As I write this, the Giants have lost two straight games to the Yankees, and this circumstance is not only awful, it brings to mind the fact that it was once the Giants who were the toast of New York, and the Yankees merely their tenants in the Polo Grounds. The story of how the Yankees came to build their own ballpark is a well-known one, part of the enduring folklore of baseball. “That the stadium came to exist at all,” as one recent account goes, “was a result of a jealous fit of pique by one of the most important men in baseball in the early 20th century: John McGraw of the New York Giants. When the Yankees outdrew the Giants at the Polo Grounds in 1920 and 1921, McGraw ordered them out.” But a closer look at the actual course of events tells a different story.
The Yankees’ move to the Bronx had less to do with the slugging of Babe Ruth than with an even more important breakthrough in the New York sports scene — the legalization of Sunday baseball. The Giants fateful decision to evict the Yankees from the Polo Grounds came on May 14, 1920, when Ruth had been wearing Yankee pinstripes for only a month. And the decision was made for one overriding business reason that had nothing at all to do with Ruth. It was to gain control of choice Sunday dates for their own Polo Grounds home games, and not to have to share this newfound bonanza with their suddenly inconvenient tenants.
The path to a new home for the Yankees in the Bronx actually owed more to Giant co-owner Magistrate Francis McQuade than to Babe Ruth. While helping John McGraw line up Charles Stoneham’s purchase of a controlling interest in the Giants in 1919, and securing pieces of the team for himself and McGraw, McQuade was also leading the drive to legalize Sunday baseball in New York. As the onset of Prohibition loomed, public sentiment grew more sympathetic to the long-standing campaign to provide workingmen with such an alternative form of entertainment. McQuade’s role as the “father of Sunday baseball in New York” would be his enduring legacy, the lead in his obituary four decades later, long after he had been squeezed out of the Giants front office and forced off the bench by the Seabury investigation in the 1930s.
On May 4, 1919, Sunday baseball came to New York City, with the Giants at the Polo Grounds and the Dodgers at Ebbets Field, entertaining the largest regular-season crowds ever to see ball games in both Brooklyn (25,000) and New York (37,000). Fittingly, Giants-owning Magistrate McQuade threw out the first ball at the Polo Grounds.
The arrival of Sunday baseball immediately revolutionized the economics of the baseball business in New York. By June, the Giants exceeded their total attendance of the previous year. Large Sunday turnouts continued for the rest of the season. By season’s end, more than 708,857 fans had attended Giants games at the Polo Grounds, up from 256,618 in 1918. The Yankees also prospered, with their own Polo Grounds crowds increasing to 619,164 — 320,000 higher than in 1918. Even the Dodgers benefited from the newly legalized windfall, as their attendance increased fourfold over 1918’s unbelievably low total of 83,831.
This new source of wealth quickly generated frustration as well as revenue for the Giants. As the unchallenged rulers of the local baseball scene, the Giants outdrew the Yankees in 1919, but by fewer than 100,000 fans, a narrower margin than they had grown accustomed to in a New York baseball world in which the Yankees were interlopers. Indeed, the last-minute changes to the 1919 schedule to accommodate Sunday games had even placed the Giants at a disadvantage compared to both their hometown rivals. The Giants were allotted only ten Sunday games at the Polo Grounds in 1919; the Yankees had twelve there and the Dodgers twelve at Ebbets Field.
The return of the traditional 154-game schedule in 1920 (the schedule had been shortened during the World War) only increased the Giants annoyance with the Yankees continued presence at what was, after all, their ballpark. Sunday baseball was still banned in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, so the Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh clubs desperately needed out-of-state opportunities to play on Sunday. Although the 1920 schedule would give the New York/Brooklyn teams ample opportunity to take advantage of the asymmetrical scheduling provided by the blue-law-bound Massachusetts and Pennsylvania teams, the resulting riches were not shared on equal terms. With the Giants and the Yankees compelled to divide up the Sunday dates at the jointly-occupied Polo Grounds, the Dodgers, as sole occupants of Ebbets Field, benefited the most. Brooklyn was scheduled to play at home on nineteen out of the twenty-six Sundays during the season, while the Giants and the Yankees would divide those Sunday dates evenly, each playing thirteen Sunday home games. Especially galling to the Giants was the fact that, due to the complexities of the interlocking league schedules and the need for Sunday games at the Polo Grounds for the American League’s Athletics and Red Sox, all of the Giants’ Sunday games with the Dodgers would be played at Ebbets Field, so that the Polo Grounds could be available for Yankee games with Boston and Philadelphia.
