By Tommy Coca Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Stadium Was Inaugurated 99 Years Ago This Month
BROOKLYN — A random walk took me to the construction site of the new Barclays Center, the future home of the Brooklyn Nets. In the 1950s, this was the location Walter O’Malley wanted for a new stadium for the Brooklyn Dodgers –— a team 55 years in the past, but one that lives forever in the hearts of older fans.
Once upon a time there was a ball club known as the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose players performed their magic in a park called Ebbets Field. The Brooklyn Dodgers are now the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Ebbets Field has been replaced by the Jackie Robinson apartment complex. A significant part of Brooklyn life is gone forever, but the memories remain for those fortunate enough to have been there.
The ballpark was built through the endeavors of Charles Hercules Ebbets, one of the first owners of the Dodgers and a staunch Brooklynite. Dedication ceremonies were conducted on April 5, 1913, and the first baseball game on April 12 pitted the Superbas (as the Dodgers were then known) against the Highlanders (as the New York Yankees were then known), resulting in a 6-5 victory for the latter.
In the ensuing years, the citizens of Brooklyn were treated to the exploits of Casey Stengel, Dixie Walker, Leo Durocher, Gil Hodges, Roy Campenella, Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider, to name just a few. During an exhibition game in 1947, baseball history was made when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American major-league baseball player of the modern era.
Baseball wasn’t the only event that took place in Ebbets Field. Football and boxing matches took place there, and after the Dodgers left in 1957, professional soccer matches were conducted in the aging venue. Civic affairs were also carried out in the Brooklyn stadium. Gas ration coupons were distributed, and a War Bonds rally occurred there during World War II. On May 1, 1952, a service commemorating the fourth anniversary of the State of Israel was performed, and in 1954, 6,500 immigrants were sworn in as U.S. citizens.
Hit the Sign — Win a Suit
Abe Stark (who later became borough president) owned a clothing store on Pitkin Avenue and he came up with a promotional gimmick to plug his business. To reward long-ball hitters he had a billboard placed on the right-field wall proclaiming, “Hit the sign — Win a suit.” One day when the Pittsburgh Pirates were the visiting team, one of their players hit a drive over the Dodger second baseman’s head that took a tricky bounce, hopped over right fielder Carl Furrillo and gently skipped to the wall hitting the sign. A reporter called Stark the next day and asked if that counted. Stark thought for a moment and said, “Tell him to come in to the store tomorrow. ... I’ll give him a pair of slacks.”
In 1955 the Dodgers finally went all the way and won the World Series. Aside from this illustrious feat, perhaps the most memorable night in the annals of Ebbets Field was Music Depreciation Night of August 13, 1951. There were six musically inclined fans known as the Dodger Sym-Phony who would march around the stadium playing triumphant fanfares when the home team performed well, pepper the visitors with suitable tunes, and play “Three Blind Mice” when the umpires blew a call. It added an enjoyable facet to the game and complemented the congenial atmosphere of the small ballpark.
The musicians’ union, realizing that these fans were performing without pay, made an attempt to have the Sym-Phony replaced with union musicians. Walter O’Malley was annoyed with this interference into his affairs and came up with the idea of Music Depreciation Night, whereby every fan who showed up at the ballpark with a musical instrument was granted free admission to the game against the Boston Braves. More than 2,000 fans showed up that night with every type of musical instrument imaginable.
In attendance that evening were Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Mayor Vincent Impellitteri and all of the five borough presidents. Also present were the Dodgers’ regular organist, Gladys Gooding, and their most devoted fan, Hilda Chester, with her ever-present cowbells. The Dodgers and Braves bravely struggled through the dissonance, with the home team scoring a 7-6 victory.
The good times abounded at the tiny ballpark, but its size eventually caused its demise. Ebbets had predicted that the diminutive nature of the park would ultimately doom it, and 44 years later O’Malley made his prediction a reality. It is sad that the city could not find a new home for the Dodgers, since the people of Brooklyn backed them with all their hearts. Considering that Ebbets Field was the smallest National League ballpark, seating only 32,111, it was a pronounced affirmation of support when the Dodgers broke the National League attendance record in 1946 with more than 1,250,000 fans. Only the Yankees, with a stadium capacity of over 70,000, topped this mark.
The Dodgers and Ebbets Field may be gone, but in Brooklyn and Staten Island we can now enjoy minor-league baseball at our two new stadiums in Coney Island and St. George. These are and friendly places to see a ballgame, similar to the stadium we lost when the Dodgers left us more than 50 years ago.