In the past three days, New York City has lost a pair of baseball icons – Bob Sheppard, the Yankees' public address announcer for more than 50 years, passed away Sunday, while George Steinbrenner, the team's imperious owner for the past 37 years, died early this morning. Both left indelible stamps on the game, and both will hold special places in the city’s vast constellation of baseball stars. As a Red Sox fan it pains me to say it, but New York City is the unquestioned home of baseball. This is not because of the 27 World Series titles won, bought, or stolen by the New York Yankees, or even because it was the only city to ever boast three major league clubs. No, it is the home of baseball because the game was born here, despite what the folks in Cooperstown might say about their absurd myth of Abner Doubleday. This past weekend, before these recent passings, I decided to embark on a baseball journey around Brooklyn. Although they lost the Dodgers more than 50 years ago, from the beaches of Coney Island to the skyscrapers of Downtown, Brooklyn is still filled with more baseball lore than any other borough.
Coney Island is a baseball lover's paradise.
My first stop was Coney Island to see the Brooklyn Cyclones
on Friday night. When the team started play in Brooklyn in 2001, they became the first professional ball club to play in the borough since the Dodgers bolted after the 1957 season. With the addition of the Staten Island Yankees
in 1999 – Mayor Rudy Giuliani had brokered a deal to bring minor league clubs to the two boroughs and build new stadiums to house them – Manhattan became the only borough without a pro club. The last game played on the island was September 18, 1963, when the Mets finished their brief run at the famous Polo Grounds before moving to Shea Stadium in Queens, meaning Manhattan’s 47-year baseball drought is longer than that of Brooklyn, which still bemoans the loss of its beloved bums (check out this cool map of Manhattan baseball
from Flip Flop Fly Ball
). The Cyclones like to harken back to the borough’s Dodger heritage – hanging on the wall of the grandstand are the numbers of Dodger greats like Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson. The luxury boxes and martini bars
of Yankee Stadium and Citi Field seem a world away from the neighborhood feel of the Cyclones park. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, and a night out with the family won’t cost you a week’s wages. The club is only single-A ball, and most of the players will move on to greener pastures in a year or two, but because they are a Mets affiliate, Cyclones fans get the benefit of seeing some of their young players move up to the big club
in a couple of years. In addition to the friendly atmosphere, it’s tough to beat watching a ballgame with a cool, gentle sea breeze during this wretchedly hot summer. The weekly fireworks are worth the price of admission, too.
The next morning, I decided to get a dose of Dodger history at the Brooklyn Historical Society
, which is currently running an exhibit titled Home Base: Memories of the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field
. Among the exhibit’s highlights is the Dodgers’ 1955 World Series banner (pictured), which was shipped off to Los Angeles when the team moved, only to be stolen and spirited back to Brooklyn by a group of aggrieved sportswriters. The exhibit also features a collection of audio clips from oral histories conducted with players, fans, and ballpark employees. A large portion of the exhibit is dedicated to the long and agonizing fight over a new ballpark between team owner Walter O’Malley and the city’s domineering planner, Robert Moses. If O’Malley had had his way, the Dodgers would be playing in a Buckminster Fuller-designed domed stadium on the west side of Flatbush Avenue in downtown Brooklyn, but Moses refused to give up the land below market rate, as the Dodgers insisted, and tried to push the team to move to a site in Queens. Debate rages on over which man’s pig-headedness is more to blame for the Dodgers’ move, but O’Malley got free land for his new stadium, only it was in Chavez Ravine, and Moses got to build a park in Flushing Meadows, for the expansion Mets. The flight of the Dodgers was a sad day for Brooklyn, but with 50 years of hindsight, I can imagine what an eyesore a giant domed stadium in the middle of downtown would be today. I guess the new basketball stadium being erected just down the street will give us some idea of that very soon.
Inscription near the entrance to the Ebbets Field Apartments.
Ebbets Field may be gone, replaced by a high-rise stack of apartments on Bedford Avenue, but it still bears the name of the ballpark, and a plaque acknowledges the bygone Dodger days. The building’s developers tried to make the baseball connection a selling point, dubbing the different units “triples,” “doubles,” “singles” (all pretty self-explanatory) and “bunts” (an efficiency apartment). It was so conveniently located that Prospect Park, Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Museum were “just a short pop fly away,” according to one advertisement. However, most of the first tenants did not have any connection to the Dodgers – they were predominantly African-Americans who had recently migrated from the Deep South and had never watched a game at Ebbets Field. Today, even fewer residents remember the team or its storied past.
