Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Long gone, Ebbets Field continues to live on in lore

Ebbets Field is set to spring back to life in the upcoming
Jackie Robinson biopic "42." (Warner Bros. Pictures)
NEW YORK -- Ron Schweiger, the official historian of Brooklyn with a rabbinical demeanor, had never met Bob McGee when a reporter called to invite them both to lunch.

Schweiger and McGee are both Brooklynites. Schweiger never left, but McGee, an urbane spokesman for a local utility company who recites poetry at the table then apologizes for doing so, lives in suburban Westchester County and works in Manhattan.

They were already kindred spirits, through a mutual childhood love and their time at Brooklyn College. Once a newspaper man, McGee moonlights as an author. He wrote a canonical history of Ebbets Field, the ballpark of his childhood, and the work cites Schweiger. Still, they remained strangers until March. In near caricature, Schweiger chose a diner along Flatbush Avenue for gab.

"April 12, it comes out," said Schweiger, who has pristine replicas of the original blueprints of Ebbets Field in his memorabilia-filled home. "The coming attractions, I can't believe -- did you see?"

"They make Ebbets Field look like Ebbets Field," McGee said. "I don't know how they did it. It must have been computer-generated. It had to be, how did they do it?"

"I mean, when I saw this, when the actor who's playing Jackie," Schweiger went on, "he's walking up the ramp, and he gets to the top -- there's Ebbets Field. There's the inside of the ballpark.'"

"That's the way Ebbets field looked," McGee said. "Exactly the same."

They're talking about "42," the Jackie Robinson biopic that opens in theaters on Friday. Most anyone for whom Ebbets Field was a cathedral will have similar feelings -- deity of talk Larry King, for one. The stadium in the movie was indeed computer-generated, using a stadium in Chattanooga, Tenn., as the backdrop.

"I was at [Jackie] Robinson's first game," King said. "So when they showed that scene of that Opening Day, I was up in the bleachers for 50 cents. And I lived at Ebbets Field in my childhood."

Hosting a show on Ora TV now after leaving CNN, King sat in Sandy Koufax's suite at Dodger Stadium on Opening Day last week. Famously, King and Koufax went to the same high school in Brooklyn, as did Mets owner Fred Wilpon. Fifty-one years after the opening of Dodger Stadium, King and Koufax engaged in a similar diner prattle of nostalgia. Their conversations, without fail, always settle on home.

"Always," King said. "Back toward Brooklyn, back toward growing up. Back toward what was."

One hundred years ago Tuesday, Ebbets Field hosted its first regular-season baseball game. Philadelphia downed the Brooklyn team, then better known as the "Superbas," 1-0, in front of a crowd of about 10,000.

The glory of the 1940s and '50s was still a long ways away. Cartoonist Willard Mullin didn't create the famous Brooklyn Bum cartoon character, the unofficial avatar of a self-contained city, until 1937.

Had Ebbets Field somehow stood, its centennial would have been sandwiched between Fenway Park's in 2012 and Wrigley Field's in 2014.

It's not without irony that Dodger Stadium, a magnificent park in its own right, received a $100 million facelift this winter.

"This is the second chance that Ebbets Field never had," said Mark Langill, the Dodgers' official historian. "Normally, you would not have a facility this old undergo a renovation."

More than most years, reminders of Ebbets can be found all around of late: The movie, for one. In addition, Citi Field, Wilpon's jewel and the home of the Mets, was created in Ebbets' likeness. It's a fine coincidence that the All-Star Game will be hosted there in the year of the centennial.

And just a few months ago, in December, a flagpole from Ebbets was positioned in front of the Nets' new arena, Barclays Center. Barclays Center was built exactly on the site that Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers owner who moved the team to Los Angeles in 1958, sought for a new ballpark in Brooklyn.

* * * * *

"My first memory of Ebbets Field was in high school," said Koufax, who debuted in 1955, giving him three years at Ebbets. "They used to take us to one game a year, it would start at 11 in the morning. You'd see the game, then get on the subway and go home. Of course, I grew up in Brooklyn, so it was special for me to play in the stadium where I watched [Gil] Hodges and [Duke] Snider and Jackie and Pee Wee [Reese] and Newk [Don Newcombe]. Those were guys I saw playing when I was a kid."

Ebbets cost $750,000 to construct, and the lots it was built on were bought up in secret by Charles Ebbets, the team's owner, to keep prices down. Architect Clarence Van Buskirk designed the park, the blueprints of which are now stored in New York City's municipal archives in Manhattan.

There was quite a to-do regarding those blueprints just last year. A Brooklyn man took it upon himself to find them in 1992. The blueprints went on display with Schweiger's help in 2012, and city lawyers immediately came calling for them. Those same blueprints helped in the re-creation of Ebbets in "42."

In its later years, the ballpark's capacity sat in the low-30,000 range. The Italian-marble-adorned rotunda at the home-plate entrance was its hallmark. A 56-foot-wide entrance led to more than a dozen ticket windows.

