At the Polo Grounds, a stroll in the outfield


SOME ORIOLE fans are getting nervous at the prospect that Memorial Stadium will be demolished after the new stadium opens. I can sympathize with them; I'm still upset at the destruction of my home-team ball park more than 20 years ago to make room for a housing project.

My park was New York's fabled Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants. Along with their arch rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Giants had moved in 1958 to the suburbs of California.

Seeing a baseball game at the Polo Grounds was a rich experience for a young fan in the mid-1940s. The park was unique among major-league stadiums. It was shaped like a giant horseshoe, with an enormous expanse of lawn in center field (almost 500 feet) along with paradoxically short right-field and left-field foul lines. Any .180 slugger could hit a well-placed pop fly, or hit a checked-swing pitch, and get a cheap home run along a foul line. But forget about hitting a homer into the center-field bleachers; as far as I know, it had never been done.

Leaving the ball park was almost as exciting as watching the game. The Polo Grounds clubhouse was no short tunnel stroll under the stands from the dugout. The clubhouse was located at the center-field end, and the players got there by taking a long walk across the outfield. The same area was the site of an exit. As a result, players and fans alike would stroll out across that huge meadow, often chatting together.

I remember a Saturday afternoon when the visiting St. Louis Cardinals had inflicted one of their customary humiliations on the Giants. I found myself walking across the field with Harry Brecheen, their great left-handed pitcher. Much as I hated to see the Giants lose, the pain was somewhat mitigated in those years j...jTC by the spectacle of such marvelous Cardinal players as Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Red Schoendienst and Brecheen.

As we walked, and Brecheen patiently answered my questions, I noticed that he kept his hand tightly held to the bill of his cap, as if continuously tipping his cap to the crowd. I asked why he did that. Brecheen replied matter-of-factly: "Some of the kids like to run up and snatch your cap." I felt ashamed for my contemporaries, unable to imagine anyone who would rather snatch a baseball cap than talk to Brecheen. And an enemy cap at that!

Some time later the Giants stopped this pleasant custom and closed the center-field exit to fans. That meant we had to leave the park from grandstand exits like everyone else. Too many cap-snatchers, I suppose.

Oriole fans haven't had the experience of walking across the stadium outfield with, say, Brook Robinson, but they have plenty of other unique, cherished memories worth preserving. One way or another, I hope they can.

Michael Naver, a Baltimore-based writer, departed New York in the same year as the Giants.

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