EPISODE #114: New York's Polo Grounds - With Stew Thornley

We cap off the long Memorial Day holiday weekend with a look back at one of the New York metropolitan area’s most memorable sports stadiums of yore – the Polo Grounds – with author and Minnesota Twins official scorer Stew Thornley (The Polo Grounds: Essays and Memories of New York City's Historic Ballpark, 1880-1963).

The “Polo Grounds” was actually the name of multiple structures across upper Manhattan during its history.  As its name suggests, the original venue (1876-1889) was built for, well, polo.  Located between Fifth and Sixth (Lenox) Avenues just north of Central Park, it was converted to a baseball stadium in 1880, soon becoming home to the city’s first major league pro teams – the Metropolitans of the American Association and the Gothams (later, Giants) of the National League.

Pushed out by a re-gridding of the borough in 1889, the Giants relocated northward to what became the second incarnation of the park in the Coogan’s Hollow section of Washington Heights in 1890.  Coincidentally, it was also the year that most of the team’s best players bolted to the upstart Players’ League – also called the Giants, playing in their own new (and larger) stadium (called Brotherhood Park) right next door. 

When the PL folded at the end of the season, the recombined NL Giants moved over to Brotherhood Park, rechristening it the “Polo Grounds.”  This third version – later renovated after a fire in 1911 (technically becoming the stadium’s fourth version) – became the structure most remembered by long-time baseball fans, especially for its distinctive “bathtub” shape, very short distances to the left and right field walls, and unusually deep center field.

While synonymous with the history of baseball’s Giants (including Bobby Thompson’s 1951 historic playoff “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and Willie Mays’ dramatic over-the-shoulder catch during the team’s 1954 World Series run), the Polo Grounds was also home to the New York Yankees from 1913-1922 – and the first two seasons of the NL expansion New York Mets from 1962-63, while waiting for the new Shea Stadium in Queens to be completed.

The Polo Grounds was also the center of New York’s burgeoning professional football scene – notably the National Football League’s New York Giants from 1925-55 – but also the NFL’s oft-forgotten Brickley Giants (1922) and Bulldogs (1949).  

In later years, it also became the temporary home of the fledgling American Football League’s New York Titans from 1960-62, and the renamed “Jets” in 1963 – including the last-ever sporting event to be played there – a late-season (and typical) loss to the Buffalo Bills on December 14, 1963, in front of only 6,526 diehards.

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EPISODE #112: The Once & Future Soccer Legacy of Ft. Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium – With Jeff Rusnak

Long-time South Florida Sun-Sentinel soccer columnist Jeff Rusnak joins to discuss the rich past, transitional present and promising future of one of American pro soccer’s most venerable, yet historically underrated venues – Ft. Lauderdale, Florida’s Lockhart Stadium.

Originally built in 1959 as an American football and track venue for four high schools in the region and named after a former city commissioner, the modest bleacher-constructed Lockhart was unwittingly transformed into the country’s first de facto “soccer specific stadium” when the (original) North American Soccer League’s Miami Toros moved 32 miles north from the cavernous Orange Bowl to become 1977’s Ft. Lauderdale Strikers.

The Strikers became a South Florida sports phenomenon during their seven NASL seasons at the crackerbox Lockhart, boasting world-class talent (Gordon Banks, Gerd Müller, Teófilo Cubillas, George Best) and magnetic personalities (Ron Newman, Ray Hudson) that quickly endeared the club and the sport to an adoring fan base.

Numerous lower division clubs kept the soccer flame alive after the Strikers moved (to Minnesota in 1983) and the NASL died – until 1998, when Major League Soccer investor-operator Ken Horowitz debuted the curiously-named “Miami” Fusion expansion franchise at a refurbished Lockhart, featuring Colombian star Carlos Valderrama.  Despite winning the MLS Supporters’ Shield in 2001 under the dynamic coaching of former Striker fan-favorite Hudson, the league contracted the Fusion after just four season – and the stadium again became the intermittent home to lower-league teams (and even FAU college football) until 2016.

