This annotated week in baseball history: Dec. 13-Dec. 19, 1963

On Dec. 14, 1963, the final game at the Polo Grounds—a 19-10 defeat of the New York Titans by the Buffalo Bills—took place. Richard looks back at the park, and visits the location where it once stood.

Some of you may remember that back in February of this year I promised a more detailed look at the spots where New York’s ballparks of the past had once stood. And I was planning to do it in the summer, when leaves are green and baseball is on everyone’s mind. But, of course, the best laid plans go to rot. All of which explains why last week I was standing on a rickety staircase in Upper Manhattan, bracing myself against both cold and the possibility of a fall, in order to capture the last standing remnants of the Polo Grounds.

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Polo Grounds I, and yes, they played polo here

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’ll start with the answer to a simple question: Did they ever play polo at the Polo Grounds? The answer is “sort of.” Polo was never played at the stadium most people think of as the Polo Grounds, the one located in Upper Manhattan, just across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium.

But it was played at the original Polo Grounds, located on 110th Street in Manhattan, across from the northeastern end of Central Park, the site of which is pictured. In its early history, “polo grounds” was an explanatory term, rather than an actual name. (Using “grounds” in the sense of an athletic field has fallen out of use in American English; it remains a common term in British English.)

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Coogan’s Bluff is quite high, and pretty steep.

Stories of Roger Connor—the career home run leader before Babe Ruth—indicate he once hit a tremendous home run to right field, so far to right field that it went to 112th Street. This would indicate that home plate was placed roughly at the modern corner of 110th Street and Fifth Avenue. For anyone curious in visiting the spot today, it is catty-corner from the exceedingly bizarre Duke Ellington statue.

The first Polo Grounds met its end when the City of New York decided to formalize the street grid and the stadium’s outfield was turned into 111th Street. The Giants bounced from park to park for a brief period before settling in July of 1898 in a park built in the shadow of Coogan’s Bluff. The picture at left is unconnected to the Polo Grounds history—I suspect the stairs were constructed when the site was converted to public housing—but I provide it to illustrate how steep Coogan’s Bluff is, and why fans were able to sit on the Bluff and watch games without admission.

(A brief digression: You sometimes see “Coogan’s Bluff” used as a metonymy for the post-1898 Polo Grounds. Strictly speaking, this is incorrect, since the ballpark was located in the area below the bluff. The correct metonymy would be “Coogan’s Hollow.” Also, because I have always wondered about this, Coogan was James J. Coogan, a prominent Manhattan politician and landowner. There seems to be some dispute on whether or not Coogan owned the land until it was taken by the city through eminent domain when the towers were built or if he sold it outright to the Giants. A “bluff,” meanwhile, apparently has its origins in a type of ship with a flat bow and was later expanded to similarly shaped geological features.)

Things get a little confusing here. Although the Giants were now playing in the Polo Grounds, and they were in Upper Manhattan, it was still not the cigar-shaped field most commonly associated with the team. Instead they moved into a ballpark already located in the area. The site of this first park—the Polo Grounds II—is pictured. Unlike its more famous successor, Polo Grounds II actually featured a center field that was closer than the outfield corners. It was also oriented (home plate to center field) to the north; the later Polo Grounds had its home-to-center running east.

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The current site of Polo Grounds II

The Giants were neighbors with a team from the Players League that played in Brotherhood Park, literally next door. The two parks were close enough that fans sitting in the upper deck of either park could have a (poor) view of two games and home runs would occasionally travel from one park to the other.

In 1890 the Players League collapsed, and the Giants moved into Brotherhood Park, renaming it the Polo Grounds; this is Polo Ground III, for those of you keeping score at home. This is also the Polo Grounds of common memory, with its center field seemingly miles away compared to the nearby left and right field corners. Although now without a permanent tenant, Polo Grounds II (renamed Manhattan Field) survived for a few decades with various uses—football and cricket, among others—until it was finally torn down and turned into a parking lot.

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The Polo Grounds towers, now standing where once there was a ballpark

Polo Grounds III was gradually modified to enclose the park entirely with bleachers; in its early days one could simply drive a carriage out to center field and watch the game from behind a rope since there was no fence. The park survived until April of 1911, when the park burned to the ground while the Giants were on the road. John McGraw and company briefly played in Hilltop Park—I’ll cover that in another column someday—while the Giants organization, headed by President John T. Brush (whom we’ll hear more about later), rebuilt the park.

The newly rebuilt Polo Grounds (a small bit of the previous park survived the fire) opened in June of 1911, although the seating area continued to be built throughout the season. For a brief period the team attempted to name the park Brush Stadium in honor of the team president, but the name never took and was abandoned when Brush died in 1912.

In 1923, largely in response to the Yankees moving to their own ballpark across the Harlem River, the Giants eliminated much of the bleacher seating, expanding the double-decked outfield all the way around the park. Although this had the side effect of making the park a more appealing venue for football games, the opening of Yankee Stadium relegated the Polo Grounds to second-class status. It was no longer the premier outdoor facility in New York City.

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Home plate at the Polo Grounds

The 1923 renovations essentially created the park that exists in the popular memory, while slight modifications would take place over the years; it was largely unchanged when the demolition ball arrived in the 1960s.

Today there is a plaque at the approximate site of home plate, which is nice to see, though the maintenance is shamefully bad. This was somewhat compounded at the time I visited as the plaque was under the extensive scaffolding around the building. To the credit of the New York City Housing Authority, there is a new sign marking the housing complex as a whole featuring a rather artful depiction of the park (albeit one that somewhat strangely places the diamond in the middle of the park).

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The John T. Brush Stairway

On the whole, the former Polo Grounds site is a fairly dreary place to visit. It is a struggle to imagine that this is where Christy Mathewson pitched three shutouts in the World Series and Willie Mays once made a famous, seemingly impossible catch. This is compounded by the John T. Brush stairs, the sole part of the park that remains standing.

Perhaps exasperated by fans watching his Giants play for free, Brush built a stairwell at the top of Coogan’s Bluff, leading down to a ticket booth. I have no idea if Brush’s stairs actually induced anyone to purchase a ticket to a game they were otherwise planning to watch for nothing, but the stairs remain.

As you can tell, the steps themselves are not terribly well-maintained, and I suspect those metal barricades are supposed to deter people like me from tromping up them. But tromp up I did (with my father and a cousin, just to make sure that if the stairs collapsed it would be a wide-ranging family tragedy), and about halfway up is a plaque, the only real artifact of the Polo Grounds that remains.

Never having been to the Polo Grounds—though both my parents had—it was all but impossible to stand on the Brush stairs and see myself walking down to buy a ticket and then head in to watch the Giants. But I am glad I went. History matters, and even somewhere as distant from its past as the Polo Grounds site matters.

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The last standing piece of the Polo Grounds

On a final note, this will be my final column of 2009. I thank you, sincerely, for reading, be it every week or just now and then. My gratitude is real and it is profound. Enjoy your holidays, and Happy New Year. I’ll see everyone in 2010.

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Comments

  1. JimBob said...

    Thanks. As a kid, I was dazzled by the romanticism of the phrase, The Little Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff. Nice to learn a bit more about it.  .  .

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