Murder at Coogan's Bluff - Soapboxie - Politics
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Murder at Coogan's Bluff

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The body of Barney Doyle.

The body of Barney Doyle.

A Shocking Crime

On July 4, 1950, 54-year-old Barney Doyle was shot and killed at the Polo Grounds just before a doubleheader between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hardly anyone heard the shot; they only saw Mr. Doyle slump down. Most thought it was a heart attack. Others later claimed to have heard a “pop.” His 13-year-old companion stared in disbelief. Finally, the police were called and saw the blood streaming from his head. The rest of the crowd began noticing the commotion. Players peered up into the left field stands with puzzled looks as Doyle’s body was whisked away. Though random gun violence was rare in those days, Game 1 went on as scheduled. Fans seemed unfazed. Baseball was king.

But where did the shot come from? Did someone want Doyle dead? Doyle’s past as a boxing manager made this a possibility. Giants owner Horace Stoneham wanted it solved as soon as possible. The NYPD’s investigation was large and very thorough. What they found shocked the public, but it was the treatment of the suspect that still surprises everyone today.

The Polo Grounds.  515 Edgecombe avenue can be seen upper left.

The Polo Grounds. 515 Edgecombe avenue can be seen upper left.

The Polo Grounds

The Polo Grounds was situated in Northern Manhattan, across the Harlem River from the Bronx. Yankee Stadium could be seen less than two miles away. This part of Manhattan was known officially as Washington Heights, but the ridge above the park was called Coogan’s Bluff, after the developer who built the neighborhood. A version of the stadium had been there since the 1880s. The unusual design and dimensions, based on the last rebuild in 1911, made it an oddity. Its primary resident was the New York Giants, an old and somewhat struggling National League franchise. Though drawing a million fans the prior year, they had not finished better than third in over a decade. Worse, they played in the shadow of the dominant Yankees and upstart Brooklyn Dodgers. Yet, they still had a loyal fan base, and tickets remained affordable. The average price was under $2.

The roofs and windows of the apartments up on the bluff offered views of the park, though just the outfield was visible. One particularly great vantage point was Edgecombe Avenue, which ran north and south along the ridge. Residents would often be found there on gameday. The view was spectacular regardless. Though the neighborhood had begun an economic decline, many locals still felt lucky to be living there.


515 Edgecombe Avenue today.

515 Edgecombe Avenue today.

The Incident

Irish-born Barney Doyle had worked as a ship’s carpenter, warehouse worker and once managed boxer James J. Braddock in the 1920s. However, by 1950 he had been forced to stop working due to a bad heart condition. He was married with two grown children, though he lived alone at the time of his death. His companion that day, Otto Flaig, was the son of a close friend. After attending Mass near his home in Fairview, New Jersey that morning, he drove to Union City to pick up Otto. The park was packed, every seat in the upper deck was filled. The temperature was 84 degrees by game time, but minus the usual humidity so common in New York.

After a stop at the concession stand, Otto and Barney took their seats among the throng at 12:20. They were sitting in Section 42, row C, of the left field upper deck. It was Otto’s first game. He was wide-eyed, staring at the field. The Dodgers were taking batting practice. The crowd of just over 49,000 was stirring. Epithets and other profanities were being hurled at archrival Brooklyn. At around 12:25, Doyle turned to say something to Otto. Doyle’s head suddenly snapped, and he slumped to his right.

The left field stands

The left field stands

Otto did not know what to do, asking, “Mr. Doyle, you okay?” He looked at the fans around him. They were just as confused. An usher was waved over. He immediately called for the police. Dark blood was staining his shirt, it oozed from his nose and mouth. The officers knew it was a gun shot after examining his left temple. Streaks of blood had run down the side of his head and were pooling near his right arm. A doctor in a nearby row came over and pronounced him dead. The body was initially taken to the nearby precinct at 135th Street to be examined by the coroner and then transported to the morgue at Bellevue Hospital. The coroner said the bullet had taken a downward protectory.

After the body was removed, fans from the standing room area fought over his seat. Hardly anyone owned a TV in those days, seeing a game in person was a real treat. Murder was not going to get in the way. Even Otto asked the detectives if he could go back and watch the game, unable to process what had just happened.

Doyle’s brother heard about the shooting from a neighbor, who had also heard his brother’s name mentioned. He went to his local police station and then made the trip up from West New York, New Jersey.

Otto Flaig speaks with the officers.

Otto Flaig speaks with the officers.