Heading back to my neck of the woods in Windsor Terrace, Green-Wood Cemetery
is one of Brooklyn’s great landmarks, but few people know that it is also a baseball landmark. The cemetery was one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city during the 19th century, as visitors came to relax in the quiet, leafy grounds and view the monuments to New York’s foremost citizens; many of those prominent citizens were also amateur ballplayers, financiers, and boosters of the game. The cemetery is the final resting place for one member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Henry Chadwick
, dubbed the “Father of Base Ball” for his innumerable contributions to the game’s development as a sportswriter, historian and statistician. He was embroiled in a lengthy dispute with sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding, who promoted the idea that Abner Doubleday invented baseball out of thin air on one fateful day in Cooperstown in 1839. Chadwick knew that the story was pure fiction and that the game had evolved over time from a number of English games, such as cricket and rounders. Nevertheless, the story persists to this day, and the Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, not Brooklyn, Manhattan, or Hoboken, New Jersey, all of which have far more legitimate claims to being the birthplace of baseball.
The Brooklyn Atlantics take on the Cincinnati Red Stockings at the Capitoline Grounds in 1870. The Atlantics won 8-7 in 11 innings.
The rest of the baseball greats interred at Green-Wood have been largely forgotten by history, as they played in the days before professionals, but the game would never have become the national pastime without them. The graves of early members of the Knickerbockers, one of the world’s first baseball clubs, like Duncan Curry and James Whyte Davis, can be found there. They helped to write the first rules of baseball and participated in the first recorded inter-club game in 1845. The Knickerbockers played mostly in Manhattan and Hoboken, but there are also Brooklyn greats buried here. Charlie Smith and Jack Chapman, stars of the Atlantics, famously defeated the unbeaten Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1870 before 10,000 onlookers in Brooklyn in the first game to go to extra innings. No Negro Leagues stars are buried there, but you will find Nat Strong, a white promoter who helped develop the leagues in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Despite his inseparable connection to the Dodgers and Brooklyn, you won’t find Jackie Robinson’s grave here – he is actually buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Queens, though it’s “just a short pop fly away” from the Brooklyn line (for more on baseball's connection to Green-Wood Cemetery, check out Peter J. Nash's book Baseball Legends of Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery
Swing for the fences in Sunset Park.
Watching it, reading about it, or visiting sites of great moments in the game’s history are all fine ways to enjoy baseball, but nothing beats playing it. To top off my baseball weekend, I decided to take a few cuts at a batting cage
. Cages seem to be in short supply in the city. In Brooklyn, I know of only the Nellie Bly Batting Range in Gravesend and the 3rd Avenue Sportscenter
in Sunset Park, where I usually take my swings. The city has lots of diamonds, but few cages mean that kids have fewer opportunities to practice when the weather is too cold for outdoor play. Kids from colder climates are already at a huge disadvantage against players in the South and West who play almost year-round – now the Major Leagues are dominated by players from California, Texas and Florida (not to mention sunny Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.) The cage I hit at leaves something to be desired – bring your own bat, otherwise you’ll be swinging with a child’s tee-ball bat, and some of the machines are set up in such a way to make it impossible to see the ball until it has been shot out of the chute and into the backstop. Despite all this, nothing beats the feeling of getting a hold of one on the sweet spot.
There is still a lot of summer left and plenty of baseball to enjoy around the city. If you are interested in taking a tour of baseball history, Urban Oyster is in the process of developing a new tour that we hope to offer in the late summer or early fall, so sign up for our newsletter
to receive updates about that. Peter Laskowich offers frequent tours about baseball history and other New York City topics – send him an email
to sign up for his newsletter and receive his schedule of upcoming tours, and visit his website
. If you would like to get a flavor of his tours, he also offers free 90-minute tours of Grand Central Terminal and Midtown every Friday at 12:30; no reservations are necessary, and groups meet at 120 Park Avenue.For questions or comments about this blog post, please contact Andrew Gustafson (firstname.lastname@example.org).