In honor of the 2012 Major League Baseball opening weekend we remember the great stadiums of the past and the photographs that help us remember them. New York has hosted its share major league baseball teams (as well as a few independent professional teams). The current teams: The Yankees (since 1903), The Mets (since 1962) and the past teams of the Brooklyn Dodgers (1884-1957) and the New York Giants (1883-1957).
First, some photography. Black and White photographs of baseball players, stadiums, crowds at sporting events hold a special place in the archives of American History. It may be the iconic nature of Baseball legends like Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, or the natural action and motion of an athlete competing that brings these photographs to life, or it may be something larger than that. Golden era baseball evokes an overwhelming feeling of Americana. Sharing the experience of baseball is a rite of passage, and photographing the national pastime is a hobby that has never gone out of style.
For some great looks at vintage baseball photography check out these fantastic online sources:
Now how about tracking down some baseball history for yourselves? This week, between ballgames you can go visit the sites of the old stadiums in town. Of course I’m not talking about the recently demolished Shea or Yankee Stadiums, that would be too easy. I’m talking about the Polo Grounds, Ebbet’s Field and Hilltop Park. Not much of these old stadiums remain, but as always there is a little something to photograph. And in tracking down baseball’s past, the story is usually more powerful than anything, so here is a little bit of the story:
The Polo Grounds- The polo grounds, so named for obvious reasons, opened its fields for baseball in 1883 for the independent team called The Metropolitans. Over the following 80 years, the Polo grounds became synonymous with New York Baseball. In fact I would argue that the Polo Grounds were the single most important location in baseball history, being the home of some of baseball’s most memorialized moments such as Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round The World” or Willie May’s famous “basket catch”.
The field was actually 4 different fields that changed over the years. The first sat at what is now the northeast corner of Central Park (now 110th and Lennox) but was destroyed to make way for the Manhattan grid and was soon cut in half by 111th street. From 1889 till it was destroyed in 1964 the Polo Grounds were located at the new site of 155th and 8th avenue (Frederick Douglas Blvd). There were three separate permutations of these Polo grounds and they housed everything from Boxing to Football to Track & Field events.
Despite the Polo Grounds diversity, baseball was its main attraction, playing host most notably to the New York Giants (Started as the Gothams) where they played in what was called Manhattan Field. The Brooklyn Dodgers played a few home series here in 1890. The Yankees moving from Hilltop Park also played several season here while Yankee Stadium was being built across the Harlem River (Babe Ruth hit his first home run as a Yankee at the Polo Grounds). To round out its resume as the New York baseball Mecca, the Mets played there in their first two seasons at the Polo Grounds even after the city had deemed it ready for demolition…hardly a red carpet welcome to the Major Leagues.
After all its service to the City and the sport of Baseball, the only remaining relic of the Polo Grounds is the John T. Brush Stairway (Brush was the Giants owner) which you can still walk down from about 158th street and Edgecomb Avenue. It is in disrepair but if you wish to climb the staircase from the Harlem River Drive you can stand atop Coogan’s Bluff where fans once stood to watch the games. You can still photograph the stairs and engraving that marks the Grounds but all you see today from the bluff is a public housing complex called Polo Grounds Towers.
Ebbets’s Field- The Photograph above was taken by an anonymous author, which means that we don’t know who took it. That’s about all we don’t know or think we don’t know about Ebbets field. Moving the Dodgers from Brooklyn to California is still one of the most controversial pages in sports history. Much has been written about this move and many stories have been passed down from father to son about that devastating event. The resentment still resides in some fans, largely due to the fact that to this day, New York City’s most populous borough still does not have a baseball franchise. Until the Mets came in 1962, Dodger fans would have to begrudgingly root for the hated Yankees, try to follow the Dodgers from 3,000 miles away , or leave town.
Located in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Ebbets Field stood from 1913 till is demolition in 1960. Like other stadiums built of this era (Fenway 1912 and Tiger’s Stadium 1912) the stand’s proximity was very close to the action and referred to as a “bandbox”. The stadium was used in 1921 by the Giants and by various football clubs throughout its existence. Compared to the Polo grounds, it was considered a hitter’s field, especially when the left field fence was lowered in the 40’s to add more seating. During this era, New York was the center of the baseball world. Like the Yankees and Giants, the Dodgers were often in contention for championships. Ebbets field hosted World Series in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1956 and in 1955 when they won their first Championship. The most historic relevance of course came when the Dodger’s lead the way to baseball integration in 1947 by signing Jackie Robinson.
Just like the former Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field has since made way for apartments. The Ebbets Field apartments were renamed the Jackie Robinson Apartments in 1972 and a few other markers spot the neighborhood. But the real physical legacy came in 2009 when the Mets new Citi Field was built to honor the old ballpark.
Hilltop Park- The least known of New York’s old ballpark was the first home to the New York Yankees. In 1903 the Baltimore Orioles were bought for $18,000, moved to New York, and called the New York Highlanders, also called the American’s, and later the Yankees. Their first home was a relatively rudimentary ballpark named simply American League Park. Located at 165th and Broadway in Washington Heights, the park sat on the highest point in Manhattan, thus it became known as Hilltop Park. The dimensions of the playing field were mammoth—400 feet to right field, 365 feet to left field and 542 to center. This was later cut by adding a median fence in the outfield.
The park sat a few blocks away from Coogin’s Bluff where fans could walk to and oversee the action at the Polo Grounds. Both the Giants and the Polo Grounds were significantly bigger attraction during the first few decades of the 20th century. The 16,000 person capacity at Hilltop was large for the era but nothing compared to the crowds that would attend baseball in the coming days. Unlike the other two parks, Hilltop doesn’t have the same historic pedigree. Sure Ty Cobb pitched a no-hitter there and Walter Johnson made some noteworthy appearances, but in New York the standard was already set higher than that. Hilltop Park didn’t last very long. After briefly hosting both the Yankees and the Giants in 1911, the park was demolished in 1914 while the new Yankee Stadium was being built.
Now if you were to travel to 165th to take some photographs, you would find the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center that has been the only resident at the location of the former Hilltop Park. A plague marking the old building sits at the location of Home Plate.
So whether you are watching from Yankees Stadium, Citi Field or from home this season, remember the great parks of our past, take a photo excursion to these old locations and as always have a great time.