Ebbets Field

Ebbets Field, one of the finest baseball
parks in the country, stands as a lasting
tribute to the national game in this borough.

-- Brooklyn Eagle, October 26, 1916

All kinds of hoopla had surrounded the move of his Brooklyn club to a new Washington Park in 1898, but as early as 1908 Charles Ebbets was dissatisfied with the place. It could no longer hold large enough crowds, even after a substantial renovation, and was aging fast.

Ebbets looked around for alternative sites, and began in September 1908 to buy up lots in Pigtown, a small slum area on the border between Flatbush and Crown Heights, as quietly as possible. Soon he had accumulated all of the block bounded by Bedford Avenue, Sullivan Place, Cedar Place (now McKeever Place), and Montgomery Street, apart from one small lot. Ebbets could not trace the owner, but after a search throughout America and Europe he was eventually found in New Jersey, and in December, 1911 the final purchase was completed.

Architect Clarence Randall Van Buskirk (a distant cousin of BrooklynBallPark.com's own Andrew Ross) had masterminded alterations to Washington Park in 1908, and Ebbets went back to him, asking for a monument to the game of baseball. Van Buskirk produced a breathtaking design, grand in scale and rich in fine details. The stadium was built by Castle Brothers, at a cost of $750,000. In order to finance construction, Ebbets sold half the team to the McKeever Brothers, Steve and Ed.

Ground was broken at the site on March 4, 1912, with more than 500 people present to hear a speech from Borough President Alfred Steers, who recalled his youth, peeking through the knotholes to watch the Atlantic-Red Stocking game of 1870 at the Capitoline Grounds. Charles Ebbets then unveiled a solid silver spade, a gift from the Castle Brothers, and ceremonially turned the first sod before leaving the business to the hired workers, "a party of citizens from Italy with regular picks and shovels."

Initial Ebbets Field plans, as published in the Eagle, and the design for the
chandelier in the rotunda. Note the center field bleachers, which were not built.
There were bleachers on the left field foul line from 1913 through 1930, however.

Ebbets' original intention was to have the team move during 1912, preferably for a grand opening on Flag Day, but such a mighty project was not amenable to a rush job. All kinds of unanticipated delays, including a refusal by the contractors to force horses to bring such an amount of heavy material to the site in sweltering summer temperatures, eventually led to the stadium being ready in time for the 1913 season.

The original Ebbets Field stands contained 1,700 tons of steel and had room for 25,000 people. The left field foul line measured 401 feet, while right field was just 298 feet, culminating in an advertisement for Bull Durham tobacco at the corner, with a prize offered for any batter who could hit the sign. A similar sign in later years would become very famous indeed.

The first game, and a view of the upper deck

The first game was a tense and dramatic exhibition against the Yankees on April 3, which the Robins won 3 to 2. Jake Daubert and Casey Stengel hit home runs, and Red Smith batted Zach Wheat home for the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. Beginning on April 9, Brooklyn officially started life at Ebbets field with some signs of the heartbreak to come: three 1-0 losses to Philadelphia, and a 2-1 loss to the same team, before finally winning 5-3 over the Giants on April 26.

Fans admired the beautiful arches of the stadium's grandiose exterior, and the chandelier in the stylish rotunda that formed the entrance foyer, although perhaps for longer than they cared to, since smooth traffic flow was not a feature of the main entrance. The imposing concrete and steel structure, a stark contrast to the creaky wood of Washington Park, also drew rave reviews. Sports journalists were less pleased. The one element forgotten in the original design was somewhere to seat the press. A temporary press facility was created, but no permanent one was built until 1929.

The press room in 1941, fans wait before a 1920 World Series game

This was the first of a series of modifications to Ebbets Field. Originally the park had stands only along the first and third base lines, and bleachers on the left field foul line. Grandiose plans were drawn up by Steve McKeever in 1930 for additions that would increase capacity to 50,000, wiping out Montgomery Street in the process, but a lesser version of the expansion was put into effect in 1931. Left and center field stands were built by the William Kennedy Construction Company, increasing capacity to 32,000, and creating the Ebbets Field configuration that is commonly recognized from photographs of the Boys of Summer era, including the distinctive right field scoreboard. Smaller details were continually altered through the life of the stadium, with the field dimensions changing again in 1947 when 850 new box seats were installed. Lights for night baseball, the brainchild of Larry McPhail, were first used on June 15, 1938, an event celebrated by the visiting Reds as Johnny Vander Meer blanked the Dodgers in pitching his second consecutive no-hitter. The Reds also played the Dodgers in the first televised professional baseball game, in August 1939.

