Friday, December 11, 2015

Brooklyn. There used to be a ballpark here.

If you have poked around this site, you probably think I am obsessed with Ebbets Field.

In my case the love affair is metaphorical. I spent my childhood and youth in the Bronx and in upstate New York. To the best of my recollection I have never set foot in Brooklyn.

Nor was I a Dodger fan in my boyhood. I did always pull for the National League team in the World Series, but my favorites were the Milwaukee Braves, and Ed Mathews was my favorite player. It's difficult to say exactly why I forged that bond, but I think it was because the Braves were the first team to win the World Series after I became aware of the universe of baseball. Maybe I became obsessed with them because the news stories of the day showed people dancing in the streets of Milwaukee after that victory over the Yankees, and that created a powerful and indelible image in the mind of an impressionable 8-year-old boy, a vision of people experiencing a vicarious joy which was both puzzling and alluring to me.

I had some baseball cards that year, 1957, and I nearly collected the full 1958 set, but I didn't manage to get every single card until 1959. The Topps cards were released by series back then, so that when the first cards hit the streets, only a subset (about a sixth of the complete set) was available. I would quickly complete a series in 1959 and then my friend Mike Dwyer, another hopeful completist, would join me in a hunt for the first retail outlet to stock the next series. Corner stores were often too slow to order a new series because they would get overstocked on the previous releases and couldn't get rid of them, or because the owner simply didn't realize that there was more than one series and was therefore unaware that his stock was not the product currently in demand. I don't know if I ever experienced greater excitement in my life than those days when we finally found a new series in some obscure mom 'n' pop store after days or weeks of disappointment.

As much as I loved those cards, and playing baseball, and studying its stats, and reading about the history of the game, the Dodgers' abandonment of Brooklyn meant nothing to me at the time. I had no emotional investment in the past. The first season I followed all the way through was 1958, and the Dodgers had already flown the coop to Los Angeles.

Now, however ...

Now I don't need a personal connection to understand that the Brooklyn Dodgers were special. How do they determine whether the American soldier is really a German spy in those war movies? They ask him how the Dodgers are doing. As Bob Dylan noted, you don't need a weather man to tell which way the wind blows. It is obvious to me, as it should be to every true fan, that there was a unique symbiosis between the borough of Brooklyn, their team, and their stadium. It was a powerful, personal kind of relationship, and nothing else in baseball matched it for sheer quirky charm.

The Dodgers hung around and chatted with their fans about the crazy things that happened in their ballpark, as summarized in the famous Amadee cartoon.

The team had its own orchestra ("The Sym-Phony"), which seemed to be off key more than on, and unlike those hoity-toity orchestras in Manhattan, it had a drummer who smoked a cigar while he played. Actually, I think it was a kazoo, but why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Ebbets Field was also home to baseball's most famous fan, Hilda Chester, the fanatic who bellowed from the bleachers in Brooklynese until she lost her voice, then kept up her rooting with a loud cowbell.

For years there was little to root for and the Dodgers were "dem bums," a cast of lovable losers. As late as 1944 they had finished in seventh place with a dismal 63-91 record. Their shortstop was a 16-year-old kid who hit .164 with no power or walks.

Then the war ended and the young stars started to arrive. First came Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese and Pistol Pete Reiser in 1946, when the team rose to second place. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, and two young future stars named Gil Hodges and Duke Snider got meaningful try-outs. The core of their great line-up was completed the following season when Roy Campanella came up from Montreal, and slick-fielding Billy Cox was acquired from the Pirates. Here is the team they could field on any given day in 1948: Campanella C, Hodges 1B, Robinson 2B, Reese SS, Cox 3B, Furillo RF, Snider CF, Reiser LF.

If you are a baseball fan, you remember most of those guys or have read about them, but you may not remember Pistol Pete. Reiser was a reckless, all-out player, kind of the Fred Lynn of his own time, and some say he should have been the best of the lot listed above. His first full season in the majors was a lot like Lynn's. He finished second in the MVP balloting and led the league in doubles, triples, batting average, runs scored, slugging average and OPS. The following year he was doing just as well or better, but (like Lynn) he was always running or tumbling into something, and two injuries in late July and early August slowed him down. On August 1st he was batting .350 with a .934 OPS and had already hit 27 doubles, but he was never the same guy again. Some say he tried to come back too soon after his injuries. Maybe so. The rest of that season he batted .221 with no power to speak of, and then he missed the next three seasons fighting in WW2. He had a couple of respectable seasons after the war, but was not the same superstar he had been in 1941 and the first half of 1942. Then more injuries slowed him still further.

