History Of The Polo Grounds In New York

Polo Grounds History

Feature Photo: Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The first location of the Polo Grounds opened in 1876 as a facility to accommodate the sport of polo. Then in 1889, it was demolished to make way for a baseball stadium that was leased in 1880 by the New York Metropolitans. Since then, it served as a facility that served Upper Manhattan with the three stadiums that would share this parkland until Shea Stadium replaced all of it in 1964. Situated on the streets north of 110th and south of 112th, then west by the avenues Fifth and Sixth, Polo Grounds sat just north of Central Park.

In the Beginning

The first of the four Polo Grounds development stood on 110th Street, situated between Fifth and Sixth Avenue. It was directly across the street from Central Park’s northeast corner. The idea was to use the facility for polo, the sport the park was named after. Technically speaking, it really wasn’t given an exact title. That was simply the description the newspapers gave it when it was first built.

When the baseball team known as the Metropolitans began playing there in 1880, they soon met with the opportunity to upgrade themselves to major league baseball status by joining the National League. In 1880, they became the first professionally graded baseball team. Then in 1882, the field at Polo Grounds had a second team occupant, the New York Gothams. This was the same team that would later rename themselves the Giants. These two teams, along with a recently defunct Troy Trojans, paired up as they entered the majors, namely the National League and the American Association.

Technically, the Gothams were a new team that was developed after the Metropolitans were first offered to enter the National League. As they did so, they also recruited players from the recently defunct Troy Trojans. Meanwhile, the rest of the Metropolitan team entered the American Association as its own entity.

Because of this, there was a need for a second baseball diamond at the Polo Grounds, as well as a grandstand. The eastern diamond catered to the National League Gothams while the western field hosted the American Association Metropolitans. The year was 1883 when the newly developed home stadium at the grounds hosted the first MLB game. However, despite the best intentions, the arrangement of two fields inside the stadium met with certain conditions that made this an unworkable arrangement. As a result, the two teams wound up abandoning the western field as it didn’t share the same quality level as the eastern one.

Roomies

Even though the Polo Grounds was the home base for New York’s baseball teams, it also catered to a series of other sporting events played by other teams. On May 30, 1882, the Polo Grounds celebrated Decoration Day with Princeton University and Yale University squaring off against each other as baseball teams. On November 29, 1883, the football teams belonging to Yale and Harvard played against each other from the grounds as part of their Thanksgiving Day tradition. They did this again on November 24, 1887.

In 1884, as the New York Giants quickly became the baseball team of choice, the men started the season in the newly built Metropolitan Park. However, the venue was unable to properly accommodate the team’s needs so it promptly moved back to the Polo Grounds. Once again, the Metropolitans had to share the territory with a second team. Despite this, the team was able to win the American Association pennant. However, they were unable to overcome the Providence Grays in the World Series. The Polo Grounds hosted all three of the games to what was a humbling three-game shutout.

For the season of 1885, the Polo Grounds once again saw two of New York City’s professional baseball teams share the field. Then in 1886, the Metropolitans relocated the team to Staten Island’s St. George Cricket Grounds.

Coogan’s Bluff

As New York City continued to grow and develop, the need to expand in order to accommodate faced the reality the original Polo Grounds needed to relocate. This was necessary as city officials extended uptown Manhattan’s street grid in 1889. The grounds became a source of controversy as the New York Giants won the 1988 World Series in that very field. Despite state legislature passing a bill that allowed the Giants and Polo Grounds to stay put, Governor David B. Hill vetoed the decision as he felt the city government’s will deserved more respect than a baseball team and its park.

This resulted in a forced relocation that saw the New York Giants start the 1889 season in Jersey City’s Oakland Park before moving to the St. George Cricket Grounds. Since the New York Metropolitans were no more as of 1887, the team continued to play their home games there until June 14th. When they returned on July 8th, they relocated to the new Polo Grounds, which was situated on 155th Street and 8th Avenue. Even though the location was new, the old Polo Grounds stands were moved there in order to accommodate the crowd. Despite this dramatic year, the Giants were able to defeat the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, therefore winning another World Series championship.

The bathtub design and location of this particular site made it easy for fans to watch the games from the hill on Coogan’s Bluff without having to buy tickets. The Polo Grounds at that time was located in Coogan’s Hollow, which was designed in a manner that had an unusually deep center field compared to the shorter center walls belonging to the left and the right. Aside from renting the Polo Grounds to the Giants, there were also a few ball games played by the Brooklyn Dodgers during the summer of 1890.

