Run through Prospect Park on a summer afternoon (and I mean the whole park) and you will see Brooklyn. It’s like running through a demographic pie chart of the city with people from every walk of life having picnics, cookouts, music sessions, and of course, playing at least a half a dozen games. Half a century ago and a couple blocks east, a similar throng flocked to a much smaller park to watch one game, baseball.
You can go there today, making the noble pilgrimage to the site where The Brooklyn Dodgers or “Dem Bums” took the field for 43 years. Even before arriving at the basketball courts of P.S. 375 Jackie Robinson School just across the street you will see the monolithic towers creeping up the horizon to meet you. The 22-story Ebbets Field Houses pierce the sky as if defying the hollow amphitheater of sport that once stood, where names like Furillo, Reese, Newcombe, Hodges, Campanella, Snider “the Duke of Flatbush,” Robinson, and Koufax spent their summers. They were giants of their game. Yet, there is a sad irony in seeing a place that broke the baseball color line with Jackie Robinson in 1947 (8 years before the Civil Rights Movement) give way to a Moses-era housing project where social and racial inequality could not be more evident.
Baseball, despite its pastoral look, grew up in the streets of young American cities. Brooklyn was one of the earliest places that this new game called Town Ball, Goal Ball, Round Ball, Fletch Catch, Stool Ball, and even Base was played. Before the Dodgers it was the Atlantics, Bridegroom, Grays, Grooms, Superbas, and Trolley Dodgers. You can even see the ruins of Washington Park on 3rd avenue between 1st and 3rd streets in Gowanus where the team played from 1898 until 1912. Today the two oldest ballparks in the country are Fenway Park in Boston (1912) and Wrigley Field in Chicago (1914), beautiful old Jewel Box stadiums that embody some of our fondest moments with the sport. Coincidentally, the next oldest ballpark is Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, built in 1962.
The walls below in Gowanus, though previously thought to be from Washington Park, where the Dodgers played before moving to Ebbets Field in 1913, is actually from the park built for the Brooklyn Tip-Tops in 1914. A commenter below notes that the Tip-Tops were “a short-lived Federal League team named by the owner after a popular brand of bread.”
What was lost in Brooklyn when the Dodgers left was more than a franchise, a tradition, a team, or a player. It was something that belonged to a community–the whole community. Yankee Stadium is no longer the house that Ruth built. Most fans go to the Bronx just for the games. Citi Field sits in the middle of a sea of parking in Flushing Meadows. But Ebbets Field was knit into the fabric of Brooklyn. Heroes of the game seem to grow larger with time as we remember the best of them. Their memories become legend. The old American ballpark, the hallowed grounds where these legends walked, evokes that same nostalgia.
Next, read about Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn as seen in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary.