Take Me Out To The Ballpark: Ebbets Field

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Take Me Out To The Ballpark: Ebbets Field

Major League baseball has not been played in the Borough of Brooklyn since 1957.

 

But any serious baseball fan can still tell you that until that time some of the games greatest moments occurred at Bedford Avenue where Ebbets Field stood.

 

Beginning in 1884 a Brooklyn team played in the American Association. In 1890 the team would join the new National League.

 

This team changed names almost year to year, known variously as the Atlantics, the Grays, the Superbas, the Bridegrooms, the Grooms and the Trolley Dodgers. This last name came from the fact that residents of Brooklyn had to “dodge” the trolleys that provided public transportation in the Borough.

 

In those days most ballparks were built entirely of wood and the great danger of fire was always a concern. When Charles Ebbets bought the professional team in the early 1900s, he determined to build a new venue of steel.

 

Ebbets began surreptitiously to buy up lots in an unusual place for a public forum. He was buying land in an area known as Pigtown in the section of the city known as Flatbush. This area had been a garbage dump and got its moniker from the pigs who roamed freely here eating the refuse.

 

Over a seven year period from 1905 to 1912 Charles Ebbets would buy approximately 1200 separate small parcels without revealing his plans. Finally he began to build his dream and at the time it was a spectacular tribute to his love of the game. It was the most glamorous edifice erected and dedicated to sport since the Roman Coliseum.  

 

Aerial views of the old ballfield show it set closely into its urban setting. And its footprint was an almost exact square. Because space was limited Ebbets Field was confined. It would come to be known as a neighborhood park where the fans were part of the game.

 

One of the most unusual aspects of the location was that it was on sloping ground and total excavation was not done to build the park. The result was that the right field wall was above street level while the left field corner was below street level and terraced.

 

The new park opened for play on April 9, 1913 and it amazed. It seated 23,000 fans with a double tiered grandstand that wrapped around from right field past home plate toward third base. Originally there was no second deck down the left field line or beyond the outfield fences.

 

The outside façade featured grand arches and windows. As one entered the building he came into a grand rotunda made from Italian marble. Without question most fans in Brooklyn had never seen anything like it in 1913.

 

Through the years several changes would come. In the 1920s bleachers were added in the outfield. In the early 1930s the second tier grandstand was extended down the left field line and around toward center field. The upper grandstand hung over the field.

 

A press box was built which also hung out over the field. Many sportscasters have said they felt as though they were right on top of the action. Later a scoreboard was built in right field and a 40 foot concave was put in the right field wall that gave an unusual appearance to the arena.

 

As originally constructed the outfield dimensions were 419 feet down the left field foul line, 450 feet to dead center field and only 301 feet down the right field line.

 

The fences would be moved from time to time and the final outfield dimensions were 348 feet in right, 393 in center and only 297 at the right field foul pole.

 

Despite all the changes, the primary aspect of Ebbets Field remembered by all who admired it is that the spectators were so close to the action, coming to feel as though they were a part of what happened with the players.

 

For most of their time in Ebbets Field the team would not be very good. Ebbets Field would be the site of some of the worst baseball ever played, and some of the best that fans have ever witnessed.

 

From 1914 until 1931 the team would be known as the Robins, in honor of Manager, Wilbert Robinson.

 

As the Robins, the team won the National League pennant in 1916 and again in 1920, but could not win the World Series. Between 1920 and 1941 the team would finish as high as second in the NL only twice and often finished in the lower part of the league.

 

In 1940 the Dodgers finished second only three games out of first place and it seemed that the tide was turning. And indeed, the team would win the NL pennant in 1941 only to lose the Series to the cross-town Yankees.

 

The Dodgers would be competitive for most of the 1940s and played in the Fall Classic again in 1947 and 1949, losing each time. They would play in seven World Series through 1956, but would lose to the Yankees each time except 1955.

 

Photographs and film from the 1940s and 50s show uniforms with blue script writing that said “Dodgers” across the chest. The royal blue caps featured a unique rounded “B” with seraphs. The uniforms were universally recognized.

 

The team also made history in ways that extended beyond baseball. In late 1942 the Dodgers hired Branch Rickey to be General Manager. Rickey had already proved himself an innovator when he had brought the farm system to baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals.