As a result, in 1920 the Giants were slated to play four Sundays against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. In those four games alone, the Dodgers would attract 83,000 fans, more than ten percent of their total home attendance for the season, rubbing salt in the wound opened by the Dodgers’ enjoyment of seven more Sunday dates than the Giants. In 1921, the same inequity, from the Giants’ point of view, would prevail, even compound itself. Not only were all three of 1921’s Sunday Dodgers-Giants games to be played at Ebbets Field, but on two of those occasions the Giants and Dodgers would move over to Brooklyn after playing at the Polo Grounds on Saturday, so that the Polo Grounds could be freed up for the Yankees to host the Athletics or the Red Sox.
In the new economic environment opened up by the legalization of Sunday baseball, an opportunity to schedule additional home games on Sundays was well worth a fight. The Giants’ thirteen Sunday dates in 1920 accounted for more than forty percent of their total home attendance that season. The lease of the Polo Grounds to the Yankees was no longer an asset that produced both a guaranteed annual rent of about $60,000 and a tangible symbol of the American League’s subordinate status. Instead, by compelling a more-or-less-equal division of the lucrative Sunday game dates, the Yankees’ lease had become a liability, cutting into the Giants’ ability to maximize their share of a rapidly increasing revenue pool. As the start of the 1920 season approached, the Giants might with reason conclude that Francis McQuade had made Sunday baseball a reality, that Charles Stoneham had bought in on McQuade’s representations that a sure source of increased revenue was at hand, but that Brooklyn’s Charlie Ebbets was skimming the cream, and that their Yankee tenants posed on inconvenient obstacle to their own profit-making potential. One month into the new season, Stoneham, McQuade and McGraw acted.
The Yankees and their new star had gotten off to a slow start. Ruth didn’t hit his first home run until May 1, and thus the Yankees hadn’t much chance yet to trigger resentment or retaliation from the Giants. Despite the fact the Giants floundered deep in the standings themselves, the Giants outpaced Yankee attendance at their shared home. Their Sunday crowds were bigger, capped by the 33,000 attending the game on May 9.
On May 14, 1920, the Stoneham and McGraw had a hurried conference in Pittsburgh, where the Giants were playing the Pirates, and authorized Judge McQuade to issue an announcement from the team offices in Manhattan terminating the Yankee lease at the end of the season. The economic logic behind the decision was clear. If the Yankees could be forced out, “six or seven additional Sunday games in the [Polo Grounds] would probably net $100,000,” as the Sporting News calculated, more than offsetting the loss of the Yankees’ annual rent payment of about $60,000. “The owners of the local National League club believe,” another press account explained, “that the loss of the [Yankee rent] would be offset by the manipulation of schedules of succeeding years so that a greater number of Sunday games could be played in New York City.” Especially aggravating to the Giants was the fact that that their team was being kept idle while the Yankees were drawing large crowds on Sundays at the Polo Grounds. Sid Mercer, a New York baseball writer with close ties to Giant management, wrote at the time: “The men who operate the National League team want the place to themselves. . . . A week ago the Giants laid off in Blue-Law Boston while the Red Sox appeared at the Polo Grounds, and yesterday they Sundayed in Philadelphia idleness while Walter Johnson entertained a large crowd here. Of course, the Yankees have this idleness problem when the Giants are home, but the Giants own the park.”
Ban Johnson, president of the American League, had been feuding with Yankee ownership over a variety of issues, but he recognized the threat to his league’s most valuable franchise, and acted to unite his owners in support of the Yankees. He also won over Garry Hermann, owner of the Cincinnati Reds and former chair of the National Commission, in trying to reach a temporary truce between the New York clubs. Under pressure from Hermann and other National League owners, Stoneham and McGraw backed away from the fight they’d initiated, and on May 21 they surrendered. The Giants agreed to allow the Yankees to continue as a tenant in 1921, with an increase in the annual rent to $100,000, pending construction of a ballpark of their own. Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast Huston began planning what even then was being called “the Yankee Stadium.”