Polo Grounds in 1923. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polo_Grounds_1923.jpg

Polo Grounds

Located off the Harlem River in Manhattan, the Polo Grounds was the home for the New York Giants from 1891 until they moved to San Francisco in 1957. With World Series, Army Navy Games, and even boxing matches held there, the Polo Grounds was one of the most popular establishments in the New York sports world during its time in service. Although it was torn down in 1964 to build apartments, the Polo Grounds and the remnants of its historic stairway still live on to this day.

The first version of the Polo Grounds was built by the owner of the National League New York Giants, John B. Day, in 1883. This field was located in Central Park between 110th and 112th street and West of Fifth Avenue.[1] This area of Central Park was known for holding polo matches in the past, hence how the ball field got its iconic name. However, just a few seasons after opening its doors, the Polo Ground faced its first threat to its existence. In 1889, the city council kicked the Giants out of their field in Central Park for construction, forcing them to find a new location for a field in the middle of the 1889 season. In response, Day moved his Giants to Harlem and rented out an area in Coogan’s Hollow, owned by real estate owner James J. Coogan.[2] With the name of the ballpark moving with Day’s Giants, this would become the second version of the Polo Grounds, where the Giants would play through the 1890 season. Ironically enough, another team part of the Player’s League also had their field at Coogan’s Hollow. Their name was also the New York Giants. However, this was short lived and in in 1891, when the Players League folded, Day’s Giants moved into their competitor’s larger ballpark a few hundred feet from their previous location, taking the name the Polo Grounds with them.[3] This would be the third and final location of the Polo Grounds, eventually becoming the version of the ballpark most widely regarded by many. 

merkles-boner
Fans watch from atop Coogan’s Bluff, a hill located over the top of the final location of the Polo Grounds in 1908. This particular game which this photo is taken would go down in history as the Cubs beat the Giants over a controversial call. Known as Merkle’s Boner, Giants player Fred Merkle didn’t touch second base after the game winning hit in attempt to avoid fans rushing the field. The Cubs players realizing this, grabbed the ball and touched second base. The umpires called Merkle out, and the game was continued. Not only did the Cubs go on to win the game, but they went on to steal the National League Pennant from the Giants and win the 1908 World Series. [4]
 With constant moving of locations during its early years, these versions of the Polo Grounds represent the early years in the game of baseball. With professional baseball still catching on during the late nineteenth century. The Polo Grounds evolution from a large field in Central Park to a brand new stadium by 1891 coincides with the evolution of the game. As baseball grew, the venues which hosted the Polo Grounds also evolved, catching a unique time in American history as its pastime was still growing.

The third version of the Polo Grounds was located under a magnificent hill in an open meadow. This hill would become known as Coogan’s Bluff and serve as an area for onlookers to watch games from above the field. To get to the ticket booths, fans walked down a long stairway from the top of Coogan’s Bluff. Unique to other ballparks, the ticket booths served as the entrance to the upper deck, making the Polo Grounds the only Major League Ballpark where fans walked down flights of stairs to get to the upper deck rather than up.[5] This iconic aspect of the ballpark would make for a unique fan experience, one so significant that the stairway remains the only evidence of the Polo Grounds today.  Constructed of mostly wood, the ballpark sported a curved roof hovering over home plate, hanging over the ballpark’s two decks. This early version of the Polo Grounds held 16,000 people and featured spaces behind center field for fans to watch games with their horses and carriages.[6] In this era it was common for spectators to hover together and watch in the deep areas of the outfield, as the “dead-ball” that was used in the games did not travel far. A rope was set up for the spectators to stand behind in order to keep them interfering with the games.