Known as Brotherhood Park at the time when it opened in 1890, the second franchise of the New York Giants was registered as a team in the Players’ League. This was created as the first union of MLB’s Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players. When the National League owners refused to work with the union, the Brotherhood founded its own league the same year the Giants and the Players’ League were founded.

April 19, 1890, witnessed the Players’ League’s New York Giants play at the same time the National League’s New York Giants played theirs. The PL Giants built Brotherhood Park on the north side of Coogan’s Hollow, right next door to Polo Grounds II. These two teams played the 1890 season as neighbors sharing the same field that was bounded by railyards and the bluff. Fans located up high in the stands could watch two games play at the same time, as well as watch a home run ball land on the other team’s playing field.

For only one season, there were two different New York Giants professional baseball teams. The Pacific League folded, resulting in players from the Brotherhood returning to the National League. As soon as this happened, the National League’s Giants moved out of Polo Grounds II and over to Brotherhood Park as it was the larger of the two. Upon the move, they took the name Polo Grounds with them. Brotherhood Park was renamed Polo Grounds, a name that would remain as II, III, and IV would stay in Coogan’s Hollow for nearly seven decades.

Polo Grounds III

Where the original Polo Grounds and Polo Grounds II served as humble venues in New York City, the same couldn’t be said about Polo Grounds III. After it was built in 1890, it originally had an open outfield that was lined by outer fencing. The bleachers that were later added encroached on the field from the foul lines about halfway along the left and right locations. There was also a cigar box bleacher setup on both sides of the batter’s eye located in the center field. It was later cut down just enough to accommodate the vehicles that were allowed to park there.

When Polo Grounds III was completed, the New York Giants moved into it at the start of the 1891 season while Polo Grounds II was sub-leased to the Manhattan Athletic Club. After this, Polo Grounds II was referred to as Manhattan Field. It was later converted to accommodate other sports, including football and track. The Coogan’s Bluff location of Polo Grounds was the site that witnessed the infamous game between the Giants and the Chicago Cubs on September 23, 1908. This was the one that featured rookie Fred Merkle’s base running mistake that robbed the Giants of what would have been a sure win against the Cubs. Dubbed Merkle’s Boner, this fatal mistake cost the Giants the National League pennant.

Polo Grounds IV

In 1910, the bleachers were built as a multi-faceted enclosure to the outfield. This approach left a couple of gaps in some of the sections that would prove to be significant in 1911. During the wee morning hours of Friday, April 14, 1911, a fire broke out in the stands of Polo Grounds II. This horseshoe-shaped grandstand was engulfed in flames that left only the steel uprights in place. Because of the gaps between the sections of the stadium, this saved a significant portion of the outfield seating, as well as the clubhouse, from experiencing the same fate.

Polo Grounds History

Feature Photo: Bain News Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Then-owner of the Giants, John T. Brush, made the decision to build a new Polo Grounds stadium out of concrete and steel. While it was under construction, Hilltop Park was rented from the Highlanders for three months. On June 28, 1911, the new Polo Grounds stadium was able to reopen its doors. Even though the seating areas weren’t entirely complete yet, the games continued as scheduled.

As a new structure, Polo Grounds mostly remained as-is, including the wooden bleachers that survived the fire, thanks to the gaps that saved them from destruction. Those gaps also remained on each side but now with fireproof material to ensure history wouldn’t repeat itself. Another key change to this newly constructed stadium was an extension of the deep right-center field.

However, in 1923 the old bleachers were demolished, making way for a double deck that was extended around most of the rest of the field with a new set of seats and a clubhouse. This stretched across the center field which created a bathtub look. Because of this, the Polo Grounds stadium would be nicknamed “The Bathtub.”

After the Polo Grounds experienced its 1911 fire and underwent extensive renovations, the Manhattan Field had its superstructure completely demolished. This began the era of Polo Grounds IV. The New York Giants had been affiliated with Polo Grounds from 1889 until 1957.

Hot Shots

It was at this Polo Grounds location that witnessed Babe Ruth’s first home run as a New York Yankee as May 1, 1920, marked the day he knocked the ball over the right field grandstand, into Manhattan Field. It traveled about five hundred feet before landing on a field that wouldn’t have another structure built on it for twenty years since it was demolished in 1911. From 1913 until 1922, the New York Giants had to share Polo Grounds with the New York Yankees.

