Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself…
— Robert Frost, “Birches”
It always was a city game, baseball.
That’s not how the old pastoralists would have it, of course. They have so loaded the game down with country imagery that it’s hard to separate the mythology from the reality now—little boys chasing fly balls into Iowa cornfields, The Natural peeling a bat off a lightning-damned tree. When it came time to build a Hall of Fame the lords of the game stuck it up in bucolic Cooperstown, seizing upon some old-timer’s letter about how the game was invented in Abner Doubleday’s meadow. Doubleday was the Forrest Gump of the nineteenth century, a Union officer who was there at Fort Sumter, there at Gettysburg. But he wasn’t even around for the invention of baseball.
The game required too many boys, as Frost’s words imply. Only those who have forgotten the punishing isolation of American rural life would believe baseball came of age in the country. The old names give it away. It was called “town ball,” because it was played on those days when everybody came into town for church, or market. It was called “the New York game,” because that’s where baseball—real baseball—actually started, in vacant lots around what is now the West Side Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea.It was played not by country boys but by clubs of middle-class merchants with a little leisure time on their hands; then increasingly by sharp-eyed immigrant professionals, Pat and Mick and Heinie.
The first generation of major-league parks, back in the nineteenth century, were little more than sandlots with rows of precarious wooden bleachers—one step up from those vacant, rock-strewn lots in Chelsea. Eventually they were ringed, frontier-style, with a stockade fence so the owners could monopolize what was going on inside—charge for admission and food sales; shake down or expel gamblers who dogged the game; expand the fan base to the growing middle-class, to children, and even women. It was akin to Vegas going family—or to the incandescent cities of fire that rose along the sands of Coney Island during the same period, replacing the site of louche entertainments with the very first official amusement parks.
The crowds often broke the walls on the afternoons of big games. But like the cities in which they were contained, the parks were steadily improved by fire. Just as the city’s wood shanties were replaced by ornate, block-long apartment buildings, by skyscrapers and bridges, and grand railroad stations and gorgeous, humming, electrical generators, the ballparks were replaced by concrete and steel structures that sprouted second tiers and outfield bleachers—everything getting bigger and better, all the time.
Just as the country seemed to stretch away forever before the first immigrants, so the ballfield is theoretically infinite, the foul lines moving ever farther away from each other until they encompass all of existence. How to traverse this infinite landscape? Just as American industrialists, confronted with seemingly boundless plenty, invented time management, trying to convert all they saw before them into a rational system of production, so, too, have baseball’s acolytes always tried to break the game down into more and more precise statistics, some narrative that will allow us to measure every movement on the field.
Air, space, and recreation were the crying needs of the American city by the mid-nineteenth century. They were considered vital to the continued health of both the individual and the polis. No city had a public park of any size. Those wishing relief from the city’s racket and bustle resorted to the new rural cemeteries. These had begun to spring up with the consecration of Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery in 1831, followed by Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill (1836), and Brooklyn’s vast Green-Wood Cemetery (1838). These were full-scale necropolises, laid out in the British landscaping style of improved nature, with deliberately winding roads, and strategically placed trees, bushes, ponds, hillocks, and even boulders, designed to maximize dramatic views and uplifting vistas. The need for such spaces was quickly evidenced by their immense popularity. City dwellers poured out to the new cemeteries for Sunday afternoon picnics, whether a loved one was buried there or not. Green-Wood, by far the most splendid and the largest of the scenic graveyards at 478 acres, was drawing 60,000 visitors a year soon after it opened for business.
“Rural cemeteries provided fresh air and greenery—and the illusion of a beautiful countryside,” points out Frederick Law Olmsted biographer Witold Rybczynski.
Yet cemeteries were inherently limited by their utility, and there were still fears about the unhealthful “miasmas” that reputedly leaked up from the graves. Soon, Olmstead and his longtime partner Calvert Vaux had begun to lay out one magnificent public park after another in cities across the United States. These were deliberately intended as places of moral improvement as well as physical and cultural relief. Clean air and a place to stretch the legs were just the start. A dairy was actually built in New York’s Central Park, intended to provide free, wholesome milk for the city’s poor at a time when it was in short supply. Museums, concert halls, and other cultural institutions were to dot the park’s perimeters. Beyond this, the poor were to benefit simply by exposure to their betters.
