That’s what they called the baseball field on the riverside flood plain below Cherokee Boulevard. Half a century ago, I played baseball down there. Framed by wooded residential lots on either side, the Polo Field was the bottom of a sort of half-bowl, with the big grassy slopes forming a natural amphitheater.
In the league intended for boys who weren’t ready for Little League, we played in our tennis shoes, in colored T-shirts with neither numbers nor letters. I was grateful, because it made me harder to identify from a distance. Most of my teammates never learned my name, or had good reason to.
I could hit the ball sometimes. I could run pretty fast. In the outfield, where I always ended up, I daydreamed. The Polo Field was a terrible place to concentrate. The river was right there, patrolled by exotic long-legged shore birds you don’t see in other parts of town. A barge would go by, with a flag that made you wonder how far it had come. Sometimes old guys were fishing on the bank with cane poles, enjoying life more than I was, standing in the hot sun with a mitt that didn’t quite fit.
Baseball, I came to understand, was a dull sort of thing until it was suddenly alarming. On the rare occasions when a ball arrived in my mitt I never had a clear idea of what to do with it. Often I figured it would probably help to hurl it in the general direction of the other boys, way over there. When I did, there was always a great deal of excitement over that way.
There was no water fountain but a crude spigot sticking out of the ground in the woods, with warm water in it. I would slip over there when I could. When I was lucky, no one noticed me gone.
I spent many summer hours on the bench, wondering about the Polo Field. Those who got to play more were likely too busy to wonder. Maybe I owe my career in local history to the fact I didn’t get the hang of baseball.
I never saw any polo down there. Hooves would have torn up the infield. But the name seemed to fit. All kids knew that one of the shrines of pro baseball, New York’s old Home of the Giants, was the “Polo Grounds.” I’ve assumed that was why the name stuck here. Over the years, I came to conclude it was just a subtle joke. Manhattan had a polo field for baseball, and so did Knoxville.
That was my operating theory for several decades. But some research surprised me. North Carolina developer Edward Vernon Ferrell drew up the original plans for Sequoyah Hills. Affluent people were getting cars and they wanted to drive them to new homes in this lovely tree-shaded peninsula by the river. For at least a few years, Ferrell’s intention was to establish a genuine riverside polo field. He first announced it in 1925, perhaps the peak of fascination with polo in America. He got some encouragement. By 1926, local horse fanciers and frustrated polo players were looking forward to the amenity. Did it ever happen?
Thanks to the public library’s “From Paper to Pixels” index, I’ve learned a few things just lately.
In September 1929, a developer named W.C. Ruffin proposed an “airport,” with hangar, right on the Polo Field. That may suggest that Ferrell’s dreams of polo weren’t working out.
A river’s flood plain is a perfect place for a landing strip, and this one was at least sometimes used for that purpose, for small planes taking off to map the soon-to-open Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
A decade earlier, a developer would have just built whatever he wanted, without bothering the authorities. But by 1929, Ruffin had to deal with a brand-new organization called the City Planning Commission. The Commission’s engineer was going to look into the idea of whether an “airport” on Cherokee Boulevard would suggest a danger to neighbors, or pose “too much nuisance from the noise of planes.”
Naturally, an airport might inhibit the safe and proper play of regulation polo. Even seasoned horses are skeptical of airplanes. A Snyder Buzzard or a Curtis-Robertson Skeeter might send the best polo ponies stampeding toward the river.
We can guess at the City Planning Commission’s decision. Ruffin’s Sequoyah Hills airport never happened. But “the Polo Field,” as it was always called in the sports pages, did become a venue for city-league kids’ football. By 1935, likely earlier, baseball was being played on the Polo Field, too.
In late December 1938, because Shields-Watkins Field was too muddy, Major Neyland’s Tennessee Vols used the Polo Field for scrimmages. One of the legendary teams of Vol history included Bob Suffridge, Bowden Wyatt, and George Cafego (the “Hurryin’ Hungarian” has a short downtown street named for him), the unbeaten Vols were preparing to challenge Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Their work on the Polo Field paid off. They blanked Oklahoma and topped some polls as the year’s national champions.
Most of the football on the Polo Field was of the junior variety, though, with teams from all over the city—Happy Holler, Lonsdale, Vestal—and at least occasionally baseball games, too. Beginning in 1959, the Polo Field hosted Little League baseball—and my “minor league.”
The name elicited a brief explanation from Recreation Bureau administrator Maynard Glenn. According to the reporter who interviewed him, “Nobody ever really played polo there.” Glenn may have been old enough to know. “But he said some people who rode horses and carried sticks did bang a ball about a bit there several years ago.”
I’m no expert, but that sounds like polo to me.
The name seems to have evaporated. The field that was one big baseball field now hosts three junior, fenced-apart baseball fields. The fanciest one is called Link-House Field.
After all these years, I still call it the Polo Field, without thinking about it. I care less and less that people don’t know what I’m talking about.