Thursday, 16 June 2016

THE GRAND BALLPARKS OF NEW YORK CITY

1950's postcard of Yankee Stadium (US Public Domain)














For a decade after the post-World War II years, New York City was the Capital of Baseball. They had the American League New York Yankees, and the fierce National League rivals, the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, the three best teams at that time. In the days when no two parks were alike and bleacher seats sold for less than a buck, the New York teams played in unique venues: Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, and Ebbets Field.

Nicknamed “The Big Ballpark in the Bronx,” “The Cathedral in the Bronx” and “The House that Ruth Built,” Yankee Stadium was available to the public in 1923 to accommodate all the fans who flocked to see slugger Babe Ruth smash his long and lofty home runs. On opening day, April 18, 1923, Ruth didn’t disappoint, christening the holy grounds by smacking a 3-run homer into the right-field stands to beat the Boston Red Sox 4-1. After, he said: “This is some ball yard.” Four years later, he hit his record-setting 60th homer in the same park.

Yankee Stadium was a beauty, built at a cost of $2.4 million, a hefty sum in those days. It was the first sports venue given the name of “stadium,” the first to have three tiers, and was constructed with the left-hand-hitting Ruth in mind: down the line in right was a 295-foot short porch, a perfect target for the pull-hitting iconic slugger. Later extended to 296 feet, this was the same porch that Roger Maris, another pull hitter, aimed for in 1961 during his record-setting 61-homer season that broke Ruth’s illustrious record.

In its post-war heyday, the Yankee Stadium center-field fence was a no-man’s land 461 feet (20 feet less than it was in 1923) from home plate, a Death Valley to hitters. The Brooklyn Dodgers found that out playing there in seven World Series between the years 1941-1956. The clever Yankee hurlers knew how to pitch opposition hitters, feeding them outside pitches that became long outs in the power alleys and straightaway center where the balls were run down by fast stars Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Center field was also known for its granite monuments honoring Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Miller Huggins and the center-field pole: Both were in-play a few feet in front of the outfield wall.

Yankee Stadium began with 58,000 seats in 1923 before the three-tiers of decks were extended towards center field in 1937, thus topping off at 71,000 seats. Due to the height of the third deck, no one ever hit a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium, but Mickey Mantle came within mere feet twice when he struck the right field fa├žade in 1956 and 1963 with two mighty clouts. In its history, the Yankee Stadium fans were somewhat subdued, a white-glove park attended by the swizzle-stick crowd who didn’t encourage any riff-raff. According to one sportswriter, “Rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for US Steel.”

The original Yankee Stadium closed for renovations for the entire 1974 and 1975 seasons, as the team played their home games at the New York Mets’ Shea Stadium. The refurbished home to the Yankees remained open and continued until 2008, when it was demolished. Since 2009, the new Yankee Stadium is now across the street.


1930's postcard of the Polo Grounds (US Public Domain)


The 55,000-seat Polo Grounds stood a rifle shot from Yankee Stadium in the Upper Manhattan part of Harlem alongside a lookout cliff known as Coogan’s Bluff, where locals were able to look down at the action below. From 1911-1957, the Polo Grounds was home to the New York Giants. For those first twenty years, games were played there by  the most hated team in the majors, led by the most hated manager, the fiery, no-holes-barred John McGraw, who didn’t take any crap from anybody. Also, for a time, from 1913-1922, the Giants rented out their park to the Yankees.

Most Polo Grounds occupants were middle-class ball fans, unlike those high-class snobs at Yankee Stadium, as Giant fans saw them. Giant fans remembered the park smelling of urine, cigar smoke, and stale beer. In the latter years, others recalled it as a dump. After 1940, it was badly maintained, as was the surrounding neighborhood along with it. But it was a distinct, historic dump, a fun park to watch a game in.

The Polo Grounds had the oddest shape, like a horseshoe or a bathtub, a place where one could hit 260-foot homers and 420-foot outs. Down the lines were chip shots for pull hitters:  279 feet to left and 258 feet to right, both 10-foot walls. Left field had a 21-foot second-deck overhang that often turned normal high fly balls into cheap home runs. From there the distances fanned out to 450-foot power alleys. Both clubhouses were in center field, and the players got there by leaving their dugouts, walking across the field to the 60-foot-long center field runway, and climbing the stairs to either side of the 483-foot mark at dead-center field. The nearby bullpens were in-play at the edge of the two power alleys.

At the Polo Grounds, Willie Mays was able to utilize his great speed roaming in center, illustrated by his outstanding catch in the 1954 World Series off the bat of Cleveland’s Vic Wertz that he caught at about 415 feet from home plate; and the same place where Bobby Thomson hit the most famous home run of all, the “Shot Heard ‘Round The World,” that beat the rival Brooklyn Dodgers in the ninth inning in the third game of the 1951 National League playoff.

When the Giants left New York for San Francisco after the 1957 season, the Polo Grounds continued to show different events until the expansion New York Mets came to town for the 1962 and 1963 seasons. Once Shea Stadium was available to the Mets in 1964, the dilapidated, old park saw the wrecking ball that same year.


Early 1950's postcard of Ebbets Field (US Public Domain)


Built on a former garbage dump called Pigtown, Ebbets Field featured one of the most-loved ball teams ever: the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1913-1957. Ebbets Field was an intimate park in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, containing 33,000 seats max. Some writers called it a “cigar box” and others a “bandbox.” The noisy Brooklynites didn’t care what others thought. They adored their home field and their players. “Oh, how we loved that place,” slugger Duke Snider used to say. It was a family affair: Many of the players knew the regular fans by their first names. Number one in fan proximity, the stands were so close to the action that they could hear the players sneeze and swear, and see the sweat on their faces.

The distances to the outfield fences were short: 389 feet in dead center, and 297 feet down the right-field line. However, dead left was 348 feet. Advertising covered the walls, something you never would’ve seen at the original Yankee Stadium. Ebbets Field had the greenest grass and the cleanest, brownest infield in the business.

A Brooklyn Dodger regular from 1946-1957, Carl Furillo owned right field at Ebbets Field, playing it as if it were a work of art. While opposing outfielders found it a hell on earth, Furillo faced it as a challenge for his unmatched work ethic. There were dozens of angles that a ball could carom off all the different sections behind him. The right field wall was 19 feet of concrete with a 19-foot screen on top. And, it sloped at an angle starting half-way up the concrete, then soared straight up the rest of the way. Towards the power alley, in between this concrete-screen combination, the flat scoreboard stood with the bright red-and-white Schaefer beer sign and a small section of screen on top of that to complete the near 40 feet of wall height.

With practice, Furillo knew all the angles, from the 297 feet down the foul line out to the 376-foot power alley, where he approached Duke Snider’s territory in center. If the ball hit the screen, Furillo knew he’d have to run like mad towards it because the ball would drop dead. If the ball went off the concrete wall, Furillo would run towards the infield because the ball would shoot off like a rocket.

Similar to the New York Giants, the Dodgers also moved to California, settling in Los Angeles for the 1958 season. Both their New York ballparks had been decaying, and apartments now stand on the former sites of the playing fields. Demolished in 1960, Ebbets Field made room for Ebbets Field Apartments.  A housing project sits on the old Polo Grounds spot today: Polo Grounds Towers, over 1,000 apartments tucked inside four 34-story buildings situated on 15 acres. 

Three great New York City ball yards--the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, and the original Yankee Stadium--are only a memory now of what was once great in major league baseball venues.

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