The Investigation

The head of the Manhattan Detectives, Assistant Chief Inspector Conrad Rothengast, took personal control. Eighty officers were eventually assigned to the case. Cops began questioning the fans around Doyle. Some heard the sound of a paper bag popping. A few said it sounded like a beer can tab being ripped open. Most heard nothing.

Officers fanned out, searching the wooded areas of Coogan’s Bluff, Highbridge Park and the myriad of nearby apartment buildings. A dozen boys playing in the bushes nearby were questioned extensively and soon released. An undischarged .22 caliber bullet was eventually found near some playground equipment in the park. The location of the bullet turned out to be the first break in the case. One could look directly into the left field stands from that area. This led Inspector Rothengast to tell reporters that this was most likely the spot where the gun was fired. They now rushed to compare the bullet to the slug that killed Doyle. Detectives were also beginning to believe this was an accident.

The press remained skeptical; it was 1123 feet from the rooftop to the left field stands. The distance was too far for a bullet to travel in a straight line. Rothengast reiterated that while it would be nearly spent at that distance, it was possible and did align with the coroner’s determination of a downward trajectory. The shot had to have been fired at an angle. By the next day, reporters were referring to the incident as an accident involving a “stray bullet.”

The NYPD searched this wooded area of Highbridge Park which ran between Edgecombe and Harlem River Drive. The unspent bullet was found at the top of the hill.

The NYPD searched this wooded area of Highbridge Park which ran between Edgecombe and Harlem River Drive. The unspent bullet was found at the top of the hill.

Two days later, a tip came in to the precinct house. The shot had come from a kid on the roof of 515 Edgecombe avenue. HIs name was Robert Mario Peebles, age 14. He was living with his great aunt, Mrs. Marie Belid, due to his parents’ separation. After picking him up at the apartment, and questioning him, he admitted to firing the shot. He said he found a M1911 .45 caliber handgun in Central Park, near the 110th Street entrance a few months before and was saving it for July 4th. Just before the start of the game, Peebles walked to the roof, stood just outside the stairway door and fired up at a 45-degree angle, carefully picking up the spent cartridge. A neighbor later told him a fan had gotten shot at the game. He then grabbed the spent cartridge and flushed it down the toilet. Then he ran out and tossed the gun behind Highbridge pool, about a mile north of his building. The gun was not loaded when he tried to throw it as close the river as possible. A new search was convened immediately. The boy claimed he had no idea anyone had been killed until he saw the newspaper the next day.

Because three unlicensed .22 rifles were found in the apartment, his aunt was also arrested on a misdemeanor.. She was held on $2,500 bail, a large amount for the time. New York State had tough gun laws even in the 50s. Mrs. Belid waived a hearing and was eventually released with bail continued.


Detectives on the roof of 515 Edgecombe Avenue. Doyle's row is circled. The stairway is near the center of the roof. The photographer was probably standing on the top of it.

Detectives on the roof of 515 Edgecombe Avenue. Doyle's row is circled. The stairway is near the center of the roof. The photographer was probably standing on the top of it.

Ballistic Limits

The caliber of the weapon did not match up with the detectives’ theory or the coroner’s initial finding, who said it had been a .22. The .45 automatic colt pistol M1911 (ACP) had a very flat trajectory and was never known for great accuracy, particularly over long distances. Renewed questions about the ability to shoot over 1100 feet with that type of weapon was crimping their theory.

The effective range for that weapon would be around 300 feet. However, if fired into the air, a shooter could triple that distance. It would depend on the angle of the weapon. Though air resistance will push down on the bullet, once it reaches its arc, the resistance reaches zero. Then during the downward trajectory, the resistance pushes against the bullet’s motion, which slows it down and pushes it upwards. It would fall approximately 300 feet per second at nearly 200 miles per hour. Firing from the roof probably aided the distance. The average .45 caliber bullet manufactured today travels at approximately 1000 feet per second, which is nearly 700 miles per hour on a level trajectory. This is probably somewhat more than the gun did in 1950.

Robert Peebles searching Highbridge Park with Detective Francis McGinty for the gun. This is probably the area behind Highbridge Pool a mile north of the Polo Grounds.

Robert Peebles searching Highbridge Park with Detective Francis McGinty for the gun. This is probably the area behind Highbridge Pool a mile north of the Polo Grounds.

The Punishment

Since he was only 15, Peebles was not charged as an adult. Standard felony charges did not apply. The Court issued two juvenile delinquency petitions against the teenager. He was convicted of firearms possession only. Ultimately, he received two years in a juvenile facility in New Jersey. It was a light sentence for killing a man, but the Court concurred with the accident theory. For a black kid in the 50s, it was an incredibly lucky break. Rumors would persist that there was more to the story and that Peebles was taking the fall for others. Events throughout that July led to even more speculation.