The aspect of fans watching in the depths of the outfield represents a time where fan experience was more in touch with players and the game itself, getting close to the action with limited security and barriers from the players. The Polo Grounds allowed for baseball fans to experience the game up close and personal, something that has been lost with the building of today’s ballparks. Spectators watching on Coogan’s Bluff acted as a unique feature to the Polo Grounds, as today fields are built above ground, making such a view unavailable for fans. In addition, fans could interact with players because they were so close to the field. This can be seen from the stadiums early years with fans watching in the depths of the outfield as well as throughout the remainder of its existence. In fact, in 1955, two young boys went out to second base when the Giants where playing the Dodgers to congratulate Jackie Robinson.[7] This would never happen today, as stadium security would apprehend the boys for storming the field. Fans could also access autographs and baseballs from the players easily, due to the little security in the ballpark. Jaqueline W. Brown even describes from her memories of trips to the Polo Grounds as a kid that “[she] could hear the conversation of the players as they warmed up.”[8]

In 1905, bleachers where added to the outfield, further evolving the third version of the Polo Grounds. However, this would be the final set up of the third establishment of the Polo Grounds, as unforeseen complications would arise. On the fourteenth of April in 1911, a fire ignited in the stadium when the Giants were out of town. The fire destroyed the majority of the ballpark, leaving damage of over $250,000. [9] With the third version burned and ruined, the Giants needed to rebuild the Polo Grounds. This would be the fourth and final version of the Polo Grounds, a refurbishing and rebuilding of the third version in the same location on Coogans’s Hollow. With the construction process underway, the Giants would move to Hilltop Park, the home of the Yankees, until the Polo Grounds would open again. Nonetheless the Polo Grounds rebuilding process was quick, and in late June 1911 when 16,000 seats where completed, the Giants were able to move back to the Polo Grounds where they would finish out the season.

A view from the early days of the Polo Grounds during the 1905 World Series. Notice how fans are standing in the outfield and that there is no fence in the outfield. Also take note of the horses and carriages in the very front of the picture.[10]
A view from the early days of the Polo Grounds during the 1905 World Series. Notice how fans are standing in the outfield without a fence blocking their view. Also note the horses and carriages in the very front of the picture towards the back of the outfield.[10]
Only partially rebuilt at the time of reopening in June, the fourth version of the Polo Grounds continued to be constructed throughout the remainder of the 1911 season. In fact, by the 1911 World Series when the Giants hosted the Philadelphia Athletics, 34,000 seats had been completed in the rebuilt Polo Grounds.[11] Following a similar design to the previous version, this ballpark had a giant roof curved behind home plate, stretching to each foul pole. The concrete and steel roof served as a canopy for the two decks of seats below, overlooking the outfield bleachers. After the rebuilding process following the 1911 fire was complete, the new field was named to honor Giants Owner John Brush, but soon changed back to the Polo Grounds. The total seating capacity of the fourth and final version of the Polo Grounds would reach  55,000 by 1922, with a fence outlining the whole field.[12]

Following the 1912 season, the Yankees moved to the Polo Grounds, sharing it with the Giants. The Yankees would remain at the Polo Grounds until the completion of Yankee Stadium in 1923. Coincidentally, the Giants and Yankees played each other in the World Series in 1921 and 1922, making all of the World Series games played at the Polo Grounds during those years. After the completion of the World Series in 1922, the roof of the ballpark behind home plate was built further down the field, eventually covering the left and right field bleachers. This double deck reached nearly around the whole stadium, with the exception of dead center field where the player’s clubhouses and offices were located.  This would be the form of the stadium that would become most famous, earning its nickname the “bathtub” due to its shape.[13] Significantly enough, the team New York City would become renown for did not have their own stadium for eleven years. The Yankees sharing the Polo Grounds illuminates that during the early twentieth century, the Giants were more relevant than the Yankees, having appeared in nearly twice as many World Series through 1923.[14] In fact, it was not until 1923 during their third meeting in the World Series where the Yankees defeated the Giants to win their first World Series title, eventually going on to take over baseball in the city and whole league with a total record of 27 World Series wins to this day. The Polo Grounds hosting two Major League teams for eleven years further shows the impact the Polo Grounds had on New York baseball, acting as the most important ballpark in the city hosting twice as many games as Ebbets Field in Brooklyn during that time period.