“There need to be places and times for re-unions [where] the rich and poor, the cultivated and the self-made, shall be attracted together and encouraged to assimilate,” Olmsted wrote.
Baseball, on the other hand, wasn’t thought to improve anybody. The game itself was all but banned from Central Park for decades. Yet it was in the new ballparks—the only other large open spaces in most American cities, coming into their own just as the first wave of public park building was coming to an end—that a true assimilation of American men of all classes would actually take place, and usually on a much closer and more intimate basis than ever occurred in other public parks.
The new ballparks were gloriously eccentric. For all of their corporate purpose, there was a specificity to them, an endearing individuality that would all but vanish from American business life. No other sport would ever boast such idiosyncratic playing fields. And in no other sport would the field become so critical to how the game itself was played, or such an enduring part of its lore.
Unlike the cemeteries and the English-style woods, or even the raucous amusement parks, the ballparks remained quintessentially urban structures. They were wedged into street lots, built around railroads and streetcar lines, factories and breweries and livery stables, rivers and highways, and the topography surrounding the parks gave rise to the quirks in their design. Brooklyn’s Dodgers got their name because players and spectators alike had to dodge the trolleys to get to their old Washington Park field. Washington’s Griffith Stadium featured a right angle in dead centerfield, a bulge where five homeowners had refused to sell. Cincinnati’s Crosley Field shot some 377 feet out to right field, but was only 328 feet to left field, in which there was also a small hillock that sent Babe Ruth sprawling in the last year of his career. The Dodgers’ later home at Ebbets Field featured a twenty-foot-high chain-link fence in right field above a concave wall and a scoreboard with its immortal lower panel advertising borough president Abe Stark’s clothing store at 1514 Pitkin Avenue: “Hit Sign, Win Suit.”
Every stadium had its own peculiarities. The ones we know best are the thick ivy that clings to the lovely brick walls of Chicago’s Wrigley Field and the great green wall looming over left in Boston’s Fenway Park, but this is just because these are the only two major-league parks to have survived from the era before World War I. So many of the others, now vanished, had their own gratuitous grace notes. As early as 1902, Cincinnati had built the short-lived Palace of the Fans, complete with grand Beaux Arts columns and pillars modeled after the White City at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago—the source of the City Beautiful movement in America. The new Polo Grounds was festooned with coats-of-arms, representing all the National League clubs, along the top of the grandstand. The top of the originalYankee Stadium’s upper deck dripped with white filigree bunting, and monuments to beloved former players and managers were actually installed on the playing field. Philadelphia’s Shibe Park had a conical, domed tower, an escaped turret from some upper-middle-class apartment house, over its main entrance. There was the Jury Box in Boston’s Braves’ Field bleachers; the Coop, and the Crow’s Nest, and the open-air promenade at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. Ebbets Field had an eighty-foot Italian-marble floor in the image of a baseball in its rotunda, and a twenty-seven-foot-high domed ceiling, from which hung a chandelier with twelve baseball-bat arms that held globes of lights shaped like baseballs.
The ticket windows at the old-time parks tended to look like boathouses or beach pavilions, with fringed awnings and gentle arches. At Ebbets, they were gilded. The grandstands were always steep and close, dark and mysterious in their back rows after night baseball was instituted. Just beyond the walls of each park were comforting, orienting urban features of one sort or another: the Bronx County Courthouse, the flashing Citgo sign over Kenmore, the gloomy Cathedral of Learning towering over the left field wall in Pittsburgh, clouds of locomotive smoke billowing up from the Boston and Albany tracks behind left and center in Braves Field. There were usually, as well, huge, hand-operated scoreboards somewhere out in centerfield, visible to all. They showed the line scores of the same sixteen teams in the same eleven cities for fifty years, time moving on in the same stately progression, inning by inning.
The one feature all the old ballparks shared was outfields that were prodigious by today’s standards. The old parks were routinely 420 feet to the farthest reaches of centerfield, and often 360-375 feet down the lines. It was 462 feet to center at Forbes Field, and 461 to left-center in Yankee Stadium. The Yankees’ previous home, Hilltop Park, stretched an endless 542 feet across the rough sod of Washington Heights. There were practical reasons for this. In the dead ball era, much of the scoring came from balls that found a seam and just kept on rolling. For an important game, the overflow crowd might be put out behind a rope in the outfield, and perhaps their cars or buggies, too.
