By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A century after its construction and over five decades since its demise, Ebbets Field endures as one of the most beloved ballparks in the history of America. Brooklynites in particular harbor fond and vivid memories of the baseball park, which arose in Flatbush in 1913. One former Brooklynite, Bob McGee – a historian who spent his formative years in the borough and still lives nearby – has expertly recreated the ballpark’s animated history in his book “The Greatest Ballpark Ever: Ebbets Field and the Story of the Brooklyn Dodgers.”
In celebration of Ebbets Field’s 100 year anniversary, McGee will give a lecture on June 19 titled “Ebbets Field at 100: Still Resonating in the American Imagination.” The discussion, which will take place at New York School of Interior Design (170 East 70th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues), is part of the school’s 2013 summer lecture series. McGee will unpack the history chronicled in his book, which includes original interviews and letters, as well as published archival sources.
In “The Greatest Ballpark Ever,” McGee comprehensively explores Charley Ebbets’ convoluted path to building the ballpark, investigating with humor the politics and characters that intersected and influenced the great project.His book offers many lesser known details, including architectural quirks and flaws and the 15-year existence of a professional football team also called the Brooklyn Dodgers playing their home games at Ebbets. Mostly, McGee paints a larger picture for his readers, revealing how Brooklyn and the Dodgers came to complement and characterize each other.
With enlightening and poignant descriptions, McGee enlivens a slice of history that continues to echo in the hearts and minds of many Brooklynites. In anticipation of his upcoming lecture, Brooklyn Eagle spoke to the author, who shares with us his early memories of the Dodgers in Brooklyn and his take on the movie “42.”
Where in Brooklyn did you grow up (and for how long did you live in the borough)?
I grew up in Bay Ridge: Pee Wee Reese lived on the block; Duke Snider lived a block away, and Carl Erskine, all of them great Dodgers, lived three blocks away. I went to St. Patrick’s and St. Anselm’s, and later Brooklyn Tech and Brooklyn College. I escaped to Maine after working in the city for a year and then traipsing through Europe, but lived afterwards in the Heights, where Clark Gesner, Norman Rosten, and Bill Birenbaum were good friends.
Later, I split time between San Francisco and New York, spending most of it out West. And while I also lived for short windows in both the Midwest and D.C., and now spend much of my time north of the city, the McGees have always had a home in Brooklyn. At end of the day, I won’t be too far from where Charley Ebbets is resting in Green-Wood.
The Dodgers' move to Los Angeles broke the hearts of millions. Do you have any recollections of older family members or friends who were among the brokenhearted?
Not family members, since my parents didn’t really have a rooting interest, even though my Dad was twice mistaken for the Duke in the local Key Food. But among close family friends, and as I came to know those that revered baseball, yes. I was young enough to have cartoon heroes when the Dodgers were here, but by the time I’d reached the age of reason – or at least an age when you’re old enough to really follow baseball – the Dodgers were already gone. The sense of loss, though, was something that you could feel; it was palpable. It sounds ridiculous, but it made it possible to be nostalgic for something by the age of eight, especially as my love for baseball grew, and my emerging knowledge led me to consider the Brooklyn Dodgers’ history as part of a collective birthright in the borough’s heritage.
Some Brooklynites continued to root for the Dodgers in Los Angeles -- did you grow up with that sentiment?
Sorry, but for someone who comes from where I’m coming from, the notion of the Los Angeles Dodgers was, is, and will always remain anathema. MLB now refers to the Angels as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; the Dodgers, on the other hand as far as I’m concerned, will always be the Brooklyn Dodgers of Los Angeles.
Do you think the ballpark should have been preserved despite the Dodgers’ move?
It’s economically unfeasible and ultimately unsustainable to maintain a full-sized, unused ballpark as a museum piece unless there’s an economic formula to keep it going in some other way; but it is possible to retain parts, and architectural elements, of any meaningful structure in a creative re-use that both honors the past while celebrating the future’s possibilities and horizons.
It would have been nice if Ebbets Field lasted longer, inasmuch as it would have been an option for the Mets in ’62, who wound up playing in the Polo Grounds for a couple of years. It was sold to Marvin Kratter, though, in ’56 with housing in mind, so that’s what it was going to become. At that time, though, our society wasn’t yet attuned to the notion of saving things; within three years of Ebbets Field’s demolition in ‘60, Pennsylvania Station was torn down without a vestige of remains. We’ve gotten a lot better about preserving what’s a part of us, but not enough.
Did you see the movie "42"? Did you think the filmmakers successfully recreated the ballpark?
I think Brian Helgeland did a remarkable job with the script and the film, keeping it both true to history and moving in the telling; the character development of Rickey, Clyde Sukeforth, Harold Parrott, Jackie and Rachel were terrific, and I thought Harrison Ford, Toby Huss, T. R. Knight, Chadwick Boseman and Nicole Beharie were fabulous playing each of them; she’s a doll. And Chris Meloni was a great Durocher; the middle-of-the-night rousting of the team to stuff the petition was perfectly calibrated, I thought, and played onscreen the way I’ve always envisioned it occurring.
The depiction of the old ballparks was the best that’s ever been done, and the attention to detail with little things, like the depiction of the Mechanic’s Bank Building in the Heights, the old 215 Montague Street, with the old elevated running outside in front of Borough Hall just put me there, back in the mid-40’s, as if I was living it.
What were the most surprising things you discovered while researching your book?
I discovered how well an older generation of Americans could write. I had an author’s query in the New York Times Book Review back in ’94, when they were still running them, and I received letters from all over the country, with reminiscences going back to the ‘30s, and in some instances, the ‘20s. I still have them all. Once in a while some folks got their years mixed up; there were some players who weren’t playing for the team in the years that they were recounting, for example, but their neighborhood memories and the thrust of their recollections along with their descriptive memories of the ballpark were a treasure. They add much to the story, for Ebbets Field very much became Brooklyn, and Brooklyn became Ebbets Field in return; the people defined the place, and the place defined the people.
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Bob McGee is the author of “The Greatest Ballpark Ever: Ebbets Field and the Story of the Brooklyn Dodgers.” McGee also is the co-author, with Henry Hope Reed and Esther Mipass, of the 1990 Greensward publication, “Bridges of Central Park.” His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Oakland Tribune, and several magazines.
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The June 19 event will begin with a reception at 6 p.m., followed by the lecture at 6:30. The New York School of Interior Design is located at 170 East 70th Street (between Lexington and Third Avenues) in Manhattan. The event is free and open to the public, but reservations are recommended: call (212) 730-9646, ext. 109, or reserve online at http://classicist.org/programs/lectures-tours-events/