The hidden baseball history of New York Cityby Richard Barbieri
July 11, 2013
There is no question that New York City has an incredible amount of baseball history. A majority of this is what might be loosely termed the highly visible history. There are, literally, ballparks in the Bronx and Queens, in addition to the former Polo Grounds and Ebbet Fields sites.
The visible baseball history is not strictly literal though. New York hosted a majority of the careers of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Tom Seaver. It was home to some of the most dominant teams of all-time, from the 1939 Yankees to the 1998 edition of the team. New York was the site of incredible moments from Willie Mays’ making “The Catch” or Bill Buckner allowing a seemingly routine ground ball to roll through his legs and end maybe the greatest World Series game of all-time.
No doubt these moments, teams and players will be celebrated and remembered during the upcoming All-Star week, taking place in New York City for the second time in six years. With that in mind, this week’s column will take a tour around the city to reflect upon some sites that while less well-known than others, are in many ways no less important.
|Where the streets once flowed with beer (R. Barbieri)|
We’ll start on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. For roughly 100 hundred years—starting around the Civil War and ending around Woodstock—the space pictured at left was the site of a brewery. It was in this brewery that Col. Jacob Ruppert—the title was not exactly hard-earned, he more a Colonel in the style of, say, Tom Parker than John Glenn—owned. The son of a highly successful brewery owner himself, Ruppert used the brewery’s profits to help fund one of his passions: baseball.
The sole owner of the Yankees from 1923 until his death in 1939, Ruppert presided over an incredible run of success. With the likes of Lou Gehrig and Ruth (who no doubt enjoyed his share of Ruppert’s Knickerbocker brand beer) and others the Yankees won seven titles during his years in charge. He will be inducted, posthumously, into the Hall of Fame this year. Meanwhile, his legacy lives on at the former brewery site which features both a park and building complex named in Ruppert’s honor.
Moving both down and across town, we arrive just north of Rockefeller Center for the next hidden baseball history. Today one is hard-pressed to find a stretch of space in the neighborhood not part of an office complex—even the Mets’ television network studio is part of the Time-Life Building—but it was not always the case.
|Where Toots once ruled, with plaque circled at left (R. Barbieri)|
Starting in the 1940’s, 51 West 51st Street was the home of Toots Shor’s Restaurant. Famous with celebrities of all stripes—notable visitors included Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Ernest Hemingway—the restaurant is best known as a hang-out of ballplayers and sportswriters.
While the food at the restaurant was variously described as “nuttin’ fancy” and “mediocre” it was the restaurant’s eponymous owner who was the real draw. Shor was said to be close with Joe DiMaggio—at least until the two had a falling out, widely rumored to be over an ill-conceived comment about Monroe—and others like Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle could often be seen at the restaurant.
Shor was so ubiquitous in the presence of the Yankees that Jim Bouton tells a story in Ball Four that Shor offered him pitching advice when he began to struggle, Bouton notes that he “was so desperate [he] actually tried it. It didn’t help.”
When he wasn’t offering pitching advice, Shor is supposed to have said that he didn’t care if he was a millionaire, so long as he could live like one. This perhaps goes a long way to explaining why he sold the lease to his restaurant on 51st street, opened another the next year and was closed for tax evasion just over a decade later.
|Where Henry Chadwick once toiled (R. Barbieri)|
These days, the place where the “Crumb-Bums,” Shor’s affectionate nickname for his patrons, once dined and drank is now a Chase bank and the entrance to a relatively nondescript office building. Nonetheless, the location is marked with a plaque, the only visible part of this hidden baseball history.
Located across from City Hall is Park Row. Today best known as being the formerly sprawling home of J&R Music and Computer World—your New York City headquarters for grey market electronics—it was famous in a previous era for being the center of the New York media. Located nearby to both City Hall and Wall Street, it was for many years known as “Newspaper Row” and housed a number of papers, including The New York Times.
Its connection to baseball is more than that, however. It was from 8 Park Row that the Sunday Mercury was published and it was for the Sunday Mercury that Henry Chadwick worked. Chadwick, of course is the man sometimes referred to as the “Father of Baseball.” It seems possible, if not likely, that it was in the building at 8 Park Row that Chadwick refined the scorekeeping system we still use today and developed statistics like batting and earned run average.
One cannot, strictly speaking, visit the building were Chadwick worked. As far as building numbers are concerned, only 1 Park Row and 15 Park Row stand today. (The latter is notable for being one of the first “skyscrapers," and the tallest building in the world for nearly a decade at the turn of the century.) The closest spot is today occupied by the J&R Café, which I was able to bring you the above photo of thanks to my father, who played traffic cop as I wandered into the street to take photos.
|Where Jackie once signed a contract, with plaque again circled at left (R. Barbieri)|
Finally, we arrive in Brooklyn for a bit more history. When 42 was released it was justly praised for recreating Ebbets Fields and other ballparks of the era. Of course, it also recreated, inside at least, Branch Rickey’s office. A number of the films scenes took place there, including recreating the famous moment when Robinson signed his Dodger contract. I’m sure many imagined the office was inside Ebbets Field, as is the modern convention.
But then Ebbets Field—which lacked a press box until nearly the 1930s—was not a park overflowing with extra space. As such, starting in 1938, the Dodgers instead had their offices at 215 Montague Street, near Brooklyn’s Borough Hall.
(Those familiar with Brooklyn will note that the office site is not especially close to the former location of Ebbets Field. Though there are several articles about 215 Montague and its overlooked placed in baseball history, none explain why the Dodgers choose an office so far from Ebbets Field. I can only assume it was a decision born of necessity.)
Like 8 Park Row, there is actually no 215 Montague Street anymore. The building where Robinson broke the color barrier, at least on paper, was torn down and replaced with yet another nondescript office building hosting a bank. This one is a TD Bank, for a change of pace. The current building also features a plaque describing the site’s history. That is nice to see, though the plaque is most notable for featuring an engraving of someone who I think is meant to be Robinson, but could also be Rickey. Truthfully, it looks like current Yankee broadcaster Michael Kay more than anyone else.
These are not the only pieces of baseball history hiding in plain sight in New York—in fact there’s probably enough for me to get another column out of it. Nonetheless, these are an important four, and ones worth remembering when the most famous moments are celebrated in the future.
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