The now closed New Jersey State Training School for Boys (Warwick, NJ) where Peebles served two years.

The now closed New Jersey State Training School for Boys (Warwick, NJ) where Peebles served two years.

Was Peebles the Shooter?

The African American press openly speculated that Peebles was taking the fall for older members of his family. Reporters from New York Age claimed a cover up. Much of it was based on the detective’s initial statements regarding the weapon and a string of arrests two weeks later.

On July 22, 1950, three people were arrested at two different locations. 26-year old Elizabeth Crum was arrested at 254 112th Street along with two men living at 467 164th Street, Robert Thomas, 29 and William Mitchell, 36. All three were charged with obtaining a firearm for a minor; specifically, one of the rifles found in Peebles’ home on the day of his arrest. The rifle was a .22, not the weapon Peebles claimed to have killed Doyle with on July 4. The three were held on $100 bail for a hearing in Washington Heights. The arrest of Ms. Crum is significant because of her address: it is two blocks from where Peebles found the .45. Their relation to Peebles has not been determined.

A winter view of the Harlem River behind Highbridge Pool where Peebles says he threw the gun. In July 1950, vegetation would have nearly obscured the river making an accurate toss impossible.

A winter view of the Harlem River behind Highbridge Pool where Peebles says he threw the gun. In July 1950, vegetation would have nearly obscured the river making an accurate toss impossible.

Inconsistencies were rampant. On July 8, the New York Times had reported that the Police had been looking at Peebles since the night of July 4th, even questioning him. But other reports state that detectives only knew about the boy from a phone tip on July 6th. This could be a case of the police covering their tracks to make themselves look like better detectives. But the initial finding by the lead detective was that the shot had been fired from the park, not the apartment building. Then there was the assumption it was a .22 because of the distance, only to find out it was a .45. It is hard to judge the forensic procedures of the time by today’s standards, so we’ll never know the exact truth.

Despite searching for days, the gun used by Robert was never found. Peebles told police he threw it as close to the river as he could while standing behind the pool building. Detectives assumed it came down on Harlem River Drive and someone grabbed it. The investigation was closed. Everyone moved on, including Major League Baseball. Whether Horace Stoneham yielded any influence on the NYPD to close the case will never be known. A black man shooting a rifle at a white fan, even accidentally, would cause immense pressure on the city and game. Painting the incident as a juvenile indiscretion saved everyone a lot of headaches. White flight and changing neighborhoods were already putting financial pressure on both the Giants and Dodgers. Gate receipts were an enormously important source of revenue in those days and the status quo had to be maintained.

The City Moves On

Washington Heights continued its economic decline and ticket sales followed. Suburban fans did not want to make the drive anymore. Despite the star power of Willie Mays, Bobby Thomson’s miracle home run in '51 and winning the 1954 World Series, the Giants decided to move to San Francisco in 1957. The Polo Grounds were torn down in 1964 as the New York Mets moved to their new home in Flushing. Public Housing would go up, and become known as the Polo Grounds Towers. Over the past 20 years, the apartments on Edgecombe Avenue and the surrounding area have become sought out by young working professionals. High prices downtown drove them north. The apartments have been refurbished to look as 21st Century as possible despite being nearly 100 years old. 515 is now a Co-op with buyers paying as much as $400,000 per unit. Gentrification has arrived.

April 1964 - The Polo Grounds being torn down.

April 1964 - The Polo Grounds being torn down.

Postscript

Otto Flaig – Otto joined the Marines after high school and went on to a career in law enforcement, eventually becoming chief of the Teterboro police department. He often spoke about the incident as a lesson in not taking life for granted. He died young, passing away at the age of 55 in 1992.

Robert Peebles - No one appears to know exactly what happened to Robert Peebles. He would be 84 today. Some heard he came back to New York City. Others claimed he left for Texas. There are draft records of several Robert Peebles. The search continues. Social Security records and Census archives turned up very little.

Marie Belid - Using 1930 and 1940 census records, tracking down Marie Belid proved a bit easier. The family appears to have moved from North Carolina to New York in the 1920s. The 1930 Census shows Marie, then 33, married and living in Northern Manhattan with two others at 215 Edgecombe Avenue. There was no mention of any children and she is listed as head of household.

