Last call for baseball: a Polo Grounds postscriptby Frank Jackson
December 07, 2011
If you want to separate the players from the pretenders in New York baseball trivia, just bring up the subject of the final game played at the Polo Grounds.
Now, it would be a rare New York sports fan who is not aware that there used to be a ballpark at 155th Street in Harlem and that it was the longtime home of the New York Giants. Since the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season, one might suspect that the final game of that season was the final game played there.
For the record, that was Sept. 29, 1957. The Giants were trounced by the Pirates by a 9-1 score before 11,606 fans. The Giants had endured a lackluster (69-85) season, and their move to California was a done deal, so the fans’ lack of enthusiasm is understandable.
As it turned out, those who assumed they were present for the last game at the Polo Grounds were premature, for on Oct. 17, 1960, the National League awarded an expansion franchise to the City of New York for the 1962 season. The Polo Grounds was chosen as the Mets’ initial home while Shea Stadium in Queens was under construction. So we might be tempted to conclude that the last game played at the Polo Grounds was the Mets’ last game there in 1963.
Judging by the attendance, Mets fans were not sorry to see the old ballpark go. A mere 1,752 witnessed that Sept. 18th contest, a 5-1 loss to the Phillies. Since that gave the Mets a 49-104 record, it could safely be assumed that there would be no postseason baseball at the Polo Grounds, and that those present that day had indeed witnessed the last contest at that venue.
But even this Sept. 18th tilt was not the last game played there.
So what’s the answer? Admittedly, it is a bit of a trick question.
Aha, the savvy New York sports fan interjects! The Polo Grounds also had a long football history. The New York Jets (originally the Titans) played the 1963 season in the Polo Grounds! Like the Mets, they were set to move to Shea Stadium for the 1964 season. So the final game played at the Polo Grounds was the Jets’ final game, a 19-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Dec. 14, 1963.
True enough, that was the final football game played there—and as far as I can tell, it was the last sporting event played there. But let’s be clear: We’re talking baseball here. This is The Hardball Times, not The Hog Bladder Herald. So let us re-phrase the question with no ambiguity: When was the last baseball game played at the Polo Grounds?
The answer to that question is Sunday, Oct. 13, 1963, one week after the World Series concluded. Now we’re not talking about some sort of local high school showcase or exhibition game involving minor league prospects. The players were all major leaguers, and some of them were among the best in the business. The event in question was a Latin-American All Star Game, a charity event benefiting the Hispanic-American Baseball Federation.
The weather in New York that day was on the cool side (mid-50s), but if you were a ballplayer from the Caribbean, it was not a bad time to be away from home, as the Dominican Republic and Cuba had just been pounded by Hurricane Flora.
As is the case with so many MLB All-Star Games, the contest pitted the National League against the American League. Also reminiscent of MLB All-Star Games, the contest was largely devoid of drama. In fact, it was settled early, as Pedro Ramos of the Cleveland Indians gave up four runs in the first four innings. The American League managed to tally two runs off the Mets’ Ed Bauta in the ninth inning, but it was too little too late as the National League prevailed by a 5-2 score.
Perusing the box score from the game can be an exercise in nostalgia for those baseball fans eligible for senior citizen discounts. A number of names in the box score are well known even today. There are Hall-of-Famers like Luis Aparicio, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, and Juan Marichal. Felipe Alou was in his prime, having finished his tour of duty with the Giants before moving on to the Milwaukee Braves. The ageless Minnie Minoso (a mere pup of 37 at the time) was there, as was another colorful veteran, Vic Power (a few weeks shy of his 36th birthday), then of the Twins.
Others were budding All-Stars. The Twins were also represented by Zoilo Versalles, who would win an MVP award two seasons later, and Tony Oliva, who would win the first of his three batting titles the next season and participate in eight MLB All-Star games. Manny Mota, then with the Pirates, went on to become a pinch-hitting legend with the Dodgers and played until 1982.
