Take Me Out To the Ballpark

Baseball game, ca. 1939. Clifford Sutcliffe, WPA Federal Writers' Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

When researchers think about Municipal Archives collections, generally the focus is on genealogical records or mayoral papers or 19th-century maps. However, the collections are vast and broad in scope, containing material on a range of surprising non-governmental topics such as food, fashion, music, and even baseball. Yes, the national past-time is well represented in the Municipal Archives.

Topographical Bureau of Queens baseball team, Long Island City, 1910. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Some say that the first organized baseball team was NYC-based—the Knickerbockers of Murray Hill who commenced their season in 1845 with a game in Hoboken. What made them organized is that they wrote down and followed rules for the game. Imagine that! Suffice it to say that baseball emerged in the mid-19th century as a game that could be played without much equipment—perfect for an urban environment. It became immensely popular across most demographics as a sport suitable for professionals as well as legions of amateur players.

Scenes from baseball game, Elks Club Clambake, Midland Park, Grant City, Staten Island, August 1924. NYC Municipal Archives Collection

Today there are two professional teams, the crosstown rivals New York Mets and New York Yankees and their minor league counterparts the Brooklyn Cyclones and Staten Island Yankees. But for decades there were three teams: The Giants, the Dodgers and the Yankees. Each boasted of enthusiastic fans and each was based in a unique ballpark.

A football game underway at the first Polo Grounds, Harlem Flats, 157th Street and 8th Avenue, ca. 1880s. DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Seating chart for the third Polo Grounds, ca. 1930s. New York City Municipal Archives Collections.

The home of the New York Giants was the famed Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan on Coogan’s Bluff separating Washington Heights and Harlem. In a scene unimaginable today, fans could sit on the bluff, looking down on the park, and watch games for free. Originally named the Gothams, the club was formed in 1883 and decamped to San Francisco in 1958 abandoning their storied field. The ballpark was uniquely long and narrow, with a centerfield fence so distant that only the most elite players—Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth—could hit a homerun over it. (Joe Adcock from Milwaukee could too but let’s stay focused on New York). Home to many a major league game, the park also hosted such cross-town rivals as the departmental teams of the FDNY, NYPD and DSNY. Friends and families packed the park to watch the amateur sluggers at play. Mayors attended and sometimes even tossed out the proverbial first pitch.

Police vs. Fire Department baseball game, Polo Grounds, 1940s. NYC Municipal Archives Collections.

Sanitation Department Baseball Team marches on Lower Broadway on Connie Mack Day, August 19, 1949. NYC Municipal Archives Collections.

Ebbets Field, ca. 1949. Department of Finance Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Across the river, the Brooklyn Dodgers played in Ebbets Field. There are many Dodger stories but the preeminent, of course, is that of the great Jackie Robinson who in 1947 broke the color line in major league baseball at Ebbets Field, after playing in the Dodgers minor league Montreal team in 1946. There had, of course, been black semi-professional baseball players from the beginning, when leagues just were forming. But the black players were banned in 1868 from the National League and it was in Brooklyn where the beginning of the end of those race-based rules occurred.

Sullivan Street Elevation, Brooklyn Base Ball Club [Ebbets Field], Clarence R. Van Buskirk, 1912.

The Dodgers were chased out of NYC by Robert Moses in 1957, devastating their fans, but leaving home plate behind.

Home plate from Ebbets Field, ca. 1957. Brooklyn Borough Presidents Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Letters to Mayor Wagner urging him to save the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1957. Mayor Wagner Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

World Series announcement board (Yankees vs. Giants), Radio Row, Cortlandt Street, 1936. WPA Federal Writers' Project, NYC Municipal Archives.

That of course brings us to the third of the City’s old-time teams, the erstwhile Highlanders renamed the Yankees in 1913. For a dozen years, the Yankees played at the Polo Grounds, sharing the ballpark with the Giants, another occurrence unimaginable today. In 1921 and 1922 the teams played against each other in the World Series, with the Giants prevailing both times. The “old” Yankee Stadium opened in 1923 and the original “subway series” may have been the 1923 World Series between the Giants and the Yankees which the Yankees won for their first-ever world championship. Legendary players donned the pinstripes, none better than the 1927 team frequently characterized as the best baseball team ever assembled. Those exploits are reimagined in the 2016 blog from Doug Alden—The Diary of Myles Thomas—which explores jazz, race, gangsters and New York. 

1936 World Series, singer Kate Smith (front left) and Babe Ruth (center) with his wife Claire Merritt Ruth in special seats in front of grandstand, September 1936. WPA Federal Writers' Project, NYC Municipal Archives.

Civilian Defense Poster, Pre-Season Championship Double Header Baseball Benefit Games, 1943. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The archives collection illustrates the varied uses of the old Yankee Stadium. It was more than a ball park. It was an event space! In 1943 a double-header joined all three of the City’s teams in games to raise money for Civil Defense. There were rallies such as a citywide May Day rally for labor. In 1990, Nelson Mandela spoke to thousands of attendees who opposed apartheid in South Africa and then donned a Yankees coat and cap. In 1965 and 1979 two different Pope said mass right around second base, attracting very large crowds of worshipers. But the largest crowd in the stadium’s history was drawn by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1958—123,707 people. Prayer is a tradition that continues in the replacement stadium which, after the September 11th attack, hosted a multi-denomination prayer service, uniting a grieving City.

Nelson Mandela at Yankee Stadium, June 21, 1990. Mayor Dinkins Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Pope Paul VI, October 4, 1965. NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.