It was a few minutes before one o'clock in the afternoon, and Willie Mays and Valmy Thomas were socializing in center field of the Polo Grounds with Pittsburgh Pirate Outfielder Jim Pendleton, against all the rules of the game. It was obviously going to be that sort of day.
Wafted across the field, through the gravel-throated public-address system, sweet music entertained the early crowd. A fan sang softly, "Sweetheart, if you should stray/A million miles away/I'll always be in love with you." It was that sort of day.
The sky was gray, and there was a ring around a hazy yellow sun. It was also that sort of day.
A fan walked through the bleachers. "Wanna buy a crying towel?" he said. "Buy a set of crying towels."
There were no other vendors. You couldn't buy a scorecard in the bleachers. You couldn't buy a hot dog or coffee. The vendors hadn't showed up. The concession stand was open, though. You could get a beer. There are two big signs in the Polo Grounds that read: "Have a Knick." The concession man was selling Ballantine's.
At 1:32 the public-address announcer said, "Will the guests of the Giants assemble at home plate?" A fan near the third-base boxes snarled, "We're the guests, you jerks."
Giant oldtimers formed on the field, and I walked through the park, on this, the last day the Giants were to play baseball in the Polo Grounds. The flags atop the stadium lay dead against their poles. There was no bunting.
But it was a good day for a ball game. There was, at times, a picnic atmosphere to the proceedings. Bobby Thomson, playing at third base, scurried in for a topped roller, failed to come up with the ball, and laughed out loud. In center field, for no apparent reason, Willie Mays took off his glove an inning later and drop-kicked it six feet. Don Mueller twice fumbled base hits near the right-field fence, permitting Pirate runners to advance. Neither time did the official scorer give Mueller an error. A fan in the bleachers said to me, "Maybe the official scorer didn't show up either." There was a wild pitch and a hit batsman and bloop hits of every type. Daryl Spencer and Dusty Rhodes moved under a fly ball and then each let it fall, unmolested. The base running was so bad there were three outfield assists in the first inning and a half.
The fans showered thunderous applause on .200-hitting Wes Westrum when he came up to bat for the first time. They roared their pleasure when Willie Mays made a tremendous throw to nail a Pirate who was trying to stretch a triple at the plate. They were kind enough not to point out that Dusty Rhodes had relayed the ball to Mays in so sloppy a fashion it had seemed impossible even for Mays to make the throw in time. A gang of kids in the bleachers began to parade around with a large sign: STAY TEAM STAY. A fan started his own cheer: "Go, Horace, go."
There was huge and happy applause when the scoreboard showed that the Dodgers had lost to the Phils 2-1. When Jablonski walked to open the sixth inning, Giant fans began to whoop it up, even though they trailed by six runs. The rally fizzled but the fans stood valiantly in the home half of the seventh. A comic in section 12 said, "If the Giants don't win this one, there'll be nobody here tomorrow."
But it wasn't until the game ended—the last game the Giants were ever to play in the Polo Grounds—that the fun, or a reasonable facsimile of fun, really began. In the ninth inning, the public address had blared out its usual cautionary note about fans not entering onto the playing field until the players and the umpires had reached the clubhouse. The response had been a lusty, gusty jeer.
Then the Giants came up and went down swiftly, but not before the fans had stood and cheered as Willie Mays stepped into the batter's box for the last time. And when Mays grounded out, they cheered him some more, which certainly must be the first time in the history of the Polo Grounds that a great hitter was applauded after he failed to hit. The game ended as anticlimactically as possible: Dusty Rhodes hit a feeble ground ball to shortstop and was thrown out. Nobody seemed to be aware that the man in the on-deck circle, waiting to bat, was Bobby Thomson.
Nobody could have been aware, actually. For as the game ended, the stadium erupted. Fans streamed past cops and Burns Agency armed guards. The Giants raced toward the clubhouse, 11,000 people in hot pursuit. Dusty Rhodes reached the bleacher stairs that lead to the dressing room in what had to be record-breaking time. Mays ran with his cap held tightly to his breast. The faces of the Giants were stunned, nearly frightened. A ballplayer ran into a boy and knocked him spinning. A cop grabbed the ballplayer. They pushed each other briefly. Then the player pulled free and went up the stairs. Men and boys dug up the bases. The canopy over the right-field bullpen came splintering down. A piece of the left-field canopy was ripped off. The telephones in the bullpens were yanked up. Fans tore the green covering from the outfield fences and discovered to their delight a layer of foam-rubber filling. It came away easily. Samples of the Polo Grounds' sod were stuffed into paper bags and glass jars that appeared out of thin air, or into coat pockets. Someone uprooted home plate, and a dozen men fought for possession of it. Jeff Chandler, the movie actor, went up the Giant dressing-room steps, unnoticed.
The fans gathered on the field between and in front of the two bleacher sections, alternately cheering and jeering. They chanted, "Stay, team, stay," and then switched to, "We want Stoneham." A wag changed this to, "We want to stone him." They cried, "We want Willie." They cried, "Hang Stoneham." A little boy said to his father, standing in the bleachers, "I want to see." His father said, "There's nothing to see."
