Baseball, hot dogs and homicide: N.Y. Giants fan killed in Polo Grounds before July 4th doubleheader in 1950
The Upper Deck of the Polo Grounds, where Barney Doyle was watching the Giants-Dodgers game on July 4, 1950.
On July 4, 1950, Barney Doyle joined 49,314 other fans for a holiday doubleheader pitting his beloved New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wound his way to the upper grandstand in the Polo Grounds, settling into Section 42, Row C, Seat 3.
Doyle never saw a single pitch, shot dead before Giants starter Monty Kennedy had a chance to throw one.
The 54-year-old Irish immigrant, with a family friend’s 13-year-old son in the adjoining seat, took a .45-caliber bullet just above his left eye while watching infield practice. The one-time manager of heavyweight champion James Braddock was killed instantly at 12:30 p.m., his left-centerfield perch instantly the worst seat in the ballpark.
“Poor Barney wasn’t bothering anybody,” recalled Chris Flaig, who heard the tale from his dad Otto — the kid sitting alongside Doyle on the fateful day. “He was minding his own business on a nice summer afternoon.”
The day at the upper Manhattan ballpark started with the recently retired Doyle heading from his home in Fairview, N.J., to pick up family friend Otto in Union City, N.J. The two arrived early enough to watch Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider and the rest of the Boys of Summer take the field for warm-ups.
The crowd was hyped for the hometown showdown, with the Dodgers and Giants fighting to climb back into the National League pennant race. And then suddenly, inexplicably, Doyle was slumped to the right side of his seat, his white shirt stained with blood and his hat knocked from his head.
A doctor in the stands pronounced Doyle dead. When the body was removed and taken to Bellevue Hospital, fans from the standing room section fought to grab the victim’s empty seat.
The holiday intersection of the national pastime and a fatal shooting made instant headlines and launched a massive NYPD investigation.
“MYSTERY BULLET KILLS GIANTS FAN,” blared the Daily News front page. A squad of 80 cops was quickly assigned to the probe.
Witnesses recounted hearing a “pop” before Doyle went down — although investigators said it was more likely the opening of a beer can than the fatal gunshot. Young Otto was taken away for questioning by police and sent home a short time later.
“There’s pictures of two detectives walking my father out of the precinct house,” recalled Flaig as the bizarre 70th anniversary loomed.
Early suspicions covered a wide swath of investigative ground, from a random bullet fired by a holiday reveler to a psycho killer targeting the city’s baseball fans. But the probe instead led cops to the roof of 515 Edgecombe Ave., about 1,200 yards away from the doomed Doyle’s seat.
It was there, cops said, that a bespectacled 14-year-old named Robert Peebles stood behind a parapet blocking his view of the ballpark. He randomly fired a single shot into the air from his .45 automatic handgun.
The bullet arced across the summer sky until returning to earth in Doyle’s skull. The victim never knew what happened, and neither did Peebles — until the cops arrested him.
Peebles signed a confession, but the gun used in the shooting was never recovered and police soon dropped the charges against him. The teen instead spent two years in the State Training School for Boys in Warwick, Orange County, for possession of a pair of .22 caliber rifles found in his apartment.
The doubleheader went off as scheduled, although young Otto missed both games. The city rivals split the twin bill: The Giants took the opener 5-4, while the nightcap went to the Dodgers 5-3. Jackie Robinson suffered a leg injury in Game 2, while fiery Giants manager Leo Durocher nearly went after Brooklyn outfielder Carl Furillo in a dispute with its details lost to the decades.
The Polo Grounds was razed on April 10, 1964, replaced by housing projects and soon remembered by few. Doyle was buried in a family plot at the Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington, N.J., about 18 miles southwest of the ballpark where Giants star Bobby Thompson delivered “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” a year later — a playoff game home run against the hated Dodgers.
Flaig grew up to join the Marines, marry and raise two kids, and go into law enforcement — eventually serving as the chief of police in Teterboro, N.J., according to his son. He died in 1992, a full 34 years after both the Giants and the Dodgers bailed out for the West Coast.