Most Major League ballplayers have no sense of the game’s history and couldn’t care less about it. You mean this riveting sport was around before they got here? Imagine that.
Mark Melancon is the exception. Signed as a free agent by the San Francisco Giants to mend their bullpen problems, Melancon quickly became invested in his team’s history. That’s what happens when you see Willie Mays and Willie McCovey in the home team’s clubhouse every so often.
The Giants’ pre-San Francisco history was written in New York in an oddly-shaped ballpark called the Polo Grounds. It has been gone for many years, replaced by a housing project on the landscape where Mays made a miracle catch in the 1954 World Series and Bobby Thomson hit a pennant-winning home run on Oct. 3, 1951.
The Polo Grounds wasn’t exactly a warm and cuddly stadium, especially in its later years. Place kicker Jim Turner once played a college football game there and described the ball park as having more pigeons than people. Nevertheless, it was the home of the Giants and Melancon wanted to see the place where his team once played and so, when the Giants were in town last week, he made the excursion to upper Manhattan.
Old Giants fans have long memories and they were happy to share them with Melancon, who was genuinely interested in the legend and lore of his team.
Society members described the strange dimensions of the bathtub-shaped Polo Grounds – 483 feet to dead center field, leaving Mays plenty of room to run when he tracked down Vic Wertz’s World Series drive in the shadow of the “Always Buy Chesterfield’’ sign on the clubhouse. This was before cigarettes became an unpopular vice. When the Mets spent their first two seasons there, the sign instead advertised Rheingold Beer, a more acceptable habit.
Down the foul lines, the fences were much closer, 257 feet to right field and 279 to left, with inviting overhangs that transformed ordinary fly balls into home runs like the one Dusty Rhodes hit to decide the opening game of the 1954 World Series. Twenty-five years later, Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon, the victim of Rhodes’ homer, still couldn’t get over it.
Thomson’s pennant–winning homer against the Brooklyn Dodgers was more legitimate, a line drive that sailed into the seats in the lower stands in left field with Dodger left fielder Andy Pafko backed at the wall, looking up helplessly.
Then there were the bullpens along the left and right field walls, cozy little structures that were in play, with quaint little roofs over them. And the mock-ups of cigarette packs – Chesterfields, of course — hanging from the auxiliary scoreboards.
It was quite a place.
Melancon took it all in, fascinated by the rich history of his team, the tales told of McGraw and Mathewson, Ott and Terry, Mays and Mize, heroes from another time and another place.
Now all that is left is that old staircase and the memories. They are memories that at least one modern day player cares about.