The 1931 renovation transformed Ebbets Field - the arrow shows the old limit of the grandstand

Before long, Ebbets Field achieved its own character and iconic status. The good times were very good- the Dodgers won nine National League pennants and the 1955 World Series while playing at Ebbets Field. The bad times, however, saw three Dodger runners meet at third base and other such disasters. While the team had many ups and downs, its home park remained an important Brooklyn landmark, and one that brought all the different communities of the borough together in what writer Pete Hammill has called "the rough democracy of the upper deck." Ebbets was home to such unique fans as the musicians of the Dodger Sym-phony and Hilda Chester the cowbell lady (although she was often seen at Dexter Park, too). Organist Gladys Gooding, also a legend at Madison Square Garden, would play Three Blind Mice for the umpires. It was not all fun and games, though. Following in the long tradition of Washington Park, abuse was regularly heaped upon opposing players, especially for the rival Giants, and 21 year old Frank Germano leapt onto the field after a loss to the Reds in 1940, and pummeled umpire George Magerkarth.

Frank Germano on the field, and Red Barber in the booth

From 1939 to 1953, the warm, southern tones of Red Barber brought games from Ebbets Field to life on radio and television. He brought many quirky phrases to the baseball lexicon, including "tearin' up the tea patch," "can of corn," and "tighter than a new pair of shoes on a rainy day." Barber's most famous Ebbets Field moment came at the end of game four of the 1947 World Series, with Yankee pitcher Bill Bevens one out from a no-hitter:

Wait a minute... Stanky is being called back from the plate and Lavagetto goes up to hit... The Yankees are ahead two to one. Gionfriddo, the pinch runner is at second, the tying run. Miksis, the winning run's at first base. Both men are on with walks, both are pinch runners. No hits by Bevens, eight and two thirds innings. Two outs, last of the ninth. The pitch to Lavagetto... swung on and missed. Fast ball, it was in there, strike one. Gionfriddo walks off second, Miksis off first, they're both ready to go on anything... Two men out, last of the ninth... the pitch... swung on, there's a drive hit out toward the right field corner. Henrich is going back. He can't get it! It's off the wall for a base hit! Here comes the tying run, and here comes the winning run! Fans, they're killing Lavagetto. His own teammates. They're beating him to pieces. And it's taking a police escort to get Lavagetto away from the Dodgers!

After a payment dispute with World Series broadcast sponsor Gillette in 1953, Barber left the team's broadcast duties in the even more capable care of his protege, Vin Scully. Scully called the 1953 World Series, and remained with the organization for its few remaining years in Brooklyn, ultimately moving to Los Angeles. In 2010, Vin Scully is still the voice of the Dodgers, and is regarded by many as the finest sportscaster of any era.

Hot dogs tasted just as good near the ritzy or plain sides of Ebbets Field

Ebbets Field was generally a hitter's park, but it was particularly deadly to opposing right fielders. One reason was left hander Duke Snider's ability to pull the ball. Another was the bizarre construction of the fence and scoreboard. In 1950, Pee Wee Reese legged out an inside the park home run while the ball bobbled around on a ledge on the right field wall. Dodger right fielder Carl Furillo once appeared in a photo essay in Collier's magazine demonstrating the 14 different ways the ball could bounce off the scoreboard.

Colorful Ebbets Field: the right field scoreboard, the grandiose entrance,
Norman Rockwell's painting Tough Call, for the Saturday Evening Post

After World War 2 the Schaefer Beer sign was added at the top of the scoreboard. An H would light up for a hit, an E for an error. At the bottom was an advertisement for Abe Stark's clothing store on Pitkin Avenue. In a gimmick widely imitated in ballparks to this day, it proclaimed "HIT SIGN, WIN SUIT." Players rarely did, but the feat was not unheard of, and the promise was always honored. Carl Furillo also received a free suit as thanks for this excellent work in right field having prevented so many players from hitting the sign. Abe Stark, his name having become legendary through the ad, went on to be elected Borough President.

Night baseball in 1939, and the 1955 World Series

Despite all this mythology, by 1956 the stadium was in poor repair and lacking sufficient parking spaces to cater for the many fans who had moved to the suburbs of Long Island. The days of Ebbets Field were numbered. Dodger owner Walter O'Malley, whose chance to control the club had been indirectly created many years before when Charles Ebbets made his sale to the McKeevers, wanted to move - to a far more transit accessible site at Atlantic and Flatbush, which is now the Atlantic Center shopping mall, or elsewhere completely. The fate of the park was sealed when the Dodgers finally announced that they would be heading west to Los Angeles, and taking the rival Giants to California with them. In their last game at Ebbets Field, on September 24, 1957, the Dodgers defeated Pittsburgh 2 to 0, with rookie pitcher Danny McDevitt going the distance and allowing just five hits.

In 1956, Life Magazine came to Ebbets Field and followed Charley Neal on the occasion
of his first game as a Dodger, from his arrival unrecognized by the fans, to making an
error at third and allowing a run to score. Neal did recover from this to become a valuable
part of the 1959 World Series winning Dodger team in Los Angeles.

Ebbets Field was not only home to the Dodgers. The Negro League Brooklyn Eagles played there in 1935, before being merged with the Newark club. The Bay Parkways semipro team played annual charity matches at Ebbets Field in the late 1930s. The Brooklyn Brown Dodgers called Ebbets Field home in 1945 and 1946. In the 1940s a series of amateur games, Brooklyn Against the World, were played between all star sandlot nines and equivalent squads from as far away as Montreal. High school sports finals, both football and baseball, were also often held at Ebbets Field, as well as occasional soccer matches.

