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Polo Grounds

The scene of some of the most memorable moments in sports history, New York's Polo Grounds served as home at various times to five different professional baseball and football teams. Although the ballpark became most closely associated with the National League's New York Giants through the years, the Yankees and Mets also called the Polo Grounds home for a few seasons.  Meanwhile, the National Football League's New York Giants and the American Football League's New York Titans both played their home games in this historic ballpark for a period of time.  All-time great players such as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Mel Ott, and Christy Mathewson accomplished some of their greatest feats at the Polo Grounds, which served as host to 16 pennant-winning and five world championship baseball teams.  Ruth established new single-season home run records in consecutive years in 1920 and 1921, before the Yankees were evicted from the Polo Grounds by envious Giants' manager John McGraw, who felt the American League franchise was turning his team into second-class citizens in its own ballpark.  Mays made his famous over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz's long fly ball in Game One of the 1954 World Series against the Cleveland Indians.  Bobby Thomson hit The Shot Heard Round The World against the arch-rival Brooklyn Dodgers to give the Giants the 1951 National League pennant.  And Giants hurler Carl Hubbell struck out five consecutive future Hall of Famers in 1934's Major League All-Star Game, played at the Polo Grounds.

 

The stadium also hosted the 1942 All-Star Game and the first game of the 1946 Negro League World Series.  The New York Football Giants won their first two NFL titles while playing their home games in the Polo Grounds.  And the stadium hosted some of the most historic matches in boxing history, including the September 14, 1923 heavyweight championship battle between legendary title holder Jack Dempsey and challenger Luis Firpo.

 

Originally built in 1876 for the sport of polo, there were actually four incarnations of the Polo Grounds.  Situated just north of Manhattan's Central Park, and bounded on the south and north by 110th and 112th Streets, and on the east and west by Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the first version was converted to a baseball stadium when it was leased by an independent team known as the New York Metropolitans in 1880.  It was subsequently used jointly by the Metropolitans and Giants from 1883 to 1885, until the former went out of business.  Featuring star first baseman Roger Connor, the Giants captured their first National League pennant in 1888, the final season during which they played their home games in this earliest version of the Polo Grounds.

 

The Giants moved north to 155th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues in 1889, after the city chose to demolish the original Polo Grounds at the conclusion of the previous campaign.  Overlooked to the north and west by a steep promontory known as Coogan's Bluff, Polo Grounds II served as home to the Giants until the team moved into the third version of the ballpark in 1891.

 

First referred to as "Brotherhood Park," Polo Grounds III was originally constructed in 1890 in the northern half of Coogan's Hollow, right next door to Polo Grounds II.  After spending the previous two years playing their home games in the more southern ballpark, the Giants moved into the much larger Polo Grounds III in 1891.  Built mostly of wood, this third version of the stadium was decimated by a fire of unknown origin that swept through the horseshoe-shaped portion of the grandstand on April 14, 1911.  The blaze consumed much of the stadium, leaving only the steel uprights in place.  Giants owner John T. Brush decided to rent Hilltop Park from the Yankees while rebuilding the Polo Grounds with concrete and steel.

 

The sixth concrete-and-steel stadium in the major leagues, the Polo Grounds IV opened for business on June 28, 1911 on the same site as its predecessor, with new seating areas being rebuilt during the season as games were played.  The grandstand initially consisted of 16,000 seats, but its seating capacity increased to 34,000 by the end of the season.  Double decked grandstands extended from home plate to half-way down the left field line and 40 feet past the right field foul pole.  The new structure retained virtually the same shape as the previous version of the ballpark, with the remaining old bleachers finally being demolished in 1923, when the permanent double-deck was extended around the majority of the playing field and new bleachers and a new clubhouse area were constructed across center field.  The new additions increased the stadium's seating capacity to 54,555. 