But Lockhart refuses to give up the ghost, as an aggressive demolition and rebuild of the abandoned facility now becomes the focal point of a new David Beckham/Jorge Mas-owned MLS franchise called Inter Miami CF set to debut in 2020 – sans a permanent home in the city of Miami proper. 

Will Lockhart again rekindle the original Striker magic – perhaps even permanently?

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EPISODE #87: New York’s Shea Stadium’s Curious 1975 – With Brett Topel

It was, unwittingly, the center of the New York professional sports universe in 1975.

The official home of both Major League Baseball’s Mets and AFL-then-NFL football’s Jets since 1964, Shea Stadium was always a busy venue.  But when the football Giants and baseball Yankees found themselves displaced by extensive renovations to their shared Bronx home of Yankee Stadium, Shea instantly became Mecca for Gotham sports fans – hosting all four teams over the course of their respective 1975 seasons. 

The Giants, of course, had already started their wayward journey away from the Bronx in 1973, when plans were announced for a brand new, state-of-the art facility in the Meadowlands of East Rutherford, New Jersey to open in time for Big Blue’s 1976 season.  After two miserable seasons at New Haven, Connecticut’s Yale Bowl (winning only one of 12 games there), the Giants were wooed by New York mayor Abe Beame to play one last season back inside the city limits before absconding for good across the Hudson.

The Yankees, meanwhile, set up temporary shop at Shea beginning in the spring of 1974 – the first of two seasons the Bronx Bombers would play “home” games there while awaiting their new digs, also to open in 1976. 

Thus, for one crazy 1975 season, all four New York teams – the Mets, Jets, Yankees, and Giants – called Shea Stadium home.  Four teams, 175 games, 3,738,546 fans, and one stadium – the only time in professional sports history that two baseball teams and two football teams shared the same facility in the same year.

Brett Topel (When Shea Was Home: The Story of the 1975 Mets, Yankees, Giants, and Jets) joins the pod to discuss the highlights – but mostly lowlights – of one of the oddest years in New York City sports history.

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EPISODE #85: Houston’s Iconic Astrodome – With Bob Trumpbour

When it debuted to the public on April 9, 1965 (with an exhibition Major League Baseball game featuring the newly-renamed Houston Astros and Mickey Mantle’s New York Yankees), the Astrodome – audaciously dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by its builders – immediately captured the attention of the sports, entertainment and architectural worlds.  

It was a Texas-sized vision of the future – a seemingly unimaginable feat of engineering, replete with breakthrough innovations such as premium luxury suites, theater-style seating, and the world’s first-ever animated stadium scoreboard.  At the time, it was the biggest-ever indoor space ever made by man – an immense cylinder nearly half-a-mile around and with a flying-saucer-like roofline – that evoked a modern space age that the city of Houston and a reach-the-Moon-obsessed nation envisioned for itself.

Amidst the ambition, not all was perfect: baseball outfielders were initially unable to see fly balls through the stadium’s clear Plexiglas roof panels, and attempts to grow natural grass for its playing surface failed repeatedly (ultimately leading to the development of artificial “AstroTurf”).    

Yet, unquestionably, the arrival of the Astrodome changed the way people viewed sporting events and – putting casual fans at the center of the experience, that would soon become the expected standard for all facets of live communal entertainment.

Penn State University professor Rob Trumpbour (The Eighth Wonder of the World: The Life of Houston’s Iconic Astrodome) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the life, impact and ongoing legacy of the Astrodome’s signature role in transforming Houston as a city – and some of the memorable (and not so memorable) pro franchises that called it home during its 43-year run, including the AFL/NFL football Oilers, the NASL soccer Stars and Hurricane, and challenger-league football’s Texans (WFL) and Gamblers (USFL). 

Plus, the backstory of Major League Baseball’s 1962 expansion Houston Colt .45’s – the original catalyst behind the dome’s conception and construction.

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