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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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My Giants

If you can trace your roots without paying a genealogist, then it must be Flashback Friday at Faith and Fear in Flushing.

On April 18, 1957, New York’s National League franchise opened its home schedule just as it had done every year since 1883, just as it would never do again.

Fifty years and two days ago, the Giants defeated the Phillies 6-2 at the Polo Grounds. Within six months, there would be no more New York Giants.

What’s that like? What’s it like to watch your baseball team leave town? What’s it like to root for a team that defined baseball for millions, that practically invented modern professional sports, and see it slip away? What’s it like to be told that 75 years of unmatched history don’t matter?

What’s it like to lose your team? How does one so ancient and storied and recently successful just up and cross the country?

I don’t know firsthand. Born too late for that, of course. Instead I’m the beneficiary of the makegood, the Mets. I’ve been very happy with that. Still, I wonder.

What was it like to be a Giants fan in 1957? Those Giants finished sixth in an eight-team league, going 69-85 before going west. Chances are if you were a Giants fan in 1957 you latched on in some previous, happier campaign. My understanding of Giants fans was you didn’t simply become one. You always were one.

I can read about the New York Giants and I do. I can talk to those who lived with the New York Giants and I do. But I can never really know the New York Giants. I wish I could.

As this is the 50th anniversary of the last season of the New York Giants, it is also the 35th anniversary of the beginning of a lifelong infatuation of mine with the idea of the New York Giants. In the spring of 1972, they started becoming my team from before my team existed. I was already a far-gone Mets fan, schooled in the basics, that we were formed in 1962, that others’ removal from the local stage made room for us. 1962 was the year the Mets and I were born. I knew there had to be something here before us.

There was.

The Giants.

My Giants.

Baseball Digest began my retroactive conversion process. In its June 1972 issue appeared an article promising to fill me in on “the battle for New York” through the ages. There was, apparently, more to it than arguing the relative merits of Jerry Grote vs. Thurman Munson, Cleon Jones vs. Roy White, Tom Seaver vs. Mel Stottlemyre. This thing went back a ways. This predated the Mets and the Yankees. The roots of the battle for New York, the magazine said, extended to the Giants.

The Giants? The team Willie Mays played on before just being traded to the Mets? The team Willie Mays played on in New York which is why Joan Payson was so anxious to “bring him home” as all the papers explained? The Giants who, pictures of young Willie Mays revealed, wore the same orange NY on their caps as the Mets did?

Wow. I could sense a real connection.

Baseball Digest filled me in on the salient details. The Giants began playing in Upper Manhattan in the 19th century but really took off around the turn of the 20th when a win-at-all-costs manager named John McGraw grabbed the helm. With a magnificent pitcher named Christy Mathewson on his side, McGraw drove his Giants to dominate early baseball. They captured the National League pennant in 1904 and spit on the idea of playing the champion of the upstart, perhaps illegitimate American League for any of the marbles. The only marbles worth pocketing were won in the National League. Forced to partake in a World Series the following year, they trampled Connie Mack’s Philadelphia white elephants with Matty pitching three shutouts. Though royally screwed out of the 1908 pennant amid Fred Merkle’s alleged Boner (Cubs got away with that one…and nothing since), four more pennants would follow for the Giants of the Polo Grounds of the 1910s.

As Larry Doyle put it so memorably, it was great to be young and a Giant.

Until the fucking Highlanders got going.

You know who the Highlanders were and who they became. They were American League nonentities who paid McGraw rent on the Polo Grounds so they’d have somewhere decent to play. They were nobodies. Baseball in New York meant the Giants. It had since 1883. The Giants were the team immigrants followed to learn the intricacies of their adopted homeland’s game. McGraw was a perfect assimilation tutor. He preached and practiced inside baseball. Bunting. Hitting and running. The beauty of the game. The Giants were sporting heroes. Mathewson was a phenomenon. They were the first big-city team, the darlings of brokers and actors and people who stayed loyal. The New York Giants were the most famous team in the land.

Until the fucking Highlanders got going.

Did I mention them already?

