Saturday, March 27, 2021

Giant Women of Baseball - Women Owned the Polo Grounds


Baseball has long been considered, for the most part, a “man’s” sport.  Or at least a “manly” sport – remember, “there’s no crying in baseball!”[i] 

But that hasn’t kept women out of baseball.  During and after World War II, for example, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, as famously portrayed in Penny Marshall’s classic, A League of Their Own, played ball for twelve seasons. 

In a more obscure sequence of events in 1900, Mary Van Derbeck was briefly believed to be the new owner of the Detroit Tigers.  She was awarded the team in lieu of $8,000 alimony during contentious divorce proceedings from her husband, George Van Derbeck, who founded the team in 1894.  But her brief “ownership” wouldn’t last.   An appeals court quickly nixed the deal because it severely under-valued the team, which would have cheated George out thousands of dollars of value and awarding his ex-wife thousands of dollars more than the $8,000 she was due.  Instead, George was permitted to auction off the team on the open market, netting more than $12,000, which enabled him to pay his alimony debt and pocket the difference.[ii]

A longer lasting and more significant example of women’s involvement in professional baseball is found in the history of New York’s Polo Grounds – not the stadium or field itself, but the grounds on which they were built.  Through eighty-four years, four successive stadiums called the “Polo Grounds,” on three separate plots of land, hosting five major league baseball franchises (the original Mets, the Giants, the modern Mets, and the Yankees, the land beneath the feet of all of the baseball greats who played in those stadiums was owned by a woman.


Polo Grounds I, 1887.[iii]

Polo Grounds I

Mary G. Pinkney owned the original Polo Grounds, situated between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and 110th and 112th Streets, from 1880 through 1888.[iv]  She was the sole owner of large plots of land in upper Manhattan familiarly known as the “Watt Estate.”  She purchased the land from her step-father, Archibald Watt, for about $40,000 cash in 1843.  He had acquired most of the land as part of a scheme to build a canal connecting the East River to the Hudson River.  Coincidentally, she was nearly the owner of a portion of the land under the New York Yankee’s first stadium in 1903; leases were signed, land was purchased, and landscaping begun before the deal was sabotaged by the former owner of the New York Giants.[v]


Polo Grounds II

Sarah Lynch owned the land under the Polo Grounds II and Polo Grounds III, situated along the Harlem River between 155th and 159th Streets, and bounded on the west by Eighth Avenue (now Frederick Douglass Boulevard).  Her husband, a tea merchant named William Lynch, is said to have purchased the land as a farm in 1836[vi] when (according to census records) he would have been just sixteen years old.  She owned the land in her own name following his death a few years before leasing the grounds for the construction of the Polo Grounds II.

The location of the stadium and the high ground overlooking the stadiums became known as Coogan’s Hollow and Coogan’s Bluff, respectively, a reference to Mrs. Lynch’s son-in-law, James J. Coogan, a prominent furniture dealer and local politician who played an active role in the development and day-to-day management of the property.


Polo Grounds III, 1894.[vii]

Polo Grounds III 

In 1890, Sarah Lynch leased an adjacent piece of land for construction of a second baseball field and stadium, for the New York entry in the short-lived Players’ League.  When the Players’ League folded after one season, the New York Giants took over their lease, moved next door and rebranded the new stadium the “Polo Grounds.”  The Polo Grounds II became known as Manhattan Stadium, and remained in operation for many years hosting various sporting events and horse shows, and briefly served as the home field of the Manhattan Athletic Club.

Sarah Lynch eventually signed over ownership of the Polo Grounds, and most of her other real estate holdings, to her daughter, Harriet Coogan, to protect the property from the risk of being lost in litigation stemming from the contentious dissolution of the Coogan Brothers’ furniture dealership.  James J. Coogan’s brother Edward claimed partial ownership of the land as the result of unpaid loans the Coogan Brothers purportedly made to Sarah Lynch before the firm folded.  His claims were ultimately denied, leaving the land in Harriet’s hands, and under sole female ownership for several more decades. 


