As Mets fans, we hope our tentatively planned deluxe apartment in the National League East sky will be ready for occupancy in a couple of years. As New Yorkers who made it through Superstorm Sandy, we understand projecting living arrangements can become a precarious matter when nature intrudes in the rudest fashion possible. Almost six months after the storm left an enormous scar in our landscape, the rebuilding effort goes on, and like the one that involves Matt Harvey and other prospective prodigies, the Mets are playing a vital role.
Rebuilding Together NYC is a non-profit organization that provides repairs and modifications to low-income homeowners in the five boroughs. Its focus these days, not surprisingly, is on Sandy-impacted areas and, as such, Rebuilding Together NYC has partnered with the Mets on a special effort for this Saturday, April 27.
It will be Rebuilding Together NYC Day at Citi Field, held in conjunction with the Mets attempting to hammer the Phillies. A $55 ticket buys you a seat in Left Field Reserve, with a portion of the proceeds directed toward the group’s rebuilding efforts. If you’d like to cheer on the Mets and maybe cheer up your neighbors, consider the offer here.
Rebuilding is often as much about preservation and restoration as it is rehabilitation or transformation, so another thumb up for the Mets taking part in a terrific episode of making New York whole again. The Mets, along with the Yankees, the Jets and two teams of Giants have chipped in to make passable once more the John T. Brush Stairway, the last physical connection remaining to the cradle of your New York Metropolitans.
The staircase — which connected the 1911 version of the Polo Grounds to the road above it on Coogan’s Bluff — was presented to the City of New York by the baseball Giants in memory of Brush, their then recently deceased owner, one hundred years ago this July. And one half-century ago this month, the Mets commenced their second season in that same staircase’s shadow; 1963 marked the last spring and summer the grand old ballpark would be filled with fun and frolic (not to mention 34 wins for the good guys). A year later, one week before Shea Stadium opened, the Polo Grounds succumbed to the wrecking ball. While a housing project rose, everything else came down…everything but the stairs, though those fell into terrible disrepair. You could still make out the dedication plaque that was etched into one of its landings if you were in the neighborhood, but climbing the steps could be hazardous to your health.
Recognizing the historical value of maintaining this piece of New York lore, each professional baseball and football team that at one time or another called the Polo Grounds home (along with Major League Baseball), was prevailed upon to contribute a generous sum and each came through. Other donations were solicited and the New York City Parks and Recreation Department — prodded by concerned parties like Gary Mintz and the New York Giants Preservation Society — undertook the restoration. Soon, the stairs will scalable, the plaque will be readable and the spirit of Casey Stengel will be gratified to learn that when it comes to preserving a significant municipal monument, some people here can play this game.
The Mets, of course, gave unexpected life to the Polo Grounds in 1962 and 1963. The place was considered done forever for baseball on September 29, 1957, when the Giants played their final game, against the Pirates. Since it was assumed nobody would need the diamond again, many of the relatively few on hand decided its contents were fair game.
Which brings us to a fellow named John Barr, who a little while back sent us this answer to a question worth asking: whatever happened to home plate that day? Barr, a Giants fan since 1947, knew and wrote about it.
Let’s let his reporting take it from here.
Ray Smith grew up in Linden, New Jersey, as a New York Baseball Giant fan.
“My Dad was a Dodger fan so I became a Giant fan,” Ray said. “My Dad always took me to Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds to see one game a year at both parks between the Dodgers and my beloved Giants.”
Ray was fifteen years old when both the Dodger and Giant owners announced that 1957 would be the last year in New York City before the teams moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“I was angry, upset and felt betrayed that my beloved Giants were leaving and felt that I had to attend the last game played by the Giants at the Polo Grounds on September 29 against the Pirates,” said the very mad Giant fan.
Young Ray Smith took a bus from Linden to the New York Port Authority and then the subway to the Polo Grounds. It was easy for a fifteen-year-old back in those days. He purchased a ticket in the lower deck between the dugout and first base.
“I had gone to many games at the Polo Grounds by myself and after the games I would run on the field and try to catch up with my heroes as they headed for the center field clubhouse,” Smith said. “Willie Mays was my favorite and it was a thrill to have him say anything to me.”
The Giants lost that game to the Pirates by a score of 9 to 1, only scoring that lonely run when Dusty Rhodes hit a sacrifice fly scoring Don Mueller from third base. Willie went 2-for-4, and Bobby Thomson, who had returned to the Giants, had one hit. The Giants that day only had a total of six hits. The Giants used a total of five pitchers while the Pirates only needed Bob Friend who wrapped up his 14th win. Johnny Antonelli took the loss, bringing his record to 12-18. The attendance was only 11,606.
“When the last out was made several fans jumped onto the field and were caught by the ushers,” he recalled. “I saw an opening between ushers and scampered onto the field, first and second base were guarded so I headed to the pitchers mound and tied to dig up the rubber to no avail, as it was too deep”
Ray then realized that home plate was the soul of the ballpark. Willie Mays had run over, slid across and thrown strikes to it from center field. If Ray couldn’t keep his Giants in New York then he wasn’t going to let them take home plate with them. It was there for the taking. The following events followed as remembered from September 29, 1957:
“I ran to home plate.
“There was a bunch of people standing around doing nothing.
“I took out my Boy Scout knife — that’s the truth — and started digging.
“Someone stepped on my hand closing the knife and giving me a big cut.
“I dug and dug and finally home plate was loose.
“The plate had five coarse-threaded metal inserts.
“While I was digging and tugging everyone stood around watching — no one helped.
“Then when I got it out they tried to grab it from me and all hell broke loose.
“One older kid grabbed it from me and I jumped on his back and when he tried to punch me I took it back.
“I then took off running as fast as I could.
“A photographer spotted me and asked me to pose for a picture with home plate as others tried to take it from me. That picture appeared on the front page of the now-defunct New York Mirror on September 30, 1957, entitled the ‘Last Steal’.
“After the picture was taken, I was home free and left by the centerfield exit with my prized possession.
“I’d had the crap beat out of me. My glasses were broken and long gone, my finger was bleeding, my shirt was ripped and I realized I had been in quite a fight to keep home plate.
“The next challenge was getting it back to Linden.
“I must have looked a little strange, a disheveled fifteen-year-old hanging onto what looked like a home plate.
“I couldn’t see without my glasses so I had to ask strangers to tell me when the subway stop arrived for the bus terminal.
“But I made it home with my treasured possession.”
Whatever happened to home plate after that, you might wonder. Well, Ray Smith joined the United States Air Force in June 1959 after graduating from Linden High School and served on active duty until 1981. Home plate traveled with him to assignments in Wichita, Kansas; Germany; Knoxville, Tennessee; Scott AFB, Illinois; Athens, Greece, Washington, DC; and Colorado.
“It didn’t accompany me to Vietnam”, he added. “It now occupies a place of honor in my house over looking the Rocky Mountains.”
Thanks to John (and Ray) for a reminder of what home means to us, whether it’s physical, spiritual or a plate to grab hold of. Again, if you’re looking to go to bear witness to Shaun Marcum’s first Met start on Saturday and want to help somebody who’s not a Phillie baserunner be safe at home, please check out Rebuilding Together NYC’s special day at the park.