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

EPISODE #88: The 1968-69 AFL New York Jets – With Bob Lederer

On January 12, 1969, the American Football League champion New York Jets stunned the sports world when they beat their heavily favored NFL title-winning counterparts the Baltimore Colts to win the third annual “AFL–NFL World Championship Game” – today remembered as version III of the “Super Bowl.”

The key to the Jets’ ultimate success, of course, was superstar quarterback Joe Namath – whose talent, confidence and charm had already made him an instant celebrity when he first arrived on the Gotham sports scene in 1965.  But the rise of the former (and by the end of its third season in 1962, insolvent) New York Titans to the top of the pro football heap was far from a solo effort.

Author Bob Lederer (Beyond Broadway Joe: The Super Bowl Team That Changed Football) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the decade-long saga of the Jets’ remarkable evolution from a mediocre team in a dilapidated stadium in an oft-derided "Mickey Mouse" league, to a franchise that literally saved the AFL from itself and vaulted a newly merged NFL into the modern era of pro football.

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Beyond Broadway Joe: The Super Bowl Team That Changed Football - buy here

EPISODE #23: The AFL’s New York Titans with Author Bill Ryczek

Before the modern-day New York Jets of today’s NFL – before Joe Namath, before the infamous “Heidi Game,” before the guaranteed Super Bowl III victory – there were the New York Titans.  A charter member of the upstart American Football League in 1960, the underfunded Titans played for three seasons to meager crowds in Upper Manhattan’s decrepit Polo Grounds, flirting with bankruptcy and collapse from virtually day one.  Author/historian Bill Ryczek (Crash of the Titans: The Early Years of the New York Jets and the AFL) joins Tim Hanlon to discuss the Jets’ ignominious beginnings as the Titans, including notable performances by:

  • Owner Harry Wismer, the volatile sportscaster with a talent for hustling, a penchant for drinking, and a habit of bouncing paychecks;
  • Head coach Sammy Baugh, the prescient hall-of-fame player who refused to show up for a press conference announcing his signing until he was paid his full salary in advance – and in cash;
  • Successor (and first-time) head coach Clyde "Bulldog" Turner, who inherited a dispirited squad weary of uncertain finances, inadequate publicity, and front office instability;
  • AFL commissioner Joe Foss, the constant Wismer foe, whose tolerance was tested until ultimately pushed to seize control of the franchise; AND
  • William Shea, the New York attorney whose dream for a Continental League baseball franchise in a newly-constructed Flushing Stadium materialized too late to save Wismer’s foundering Titans, but eventually catalyzed the re-born Jets.

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Crash of the Titans: The Team that Became the New York Jets - buy paperback edition here

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