Monday, June 3, 2013

Visiting a past I never possessed: Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, ghosts

"Baseball, because of its continuity over the space of America and the time of America, is a place where memory gathers," says Donald Hall. But what if those memories are of events that you didn't witness? In New York City this past weekend, I visited the old Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field sites. They were both razed in the 1960s, and imposing, torn-at-the-seams public housing complexes have stood at the sites for decades now. As I looked—up—at the buildings each housing 1,000-plus units, families stacked on top of families, I thought about the strangeness of looking at places and imagining the events that took place there, like laying down and lifting transparencies. This is a queer kind of nostalgia, for a past I never possessed yet long to return to. My dad, born and raised in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, took the trolley to many a Dodgers game at Ebbets Field in the 1940s, and I wanted to go to where he enjoyed himself on so many afternoons, and to where, uptown, countless others took in ballgames in a treasured park (and where, allegedly, the term hotdog was coined!).

I was staying in the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn, and on two broiling hot afternoons took the express up to 155th Street in Harlem and then rode back down to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, all the while projecting myself back in time, resisting romanticizing a past long vanished to inevitable, and controversial, civic and cultural changes. I took some photos along the way, my own modest addition to what's been documented about these venerable sites for decades.

Polo Grounds/Coogan's Bluff/Bushman Steps
Upper Manhattan, New York

Management at Polo Grounds Towers attempts to evoke, or at least name, past glories of the area on the sign:

The steps leading up from the Towers to 155th Street, Harlem River Drive, and the old Coogan's Bluff are intensely long and steep, at least they felt that way to me in the 90+ degree weather:

The view from what is now Harlem River Drive, at the bottom of Coogan's Bluff. That's the new Yankee Stadium gleaming in the background between two of the Polo Grounds Towers:

One of the largest rocks at Coogan's Bluff, next to a playground on Edgecombe Avenue. Here's where fans of baseball, football, and the odd boxing match gathered to watch the events for free; below; the view of Polo Grounds Towers from the furthest edge of Coogan's Bluff:

Here's a great Sports Illustrated photo of fans watching a Polo Grounds game from atop trees at Coogan's Bluff (more or less the vantage point I captured in the above photo):

And a terrific shot of Babe Ruth hitting his "first HR as a Yankee at the Polo Grounds." Via Lost Ballparks @lostballparks

Much to my disappointment, the infamous steps leading from the Bluff down to the Polo Grounds were being renovated. Disappointing for sentimental me, good for the neighborhood, as the stairway had become dangerously impassable:


I'll interrupt the tour here to quote Arnold Hano from his great book A Day In The Bleachers, first published in 1955, a narrative account of the Game One of the 1954 Giants/Indians World Series (ie, the Willie Mays "Catch" game). It's a wonderful, evocative book, packed with details of a long-gone era. Early on, Hano describes what it was like to peer down at a Giants game from Coogan's Bluff:
I could climb to the top of Coogan’s Bluff, overlooking the ball field to the north-west, sit on the rocks and grass, and watch second base while I listened to the game. I had done this many times in my youth. My brother and I would go to the Polo Grounds during the summer recess from school, hoping a boys’ club or some social group was getting in free. We'd try to duck into line and sit in the upper left field stands with a bunch of other boys who did not understand baseball too well and who would clap their hands in unison and yell, “We want a hit,” as early as the second inning.
When we failed to get in, which was about half the time, we’d walk up the wooden stairs that lead to the top of Coogan’s Bluff on the left-field side of the Polo Grounds. There, with a scattered hundred other fans enjoying a sun bath, we’d “watch” the game. All you can see, through the open-work of the stadium, is the rear portion of the pitcher’s mound, the area around second base, and a portion of the outfield. But after a while, you get the hang of it from the noise of the crowd and what the second baseman does.
I remember the first game I saw that way, the Giants against the Phillies. Hubbell was pitching and in a late inning, with the score quite close (the Giants leading, I believe), the Phillies got a man on first with one out. Then on Hubbell’s next pitch (you knew the pitch was on its way by the sudden stillness) there was a roar that abruptly broke and then climbed to a shrill scream of delight.
All I could see was the second baseman take on quick step toward the base, then stop and fling his glove behind him to the outfield grass and trot in to the dugout. I’ll never forget the elderly Negro sitting next to us in rolled-up white shirtsleeves. He said as he marked his scorecard, “Line drive to Terry. Unassisted double play.” He was right.
So I could always climb Coogan’s Bluff. Even without my portable radio. Somebody up there would have one.
Read Hano's book if you haven't.

Back to the present. This was a nice surprise: turning away from the Bluff and looking across Edgecombe Avenue, I spotted these steps leading up to St. Nocholas Avenue, a block west. Bushman Steps, too, were occupied by fans unwilling or unable to pay the fee to enter the Polo Grounds:

The view from the bottom step looking toward Coogan's Bluff and the Polo Grounds Towers:

Back down at the Polo Grounds Towers, I was pleased to hear the sounds of baseball. A Little League game was going on in a park shadowed by the Polo Grounds Towers:

I was on the search for a plaque on the Towers' grounds noting the approximate site of home plate at the Polo Grounds. In this shot you can see the plaque outlined in red on the far right:

The plaque itself:

And the view from the home plate site, looking out toward what was once the infield and infamously spacious outfield of the Polo Grounds. Hard to make out the ghost of Willie Mays:

This was another nice surprise: a sign urging Towers residents to remember the exploits of the Polo Grounds and to keep the area beautiful:

Much of the Towers grounds are well-maintained, but plenty of areas have seen better days:

Ebbets Field
Brooklyn, New York

The apartments at the old Ebbets Fields:

On the cornerstone of the southwest side of the building there's a sign:

The site of home plate at Ebbets Field; now an imaginary batter gazes into a parking lot:

And this must be...right field. Where have you gone, Carl Furillo?


Here are a few links about the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field, with some great photos:

"The Last of the Polo Grounds" at the National Trust for Historic Preservation site


Anonymous said...

Joe, great post!

Oh well,with all the American "progress" they still put up a plaque telling you what used to be there. Sigh.


Joe Bonomo said...

In the long, dubious tradition of naming a site after what it removed.

BabyDave said...

Nice post. Thanks very much for the tip about the Arnold Hano book. That's a wonderful excerpt you chose.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, BabyD. The Hano book is great, so are Robert Lee's illustrations in the book, which I posted here:


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