In Digest form, Highlanders became Yankees. Yankees got Ruth. Ruth’s Yankees began outdrawing McGraw’s Giants. Giants beat the Yankees in the 1921 and 1922 World Series proving forever the superiority of inside baseball over lummox fence-swinging. Disgusted, McGraw threw the Yankees out of the glorious Polo Grounds. Defeated and disgraced, they scattered to parts unknown never to be heard from again.

No. They built their own stadium in another borough and…I can’t get into it. It’s too offensive to my National League sensibilities.

McGraw’s Giants ran out of steam as the 1920s wound down. Muggsy himself retired in 1932, having given way to a new generation of Giant legends he himself had mentored: Bill Terry, Carl Hubbell, and the largely forgotten — except for a stamp — Mel Ott. All-time greats. The Giants had a few moments (a world championship in ’33, pennants in ’36 and ’37), but nothing like the early 1900s. It took the uncharacteristic hiring of fiery Leo Durocher in 1948 to relight the spark in Upper Manhattan and make the Giants something more than the team that used to be the team in town. The Giants of Durocher won a pennant in 1951 and a World Series in 1954.

Three years later, they were gone from New York.

Before I read this article, I didn’t like the Yankees. Now I hated them and would hate them forever. Nice job, assholes.

There was something else printed in 1972 that would have a profound effect on the way New York baseball history would be viewed going forward. It was called The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn. It is brilliant, it is touching, it is — if you are me — despicable.

The Boys of Summer made the Brooklyn Dodgers immortal. The Dodgers may have lost that 1951 pennant to their archenemies the Giants, but they won the aftermath. The Boys of Summer ensured the Dodgers would become synonymous with the last golden age of New York baseball, the last to include three Major League teams. Over time, the shorthand for the 1950s became The Boys of Summer and their crazy fans in their demented tiny ballpark with their loony Sym-Phony versus the General Motors Yankees nearly every October. That was the rivalry, you know.

No it wasn’t. The Dodgers and Yankees weren’t baseball’s greatest rivalry. The Red Sox and Yankees aren’t baseball’s greatest rivalry. Nothing will ever touch the Giants and Dodgers. The New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Same league, same city, same blocks, same houses sometimes. People got killed arguing the Giants and the Dodgers. The Giants were half of that. Sometimes, pre-World War II to be sure, they were more than half of that. Actually before Larry MacPhail came along to run the show, the Dodgers were daffy without being any good. The New York Giants took the lifetime series from the Brooklyn Dodgers 650-606. Yet the last dozen years of the Dodgers’ existence is what has been memorialized to the exclusion of almost everything else when pre-1962 New York National League baseball is discussed.

The Giants? The Giants of the Polo Grounds? The flagship of professional baseball in the world’s greatest city? Oh yeah, there was a third team, wasn’t there?

So here I am, 50 years after they’re gone, getting riled up on their behalf, carrying a torch for a club that hit the road before I was the proverbial twinkle in anyone’s eye. What am I doing it for? For an article I read in third grade? For an orange NY on a black background? For the idea that a team so massive — gigantic, if you will — once existed and then didn’t? For a ballpark that I never saw, except as a plaque affixed to the outside of a tower of a housing project? For Bobby Thomson and Master Melvin and Big Six and the flawed McGraw and Willie Mays before he was 42 and falling down in centerfield? For New York National League baseball a handful of years before I came into existence?

Yes. That’s it exactly. I wouldn’t trade the New York Mets for anything a time machine could offer me, but there is a New York Giants fan rooting inside my soul. There has to be. We are, as I never tire of repeating, the sums of all the seasons that came before the one we’re in. When you root for a team only months older than yourself, your sum has to come from somewhere.

It’s 1981, nine years after the Baseball Digest article. The Mets are the Mets, which is to say not good and not popular. But there I am, a high school senior on the cusp of another season of standing tall for my horrible home team when my father, not at all engaged by baseball then, makes an observation. I remind him of some guy he knew in junior high or high school, in Jackson Heights, in the ’40s. Everybody was either a Dodgers fan or a Yankees fan. Except for that one guy. He just stuck with the Giants the way I stick with the Mets. He was kind of an oddball, added my dad.

That sealed it. Me and the Giants were one. I guess I get riled up for that guy, too.

