The Old Ballparks of NYC07.19.2017
``And there used to be a ball park, where the field was warm and green
And the people played their crazy game with a joy I’d never seen.
And the air was such a wonder from the hot dogs and the beer
Yes there used to be a ball park right here.’’
…Words and music by Joe Reposo.
Sixty years ago this fall, Major League Baseball left a hole in the soul of the great Megalopolis that never healed. It was a crater generated by greed, wrapped in arrogance and conceived without a scintilla of interest in the millions of baseball fans it left behind.
Baseball teams moved before and since and they will again in the future as long as the men who run the game know there is one loose dollar out there. But none of them disenfranchised fans like those of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers.
Theirs was a non-stop rivalry that began in 1800s but it was more than the loss of longevity that broke so many hearts in Flatbush and Manhattan. There were rules. You rooted for the Giants, you hated the Dodgers. You rooted for the Dodgers, you hated the Giants. Above all else, only one thing mattered to every school kid, who hid Sporting News clippings in his algebra book, every drugstore cowboy, who argued the cases for Willie, Mickey and the Duke, every blue collar adult and every Wall Street broker, were the 22 games they played against each other every season until they left for good.
In all of baseball, there was nothing like it. Maybe it was the ball parks, the one a huge, misnamed architectural abomination called the Polo Grounds with a centerfield wall a gargantuan 483 from home plate and a right field fence that was a home run magnet at 257 feet. I remember the day with the Dodgers in a pennant fight and the Giants already stone, cold dead, a New York utility infielder named Bobby Hawn looped a fly ball into the first row in right field to beat Brooklyn and the Dodger relief pitcher raged ``hell, I could piss over that wall from home plate.’’
The other park was called Ebbets Field. The right field fence was so close they had to build a giant screen on top of it too limit home runs. Written on one wall was the legend ``hit this sign and win a suit’’. Obviously for as laid back as the Giants and their park were, this one was a combination of baseball shrine and community meeting hall.
It was pure Brooklyn, where a crowd gathered on the steps of a local church for a mass prayer service designed to end first baseman Gil Hodges batting slump. It was the place a rag tag group of musicians called the Dodger Symphony walked through the stands as musical cheerleaders every game in return for free tickets. It was the place where Jackie Robinson broke the color line and magically changed baseball’s fan base from snowy white magnificent diversity.
How deeply did these two sets of bleed for their teams?
Until Walter O’Malley and Horace Stoneham, the two team owners turned carpet baggers, New York was the only three-team city in the majors, After all, and in victories it was dominated by the Yankees who were both professional and automatic.
But the Giants and the Dodgers lived in another world…a world dominated by fist fight and firecrackers. Bean balls and passion. The Dodger Faithful lived through the day Bobby Thomson broke every heart in Brooklyn when he hit THE home Run that culminated a record 13 1-2 game comeback. The Giants Faithful never forgot the day in 1934 when Bill terry, the Giants’’ manager arrogantly asked ``is Brooklyn ( the Dodgers were lousy) still in the league and on the final day of the season beat the Giants, cost them the pennant and showed up at the park with signs that read:
``Hey, Terry. Were still here.’’
But now it was 1957 and nobody was left ``here’’. The names of my youth and early newspaper years still lived within in me:
The Giants—Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, Willie Mays, Bobby Thomson, Monte Irvin, Dusty Rhodes.
The Dodgers: Whitlow Wyatt, Dolph Camilli, Jackie Robinson, Peewee Reese, Roy Campanella, Johnny Podres, Duke Snider.
Does anyone remember? Does anyone care since the Mets moved in?
This is how I found out.
It was 1967. The Giants and the Dodgers had been gone for a decade. The kid pitcher who couldn’t find home plate at Ebbets Field overnight had become the L.A superstar Sandy Koufax. Ebbets Field was gone. The Polo Grounds survive because the Mets, the Titans, the Jets all played there waiting for Shea Stadium to be built.
As it waited for the wrecking ball, it became a dump with leaky toilets and city-fed rodents. It was there I met 23-year old Adolphus Freeman. He was raised him the Bronx but his waking hours were then spent in a dying edifice bounded by Eighth Avenue from 155th Street to 157th.
From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. he was the day watchman, the only authorized human inside the Polo Grounds.
Sometimes when the sight of all that garbage and the sound of all that silence would become too much, he would leave his little cubicle next to the freight elevator, he would climb to the upper deck just above the spot where Dusty Rhodes’ heroic World Series homer had landed in 1954 and stand there looking down at the scarred earth and cats slithering in and out of the broken seats and then lift his eyes to the pigeons above.
"I’d try to remember the thing I saw there when I was a 14 and the PAL took us to see the Giants play the Dodgers. That was three years’ before they left. I had a hot dog in my hand and somebody hit a home run and it was coming right at me. I thought I could catch it and then show it off to everyone at school but it hit me in the mouth. I had a busted lip and no hot dog.
"Now I’m alone most of the time. The people who come here are the ones who really care. A guy came with a shovel and I let him take some Polo Grounds dirt away. Another guy came with his son and as they looked down the old man said `this is the way it was ‘’ but he was talking to himself because the kid didn’t understand. How could he? He never saw what his dad saw.
"It was like I was living with ghosts those two months. It got so I didn't want them to tear it down. On the last day I felt lousy. Then George Beatty, the night guy came to relieve me for the last time. I walked away on to 155th Street and then turned and looked back and I thought—and I guess it sounds stupid—I thought damn, why did they have to tear it down?’’
I’m 86 year old now but I remember the first time I saw the same Stadium. I was 10 and as we climbed the subway stairs toward daylight I saw it towering above the skyline. I thought it was a cathedral.
And I know that had I been there that day in 1967, just like Adolphus Freeman I would have said:
“Damn, why did they have to tear it down.”