Polo Grounds History

Photo: Bain News Service, publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On August 16, 1920, an unexpected tragedy struck when Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by the New York Yankees’ star pitcher, Carl Mays. The shortstop from the Cleveland Indians was at bat without a helmet when he was struck. Twelve hours after he was hit, he became the one and only player in the history of Major League Baseball to sustain a fatal injury during a game. At the time, ballplayers didn’t wear head protection while batting from home plate.

On July 4, 1950, another tragic event claimed the life of Bernard Doyle. The Irish-born fan resident of Fairview, New Jersey was seated in the grandstand when a stray bullet struck and killed him one hour before the start of the game. The shooter was a fourteen-year-old boy who shot a .45 caliber pistol in the air from the rooftop of his home that was located just a thousand feet away from where Doyle was sitting. The game held at Polo Grounds that day was a doubleheader between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants.

It was also Polo Grounds IV that featured the historical “Shot Heard ‘Round the World'” moment when the National League pennant featured the New York Giants defeating their neighborhood rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. This infamous October 3, 1951, walk-off home run moment was the world-famous hit that put Bobby Thomson in the history books after besting pitcher Ralph Branca in this roughly fought series.

Ground Expansion

It was at the fourth Polo Grounds that witnessed the 1934 and 1942 MLB All-Star games. As more people attended live ball games, the need to accommodate them extended beyond available seating. In 1948, the Giants wound up leasing Manhattan Field’s property, turning it into a parking lot for the fans attending Polo Grounds to watch either its ballgame or whatever event was scheduled to take place there.

The quirkiness of Polo Grounds as a ballpark design had a left field line measurement of 279 feet and a right feel line measurement of 258 feet. There was also a twenty-one-foot overhand on the left that often intercepted fly balls that otherwise would have been catchable. Often, it was enough to score a home run whenever a ball was sent there. Then there were the gaps and the 450-foot distance in the deepest left and right centers. Overall, this bathtub design featured an infamous photograph of Willie Mays making the historical catch in the 1954 World Series after Vic Wertz from the Cleveland Indians hit the ball in what would have otherwise been a guaranteed home run swing. This took place in front of the batter’s eye, which was a metal screen situated on top of the grandstand wall to the right of the centerfield runway.

Growing Pains

Unfortunately for the Polo Grounds, the design of the Yankee Stadium in 1923 served as a preferred venue for baseball fans. There was a better seating capacity, which put the stadium at Pole Grounds in a position where they needed to come up with a solution just to stay competitive as a sporting complex with equivalent fan appeal. However, when the stadium finished with its new seating arrangement, it realized they were now better suited as a football stadium instead of for baseball.

Adding to the woes of Polo Grounds was the lack of parking availability. This led to accessibility issues that made the venue less appealing over the stretch of time. With the population of New York City growing at such a fast pace, the facility’s ability to accommodate the surge of traffic was met with challenges that suggested perhaps the future of Polo Grounds was in jeopardy.

When Horace Stoneham made the decision to relocate his Giants baseball team to California, this struck a devastating blow to the Polo Grounds, as well as New Yorkers. At this point, the stadium in Coogan’s Bluff was showing its age with no sign of improvement to turn this dilapidating state around. After winning five World Series in the Polo Grounds, the Giants said goodbye to New York and hello to San Fransisco.

Polo’s End

1957 marked the beginning of the end for the Polo Grounds as it remained mostly vacant after the Giants left. In an effort to fill the void, the Polo Grounds hosted stock car racing events in 1958 and 1959. This venue already served as an oval race track in 1940 and 1941, then briefly as a board track in 1948.

Despite the New York Titans renting the facility in 1960 that would later become the New York Jets, it was not enough. In 1961, the City of New York claimed the land under the eminent domain clause. The idea was to condemn Pole Grounds and put in place of its existing buildings a high-rise housing project. This was met with opposition by the Coogan Family, as well as New Yorkers who wanted to see the site preserved.

Even though it did serve as the temporary home for the new National League expansion baseball team called the New York Mets during the 1962 and 1963 seasons, the stadium with so much history was about to meet its end. They, along with the New York Jets, only intended to play their home games in the Polo Grounds stadium until the Shea Stadium was ready to accommodate them.

September 18, 1963, marked the final game the New York Mets played at the Polo Grounds. The 1,752 fans that were there watched their team lose to the Philadelphia Phillies 5-1. This was followed by an October 12th final exhibition game played between the Latin American All-Stars of the National League managed by Roberto Clemente and the American League All-Stars managed by Hector Lopez. Clemente’s team earned the win, 5-2.

