It was a mysterious photograph, shot at about a 60-degree angle from the ground up, of an old, bishop’s crook New York lamppost. Its decorative flourishes ended in a large glass globe, which poured forth a soft yellow glow rather than today’s harsh, blue-white fluorescence. It looked to be an overcast day, but the framed image might have lied, considering it was from an unidentified newspaper roughly three decades old. In the background was a wooden wall that seemed to be about ten feet high, the kind that typically surrounds construction sites. On it were posters: “Kennedy for President.” The street signs off the stanchion? Bedford Avenue. Montgomery Street.
Ebbets Field. Or what was left of it by 1960. A wooden fence with posters fronted by a streetlight that soared above it, surrounded by sky. The picture was on a wall in a pizza joint in San Francisco, memorializing a place three thousand miles away, speaking silently of a transition into a new age. For all photograph’s simplicity, the stark image was likely to generate only a casual glance and scant recognition from the scores of eyes passing over it. A handful of people, at best, might get the message. Yet for those who knew, the cognition was kinetic, almost as if the wrecking ball itself had burst from the slumber of history to land once again at your feet.
Between 1913, when ball club owner Charles H. Ebbets opened the place, and 1957, the Brooklyn Dodgers, also known early on as the Superbas and then the Robins, played baseball at Ebbets Field, a few blocks east of Flatbush Avenue and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. The pantheon of characters that populated Ebbets Field’s acres during those years have paraded across the pages of American literature-not just sports literature, mind you-creating a mythic and heroic aura surrounding two things Brooklyn: the team and the field upon which they played.
Ebbets Field alive teemed with people, the colors of an artist’s palette arrayed around its outfield walls, a bustling Brooklyn neighborhood right over the top of its right-field fence on Bedford Avenue, where a cascading home run ball would occasionally stop traffic while children scrambled in its wake. It was a ballpark established with knit-together parcels, purchased surreptitiously by intermediaries with no awareness of their intended end-use, if only because such information could provide those yet to sell with the leverage of naming their price. In the final analysis, what developed connected the surrounding neighborhood to the ballpark and its team with an intensity and passion for baseball not known before or since. After two pennant-winning Brooklyn teams played on the ballpark’s grounds during Ebbets Field’s first eight years, the ball club settled into a close to two-decade pattern of complacent if not downright abysmal play, with only a couple of years providing exceptions. But on Saturdays and holidays-and Sundays after the blue laws were repealed in 1919-the legions came, often jamming the stands, with overflow fans standing behind the ropes in the outfield during an era when baseball allowed that practice.
In the decades since Ebbets Field was wiped from the American scene, it has been a name uttered at various junctures when plans for and construction efforts on new stadiums proceed, but not because anyone would ever want to build a ballpark the same way. Too many things were wrong with Ebbets Field to make it a paradigm. Yet the aspiring successors present themselves, whether in Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, or in Houston or Arlington, Texas, with St. Louis and others to come. Their objective is always the same. They seek to grasp the intimacy that somehow both emits and captures a rollicking, signature sense of pride, reinforcing a wonderful sense of place.
Excerpt taken from The Greatest Ballpark Ever by Bob McGee Copyright © 2005 by Bob McGee. Excerpted by permission of the Rutgers University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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