Natch when your defunct team hasn’t been funct for 50 years, your options are limited. I can’t stress enough that none of this makes me look kindly upon the San Francisco Giants. They are just another Met opponent to me. Though I saw a few markers commemorating their franchise heritage when I visited Pac Bell in 2001, I also understood that it was all stolen goods. Screw the San Francisco Giants. I hold them in eternal contempt with the Highlanders and the Cubs.

So I read books. Every book about the New York Giants and the Polo Grounds that comes along I buy. I go to museums. I join listservs. And I watch carefully for every film clip. I can’t see Bobby Thomson hit that shot off Ralph Branca enough. I can’t see Willie run back, back, back and set a standard for Endy Chavez enough either. I wish I could see more. Though other images occasionally flicker by in black and white, those two moments of triumph are what 75 years of Giants baseball usually boil down to. (Could be worse. Could be the Expos — out of business since 2004 and still waiting for their first moment of triumph.)

My only living, breathing connection to the New York Giants and the Polo Grounds and everything I didn’t witness firsthand is the Giants Fan Club. Those are “the guys,” as their leader calls them. A few times a year they…we get together at a Chinese restaurant in Riverdale to talk baseball, mostly Giant baseball. The last meeting was last week, the night Glavine faced Moyer (a couple of whippersnappers compared to the company I was keeping). The guys comprise a very welcoming bunch to camp followers like myself, happy to recall which usher looked the other way and left a gate open, who was pitching for the Reds some week in 1940, why they couldn’t stand Frankie Frisch as an announcer. I treasure their memories probably almost as much as they do.

How did it happen that this all there is to the Giants? How did the New York National League franchise fail to maintain its foothold? Negligent management? Changing times? Withering demographics? It’s not like everybody dispossessed by the O’Malley-Stoneham cabal of municipal treason lined up to become Yankees fans. Their attendance dipped by nearly 70,000 during the revolting 1958 baseball monopoly they undeservingly inherited.

Why do you think New York needed the Mets so badly? National League baseball, baby. It was something different. It was better. It was what the people wanted. (Yankee attendance dropped 250,000 from 1961 to 1962, not incidentally.) The distinctions between the leagues have blurred but it’s still better here. John McGraw was right all along about the Junior Circuit. Ignore them and dispatch them to distant precincts.

And hit and run. Always hit and run.

I guess I’ll have a sustained opportunity to get a taste of New York Giants baseball starting in 2009. They’re gonna build a new ballpark for the Mets, you may have heard. It is going to play off the heritage of the city’s National League tradition. It’s going to look like Ebbets Field. And be sort of shaped like Ebbets Field. And it’s going to have a rotunda like Ebbets Field. And it will honor maybe the greatest Dodger to have played at Ebbets Field. And there will be an Ebbets Club behind home plate.

But if you scroll down for a couple of minutes on the Mets’ site to find all the minutiae that will make Citi Field the spectacular showplace for which each and every one of us has been actively crying out, you will find it:

Various areas of Citi Field will reinforce the setting of the venue and the Mets connection to the City of New York and baseball history, including […] Coogan’s Landing beyond the left field fence…

Coogan’s Landing refers to Coogan’s Bluff, the quirky piece of real estate on which the Polo Grounds stood when the Giants called one version or another of it home from 1889 to 1957 (and, by the way, when the Citibound Mets did the same in 1962 and 1963). It’s not much. But it’s something. And, for the benefit of those who would skew history to suit their own vision of nostalgia, the Giants still won the pennant, the Giants still won the pennant, the Giants still won the pennant.

Ah, I can’t leave this topic all riled up. It means too much to me. So here’s something better than anything I have to say, coming courtesy of a thoughtful gent in a Polo Grounds e-mail group to which I belong. He recently sent me this excerpt from an article by the greatest baseball writer ever, Roger Angell. It describes the scene in Upper Manhattan on September 29, 1957 — the final game the New York Giants played that year, the final game the New York Giants played at all, the final baseball game the Polo Grounds ever figured to host.

***

I went to the last New York Giants game of them all in the Polo Grounds — September 29, 1957 — taking my nine-year-old daughter with me. It was her first major-league game. It was a fine, cool day, the flags were flying, and we sat in the upper deck. There were some dull, touching ceremonies before the game, when a lot of the old-timers who had turned up to say good-by were introduced. George Burns was there and Larry Doyle and Rube Marquard and Carl Hubbell. Bill Rigney presented a bouquet of roses to Mrs. McGraw, and Bobby Thomson pointed to the left-field seats for the photographers. “When is it going to start?” my daughter asked.

