2.23.2009

Big Green Quandary: the Polo Grounds.

The Polo Grounds remain a familiar subject to our daughters because their grandmother and great-aunt had wonderful memories there.

In its day, whether you were a ticketholder or one of the fans who watched games from Coogan’s Bluff above the western side of the stadium, the Polo Grounds looked like

a cross between a football stadium and an oversized bathtub--and a green one at that, with a green façade, green grass, and green seats. The layout didn’t make much sense, especially for the game of baseball. For one thing, columns caused many obstructed views. And the huge center field's effect on home run production and hitting in general complicated matters.

So you could either say this structure was simply unusual, or you could say it was entirely misguided. Nevertheless, the Polo Grounds remains a cherished ballpark in baseball history because of all that happened there—from the days of Christy Mathewson

through Bobby Thomson

and his "shot heard ‘round the world" on October 3, 1951

against the Dodgers, through Willie Mays'

running basket catch of a 462-foot line drive by Vic Wertz, and the resulting throw to second base that saved Game 1 of the 1954 World Series for the Giants.

The field known as the Polo Grounds, rebuilt four times, was the northern Manhattan home of the New York Giants. But it was also early home to the Yankees, when Babe Ruth’s home run production sent many baseballs over the towering right field roof. And the New York Mets in their bumbling first years played at the Polo Grounds while Shea Stadium was being built near Flushing Meadow Park in Queens.

The Polo Grounds served as the location for two Negro World Series games in 1946 and 1947. Willie Mays hit his first home run in the Polo Grounds not with the Giants, but the Birmingham Black Barons. The Polo Grounds also hosted the Major League Baseball All-Star Games in 1934 and 1942

(that year, players from the Giants were Johnny Mize, Willard Marshall, Carl Hubell, Mel Ott, and Cliff Melton).

The football Giants played there from 1925 to 1955, and some college football games happened there as well, including the 1924 Army-Notre Dame game. Numerous boxing title bouts were held and the park also hosted tennis, rodeo, midget auto racing, outdoor opera, ice skating, and religious rallies.

The four ballparks known as the Polo Grounds in New York City date back to the 1800s. Named after the sport of polo, the first incarnation was located near Central Park between 110th and 112th Streets, and is said to be the only one of the four sites ever actually used for polo.

In July 1889, the Giants played their first game at the second Polo Grounds, and their last game on September 30, 1890. Then, in 1890, the Players League merged with the National League, and the National League Giants bought and moved into Brotherhood Park in 1891. The Giants played their first game at the third version of the Polo Grounds on April 22, 1891, where the seating capacity was 16,000.

By 1911, the ballpark had a seating capacity of 31,000 and was the largest stadium in baseball. However, there was a serious structural problem: the ballpark in its third form was constructed mostly of wood—and it caught fire

and burned down on April 14, 1911.

So, like the Philadelphia Athletics and Pittsburgh Pirates had done before them, the Giants wisely chose to build a ballpark of steel and concrete. Constructed on the same location, the fourth and final Polo Grounds opened June 28, 1911. By the end of the season, the seating capacity was 34,000.

This fourth version of the ballpark had an Italian marble façade and decorative iron scrollwork on the (green) seats. This Polo Grounds—which the Giants used until they moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season and which the Mets used until Shea Stadium was completed in 1964—is the one that most people mean when they refer to the Polo Grounds.

Sharing a ballpark, stealing thunder. In 1913 the Giants took the Yankees as tenants in the hilltop park on 165th Street and from that point on the teams battled for city supremacy. But after they took Babe Ruth onto the team, soon the best ticket sales were for the Yankees. The Giants owner, John McGraw, wasn’t pleased at that. By 1922, fans were still getting a hefty dose of Yankee prowess at the Polo Grounds; for example, the crowd watched Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth hit home runs.

But after 1922, the new Yankee Stadium stood across the Harlem River, in the Bronx, a quarter mile south, and the Giants no longer had to share their space with the Yankees.

No player ever hit a fly ball that reached the 483-foot center-field wall. Luke Easter, Joe Adcock, Lou Brock, and Hank Aaron were the only batters to reach the centerfield bleachers. Aaron hit 13 of his home runs at the Polo Grounds.

The neighborhood that housed the stadium had seriously deteriorated by the late 1940s. This didn’t help ticket sales, even when the Giants played well. In 1954, for instance, although they won the World Series, the team only drew 1.1 million fans compared to more than two million for the Milwaukee Braves that year. The Giants’ 1956 attendance was less than half the World Series-winning 1954 season, and that left little or no funding for stadium maintenance.

Frustrated by this run-down aspect and hurt by an inability to get a more modern stadium spot in New York, the Giants announced on August 19, 1957 that they’d move the following season, after nearly 75 years, to the West Coast. The last game played by Harlem's own, the Manhattan Giants, at the Polo Grounds was on September 29, 1957. The Ninth Avenue El's 155th Street station was busy when there were baseball and football games at the Polo Grounds; the shuttle hung on until 1958.

The ballpark sat vacant for the next three years, until the newly-formed Titans (American Football League) and then the Mets moved in for the 1962 and 1963 seasons. Over the decades there are many wonderful newspaper stories and sports page headlines about the Polo Grounds, but this from the New York Times is our favorite--even though the news is not good--because it ties together Giants' history (that is, playing the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds) and the Mets, who became most of our family's new team to root for.

Dodgers Defeat Mets, 13-6 and 6-5
Before 55,704; Stretching String to 10
KOUFAX IS VICTOR IN OPENING GAME
Dodger Homer in 9th Wins Second Contest--Mets Execute Triple Play

The creaking old Polo Grounds rocked yesterday with the cheers of the largest
baseball crowd it has housed in twenty years. Demonstrating New York's
unquenched thirst for baseball of the National League variety it used to know,
55,704 fans...

The final game ever at Polo Grounds was on September 18, 1963, and demolition began April 10, 1964

with the same wrecking ball, painted to look like a baseball, that had been used four years earlier on Ebbets Field. It took a crew of 60 workers, including the gentleman pictured above, more than four months to raze the Polo Grounds,

and then the big green quandary became what it is today...a source of fond memories and a way for young fans like our daughters to connect with a rich and storied past.



Our main source for this post, besides family discussions, is the archive of the New York Times. Here are some other related helpful links:


Ballparks.com
Andrewclem.com

3 comments:

beardy said...

Great post! Very informative.

Kevin said...

Stan Musial wasn't quite active in 1922 (maybe you were thinking of Bob Meusel?), but this was an excellent read.

DC said...

Kevin, thank you, I made the edit. That's what I get for moving my paragraphs around within blogger. Tough WP.