Between the early and mid-twentieth century, New York City and America as a whole grew witness to major advancements in technology. Before the popularity of the automobile took the city by storm, as seen in the photo from the 1905 World Series, fans would actually take a horse and carriage to the game, even watching from the outfield grass. As the subway system further developed, fans could get to the ballpark early and effortlessly to watch batting practice, again giving fans a stronger connection to the players. Transportation companies actually benefited greatly from fan traffic at the Polo Grounds. In 1913, the Wall Street Journal reported that transportation companies would receive a bonus increased by two thousand dollars in profit just due to the World Series at the Polo Grounds. The article states that, “the official attendance [for the first game of the World Series] was 36,291, and the great bulk of these people used the subways, the elevated, or surface line in getting to and from the Polo Grounds.” [15] As the city became more connected, more people were able to enjoy the experience that the Polo Grounds provided, even if they lived across the city in Brooklyn or Queens.

 

The Fourth and final version of the Polo Grounds. From this viewpoint you can see the bathtub shape that the Polo Grounds has as well as the extremely deep center field. Also notice the double deck that wraps around all whole stadium with the exception of center field.[16]
The Fourth and final version of the Polo Grounds. From this viewpoint you can see the bathtub shape that the Polo Grounds has as well as the extremely deep center field. Also notice the double deck that wraps around all whole stadium with the exception of center field.[16]
Another significant feature of the Polo Grounds were the dimensions of the outfield fences. Down the left field line, the Polo Grounds sported an extremely short 279 foot distance from home plate to the foul pole; the right field line was even shorter, maxing out at 257 feet. Essentially, these distances remained the same throughout the entirety of the ballparks history, from its beginnings as a wooden ballpark to the final version made of steel and concrete.[17] The left field upper deck in the fourth version of the Polo Grounds hung over the fence below by 23 feet[18]; if players were able to elevate balls down the left field line, the overhanging upper deck would catch balls that otherwise could have been caught by the left fielder. The distance to dead center field from home plate where the clubhouses were located was 483 feet, while the distance to each side of the bleachers in center field was 460 feet. The result of this major drop off in center field distance from dead center to the center field bleachers was due to the unique pathway which lead to the offices and clubhouses. Big gaps in left center and right center also created an obstacle for outfielders, as line drives splitting the two outfielders would result in triples and possible inside the park home runs. However, with an extremely deep center field, many balls that would have been home runs in other ballparks would be caught by outfielders, including the famous Willie Mays catch in the 1954 World Series.[19]

In the eighth inning of game one of series, Vic Wertz of the Cleveland Indians hit a ball over four hundred fifty feet to dead center field. The Hall of Famer Willie Mays raced back to make an incredible over the shoulder catch, robbing Vic Wertz of a sure extra base hit. This catch by Mays would become considered by many to be the best catch ever made. Of course, such a catch was made possible by the deep center field that the Polo Grounds held, as a ball hit four hundred fifty feet in most ballparks would be a no-doubter home run. As seen in an article in the New York Times the following day, a Giants scout Tom Scheehan argued that Mays had made a better catch across the city at Ebbets Field. Scheehan exclaimed, “his catch on a ball hit by Bob Skinner was better than the one against Wertz.” [20] Little did Scheehan know that Mays’ catch during the World Series would go down in history, earning the nickname simply known as “the catch.”