The most fantastic ballpark of all was the Polo Grounds, the home of the New York Giants, in upper Harlem. It was a strange place, and strange things happened there. The only man ever killed on a major-league playing field, Ray Chapman, died at home plate, hit in the head by a pitch. A fan once died in the stands there, too, between games of a doubleheader, struck by a stray bullet fired from a neighborhood rooftop. He went so quietly that no one realized he was dead at first; they thought he was only nodding off in the grandstand on a sunny summer afternoon.
No one ever played polo there; the name was carried over from the Giants’ previous digs, James Bennett’s old polo field down at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue. The new park the team built for itself in 1889 at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue was shaped like a gigantic horseshoe facing the Harlem River—the last major-league ballpark that ever did or probably ever will disrupt the crowded streets of Manhattan Island. (In fact, as late as 1874, the whole site was under the Harlem River.)
Down the lines were the easiest home run shots in the big leagues, 279 feet to left and 257 to right. In some clairvoyant presentiment of Frank Gehry’s undulating architecture, the outfield walls stretched all the way out to a centerfield 483 feet from home plate. There, filling the gap in the horseshoe, was a multi-story set of clubhouses and team offices, with a monument at the field level to Eddie Grant, a former Giants player killed in World War I; a large, square Longines clock crowning the top of the building; and a huge cigarette ad—“Always Buy Chesterfields”—in between. Two sets of stairs led to the field from the clubhouses, so that the players from both teams had to enter and exit the field matador-like, accepting the ovations and the jeers and barbs of the fans all around them.
It was the most glamorous park of the dead ball era, when the close, fast game was played mostly inside the infield, and always in the afternoon. John “Muggsy” McGraw, the irascible manager and part-owner of the Giants, would invite his show business celebrities up in the afternoon. They could park their beautiful new automobiles—as varied and idiosyncratic as the ballparks themselves—on the edge of the outfield and take in a whole nine innings before motoring back down to Broadway in time for the evening curtain. McGraw, “the Little Napoleon,” did what he wanted: consorted with gamblers, owned part of a pool hall, punched umpires, and feuded with league presidents. It was a pitcher’s game, and McGraw had the greatest one alive, his close friend and housemate, Christy Mathewson, the all-American boy grown up. A college man, Matty was as handsome and tall and well-spoken as McGraw was short and profane and dumpy; he had an easy grace about him and an out pitch known by the lovely old-fashioned name of “a fadeaway.”
Then everything changed, practically right before McGraw’s eyes. The gamblers who hung out at McGraw’s own favorite off-field stomping grounds, Manhattan’s Ansonia Hotel—a confection no less unlikely in history or appearance than the Polo Grounds, the building where Bette Midler would get her start in a gay bathhouse, and Plato’s Retreat would have its brief, notorious reign (but that’s another story)—were busy plotting the fix that would throw the 1919 World Series. A hero was needed, and he would appear in the most unlikely dugout.
The Yankees were the Giants’ tenants, their poor relations in the Polo Grounds, when they acquired Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. No deal ever irked Muggsy more. He hated Ruth, right from the beginning, with his seemingly heedless style of play and his ability to hog the spotlight. Most unforgivably, Ruth would transform the game, take it away forever from the control of the manager with his canny, small-ball strategies.
Matty went off to fight World War I and returned a dying man, his lungs burned out in a training accident. Meanwhile, the Babe lofted one pop fly after another down the short foul lines of the Polo Grounds and launched moonshots all the way out to the distant bleachers. He had, somehow, transcended the old geometry of the game. It was all about power now. The infinite spaces of the old ball field had suddenly been spanned. The distant fans intimately connected with their hero as they scrambled for the balls he dropped in their midst, and roared their tribute during his leisurely, majestic strolls around the bases. The infinite spaces of the Polo Grounds—of baseball —had suddenly been negated.
McGraw hated it. So did all the old baseball purists. In every sport there are those—usually sportswriters—who remain irrevocably opposed to spectacular, flashy play. These individuals, who can be found on your sports page to this day, have yet to accept the home run in baseball, the forward pass in football, the long jump shot in basketball—even seventy, eighty, ninety years after these innovations came to pass. To purists, such plays make the game look too easy, almost cheap. They seem to negate the hard work and on-field canniness that defined the old Baltimore Oriole teams McGraw had cut his teeth on back in the nineteenth century.