 

But as GM of the Dodgers, Rickey would make history when he signed a Negro League player to a professional contract. An unofficial agreement among club owners had banned black baseball players from playing in the major leagues since the late 1890s.

 

In 1946 Rickey very carefully chose Jackie Robinson in his plan to finally integrate baseball. Robinson would play at the Dodgers Triple A team in Montreal, Canada in 1946 and debuted in Brooklyn in 1947.

 

Once Rickey showed the courage to break the color barrier other teams gave black players a chance to show they could play in the majors. Players such as Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Roy Campenella and Hank Aaron were soon winning awards in both leagues.

 

Brooklyn would win only one world championship but they had more love from their fans than any other team in history.

 

When they were almost completely inept in the 1920s and 1930s they where dubbed “Dem Bums.” At first the term was pejorative. Eventually it would become a term of endearment. Brooklynites loved their Bums and showered their favorite players with adulation.

 

The fans motto became the bittersweet “Wait ‘Til Next Year.” When they finally beat the Yankees in 1955 the term evolved into “This IS Next Year.”

 

And what fans they were. It is unlikely that any team has ever had followers quite as unique as Brooklyn.

 

To begin with there was the unofficial pep band of the team—the “Dodger Sym-phony.”  Broadcaster, Vin Scully has made clear that the emphasis must be placed on the “phony.”

 

None of the band members had any musical talent and they could not carry a tune. But they showed up for every night and weekend game and used their instruments to root for their favorites.

 

The Dodger Sym-phony was given eight seats behind the Dodger dugout and possibly the most memorable member was Shorty Laurice who was easily identified in his stovepipe hat.

 

Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel has said of the Sym-phony: “The Sym-Phony was one of the things people loved about Ebbets Field. They provided a kind a special character and loving warmth that few other ballparks had, so I’d recognize them anywhere.”

Another Ebbetts Field character remembered by all was Hilda Chester. Chester began her love affair with the Dodgers in the 1920s. At first she brought an iron skillet and a metal ladle to the park and would bang on it incessantly to cheer her team.

Later Hilda replaced the iron skillet with a cowbell which opposing players hated, but which thrilled the hometown boys and the other Dodger fans.

One of the great stories about Hilda is the time she passed a note to center fielder, Pete Reiser with instructions to give the note to manager, Leo Durocher. The note said “Get Casey hot, Whit’s losing it.”

Durocher thought the note was from team President, Larry McPhail and immediately got reliever Hugh Casey up in the bullpen. Casey came in for Whitlow Wyatt and the Dodgers won the game.

As American life changed in the 1950s baseball in Brooklyn became problematic. The park was set in the middle of the city. Surrounded by other commercial enterprises, there was no room for car parking. As more and more people turned to the automobile for transportation, fewer people were coming to the old park.

Other social changes played a role as well. While Brooklyn had changed baseball by integration this area of Brooklyn was becoming predominantly black. Probably without merit, many fans expressed concerns about coming to the area for night games because of a growing reputation for crime. Night baseball had driven some fans from the game.

Television may have played some role as well, since fans could now see their teams on the tube and did not have to bother finding a way to the game and fighting crowds to see their favorite players.

Walter O’Malley was the Dodger owner in the 1950s and he began to campaign vigorously for a new ball park. When the city would not comply, he had overtures to move the team.

The first plan was to move the team to Minneapolis where there had been Triple A baseball. But then the West Coast beckoned. City fathers in Los Angeles courted O’Malley and promised him not only a brand new ballpark, but plenty of parking for the commuting fans in LA. They also gave him rights to concessions and other perks.

In 1957 O’Malley announced that the team would be moving. Fans in Brooklyn could hardly believe it. Grief overcame the Borough of Brooklyn. It was hard to imagine that there would be no baseball in Flatbush.

The team did move and in 1960 a wrecking ball painted to look like a baseball demolished Ebbets Field to make way for apartments. About 200 loyal fans sat in the bleachers in disbelief as the demolition crew destroyed the scene of their fondest memories.

There is no more major league baseball in Brooklyn. But the memories created at Ebbets field for 44 years will live forever.

 

 

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