 

This latest version of the Polo Grounds is the one that most people tend to think of when they hear its name mentioned.  Its unusual dimensions, which very much gave it the appearance of a horseshoe, was its most noted quirk.  Although markings were never posted on either the left or the  right field wall, the distances down the foul lines were unofficially recorded as 279 feet to left and 258 feet to right.  There was also a 21-foot overhang extending from the left field upper deck, which often turned apparent fly-ball outs into home runs.  Meanwhile, the left and rightcenter field fences stood close to 450 feet from home plate, with the deepest part of centerfield being marked off at a distant 483 feet.  The center field wall ran straight across, except for a large cutout square in dead center that was the entrance to the clubhouses.  The bullpens were in the outfield in play.

 

The dimensions of the stadium were tinkered with at various times through the years, but they remained essentially the same throughout its duration. Another somewhat unusual feature to the ballpark was its downward slope in the outfield.  Since the level of the infield was actually higher than that of the outfield, a view from each dugout often enabled the observer to see only the top half of the outfielders.   

 

In spite of its quirkiness, the Polo Grounds was generally considered to be an enjoyable place to watch a ballgame, and it served as the backdrop to some of the most famous moments in baseball history.  After the Giants lost the World Series four times between 1911 and 1917, they posted consecutive Series victories over the Yankees in 1921 and 1922.  Since the Yankees shared the Polo Grounds with the Giants from 1913 to 1922, the stadium hosted all 13 Series contests between the two teams.  It also was the site of numerous World Series games in 1923, 1924, 1936, 1937, 1951, and 1954, although the Giants came out on top in only the 1954 Fall Classic.

 

Willie Mays made one of the most extraordinary catches in baseball history in Game One of the 1954 Series when he robbed Cleveland's Vic Wertz of at least a triple with a sensational over-the-shoulder grab some 450-feet from home plate.  In describing the catch, radio announcer Jack Brichouse said that it "must have looked like an optical illusion to a lot of people."  The Giants went on to sweep the Series from the Indians in four games.

 

Just three years earlier, Bobby Thomson climaxed a miracle comeback by the Giants during the season's final two months when he hit arguably the most famous home run in baseball history.  With the Giants trailing the arch-rival Brooklyn Dodgers 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning in the deciding game of a three-game playoff to determine the N.L. pennant-winner, Thomson faced Dodger righthander Ralph Branca with two men on base and one man out.  The Giants' slugger hit Branca's second pitch into the leftfield stands in the Polo Grounds to give his team the pennant and send the ballpark into a frenzy. Thomson's homer, which became known as The Shot Heard Round The World, is still considered by many to be the greatest single moment in sports history.

 

Another extraordinary moment took place during the 1934 All-Star Game held at the Polo Grounds, when Giants lefthander Carl Hubbell used his baffling screwball to strike out future Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin in succession.  Hubbell's accomplishment remains to this day the most memorable in All-Star Game history.

 

Falling attendance prompted the Giants to follow the Dodgers to the West Coast at the conclusion of the 1957 season.  The team played its final game at the Polo Grounds on September 29, 1957, leaving the ballpark without a tenant for the first time in its history.  The football Giants had also used the stadium as their home ballpark from 1925 to 1955, winning their first two NFL titles during that period.  But they began playing their home games in nearby Yankee Stadium in 1956, leaving the ballpark in Manhattan without an NFL representative as well.

 

The Polo Grounds sat largely vacant for the next three years, until the newly-formed American Football League's New York Titans moved into the ballpark in 1960.  When the National League expanded to 10 teams in 1962, the New York Mets brought summer baseball back to the Polo Grounds.  However, both the Mets and the Jets (formerly the Titans) moved into newly-constructed Shea Stadium in 1964, signaling impending doom for the old ballpark.  Demolition of the Polo Grounds began on April 10, 1964, with the same wrecking ball that had been used four years earlier on Ebbets Field.  The Polo Grounds Towers public housing project opened on the site in 1968, and still stands on the same ground that once housed this historic ballpark.    

 

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Tagged:
1951 World Series, 1954 World Series, All-Star Game, Bobby Thompson, Carl Hubbell, Polo Grounds, Polo Grounds I, Polo Grounds IV, Willie Mays

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