Polo Grounds IV

Harriet Coogan still owned the property in 1911 when the Polo Grounds burned to the ground.  She took the fire in stride, immediately building the fourth iteration of the Polo Grounds on the same spot.  Her husband’s family was, after all, familiar with fire.  The Coogan Brothers furniture company had suffered three major fires over a ten-year period a few decades earlier.  Coincidentally (?), her Newport Rhode Island mansion, Whitehall, burned to the ground one month before the Polo Grounds.  But unlike the Polo Grounds, she never rebuilt Whitehall, famously leaving it in disrepair, uninhabited and uninhabitable for decades in one of the best neighborhoods in Newport, to the consternation of her tony Newport neighbors. 

Harriett Coogan died in 1947, leaving the land to her four children equally, three sons and her only daughter Jessie, leaving the stadium grounds under one-quarter female ownership for the remainder of its existence.  Jessie still held her interest in the property when the stadium was demolished in 1964.  Jessie never married, which fueled rumors that her mother had abandoned their Newport mansion in retaliation for Newport’s high society refusing to attend Jessie’s debutante ball.  That story is almost certainly untrue.  She and her mother were regular fixtures in the Newport social scene before and after the fire, and before and after her debutante season. 

But it is true that ground on which all four versions of the New York Giants' Polo Grounds stood, during every minute of their collective 84-year history, was owned by a woman.



[i] Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own.”

[ii][ii] “Angels and Tigers and Ducks – a Baseball Biography of George A. Van Derbeck,” Early Sports ‘n’ Pop-Culture History Blog, April 5, 2019.

[iii][iii] The polo grounds. New York. , ca. 1887. Apr. 23. Photograph. .

[iv] “Mets Might Be Giants – an Alternative History of the New York Giants,” Early Sports ‘n’ Pop-Culture History Blog, October 31, 2019.

[v] “Pinstripes and Plaid – why the New York Americans became Highlanders and Yankees,” Early Sports ‘n’ Pop-Culture History Blog, March 23, 2021.

[vi] The New York Evening World, February 12, 1889, page 4.  Sarah Lynch’s son-in-law, James Coogan, who managed the property, also made comments consistent with the property having purchased as a farm by William Lynch when there was a dispute about ownership of part of the property.  Other sources, however, suggest she may have inherited her land from her mother’s side of the family, who were related to the Gardiner family that still owns Gardiner’s Island on the eastern edge of Long Island, the largest privately-owned island in the United States.  Her daughter Harriet was said to have been born on Gardiner’s Island, and Harriet named one of her sons Gardiner, so there may be some connection.  But earlier in her life, she was referred to as “Gardner,” not “Gardiner,” which does not mean that she was not connected to that family, because a genealogical book about the family refers to different branches of the family who spelled the name differently.  There were wealthy Gardiners in New York City, including President Tyler’s young bride, Julia Gardiner, who married Tyler while he was in office in 1844.  If Sarah Lynch (nee Gardner) were closely connected to Julia Gardiner, a First Lady of the United States, it seems likely that someone somewhere would have written about the connection.  In any case, although it is possible that she did inherit some property from the Gardner/Gardiner side of her family, the land that was leased to built Polo Grounds II, and eventually Polo Grounds III, appears to have been purchased by William Lynch in 1836.

[vii] Boussod, Valadon & Cie, Printer, and Henry Sandham. A baseball match / Hy. Sandham, Boston. , ca. 1896. Paris: Boussod, Valadon & Co. Photograph. .   


  1. A canal across Manhattan? Why? I can't imagine what the business model would be.

  2. No trucks, no trains, bad roads, slow wagons, barely any steam ships. As I understand it, it would open more and easier access to quicker transportation, and cut the transport time and costs of transportation that had to go around the southern tip of Manhattan to get up the Hudson to and from the Erie canal.

  3. And years later, they completed a canal connecting the Harlem River to the Hudson, but much further north. And its still in use, so it's not like it was a crazy idea. The Circle Line tours are forever grateful. If there had been better excavation machines available in the 1820s and 30s, who knows, the canal might have been further south.