Once, it was "quite the thing" to go to the Polo Grounds

Sixty years ago, you wouldn’t have had any difficulty finding the Polo Grounds. It was New York City’s oldest and most historic sports venue and had been tucked beneath Coogan’s Bluff overlooking the Harlem River since 1891. Any cabbie in the city could have driven straight to the ballpark, and many 12-year-old kids in Manhattan probably could have given you directions. And the elevated railway had a stop near the stadium’s entrance at 155th Street.

But a lot of water has gone under the nearby Macombs Dam Bridge since the Polo Grounds was demolished in 1964, and the city’s collective memory of the birthplace of New York professional sports has faded. So when we went on our second annual pre-New Year’s trek to the sites of the city’s vanished stadiums last Sunday, we had to do some searching.

Turns out the Polo Grounds hasn’t been remembered any better than Ebbets Field. A year ago, we found New York’s obscure monument to Brooklyn’s “Boys of Summer” nearly hidden by a bush at the massive public housing complex that was built on the site of that storied ballpark. That adventure was posted on Side Salad, a lively and entertaining blog produced by my old pal Jeff Houck in Tampa.

After scouring the Washington Heights neighborhood, my brother-in-law, Bob Morrow, finally found Polo Grounds Towers, another huge public housing complex that was built on the land where Willie Mays once patrolled the outfield. But it took a knowledgeable baseball fan named Ricardo Miranda, who works at the complex, to steer us to a couple of markers commemorating the long-ago stadium.


We found this faded, weathered sign on one of the towers. It reads “Welcome to the Polo Grounds Towers. This development was built on the location that Willie Mays and the Giants made famous. Let’s keep it beautiful.”


Not far away, we found this battered plaque marking the spot where home place once was.


My wife Jane shot this pic of our nephew, John Morrow, and me at the site. Presumably, this is the approximate spot where one of sports’ most dramatic moments occurred on October 3, 1951, when Bobby Thomson hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to defeat the hated Brooklyn Dodgers 5-4 and win a pennant-deciding playoff game. There's a YouTube video of that legendary homer at this link.

We’d heard that somewhere in the complex is a stairway that once descended to a stadium ticket booth, and I read later that there’s supposedly a plaque marking the spot where Willie Mays made what many fans consider the greatest play of all time during the first game of the 1954 World Series. But it was a raw and bitterly cold day, not conducive to tramping around the site looking for ghosts of summers past, so I can’t verify that the Mays plaque exists.

You can, however, see Mays’ astonishing catch at this link on YouTube.

At one time, the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field formed the axis of one of the great rivalries of sports. The rivalry between the Giants and the Dodgers reached its apex after World War II, when New York was home to three Major League teams and was the center of the baseball universe. In the 11 seasons between 1947 and 1957, a New York team played in the World Series 10 times. And seven of those Series were between New York teams.

Polo was never actually played at the Polo Grounds. The stadium’s name was derived from an earlier, nearby arena that was used for polo. When a new wooden stadium was built at a different location in 1891, it was christened the Polo Grounds.

This sketch from Historic Ballparks: A Panoramic Vision, by John Pastier, shows the stadium as it appeared at the turn of the 19th century.

In its heyday, the fans and reporters who came to sporting events at the Polo Grounds didn’t gush about the stadium’s architectural beauty or wax lyrically about the nostalgia it evoked. But it was a New York social center. On April 18, 1910, The New York Times reported that the Giants would open the season that day at the Polo Grounds.

“Weather permitting, it will be a great gathering of townsfolk, including Mayor Gaynor and a number of invited guests,” the Times said. “The opening day at the Polo Grounds has become a fixed institution, and it is quite the thing to be there, for most everybody else will be.”

The wooden ballpark burned about a year later, but the Giants soon were back in business on the same spot in a new concrete-and-steel structure.

The new Polo Grounds was a utilitarian washtub of a stadium that was noteworthy more for its bizarre baseball configuration than for graceful lines and inspiring vistas. The postcard at the top of this entry is from the early 1920s. Home runs were cheap for pull hitters. The left field foul pole was only 279 feet from home plate, and it was only 258 feet to the right field foul pole. But the distance to dead center field was 485 feet – out of reach for most mortals.

In 1913, the New York Yankees joined the Giants as tenants of the Polo Grounds. Later, the Yankees acquired a promising young slugger named Babe Ruth. Ruth drew so many fans to see him hit home runs in the Polo Grounds that the Yankees soon built their own stadium in the Bronx, just across the Harlem from the Giants’ home.

Yankee Stadium is shown at the bottom of this photo, and the Polo Grounds is at the top.

The Polo Grounds seating capacity was expanded to about 55,000 in 1923, and the stadium started hosting important college football games.

This postcard, probably from the late 1940s or early 1950s, shows the stadium as it appeared after the expansion.
In October 1924, Notre Dame came to town to play Army, and the game was considered so important that it was played at the Polo Grounds. Grantland Rice, a sportswriter for the New York Herald-Tribune, was greatly impressed with Notre Dame’s backfield. In his story about the game, Rice referred to the four backs as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and said they “formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone” that swept the Irish to victory over Army.

In 1925, New York’s professional football team, also named the Giants, started playing their home games in the infant National Football League at the Polo Grounds. The stadium also hosted boxing matches and other events, making it New York’s most important gathering place.

But despite playing in two World Series and winning one of them between 1951 and 1954, attendance at the Polo Grounds was in a nosedive in the late 1950s. The stadium fell into disrepair, and the Yankees – with future Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford – were consistently drawing twice the number of fans that the Giants attracted. In 1956, the Giants’ attendance was only about 629,000, and in 1957 it was only about 654,000.

Meanwhile, the football Giants had moved across the river to Yankee Stadium.

On September 19, 1957, the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Giants 9-1 in their last baseball game in the Polo Grounds. A few months later, the Giants joined their rivals, the Dodgers, in moving to California.

Ebbets Field was torn down in 1960, but the Polo Grounds got a brief stay of execution thanks to the expansion of Major League baseball and the creation of the American Football League. The New York Mets joined the National League and became tenants of the Polo Grounds. And the New York Titans played their home games against AFL opponents there.

But the end came in 1963. On September 29, 3,899 fans showed up at the Polo Grounds to watch the last baseball game at the stadium. The Mets were pounded by Houston, 13-4. And on December 13, the Buffalo Bills beat New York’s AFL team, now called the Jets, 19-10. The final football game drew only 5,826 fans.

The Mets and the Jets moved to the new Shea Stadium in Queens in 1964. The new ballpark was one of the round, cookie-cutter-style all-purpose arenas that began appearing in the 1960s. These new mega-stadiums were symmetrical, devoid of character, cleansed of all architectural quirks, and nearly identical. In a word, they were soulless.

In April 1964, demolition workers started tearing down the Polo Grounds with the same wrecking ball that had been used to demolish Ebbets Field. That same month, writer and baseball fan Roger Angell commented on the destruction of the Polo Grounds in an elegant essay for the April 25 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

“What does depress us about the demise of the bony, misshapen old playground,” Angell wrote, “is the attendant, irrevocable deprivation of habit – the amputation of so many private, repeated and easily renewable small familiarities. … All these we mourn, for their loss constitutes the death of still another neighborhood – a small landscape of distinctive and reassuring familiarity. Demolition and loss are a painful city commonplace, but as our surroundings become more undistinguished and indistinguishable, we sense, at last, that our environs are being replaced by mere events, and we are stabbed by the realization that we may not possess the score cards and record books to help us remember who we are and what we have seen and loved.”

1 comment:

NYYinSD said...

Nice story and photos.
Thanks for sharing!