It took me a while to find home plate.
I'm an explorer who loves to discover the world's great cities on foot. During a trip to New York earlier this month — and like an archaeologist searching for clues to a lost civilization — I took such a walk through upper Manhattan.
I had no map or compass as I set out to explore traces of a razed piece of baseball history, but my determination pointed me toward it. Little did I know then that my expedition would also lead me to Arnold Hano's doorstep in Laguna Beach.
No, my destination wasn't the site of the old Yankee Stadium just across the Harlem River in the borough of the Bronx — although, I admit, I did cross the Macombs Dam Bridge to inspect what had become of "The House that Ruth Built." The wrecking ball had demolished that ballpark in recent years to make room for a billion-dollar palace. The new Yankee Stadium arrogantly bears the name of the national pastime's most storied franchise in capital letters engraved in stone and painted over in gold.
Setting out from the apartment at 150th Street near Amsterdam Avenue where I was staying in Manhattan's Harlem district, I went looking for the site of another grand old ballpark, the riverfront Polo Grounds at 155th Street. That's where New York's baseball Giants played from 1880 through 1957, when the franchise moved to San Francisco.
As I would discover, the younger, upstart Yankees played at Polo Grounds from 1913 through 1922, when they crossed the river to move into the first incarnation of Yankee Stadium. The Mets, the franchise that replaced both the Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers and whose colors infused the orange and blue trim on those departed ballclubs' uniforms, played at the Polo Grounds in their inaugural season in 1962, as well as in 1963 before moving to Shea Stadium in Queens.
I gleaned this information from reading the bronze plaque that I eventually found, and which marked the approximate location of home plate at the Polo Grounds.
The nondescript plaque was easy to miss. It hung from a concrete column at the base of a building that made me think of a prison cell block without bars. The stadium, razed in 1964, nowadays is home to a public housing project known as the Polo Grounds Towers.
The sight depressed me. I had made my way into the complex at the foot of Coogan's Bluff after descending a long staircase, which reeked of leaking sewer water, and weaving through the maze of ugly apartment towers.
I was standing on a hallowed patch of baseball history. Baseball is my favorite sport but the ground beneath my feet, as far as I was concerned, had been desecrated.
This was where Bobby Thomson hit his so-called "shot heard round the world" that doomed the Dodgers' pennant drive in 1951 and lifted the Giants into the World Series against the Bronx Bombers, and where Willie Mays made his storied catch in Game One of the '54 series against the Cleveland Indians.
As I wallowed there in my nostalgia, grieving inwardly for a long lost ballpark, I was oblivious to Arnold Hano's connection to the ghosts of the ballpark. The writer who would pen 26 books — including biographies of some of baseball greatest players, including Mays, Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente — was a fan of the Giants since he was 4 years old, and he was at the Polo Grounds on that late September day in 1954 when No. 24 made his dramatic catch.
Hano, then 32 — and to this day a die hard Giants fan — was sitting in the bleachers. That was his preferred spot and vantage point in the ballpark. Hano's acclaimed book, "A Day in the Bleachers," was his account of the sights, smells, sounds and the banter among fans — in which he gladly participated — during that game he witnessed on Sept. 29, 1954.
Hano was born in 1922 in Manhattan's Washington Heights section, and lived in an apartment building located a block from the Polo Grounds. Two of the tenants were brothers sharing a flat in the building but who played separately as outfielders for the Giants and Yankees, he noted. His grandfather, a New York City policeman, had a season pass to the Polo Grounds, which Hano used to access the stadium.
The week after I returned to California, I serendipitously crossed paths with Hano. I received a news release announcing that the longtime Laguna resident was to receive the Hilda Award from the Baseball Reliquary during its "Shrine of the Eternals" induction ceremony at the Pasadena Central Library on July 15.
The mission of the Pasadena area nonprofit is to celebrate American art and culture through the context of baseball and from the fan's perspective, explained Terry Cannon, the group's executive director. Named after Hilda Chester, a legendary Brooklyn Dodgers fan who rang a cowbell as she held court in the bleachers at old Ebbets Field, the award goes to baseball fan whose expressed love for the game is unique.
"Fans don't get recognized very often," Cannon told me. "Hano is a good example because, first and foremost, he is a fan and he has written about his experiences as a fan."
"And that book is an expression of what it's like to be a fan," he added. "He [Hano] doesn't make any bones about it. He's there rooting for the New York Giants."
In addition to handing Hano this year's Hilda Award, the Baseball Reliquary is arranging an exhibit at the Pasadena Central Library. An original edition of Hano's "A Day in the Bleachers" will be displayed alongside an essay about the book penned by his friend Jean Ardell, a Corona del Mar resident and author of "Breaking into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime," whose father was a Giants' fan heartbroken by their departure for San Francisco. The exhibit will open on July 3 and go through July 30.
When I saw the release about Hano, I phoned him, made an appointment to see him the following Monday, and picked up a copy of his book, which I devoured over the weekend.
Now 90, Hano's memory of that September day at the Polo Grounds and other milestones of baseball history he witnessed were as sharp as the spikes on "The Say Hey Kid's" cleats.
When Hano spoke, his sentences and the words in them were as precise and punchy as some of the descriptions of the game contained in his book. Unlike me and his friend Jean Ardell, he expressed no nostalgia for the franchise's decision to bolt to the West Coast.
He was more pragmatic about it, saying it was a business decision that made sense because the average daily attendance was low at New York Giants' games later on in the '50s.
And while he acknowledged that television and other modern technologies have improved certain aspects of watching the game, Hano — a baseball purist to the core — insisted there is no better place to view a baseball game than live at a stadium. From his perch in the stands or the bleachers, the fan can see the game as a whole, Hano told me.
"Technology has made certain aspects of the game better," he said, citing instant replay as an example.
"But what it has done is ruin the rhythm of the game, so what you see is not a continuum but a more choppy version. I love seeing all of those replays but at the same time I have lost something in the process, and we all have."
IMRAN VITTACHI is the features editor for the Coastline Pilot and Daily Pilot. You can reach him at (714) 966-4633 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @ImranVittachi.
If You Go:
What: The Shrine of the Eternals 2012 Induction Day, presented by the Baseball Reliquary
Where: Donald R. Wright Auditorium, 285 E. Walnut St., Pasadena
When: 2 p.m. July 15