Ruth was altogether too much, the consummate player of the ’20s. He himself had made the crossing from the old game to the new, the best southpaw in the now dead dead ball game, before effortlessly converting himself into a slugger—thefirst trueslugger anyone had ever seen. Before him, home runs were as likely to be inside-the-park jobs as they were to land in the stands. The leading power hitters rarely hit more than twelve or fifteen in a season; the entire Yankees team hit all of eight in 1913, their first year in John McGraw’s park. But here was Ruth now, setting new records for home runs nearly every season—29, 54, 59…eventually 60 in 1927, or more than any other whole team in the American League hit that year. The suddenly rich, star-laden Yankees shook the dust of the Polo Grounds from their feet at McGraw’s insistence, but the manager couldn’t turn back time by banning the team to the outer boroughs. The Yankees moved into their own stadium, “The House That Ruth Built,” in the toney new Bronx, and won pennant after pennant, setting new attendance records.
We know Ruth today mostly from a handful of salvaged photographs and film clips. He seems like a caricature now, a joke, with that big, puffy, tragicomic clown’s face. A grainy figure with an enormous pot belly, flicking at the ball with his bat and then skittering around the bases on his spindly legs, smiling and nodding, smiling and tipping his cap. We have heard all the stories about his gargantuan appetites, about all the endless hot dogs, the oceans of booze, Ty Cobb seeing him in a whorehouse the night before a game with three—or was it four?—women, a tray of beer, and another one of pig knuckles…then watching him hit two home runs the next day, waddling around the bases complaining about how his stomach hurt.
That Babe surely existed, as did the Babe who seems to have actually put himself on the disabled list through overeating and the Babe who signed baseballs for sick boys in hospital beds and told them he was going to hit home runs for them. But there was another Babe, too, an earlier Babe we don’t like to dwell on so much because he tells another side of the game. This was the young Babe, before he had grown the great gut, an athlete of phenomenal, almost frightening quickness and skill. To watch him in action, barreling around the bases, running through anything that gets in his way, is like watching a force of nature. In photographs his eyes flash under his dark brow, not yet safely encased in flesh. It is the look that suggests other appetites besides the culinary. It is the face of another street kid, with an eye out for his opportunities in the big city.
Contrary to Muggsy’s assumptions, this Ruth was not inattentive to his game, but had an innate, fundamental feel for the sport. This was the Babe who stole home seventeen times, who was an excellent bunter, hit to the opposite field, had a mean hook slide. The Babe who was an outstanding outfielder, who before games would sometimes give the fans a thrill by laying a towel down on home plate and seeing how many times he could hit in on the fly from deep right field. When he was in a slump at the plate, he might break out of it by pitching batting practice, or even catching a few pitches, trying to get his timing back.
Mobbed wherever he went, Ruth rarely lost his geniality, and then usually only when sorely provoked. He moved amiably through life, always smiling and winking, calling all the strangers who pursued him “kid.” He took the vicious bench-jockeying of the era in stride and delighted in returning it.
The only taunt that ever got to him was when someone called him nigger. It infuriated him, which only made rumors persist. Could he have been? It is a repugnant question, of course, even if one might wish it were so—even if it would be the best possible joke on organized white baseball, which thought it had banned all African-Americans from its midst. It is not worth the query, though; it is unknowable. Suffice it to say that Ruth was another mongrel American city boy like most of us—like all the rest of us, whether we want to admit it or not. The son of a Baltimore barkeep and his wife, he was handed over to a Catholic orphanage at a young age. The Jesuit fathers set him free in 1914—the same year Louis Armstrong was turned loose from the New Orleans boys’ home he had been confined to for a youthful indiscretion. Two teenaged boys, released from two Southern homes, each about to transform his own piece of popular culture forever—such was the energy of America at the time.
The ban on black ballplayers—known black players—in 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 Mays—a five-skill player, as the terminology has it. He could hit, hit for power, field, throw, run—how 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 anything—gliding 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 leagues—Robinson 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 game—and 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 Series—the 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 look—lies 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 ball—preserving 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 decades—Ebbets Field and Shibe Park, Forbes Field and Crosley Field, Sportsman’s Park and Comiskey Park, and Tiger Stadium—as 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 suburbs—round, 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 features—a 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 1960s—though 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.