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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Remembering the Old Horseshoe
Book Review by David Shiner

Stew Thornley. Land of the Giants: New York's Polo Grounds. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000, 184 pp., $32.50, cloth.

 

When I was ten years old, my father took me to my first big league game. I was enchanted from the moment I entered the Polo Grounds. That magic feeling intensified when Dad pointed out Stan Musial. The Cardinal superstar was having his last great season, much of it at the expense of the inept pitching staff of the first-year Mets. As a Mets fan, I wanted to see my team win; as a youngster enthralled with Stan the Man, I wanted him to do something impressive. Sadly, though, it was Musial's caddie, Charley James, who belted the three-run homer that won the game for the visiting Cards.

I didn't know much about the Polo Grounds back then. It looked great to me, but all I kept hearing that season was that the Mets would soon be relocating to a supposedly wonderful new stadium in Flushing. Young and impressionable as I was, I didn't mourn the Polo Grounds when it was demolished a couple of years later. But many did, and Stew Thornley's latest book is written for them.

The Polo Grounds saga, as Thornley makes clear, is actually the story of four stadiums. Each of the four was located in the same area of New York City, and each hosted National League clubs based in the Big Apple. While Thornley discusses all four parks, the majority of the book is rightly devoted to the final one built, which lasted much longer than the first three combined and is the stadium we now think of as the Polo Grounds.

Land of the Giants trades more in nostalgia than in original research. The text is supplemented by a generous selection of photographs, maps, and program covers, most of which are well worth savoring. Some are from Thornley's own collection, including a montage commemorating Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" that Thomson signed for Thornley. While some photos are old enough or taken from enough distance that it's hard to make out much detail, as a group they help greatly in telling the Polo Grounds story.

Several important aspects of early baseball history are mentioned en passant. For example, Thornley correctly notes that at the time of the first edition of the Polo Grounds in the early 1880s, "the primary function of fences was to keep out non-paying fans, not to delineate a home run." The full account of baseball's struggle with the issue of what to do about balls hit over those fences, which threatened what many aficionados saw as "scientific baseball," has yet to be written. That's not Thornley's task here, but his book traces some of the outlines of that account, noting various changes to both the Polo Grounds and the rulebook before baseball authorities decided that any ball hit over a fence in fair territory was automatically a home run.

In planning a volume of this sort there are many decisions to be made, and Thornley has made most of them well. His presentation is largely chronological, but when it makes sense to follow a thread rather than stick to a rigid order of things, he does so without compromising the story line. He incorporates all non-baseball events at the Polo Grounds into one final chapter, which is also a good decision: it's hard to see how he could have shifted smoothly from an account of McGraw's last NL champs to Notre Dame's famous "Four Horsemen" and back without difficulty. And he's thorough in his scope, including information on relevant Negro league games and players.

The book is not beyond criticism. Given the fairly slow pace of the text and the lack of focus other than "things that happened at the Polo Grounds," Thornley might have considered either making his chapters shorter or utilizing subheadings within each chapter. Perhaps some bullet points or sidebars would have helped enliven the narrative.

Thornley is not a gifted storyteller, but he is a diligent researcher, and his recounting of the facts can be trusted almost without exception. He generally refrains from interjecting his own views, preferring to let the Polo Grounds tell its story unimpeded.

By the time I saw that Mets game back in '62, the old park had been living on borrowed time for years. Legendary New York City planning czar Robert Moses had called for its demolition nearly a decade earlier, and most people considered it an eyesore and a dinosaur. But nowadays many have come to prefer the opinion of Roger Angell. In an article on the Polo Grounds published shortly before its demolition, Angell envisioned a future conversation among former diehard fans of teams who had called the park their home: "Funny, I was thinking about the old place today. Remember how jammed we used to be back there? Remember how hot and noisy it was? I wouldn't move back there for anything, and anyway it's all torn down now, but you know, we sure were happy in those days."

 

DAVID SHINER has been a member of the faculty at Shimer College in Waukegan, Illinois, for more than twenty years. His book Baseball's Greatest Players: The Saga Continues, a sequel to Tom Meany's Baseball's Greatest Players, was recently published by Superior Books (www.superiorbooks.com).

© 2001 Daniel Gabriel

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