Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Polo Grounds Walking Tour: STEPPING BACK INTO TIME

Forget Ebbets Field. Forget PeeWee, Newk and The Duke. Forget Campy and Jackie too. The Boys of Summer returned home and no one wore Dodger Blue. Instead orange and black, the colors du jour, dotted Yankee Stadium during one three game series in early June when the San Francisco Giants faced the American League Champion New York Yankees.

While thousands cheered the new "Sultan of Swat," Barry Bonds, many diehard fans came to pay homage to baseball's past and New York City's forgotten team, the New York Giants and swap cherished memories of Willie, Bobby, The Barber, Dusty, Monte, and King Carl.

The San Francisco Giants, formerly of New York, once owned the city and played in the Polo Grounds a subway stop south of Yankee Stadium and a five minute walk across the McCombs Dam Bridge or the 155th Street bridge which spands the Harlem River. In fact the Yankees played at the Polo Grounds until their landlord, the Giants, gave them the boot after the 1922 season, when both teams met in the World Series.

The scripted orange letters on the visiting team's caps read SF but for New York Giant fans this did not matter. The Giants returned to the stadium for the first time since they played the Yankees in the 1962 World Series. To celebrate this event The New York Giants Baseball Historical Society organized an outing to Yankee Stadium combined with a walking tour of the old Polo Grounds site.

On Sunday, June 9, a beautiful sunny day, members began meeting at 10 a.m. outside the subway entrance at 155th and Eighth Avenue. As you exit the subway you see a large sign which reads "Polo Ground Houses." A city housing project replaced the hallowed field, the site of numerous championships in baseball, football and boxing.

Several members stood quietly flipping back 50, 60 years in time when this street was home turf for one of baseball's storied franchises, when an eighty-plus-year old man named Edward ambled over and broke the silence. Looking at Steve Rothschild, who wore a cap with the NY insignia, Giants wristbands and uniform top with 24, the number of his hero Willie Mays, he said "They are not playing here today. You might want to head there," he said pointing to Yankee Stadium on the other side of the river."
Edward, who has lived at the Colonial Houses, located across the street, north of the Polo Grounds housing since the early 1950s, added "I used to hear the crowd from my apartment. I knew when the Giants scored by how loud the people yelled. They were special times."
At 10:40, after thirty minutes of pre-tour chitchat Donald O'Sullivan, Steve Rothschild, Allan Abrams, Ann and Jim Nurum, Stuart Leeds and this reporter began their tour. Ed Fernandez, a maintenance man at the project said "You gotta see the plaque" and without asking lead the way.

Following him we took the first right and passed a public elementary school's fenced-in utility lot. As we continued along the walkway a spacious concrete yard with basketball hoops appeared on the right. On our left we saw a large stone oval and fountain in the middle of a plaza-like setting bounded by the two other buildings. Later we figured we may have walked within twenty to thirty feet of the site of one of baseball's greatest plays - Willie Mays mythical over-the-head catch of Vic Wertz's 455-foot drive in the 1954 World Series. Instead of seeing number 24 racing with his back to home plate we spotted a young girl pushing a child in a stroller as two boys followed behind on scooters.

Halfway around the oval we found the plaque on one of the concrete columns supporting the western most building of the project, less than100 feet in front of the steep rocky tree-covered hill known as Coogan's Bluff. This large bronze plaque, now tarnished and smudged, designates the approximate location of home plate.

"It was not a pretentious place. It was an easy place for a fan to navigate and watch a game," Dan O'Sullivan said.

As a kid Allan Abrams walked to the Polo Grounds from his Bronx neighborhood. He called it a stadium of contrasts. "It was shaped like a rectangle. Seats down the lines were close to the field but the bleachers were far away," he said.
"But the beauty of the place was that the clubhouse was in centerfield. The players walked the length of the field coming in and out of games," he added. "I once gave Wes Westrum a pin with his face on it. He wore it under his chest protector."

From home plate we walked north, towards left field, and traced the path of Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World." We ended up on a pebble strewn side-street which probably looks no different from when the Giants last played here in 1957. Jim Norum said "I remember this street. We used to line up here with the P.A.L. waiting to get into the games."

Stone steps cut into the lower portion of the bluff and lead us up to the Harlem River Drive. From there we walked to Edgecombe Avenue which stretches along Highbridge Park roughly thirty stories above the old playing field. Hidden from view by the park's thick brush and tall trees we find the only relic remaining from the franchise's New York Days - a stairway descending from Edgecombe Avenue to the Harlem River Drive.

Inscribed on one landing are the words "John T. Brush Stairs Presented by The New York Giants." Brush owned the Giants in the early part of the last century.

Norum said "They may play in San Francisco but the last time they won the World Series was 1954 when they played here."

We stood silent for a about a minute studying the grounds below. We did not see four high rise buildings instead we saw of field of storied memories. We remained this way until Abrams slapped his hands together and said "Let's go Giants."

From there we walked across the McComb's Dam Bridge to see the San Francisco Giants play at Yankee Stadium.

Photo Caption: l to r: Donald O'Sullivan, Steve Rothschild, Allan Abrams, Jim and Ann Nurum, Stuart Leeds.
Game June 2004