ALL-STAR GAMES: 1934, 1942 LIGHTS: 1940
WORLD SERIES: 1911, 1912, 1913, 1917, 1921*, 1922*, 1923, 1924, 1933, 1936, 1937, 1951, 1954 (4 W, 9 L)
* All those years (and the totals) apply to the Giants; in 1921 and 1922 both the Giants AND the Yankees hosted the World Series here.
The Polo Grounds belonged in a "freak show," utterly unlike any other baseball stadium ever built. Shaped like a bathtub, it was much better suited for football, and indeed both college and pro football games were played there for many years. Nevertheless, it was built specifically as a baseball stadium from the very beginning. The name is a little misleading, as polo was not played at this particular facility, which was actually the fifth incarnation of a stadium named "Polo Grounds" in upper Manhattan. The first "Polo Grounds" (Southeast Diamond) was first used for baseball in 1880, located in a field where polo matches had been played at the north corner of Central Park, a few miles south of the final version. The second Polo Grounds (Southwest Diamond) was right next door, but was only used for 13 games in that same year (1883), and some question whether it should even count. The third (or some would say second) incarnation of the Polo Grounds, a.k.a. "Manhattan Field", was built in 1889, in the lot just to the south of where Polo Grounds IV (a.k.a. "Brotherhood Park") was built one year later (1890). Like all ballparks back then, Polo Grounds IV was made entirely of wood, and burned down in early April 1911. Giants' owner John Brush hastily ordered reconstruction of the facility using permanent concrete and steel materials. The new stadium (Polo Grounds V) had the same weird overall shape and field dimensions as its predecessor, but with a somewhat higher stadium profile. This made it harder for the freeloading fans sitting atop Coogan's Bluff in back to see much of the action on the field. This fifth and final version of the Polo Grounds was originally named Brush Stadium, but everybody kept calling it by the old name, which stuck.
In 1913, two years after the (new) Polo Grounds opened, the American League "Highlanders" changed their name to the "Yankees" and moved in as tenants of the Giants, and stayed there for ten years altogether. After the Yankees acquired Babe Ruth from the Red Sox in 1919, they were quickly (and permanently) transformed into a winning dynasty. The Giants and the Yankees each won their respective pennants in 1921 and 1922, so both teams called the Polo Grounds "home" during those World Series, a distinction shared only by Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. (See the Anomalous stadiums page.) Left-handed slugger Babe Ruth loved the short distance to right field at the Polo Grounds, and he was the first player ever to knock a ball over the roof and out of the park there. Ruth's consistent pattern of pull-hit homers clearly influenced the design of Yankee Stadium, which was built less than a mile away, on the other side of the Harlem River, in 1923.
Although the structure was laterally symmetrical, the Polo Grounds' extremely elongated shape and strange design elements created a very asymmetrical and funky field layout. The grandstand behind home plate formed a huge semicircle, leaving plenty of foul territory and keeping most fans far away from the diamond. For the first ten years, the double-deck grandstand extended further along the right field side than on the left field side. Because of the restricted size of the plot of land, the stadium was very narrow, squeezing the distances along the foul lines to absurdly short proportions. (If they really wanted to, they could have minimized the depth of the seating area along the foul lines and thus provided a semi-respectiable distance for major league play.) The only MLB stadium with a shorter distance down the foul line was the abominable Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. Left field in the Polo Grounds was 21 feet longer than right field because the lower deck on that side was significantly shallower than on the right side lower deck, with about ten fewer rows of seats. In contrast, the distances from home plate to the edges of the upper deck in right and left field were virtually identical. In right field the front edge of the upper and lower decks were vertically aligned, but in left field the upper deck hung out about 15 feet in front of the outfield wall, meaning that a high-trajectory pop fly might land in the upper deck for a home run, leaving the left fielder to groan in frustration. (Take note of how the above stadium diagram indicates the second-deck overhang.)