Reiser became a part-timer with other teams after 1948, and Cox faded after a great 1953 season, but the remainder of that group would remain together and productive until the Brooklyn Dodgers won their last pennant in 1956. The 1953 edition of that team may have fielded the best line-up in National League history. They scored 955 runs that year, compared to a mere 768 for the second-best team. Their pitching was mediocre, allowing 689 runs, a hundred more than the league-best Braves, but their hitting was so damned good that they led the league by 13 lengths, winning 105 games. They had four of the league's top seven players in slugging average. Furillo won the batting title, while Snider and Robinson were close behind. Campy and Snider passed the 40-homer mark and Hodges added 31. Reese, Gilliam, Robinson and Snider finished 2-3-4-5 in the league in stolen bases. Six of them made the all-star team. Campy won the MVP and six of his teammates received votes.

They were no longer "bums," but champions, yet the nickname remained, and they seemed to be as lovable as when they were losers. Maybe they were still lovable because the hated Yankees always managed to clean their clocks in the World Series; or maybe Brooklyn just loved them. Oh, it went beyond that. Most cities love their teams, but Brooklynites worshipped their team, and Ebbets Field was their cathedral. If you don't believe me, watch the short video below and listen to some otherwise sensible men remember their childhood days on the hallowed ground at Ebbets Field.

The film "42," a quite accurate representation of the efforts of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson to shatter baseball's color barrier, did a wonderful job of capturing the feel of Ebbets Field, as shown in the following video. The images below the video are thumbnails which, if clicked, will lead to screengrabs from the video.

Erected during a flurry of stadium-building activity in the deadball era, Ebbets Field began its life in 1913 in what had been Brooklyn's "Pigtown," a morass of crags dotted with refuse, hovels and shanties. Tiger Stadium and Fenway Park had opened the previous year, and Wrigley Field would follow a year after that. As the automobile age approached, all four parks would have to adapt to fight obsolescence, with varying degrees of success, but in the 1912-1914 era, the new parks seemed to represent the grandest dreams of contemporary urban architecture.

Those parks were smaller, more intimate settings than today's grand colossi. Ebbets could never accommodate more than 35,000 fans. They were also downtown parks, shoehorned into neighborhoods later abandoned by the post-war flight to the suburbs. Today we are used to seeing nearly symmetrical or uniform field areas in ballparks built on generous out-of-town acreage and designed to keep the distance of outfield fences and the size of foul areas within certain sensible ranges. In the old urban parks, because they used existing space not designed for baseball, and/or were designed to fit in the exact available space between street corners, the designs often incorporated a weird geometry which affected the game within. Ebbets Field was not so off-kilter as the Polo Grounds, which had a 258-foot right field foul line and a center field so immense that Willie Mays could famously turn a 450-foot Vic Wertz blast into a double play - with running room to spare. But Ebbets was far from symmetrical. The deepest part of centerfield was almost as far from home plate as in the Polo Grounds, and the park strongly favored a left-handed pull hitter. The right field foul pole was only 297 feet away, while the left field pole measured a monstrous 419 feet, later reduced to 348 by the construction of stands. The disadvantage to right handers was partially offset by the fact that the left field fence did not get deeper for quite some time, so that the fence in left center was just about the same distance as at the pole. Duke Snider, the Dodgers' only left-handed power hitter, owned that short porch in right. From 1953 to 1957, he set what was then a major league record with five consecutive 40-homer seasons. In that period he hit 117 homers at home, but only 90 on the road. He never hit as many as 20 road homers in a season, so it is likely that he never would have had a single 40-homer season in a neutral park, let alone five in a row.

Those dimensions could not be avoided, but there was no physical need to create the bizarre angles of the fences. No matter. That's the way it was anyway. Some areas of the right field fence were perpendicular to the ground, while others sloped backwards, and the scoreboard jutted out to form more odd angles as it met the advertising signs. You can size up this situation clearly in the image below.

Visiting right fielders found the angles baffling, while the Dodgers' Carl "Skoonj" Furillo proved to be an absolute genius at calculating the caroms. The combination of Furillo's mastery of the wall and his cannon of a right arm produced many a long single from blasts with dreams of extra bases. This and various other factors created a real home field advantage to the Dodgers. In their 105-win season in 1953, they won 60 at home, but only 45 on the road. Although they led the league by 13 games, they actually finished two games worse than the Braves on the road! Ebbets Field made the difference.

Besides Furillo and Snider, the other major beneficiary of the right field in Ebbets turned out to be a tailor named Abe Stark. He became a household name in Brooklyn because for two decades he sponsored a sign under the scoreboard that said "Hit Sign, Win Suit." The sign became famous, and so did he, so famous in fact that he moved up from humble neighborhood tailor to Brooklyn's borough president, proof positive that it pays to advertise.

The other problem in urban ballpark design turned out to be parking. The available space in Brooklyn, ample in 1913 when cars still competed with horses and streetcars, became increasingly inadequate in the era after WW2 when nearly every American family owned at least one automobile.