I started out through the left-center-field exit ramp. A curio seeker went by carrying a Ladies' Room sign. A man said, "What was the final score?" Another man said, "I don't know. Who cares?" (For the benefit of those who do, it was Pirates 9, Giants 1.—ED.)
It was a crazy-quilt, self-intoxicated crowd. The loudest cheer, as I recall, had been saved for a fan's one-hand catch of a foul fly hit into the right-field stands. The fans had been out to see the other fans, and to be seen. It was a last-ditch show, and they were making the most of it.
But real Giant fans (whatever that means) go to ball games not to run off with the bases. They go because they love baseball and because they want to see the Giants play. The season and a history ended on Sunday, September 29. There was another game the day before. On Saturday, 3,000 people, searching only for the souvenirs that can be translated onto a scorecard in the fan's hieroglyphics as 6-4-3, went up to the Polo Grounds, simply to see a Giant ball game. I went along.
I took a subway to the Polo Grounds on Saturday, the way I always used to. On Sunday, I took a cab.
On Saturday, coming up the subway steps, a man said to me, "It's the wrong day for a funeral. It ought to be raining or something."
It was the wrong day, indeed. September, with her ludicrous and mercurial talent for being a little bit like yesterday's summer and a little bit like tomorrow's winter, was her own sweet tangy self, the faintest breeze scampering through the crystalline high sky.
I stopped, before entering the Polo Grounds, and viewed a sign above the ticket windows. It read: "Report any 'Short Change' by mail to the N.Y. Giants B.B.C." A fan sidled alongside. He said to me, "By air mail, they mean."
Inside the Polo Grounds, on Saturday, Roy Goodman, an 18-year-old sophomore engineering student at NYU, said to me, "This place is a sump hole; the Stadium is a real class joint." Roy Goodman is a peanut vendor at the Polo Grounds for 77 games and at the Yankee Stadium for 77. "You throw something on the field here," Roy Goodman said, "somebody comes along and throws it out. In the Stadium, you throw something on the field, they throw you out." Roy Goodman makes about $20 a day vending at the Yankee Stadium, across the Harlem. At the Polo Grounds he averages about $10 a day. The reason that he makes $20 at the Stadium and only $10 at the Polo Grounds is very simple, Goodman explains. The Yankees draw twice as many people.
Under the stands where he'd been tending a gaudy but neat souvenir stand for the Harry M. Stevens concession people, Joe Canessa said, "It hits your pocketbook. But nobody really knows what's going to happen. Maybe some other club will move in here. Maybe Stevens will move everybody out to Frisco. Then it won't be so bad." Canessa has six children. His wife is pregnant. "I'm a Giant fan," he said. He laughed. "That's why I'm always broke."
On the field, Ronnie Kline and Ruben Gomez began to warm up. The base paths were whisked and rolled smooth. The first batter stepped in, and the public-address announcer sounded like an eerie echo in the vast cavernous emptiness. The ushers were sitting, watching the game.
Samuel Flank, whose 34 years on the job made him the senior usher at the Polo Grounds in point of service, said: "They can't tear down this park. This is the best. Wrigley Field has ivy, maybe, but this place is the best. Three years ago they knew they were going to move. They could have built another parking lot then, but they knew. Old man Stoneham wouldn't have let them go."
He took a fan's ticket and wiped off a seat. He pocketed a quarter. The fan said, "Yeah, and now they got a library across the street instead. Not a restaurant within miles of this place, and they got to build a library across the street. No wonder nobody comes here any more."
On the field, Willie Mays came up. He lifted a pop foul off third base and Pirate Third Baseman Gene Freese failed to make the catch, falling on his back. A fan yelled, "All right, Willie, you got a life, you got a life." Mays watched a curve ball curl over the outside corner for the third strike.
In the reserved seats behind first base, Daniel Ferrone sat well bundled in a topcoat. Ferrone is 79 years old and has been watching the Giants play at the Polo Grounds since 1893, "They charged 75¢ for the grandstand—it was just a wooden stand then—and 50¢ for the bleachers." Another fan said, "35¢." Ferrone ignored him. "They threw a piece of canvas overhead in the bleacher section, in case it rained."
Ferrone, now a retired shoe-factory foreman, saw the first Giant game of the 1895 season—against Brooklyn. The Giants lost 7-4.
Freda Axler, a large woman in a red coat with fur trim, sitting a few rows in front of Ferrone, began to cry. "Now I know it's coming to an end," she said to me. "Why do you have to sit there taking notes?"
Freda Axler pointed to the aisle she was sitting in. "See that?" It was row D. "D for Durocher," she said. She pointed to the seat. It was number 20. "Twenty," she said. "Two-oh. Durocher's number was two. When Leo was here, never a day went by he didn't wave from the playing field and yell hello to section 12."
