With a torn rotator cuff his junior year in 1956 , Fred Wilpon’s time on the Michigan baseball team was over. Who would have thought 58 years later, the complex on the athletic campus that includes the baseball stadium would be named in his family’s honor?
Wilpon, chairman and CEO of the New York Mets and co-founder and chairman of the board of Sterling Equities, continues to maintain strong ties to the University he loves.
“The University of Michigan changed my life more than anything, other than my parents,” Wilpon said.
The Wilpon family’s strong relationship with Michigan has been well documented through generous donations to both the athletic department and University at large. With the start of the upcoming season next month and addition of new turf, Wilpon opened up on his past and connection with Michigan.
Baseball was a big part of Wilpon’s life growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. Wilpon was fortunate enough to play baseball in a Kiwanis organization sandlot league that gave out scholarships to one of its players each year. Wilpon won the scholarship in 1953 and it opened the door to a collegiate future. Colleges would later offer him baseball scholarships as well.
Scouts in Brooklyn invited Wilpon to Ebbets Field to pitch batting practice to the Brooklyn Dodgers for a summer and a few professional contracts were offered his way. His parents, though, were very insistent that he become the first person in his family to attend college and that he get a degree before playing professional baseball.
The president of the league advised Wilpon to attend a school that excelled in both academics and athletics. The president recommended a few schools, but Wilpon didn’t know the difference between Duke, Michigan or any of the other schools mentioned. To make his decision, Wilpon decided he would attend the first school to admit him.
Michigan’s acceptance letter came in first and, with his scholarship, Wilpon arrived in Ann Arbor. But his time on the baseball team was filled with frustration. Early in his career, he tore his rotator cuff, though at the time, doctors misdiagnosed him with merely a sore shoulder.
Injured and unable to play his sophomore year, Wilpon felt guilty about occupying a scholarship, enough that he contemplated quitting until his coach, Ray Fisher, convinced him otherwise.
During his junior year, it was evident he still hadn’t made progress, so Fisher came through again. The coach advised Wilpon step by step what to do and wrote a letter on behalf of Wilpon, which he gave to the dean responsible for student aid. As a result, Wilpon received a grant in aid equivalent to his scholarship for the two remaining years at school.
“He was a wonderful mentor and an outstanding man,” Wilpon said. “When you played for coach Fisher, no matter how you did on the field, you left being a better person. That is the great mark of a superior coach, teacher and mentor.”
The financial aid changed Wilpon’s life; he otherwise would’ve had a difficult time remaining in school. This afforded him the opportunity to finish school debt-free, where he met his wife, Judy Kessler.
With his liberal arts degree, Wilpon entered the real estate business, where he went on to co-found Sterling Equities, valued in the billions. In 2002, he became the principal majority owner of the New York Mets.
In 2007, the Wilpon family made a significant donation to the University — none more notable than to the baseball and softball programs.
In 1954, the baseball stadium — now known as Ray Fisher Stadium, named after his coach — was hardly expansive. In fact, facilities throughout campus came nowhere near today’s levels. During the cold weather, the baseball team had to practice inside Yost Ice Arena with almost every major team.
Wilpon’s donation helped renovate ‘The Fish,’ as Ray Fisher Stadium is affectionately called, and Softball’s Alumni Field, with both stadiums receiving new seats, press boxes and indoor batting cages.
Wilpon was, in a sense, able to reunite with the late Fisher as the neighboring fields were given the combined name, the Wilpon Baseball and Softball Complex.
“My family is very proud to be a part of the complex and being associated with Ray Fisher (Stadium) is a privilege for us,” Wilpon said. “I believe in the University of Michigan. I believe in the student athletes and I wanted them to have first class facilities.
“I thought it would help their experience and their education — education being broadly defined — not just in the classroom. You learn a lot being on a team about the values of teamwork, friendship and sacrifice.”
Most recently, in 2013, Wilpon partnered with the University to add turf to the Wilpon Complex stadiums, after it became clear the natural grass fields had to be addressed. With the new turf, the teams can practice outside on their field much earlier in the year, instead of having to wait for the ground to thaw after the snow clears.
Wilpon’s donations also spurred the creation of the Sports Injury Prevention Center — in conjunction with the school of Kinesiology — to conduct research into sports-related injuries. It was a personal matter for Wilpon, who knows first-hand the hardships sports injuries can cause.
The family sought to create a need-based scholarship for students who qualify for admission to the University, but financially cannot afford it. Thus, in partnership with the University, they created the Irene and Morris B. Kessler Presidential Scholarship Program, named in honor of Judy Wilpon’s parents.
The Wilpons visit with the Kessler students every year at a scholarship luncheon, spending time getting to know the recipients. Many Kessler Scholars see the Wilpons as more than just scholarship donors because they are very invested in the program, as Fred was in their shoes when he was younger.
“With a lot of scholarships, you just receive a notice that lets you know you have a grant or a scholarship. This was a little more personal,” said former Kessler Scholar Travis Gonyou. “It was a direct outreach to all of us, trying to get to know us, and I felt it was more personal than other scholarships you could get.”
Lately, Wilpon has been able to join two of his biggest investments — the Mets and the Michigan baseball program — inviting the University’s baseball team to New York’s spring training facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla. In five of the past seven years, the two clubs have faced off in exhibitions.
Win or lose, Wilpon knows it’s enormously beneficial to the Wolverines.
“If you ask the coaches, they will tell you it is one of the highlights of their season and also helps the (Michigan) coaches’ recruiting efforts,” Wilpon said.
Not only is it helpful for the team but, it’s also rewarding for Wilpon. The University that helped him become one of the most successful businessmen in New York is on the field with his current organization. His past and present are coming together on the field.
“I tell you this from my heart,” Wilpon said. “The University of Michigan will always be among the most important parts of my life’s experiences.”