Here is a picture of the grand old lady on a busy game day, with cars fitted helter-skelter into what seems to be every empty square foot in Brooklyn

For comparison, the picture below shows her at rest, surrounded by empty spaces.

And then the old gal herself became an empty space.

Today Brooklyn's pride has become a residential high-rise.

Here's how the park used to fit into that space. The area outlined on the top is where the main parking lot used to be.

This tiny marker is all that remains to remind us of the glories of the past.

I mentioned at the very beginning of this page that Ebbets Field is important to me as a metaphor. That's because the wrecking ball tore down more than a mere stadium in 1960; even more than a cathedral. It tore down the way baseball used to be, when the players not named Mantle or Musial had to work part-time jobs in the off-season and the same sixteen teams played in the same leagues for sixty years. It tore down childhood for the baby boomers. It tore down the 1950s. It tore down America, the way it used to be, the way we old farts wish it still was.

As Sinatra sings in the montage video below, there used to be a ballpark here, and it, like the America surrounding it, is gone forever.


  1. Here is a reader e-mail comment, and my response:

    I read your excellent post about the Dodgers and it struck me that our beginnings were very similar. I grew up in upstate NY (Ticonderoga, Herkimer, Glens Falls) and I became aware of baseball in 1958. The only team we saw on our one TV channel (Burlington, VT) was the Yankees. You had to love them or hate them and I decided to hate them, I needed another team, and I figured "why not the champs?" I had not been aware during the 57 series, so I actually missed that triumph. The Braves first let me down in the 58 series, losing after leading 3-1. As a lifelong Braves fan, the disappointments have greatly outnumbered the triumphs.

    My favorite player was also Eddie Mathews. I've often asked myself if my coolness toward Aaron made me a racist. He would probably say so, but he just seemed emotionless. Eddie looked and acted like a ballplayer, and hit just as many homers in their time together, or so it seemed. Whatever the reason, he just drew me in.

    My other favorite was Spahn. I spotted him in O'Hare in the Eighties, and ran him down for an autograph (he was extremely recognizable!) As he was signing it, I stammered "I'm an old Braves fan." he replied "you're not so old." I didn't have the heart to say, "you're old, not me." Still have it.

    I still visit Glens Falls from time to time. Johnny Podres lived nearby in Queensbury until his death. I saw him on TV one time and they asked him if he was OK financially. He hesitated, then replied "I can afford a roof over me head, a car and food. I have enough left over to make a bet every day. That makes me a rich man." Indeed, he stopped at the Queensbury OTB every day. I was there one time and someone yelled "Johnny's here!" Mrs. Podres came in, not Johnny, he wasn't walking so good. Everything stopped. The people in line got out of line. The crowd parted and let Mrs.Podres walked to the window. Complete silence. Guys took off their hats. I went to the window and looked out at the car. Johnny was there. The plate said "WS MVP."

    Such is the reverence we have for our baseball heroes.

    Thanks for all your great work.

    Scoop's response:

    I never really thought of ballplayers' races when I was a kid. They just seemed like ballplayers. If I had no special enthusiasm for Aaron, neither did I feel much love for the great Mantle, who was as white and redneck as they come. My second favorite player was Luke Easter, the superstar of Western New York for the Buffalo Bisons and then the Rochester Red Wings, and he was definitely not a white guy!

    I think I can remember how the Mathews thing began. Right after the 1960 season there was an article in some sports magazine about the guys most likely to break Ruth's record. At the time Mathews was their #1 pick. He had 338 homers in 9 seasons and was still only 28 years old. Mickey was their #2 choice. He was the same age (exactly a week younger) and had 320 homers in 10 seasons. Aaron was younger, but had only 219 up to that point. I was already pulling for the Braves, so from the time I read the article, Mathews was my guy.

    Of course the author of that article didn't take into account that Mathews and Mantle were both alkies who would flame out below 550, while the clean-living Aaron would go on forever.

    I recently read "Bushville Wins," a good book about the 1957 Braves, and had ambivalent feelings about what I learned. The insider stuff was illuminating, but I really didn't want to know what a drunken, belligerent ass Mathews was. Turns out he was Billy Martin with muscles.


  2. One final note on the song "There Used to be a Ballpark Here":

    The song's author, Joe Raposo, always insisted it was about the Polo Grounds, not Ebbets Field.

    The Polo Grounds is also a better fit to the lyrics, especially "the old team isn't playing and the new team hardly tries." Both the Giants and the Mets played there. The Giants, the "old team" moved to SF and fielded great teams in 1962-63. The Mets played those same two seasons in the Polo Grounds while Shea Stadium was being built, and it's fair to say they "hardly tried," with records of 40-120 and 51-111.