Football at Ebbets Field:
Ace Parker in action as the Dodgers upset the Bears in 1940,
a ticket diagram showing the football configuration of the field,
and legendary Redskins player Sammy Baugh makes an open field tackle

Three extremely unsuccessful professional Brooklyn football franchises (Lions, Dodgers who became Tigers, and another Dodgers who merged with the Yankees) used the field during various autumns between 1926 and 1948, as did the minor league Brooklyn Eagles. Another minor league football team, the Brooklyn Brooks, called Ebbets Field home, but never got to play there- the club folded after four road games. The Long Island University football team also played at Ebbets Field in 1939 and 1940, compiling an 8-3 home record. This probably makes them the finest football team to call Ebbets Field home. High school football, mainly big rivalry games, were a regular feature until 1953, when the Dodgers pleaded that the rent could no longer cover the cost of damage to the field. Erasmus Hall and Manual Training High Schools met in 46 matches at Ebbets Field.

1957 - Duke Snider hits early in the season in front of a packed house,
and Don Drysdale pitches late in the season in front of almost no one
Photographs courtesy of John Thorn

The last regular baseball team to call Ebbets Field home was Long Island University, in 1959. The Dodgers still used the field on occasion for tryouts of local players, too. Roy Campanella's Brooklyn Stars, an exhibition squad of local black and hispanic players, also played several games there. On August 23, 1959, 4,000 fans saw the Kansas City Monarchs defeat the Brooklyn Stars 3 to 1, with home runs from Red Moore and Don Bonner. Then, in the second game of the double header, Monarch first baseman and manager Herm Green hit a home run off Satchel Paige of the Havana Cubans. Havana won, 6 to 4. Paige dressed in a Chicago White Sox uniform given to him by Bill Veeck. This was the last senior game of baseball played at Ebbets Field.

A 2009 article in the New York Post shows a photograph labelled September, 1959, of a junior championship game at Ebbets Field. In that game, 12 year old Michael Hirsch hit an inside the park home run over the left fielder's head. If the month is correct, that was likely the last home run at Ebbets and Van Buskirk's masterpiece, although no newspaper record of this match has yet been found.

Towards the end - late period Ebbets Field with too few parking spaces,
and Satchel Paige pitching in the very last senior game

Soccer continued at Ebbets Field through the end of September, 1959, then the stands lay empty in October as the Dodgers won their second World Series, in Los Angeles and Chicago. In January, 1960, control passed to the Kratter Corporation, a real estate developer, and the wrecking ball, painted to look like a baseball, began to demolish the stadium on February 23. Otto Miller, a veteran of the first game in 1913, was there, as were Roy Campanella, Ralph Branca, Tommy Holmes, and Carl Erskine. Years later, Branca would sum things up simply: It's just a bad, bad memory.

Ebbets Field from above
Drawing courtesy Jeff Suntala, from his Historic Ballparks series

Ebbets Field was replaced two years later by Ebbets Field Apartments, a monolithic, sad monument to the departed baseball palace. Only a small granite plaque, half hidden behind a hedge, commemorates the site. Jackie Robinson High School, next door, hosted the Brooklyn Dodger Hall of Fame until it moved to Keyspan Park in 2002. Not much of the park survives. The cornerstone, partly smashed in 1960 to retrieve the contents of a time capsule, is held by the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. 500 lights were moved to the stadium at Randall's Island, long since replaced. Many of the seats are owned by collectors and museums around the country - the going rate is well over $2,000.

Ebbets Field's outfield flagpole in 2012

A flagpole from the outfield was donated by the Kratter Corporation to a VFW Post on Utica Avenue in Flatlands. Later the same building housed the Canarsie Casket Company. The flagpole stood there until 2007, when a church was built on the site. It was purchased by Bruce Ratner, at the suggestion of Borough President Marty Markowitz, restored in 2012, and erected on a plaza in front of Ratner's recently opened Barclays Center - home of the NBA's newly relocated Brooklyn Nets - at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues.

1960 - the field is destroyed with little sentiment and no mercy
2010 - the remains of the cornerstone, at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown

The memory of Ebbets Field has found ironic new life in recent years as the poster child for baseball tradition. It is invariably cited by any club wishing to have its city pay for a new "retro" mallpark designed by the architects at HOK. The new Mets park, Citi Field, has an exterior wall which is a giant sized copy of the one at Ebbets Field, right down to the acute angle of Sullivan Street and McKeever Place. Throwback jerseys and caps are available from Ebbets Field Flannels. Books about the place have become an industry of their own. We'd rather have the real stadium and team back than all this posthumous worship, but we have to content ourselves with Keyspan Park.

Ebbets Field in 2006 and 2007

Thanks to Rich Calder of the New York Post for helping us untangle the reappearance of the Ebbets Field flagpole, solving a 5 year old mystery.

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