At the southernmost end of Highbridge Park is a part of Washington Heights that has been neglected and disused because of the lack of pride that was once a part of baseball history. Coogan’s Bluff played an important role in bringing the residents of Washington Heights and Harlem out on a warm afternoon to watch a baseball game without having to pay for it.
The bluff’s original boundaries extended from 155th Street to 160th Street and from Edgecombe Avenue to the Harlem River. There is also a deep escarpment that descends 175 feet from Edgecombe Avenue down to the Harlem River which creates a grassy knoll called Coogan’s Hollow. Today the section of parkland known as Coogan’s Bluff is only .08 acres.
Coogan’s Bluff was named in honor of James J. Coogan (1845-1915) who was the Manhattan Borough President from 1899 to 1901. Coogan was also an unsuccessful two-time candidate for the New York City mayoral race. Coogan, a real estate merchant, owned much of the property in the area that included the site of the Polo Grounds ballfield.
The Polo Grounds, as we know it today, was originally called the Brotherhood Park when it was constructed in 1890. But it was not always thus. The original Polo Grounds stadium was constructed in 1876 and was located at 111th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues as a field for playing polo. By 1883 the New York Giants and the New York Metropolitans took over the field and played there until 1889 when it was abandoned for the new site at 155th Street. By then the name of the 155th Street ballpark was changed.
The ballpark was destroyed by fire on April 13, 1911, forcing the owners to rebuild the stadium with concrete and steel instead of wood. Initially, the new park had a seating capacity for 38,000 paying fans. In time the seating capacity was increased to hold 55,987 people. The dimensions from home plate were: 279 feet to left field, 483 feet to center field and 258 feet to right field. The main entrance was on Eighth Avenue behind the center field bleachers. Home plate was on the western side of the field.
The main entrance of the stadium was connected to the Ninth (or Columbus) Avenue elevated line, which had a stop on Eighth Avenue and 155th Street. The storage and repair yards connected to this line and were located between the ballfield and the Harlem River. A ramp at track level accommodated the fans who came by train. This ramp funneled onto long ramps leading to the main grandstand after passing through the turnstiles. The main entrance and Club House of the Polo Grounds were accessible to the street.
From a logistical point of view people who were at Coogan’s Bluff, which was above the western side of the stadium, could get an excellent view of the field and the games. To many of the paying and unpaying fans the Polo Grounds looked like an oversized bathtub.
Various sports teams played at the Polo Grounds. The New York Baseball Giants played there until 1957. The New York Mets played at the Polo Grounds from 1962 until 1963 when Shea Stadium opened at Flushing Meadow, Park not to far away from the World’s Fair of 1964 and 1965.
The last game of the New York Baseball Giants was played on September 29,1957, with an attendance of 11,606 paying fans. The Giants were up against the Pittsburgh Pirates and lost with a score of 9-1. The Polo Grounds saw a brief revival when Casey Stengel and the New York Mets played for the 1962 and 1963 seasons. The last game the Mets played at the grounds was against the Philadelphia Phillies with 1,752 paying fans in attendance and lost with a score of 5-1.
In 1948 a unique relationship was started when the New York Cubans became the farm team of the Giants. The Cubans, a Negro League team, had to relocate from the Dyckman Oval on Dyckman Street and Tenth Avenue because the site was to be razed for urban renewal.
The New York Football Giants played at the Polo Grounds from 1925 to 1955. Presently, they are at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. There was a football field adjacent to the Polo Grounds called Manhattan Field that was used until 1903, when it was abandoned and razed. The lot remained vacant until 1955 and was used as a parking lot.
Several boxing matches were held at the Polo Grounds. In 1923 Jack Dempsey KO’ed Luis Firpo in front of 90,000 hysterical fans. Sugar Ray Robinson fought against Randy Turpin on September 12, 1951, before an audience of 61,370 paying fans. On June 20, 1960 Floyd Patterson fought and defeated Ingemar Johansson to regain the heavyweight championship of the world in front of 32,000 fans.
One of the few trivial ballpark stories to come out of the Polo Grounds was that of the hot dog. The term was coined by New York Journal cartoonist Tad Dorgan who could not remember how to spell dachshund used to describe the red hot dachshund sausage that was sold at the stadium.
The Polo Grounds was dismantled in 1964 to make way for a real estate development now known as the Polo Ground Houses. One note of historical significance: The wrecking ball used to raze Ebbets Field was used for the same purpose at the Polo Grounds.
Within the Coogan’s Bluff section of Highbridge Park is a stairway and a memorial plaque honoring the field. The stairway located at 157th Street and Edgecombe Avenue is closed off because it is in disrepair. On one of the landings is a marker that states, “The John T. Brush Stairway presented by the New York Giants.” The stairway honors Brush, the owner of the Polo Grounds, and was used by fans to get to the ticket booth behind home plate. On a rock outcropping facing the Harlem River Drive near the stairs is a plaque honoring the New York Giants.
Coogan’s Bluff has loaned its name to various industries. For example, in 1968, the film “Coogan’s Bluff” with Clint Eastwood and Lee J. Cobb is about an Arizona lawman who comes to New York City to capture a wanted criminal. This movie became the basis for the television series “McCloud,” starring Dennis Weaver and J.D. Cannon. A local restaurant on Broadway and 169th Street is called Coogan’s in honor of the site.
For more information on Coogan’s Bluff and Highbridge Park, contact: New York City Parks Department; Friends of the Harlem River Speedway Esplanade, (212) 942-6910; Friends of Highbridge Park, (212) 645-0576.
For information on teams and players who played in the Polo Grounds, visit these sites: Baseball Hall of Fame, Society for American Baseball Research, Major League Baseball, BlackBaseball.com, National Football Leagues, Ballparks of the United States, New York Yankees, New York Mets, New York Giants.