By - Nancy J. Perry

(FORTUNE Magazine) – WHEN THE AMAZIN' Mets won the 1986 World Series, sweeping New York into a frenzy, one Very Important Person remained curiously out of sight. Nelson Doubleday, chairman of Doubleday & Co., which bought the Mets six years ago when they were down and almost out, did not appear in the locker room after the game, wasn't on hand to accept the World Series trophy from Baseball ^ Commissioner Peter Ueberroth. He did not even attend the ticker tape parade thronged by two million ecstatic New Yorkers, held to honor the town's newest heroes. There was no way, he said later, that he wanted all that public attention. If, as New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner insists, ''every single owner of a major league franchise has an ego,'' well, somebody forgot to inform Doubleday. He bought the team, he says, to provide entertainment for New York; he has no desire to see his name in lights. Sure, he intends to make money with the Mets, but more than the typical entrepreneur Doubleday wants to have fun, to ''give somebody some fun they otherwise couldn't have had.'' It is Wednesday, the day following the fete on Wall Street, and the publicity-shy Doubleday is sitting hunched forward on a sofa in his sunny Park Avenue office, struggling to describe how he felt when the Mets clinched the championship. It is tough for him; self-revelations do not come easy to this intensely private, emotional man. ''The thing I never realized during the last two weeks,'' he finally says, ''was the involvement of the city of New York. I think I was involved with the Mets and with winning, but . . .'' His voice quavers and he breaks off, unable to continue. Tears glisten in his eyes, trickle down his cheeks. ''I had no concept,'' he whispers after a moment. ''I really had no concept of just how much this meant to a lot of people.'' He brushes the tears from his face, embarrassed, but they keep coming. ''I guess I surprise myself when I do something right,'' he says. It has been an amazing year for Nelson Doubleday. In a play as dramatic as Ray Knight's winning World Series home run, he agreed in September to sell Doubleday & Co., the family-owned publishing business founded in 1897 by his grandfather, to Bertelsmann AG, a West German communications conglomerate. The price: a lofty $500 million. Friends say that Doubleday agonized over the decision for months -- long after directors began urging him to sell. ''I think he felt a tremendous loyalty to his family name,'' says Peter Shea, a Doubleday director and Nelson's close friend since childhood. ''There was a lot of soul-searching.'' In August, prompted in part by pending tax law changes, Doubleday asked for bids on the business, of which he and his family control over 51%. Bertelsmann, eager to expand its presence in the U.S., made an offer. The deal surprised analysts. For almost a decade Doubleday's publishing operations have been in trouble and the company's overall performance has been poor. In the fiscal year that ended April 30, Doubleday & Co. earned only $7 million on sales of $472 million, and $5 million of that came from the Mets. The Mets, however, were not included in the sale. In a separate transaction, Doubleday and Fred Wilpon, a real estate investor who already owned 2.5% of the team, arranged to pay $85 million to buy the Mets from Doubleday & Co. before it was sold to Bertelsmann. The two men, who will be equal partners, assumed some $15 million in player contracts and other liabilities, bringing the total value of the franchise to $100 million. That is the highest price ever paid for a sports franchise, and five times what it cost in 1980 when Doubleday & Co. bought it. AT THE MOMENT it is hard to tell whether the publishing-cum-sports magnate is more elated about his multimillion-dollar deal, the Mets' World Series victory, or an upcoming hunting trip with his buddies. Tall and robust, Doubleday, 53, is a fine Scotch blend: two parts Locust Valley, Long Island, WASP -- pampered, patrician, and exceedingly preppie -- and one part earthy Scot, with deep voice, hearty chuckle, bawdy humor. A man's man. He likes people, parties, practical jokes, and, it appears, ducks. Paintings of wild ducks decorate his office walls, rows of bright yellow ducks swim across his navy-blue necktie; he and his wife, Sandra, own a rambling house on Duck Pond Road. He also shoots ducks -- but those don't count, he quips, because they are ''dead ducks.'' Preparing to embark on an annual pheasant-shooting vacation in Somerset, England, with a bunch of pals, Doubleday is in his usual ebullient spirits, playfully deflecting sound away from the reporter's tape recorder with an ashtray -- ''It's a satellite dish'' -- and making wisecracks: ''I shoot anything that moves. Reporters, anything.'' Characteristically flippant, he is only half kidding. Nelson Doubleday does not encroach on other people's territory (he never visits the Mets dugout), and he expects the same in return. Tread too close, push too far, ask for instance if you might chat with his wife or daughters, and his mood changes. He becomes brusque, dismissive; you-be-damned. He is understandably delighted to talk about the Mets. Six years ago, he says, everybody thought he was crazy to pay $21 million for a team that had finished last in the National League's Eastern Division for three seasons in a , row and was losing money. Friends laughed. Some Doubleday directors questioned his judgment. Worst of all, the Cuckoo Convoy thought he was nuts. Back then Doubleday was in a group of citizens' band radio freaks who met over the airwaves on their daily commute into Manhattan. A diverse group ranging from a maintenance man to a phone booth manufacturer to a big-time book publisher, they nicknamed themselves the Cuckoo's Nest Convoy. Doubleday's on-air name was the Bookworm. For five years, before CBs gave way to cellular car phones, he and his good buddies met to kibitz, talk sports, and tell jokes. He invited them to lunch at ''21,'' greeted them at Shea Stadium by flashing ''Welcome Cuckoos'' on the scoreboard, and chattered with them nonstop on the CB. ''It seemed a hideaway for him,'' says Miles Godin, an advertising executive known to CBers as Magic Pencil. ''At Doubleday everyone did things because he was Doubleday. But with us he was just the Bookworm.'' The day after he bought the Mets, Doubleday stopped as he did every morning for coffee with the Cuckoos at the McDonald's on Astoria Boulevard in Queens. ''What are you buying a crummy team like the Mets for?'' they razzed him over Egg McMuffins. His reply was prophetic. ''Just you wait,'' he retorted. ''Give me five or six years, and they will be a first-place team.'' He might have added that they would also begin to coin cash. Attendance at Shea Stadium surged to three million in 1986, up from a low of 700,000 in 1980. Between May and October the Mets earned over $6 million. Doubleday's interest in sports dates back to his early days in Oyster Bay, an exclusive Long Island suburb where he and his younger sister, Neltje, grew up. ''We were two rich kids sitting in a big house with lots of nannies and maids,'' recalls Neltje, now a painter on a ranch in Banner, Wyoming. ''We lived a very isolated life.'' So the youngsters looked to each other for amusement. Says Neltje: ''I learned to play baseball pret ty young.'' (Their great-great-granduncle Abner popularized baseball but did not invent it, as widely believed.) Friends claim to still have ribbons from the ''Nelson and Neltje Field Day'' that Nelson organized every year on his birthday. The dollar scion went on to attend Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Princeton University, where he majored in economics. He excelled in club sports, particularly football, baseball, and hockey. But he was always mindful of his destiny. His father, Nelson Sr., had died of lung cancer when Nelson . was only 15, and so, he says, ''I was always aimed at publishing. And I'd always said to my mother, 'Look, I reserve the right not to go into it. But I'll go into it until I say, Hey -- enough. I don't like it.' '' After graduating from college in 1955, he worked briefly as a copywriter at Doubleday, then left to serve three years in the U.S. Air Force, where he found his penchant for pranks squelched by ''something called a commanding officer.'' Despite urgings from his superiors to make the Air Force a career, Doubleday returned to publishing in 1959, this time for good. He started as an editorial assistant in the advertising and promotion department. Two years later, at 28, he became manager of Doubleday's trade publishing division and joined the board of directors. In the Sixties and Seventies he also invested in a couple of pro hockey teams, the Oakland Seals and the New York Islanders. In 1978 he took over as president. Doubleday admits that his own rapid rise ''had something to do with my last name.'' In 1985 he was elected chairman of the board. HE INSISTS that he was never bored with his job. But he certainly was not fascinated by it, which partly explains the publishing operations' poor performance. Some people think that had there been two brothers Doubleday would have been content to take his inheritance and run -- preferably to the nearest ballpark. ''There is an axiom in this field: You go into it because you love books,'' says Scott Meredith, a top literary agent who worked with Doubleday's father. ''Nelson is a smart man. But he never had the passion.'' It is not that Doubleday dislikes books, just that his passion for living does not necessarily extend to selling them. Below the surface is a part of Doubleday that is still a kid, that just wants to have fun, to be one of the boys. Hence the pranks, the sports teams, the Cuckoos. He gets a bang out of sending farm animals to his friends at Brown Brothers Harriman, the staid brokerage -- chickens, for instance, or a crate full of squealing piglets. Says Tom Guinzburg, former president of Viking Press and an old friend: ''Trapped inside that large body there are another couple of people.'' Friends seeking to explain Doubleday say that he was deeply influenced by his father's death. Overnight he went from being a fun-loving if somewhat spoiled kid who loved to play ball and practical jokes -- he delighted in ordering gags such as exploding cigarettes from magazines -- to being the man of the | family as well, destined to run one of the world's largest publishing companies. He has been struggling to reconcile the two personas ever since. Doubleday's sense of responsibility for the family business reasserted itself in 1985, when he became deadly serious about Doubleday & Co. Alarmed by the imminent demise of the company his father and grandfather worked so hard to build, Doubleday, traditionally a hands-off manager, rolled up his loudly striped shirt sleeves and got down to the business of cleaning up his publishing house. He reorganized Doubleday's mass-market and textbook publishing divisions, sold off the company's radio stations for $100 million, and installed a new chief executive, James McLaughlin. By the end of 1986, a turnaround was under way. Bill Cosby's Fatherhood, published by Doubleday's Dolphin imprint, is one of the fastest-selling hard-cover books ever. The publishing division is making money for the first time in five years. Doubleday will not cry, he says, when he walks out of Doubleday & Co. for the last time. Yes, he is cutting off a family heritage, but he is also discarding a burden, freeing himself from a 38-year-long sense of duty to a business that his heart was not in. Back in the days when the Cuckoo Convoy used to meet for coffee at McDonald's every morning, Doubleday had a favorite expression that bespoke his view of his life. ''Goodbye, fellows,'' he would say as he got up to head for his blue Mercedes and Manhattan. ''I have to leave you all to go play Captain of Industry.'' This past year the captain has been playing hardball. He has done well by his book company, by his baseball team, and by his shareholders. And now, finally, Nelson Doubleday can just go play.