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Hal Chase, the Highlanders and the Polo Grounds

This is a guest column by blingboy, inspired by Tuesday’s discussion of left-handed throwing shortstops and Hal Chase, specifically.

Hal Chase in his customary 1st base position in 1913 at the Polo Grounds.

Why is Hal Chase of the Highlanders (A.L.) playing at the Polo Grounds, home of the Giants (N.L.)?   Well, the short answer is for the same reason the Yankees are the Yankees and not the Highlanders.  But if you’d prefer the long answer, you’re in luck.

But first, the even shorter answer. It is because the Polo Grounds burned down.

Now for the long answer.

You have to start out in Baltimore in 1901.  The American League started up that year and one of the original eight teams was the Orioles.  Not today’s Orioles, as they are really just the Browns.  The original Orioles of the American League moved to New York in 1903, and their ballpark was located at the highest point in Manhattan, hence Hilltop Park and the name Highlanders.

Meanwhile, the New York Giants of the National League played at the Polo Grounds and they did not like the Highlanders, or anybody else in the newfangled American League.  That is why there was no World Series in 1904 when the Giants won the National League pennant.  They refused to play an American League team.

You might think I’m digressing, but I’m not.  But I might as well mention that baseball was first played at the ‘Polo Grounds’ around 1880. It was then located on 110th Street just off the north side of Central Park.  A beautiful grandstand was built for the 1888 season, and I bet you think you know what happened to it, but you’d be wrong.

No, it did not burn down.  Somehow, it was not understood that City Hall was not going to let a little thing like a Stadium stand in the way of completing its street grid.  So in 1889, 111th Street was extended right through the middle of the Polo Grounds ballpark.  So it had to move and it did.  The new location was the familiar one at 155th Street and 8th Avenue at Coogan’s Hollow along the Harlem River.  Unlike the previous Polo Grounds, the new one did burn down, in 1911, which is the reason Hal Chase is playing there and the Yankees are the Yankees.

In case you haven’t connected the dots, I’ll do it for you.  The Giants had to play somewhere other than in a burned down stadium.  And that somewhere was none other than Hilltop Park, home of the hated Highlanders.  Relations reportedly warmed while the two teams shared quarters.

The next year, when the Highlanders’ lease ran out at Hilltop, they moved in with the Giants at the newly rebuilt Polo Grounds.  That’s why Hal Chase is there in 1913.  And, while the new Polo Grounds was many things, one thing it was not was high.  So the Highlanders needed a new name.

It was common at the time for the Giants of the National League to be called the ‘Nationals’ and the Highlanders of the American League to be called the ‘Americans’.  And it had become common for newspapers to refer to the ‘Americans’ as the ‘Yankees’ or ‘Yanks’.  So the nickname was adopted in 1913 and stayed with the team when it moved across the Harlem River to its new home in the Bronx.

An early photo of Hilltop Park, home of the Highlanders.

The original ‘Polo Grounds’ on opening day 1888, located at 110th Street and 5th Avenue across the street from Central Park.

The Polo Grounds at 155th St and 8th Avenue seen from Coogan’s Bluff circa 1908.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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2 Responses to “Hal Chase, the Highlanders and the Polo Grounds”

  1. JumboShrimp says:

    Great article by bb. Succinct writing, fine history, super photos.

  2. crdswmn says:

    Good Job Bling. Your knowledge of baseball parks is fascinating.

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