“The Catch” by Willie Mays

In the 1954 World Series. [21]

Moreover, the height of the green painted fences differed throughout the whole ballpark, as the fences were to seventeen to eighteen feet in left field and eleven to twelve feet high in right field. The center field fence to the bleachers was four feet all the way until the pathway, as the wall was then raised and used as part of the batter’s eye[22]. These fences where located on both sides of the runway in center field, “each 20 feet wide and 17 feet high. They guarded each side of the runway leading to the clubhouse like the impressive lions in front of the main building of the New York Public Library.” [23]

The fourth version of the Polo Grounds would not have many changes made to it, and essentially remained the same ballpark until its demolition. The New York Giants, struggling to put fans in the seats, regardless of the teams success (including World Series appearances in 1951, 1954), would move to San Francisco following the 1957 season. This left the Polo Grounds without a team. In 1962 the New York Mets where named an expansion team by Major League Baseball. After spending three hundred thousand dollars on renovations, the Mets would play at the Polo Grounds during the 1962 and 1963 seasons while Shea Stadium was being constructed.[24] The last game ever played at the Polo Grounds was on September 18, 1963. With only a crowd of one thousand seven hundred, the Mets lost to the Phillies 5-1.[25] After the Mets left for Shea in 1964, the Polo Grounds no longer had a team to host once again, and this time it was planned to be torn down. The Polo Grounds was demolished on April 10, 1964, being replaced by multiple thirty story housing projects on Coogan’s Hollow.[26]  The only remaining part of the Polo Grounds is the iconic John T. Brush Stairway, which leads from the top of Coogan’s Bluff  where the ticket booths were to the entrance of the “bathtub” where the Polo Grounds used to stand.

With the Polo Grounds undergoing relocation, rebuilding, and expansion throughout its years, it can be seen that it coexists with the development of New York City. The Polo Grounds was first built before a subway system, before television, and during the early days of electricity. However, as the times progress and the city modernizes during the early and mid-twentieth century, the Polo Grounds develops by accommodating the city’s new developments. The Polo Grounds was able to have night games when lights were added in 1940 and fans could easily get to games with new subway lines connecting the city. Later on, with visions from New Yorkers such as Robert Moses, automobiles where able to be driven into the city from the suburbs to watch games, now making the Polo Grounds and the city more available than ever before. Also, New Yorkers were able to listen to and watch their teams even when they could not be there in person with the inventions of radio and television. During a time where transportation, infrastructure, and the city literally reach new heights, the Polo Grounds was at the center of New York’s development during the early and mid-twentieth century.

Army vs. Navy game in 1916. The Polo Grounds held many other sporting events, most notably football and boxing.[27]
Army vs. Navy game in 1916. The Polo Grounds held many other sporting events, most notably football and boxing.[27]
Although the Polo Grounds was built as a ballpark, it hosted other sporting events as well. In addition to hosting the baseball teams such as the Giants, Yankees, and Mets, it also acted as a home for football teams such as the New York Giants from 1925 to 1955 and New York Titans from 1960 to 1963 (who would later become the New York Jets).[28] The Polo Grounds bathtub shape made it perfect for hosting football games, as fans would get the viewpoint of modern NFL Stadiums which are built today in the same “bathtub” shape.

With New York City being no stranger to attention, the Polo Grounds hosted many national events, including multiple Major League All Star Games, where fans could see the best players from around the League perform in a one game showcase. Army-Navy games were also part of the history of the Polo Grounds, as the famous collegiate match up was held there on numerous occasions, including 1913 as the newspaper article below shows. Furthermore, as New York became a Mecca for Boxing, the Polo Grounds held boxing matches, including the famous Heavyweight Title in 1923, where Jack Dempsey defeated Luis Firpo. This boxing match would hold the record for attendance in the Polo Grounds, as a crowd of over 82,000 filled the Polo Grounds to witness the match.[29]

As mentioned earlier, a renowned event the Polo Grounds hosted multiple times was the famous Army and Navy football game, an American tradition that continues to this day. On the front page headlines in the New York Times Newspaper on November 30, 1913, Army defeated Navy while playing in the Polo Grounds with President Woodrow Wilson in attendance. The article states, “42,000 watch West Point win great gridiron victory at Polo Grounds…nations notables in record breaking crowd; most spectacular service game played.”[30] This article illuminates the Polo Grounds ability to host major events, as well as the stadium’s tradition of hosting football games early on in its history. This article also reveals that the Polo Grounds hosted famous spectators throughout history besides athletes, as President Wilson is mentioned here. With the Army-Navy game being an iconic part of American culture even today, the Polo Grounds played a part in the tradition’s foundation, hosting it during its beginnings. The Polo Grounds played a role in many national events such as the World Series, All Star Games, and boxing matches. All of these national events which the Polo Grounds hosted are still are relevant in American sports today.

