New York’s Polo Grounds, 1887
On Thursday, April 13, 1911, at New York’s Polo Grounds, the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the New York Giants, 6-1.
It was an unremarkable game – the second of the season – and Giants losing pitcher Christy Mathewson was not yet in the form that would lead him to 26 wins that season and an NL-leading 1.99 ERA.
Despite their uninspiring 0-2 start, the Giants would go on to win 99 regular season games and the NL pennant. (They would lose the World Series to the Philadelphia A’s.)
But, this is not about the Giants. (The Phillies ended their season 19.5 games back of the Giants and it’s not about them either.)
Fans at the Polo Grounds, a day earlier, April 12, 1911.
A few hours after the game, around midnight, the grandstand of the Polo Grounds was engulfed in flames. By morning, the grandstand and the right field bleachers had burned to the ground.
This Polo Grounds, with its massive wooden double-decker grandstand, was built in 1890, the third iteration of the legendary park.
(Yes, smarty pants, the first Polo Grounds, built in 1876, was designed for polo, not baseball.)
Baseball eventually elbowed its way in. (So did football and boxing and concerts.) The Polo Grounds became home to the Giants, and the Yankees (who borrowed it for a few seasons), and, finally the Mets. It came down for good in 1964.
No one knows for certain what started the fire that night in 1911.
Giant and Phillie Players survey the ruins.
Some people swore they heard an explosion, and the explosion theorists blamed a peanut roaster – stowed with its tank of gasoline under the grandstand.
Others swore there was no explosion and there was no gasoline stored in the peanut roaster tank anyway.
Some claimed that peanut shells, dropped by fans and collecting in a thick layer under the grandstand, provided ideal tinder for the still-lit cigarette and cigar butts that fans dropped down there, too.
“Bugs” Raymond, a Giants spitball pitcher, claimed he saw a smoldering fire around the shells during the game and alerted nearby attendants.
“Bugs” Raymond Smelled Smoke. (Unrelated: Raymond died the next year following a fight at a semi-pro ballgame.)
In any event, peanuts.
(I don’t generally eat peanuts at ballgames, because I feel weird throwing peanut shells on someone’s floor. Plus, I’m not a squirrel.)
But, this isn’t about peanuts.
The fire spread, destroying nearby elevated trains and station entrances. And, it didn’t take long before some 10,000 Harlem neighbors saw the flames and raced to the scene to watch the four-alarm blaze.
“Predicted Disaster Follows Two Defeats Of The Giants”
The local water pumping station had been closed for repairs, so water pressure was compromised. A steel tank meant to provide water to the Grounds in the event of fire hadn’t been filled.
“[T]here it stood throughout the fire, doing no good to anybody,” The New York Sun reported.
The Sun also reported that sparks from the fire jumped from the grandstand to second base which had begun to smolder until a baseball official stamped on the bag, grabbed it, and hauled it to safety.
Second base was saved. The team’s baseball bats were not so lucky. “Ball players are superstitious about the bats they use. Over 100 bats, belonging to all members of the team, were burned, and not a single stick was left,” The New York Times reported.
Initially, Giants manager John McGraw told reporters he thought they could clear out enough debris and put chairs out amongst the smoldering ruins and play their scheduled game that day.
The game was ultimately cancelled.
The neighboring Highlanders (soon to be known as the Yankees) offered their Hilltop Park to the Giants while the Polo Grounds grandstand was rebuilt. (The new grandstand, built of sturdier concrete and steel, reopened on June 28, just 75 days after the fire.)
Fires were commonplace in the days of wooden things and poor safety protections.
Those stories about the Polo Grounds fire? They were hard up next to stories like this …
You know the “Asch Fire” by its other name, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
Just a month earlier, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village, just nine miles south of the Polo Grounds, had killed 146 garment workers – mostly young immigrant women. It was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history.
Just a few weeks after the Polo Grounds fire, a small fire in a hayshed spread so quickly that it destroyed nearly all of downtown Bangor, Maine.
Aside from reminding you that the Good Old Days weren’t all that good, this isn’t about fires or fire safety.
But, it is about 1911.
1911 is also the year that Crisco was invented. And, binder clips. And, thanks to Michigan’s Edward Hines, the center line on the road. Edward Hines deserves a holiday to celebrate the fact that cars are separated on the road by his center line. I’m serious.
Edward Hines. Hero.
And, the first motorized movie camera was invented.
In 1911, a Swedish company made a film of everyday life in New York City. The seven-minute film, still in mint condition, was recently released by the Museum of Modern Art. Guy Jones, a talented YouTuber, took the film, adjusted the speed and added ambient sound.
That unnatural herky-jerky speed is part what makes old film so queerly unrelatable. But, when the speed is corrected, the effect is mesmerizing.
New York Harbor. The Statue of Liberty. The Flatiron Building. Battery Park. The Brooklyn Bridge. Traffic, people, and life.
I wish some baseball was included, but, unfortunately, there wasn’t.
Here’s 1911 New York.
The year peanuts burned the Polo Grounds down.