By Tom Edwards
My interest in baseball memorabilia began shortly after a visit to Ebbets Field to see my hometown Brooklyn Dodgers play the Milwaukee Braves. Watching a team with rookie manager Walter Alston and players such as Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges made it easy to become a fan of the game.
In those days, my collection consisted of baseball cards, yearbooks and magazines. Over the years, I have enjoyed adding tobacco cards, press pins, autographed baseballs, bats, lithographs, books, postcards and seats to my collection.
Of those, I would put the seats at the top of the list of memorabilia that provides the biggest fun factor. Having spent a lot of my youth at Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds, I set a goal years ago of adding seats from those classic ballparks to my collection.
In the 1980s, I saw an ad in a memorabilia publication for a row of three seats from the Polo Grounds. The owner lived about two hours from where my wife and I lived at the time, so we drove up to take a look. After a very brief negotiation, it was a done deal. One park down, two to go. Although I had those seats from the home of the New York Giants, I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to add a row of four floor standing seats with the N.Y. logo on both ends, so that row was added to our sports room.
About a year after the second row was added, I read an article about someone who had dozens of seats from Ebbets Field, so I called to see if a trade could be arranged. It was; I sent the row of three from the Polo Grounds in exchange for a row of three and a single from Ebbets Field. Two parks down, one to go.
About seven years ago, the chance to get two original (1923) seats from Yankee Stadium came along, and the seat section of my collection was complete.
The seats from the House that Ruth Built were red and had been in a minor league park. When Yankee Stadium opened, the seats were green; when I was a kid, they were blue. Given their age, I had opted to refurbish my Polo Grounds seats and decided to do the same with the Bronx seats. In a tip of the hat to the Ruth and Gehrig era, I went with the original green color.
As I had done with the other seats, I disassembled them and had the wrought iron sections sandblasted and powder-coated. I sanded the wood and had paint mixed to match the iron. When I had refurbished the Polo Grounds seats, I wanted them to match the Ebbets Field seats color but left the wood unpainted after sanding them. As much as I enjoyed seeing the Yankee Stadium and Ebbets Field seats in their original colors, I decided to bring the Polo Grounds seats back to the colors the Giants had during their last season in New York.
When the park opened in the Coogan’s Bluff section of upper Manhattan on June 28, 1911, the seats had wrought iron that was orange and the wood was gray. The seat numbers were black. It was the first concrete and steel ballpark in New York. Before the Mets brought it back to life in 1962 for their inaugural season, the seats were painted green. The one concession I made to having them restored for their 101st birthday was to outline both N.Y. logos in black.
As longtime fans know, the Polo Grounds had an interesting history. Songwriter Jack Norworth was inspired to write “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” when, riding on a subway, he saw a sign with that read “Baseball Today – Polo Grounds.” Over the years that now seventh-inning standard has been recorded by a number of singers. My two favorite versions were done by Dr. John and Carly Simon.
The cross-town Yankees were tenants of the Giants from 1913-22. After the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) trade in baseball history, the Yankees, with Babe Ruth in their lineup, were outdrawing the Giants in their own park. That didn’t sit well with Giants manager John McGraw, and the team from the Bronx was cordially invited to leave. They did, moving to the opposite bank of the Harlem River and opened what was at the time the largest and first triple-deck stadium in the world. I have read descriptions of the Polo Grounds that used the terms bathtub or horseshoe shaped.
Both are accurate. From home plate, a 278-foot shot straight down the left field line was a home run. A 258-foot pop-up down the right field line also allowed the batter to trot around the bases. The Babe played his first three years with the Yankees there. I’ll go out on a limb and guess he enjoyed his home games at the Coogan’s Bluff site.
Center field was a very different story. I have read a number of measurements that have listed the distance from 455 to 505 feet. Even when I was a kid, it was about a $20 cab ride from home plate.
In 1934, the Polo Grounds became the first National League park to host the All-Star game. Giants southpaw Carl Hubbell struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin in succession. All six players had careers that earned them a plaque in Cooperstown. The 1942 All-Star game was the last one played there. On June 26, 1944, a tri-cornered game between the Giants, Yankees and Dodgers was played to raise money for World War II bonds. A capacity crowd filled the park. The teams played back-to-back innings against the other two teams, then took one inning off. The final score was Dodgers 5, Yankees 1 and the Giants 0. A scorecard from that game is one of my favorites.
