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.

We love our sponsors SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, Audible, Streaker Sports, OldSchoolShirts.com, and 503 Sports – and you will too!

The Polo Grounds: Essays and Memories of New York City’s Historic Ballpark, 1880-1963 - buy here

EPISODE #68: The Birth of Major League Baseball’s World Series with SABR Historian Steve Steinberg

At the beginning of the 20th century, the professional game of baseball had already taken on much of its modern shape – where pitching and managerial strategy dominated, and “manufactured” offense meant taught and tense contests, albeit often with limited scoring.  Stretching roughly from 1901-19, the period dubbed the “Deadball Era” by baseball historians saw teams play in expansive ball parks that limited hitting for power, while featuring baseballs that were, by modern-day comparison, more loosely wound, weakly bound and regularly overused. 

Against this backdrop, the established National and upstart American Leagues hammered out their seminal “National Agreement” in 1903, which not only proclaimed the competing circuits as equals, but also mandated a season-ending (and aspirationally titled) “World’s Championship Series” to determine annual supremacy in the sport – now known more simply as the World Series.

Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) historian Steve Steinberg (The World Series in the Deadball Era) joins the pod this week to discuss the October Classic’s eventful first years, as seen through the dramatically-licensed written journalistic accounts (featuring literary luminaries such as Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice, and Damon Runyon, among others), and revealing black-and-white (and often uncredited) photography of the leading newspapers of the time – a media environment devoid of Internet, social media, television, or even radio coverage. 

Of course, we discuss the bevy of previously incarnated teams that featured prominently during the period, including the first-ever World Series champion Boston Americans (now Red Sox), the “miracle” Boston Braves of 1914, the Brooklyn Robins (later Dodgers, both in Brooklyn and then Los Angeles) – and the two most dominant clubs of the era: John McGraw’s New York (now San Francisco) Giants and Connie Mack’s Philadelphia (later Kansas City, and ultimately Oakland) Athletics. 

Thanks to SportisHistoryCollecibles.com, Audible and Podfly for their sponsorship of this episode!

The World Series in the Deadball Era - buy book here

EPISODE #60: Baseball’s League That Never Was: The Continental League with Professor Russ Buhite

By the summer of 1959, the absence of two former National League franchises from what was once a vibrant New York City major league baseball scene was obvious – and even the remaining/dominant Yankees couldn’t fully make up for it.  Nor could that season’s World Series championship run of the now-Los Angeles Dodgers – a bittersweet victory for jilted fans of the team’s Brooklyn era. 

Fiercely determined to return a National League team to the city, mayor Robert Wagner enlisted the help of a Brooklyn-based attorney named William Shea to spearhead an effort to first convince a current franchise to relocate – as the American League’s Braves (Boston to Milwaukee, 1953), Browns (St. Louis to Baltimore, 1954), and A’s (Philadelphia to Kansas City, 1955) had recently done.  When neither Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or even MLB Commissioner Ford Frick, could be convinced by the opportunity, Shea and team moved on to an even bolder plan –  an entirely new third major league, with a New York franchise as its crown jewel.

Financial backers from not only New York, but also eager expansionists in Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver, Toronto, Atlanta, Dallas-Ft. Worth, and Buffalo joined in the effort – christened the “Continental League” – and recruited longtime pioneering baseball executive Branch Rickey to do the collective’s bidding.  In preparation for an inaugural 1961 start, Rickey immediately preached the virtues of parity, and outlined a business plan that included TV revenue-sharing, equally accessible player pools, and solid pension plans; properly executed, it would take less than four years for the new league to be a credible equal of the National and American Leagues.  His plan: poach a few established big-league stars, and supplement rosters with young talent from a dedicated farm system that would quickly ripen into a formidable stream of high-caliber players and, in turn, a quickly competitive “major” third league.  That, plus an aggressive legal attack on MLB’s long-established federal antitrust exemption – designed to force greater player mobility and expanded geographic opportunities.

Suddenly pressured, MLB owners surprisingly responded in the summer of 1960 with a hastily crafted plan for expansion, beginning in 1962 with new NL teams in New York (Mets) and Houston (Colt .45s) – undercutting the upstart league’s ownership groups in those cities, and promising additional franchises in the years following.  Within weeks, the Continental League was no more, and the accelerated expansionary future of the modern game was firmly in motion.

Original Continental League minor leaguer Russ Buhite (The Continental League: A Personal History) joins host Tim Hanlon to share his first-person account (as a member of the proposed Denver franchise’s Western Carolina League Rutherford County Owls in 1960) of both the build-up to and letdown of the “league that never was” – as well as the broader history of the unwittingly influential circuit that changed the economic landscape of modern-day Major League Baseball.

Thanks Audible, Podfly and SportsHistoryCollectibles.com for your sponsorship of this week’s episode!

The Continental League: A Personal History - buy book here

EPISODE #36: Dead-Ball-Era Baseball’s “Chief” Meyers & the New York Giants with Author Bill Young

Author/historian Bill Young (John Tortes “Chief” Meyers: A Baseball Biography) returns to the podcast to discuss the life and legacy of one of Major League Baseball’s most intriguing personalities from the sport’s “dead-ball era” of the 1900s/10s.  The sturdy, hard-hitting battery-mate (and eventual vaudeville stage partner) of Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Matthewson – as well as a fixture in some of legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw’s most successful teams – “Chief” Meyers was also one of the few true Native Americans to ever star in professional baseball, overcoming enormous prejudicial obstacles along the way.   Unlike other Native American players who eschewed their tribal identities to escape bias and ridicule, Meyers—a member of the Santa Rosa Band of the Cahuilla Tribe of California—remained proud of his heritage, and endeared himself to fans and the press with his disarming, accessible and uniquely erudite personality.  After retiring from the game in 1920, Meyers quietly returned to his roots to become a tribal leader, only to be rediscovered by a new generation of fans and scholars in 1966 with the publication of Lawrence Ritter’s acclaimed oral history of the early game, The Glory of Their Times.

We thank Audible and Podfly for their continued support of the show!

     

John Tortes "Chief" Meyers: A Baseball Biography - buy book here

The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It - buy book here