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.
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.