Polo Grounds Glory Days: Part Two – 1954
by John Delach
A last hurrah, the final World Series championship won by the New York Giants at their venerable Manhattan home, the Polo Grounds.
Bill Christman shares his memories of that season:
August of 1954. My Dad took me to a Sunday doubleheader against the Pirates. We had an early, but traditional Sunday dinner of leg of lamb. My Mom made delicious sandwiches of left-over meat and off we went to see Johnny Antonelli and company win both ends of that doubleheader 5-4 and 5-3.
The Giants were my love, but things were rocky. They had lost three straight to the second place Dodgers reducing a 3 ½ lead to just ½ game. But the lead had replenished itself back to two games going into that Sunday. I kept one eye on the scoreboard that showed the Dodgers losing to the Phillies in both games of their doubleheader in Ebbets Field. I can still see in my mind’s eye the man to my right and several rows back yelling, “Philly got five runs.” When the sun set, the Giants lead was four games.
The Giants opponent in the World Series was the Al Lopez-led Cleveland Indians who won a remarkable 111 games that season, ending the Yankees run of five consecutive AL Pennants.
The Giants went on to sweep the Indians, four games to none. The accepted turning point of the series occurred in the top of the ninth inning of Game 1. With the score tied at 2-2, runners on first and second base, Giants manager, Leo Durocher brought in left-handed relief pitcher, Dick Littlefield, to pitch to Vic Wertz, the Indians first baseman batting second.
Wertz hit a long fly ball deep into “Death Valley” also known as the Polo Grounds’ center field. Willie Mays, playing a medium- ranged center field position, took off at the crack of the bat. The ball and Mays reached the 440-foot mark at precisely the same moment. Mays, with his back to the ball, made a spectacular over-the shoulder catch.
After catching the ball, Mays used his momentum to pivot 180 degrees back toward home plate. As he rotated, his right arm swung out and around him allowing Willie to release the ball at exactly the right moment with an amazing velocity. His perfect catch followed by his perfect throw forced the runners to hold up. Durocher called time-out to go to the mound. Littlefield greeted his skipper with a great understatement, “Well, I got my man out.”
The game remained tied as the runners were subsequently stranded. In the tenth inning, Dusty Rhodes pinch-hit a three-run homerun to win the game 5-2.
The next day, September 30, 1954, the Giants won the last World Series game ever to be played in the Polo Grounds, 3 to 1. Rhodes again was the hero driving in all three of the Giants runs. The Giants finished the series in Cleveland winning the last two games, 6 to 2 and 7 to 4 to sweep the Indians in four games.
1955 belonged to the Brooklyn Dodgers as “Wait until next year,” fell into the same category that the Boston Red Sox did to “Reverse the Curse” in 2004. By winning the World Series, it just did not matter anymore. The Dodgers won the pennant with a record of 98-55 while the Giants finished in third place behind the Braves.
Bill Christman remembered a Fourth of July doubleheader against the Dodgers.
The Giants and Dodgers hardly ever played each other in doubleheaders which made this a special event. I went to the Polo Grounds with a good group of neighbors and friends on a day that, weather-wise, could not have been a better day for baseball.
My scorecard shows that the Giants did not allow the Dodgers to score a run in the first inning of the first game. The next time they accomplished this was the second inning of the second game. Brooklyn won the first game, 15-2 and the second, 6-1.
Willie Mays hit 51 home runs in ‘55, but the pitching floundered. Leo Durocher resigned as manager on September 25 to be effective at the end of a doubleheader against the Phillies. The Giants won the first game 5-2. Here is how Noel Hynd described what happened in the bottom of the ninth inning of the second game with the Phillies leading 3-1 and the Giants at bat:
With Joey Amalfitano on second base and Whitey Lockman on first, Bobby Hoffman lined a ball to Phillies shortstop, Ted Kazanski. Kazanski flipped the ball to Bobby Morgan, the second baseman, to double Amalfitano. Then Morgan threw to first before Lockman could return there. Leo must have been muttering to himself as he took his final walk to the center field clubhouse. His reign in John McGraw’s old job had ended on the short end of a triple play.
The Giants reign in the Polo Grounds came to an end on Sunday, September 29, 1957. The home team lost to the Pittsburg Pirates, 9-1, before an angry crowd who did their best to demolish what they could. Some in the crowd chanted: “We want Stoneham with a rope around his neck.”
The Giants abandoned New York for San Francisco joining their principal rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, who abandoned Brooklyn for Los Angeles. The Dodgers home park, Ebbets Field, was quickly demolished to provide land for Urban Renewal housing.
Curiously, the vacant Polo Grounds was left intact. Good thing: It became the initial home, first for football in 1960 when the newly minted American Football League (AFL) New York Titans made the Polo Grounds their home field.
When the baseball expansion New York Mets joined Titans successor, the Jets there in 1962, the life of this historic ballpark was extended until its replacement, Shea Stadium, could open in April of 1964. A week before the Mets inaugurated Shea with a contest against the Pittsburg Pirates, the jack hammers went to work beginning the destruction to erase this old friend.
Frank Sinatra memorialized its passing with a song called, “There Used to be a Ballpark here.”
I lived next door to Bobby Thompson’s mother as a young child. I remember his Boxer more than him when he would visit. On the 50th anniversary of “the shot heard around the world” I met him at a benefit for the retired players thanks to Marsh buying a table at the event. I have a ball signed by Bobby and Ralph Branca from that night. A few years later I again met Ralph and I mentioned his famous pitch. His only comment was “They stole the signs”.
BTW my Mom grew up on Audubon Avenue in Washington Heights so she spent her childhood rooting for the NY Giants.
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Little known fact but the same wrecking ball was used on both Ebbets field and the Polo Grounds
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