On December 14, 1963, the final sporting event the Polo Grounds hosted was between the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills. That match resulted in a loss against their state rivals, 19-10.

On April 10, 1964, the demolition crew featured a wrecking ball that was painted to look like the same baseball that was used four years earlier on Ebbets Field. The sixty crewmen sported Giants jerseys and tipped their hats to the historical Polo Grounds stadium before getting to work. The dismantling of the stadium took just over four months to complete.

Even after the Polo Grounds was vacated by the teams that once upon a time called it home and was demolished in 1964, the legal battle between the Coogans and the city government of New York continued until the courts ruled in favor of the city in 1967. In 1968, the New York City Housing Authority opened up the Polo Grounds Towers, a public housing complex that has been there ever since.

Polo’s Legacy

Aside from serving as a home to some of New York City’s most iconic sports teams, Polo Grounds also hosted the 1936 NFL Championship Game that was originally scheduled to take place at Fenway Park. At the time, it was Boston Redskins going up against the Green Bay Packers. Because sales were so low in Boston at the time, the decision was made to bring the game to New York City. After this, the team left Boston for good, becoming the Washington Redskins.

In soccer, it became a favorite host for international matches over the years. This began in 1894 when the owners of various baseball clubs looked into using the stadium when teams like the Giants were done for the season. Together, they formed an American Football section as a sport that was played by the ball players. The soccer team belonging to the New York Giants played six games before the threat of a rival newly developed baseball league loomed. From that point forth, the team stuck to baseball.

The interest in what’s otherwise called football outside North America eventually sparked large crowds to come to watch the games. 1926 marked the year the all-Jewish team from Austria take on a New York team associated with the American Soccer League. Among the 46,000 fans who watched, their national heroes earned a 3-0 win by the end of the game.

There was enough interest for the New York Nationals to develop its own team and enter the American Soccer League in 1927. The Polo Grounds served as their home turf that also happened to host a series of high-profile national and international matches until 1930. Although short-lived, the sport known as soccer in the US owed the spike in its popularity at the time to the high-profile games that were held at the Polo Grounds up until the United States entered World War II.

After World War II, the Polo Grounds hosted the All-Ireland Senior Gaelic Football championship final that took place between Cavan and Kerry. On September 14, 1947, New York City hosted this match in memory of the 1847 Irish famine that caused so many people to immigrate to North America from Ireland. This historical event witnessed Cavan win the game that was remembered for Michael O’Hehir’s successful pleas for the station he worked for to keep the live broadcast going until the end of the game. At the Polo Grounds, Gaelic football continued until Cavan played New York on June 1, 1958.

Aside from team sports, the Polo Grounds also hosted several boxing matches. The 1923 heavyweight championship battle between Jack Dempsey and Luis Angel Firpo remains as one of the most epic fights of all time. This was the venue that witnessed so many legendary fights that featured greats such as Billy Conn, Ingemar Johansson, Joe Louis, and Floyd Patterson. In fact, the final boxing match to be held at the Polo Grounds witnessed Patterson become the first heavyweight boxer to take back his championship. On June 20, 1960, almost a year to the day after he lost the title to Sweden’s Johanssen, this was a sweet victory for Patterson.

Still Standing

Once upon a time, when Polo Grounds was still relatively new and it was owned by John T. Brush, the team players wanted the sporting venue to be named Brush Stadium. However, Pole Grounds was the name that prevailed. Even though this Coogan’s Bluff venue is no more, the John T. Brush Stairway was a stairway that opened in 1913 that led to the ticket booth that overlooked the stadium. It offered a clear view for the fans to view the stadium who didn’t purchase a ticket just to see the game. This restored stairway was christened “The John T. Brush Stairway Presented By The New York Giants” as a city landmark that runs down the bluff from Edgecombe Avenue to Harlem River Driveway.

Even though Pole Grounds stands no more as a stadium, its legacy still stands with the stairway, as well as the collection of memories that still have sights and sounds that can still be seen and heard around the world. The Polo Grounds is a Hall of Famer, deserving just as much right to be honored as the legendary athletes who played there.

Resources:

https://www.ballparksofbaseball.com/ballparks/polo-grounds/

https://ballparkmuseum.com/polo-grounds/

https://www.profootballarchives.com/nflboxscores1/1963afl051.html

 

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