Freda Axler said, "I'm heartbroken. This will be a ghost town without the Giants. They'll just have to have another team here. They just can't tear this place down. I definitely couldn't root for an American League team." Freda Axler, who lives on the Lower East Side, planned to be up at 5:30 Wednesday morning for the opener of the World Series. "To root for Milwaukee," she added needlessly. She was carrying a copy of the 50¢ souvenir program for the 1954 Giant-Indian World Series. On the back cover was a photograph of fans at the Polo Grounds. "That's me, sitting there," she said, pointing.
Freda Axler began to cry again. "It's an awful raw deal."
I went outside and walked to the bleacher entrance and up the ramp. The sun seemed brighter and warmer.
Mays singled, but Jablonski and Sauer went out.
"It's a damn shame," a fan said. "Stoneham should have sold this team. Yawkey offered him $3 million for it." Another fan said, "You're in business. I don't see you selling out. A man's in business, he likes it, he doesn't sell out." Another fan said, "The Giants can drop dead, for all I care. I never did like them. I never did like those 1-0 games, Hubbell and the rest."
Mays came up in the bottom of the sixth and a fan yelled, "There's the world's greatest center fielder. He's the greatest center fielder in the last 175 years."
Another fan said, "How about Mantle?"
The fan said, "He's a phony bum. He's an Irish bum. He ought to go back to Ireland and drink a Mickey Fin." Everybody laughed. Mays flied softly to right field.
William Breen, who is recuperating from a heart condition, figured he saw about 50 to 60 games this year. He'll be 64 on October 10. "I feel very sad," he said. He preferred sitting in the bleachers. "It's not that I don't have the money. Sometimes I take a cab from the house—I live in the west Bronx—for $1.50, just to come here and sit in the bleachers."
From the third row of bleachers, near the green screen on the left-field side, Louis Kleppel occasionally watched the game through heavy German field glasses. He has been watching the Giants for 47 years. "I made the road trip with the Giants in '51. Every day I'd shake Bobby Thomson's hand. I gave him a lift, a psychokinetic push. I went to Chicago with them and Eddie Brannick got me a seat behind the Giant dugout and I got Thomson going good. Shaking hands with me did something to him. Then Branca threw that fast ball on the wrists."
Kleppel used to collect money from Polo Grounds bleacher fans, so that he could present watches to Giant ballplayers. "I got 12 watches. I got them for Sal, for Westrum, Jansen, Irvin, Mays, Dark, Thomson, Lockman, Mueller, Hank Thompson, Shellenback—for doing such a great job with the pitchers—and Bobby Hofman, for all those pinch-hit runs. Then I started to collect money for an Antonelli Day, but they stopped me. I turned $18.50 over to the Damon Runyon Fund. Here, I'll show you the clipping."
Kleppel saw about 50 Giant games in 1957, 25 to 40 Yankee games and 20 to 30 Dodger games. He turned to a young boy behind him. "Don't chew so loud. It's not nice. I'm talking." Kleppel is a bachelor. "I married baseball," he said.
The Giants threatened in the eighth when Gomez hit his second double, but Harris and Mueller went down. The game moved into the ninth, scoreless.
Kleppel took a baseball from his pocket and read the inscription: "To my friend with all good wishes, Wahoo Sam Crawford, August 23, 1957, Hall of Fame, July 22, 1957." Kleppel is having the ball autographed by outfielders only.
Kleppel once tried to get baseball fans to volunteer to give blood, but he was advised to drop the idea. "They thought baseball was a recreation, just for fun, and you shouldn't remind people of serious things. They don't realize that man is attached to each other man. Man is a Siamese twin, but he doesn't know it."
The only home run ever hit into the center-field bleachers—by Joe Adcock—landed between Kleppel's legs. "I've got a bad back, a sacroiliac. So I couldn't bend. Somebody else picked up the ball and sold it for $25."
On the field in front of Kleppel, Frank Thomas lofted a high fly along the left-field foul line. It fell into the upper deck for a home run.
The announcer cautioned the fans about walking on the playing field. A fan said, "What for? To save the field for houses?"
The shadows lengthened, covering right field and half the infield. Willie Mays came up and hit a long fly to center field, near the bleacher wall. A fan said, "That's all right, Willie. Home run in San Francisco." Paper littered the grass. Children ran the bases. The fans, barely 3,000 of them, filed out.
On Sunday—the formal last day—there were nearly 12,000 people in the Polo Grounds. I didn't see Freda Axler or Daniel Ferrone. Louis Kleppel wasn't sitting where he usually sat. They may have been there; I don't know. It doesn't matter. The immediate family had paid its respects.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Not many persons have had a better opportunity to fall hopelessly in love with a baseball club than Arnold Hano. Raised near the Polo Grounds and armed with his grandfather's season pass, young Hano was something of a permanent fixture around the Giants' field as early as the age of 4. After sandwiching college and a career as a reporter and editor between ball games, Hano in 1955 recorded his consuming passion for the Giants in a slim but sensitive volume, A Day in the Bleachers (Cromwell, $3), a memorable addition to the literature of baseball.