On Monday evening, I attended a reading of a new collection of essays, Anatomy of Baseball, edited by Lee Gutkind and Andrew Blauner, and featuring work by John Thorn, Michael Shapiro and the late George Plimpton. Kevin Baker, the acclaimed novelist, contributed a piece on old ballparks, which features some wonderfully evocative writing about the Polo Grounds. Here is an excerpt of his chapter, At the Park:
By Kevin Baker
The ban on black ballplayersknown black playersin the major leagues finally ended in 1947, with Jackie Robinson. Within four years, a final legend would be playing in the Polo Grounds. Willie Mays was in many ways the antithesis of Ruth. Shorter and more slender at five-eleven, one-hundred-eighty pounds, Mays was all elegance and fluidity, a player whose grace caused grown men to mourn his passing from New York for decades. If the Babe had been singular in conquering the two great poles of the game, pitching and hitting, it is doubtful there ever was as complete an all-around player as Willie Maysa five-skill player, as the terminology has it. He could hit, hit for power, field, throw, runhow he could run. He ran out from under his hat, he was so fast. He was the first man in over thirty years to hit over thirty home runs and steal over thirty bases in the same season. He hit over fifty home runs on two separate occasions, once into the wind off San Francisco bay.
He could do anythinggliding through life, it seemed, even more smoothly than Ruth had. Greeting all the adoring strangers with his own generic salute, "Say hey!" A good-natured if somewhat removed young man, up from Birmingham; up from nowhere, coached mainly by his father, a former Negro-League star. Bursting on the scene a fully formed major-leaguer, it seemed. Bursting out with all that incalculable, bottled up talent; that angry, channeled intensity those first, remarkable generations of no-longer-banned black players brought to the big leaguesRobinson and Mays, and Newcombe and Frank Robinson and Aaron and Gibson and Clemente, to name just a few. Though Mays never seemed that angry. Enjoying himself, like Ruth. Even playing stickball out on the streets of Harlem with the neighborhood kids, waving a broomstick bat at the spaldeen, splattering it over the manhole covers.
September 29, 1954: the first game of the World Series at the Polo Grounds. The strange old park has less than ten years to live, and Mays, twenty-three, in his first, full major-league season, is about to impress his image indelibly on the history of the gameand to ensure that a last glimpse of the old ballpark will be preserved in countless highlight reels. It's the eighth inning of a tie game, two on and nobody out for the visiting Cleveland Indians, and Vic Wertz, a muscular first baseman, is at the plate. Wertz is red-hot this series and particularly on this day. He will record four hits, including a double and a triple, and now he rips another soaring fly, deep into the endless expanses of the Polo Grounds' right-center field.
Mays is after the ball. It keeps going, and he is right after it. Running and running, outrunning the ball, miraculously bisecting the endless expanses of the ball field, running all the way out over the vast, dark fields of the republic. Here is the weird centerfield clubhouse coming into view now, the monument to Eddie Grant, killed in the Great War, the war that took poor Matty's lungs. Here is a strange scene, frozen in still unfinished reaction: a few faces, peering out of the clubhouse windows, unable to see just where Mays is; a few of the fans, most of them men wearing hats, and some in jackets, too, even in the centerfield bleachers, just beginning to stand up, just aware something is going on that doesn't add up. They are all captured forever, in this first twitch of a great realization.
For Mays has already caught the ball. Running straight out, he has caught it over his left shoulder with barely a shrug. He is already turning back to the infield and about to throw, even as the crowd still begins to bestir itself. He windmills a quick throw back toward the plate, and the runners are kept from scoring. The Giants get out of the inning, win the game, sweep the World Seriesthe only one Mays will win in his whole long incomparable career.
It was the greatest catch ever made in the World Series, perhaps the greatest catch ever. Bob Feller, the great Cleveland pitcher watching from the dugout that day, sniffed later that no one thought it was the greatest catch then. Feller, unaccountably sour for a man blessed with a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball, claimed that everyone knew Mays used to deliberately wear his hats too small so they would fall off and make everything he did look faster, better, more incredible.
But the pictures of that frozen moment show that Mays's hat is just falling off then, obviously jarred off by how suddenly he has stopped and turned to make the throw. In fairness, it is easy to see how Feller or any other onlooker could be deceived. The over-the-shoulder catch is the hardest single play in baseball, but watching the film to this day, a casual observer will not see anything very dramatic, will notice little that stands out from the fantastic fluidity of Mays in motion. The greatness of the catch lies in how effortless Mays has made it looklies in where he is, how far he has had to travel just to be there. He has bridged the same gap as Ruth did with his moonshots, but he has done it as a single running man catching up to the slugger's ball, closing the circle.
More than a decade later, they were still selling boys' models of Mays running down Wertz's ballpreserving at least some little, plastic representation of the old Polo Grounds. Mays would leave when Horace Stoneham, the Giants' drunk of an owner, was lured out to the West Coast, abandoning the stickball-playing kids on the streets of Harlem without a second glance. The Polo Grounds were torn down in 1964, replaced by an ill-considered housing project. Nearly all of the old ballparks met a similar fate over the next few decadesEbbets Field and Shibe Park, Forbes Field and Crosley Field, Sportsman's Park and Comiskey Park, and Tiger Stadiumas the club owners squirmed and ran to get away from anyplace there might be black people; to where they could find something much more vital, which is to say, parking. The old parks would be replaced, at first, by new stadiums mostly out in the suburbsround, interchangeable, all-purpose stadiums, carpeted with artificial turf, that could be used just as easily for football games or rock concerts.
The Mets brought Mays back to play in what may have been the ugliest of them all, Shea Stadium, a park that already looked irredeemably shabby when it was brand new. He was forty-two years old when he appeared in the 1973 World Series, and even though he managed to drive in the winning run in one game off a future Hall-of-Fame pitcher, he staggered sadly about the outfield, misplaying balls. Everyone gasped that Willie Mays had grown old, and in his embarrassment he retired after that fall.
He had lasted, in the end, nearly as long as the terrible new cookie-cutter ballparks would. Trying to capitalize on memories and luxury boxes, the owners found an excuse to tear down most of them down after only a generation or so. In one town after another, baseball has returned to the inner cities, to new parks that were ostentatiously designed with quirky, eccentric featuresa rightfield wall that is part of an old warehouse; a small knoll in deep center, even a swimming pool in bleachers. They are improvements over the round bleak stadiums of the 1960sthough somehow they never recaptured the beauty of the old parks, revealing themselves, ultimately, as what they were: an exercise in ready-made nostalgia. The past, once uncoupled, is not so easily regained.