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Remembering New York’s Old Stadiums

Last month I predicted the Yankees, Indians and Angels would top their divisions in the American League, while the Mets, Cubs and Diamondbacks would do the same in the National League.

 

It’s a long season, full of ups and downs. Even though some good teams have had bad starts, they’ll have more ups the rest of the season.

 

Now, for the postseason spots. The wild card teams – the second place team with the best won-lost record – will be the Red Sox in the American League and the Florida Marlins in the National League.

 

 The Red Sox will use veteran pitcher John Smoltz wisely, will end up facing the Mets in the World Series, and will win it in six games. The Wilpon family (owners of the Mets), via the extra revenue the postseason games will rake in, will be able to recoup some of the millions they lost to Bernie Madoff.

 

*     *     *

 

Next month I’ll tell you about my forthcoming visit to New York and what I think about the new megabuck stadiums of the Mets and Yankees. To set the stage, I’m going to devote the rest of this column to what I thought about New York’s previous ballparks.

 

I’m old enough and lucky enough to have seen Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field twice (1954 and 1957). The fabled, cozy, brown-bricked home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, with the right field wall running along Bedford Avenue, was nestled in a neighborhood that offered very little parking.

 

Red paint adorned the seats inside and colorful signage around the large scoreboard covered the right field wall. A 19-foot fence topped the 19-foot wall, keeping most balls from bouncing around Bedford Avenue traffic. The fence beginning just to the right of the foul pole at the 297-foot mark was brown and initially I thought it was rusted out.

 

It wasn’t until my second visit to Ebbets Field three years later that I realized the fence was painted brown to conform to the exterior of the ballpark. I was also surprised to see large, long advertising signs for Chesterfield cigarettes and Botany ties on the Bedford Avenue side of the wall.

 

While Ebbets Field was probably baseball’s all-time most loved ballpark, New York had baseball’s most unusual in the Polo Grounds. Located across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium, the mostly double-decked horseshoe-shaped home of the Giants offered unusual field dimensions. It was only 257 feet down the right field line and only 279 feet to the wall in left field. The upper decks at the foul poles hung over the lower outfield stands giving batters home runs on some long high pop-ups.

 

While the dark green interior of the Polo Grounds had short distances down the foul lines, the horseshoe-shaped structure made the center field wall the deepest in baseball at 483 feet in the ballpark’s last year of existence in 1963 (the second year the Mets called it home). The clubhouses were above the outfield bleachers and the scoreboard clock was 80 feet above ground level and its exterior almost backed up to the Harlem River.

 

             Until the late 1960s, much of the exterior of Yankee Stadium looked as it did when it opened in 1923. I was stationed at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, in the summer of 1964 and luck enough to be an assistant to the base’s three Jewish chaplains.

 

When I had a weekend pass, I spent Shabbos at the Bronx home of my mother’s cousins (the Kolitch family) near the Young Israel of Pelham Parkway. The first Sunday I was there, I went on a self-imposed march from their home to Yankee Stadium.

 

It was almost a two-mile trek to the Grand Concourse, and then almost three miles down that handsome boulevard. Its benches were populated with elderly couples sizing me up as I walked to Yankee Stadium. The complexion of the area was much different then; most of the benchwarmers spoke Yiddish.

 

The excitement of getting to the stadium for a Sunday doubleheader kept me going without looking for a bench to share. I stopped to drink in the view in front of the tall, multi-winged Grand Concourse Hotel, home to many Yankee players during the season.

 

Then it was downward, catching the majesty of the stadium from behind the bleachers. The interior was also impressive because it looked as it did in the 1940s and 1950s. The seats, posts, and the famous frieze ringing around the facing of the roof were still in the original light green color.

 

Later that summer, on another weekend pass, I subwayed to Shea Stadium in its inaugural year, right across the way from the World’s Fair. A stadium with escalators and sweeping views not hindered by posts was something new to New York and most cities at the time.

 

Seeing the high, colorful decks from the outside was impressive. Being inside was not as impressive. A full house was on hand to see the Mets play the Dodgers that Sunday as Don Drysdale went the distance downing the Mets 2-to-1. I ended up in the top row just to the fair side of the left-field foul pole. Shea Stadium’s interior looked more like a giant television studio than a ballpark.

 

Through the years Mets management did what it could to enhance Shea, but it was never lovable or even likable. In the latter part of the 1960s, the Yankees did away with the light green interior, painting the seats blue and the facing of the decks and posts bright white. In the mid-1970s, modernization robbed the impressive stadium of what was left of its personality.

 

Because I experienced the original Yankee Stadium, I maintained a strong dislike for the storied stadium after its renovation. Over the last couple of decades, New York’s big league ballparks were on my least-liked list.

 

I’m heading to the new stadiums armed with the knowledge that the Yankees incorporated some of the best features of the original stadium and the Mets included some of Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds – and that I’m old enough to recognize them.


 


Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His Baseball Insider column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, who is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, is available for speaking engagements and may be reached in his dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author: The author of 10 books, Irwin Cohen headed a national baseball publication for five years and interviewed the legendary Hank Greenberg. He went on to work for a major league team and became the first Orthodox Jew to earn a World Series ring. He can be reached in his Detroit area dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.


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