign was going to go on. But it became an icon. People took to it. They got the connection, with New York and the apple and the whole magic idea. No one had an idea of when it would go away.

Do you recall how much it cost?

I think the investment that was made, considering the construction and the engineering, was pretty substantial. I have no idea how much it was, but I remember that involved a lot more than just some plywood. It was a first class job. When you bring over the people who build those floats for Macy’s and the Rose Bowl parades, you’re getting some of the top set builders in New York City. New York being the best of the best, they carried that over the center field fence at Shea.

Are you surprised that it’s still there 27 years later.

Yes, I guess I am. Every time I see it, I’m tickled to death. I am definitely one of the godfathers. I’m not going to sit here and say that I came up with the whole idea. I can’t really say that. Somewhere out of a lot of conversations, came something that I think is beautiful.

As rugged as it looks right now, every time there’s a home run, the first shot on television is that Apple. After the ball goes over the fence, we see the Apple. Bill Webb is still the director and producer, and he was the director back when I was with the Mets. I know he directs for Fox too. He’s one of the best in the business. It’s still a good visual.

What do you say to the fans that laugh at the Apple?

Some people will laugh it at. They’ve been laughing at it since it began. So what? It symbolizes a home run and a lot more than that. It speaks to the old days when we had to have a lot of perseverance and a lot of thick skin, both on the field and off.

How did you find out about the Save the Apple campaign?

Last season I was watching a game with my wife and I said, “Boy I wonder what’s going to happen with that thing?” But I discovered the Save the Apple campaign while vacationing up in Chestertown, New York. My wife happened to show me the local newspaper and there was an article for the Associated Press – “Fans Fighting to Save the Apple” – and I immediately went into a call to action and emailed about 150 people around the world.

Have you signed the petition?

Sure have. I think there’s definitely momentum building. Citi Field is going to open in 2009 so we have a ways to go. This is not a sprint. This is a marathon. But every signature means something.

I think it’s tremendous that these people have started this petition. I may have joined a little bit late, but I believe that through our creativity and our loyalty, and the wise people who are the owners of the New York Mets, everyone is going to come out of this in the best of lights.

Do you think the Apple is going to make the cut?

I absolutely believe that the Apple will survive. I can’t see ownership taking it apart. I just can’t because of the foundation of nostalgia that it has. A couple of years ago, the Mets holiday gift to their season ticket holders was an apple coming out of the hat. I have one. I’m looking at it right now, with a great deal of fondness.

Joe Donohue's Apple
Joe Donohue's Apple

I’m confident that everyone is going to see that the Apple deserves a place. I’m not sure where. I don’t know if it’s going to be in a museum or the rotunda, if it’s going to play an active role. I know a lot of people don’t want to look back, but we are looking back when we look at Citi Field going up every day.

What is Citi Field based on? It’s based on nostalgia. It’s based on Ebbets Field. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia. The birth of the Mets is based upon nostalgia – the Giants and Dodgers going away.

I’m not asking for the Apple to be used to symbolize a home run in the new field. I understand what it’s all about in terms of the next generation. But as an icon, it definitely should be preserved. I would put it in my back yard. I really would.

And how would your neighbors feel about that?

I think the Mets fans would love it. The point is, we really need to protect it. It’s not a cheap, trashy thing.

There’s not a stagehand lying on the ground pushing it up by hand.

Right. And it has survived 27 years, in all kinds of weather. That’s pretty good. But I do agree. Every time I see it I think, “Can’t we get a paint job on that thing?" I volunteer to come out with the red paint to spruce it up.
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