Said Ashburn: “Throneberry is the people’s choice and you now why? He typifies the Mets. He’s either great or terrible.” He paused and turned to Throneberry. “But you better not get too good,” he said. “Just drop a pop fly once in a while.”
Said Throneberry: “Aw, I haven’t dropped a pop fly in a week.”
—Leonard Shecter, Once Upon the Polo Grounds, 1970
Perhaps it’s the proliferation of 1962-style plays that made it such a perfect spot to stop along the way in 2009, though it’s not like the spirit of 1962 hasn’t come and found us time and again this year in the form of yips and yikes! that would have made the Original Mets of sainted memory blush. Just that very night, a Met named Emil Brown would pass a Met named Luis Castillo on the basepaths in Washington. Six nights after that, with two outs and the Mets up a run in the ninth inning, there was a pop fly hit to the second baseman and…well, let’s just say a little 1962 has gotten into these Mets and it won’t get out.
Yet you have to stretch like Marv Throneberry for a throw from Felix Mantilla to find it physically. You have to go outside your comfort zone. It’s not at Citi Field, where a text poll of attendees at one game revealed 52% of responding Mets fans thought the Mets used to play in Ebbets Field (which would have been a neat trick seeing as how Ebbets was demolished in 1960). It’s not in the parking lot at Citi Field despite 45 memorable seasons spent on that slab of blessed asphalt. It’s not even in Queens. You have to cross the East River and go looking for it. Better yet, you should be led there by someone who knows how to find it.
The Saturday morning before last, I was in the company of a man named Peter Laskowich, but he could have been Peter Frampton given what he accomplished. He showed me the way. He showed me how we got here, or at least how we started toward where we are.
You should let him do the same for you sometime.
I’ve sung the praises of Peter Laskowich in this space once before. He addressed the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society in March on the subject of Manhattan schist and what on earth (literally) that had to do with playing ball where the Giants did. It was my favorite kind of history: hidden in plain sight. It takes a sharp excavator to dig it up for you when it’s practically right in front of you. That’s Peter’s kind of history, the kind that’s all around you, so obvious that you don’t notice it.
Peter gives baseball-themed history tours of New York. Or is that history-themed tours of New York baseball? Label it as you like, when Peter got in touch to offer me a space on his next walk ‘n’ ride expedition — bring a Metrocard, he said — I shook off my innate aversion to waking up early on Saturday morning and rushed to meet his group at Madison Square Park.
Why Madison Square Park? I won’t tell you why (beyond that it has nothing to do with it being the birthplace of Shake Shack), for that would spoil the fun. Take one of Peter’s tours and find out. What he tells you about how baseball got its start at 26th and Madison will enthrall and amaze you. He could tell it to you in an auditorium, a classroom or a restaurant (which is where he addressed us unrequited NY Giants lovers), but it works so much better when he unveils, in the flesh, what is hidden in plain sight and explains what it means to you, the baseball fan and you, the New Yorker.
We lingered in Madison Square Park. We spent time under and on the edge of Times Square. We sat in the shadow of the Ansonia Hotel. All along the route, Peter related why we were where we were and how New York and baseball helped invent and reinvent each other. When a local C train inconveniently morphed into an express, we received a bonus: we found ourselves in Washington Heights across the street from New York Presbyterian Hospital, site of the first home of the New York Highlanders. It wasn’t on the agenda, but it wasn’t even sickening to hear their story from Peter on this Saturday (if you’re not familiar with the latter-day identity of the Highlanders, Steve Keane will be happy to clue you in).
“We will not approach any stadium,” Peter cautions in previewing his tours. I wasn’t interested in any stadium, at least not any that are active in the five boroughs. I spend plenty of time at one and have little interest in the other. I hoped his warning hadn’t meant, however, that we wouldn’t approach any places where there used to be a ballpark. Not to worry. The reason we had journeyed so far uptown that we found ourselves at 168th St. by the hospital was we had overshot our C train destination of 155th St. and St. Nicholas Avenue. That’s where Peter was taking us.
Will not approach any stadium… Ha! Of course we would, even if took an extra 13 blocks to hoof it, even if there was to be no game on our side of the Harlem River. We were headed to Coogan’s Bluff.
We would be standing above the Polo Grounds. We weren’t going to overlook it.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t made a pilgrimage like this before. Nine years earlier, my wife and I had some vacation time and we used it to kick around the Metropolitan Area. “You know what I always wanted to do?” I asked. Next thing she knew, we were on an uptown D train, hopping off at 155th and Eighth and looking for a plaque, which we found affixed to a Polo Grounds tower two blocks up. It marked the approximate spot where home plate was embedded for the better part of seven decades. I stood more or less where Bobby Thomson stood. And Mel Ott. And Monte Irvin. Where Carl Hubbell threw screwballs past American League All-Stars. I was there where New York National League baseball held forth. A great day in Harlem, indeed.
Two Saturdays ago, Peter’s tour, came at it from a different angle, literally. Walked down St. Nicholas. To our immediate left was Highbridge Park. There was a heap of that schist I learned about three months earlier. And there was the top of a staircase. Not just any staircase. The John T. Brush Stairway, named for the man who owned the Giants. We didn’t climb down. We didn’t get as close as I would have liked, but I could see the distinguishing characteristic, or what remained of it from 1913, two years after the final version of the Polo Grounds was reopened as Brush Stadium (which nobody ever called it).
