Baseball in New York – The Casey Stengel Tour Part 1

There is an absence of any breeze and the sky is cloudless, through the trees steeples and towers can be seen from the nearby Cloisters and a brace of churches of unknown denomination. The tarmac is almost sticky as the temperature surges towards 100 degrees, dogs pant and doze waiting for a sprinkler or for some Italian kids to break a fire hydrant like they do in the movies of urban New York. The baseball season is still young, sixty games have passed but the season has still to be formed into a meaningful pattern. I am searching for history in a time and place where only the future really matters.

Having travelled to North Africa once on a whim and arrived without currency, maps or knowledge of useable languages, you’d think that one of the most populated areas of an English speaking metropolis maybe somewhat less taxing, however there are several things weighing on my mind as I emerge into the perfect early afternoon haze of Upper Manhattan. The first of these concerns can be lightened by the consumption of an extremely cold bottle of water and a jam filled necessity from the Dunkin’ Donuts concession. Other than this I am particularly worried about demographics and racial profiling, especially when entering potentially hostile territory. Jackie Robinson would have laughed out loud and Willie Mays probably still would as I enter a part of town where my own specific identifiers are what you would politely call a minority.

Jack Reacher and James Bond seem to get away with a lot, though you’d think neither of them would last an entire episode of The Wire, especially as one was invented in 1953 and the other tends to only get involved in areas populated by angry white people aged between 25 and 50. As a man who does not entirely look sane mutters something in my direction and the other fifteen gentlemen laugh at that or something entirely different, I realise I am hopelessly out of my depth. A Hummer rests semi-abandoned with doors open and with the keys still in, indicating to me that though the average undeclared wage in postal code 10039 may be quite high, there may be a certain skew to a few individual earners concerned with a niche product market.

I walk along the escarpment which overlooked the Polo Grounds in New York for around 70 years, if you glimpse through the trees you can see directly across the Macombs Dam bridge and the Harlem River to the new Yankee Stadium. As the crow flies it’s probably only half a mile between the two sites but the residential nature and topographic limitations of the area make visiting the Polo Grounds rather more complicated. By engaging my most important infiltration techniques (metal soundtrack, being overtly British and pretending I know exactly where I’m going) I ease towards one of most important sites of world sporting history. The original Polo Grounds were unsurprisingly built for polo, but the hope of seeing Porfirio Rubirosa and his Cibao-La Pampa were dashed when the stadium was made home to baseball and in particular the New York Giants.

Tonight at Citi Field, less than 10 miles away in Flushing, the Giants will return to New York from their home in San Francisco on the West Coast, where they have had their share of ups and downs since abandoning the big apple at the end of the 1957 season. To be fair, the Giants arrived yesterday or possibly even two days ago due to an off day but that doesn’t fit my narrative so we won’t mention it. Tonight’s pitching match-up will hopefully place Jason Vargas as Luis Firpo and the venerable Tyler Beede as Jack Dempsey. In 1923, the Wild Bull of the Pampas, as Firpo was known, survived seven first round knockdowns (seven) to unleash a hammer blow of a right to Dempsey, knocking him clean out of the ring into the ringside reporters laps, one of the most famous boxing contests of its day and alongside Joe Louis beating Billy Conn in 1941, iconic scenes from the home of an entirely different sport.

In baseball terms, the Polo Grounds was famous for it’s distinctive bathtub shape, which meant that the left and right field lines were only 279 and 258 feet respectively, whereas Yankee Stadium today measures 314 feet down both lines and is considered small. The center field was anywhere from 450 feet in left or right center to over 500 feet in direct center, compared to a pitiful 408 in the Bronx. Walking down the steps to the Polo Grounds Towers you can imagine the stadium here, proudly tucked between the Harlem River and the cliffs of Coogan’s Bluff, with center field opening up below the heights, allowing spectators to line the overlook and take in the game. Groups of youths loiter with or without intent. Structural or reconstruction work allows for tunnels of panelled hardwood in the semi-darkness, perfect for ambush or entrapment. Pimped SUVs gleam in the sunlight, oblivious to the fact that this area of upper Manhattan was home to caves and local Indian tribes in the seventeenth century and was one of the final areas of Manhattan to be developed as the population grew from the lower part of the island to the upper. By the end of the nineteenth century baseball had become the sport of the working man and the Polo Grounds in its various guises was constructed, developed, burnt down, reconstructed and finally demolished, a microcosm of the behemoth that is New York City real estate. I listen to Shell Shock by Manowar.

One of the many delights of being British is allowing that part of your brain that considers asking directions or in many cases interacting socially in any situation, can remain dormant. In any case, there’s no way I’m asking these “youths” where the plaque is, they seem at best uninterested and probably less appreciative of the subtle points of Polo Grounds history, although the way they’re kicking that can around means they may be re-enacting one of the football matches played back in the day, possibly channelling the 1961 Karlsruhe victory over Kilmarnock which is still spoken about today, here if nowhere else.

I must be standing very close to where Willie Mays made that unbelievable catch in 1954, in the wilds of center field, probably over there, by those bins. When the Yankees played here while Yankee Stadium was being built between 1913 and 1922 Babe Ruth broke the all time home run record and in 1921 supposedly hit one over 550 feet, Statcast cannot confirm. If you glean nothing else from Ken Burns mammoth series of documentaries, the sights and sounds of baseball from the 1900s to 1930s make you want to throw your woollen hat in the air, then your straw boater once it was officially summer, typically in May. After the 1930s people gradually started to wear less hats, though I suppose they probably started to wear more helmets. Summer hat season would run from around mid May to around mid September, meaning your felt hats came back out for the playoffs, it must have been a nightmare for merchandisers. Today I’m wearing a cap, so most of the above isn’t really relevant.

