Stairway to heaven: Polo Grounds steps coming back
MLB, Giants, Mets, Yanks among contributors to restoration of 100-year-old structure
Ed Lucas ran down the John T. Brush Stairway, behind the Polo Grounds, a little boy thrilled about going to his first big league ballgame.
He and his father, Ed Sr., a lifelong Giants fan, were making their way down from Coogan's Bluff, the hillside overlooking the horseshoe-shaped ballpark in Upper Manhattan.
Several years later, Lucas negotiated the steep concrete steps more slowly, because this time he couldn't see them. At 12 years old, he was blinded by a freak baseball sandlot accident while recreating Bobby Thomson's famed "Shot Heard Round the World," the pennant-winning homer hit on Oct. 3, 1951.
Now 18, his love for baseball hadn't dimmed. In fact, the anticipation was even greater because he was going to interview the New York Giants' greatest player, Willie Mays.
"That was 1957, the last year the Giants were in New York," said Lucas, of Union, N.J. "I remember holding on my uncle's arm and going down the steps very slowly from Coogan's Bluff so I could go into the Polo Grounds through the press gate. My uncle, Gene Furey, was carrying a large Pentron reel-to-reel tape recorder. The door we entered went right through to the dugout, because if you remember, the clubhouses at the Polo Grounds were in center field. We were greeted by an attendant named Barney O'Toole. He set the tape recorder up in the dugout and brought different players over -- Willie Mays, Bobby Thomson, Gail Harris, Whitey Lockman, Don Mueller."
Millions of fans used the John T. Brush Stairway from 1913 until the Mets, who played their first two seasons at the Polo Grounds, left Manhattan for Queens following the 1963 season. Few people have more vivid memories of the steps than Lucas, or a greater appreciation for their place in New York baseball history. For the past half-century, he's gained the admiration and respect of countless ballplayers as a blind sports journalist.
The steps were named for the late Giants owner, who presided over the team from 1890 until his death in 1912. In fact, the third and final version of the Polo Grounds was called Brush Stadium from 1911, when it was reconstructed following a fire, until 1919. It was a name that never stuck.
The concrete-and-steel ballpark replaced the earlier wooden version. Home plate was near the base of Coogan's Bluff, with the diamond facing east toward The Bronx, on the opposite side of the Harlem River. The outfield was a massive expanse, 483 feet from home plate to the clubhouse steps in dead center field.
Harry N. Hempstead, Brush's son-in-law who succeeded him as owner of the Giants, had the John T. Brush Stairway built and presented it to the city during ceremonies on July 9, 1913.
From atop Coogan's Bluff, above and behind the Polo Grounds, the stairway went from Edgecombe Avenue, between 157th and 158th Streets, down to the ticket booths behind home plate. The stairs also gave people a way to reach the Speedway, a once-popular Harlem River promenade, in addition to seeing some of baseball's greatest and worst teams, from John McGraw's Giants, who played in nine World Series from 1903-24, to the 1962 Mets, who lost more games than any team.
For nearly a half-century, however, the stairway has played a different role, carrying tenants to a high-rise housing project that replaced the Polo Grounds, and until recently they had crumbled into a dim reminder of a once-proud, bygone era.
In 2011, the New York City Parks and Recreation Department launched a $950,000 restoration project and now the stairway is scheduled for a "soft opening" this spring. Major League Baseball gave $50,000 to the project, along with other old Polo Grounds tenants -- the San Francisco Giants; the Yankees, who played there from 1913-23; the Mets; the New York Jets (nee Titans), who played their first four AFL seasons there, and the New York football Giants, who played there from 1925-55.
About halfway up the stairway there is a landing, before the steps turn left to the top of the hill. Steel letters in the concrete landing say, "The John T. Brush Stairway. Presented by the New York Giants."
The original steel lettering has remained intact for the past century, although corners of the landing have broken away. During restoration, the landing is being returned to its original look.
"The letters were removed and are being reinstalled," said Philip Abramson, parks department spokesman. "The stairway reconstruction maintains the location and characteristics of the prior stairway. While incorporating similar material elements of steel and concrete, the stairway is being upgraded to meet today's building code. The lower landscaped area of the stairway will include new picnic tables and add a game table, benches and landscape elements."
A rededication ceremony is anticipated, with details forthcoming when the project is complete. Fans of the New York Giants baseball team hope it will be on July 9, on the stairway's 100th anniversary. For them, it's the most exciting development at the site since their team won the 1954 World Series.
"This is the last piece of real evidence that the Polo Grounds existed, other than the plaque that indicates where the approximate location of home plate was," said Gary Mintz, president of the New York Giants Preservation Society. "It would be wonderful if they would add signage or statues in the area. Perhaps they can name some trails after famous Giants like Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott, John McGraw and Christy Mathewson or maybe have a statue of Mays making 'The Catch' or Thomson's 'Shot Heard 'Round the World.'
"This is historic ground and should be preserved and treasured any way possible. The Giants' history in New York was tremendous and judging by the legions of fans today, the New York Giants and San Francisco Giants haven't been forgotten in New York."