THE JOHN T. BRUSH
I’d been reading about this staircase since that summer day in 2000 when we traveled to 155th and Eighth. In one of those must-be-kismet moments, Vic Ziegel wrote in the Daily News that very morning about how the staircase was all that was left of the Polo Grounds. It was the only living remnant from where baseball was headquartered in this city and in this country when you get right down to it. Wrote Ziegel in the column published August 10, 2000:
A chain fence discourages anybody from walking the 78 steps from Edgecombe to the road that runs into the Harlem River Drive. Many of the steps are cracked. There are gaping holes on the landings. Three street lamps, from that long-ago time, are very close to stumps. The weeds are winning.
Nine years later, it’s still chained off, but, more importantly, it’s still there. An effort is ongoing to restore it and preserve it (read about that here), which is a noble idea and cause if the money’s available. But even in its less than desirable state it’s there. Almost a century later, that tiny piece of the Polo Grounds hangs on.
That’s not even what we came to see. Peter guided us around the park, past Edgecombe and across to the extension of the Harlem River Drive (or Speedway, as it was known in John McGraw’s day). We leaned against the barricade that forms a bike lane. This was Coogan’s Bluff. Down below, Coogan’s Hollow: the Polo Grounds, where the Giants roamed; where the Mets took their first steps, each of them as unsteady as those clinging to life on the Brush Stairway.
Our learned tour guide added to our understanding of the geography, the geology and the genealogy of New York baseball. Across the river, we could see both Yankee Stadiums, the one they just built and the one they haven’t gotten around to tearing down. You are reminded just how close the first one sat to the Polo Grounds, how they could have shaken hands across the Harlem (or perhaps given each other the finger). Over my right shoulder was a garage that offered parking for Yankees games, a short Macombs Dam Bridge walk away. We were uncomfortably close to the Bronx in that regard, but make no mistake: we were in Manhattan. We were where New York National League baseball was rooted. The Giants moved into the neighborhood in 1889 and stayed through 1957. There, right down there, below where we stood. If you wanted to see New York (N.L.), this is where you came. Less than five years later, on Friday the Thirteenth in April 1962, you were in luck once again. New York (N.L.) was back.
“It had been five years since a baseball was hit in anger at the Polo Grounds when the Mets got there,” longtime Post reporter Leonard Shecter recalled lovingly in Once Upon the Polo Grounds, written in the aftermath of 1969. “It was old and crumbling. yet there was a style to the old place, and a feeling. This feeling was a mixture of joy and despair, just the ingredients that made up the new team that had come to give the Polo Grounds its brief respite from inevitable doom. From the very first day the Mets got there till they left it forever after two seasons, that was the emotional mixture and the Polo Grounds, joy and despair.”
Mets…joy…despair…sound familiar? It started at the Polo Grounds. Nowhere else. You walk around and stand on Coogan’s Bluff and that fact, more so than the elevation, takes your breath away.
As I marveled to myself that right down there was where the Giants lived and the Mets were born, I’m sure I was still listening to Peter, but I don’t know that I was absorbing as much as I had previously when he was filling us in on the Boston Post Road; and the glue factory near Madison Square; and the 71 clubs in Brooklyn that together turned a gentlemen’s pursuit into the people’s game; and the Longacre Theatre; and Arnold Rothstein; and all that schist. The Giants part is always my favorite part of any New York baseball history talk, but late in this three-hour tour I was looking more than I was listening. Looking and marveling. Looking and comprehending. Looking and trying to grasp that this is where it all happened…the Giants…the Mets…baseball with a curly NY on the cap, the way we love it, the way I love it. It wasn’t just from books and scratchy film clips. It was real and it was spectacular. It was the Polo Grounds.
It was here.
The Mets were never going to stay in Upper Manhattan. They were bound for Queens from the moment they were theorized. The Polo Grounds was contingency housing. Yankee Stadium wouldn’t have them. Ebbets Field had stopped existing. The Polo Grounds graciously and gamely endured for a couple of extra years so it could serve as delivery room to the Mets: the 40-120 Mets and the 51-11 Mets who came on their heels, — the Mets who couldn’t play this game here but tried anyway. In 1962 and 1963, Peter was a kid who watched the Mets on TV and listened to the Mets on the radio. All their foibles, fables, follies and futility is the stuff of public record, but Peter, a blue and orange loyalist, swears to this day, “No other team in my experience comes close to the Polo Grounds Mets for sheer guts. Those early Mets had heart. With last year’s talent the Polo Grounds Mets would’ve won 140.”
I believe Peter. A man who brings you to the doorstep of Coogan’s Bluff can’t help but tell you the truth.
When he finished conducting his three-hour tour, our group gave Peter a hearty ovation. We turned away from the Polo Grounds, crossed the Harlem River Drive extension, then Edgecombe and approached the entrance to the C on St. Nicholas.
Geez! What a tour!
Peter Laskowich conducts walking tours of New York regularly. His next baseball trip is scheduled for Sunday morning, June 28 and, as indicated above, is heavily recommended. To contact him, check here.
In the meantime, take a trip back in time without ever leaving your seat by joining us for METSTOCK: 3 Hours of Pizza and Baseball, coming to Manhattan on Thursday, June 18, 7:00 PM. Meet the authors of A Magic Summer (Stanley Cohen), Mets By The Numbers (Jon Springer) and Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets (your blogger right here), talk baseball with us, watch the Mets beat the Orioles just as they did in ’69 with us and have a generally great time. Details here.
And for you hopelessly sedentary types, sit and read Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook. For a serene West Coast take on the book, check out the blog Serenity, now.