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 #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.

Be sure to check out our awesome sponsors: Audible, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, MyBookie, 503 Sports, and OldSchoolShirts.com!

When Shea Was Home: The Story of the 1975 Mets, Yankees, Giants, and Jets - buy here

New Era NFL New York Giants 1975 Historic Baycik 9Fifty Snapback Cap - buy 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