It finally did start, but it wasn’t much of a game. Willie made a fine catch and throw in the first inning, but that was about all there was. The Pirates ran up the score, and the Giants looked terrible. The stands were half-empty and the crowd was the quietest I have ever heard at any game. Between each inning, a mournful-looking gentleman in the next section to us stood up and displayed a hand-lettered sign that said, “Giant fan 55 years.” In the eighth inning, I heard a spectator behind me murmur, “Well, at least the Dodgers lost too.” The Pirates won, 9-1.

There was a little excitement right after the game when some history-minded fans dug up home plate and several chunks of the outfield turf for souvenirs. A small crowd gathered outside the clubhouse steps to shout their farewells, but we didn’t join them. On our way out of the park, my daughter looked at me rather anxiously and said, “I had a good time. That was fun. I’m sorry they lost.”

I didn’t feel anything — nothing at all. I guess I just couldn’t believe it. But it’s true, all right. The flags are down, the lights in the temple are out, and the Harlem River flows lonely to the sea.

***

Next Friday: Take heed of the No. 7 song of all-time.

13 comments to My Giants

  • Anonymous

    My Grandfather — though he was a valued employee of Col. Jacob Ruppert, owner of the eponymous brewery and some kind of sports team or other — was a rabid fan of the New York Giants.
    My Father — whom you will no doubt recall from this past Saturday — became used to getting an afternoon phone call every so often in his early working life, asking if he “could sneak uptown” and meet his Dad at the Polar Grounds.
    Father to son to father to son…

  • Anonymous

    I love stories of pre-1920s baseball. Always have. I was delighted to see that I'm not the only person to feel this way. I am now reading Crazy '08 : How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History. I'm probably the only mom in my reading circle who is reading it. I recommended it as a great book by a woman author but the girls kind of shook their heads. Go figure.
    You would love it. Lots of John McGraw stories and the detail behind Merkel's great career, boner notwithstanding.

  • Anonymous

    My father spent part of his childhood just off the Grand Concourse, within easy walking distance of That Stadium, where everybody was a Yankee fan, and then moved with his family to the Staten Island neighborhood where the ferry ran over to Brooklyn and everybody was a Dodger fan. He rooted proudly for the Giants the whole time, and “had the scars to prove it,” he used to say.
    And throughout my childhood in Suffolk County, the grainy little 10-inch B&W tv in our house was allowed to show baseball only on Channel 9 — never, ever on 11.

  • Anonymous

    You know I'm right with you on this one, my friend.
    Except that as someone who carries just as illogical a torch for a team I similarly fell madly in love with as a child–the '34 Cardinals–I can't even conceive of the notion of not being able to stand Frankie Frisch.
    We're hopeless.

  • Anonymous

    Nice to see the Giants get some due!
    Another great book about the Giants dynasty of the early 1900's is The Old Ball Game
    It really is tragic that the Giants became the forgotten team of the trio of teams, I mean for pretty much the first 50 years of the 20th century THEY were the Flagship team of the NL, with the Cardinals right behind them based on the successes of the Gas House Gang and the 40's Red Birds.
    Then the Farve Packers of baseball (Buffalo Bills never won a Super Bowl, but Farve got one ring in two tries plus several near misses and everyone calls Bret Farve a great winner? Ala the 50's Dodgers) start there run, and once the two teams shift coasts, that pretty much started the Dodgers as being the Flagship team of the NL, and the Giants haven't won a World Series since (karma perhaps?)
    The Giants have a rich history here in NY and that should be celebrated. There should be just as many black caps with an orange button and the interlocking script orange NY as blue caps with a white button and a block B! But NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Its all Dodgers, Brooklyn, ect.
    Whats even sadder is that the LA Dodgers have long since fully embraced their Brooklyn roots, and I'm sure LA fans appreciated seeing Dodgers that never played in LA troted out for Old Timers Days, hell the Memorial Coliseum gave a moving tribute one night in 58 to honor a guy who tragically would never suit up in an LA uniform, Roy Campenella!
    San Francisco on the other hand? Other than Willie Mays, do they do much of anything to honor their past? Fans kind of resented Mays and actually grew to like guys like McCovey, Bonds, Cepeda, Marichal more. Oh sure Bill Terry, Carl Hubbell and Mel Ott had their numbers retired and McGraw and Matthewson are commemorated, but for the most part 1883 to 1957 is treated like the NFL treats every season before Super Bowl I

