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My Polo Grounds Memories

Barry DuchanSunday, November 18, 2007
By Barry Duchan


Editor's Note: We will publish a post from Barry Duchan every Sunday covering some aspect of Mets history. - M.S.

Before Shea Stadium was built, the Mets played 2 full seasons at the Polo Grounds, which was right across the river from Yankee Stadium. I went to a handful of games and over 40 years later, these are the memories that linger.

First, there was the Memorial Day doubleheader against the Dodgers that attracted a packed house and although I had never sat in the bleachers before and didn't plan to that day, I had no choice if I wanted to get into the ballpark. Well, the bleachers were very, very, far out and this happened to be an unusually foggy day, so at times, all I could see was centerfielder Jim Hickman's head. I think Sandy Koufax pitched one game and I'm pretty sure the Mets lost both ends.

Another time, I asked for a seat "downstairs" and got this seat in the lower deck in rightfield that actually faced AWAY from the field, so I had to twist my neck all game to see the action. I think I left after 6 innings with the Mets 8 runs down.

Polo GroundsBad seats were very common in the Polo Grounds. If you were lucky enough to get one that wasn't behind a post, there's a good chance that it would be broken. Maybe if you could afford $3.50 for a box seat and bought it in advance, you didn't have to put up with this, but it always seemed that I did - oh well, suffering was definitely a part of being a Mets fan!

The player I remember most vividly was Jim Hickman. In retrospect, he probably symbolized the entire history of the Mets as well as any player could. He played more than any other outfielder because he had decent range and could hit the long ball, but struck out too much and appeared disinterested and lazy much of the time. Most Mets' fans were convinced that as soon as the Mets dumped him, he'd be back in AAA where he belonged. Surprisingly, Hickman later became an all-star and a .315 hitter for the Chicago Cubs. I attended a game where he hit for the cycle for the Mets - single, double, triple, homerun in that order in a game he started at third base to make room for newly acquired centerfielder Joe Hicks.

My final memory of the Polo Grounds occurred in one of the last games ever played there, late in the 1963 season. Near the end of the game, the Mets inserted a very young player named Cleon Jones into centerfield. The immediate reaction was "who?", but as an avid reader of The Sporting News, I knew Jones just had a solid season at Class B Raleigh and was touted as a top prospect. Was he ready ? No, it would be at least a couple of years, but of course, once Cleon arrived for good, he became the first real hitting star developed by the Mets and forty years later, still remains one of the best.

Note: More of Barry Duchan's writings can be found on his own Metscentric blog.

About Barry Duchan: I've been following the Mets since 1962. Have to admit I was a Yankee fan as a kid, but I found it to be so much more interesting to see how a young team could build itself up rather than following a team where the season didn't really begin until October. I remember them all - Casey, Marv, ChooChoo, Don Bosch, The Stork, etc. As the years went on, I became more and more of a Mets fan, and a Yankee hater once Steinbrenner and Billy Martin entered the picture.   Read More -->

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Comments (7)

A thought that still bothers me tody, is giving up going to the polo grounds to see the Mets play thinking I could always go some other day well its to late now and I never did get there. to cold to windy, looks like rain, to much traffic and the next day just kept passing away.In those days you could walk up to ticket window and almost pick your seat just before game time so it was easy to say not today. But it still bothers me that I missed it when I had many chances.Thank you for putting me there in your writting.

Thank you, Barry, for those memories. I got to go to just one game in the Polo Grounds and while I was too young to have much of a sense of what was going on, it left a deep impression on me. Here is my one memory of the Polo Grounds, from my book, Mets Fan.


MY FIRST GAME

The first baseball games I ever went to were the two games of a doubleheader played on September 15, 1963. I went to the game with my parents and my sisters, who were six and three, to celebrate my ninth birthday. These were the last weekend Mets home games of the 1963 season and they were the last weekend games ever played at the Polo Grounds, a stadium that had been built in 1890 and rebuilt after a fire in 1911.

It was, as I remember, so strange to go to a baseball game in a big building on a city street. From the fact that it was called a park, I had imagined that the stadium would be surrounded by a park, like a palace. It wasn’t. It was right on the street and it was a big, old place with columns and an old-timey look that I liked and didn’t like. I felt towards it the way I felt towards old people I didn’t know well. I respected it for what it was, but it scared me a little.

I remember how bizarrely shaped the Polo Grounds were. The fences were very far away in center field and they were really close down the lines in left and right. If you hit a 300-foot home run in the Polo Grounds, Lindsey Nelson or Ralph Kiner or Bob Murphy would call it a Chinese home run. Obviously, they wouldn’t call it a Chinese home run now, even if you could still hit a 300-foot home run. To this day, though, I don’t know what made a home run like this Chinese. Was it because it was short, something a small person could hit? Was there some implication that it was tricky or cheap or sneaky? What a strange world that was. I still have so many unanswered questions. I wondered if the strange shape of the ballpark had something to do with the fact that it might have once been used for polo.