The 20-foot-high wall in right field was bent, creating oddities in play. At first pitcher friendly, Ebbets became a bandbox with time and changing dimensions. The right-field line was always about 300 feet from home plate, and foul territory was long a pipe dream.

"I had my best days at Ebbets Field, even though it was not a pitcher's park, but in a sense it was for the Dodgers' pitchers," said Carl Erskine, who threw two no-hitters at Ebbets Field, one in 1952, the other in '56. "It was a nightmare for a visiting pitcher sometimes."

The stadium was built without a press box. Television has enriched everything about sports, it all began in Flatbush. There was a Dodgers football team, too, and it played the Eagles in the first televised pro football game in 1939. That was a couple of months after the Dodgers and Reds played the first televised baseball game, also at Ebbets.

Fenway and Wrigley aren't Ebbets' only contemporaries. There was Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Crosley Field in Cincinnati and Tiger Stadium, originally called Navin Field, in Detroit.

But it seems that Ebbets Field has taken on an afterlife that no other park has, and few teams embrace a team's history from a prior city the way the Dodgers of Los Angeles do.

"It's because of the brand of the Dodgers," Dodgers president Stan Kasten said. "It's Jackie Robinson, it's Branch Rickey, it's Vin Scully, it's Sandy Koufax, it's [Tommy] Lasorda, all of whom who go back to Brooklyn and Ebbets Field. You can't name people like that for any place else other than Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. And Yankee Stadium has been rebuilt, but they took pains to make it feel like the old Yankee Stadium."

The transforming Brooklyn neighborhood, the players, Robinson's role in breaking the color barrier, the rivalries with the Giants and Yankees -- all are inexorably linked to the stadium's lore. All, too, have been chronicled in great length.

The Polo Grounds, the home of the Giants before they moved to San Francisco, could be funereal, although the franchise was quite successful. Yankee Stadium was stuffy.

"At Ebbets Field, you were aware," said Scully, the legendary broadcaster who has been calling Dodgers games since 1950. "Because every day you'd see the same people in the box seats. They'd wave up, they'd say hello. Hilda Chester, who once hollered at me that she loved me, which embarrassed me and I lowered my head, and she said, 'Look at me when I'm talking to you.' So that's as intimate as Ebbets Field was. You'd never get anything like that [elsewhere]."'

"When you played the Giants at Ebbets Field, this was your manhood on the line," Erskine said. "Against the Giants? I mean, come on. We faced them 22 times a year in those days; it was all in New York, so the rivalry was tremendous."
* * * * *

Then, just like that, the rivalries and two of New York's three teams were transplanted. Blame O'Malley for not selling the team, blame New York urban planner Robert Moses for not permitting O'Malley to develop the Brooklyn site he wanted. To this day, there is no universal consensus that Moses deserves most of the blame for the Dodgers' departure, but that seems to be the most popular opinion.

"Everything had to go just so," said Langill. "And this is in like a 12-to-15-month span, when suddenly they go from being in the World Series against the Yankees, taking it to Game 7, to suddenly 51 weeks later announcing that they're moving. For somebody that since 1946 wanted to make it work on the East Coast, I think [O'Malley] did make a good-faith effort for 10 years."

McGee acknowledges that it may be difficult for him to view the move through the prism of any perspective but that of a New Yorker, but he's also done extensive research on the move. He disagrees.

"The revisionists who would seek to blame Robert Moses and ignore O'Malley's opportunism gloss over the fact that [Phillies owner Bob] Carpenter in Philadelphia began advancing the argument for a new stadium in Philadelphia in 1953, around the same time O'Malley ramped up his efforts in earnest for one in Brooklyn, and Mr. Carpenter waited until 1970 for a civic solution to evolve in Philadelphia called Veterans Stadium," McGee said. "O'Malley was playing New York off against a best offer. Those who say O'Malley did all he could to keep the team in Brooklyn conveniently overlook one fact, one thing that he never did: He never offered the team for sale."

In the context of today, two questions concerning Ebbets Field stand out. Why were Fenway and Wrigley able to survive while Ebbets did not? And could Ebbets Field have still been serviceable? The Red Sox and Cubs, after all, have dealt with the same issues regarding parking and public transportation that became the crux of the Dodgers' departure.

More than once, Fenway almost fell. Before the current ownership took over not much more than a decade ago, there was talk of a new park. But even before that, in the 1960s, Tom Yawkey was unhappy with the Fens.

"Going back to the '60s when the Red Sox were really doing poorly and all these new ballparks were being built around baseball, Tom Yawkey was very discouraged for a couple of reasons," Red Sox team historian Dick Bresciani said. "He was trying to rebuild a team, but he thought that he wasn't getting proper support from the state, because they had put in the Massachusetts Turnpike about 10 years previously, and he wanted an exit [directly to Fenway]. He was quoted a couple of times in the paper, maybe he might have to leave Boston, because he couldn't keep competing with teams that were increasing their seating up into the 60,000s and we were only 33,000-something total at that time.

