High up on Coogan’s Bluff, the hill in Upper Manhattan that divides Harlem and Washington Heights, there is an old cast iron staircase.
Winding its way down from where West 158th Street meets Edgecombe Avenue, and looking down at the Harlem River, the hundred year old stairway ends up at a large housing complex. It is rarely noticed and hardly used at all. But once it would have been packed with excited sports fans making their way down the hill. Once, it used to lead to a ticket office. For the stairway is the last remaining relic of one of baseball’s most storied ball parks, the iconic and long gone home of the New York Giants, the old Polo Grounds.
Five New York sports teams actually called the Polo Grounds home between 1890 and 1963, amongst them, the fledgling Jets (then Titans), and the Yankees and Mets both used it when developing Yankee and Shea Stadiums respectively. But it is with baseball’s New York Giants that the fabled stadium is most associated.
Squeezed into the neighborhood bounded by 155th street, 8th Avenue, and Harlem River Drive, the ball park had an unusual, long bathtub shape, with short distances along the left and right field lines, but with an unusually long distance to centre field. It was so far away only three players ever hit home runs over it: Babe Ruth, Joe Adcock and Lou Gehrig. This was the golden age of New York baseball where deep seated, crosstown rivalries over pennants and World Series championships were fought between the Giants, Yankees, and Brooklyn Dodgers.
Some of baseball’s most iconic moments happened at the Polo Grounds; this is where Willie Mays made “The Catch” in the 1954 World Series against the Cleveland Indians. Possibly the most famous call in all of sports happened here, made when Giants outfielder Bobby Thompson won the 1951 National League pennant against Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca in the bottom of the ninth inning. It was the first ever nationally televised baseball game, and Russ Hodges’ legendary call from the Giants radio booth, “There’s a long drive … it’s gonna be, I believe … The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” became known as the so called “Shot Heard Around the World”.
The staircase was actually built in 1913 and has an inscription on the landing half way down, “The John T. Brush Stairway Presented By The New York Giants.” It was named in honor of the long-time owner of the Giants who had passed away the year before in 1912. At the time many Giants fans were able to sit atop Coogan’s Bluff and watch the games for free. It was hoped that the staircase would provide a more convenient way to get down the hill to the ball park, and entice more fans to pay to get in.
Despite having their home in New York for nearly three quarters of a century, and with five World Series and 14 National League pennants, a failure to modernize the antiquated ball park combined with falling attendances saw the unthinkable happen; the owners moved the team to San Francisco in 1958 following the Brooklyn Dodgers move to Los Angeles. What had been a city with three intense baseball rivalries suddenly had none. For three years the illustrious old ball park stood abandoned, until it was used on a short term lease by football’s Titans, now Jets, and the Mets, whilst Shea Stadium was being completed.
In 1964, using the same wrecking ball that had demolished Brooklyn’s Ebbett’s field, the grand old ball park was torn down for good. The demolition crew wore Giants jerseys in honor of the departed team. The four building housing project now stands where the grounds used to be, and all that remains of a ball park and baseball team that captured the hearts of so many New Yorkers is the old staircase. Until last year, it was in a terrible state of neglect and disrepair. But a joint venture between the NFL’s Giants and Jets, and baseball’s Yankees, Mets, and San Francisco Giants, paid to renovate the rusting and decrepit stairway. Fans may no longer throng down the old staircase making their way to watch their beloved New Giants play, but it is all that remains from the sad day they tore down the old Polo Grounds.