The Polo Grounds was the site of Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” clinching the 1951 pennant as announcer Russ Hodges shouted “The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant,” breaking the hearts of the Brooklyn faithful.
Easily one of the greatest players I have seen, Willie Mays made the most famous catch at the historic ballpark. During the 1954 World Series, he made a spectacular catch of a Vic Wertz blast to deep center. Willie told me, and others, that wasn’t his best catch. Whoa – how would you have liked to see the others? It was the home of the Giants for 46 years, the Yankees for 10 and the Mets for their first two seasons. The list of Hall of Famers who played there is as long as it is impressive.
The last time I was there was Sept. 2, 1963, for a Mets doubleheader with the Reds. Before the first game, I went to the left field seats and sat close to where Bobby Thomson’s home run landed. Between games, I took a walk around to see as much as I could, knowing it would be my last time at a park that had been a big part of baseball history. After the last out of the second game, I walked to exit near center field, took one final look around, bent down and pulled up some grass. I put it in my 1963 Final Revised Mets yearbook; it’s still there.
The last game at the Polo Grounds was held Sept. 18, 1963. Demolition began Sept. 10, 1964, and as was the case with Ebbets Field, I wasn’t there. The same wrecking ball that had been used in Brooklyn, painted white with red stitches, brought the curtain down.
Polo Grounds seats
With the history that had been made at the famous stadium, restoring the seats to their ’57 colors has been a really fun project. As I disassembled the seats to prepare for the sandblasting, powder-coating, painting and re-stenciling of numbers, I thought about some of the games I saw there. Good times.
I took the iron to the same contractor that had worked on my Yankee Stadium seats. Having them powder-coated has left the iron as smooth as it was when the park opened more than a century ago. As has been the case with all three parks, I did the sanding and painting of the wood.
Projects like this are a great reminder of why memorabilia has been five decades of fun for me. Having my collection “complete” is something I can’t imagine. I may be old-school (or just old), but I see having items like my New York ballpark seats as an honor and a responsibility. When they are passed along to the next generation, I want them to be at a level of quality that will make them museum worthy.
I had the opportunity of helping celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brooklyn Dodgers only World Series win when I loaned my Ebbets Field seats to a museum. My wife and I get to see that part of the history of our favorite sport every time we walk into the sports room. Having the opportunity to share that with other fans is a joy. It gave us the chance to discuss the game with Duke Snider and Buzzie Bavasi. Having collected those memories is as good as it gets for those who enjoy America’s pastime as much as we do.
While I was doing research for this article, I found out about a Stew Thornley book, Land of the Giants – New York’s Polo Grounds. I had the pleasure of meeting him when he stopped into my sports room for a visit. Understandably, I took a photo of him holding up his book as he sat in my newly restored seats. Stew is a member of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), so it was fun to spend time with someone who enjoys the game as much as I do.
I received a lot of help bringing the seats back to 1911 Opening Day condition from
Mike Rizzo, the owner of the company that sandblasted the iron. When I brought those sections of the seats to his shop, he told me, “Projects like this are what make my job fun.” Mike is old school and takes a lot of pride in his work. While taking a close look at the iron, he was able to tell me about some of the processes that had been used on it more than a century ago.
Finally, I also got some much needed help from Richie Aurigemma concerning the colors the Giants used on the seats. I purchased my Yankee Stadium seats from him, and we have stayed in touch. He sent me detailed photos of two Polo Grounds seats; I took those shots to a hardware store and had paint mixed to match the color of the wood. Richie also loaned the stencils I used to number the seats. Like so many things related to any successful project, this was a nice team effort and I appreciate the support I was given.
A note to Mike and Richie – my Ebbets Field seats are up next. Like the pieces of baseball history I just finished working on, I restored the Brooklyn seats shortly after they landed in the sports room, but I want to re-restore them to bring the quality up a notch. I sat in them recently and listened to Hall of Famer Vin Scully announce a Dodgers game.
It just doesn’t get any better than that. Play ball!
Tom Edwards is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.