As touched upon earlier, the Polo Grounds represented a time for baseball fans to experience the game up close and personal, something that has been lost with the building of today’s ballparks. Spectators watching on Coogan’s Bluff along with cheap ticket prices at ten cents apiece made baseball more accessible for fans than today. Nonetheless, regardless of all these differences, the Polo Grounds also represents the many similarities between the game of baseball throughout history. Just like the nineteen twenties and thirties at the Polo Grounds, fans can take the subway and other forms of public transportation to games today. Also, the tradition of grabbing a hot dog at the ballpark is still alive. Concession stands continue to fill the air with the aroma of ballpark food today. And of course, most importantly, baseball, football, and boxing essentially remain the same sports today regardless of their evolution. The core rules and general experience of watching sports in person remain the same as fans witnessed one hundred years ago in venues such as the Polo Grounds.

The Polo Grounds played a significant part in New York City, because it was one of the first major stadiums established in the city. Built before many of the city’s iconic stadiums, it served as an influence for future stadiums that would be built throughout New York. The similar bathtub shape would be used to build football stadiums such as Giants Stadium, and Yankee Stadium would be built right across the Harlem River in the Bronx. At the same time, sporting venues such as the Polo Grounds connected a large community of people with different backgrounds and classes. With the city becoming the melting pot that it was, we see that the Polo Grounds brought fans together to cheer for a common team, despite their differences.

As the city began to invest in sports as a community, baseball served as an event that the community could enjoy, and in a sense relate to. The grinding schedule of a baseball season and playing every day at the Polo Grounds relates immensely to the everyday workers in the rest of the city. Factory workers, construction workers, business men, and even those who worked on Wall Street could relate to the grind of performing every day. A trip to the Polo Grounds was an outlet for New Yorkers, who could get a break from their busy and tiring jobs. Although the Polo Grounds no longer stands below Coogan’s Bluff, the legend of the Polo Grounds lives on through its history and nostalgia.

Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds looking each other down across the Harlem River. The Macombs Dam Bridge located on the left, is one of the oldest bridges in New York City. It still stands today and can be seen when traveling across the river to Yankee Stadium.[31]
Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds looking each other down across the Harlem River. The Macombs Dam Bridge, located closest to the left, is one of the oldest bridges in New York City. It still stands today and can be seen when traveling across the river to Yankee Stadium.[31]

References

[1] Lawrence S Ritter, “Polo Grounds New York,” in Lost Ballparks: A Celebration of Baseball’s Legendary Fields (New York: Viking Studio, 1992), 158.

[2] Ibid., 158.

[3] Ibid., 159.

[4] “Merkles Boner” 1908,

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Merkles_Boner_game_Polo_Grounds_Sept23_1908.jpg [Accessed November 2016].

[5] Lawrence S. Ritter, 160

[6] Idem.

[7] “Classic Shots of the Polo Grounds,” http://www.si.com/mlb/photos/2013/09/18/classic-shots-polo-grounds [Accessed October 5, 2016].

[8] Jacqueline W. Brown, “From “Remnants”: At the Polo Grounds,” The Hudson Review 53.1 (2000): 69-74.

[9] “Polo Grounds – History, Photos and More of the New York Giants Former Ballpark,” http://www.ballparksofbaseball.com/ballparks/polo-grounds/Ballparks of Baseball – Your Guide to Major League Baseball Stadiums. [Accessed November 17, 2016].

[10] “Polo Grounds, New York, 1905,”

https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/2350720250/in/photostream, 1905 [Accessed November 17, 2016].

[11] Lawrence S. Ritter, 160.