John McGraw was the architect of the rise of the Giants, despite refusing to play the world series against some Boston upstarts in 1904, they won the pennant again in 1905 and relented, winning the world series versus Connie Mack’s Athletics. The Giants wouldn’t return to the series until their back to back wins in 1921 and 1922 by beating their lodgers the Yankees (formerly the New York Highlanders) proving there can be only one, only to have the result reversed in 1923 and for the Yanks to start their dominant period helped by a certain Mr Ruth, all despite an inside the park home run in game 1 by a certain Mr Casey Stengel. It is also hard to believe that more than 110 years have passed since Merkle’s boner. If unfamiliar with the story, look it up using extreme caution, as a simple keyboard error could cause devastating results relating to the current German chancellor.

As the soundtrack changes to Judas Priest’s Beyond the Realms of Death we must contemplate the inevitable. At the point of writing I still haven’t been shot, despite visiting areas of increased probability in Southern California, Southern Africa and the nicer parts of Coventry. In 1950, Bernard Doyle was accidently shot and killed in his seat at the Polo Grounds after a 14 year old boy helpfully shot a gun into the air from a nearby rooftop, a fate for several people in Turkey after Galatasaray won the UEFA cup fifty years later. What goes up must inevitably come down, demonstrated inevitably by that highlight reel catch from Mr Mays in the 1954 world series. The issue often, as exhibited by the case of Mr Doyle, is that things don’t necessarily come down where they’re expected to, as can be seen by the image of Andy Pafko waiting in vain in 1951. My son’s birthday is October 3rd, the anniversary of the day when baseball became global for the first time and a ball became so famous Don Delillo wrote an entire book about it, a ball that would now be valued upwards of 3 million dollars, should anyone find it in their attic and manage to ascertain provenance.

Everything and every place has its time and an epoch can be established in hindsight. The Polo Grounds was destined for destruction once the crowds waned and the bright lights of the West Coast beckoned for the Giants, having won 5 world series at the New York home. The ground itself would survive seven years beyond the Giants tenure and become home to both New York gridiron teams the Titans (later becoming the Jets) and the football Giants and of course home to the National League’s replacement for the Giants, the New York Mets, playing there for the first two years of their existence.

I eventually find the plaque, after annoyingly finding a much closer subway stop and realising the whole thing would have been much easier by Uber, though without most of the simmering danger and subsequently less interesting to the reader. I take the photos necessary and bind myself forever in the history of the Giants and the Mets before I hastily depart. As I make my way confidently away from the Polo Grounds towers (no newsworthy homicides for at least 4 years) I take a different route back so that I can see the John T Brush stairway before I leave the area. A recently rehabilitated landmark, the stairway is named for the former owner of the New York Giants, the link between the Polo Grounds within the hollow and the heights of the bluff, where the fans without tickets would stand and have a view of the game being played out below. This seems to be my final act of defiance as I inevitably have to squeeze my way through a number of hoody wearing gents who appear to be taking the afternoon off work or school to take in the delights of the afternoon.

The New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants will inexorably be linked by the shared history of the Polo Grounds, the crested NY logo and the shared distinct Dutch royal orange colour of the New York flag. A further commonality is the man himself, Casey Stengel. When Stengel was hired to manage the fledgling Mets in 1962 he’d been out of work, one of the icons of New York having been player or manager for all three New York based teams, the Giants, the Brooklyn Dodgers and one of the most successful managers in baseball history with the Yankees. All thoughts and worries are now put aside for the game, the echoes of Burns and Delillo’s documented history subside as the 7 line drops me at the entrance to Citi Field, the third home of the Mets. In the Mets first year the now San Francisco Giants would reach the world series to be inevitably beaten by the Yankees, it would take the Giants 27 years to get back to the world series only for the battle of the bay to be hit by both an earthquake and Jose Canseco.

The Giants most recent period of dominance has only just passed, as much of a dynasty as can be achieved in the salary cap era, culminating with victory over the Mets in the wild card game towards the end of the 2016 campaign. The game today is threatened by rain but the drama of earlier in the day means the game seems tame by comparison, Jason Vargas continues his fine run since April and pitches a complete game shutout, supported in part by home runs from Amed Rosario and Michael Conforto. A great result for the home team and another series in the shared history of the Mets and Giants will be completed tomorrow, although in the grand scheme of things nobody will really notice.

In Britain we thrive on old rivalries, geographical proximity or politically historical narrative, we almost demand what the Spanish call Morbo, that feeling of tension and heightened anxiety brought on between rival teams and supporters. In America, this is diminished in many ways by geographical distance, the transience of sports franchises and overall apathy towards sports as a life and death enterprise. As I stand by the Stengel Gate, having just spotted Keith Hernandez’ car, I decide that maybe this is how I prefer things, for it all to be more important to me than for anyone else and that maybe, just maybe, I can enjoy things just that little bit more by knowing about the past. It’s time for me to head back to midtown, have a nice pint and some bangers and mash. Here’s to Casey, Willie and a shared history nobody seems to care about but me.

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