By: Paul Post
NEW YORK — John Thorn’s memory is quite sharp, especially when it comes to recalling his first big league ballgame, a 1956 contest between the Giants and Dodgers at the Polo Grounds.
That’s why Major League Baseball’s official historian is so pleased by the restoration and reopening of the John T. Brush Stairway, near the once-hallowed ballpark site.
The steps, which begin atop fabled Coogan’s Bluff, above the site where the Polo Grounds stood, are among the last visible reminders of the Giants’ proud legacy in New York, which includes their 1954 World Series championship, 60 years ago this fall, best remembered for Willie Mays’ dramatic Game 1 play known simply as “The Catch.”
“The symbolic value of this project is enormous,” Thorn said. “It connects the fan to a great deal of baseball history even beyond the New York Giants. That ballpark was the palace for fans in New York in the early 20th century. Remember, Yankee Stadium didn’t open until 1923. Ballparks are repositories of memories. That’s where we congregated. Ballparks do it better than any other structure.”
Brush was an early Giants owner who died in 1912. Harry N. Hempstead, Brush’s son-in-law who followed as Giants owner, had the stairway built and presented it to the city during a ceremony on July 9, 1913.
For the next half-century, the stairs carried countless fans from Edgecombe Avenue down to ticket windows behind home plate. However, the Polo Grounds was razed in 1964, one year after the Mets left upper Manhattan for Shea Stadium, their new home in Queens.
In recent years, the stairway had fallen into serious disrepair and was chained off after crumbling and becoming unsafe for use. In 2011, the New York City Parks and Recreation Department launched a nearly $1 million restoration project and the steps recently reopened, thanks in part to donations from MLB and every major pro sports franchise that played there — the Giants (1890-1957), Yankees (1913-22), Mets (1962-63) and football’s Giants and Jets (originally the Titans).
“We have a deep connection to our New York history and still enjoy a tremendous support from our New York-based fans,” San Francisco Giants president and CEO Larry Baer said. “It was only fitting that we participated in rebuilding the stairway, as it will serve as a lasting legacy of the Polo Grounds and the rich baseball tradition of the neighborhood.”
National Baseball Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said,: “Given the Polo Grounds’ place in New York sports history, it’s inspiring to see five New York teams that played in the Polo Grounds share in the collaborative spirit of preserving a part of the stadium’s history.”
The stairway reopened this summer, although a formal dedication has yet to be scheduled. Brass lettering from the original 80-step stairway has been kept intact on a concrete landing, about halfway up the walk. It reads: The John T. Brush Stairway. Presented by the New York Giants. The project includes handsome Victorian-era lamp posts and signage that explains who Brush was and his relationship to the Giants.
“The past is so important,” said Gary Mintz, president of the New York Giants Preservation Society. “New York City doesn’t do a great job of honoring its past. They’re more concerned about the future, new buildings and skyscrapers. That’s why something like this is so meaningful. There was a team here and that team still exists even though they’re 3,000 miles away.”
Mintz said the Giants’ 2010 and ’12 World Series championships have sparked renewed interest among San Franciscans about the team’s New York heritage. If Mintz had his way, the Brush Stairway would be the first of many efforts to recognize the New York Giants.
Coogan’s Bluff, for example, would be an ideal place for a bronze statue showing Mays making his incredible catch off Vic Wertz’s long drive in the ’54 World Series against Cleveland. A similar tribute could be paid to Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” that completed the Giants’ incredible 1951 pennant drive — quite possibly the most famous home run in baseball history, Mintz said.
“I think there should be a statue there to honor Mays, to honor the Giants,” Mintz said. “It would be incredible.”
Last year, two New York City council members proposed renaming two Harlem streets Willie Mays Drive and Willie Mays Place.
The Giants played their last game at the Polo Grounds on Sept. 29, 1957. Ed Lucas, then an 18-year-old future sportswriter, reached the ballpark via the Brush Stairway with help from his uncle, Gene Furey. “I remember as a kid many times going down those steps to the Polo Grounds,” said Lucas, of Union, N.J., who is blind. “I walked down from Coogan’s Bluff with him as he carried a large reel-to-reel tape recorder in his arms. I had to hold on tight. The steps weren’t smooth or even. They were cracked in some places.”
Once inside the ballpark, dugout attendant Barney O’Toole helped Lucas reach the Giants bench, where he interviewed Mays and several teammates prior to the game.
It was so overwhelming,” Lucas said. “Bobby Thomson was there. He had come back to the Giants that year from the Milwaukee Braves.”
When Lucas exited the stadium, he had no idea he’d be back five years later to welcome a new franchise, the Mets, to the Polo Grounds. He never missed a Mets home opener until 2013, when their first game in New York was played on the same day as the Yankees’ home opener. Next spring, Lucas, 75, will attend his 60th consecutive Yankees home opener, a streak that began in 1956. Somewhat of a legend in his own right at Yankee Stadium, Lucas’ favorite National League team remains the Giants, and on Oct. 1 he will be the New York Giants Preservation Society’s keynote speaker, recalling many of his favorite Polo Grounds moments.
The Brush Stairway provided a way for millions of people to visit the storied ballpark through the years. Now, the refurbished stairs help fans step back in time to relive or learn about some of New York baseball’s most famous moments.
“People need to know what has gone on before,” Mintz said. “It’s so important.”
Paul Post is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.