The Last of the Polo Grounds

New York City Will Repair a Forgotten Staircase

This spring, two new ballparks will open in New York City. In Queens, Citi Field, which bares more than a passing resemblance to Brooklyn's old Ebbets Field awaits the Mets. In the Bronx, in the shadow of the grand original, a sparkling new Yankee Stadium prepares for an illustrious unveiling.

As the two parks ready for opening day, a remnant of another park where both the Mets and Yankees both played sits crumbling on a wooded slope within view of Yankee Stadium, on the opposite side of the Harlem River. A nearly century-old staircase is all that remains of the Polo Grounds, torn down in 1964. The bathtub-shaped Polo Grounds started out in 1890 as home to the New York Giants, who played here until moving to San Francisco after the 1957 season. The Yankees played at the Polo Grounds from 1913-1922, and the Mets called it home from 1962-1963. Football's Giants played at the Polo Grounds from 1925-1955, and the Titans (who became the Jets) had games here from 1960-1963. The quirky ball field also hosted many famous fights, Army-Navy games, religious services, soccer—even the opera.

But after the Jets season ended in 1963, the curtain came down. In 1964, the same wrecking ball that destroyed Brooklyn's Ebbets Field in 1960 was used to knock down the Polo Grounds. Several years later, the Polo Grounds Towers housing complex was built on the site, erasing any trace of what once stood there. A plaque marking the site of home plate and a playground named for Willie Mays were the only reminders of what once sat in Coogan's Hollow.

Or were they?

On July 9, 1913, a New York Times article wrote that the New York Giants would be formally dedicating the "John T. Brush Stairway" to the city of New York. H. N. Hempstead, Giants' team president, would be presenting the gift to the city parks commissioner, Charles B. Stover, in honor of Giants owner John Brush who had died the previous year (Brush had presided over the re-building of the concrete Polo Grounds after a fire destroyed the wooden version of the stadium in 1911.) The stairway ran through Highbridge Park from the top of Coogan's Bluff at Edgecombe Avenue down to the Harlem River Drive below at about 158th Street.  The steps, which would eventually be used by hundreds of thousands of fans over the years walking from the heights of the bluff down to the stadium, also served as a convenient walkway between the upper and lower tiers of Highbridge Park.

The staircase was poetically acknowledged in a piece about the Polo Grounds by New Yorker sports writer Roger Angell: "It's the only ballpark built against a cliff—Coogan's Bluff—so that a patron could walk downhill to a seat. You came slowly down the John T. Brush stairs to the cool of the evening, looking down at the flags and the tiers of brilliant floodlights on the stands and, beyond them, at the softer shimmer of lights on the Harlem River."

Today, rusted and rotting, the staircase, decrepit handrails and all, still stands. It no longer accommodates sports fans, of course—in fact, the structure is sealed off because it is considered unsafe. On the landing between the two flights of steps is the original plaque which reads: "The John T. Brush Stairway Presented by the New York Giants." Last year, 95 years after it first featured an article on the 80-step staircase, the New York Times published another story about it—only now, it told the tale of this sadly forgotten landmark. The New York Daily News followed up several months later with an editorial calling on the former tenant teams to step up to the plate to help refurbish the structure. Adrian Benepe, the commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation, took notice and got involved, as did Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer.

As part of the Bloomberg administration's PlaNYC2030 program, today Highbridge Park is being readied for an overhaul, including the historic High Bridge and now, the Brush staircase. As it was suggested in the Daily News plea, the former teams have also gotten involved.

According to New York City Parks Department spokesperson Cristina DeLuca, "We're planning to completely reconstruct the old stairway and add some landscaping.  The New York Mets, New York Yankees, New York Jets, New York Giants (football), and San Francisco Giants have either contributed or pledged a total of $500,000. The total project cost is estimated at $800,000."

The Mets' former home, Shea Stadium, was unceremoniously shredded in the snow and sleet this winter while old Yankee Stadium is being dismantled gently, almost surgically, as if not to attract any attention.

It's thought that the stairs were initially spared back in the 1960s because they still served a purpose in allowing people to easily get from one level of the bluff to another. Visiting today though, it's clear they've been forgotten for a long time. Though technically off limits, it's still possible to locate the plaque on the landing, which is starting to erode. As well, many of the concrete steps are crumbling. But what a view.  Down below, it's possible to see where home plate once sat—from where Bobby Thomson launched the famous Shot Heard 'Round The World home run in 1951, forever breaking the hearts of Dodger fans. Farther out, the spot in centerfield where Willie Mays made "The Catch" in the 1954 World Series. Both Yankee Stadiums look impossibly close and soon, just as the fans on the stairs have disappeared, the ballpark on the right will be gone.

As the two new local ballparks are trumpeted this season, the last physical link to an old beloved park waits for its makeover—which hopefully will happen soon. Those parks in their upcoming rookie seasons deserve all the attention they'll get. But good for New York for not forgetting an old timer—or at least a piece connected to one.

Fans interested in making private donations can do so (checks should be made payable to City Parks Foundation with "John T. Brush stairway" written in the memo line. Checks can be sent to: Commissioner Adrian Benepe, NYC Parks & Recreation, 830 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10065.

 

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Comments

Submitted by Angel Naravaez at: October 21, 2010
How can I find a Tenat that no longer lives in the pologround towers?

Submitted by TonyD at: August 23, 2010
Leave it to Chris Epting to help save something important and beautiful. The staircase is truly of historic significance. My Dad was 12 years old when he ran home from school to be thrilled of watching Bobby Thomson on television do his thing for history. Count me in for support!

Submitted by RobG at: October 17, 2009
I use to live in the Polo Ground Towers from 68-90 and I know that staircase very well. A lot of us teens would use that staircase often to get to the local library located on 167th St and St. Nicholas Ave. We would also visit the Jumel Mansion. It was also a faster way to get to that section of Manhattan than taking the much longer stairs near the bridge. We would call it the "150 Steps." for the number of steps it had to reach to the top. During that time in the mid 80's the stairs were closed off and definitely looked dangerous but a lot of us used them both day and night and the view was nice. Once the stairs are restored I'm going to take a visit and relive a part of my youth when we would play in those cliffs and on those stairs.

Submitted by Bill Kent at: June 14, 2009
We all rejoice at the re-building of Brush Stairway! NY Baseball Giants Nostalgia Soc. healthbul@msn.com

Submitted by Bob52X at: March 19, 2009
What a shame such a great facility was smashed for a housing project. Think what life would be like with 3 NY ball teams and a Stadium facility on Manhattan island. Concerts Baseball Football Olympics and on and on. But Dolan says no. The hell with him.

Submitted by alohame at: March 12, 2009
No one will ever forget Yankee Stadium, I am sure of that. I never knew that piece of history about the Polo Grounds (I didn't grow up baseball, but my husband I am sure knows about it:). Chris is one of those writers who knows how to make a place rise from the ashes and seem like it's alive again. It's like watching a movie, but then you realize you're reading it.

Submitted by DJB at: March 6, 2009
What a great story and a terrific find. I was one year away from being born when Willie Mays made "The Catch" against Vic Wertz in 1954, but as a lifelong Mays fan, I've seen that highlight reel hundreds of times. It wouldn't have been possible without the strange configuration of the outfield wall in the Polo Grounds. Thanks for reminding me again of that time and place.