The veteran Hector Lopez had just won another World Series championship ring with the Yankees. The Phillies were represented by fan favorite Tony Taylor, the underrated Tony Gonzalez, and Ruben Amaro. If that name sounds familiar, it may be because Ruben Amaro, Jr. also played for the Phillies and is now the team’s general manager.
The box score also gives rise to some questions. For example, one might quibble with the selection of Alvin O’Neal McBean as a pitcher for the National League, since he hails from the U.S. Virgin Islands. True, the Virgin Islands are in the Caribbean, but does that qualify him as a Latin American? Maybe, maybe not, but since McBean was the winning pitcher that day with four innings of scoreless relief, the selection was obviously a wise one.
And for good measure, he hit a triple (the longest hit of the day) and was thrown out trying for an inside-the-park home run. So while the game may be a footnote in baseball history, you can bet Al McBean still remembers it.
Somewhat harder to explain is the appearance of Joe Pignatano as a pinch-hitter for the National League. Brooklyn-born Joe played for the Dodgers their last year there and also played for the Mets in 1962, after which he retired as a player. So one might well wonder what he was doing here in October of 1963? Well, in some circles, Italians might be considered Latin—you know, the whole romance language thing—but it does seem a stretch in this context.
As Casey Stengel observed after the selection of catcher Hobie Landrith as the first pick in the Mets expansion draft, if you don’t have a catcher, you’re going to have a lot of passed balls. Having acknowledged the importance of a human backstop, it is still difficult to figure out Pignatano’s appearance on a roster of Latin-American All-Stars. Was there a shortage of good, available Latin catchers in the National League?
Perhaps the answer to that question is the presence of Cuno Barragan. He only had one at-bat for the Cubs in 1963. As it turned out, that was his last major league plate appearance, and he retired with a .203 lifetime batting average (33 hits in 163 at-bats) after three seasons. No one would ever consider stats like that as All-Star worthy.
And I haven’t forgotten about Julio Becquer! During the 1963 season, his complete statistical line for the Twins consisted of one run scored as a pinch-runner—nada mas! Actually, this was an improvement over 1962, when he was out of the major leagues. Like Barragan, his appearance at the Polo Grounds on that cool October afternoon would be his final appearance as a player on a major league field.
I mention Barragan and Becquer not to demean them but to point out that in 1963, it was more difficult to fill out two rosters with Latin-American All-Stars. Today, that would not be a problem, since there are more Latin players and the talent level is much higher.
Just check the rosters for Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Cuba for the last World Baseball Classic in 2009, and you’ll readily agree that a similar postseason event today would benefit from an embarrassment of riches—and would likely draw a much bigger crowd than the 14,235 who showed up at the Polo Grounds on that Sunday afternoon in October of 1963.
Today there would be competition among several cities to host such a game, but in 1963 New York was the obvious choice because of its large Latin population. Perhaps the Polo Grounds was selected because of its proximity to Spanish Harlem. Certainly, the Polo Grounds would have been cheaper to rent than Yankee Stadium on the other side of the Harlem River.
In any event, the House That Ruth Built was not available that day, as Y.A. Tittle and the New York Giants were hosting Jim Brown and the undefeated Cleveland Browns (end result: Browns 35-Giants 24).
As is the case with most All-Star games, there were some pre-game ceremonies at the Polo Grounds. Juan Marichal was named the game’s top Latin pitcher. That was a fairly easy choice to make, but one wonders about Orlando Cepeda being named “the most popular Latin American player.”
Well, that’s a subjective call, kind of like Miss Congeniality, but how about Vic Power being named “the No. 1 player?” Hey, didn’t anybody notice Robert Clemente was on the National League roster? Well, he did used to complain about being overlooked.
The Polo Grounds was also taken for granted at that point in baseball history. There was no gnashing of teeth or rending of garments six months later when a wrecking crew in Giants jerseys began dismantling the vacated stadium. This wasn’t the first time a bunch of guys in Giants garb brought down the house, but it was the first—and last—time it happened literally.
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.
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