By the autumn of 1945, Horace Stoneham, owner of the New York Giants baseball team, knew he had a serious problem—and it wasn't that his team had finished in the second division for the last three years. It was the ballpark. The Giants' home, the Polo Grounds, was a comfortable, historic old place where the great John J. McGraw had managed the Giants to 10 pennants, where Babe Ruth had hit his first New York home runs, where Red Grange had made his debut as a pro football player and Jack Dempsey had knocked out Luis Firpo. But the playing area was ragged. Rumor had it that the grounds crews were spending more time on long, liquid lunches than on maintaining the field.
The situation was made all the more acute by Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Whenever Stoneham and traveling secretary Eddie Brannick ventured to Ebbets Field, Rickey loved to crow about what great shape his own field was in.
After Rickey needled Stoneham one time too many, Horace went looking for help. His attention settled on Matthew Schwab Jr., one of the best grounds-keepers in the business, if not the best. Matty's grandfather, John Schwab, had first gone into the craft at Redland Field in Cincinnati in 1883. And Matty's father, Matthew Sr., was still with the Red-legs in the same capacity. As for Matty, well, he was the head groundskeeper at Ebbets Field. He was just what the Polo Grounds needed. So at the end of 1945, when Stoneham learned that Rickey, a legendarily tightfisted employer, had once again denied Matty a long-deserved, long-deferred raise, the Giants' owner sent Brannick to Schwab's winter home in Florida to ask Matty if he would care to come over to the Polo Grounds. Schwab said yes. Rickey woke up not too many mornings later to discover that Stoneham had swiped his head grounds-keeper and was taking him to Manhattan. In the never-ending war between the Giants and the Dodgers, it was a masterful shot.
One problem soon developed, however. Schwab lived with his wife, Rose, and four-year-old son, Jerry, in a nice apartment on President Street in Brooklyn. The commute by car to the Polo Grounds at 155th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan was a killer. For a short time Schwab and his family moved into the Concourse Plaza Hotel near the ballpark. That didn't work out very well. Too expensive, and anyway, what family wants to live in a hotel? Yet there was no convenient, reasonable housing anywhere near the Polo Grounds. That's when Schwab noticed some unused space below the leftfield grandstand at the ballpark.
"I asked Mr. Stoneham whether it would be possible to build a place to live right there," says 77-year-old Matty, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale. "He said it was unheard of. But Mr. Stoneham always took care of his employees. So he asked Joe Traynor, the park superintendent, to see what could be done."
Soon carpenters were at work under the grandstand, followed by electricians and plumbers. Eventually there emerged a cozy two-bedroom apartment with bath, kitchen and living room, plus a private entrance and free parking. In 1946, unbeknownst to most of the thousands of fans who pushed through the Polo Grounds turnstiles, the Schwab family took up residence at the ballpark, just beyond the outfield fence.
"The foul line," says Schwab, "was on the other side of my living room wall. Bobby Thomson's home run, the one that won us the pennant in 1951, landed on my roof."
There were windows on three sides of the apartment; two faced some subway repair yards across the street from the park and another looked out on an alley. Soon Matty began to dream about a fourth exposure. "I asked," he says with a sly chuckle, "if I could put in another window. You know, in the outfield wall facing the field. But Mr. Stoneham finally said no."
Only Rose had the slightest complaint: The place did get a little noisy from time to time, particularly during boisterous doubleheaders when the Dodgers were visiting. Imagine a party going on in an upstairs apartment with 56,000 people in attendance, half of whom hate the other half, and you get the idea.
Schwab may have been partway to paradise, but his son was already there. "The biggest backyard in Manhattan," Matty used to call the playing field. On warm summer nights, Jerry, an eight-year-old in 1950, would invite friends over, pitch a tent and camp out beneath the stars. The grassy turf that Sid Gordon and Thomson—and later Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Willie Mays—roamed by daylight was Jerry's private play-ground for countless nights.