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History travels west as Polo Grounds light poles illuminate ASU stadium

At Arizona State baseball’s new-again home, relics of the past reach high into the dry, dusty desert air. Ten 75-year-old light poles hoist bulbs that illuminate Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

PHOENIX—At Arizona State baseball’s new-again home, relics of the past reach high into the dry, dusty desert air. Ten 75-year-old light poles hoist bulbs that illuminate Phoenix Municipal Stadium. But the steel beams weren’t always in the middle of the Mojave.

In the shadow of these light poles, Mel Ott used his trademark leg kick to smack the 511th and final home run of his career on Opening Day 1946. Bobby Thomson hit his 1951 pennant-clinching “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Willie Mays chased down a fly ball off the bat of Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series to make one of the most iconic catches in baseball history.

Before finding a home in the desert, the 160-ton, 150-foot towers brought light to the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants, beginning on May 24, 1940. That night, Bill Terry’s Giants defeated Casey Stengel’s Boston Bees 8-1 in the stadium’s first night baseball game. The lights replaced low-altitude football lights that were unsuited for baseball.

“Back then, they made things to last,” Phoenix Municipal Stadium manager James Vujs said of the light poles that have stood among Phoenix’s Papago Buttes for more than a half century after a 25-year stay across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium.

Ed Logan Jr. played ball with childhood friends under those light poles when they towered over the old ballpark below Coogan’s Bluff. His father, Eddie Logan, was the Giants’ clubhouse manager for more than 30 years, spanning the team’s move from New York to San Francisco after the 1957 season.

“Just watching those guys climb up to change the lights gave me a dizzy feeling,” Ed remembered. The lights are just one stitch of an intricate tapestry of memories from a true baseball cathedral for Ed Logan Jr.

Ed was the Giants’ bat boy for that final season in New York between his junior and senior years in high school but as a child, he hung around in the center-field clubhouse with the players before games and after wins. After losses, his father made him wait outside until the players had calmed down.

“They did not censor anything,” Ed said. “There was lots of joking and lots of swearing, not PC like now. But it was totally integrated (racially).”

It wasn’t always so fun for Ed, though. He was tasked with keeping an eye on manager Leo Durocher’s son, Chris, who is five years Ed’s junior. For that duty, the skipper gave Ed a Schwinn bicycle.

Baseball fans are naturally nostalgic but the Polo Grounds’ character evokes a cascade of memories from those who visited it. Rich Rogers and Steve Rothschild were both raised as New York Giants fans and are involved with the New York Giants Preservation Society, as is Ed.

“The full moon would come up behind the clubhouse,” Rogers said. “You could go out on the field and people could exit under the clubhouse through the giant garage-style rolling gates.”

“It smelled baseball,” NYGPS co-president Rothschild said. He then groaned, “After ’55, they let that place go to hell.”

The city of New York condemned the Polo Grounds in 1961 despite a fight from the Coogan family, which owned the land, according to baseball historian Stew Thornley. Though it was condemned, the stadium served as a stopgap for the expansion New York Mets until their own Shea Stadium was finished in time for the 1964 season.

Early in 1964, the Polo Grounds was demolished and the Polo Grounds Towers low-income apartments were built in its place, but the lights stayed on far from home. The stadium lights were separated from the light poles and while some of the poles made the move to the Southwest, the lights went to Williamsport, Pa. They reportedly burned for 23 years at Bowman Stadium, then-home of the Double A Williamsport Mets. Ten of the light poles were shipped out to Ed Logan’s new home state of Arizona.

Before the younger Logan graduated from high school in 1958, his father advised him to go to college in Arizona, a state which the Logans knew from spring training. The elder Logan told his son that fewer students competed for college acceptance letters in the Grand Canyon State than in the family’s populous home of New York. Ed chose Arizona State and six years later, the poles followed Logan to the desert. Logan participated in ROTC while at ASU before making a career in the Air Force, reaching lieutenant colonel.

It is still unclear who signed off on sending the light poles to the desert. The only party with a reason to ship them there was Giants owner Horace Stoneham, whose club started spring training at the previous iteration of Phoenix Municipal in 1947, according to The Arizona Republic.

But the Polo Grounds, and by extension the lighting towers, were owned by the city of New York after it was condemned. Jaime Rupert, Stoneham’s granddaughter, said she did not know if her grandfather made the decision to send the steel poles to Phoenix.

Regardless of who sent them, the poles have seen another lifetime of baseball memories in their 50-plus years in the Southwest. Mays hit the park’s first spring training home run. Arizona State played NCAA district games at Phoenix Municipal on the way to the Sun Devils’ 1965 and 1967 College World Series championships.

ASU also played select regular-season games at the stadium until moving to Packard Stadium in Tempe in 1974. The Giants continued to use Phoenix Municipal for spring training until 1981 and the Phoenix Giants and Phoenix Firebirds played there until 1991.

The Oakland Athletics used the stadium as their spring training home from 1984 until last season.

“(Jose) Canseco and (Mark) McGwire were not allowed to hit on the practice field because they’d keep hitting cars driving by on Van Buren,” Vujs said.

This year, Arizona State moved back into the stadium after signing a 25-year lease and making about $3 million in renovations.

Arizona State pitcher Darin Gillies is a lifelong Giants fan who grew up about 100 miles southeast of San Francisco. He became a Sun Devil partly because former Giants outfielder Barry Bonds played at the school.

“I actually just found out what the Polo Grounds are today,” Gillies said. “But I think it means a lot to have a connection to a place where so many baseball greats played.”

Though the younger Logan never worked a game at Phoenix Municipal, he attended Giants spring training games there. He said the state of the Cactus League now “would have blown (his) dad’s mind,” as would the idea that any team would play regular-season games in the desert, as the Arizona Diamondbacks do.

The Cactus League inducted the late Eddie Logan into its Hall of Fame on Feb. 25. His son Ed gave the acceptance speech. The ceremony was held at the Peoria Sports Complex, 2,457 miles from Coogan’s Hollow but just 32 miles from the steel towers that helped illuminate one of baseball’s most hallowed grounds.

Michael Nowels is a graduate student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. This story is the product of a partnership between the Cronkite School and Sports Illustrated.