Sunday, November 13, 2016

Mets players recall the final game in the Polo Grounds

One-thousand-seven-hundred-fifty-two people attending a baseball game would be something one can expect from the low minors; however, on this date in 1963, that’s how many people came out to the final major league game at the hallowed Polo Grounds where the Mets played host to the Philadelphia Phillies.

While the Coogan family was battling that day in court over payments from the city taking over the Polo Grounds, Craig Anderson was on the hill making his first start of the season for the Mets. After leading the Mets in appearances during their inaugural season, Anderson found himself at AAA Buffalo until rosters were expanded in September. Prior to the game, Anderson was in the dark regarding the circumstances surrounding its significance.

“Nobody said anything to me. It’s funny, but I don’t remember any fanfare of it being the last game at the Polo Grounds,” said Anderson, 73 from his home in Dunnellon, Florida.

1963 Mets Yearbook / Author's Collection
In this age of continuous sports media coverage, it is doubtful that the final game at one of baseball’s most historical stadiums would pass without ceremony. With the Giants leaving only a few years prior and the Mets being a new franchise, most New York fans had their moments to wax poetic in 1957; however, to the modern fan it still is mind-boggling that less than two-thousand people attended the final game at such a legendary place.

Brooklyn born Ted Schreiber made his way in to the record books by making the final two outs at the Polo Grounds when he pinch-hit for fellow native New Yorker, Larry Bearnarth. The James Madison high school alum, stepped to the plate against Chris Short with one out in the ninth inning.

“Sure I remember the game, because I made the last two outs,” said the 73-year-old Schreiber via telephone. “I thought I had a hit because I hit it up the middle, but Cookie Rojas made a great play on it. … That’s why I’m in the Hall of Fame; they put the ball there because the stadium was closed after that.”

As with Anderson, Schreiber was too caught up in doing his job to realize the history of the moment.

“I knew that was the last game; I didn’t realize I made the last out until later,” he said.

Talk of the final game established a different connection for one of the team's earlier stars. The left fielder that day, Frank Thomas belted 49 home runs during the first two seasons of the club’s existence. When queried earlier today about that final home game, he chose to discuss his part in history there with another team, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“The only one I can tell you about was when the Giants played in the Polo Grounds the last game, I was the first baseman," said the 82-year-old Thomas from his home in Pittsburgh. "A ground ball [was] hit to [Dick] Groat; I made the last putout and gave the ball to Tommy Henrich. From what I understand, somebody stole it from him and it was sold for about $15,000.”

Revisiting the Polo Grounds brought up the nuances of playing in the oddly shaped ballpark for the veterans.

“I didn’t try to think of the short fences because we had to play the game," Anderson said. "There were several home runs that I gave up that I thought should have been pop-ups or routine fly balls.”

Due to the vast depths of center field, once in awhile the baseball gods would smile on him for the “cheap” home runs he surrendered.

“Occasionally, I’d make a bad pitch and the ball goes to center field 400 feet and we’d catch it," he said. "Sometimes, it balanced out because of the deep center field, some of the balls were caught out there that should have been home runs in other ballparks."

As a pull hitter, Thomas feasted on the 279 foot fence in left field. Sometimes his eyes grew too big and drew the ire of manager Casey Stengel.

“When I went to bat, they had a big sign in left field and right field on the wall and whoever hit the sign got points," Thomas remembered. "Whoever hit the most balls against that wall would get a boat at the end of the year as a gift. I remember I was hitting one time and I pulled one foul and I heard Casey stand up and yell, ‘You want to be a sailor, join the Navy!’”

- Note - This article was originally published for now-defunct Examiner.com on September 18, 2011.

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