A Visit to Ebbets Fieldby Richard Barbieri
June 28, 2012
There is no park that has inspired as much—for lack of a better term—hagiography as Ebbets Field. It remains as not only a symbol of the Brooklyn Dodgers themselves—and Jackie Robinson as well—but also of Brooklyn in the post-war period. Few ballparks have inspired such reverence, especially in a relatively short period. Shea Stadium hosted the Mets just as long as Ebbets Field did the Dodgers, and had no shortage of great games, but few mourn for Shea as some do for the Dodgers.
(And perhaps no one mourns for Ebbets Field like Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who spearheaded Citi Field’s “Jackie Robinson Rotunda” modeled on the one at Ebbets Field. That a tribute to a team other than his own might seem completely absurd apparently never occurred to ol’ Fred.)
|Where the Rotunda once stood|
In fact, in light of the hagiography surrounding the stadium, visiting its site, especially for a New Yorker—even a Yankee fan—almost feels like a Hajj, a trip one has to make to truly be complete as a baseball fan. All of this makes actually being at the Ebbets Field site all the stranger because it is, truthfully, underwhelming. But I guess we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Until the 1913 season when Ebbets Field opened, replacing, among other things at the site, a garbage dump poetically, if graphically, known as “Pigtown” for both its stench and the animals which frequented it, the Dodgers played most of their games at Washington Park, located in Park Slope.
(Washington Park, like the Polo Grounds, actually refers to a number of stadiums in the same geographical area, whose history I’m not getting into just now, largely because I can’t get it sorted out. In any case, it is notable today mainly for still having a standing wall in Brooklyn, which is generally considered the oldest remaining piece of any baseball stadium.)
At the time of its opening, Ebbets Field held, depending on who you believe (or how you count) anywhere from 18,000 to 25,000. Whatever the capacity of the park, it did not include many members of the media: it was built without a press box, and would not have one until 1929.
The park was also notable for its strange dimensions, owing to the shape of the land purchased by Dodgers’ owner Charles Ebbets—which can still be easily seen when looking at the gridlines of modern Brooklyn. Though Yankee Stadium is more famous for its short right-field porch, the right field line at Ebbets Field was under 300 feet, and at least in its early days, the stadium had no screen or other feature to prevent short fly balls from becoming easy home runs. Meanwhile, until the park was gradually enclosed to increase capacity (a process that took place through the stadium’s second and third decades), left and center fields were cavernous, with some sources listing the distances as far as 460 feet.
|Ebbets Field deserves a better marker|
Ebbets Field as it is often remembered in the popular imagination, with its large scoreboard in right field—topped by the Schaefer Beer sign, whose “h” and “e” would light up to reflect scoring decisions—did not take form until 1931, when renovations on the park were largely complete. The only major addition thereafter was light stands added prior to the 1938 season.
(The lights themselves, incidentally, still stand, albeit not in Brooklyn. After the park was demolished, they were moved to Randall’s Island, where they remain, formerly lighting Downing Stadium, and now the new Ichan Stadium. Although how much of the originals are extant is a reasonable question, one can say that the Ebbets Fields lights have cast their glow on athletes from Jackie Robinson to Pelé to Usain Bolt, which is rather a nice image.)
Of course, the reason so many people remember Ebbets Field in its Shaefer Beer/Hit-Sign-Win-Suit heyday was because of the sheer number of the World Series games played there. From 1947 until the Dodgers left town in 1957, Ebbets Field hosted 20 World Series games, an incredible number for an 11-year period.
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and after a dispute between Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley and “Power Broker” Robert Moses made it clear there would not be a new stadium to the former’s liking in New York, the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles.
Ebbets Field remained standing until February of 1960, when it was demolished to make way for public housing. This brings us back to my visit to this site a couple of weeks ago. (Long-term readers will note that, unlike with the Polo Grounds, I was clever enough to make the trip out to Brooklyn in the summer, so I didn’t go while I was freezing.)
As I mentioned, even compared to the Polo Grounds site—which is no great shakes itself—the former Ebbets Field is pretty underwhelming. This is best reflected in the plaque, pictured on the left, which commemorates the site’s history. Although the plaque at the Polo Grounds is poorly maintained, it is at least placed at the approximate location of home plate and includes a brief history of the park. The Ebbets Field plaque is instead located, vaguely, in what was center field. Of course, as you can see, the sign makes no mention of this, or even the dates of the park.
|This mural has the right idea|
In fact, if one walks to the former site of the Ebbets Field rotunda, there is no indication at all that—within my father’s lifetime—you could walk here and purchase a ticket to see the stadium where Jackie Robinson made his debut, where the first televised baseball game took place. As a New Yorker and a baseball fan, I was doubly disappointed.
It is only fair I point out that the surrounding neighborhood does a better job honoring the site. Across the street from the Ebbets Field Houses is a building which houses schools named for both Jackie Robinson and the stadium itself, and includes—as pictured—a mural of Jackie.
Nonetheless, one expects in light of the veritable Cult of Ebbets Field associated with it, there to be more at the site. Perhaps in the future this oversight will be corrected, but for now one must rely on the memories and knowledge you already possess to make a visit to the Ebbets Field site a memorable one.
Questions, comments and thinly veiled threats can be mailed to Richard on the back of a twenty dollar bill or e-mailed to him at RichardBarbieri@yahoo.com