"What changed all of his thinking was the miracle pennant of '67. And the fact that the attendance jumped tremendously."

The Red Sox were helped, too, by the fact that the Braves had left Boston in 1953, five years before the Dodgers went to Los Angeles. Leaving Boston without a Major League franchise would not have been viable.

"That really was sort of the test balloon for those owners to say, 'Hey, they went from struggling in Boston to successful in Milwaukee,'" Langill said. "The St. Louis Browns go to Baltimore, and pretty soon the Athletics are looking to leave Philadelphia, but that's all because of the Braves."

Winning wasn't a problem for the Dodgers at the time of their move. One of the reasons they live on in myth is because they were torn out of the borough at the height of their success.

But naturally, a winning team -- a team that should draw immediately -- is most appealing to cities with Major League aspirations. Winning crystallized the memory of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and it helped hurry them away.

"The key difference is that the Dodgers were a successful club on the field and at the box office, while the Red Sox and Cubs were not," MLB's official historian John Thorn said. "The limited capacity and access of both Fenway and Wrigley cannot be said to have had much of a bottom-line impact, for decades at a time. Once the woeful Boston Braves franchise saw their attendance multiply six, seven times in Milwaukee, all club owners paid attention."

As for the issues of traffic and public transportation -- that might be where the tragedy of Ebbets is most clear.

Ebbets' spirit and essence can be seen everywhere today, in all the recently-built city-center stadiums tucked into cozy harbors or neighborhoods, from Baltimore to San Diego. Ebbets, like Fenway and Wrigley, is a model that teams have returned to. If the park could have held on until, say, 1990 ...

"These older ballparks [were] not forced by a multitude of code and marketing initiatives that spread us all out and put in cross aisles for vendors and separated every seat category," said Janet Marie Smith, a lead figure in the construction of Camden Yards in Baltimore, as well as the revitalization of Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium. "And inches which turn into feet which turn into complete other levels, [and] reduces the intimacy. And at the end of the day, it is the intimacy that really adds energy to the parks in a way that you almost never find in the new parks, because they're simply more spread out."

In terms of its own construction and the infrastructure, Ebbets physically should have been able to make it as well, given the types of renovations going on at Fenway and Wrigley -- wranglings of ownership aside.

"I can only speculate based on what I know from photographs and ratings, but it seems to me that it didn't have any challenges that were any more severe than Wrigley or Fenway," Smith said. "And I think in many respects, one of the most frustrating things about Ebbets for the Dodgers was their belief that the forms of transportation in America were changing so rapidly. The inability to come to Ebbets Field via car was as much as what drove their decision to move as anything else."

* * * * *

Schweiger and McGee took a trip to the site of Ebbets after lunch, where apartment towers now stand. Schweiger pantomimed catching a fly ball beyond the right-field fence, where a small parking lot currently sits. The ironic placards of "No Ball Playing" in the courtyard are well known, and a large sign that says "Ebbets Field Apartments" hints at what used to be -- but that's all.

The neighborhood has radically changed. A shift was under way even when the Dodgers were leaving, courtesy of World War II's conclusion and the Moses-supported growth of the suburbs. Maybe if the team had stayed, the neighborhood could have been built around it. Maybe. But who would have played there? The Mets?

Keeping the Dodgers in Brooklyn, after all, would have meant a new ballpark either way, barring O'Malley selling.

"I don't picture it today, it belongs to the era it was in," Erskine said. "It would be out of place today."

Scully, whose word on the Dodgers should always be final, harkened back to another palace of his childhood.

"Nothing is forever," Scully said. "I was pretty much raised in Washington Heights [in Manhattan]. And I lived on about 180th Street and Cabrini Boulevard. Well, about five or six blocks from where I lived, believe it or not, there was a magnificent castle. It was a castle made of pure white Carrara marble. And it was built and owned by a gentleman who was a doctor. His name was Paterno. Now this castle today would look like something out of Disneyland. And there was a big, iron, grated fence around the property, and as little kids, we'd go up there to just look at it from afar. And they had some Doberman Pinschers, I think they were patrolling the grounds. So you'd have one kid go far up the line and rattle the fence, and the dog would go up there, and then we could kind of look in and see. Among other things, I remember vividly seeing a suit of armor in the entry and I could see a polar bear rug on the floor.

"And this is in New York, in Washington Heights, the most unbelievable thing you ever saw! Dr. Paterno passed on. I believe he had one or two sisters, and they did not want the castle, so they sold it to some big real estate company. And if you went up to that neighborhood, up past 181st Street, on Cabrini Boulevard, you'd see -- and I'm trying to count in my memory -- but there's probably five or six multistory apartment houses looking out. But the name of that whole complex is Castle Village.

"I'm not sure how many people who live there know that there was actually the most magnificent castle you ever saw. But my point was there wasn't any time or any reason for the castle to remain in this modern day. And there really wasn't any time for Ebbets Field to remain once everybody left."
Evan Drellich is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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