In many stadiums with such short distances to the foul lines, such as Baker Bowl or Ebbets Field, special high fences were built to prevent too many easy home runs -- but not at the Polo Grounds! The left field fence was about 17 feet high in left field compared to about 11 feet in right field. Until the late 1940s or so, the outfield walls were plastered with commercial billboards.
The upper deck was extended on both sides almost all the way to center field in 1923, leaving room for a small bleacher section and the team clubhouse. It was then that the strange entryway "nook" in dead center field was created, with the virtually unreachable 483-foot point in back. Some sources state that center field was 505 feet from home, but that was probably the distance to the big scoreboard atop the clubhouse. The second-floor clubhouse hung about ten feet over the center field wall, where there was a monument to Edward Grant, a Giants player who was killed in World War I. Along the sides of that "nook" were stairways leading up to each team's locker rooms. The grandstands and bleachers in center field were so far away that it's hard to imagine how the poor fans sitting out there could have ever seen what was going on at home plate.
As if the extreme dimensions weren't enough, both teams' bullpens were actually in play in the right and left center field corners. Just about any ball hit that far would probably be an inside-the-park home run anyway, but still, you'd think they would at least try to avoid needless controversies by putting up a small fence around the bullpens like they did at Washington's Griffith Stadium. Or they could have simply put the bullpens in that spacious foul territory!
Without a doubt, the most dramatic event in the Polo Grounds' history was Bobby Thomson's game-winning home run in the 1951 playoff game when the Giants beat the Dodgers. The most spectacular defensive play was Willie Mays' incredible catch of the long drive to center field hit by Vic Wertz of the Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series, which turned the momentum in the Giants' favor. Only four people ever hit home runs into the center field bleachers, and the last two came on consecutive days in 1962, by Lou Brock and Hank Aaron.
Throughout its history, advertisements were a key aspect that defined the Polo Grounds' ambience. From the very earliest days (the turn of the 20th Century), the outfield walls were full of commercial ads, which also adorned the back sides of the bleachers. This continued until the 1940s, more or less, when the outfield walls were painted solid green and distance markers were posted for the first time. It was at that time that a huge advertising sign was place on the front side of the office building in center field: From the 1940s through 1954, it was for Chesterfield cigarettes, from 1955 through 1957 it was for Knickerbocker beer, and in 1962 and 1963 it was for Reingold beer. Note that in the final two years advertisements once again filled the outfield walls, which had a powder blue background color.
For many years there was a big commuter rail / mass transit switching yard on the northeast (left field) side of the stadium, but it closed soon after World War II and a high-rise apartment complex was built there in 1951. Dark, creepy, archaic, bizarre, and ill-suited for baseball viewing, the Polo Grounds offered fewer and fewer incentives for the Giants to stay there as the years passed. Finally, they left New York and relocated to San Francisco in 1958, the same year the Dodgers migrated to California. There were some protests from Giants fans, but the move ultimately caused much less emotional anguish compared to what Brooklynites suffered.
The Polo Grounds got a brief second (baseball) life in 1962, when the National League expansion franchise New York Mets began playing. The center field distance marker was changed from "483" to "475," but it turns out that diamond was not moved eight feet forward. I base this conclusion on the fact that multiple photos show that the foul lines (extended) intersected the dugouts at the same point as they had when the Giants played there in the 1950s. The foul poles did not move, either. New distance markers were placed on the right and left field walls, but not as many as before. Soon after the Mets moved into brand-new Shea Stadium in 1964, the Polo Grounds were demolished.
The Polo Grounds were also home to two pro football teams: From 1925 to 1955 the NFL New York Giants played there, and from 1960 to 1963 the AFL New York Titans (who became known as the Jets in 1963) played there.
SOURCES: Lowry (1992), Ritter (1992), Gershman (1993), Ward and Burns (1994)
WEB LINK: Washington Heights & Inwood Online
FAN TIPS: Don Glorisi, Jerome Crosson, Bruce Orser, Angel Amezquita