I brought my mitt, but no foul ball came anywhere near me. We ate in an old-fashioned deli in Washington Heights before the games, the kind with the waiters in the jackets where you can get Dr. Brown’s sodas. This seemed appropriate. We left our house with the lawn in the suburbs to go to the ballgame in the city. It was an old-fashioned city experience, liked visiting relatives in apartment buildings where they insisted on kissing you but wouldn’t speak English. I liked it because it was interesting, but I was looking forward to next year, when there was going to be a brand new stadium out by the airports.

I think we lost both of those games, but I don’t remember much about them. I remember how weird it was to see a baseball game, for the first time, played in silence, with no one describing it or commenting on it. People cheered and booed. That was the only commentary.

What I remember most about the games were all of the old men crying at the end of the second one. This was 1963 and I was only nine. I hadn’t seen men crying very often. I’m not sure I had ever seen men cry at all. But there were a lot of them. I knew why they were crying but it was still something of a mystery to me. Didn’t they realize that the new stadium was going to be better? In retrospect, I remember this as a weird prelude to what I would see two months after this, when the president was shot, and I would see a lot of men crying. That was a different kind of crying. At the Polo Grounds, there was no shock or surprise, and there were no women crying. There were men, standing in the seats at the end of a game, looking and squinting and crying.

That doubleheader was the first Banner Day. Between the games, everyone who had brought a banner was allowed to join a parade around the field. This was something to see. At some point it had become the custom to bring signs to the Polo Grounds, done with magic marker on oak tag, or with paint on old sheets. The signs had slogans and pictures. The idea was to be clever enough to attract the television cameras. The banners were a Mets “thing.” They gave Mets games a distinctive atmosphere. Our expressions of love for our team were visual. They weren’t just verbal. They were artistic. They were media-savvy. They made the game feel like a big march or a demonstration. In all these ways, the banners made the Mets feel very contemporary. When I was nine, I’d hear the word “New Breed” applied to the whole phenomenon of the Mets. I didn’t understand if this was supposed to apply to the team or the fans. I took it as a reference to both. There was something new about all of this. And the sixties, as I was growing up in them, seemed to be about newness. I was new. The Mets were new. Everything in the sixties was new. There was nothing to cry about. So what if the old stadium was going to be torn down? Ebbets Field had been torn down. And my grandparents now lived twenty floors above what had once been second base at Ebbets Field, in a modern apartment that still smelled of camphor and soup.

I’m amazed that my very first games were these games, when something so important was ending and something new was beginning. The stadium seemed impossibly old on that last weekend of its life. But it was only about fifty years old. It was not that much older than Shea is now. There must have been people there who had been in the stands when the rebuilt Polo Grounds opened in 1911. I’ve seen pictures of baseball games around that time, with men in straw hats, women in long dresses. Some of those people were still there, at my first game in 1963, watching the parade of the banners in front of the television cameras.

Barry, it sounds terrible and it sounds wonderful. Whatever it was when you were there, what a thrill that you can say you saw it.

I spent an afternoon at the Polo Grounds once, in 1962, for a doubleheader between the Mets and Pirates. The seats weren't bad, lower level between home and first, about 15-20 rows back. It seemed dark - there was definitely an upper level above our heads.

I got my dad to buy me a Mets autographed ball. I used to tell people it was signed by the original Mets, but later I realized it wasn't. The game had to take place after June 15 because Gene Woodling's name is on the ball. By the way, this ball has three hall of famers on it - Stengel, Ashburn and Rogers Hornsby (maybe Hodges will join them one day to make it four). Plus other luminaries like Vinegar Bend Mizell, Cookie Lavagetto and John DeMerit.

The things I remember from this day were that the Mets lost both games, and at one point Casey marched out on the field to argue with the ump. The Old Professor's antics had my dad in stitches. It seemed like this was the funniest thing he had ever seen.

I always wanted to find out the date of this game and maybe locate a box score in the hopes that I could unlock some more memories. Barry, I tried going on paperofrecord.com but somewhere between registering and activation I was unsuccessful. Can you still acccess this site without problems?

Mark,
Try this link to get the Mets' results from 1962. There are a couple of doubleheaders with the Pirates. Click to get the box scores.
http://www.baseball-almanac.com/teamstats/schedule.php?y=1962&t=NYN

Great website - Thanks

No personal memories of the Polo Grounds, though I feel like it figured in my childhood, I've read so much about it.

Here's an item I recall from "Can"t Anybody Play This Game?" that I dredge up to wow children of friends sometimes when the subject of the New York Mets comes up:

There was a group of fans who apparently always sat together in a section down the left field line. Game after game they came to the park, each of them always bringing a baseball to the park. Finally, in a game that was being telecast, someone hits a foul ball into their area.

As a man, all the group rose out of their seats and held their baseballs skyward for the camera. EVERYBODY caught that foul ball, you see.

To wait so long to deliver a humble punchline...."respect" is almost too faint a word to describe my feelings on the matter.

Reading that tale might have been the moment I decided there might be something to following those Mets; I would be joining a creative bunch of people, a gang built for the long haul.

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