By 1940, Marie was living in a tenement on St Nicholas Avenue with 23 other family members, including Robert (then 4). Tracking down Robert’s parents has also proven difficult, so was confirming his actual birth certificate. But one fact stood out: Peebles had been living with Mrs. Belid almost his entire life prior to the shooting. Maybe Marie was his actual birth mother. She died in 1985.

Conrad Rothengast – He eventually became Chief Inspector, the NYPD’s top career job at the time. Although initially noted as a reformer, scandal would follow. The Gross Scandal involving payoffs to officers and later charges of racially bias policing by the Justice Department would mar his tenure. It forced him into early retirement. He would die from a heart attack in November 1963 during the Raceway Riots at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island. The retired inspector had taken a job as Chief of Security. After a bad accident that maimed six horses, bettors rioted. During the melee, Rothengast collapsed. He was 65.

The Doyle Family - Barney’s wife Margaret passed away in 1979. His son, Bernard Jr. died in 1974 at the of age 53. Daughter Eileen passed away in 2005, age 75.

Barney Doyle, 1896 - 1950

murder-at-coograns-bluff

Sources

Articles

  • “3 More Arrested In Polo Grounds Slaying Episode.” New York Age, July 22, 1950. Pg. 48. www.newspapers.com.
  • Allain, Rhett. “Mythbusters: Bringing on the physics bullet drop.” Wired, October 9, 2009. Wired.com
  • “Boy, 14, admits Firing .45 Pistol At Time of Polo Grounds Killing.” New York Times, July 8, 1950. Pg. 1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, King County Library (kcls.org).
  • “Held In Ball Park Death: Boy Remanded To Youth House Pending Investigation In Case.” New York Times, July 12, 1950. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, King County Library (kcls.org).
  • Hoober, Sam. “The Legacy of the Sullivan Laws.” Thetruthaboutguns.com, August 8, 2017.
  • Maeder, Jay. “Independence Day, 1950: A mystery killing and a threat of war.” New York Daily News, August 14, 2017 (reproduced from original article published August 30, 1998). Nydailynews.com.
  • McShane, Larry. “Baseball, hot dogs and homicide: N.Y. Giants fan killed in Polo Grounds before July 4th doubleheader in 1950.” New York Daily News, June 29, 2020. Nydailynews.com
  • “Mystery Bullet Kills Baseball Fan In Midst of Crowd at Polo Grounds.” New York Times, July 5, 1950. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, King County Library System. Kcls.org.
  • Parker, Ev. “Death at the ball park.” Napa Valley Register, August 5, 2011 (online edition). Napavalleyregister.com
  • Pincus, David. “A Man Was Once Shot at an MLB Game and Play Went On.” Sports Illustrated, April 7, 2014 (online edition). www.si.com
  • “Pistol Search Continues: Police Seek Weapon Fired at Time of Ball Park Death.” New York Times, July 9, 1950. ProQuest Historical Newspaper, King County Library (kcls.org).
  • “Rothengast Served in City’s Police for 33 Years.” New York Times, November 10, 1963. Pg. 83. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, King County Library (kcls.org).
  • Siegel, Ethan. “The Physics Why Firing A Gun Into The Air Can Kill Someone.” Forbes, February 15, 2017. Forbes.com
  • “What Happened At The Polo Grounds Shooting in 1950?” Ask Meta Filter, June 23, 2015. Ask.metafilter.com
  • Whelton, Clark. “Bullets and Baseball on the Fourth of July.” City Journal, July 4, 2018. City-journal.org.

Websites

  • Ballparks of Baseball
  • Baseball-fever.com
  • Mythbusters.com
  • New York Giants Nostalgia Society
  • New York Giants Preservation Society
  • Shooterscalculator.com
  • Wired.com
  • University of Illinois (van.physics.illinois.edu/) – Air Resistance discussion

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Comments

CJ Kelly (author) from the PNW on August 31, 2020:

Thanks, Fran, it means a lot. Yes, we need sports now. Please stay well.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on August 31, 2020:

Wow, interesting article. I had never heard of this. Sad story all around. Thanks for the article. Boy, do I miss sports!!

CJ Kelly (author) from the PNW on August 30, 2020:

Thx, Brian. That's high praise. I did not know the details of the incident. I believe my dad mentioned it one time but I did not know anyone had been killed or that it had been fired from Edgecombe. That shocked me. The Polo Grounds provides endless stories. Time for an HBO Series:) Stay well.

Brian Lokker from Bethesda, Maryland on August 30, 2020:

I had never heard of this incident. Great article with nice use of source material.

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