  • Anonymous

    Great article, Greg. The New York Giants are remembered more as the city's third team because of the success of Brooklyn and the Yankees in the 40s and 50s but it is true, they were the class of the national league through the mid thirties.
    John McGraw was not a supporter of the color barrier and even tried having an African American on his team (by claiming he was Cuban – it didn't work). Also, when Lou Gehrig hit his four home runs in one game, the event was overshadowed in the newspapers by the death of McGraw.
    Too bad all you've ever seen of the beloved Polo Grounds is that plaque. Before the Mets were born I remember passing by the Polo Grounds and the words New York Giants were still on the back of the bleachers. Those were removed but I remember when I was at those early Met games the old “NY” logo of the Giants was still on the stairwells, having not been modified for the slight difference used by the Mets.

  • Anonymous

    Just a quick correction, it wasn't McGraw's passing, it was his retirement that overshadowed Gehrig's 4 homer day.

  • Anonymous

    Great post! I thought I was the only one of my generation who had this weird Giants fixation!
    My fascination began when, as a lad, I asked my father if he rooted for the Mets as a child. He informed me that there were no Mets back then, but that there were three teams in New York: the Yankees, the Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. He also told me how the latter two ignominiously left New York. Then, when Willie Mays was traded to the Mets, I got out a biography of Mays from the library. In the black and white photos, it looked like he was wearing a Mets cap. That sealed it.
    I also heard from Dad stories about Giants lore from the past. About forgotten players like King Carl Hubble and Prince Hal Schumaker and Bill Terry. How nobody could play the right-field wall like Mel Ott. About how he went to the second game of the 51 playoff but not the third, because he thought it would rain that day. Grandpa, who watched them play in the twenties, said that nobody made a move on the field without looking at McGraw.
    Alas, these names are mostly forgotten, even though they were as well known as those of Ruth or Gehrig or Dimaggio. It's a shame. the Mets really could do more to remember this legacy. After all, the new stadium is practically Ebbets Field reborn, with only one small portion devoted to the Giants. Not to slight the Dodgers, but they should do more.
    For my part, I have a Polo Grounds replica next to my Shea Stadium replica in my office. I regularly wear Giants caps from the past. (Go to http://www.ballcap.com if you're interested.) And I'll be wearing my Mel Ott jersey when I go to boo Barry Bonds and the rabble from San Francisco next month!

  • Anonymous

    Superb, as usual, Greg. I'm proud to live in a city that has such rich baseball blood and that sometimes we do honor its memory.
    Speaking of which, does anyone known whose idea it was or how it came to be that the Mets blended the orange and blue of their National League predecessors? I think that is perhaps the best tribute we have, at every Mets game, rivals united in remembrance.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the correction. I guess to some Giant fans the retirement of McGraw felt like somebody had indeed passed away.
    Especially after he handed over the reigns to another Giant great, Bill Terry. It was Terry who asked at the beginning of the 1934 season “is Brooklyn still in the league?” He got his answer the hard way as the Daffy Dodgers defeated Terry's crew at the end of the season, costing them the pennant by two games.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks greg..Thanks for keeping the 'old' orange NY alive in your thoughts and words.
    We only met a week ago. However i know you..I saw you at the park in 05' when everybody was coming back to see this new group of Giants. I saw you several times in 08'. The year our pennant was stolen..I passed your way during those dominant years in the 20's..I saw you in 51' and 54' and in the end in 57'.
    I love that other human beings care so much about this stuff that they are moved to words. Words that connect us to our past.Reminding us of our connection to it…
    Thanks Man.. Rich

  • Anonymous

    Was that you there? I was so distracted by Little Lenny from the neighborhood harassing Ernie Lombardi that I must have missed you. Glad we caught up at last.

  • Anonymous

    Great question, J27. We take for granted the orange and blue and the reason it's there, but somebody had to think of it. It is a living tribute to both forebears.