[12] Ibid, 165.

[13] Lawrence S. Ritter, 162.

[14] “New York Yankees,” http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/NYY/ [Accessed December 2016].

[15] “World Series Games Mean Nickels to Traction Lines,” The Wall Street Journal, October 6, 1913.

[16] “Polo Grounds, Manhattan,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/12456197@N03/2406405114/, [Accessed November 17, 2016].

[17] Lawrence S. Ritter, 160.

[18] “Polo Grounds – History, Photos and More of the New York Giants Former Ballpark”

[19] Lawrence S. Ritter, 165.

[20] “Mays’ Catch Appraised,” The New York Times, September 30, 1954.

[21] “Willie Mays Greatest Catch,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWtzOsjTA2E

[22] Batters Eye- a dark wall or screen that is located behind the center field wall. Standard in Major League Ballparks, it is used to give the hitter a better view of the pitch delivered by the pitcher.

[23] Lawrence S. Ritter, 165.

[24] “Polo Grounds – History, Photos and More of the New York Giants Former Ballpark.”

[25] Lawrence S. Ritter, 166.

[26] “Polo Grounds – History, Photos and More of the New York Giants Former Ballpark.”

[27] “Army vs. Navy 1916,” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Army_-_Navy_football_at_Polo_Grounds.jpgWikimedia. [Accessed November 17, 2016].

[28] “Polo Grounds – History, Photos and More of the New York Giants Former Ballpark.”

[29] Lawrence S. Ritter, 165.

[30] “Army Smothers Annapolis Team by 22-9 Score.” The New York Times, November 30, 1913.

[31] “The Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/14154411@N03/7879487476.

 

Annotated Bibliography

“Army Smothers Annapolis Team by 22-9 Score.” The New York Times, November 30, 1913.

This primary source talks about the first Army Navy Game held at the Polo Grounds. Although the Polo Grounds was a famous baseball stadium, this source will helped me write about the other sporting events it held.

“Classic Shots of the Polo Grounds,” http://www.si.com/mlb/photos/2013/09/18/classic-shots-polo-grounds [Accessed October 5, 2016].

This secondary source is an illustrated history of the Polo Grounds with captions to go along with it. This article helped give a detailed history and visual of the Polo Grounds. Specifically, the photo of Jackie Robinson being greeted by two kids after a game is what I mention in my writing.

Jacqueline W. Brown, “From “Remnants”: At the Polo Grounds,” The Hudson Review 53.1 (2000): 69-74.

This secondary source is an interesting journal, in which a fan describes her memories of going to the stadium numerous times as a kid with her friend Willie. I used this in my writing to demonstrate the fan experience at the Polo Grounds.

 

“Mays’ Catch Appraised,” The New York Times, September 30, 1954.

This primary source is a newspaper article about the famous Willie Mays catch during the 1954 World Series. What makes this article interesting is that a Giants scout says that he’s seen Mays make better catches; little did he know this would become arguably the best catch ever made.

Lawrence S Ritter, “Polo Grounds New York,” in Lost Ballparks: A Celebration of Baseball’s Legendary Fields (New York: Viking Studio, 1992),

This secondary source has information filled with the stadiums history from the construction to the field’s dimensions. Helped give me insight on early history of Polo Grounds.

“Polo Grounds – History, Photos and More of the New York Giants Former Ballpark,” http://www.ballparksofbaseball.com/ballparks/polo-grounds/Ballparks of Baseball – Your Guide to Major League Baseball Stadiums. [Accessed November 17, 2016].

This secondary source also gives great insight on the stadium’s details, including characteristics and construction of Polo Grounds.

“World Series Games Mean Nickels to Traction Lines,” The Wall Street Journal, October 6, 1913.

This primary source gives a unique look into the early years of New York City transportation, and how the fans that attended the World Series raised the transportation companies’ revenue. I was able to use this article to show how transportation allowed people throughout the city to travel to Polo Grounds.

 

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