While my curiosity and maybe even my enthusiasm regarding the next ballpark where any of us has yet to see a ballgame inches ever wider, I used Wednesday night as the launching pad for my latest trip in the other temporal direction, to the team I never saw and the park where I never saw them. Both were as alive and well as they could be on a Wednesday night in 2009, which means that it was another New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society night in Riverdale. I try not to miss those nights seeing as how I missed the days that made them necessary.
Our guest speaker was a truly passionate historian named Peter Laskowich, filling us in on all kinds of nooks and crannies of New York baseball lore, such as why the clubhouses at the Polo Grounds were situated in center field (geology), why you couldn’t take a trolley car to where a team named for those who dodged trolley cars played (politics) and why Manny Ramirez and Vin Scully have more to chat about than Manny’s money (they’re both from Washington Heights). Peter traversed both big picture and minute detail, and should you ever have the opportunity to take one of his classes or tours, I recommend it highly. Peter can tell you about the old Polo Grounds; he can tell you about old Ebbets Field and its transit-deprived predecessor Washington Park; he can tell you about Hilltop Park, home of the Highlanders as well as that place where the Highlanders wound up after their decade stopover at the Polo Grounds.
He can probably tell you about Shea Stadium, if you ask, but it never occurred to me that Shea Stadium would ever require a historian to explain it. Shea Stadium was a living, breathing organism until quite recently. It was a carnival, a playground, a town square set down conveniently in a parking lot.
Now it’s just a parking lot, and everything else about it no longer “is” — it’s all was.
Well, shoot, we know that. We know they finished playing at Shea Stadium and they finished tearing down Shea Stadium and that Shea Stadium has already received orientation toward its celestial incarnation. But hanging with those New York Baseball Giants fans Wednesday night drove home all over again that the Shea Stadium that operated on Earth is history and that Shea will eventually be one of those places that somebody will need somebody else to explain.
Everybody at our dinner learned something about the Polo Grounds from Peter Laskowich, but not everybody needed Peter Laskowich to explain the Polo Grounds. Our Nostalgia Society is brimming with members who saw the Giants there and they will never forget what it was like. In the restaurant where we gathered, those folks were in the majority. Outside Josepina’s of Riverdale, they are relatively few. The Polo Grounds is the stuff of history a mighty long time now. Someday, it will be strictly historians who can give you the fullest account possible of that place.
Nowadays, that’s not the case with Shea. Everybody alive who has ever been to a Mets home game has been to a Mets home game at Shea Stadium (save for a handful of hardy cranks who washed their hands of the whole thing by September 1963 and not counting those cameos in Monterrey and Tokyo). There is no shortage of us.
Soon enough, as any actuarial table can tell you, our ranks will diminish. It won’t be a substantial reduction at first, not for a very, very, very long while. Total attendance for Mets games at Shea between 1964 and 2008 was close to 100 million. Even accounting for those of us who went more than once, that’s a lot of people. Somebody’s going to be at a dinner or a luncheon or maybe a breakfast of New York baseball devotees I don’t know how many decades from now and there’s going to be somebody who went to Shea Stadium.
At some point, though, there will be fewer and fewer, and Shea Stadium’s existence will grow more and more distant. Details will dissipate and facts are bound to fog up. Shea Stadium will require an in-depth explanation on the scale of its ancestors. Historians who want to give a complete picture of the old ballparks of New York won’t be able to treat Shea as a footnote after all the ancient stadia have been covered. Shea will be, for all intents and purposes, as ancient as the Polo Grounds, as Ebbets Field, as Washington Park.
It makes me wonder what history, once separated from euphoria-tinged comparisons with that which is new and shiny, will tell those who ask about Shea Stadium. While I didn’t know until Wednesday night that Manhattan schist made the building of traditional clubhouses prohibitively expensive, I have picked up a few foundation facts about the Polo Grounds over my years of fascination with it. I do know that certain games constituted its signature events, that certain architectural quirks made it stand out from its peers, that its location in place and time made it very special to those who saw games there. Yet I can only imagine what it was really like, in the way those of us who saw games at Shea Stadium will always know what the historians will only piece together.
So tell me — what do we tell the future about our old ballpark, the one we saw but it never will, so the future can get its story straight?
There’s history and then there’s intense personal history, such as that you can read when you pre-order Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other fine retailers.