Old ballpark sites serve as stark reminders of change
Historic spots from Brooklyn to Seattle bear little resemblance to past glory
It's the first time the boy has seen his father close to tears.
They're driving on a January day down streets the boy isn't familiar with, slabs of potholed Brooklyn concrete done in by harsh winters and boiling summers. They're passing a corner that looks like every other corner around here: pedestrians in parkas mill about during their daily rounds in the shadow of apartment buildings that rise high into a gray sky. Each window is complemented by a worn-out air-conditioning unit.
"Here it is," the father says, pointing to a bleak monolith to the right.
"Here what is?" the son asks.
The father pauses for a moment, collecting himself. The 12-year-old son can see he's on the verge of ... something. Something emotional.
"Ebbets Field," he says, and now the son understands. The son's heard the stories.
"Ebbets Field used to be right here."
As the decades of baseball and technology and business and politics and economic realities steam ahead, we're left with many scenes like this. There's a palpable sadness at the sites of old ballparks. The years have rendered these plotted-out intersections where popcorn once popped and hot dogs once steamed as crowds bustled through the gates more or less forgotten to generations of would-be fans. But there will always be those who know exactly what happened at these select latitudinal and longitudinal meeting places. They can pass by with a smile or a tear from all the memories.
In Brooklyn, Ebbets Field is now Ebbets Field apartments, a 1,300-unit complex of brown brick high-rises. The plaque commemorating the old ballyard near Prospect Park that housed legends Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, a teenaged Sandy Koufax and a brass-cowbell-wielding fan named Hilda Chester is affixed to the brick outer wall under the address number by the entrance. Another building sign actually says, "No Ball Playing."
If you're looking for a shrine of photos of the stadium, which hosted its final game in 1957 and was razed in 1960, you can check out the wall of the neighborhood McDonald's. The area has been crime-ridden in the past but is making a bit of a rebound, according to Alfred A. Chiodo, the urban affairs director for city council member Letitia James, who represents the district.
"I'm fascinated with Brooklyn history," said Chiodo, who recently bought two original Ebbets Field bleacher seats to honor the memories of his parents. "For me, Ebbets Field was architecturally magnificent. People say it was like going to a Roman coliseum. So it's nice to imagine what it was like on those summer afternoons, with all the people at the main entrance at Sullivan [Place] and McKeever [Place]. There was a love affair between Brooklyn and its baseball team."
That romance hasn't been extinguished. Chiodo said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who used to be a Brooklyn assemblyman, started an annual Jackie Robinson Day that featured a fair of nonprofit organizations and was held in the patio of the apartment complex. Chiodo chipped in by putting together a history exhibit with a booklet that featured old pictures of the yard.
"You'd go there and feel like you were someplace special," Chiodo said. "Hopefully that feeling isn't totally lost for everyone."
There's a song about this. It's called "There Used to Be a Ballpark" and it was recorded by Frank Sinatra on his album "Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back" in 1973. The composer and lyricist was Joe Raposo, who would become more well known for timeless tunes written for the Muppets such as "Bein' Green" and "C is for Cookie."
"And there used to be a ballpark where the field was warm and green," Sinatra sings. "And the players played their crazy game with a joy I'd never seen/ And the air was such a wonder from the hot dogs and the beer/ Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here."
Raposo was assumed to have penned the melancholy song about Ebbets Field, but in an interview, he said he was writing about the Polo Grounds, at Eighth Avenue and West 155th Street in Manhattan, where the New York Giants played until 1957, and where Bobby Thomson in '51 hit arguably the most famous home run in baseball history, the pennant-winning "Shot Heard 'Round the World."
If Raposo were alive and traipsing around the site of the Polo Grounds in early 2013, he'd see something akin to the scene in Brooklyn: clusters of bodegas and bargain stores, a roadway looming overhead like the elevated trains of days past, and the towering presence of another apartment complex. Polo Grounds Towers.
Right by the subway stop for the B and D trains, four 30-story brick high-rises stand, one of which is connected to the brightly painted Polo Grounds Community Center.
The sign that welcomes passersby to the residences features a cartoonish drawing of the old oval park. A nearby sign reads, "This development was built on the location that Willie Mays and the Giants made famous." A plaque marks the location of home plate. It's posted on the outside of Building 4, and it faces a sunken courtyard framed by a circular driveway. There are playgrounds off to the left and right where the dugouts probably stood.
One of the last remaining vestiges of the stadium is the John T. Brush Stairway, named for the team's owner. The stairway, which is closed for renovations, runs down the nearby hill called Coogan's Bluff, over the Harlem River Drive and down to the part of the Polo Grounds where a ticket booth once stood.
The San Francisco Giants contributed to the renovation, as did the capital budget of Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer.
"As a native of Washington Heights, I am proud to be playing a role in the restoration of a staircase that once connected residents of northern Manhattan to the bright lights of Major League sports," Stringer said.
"The Brush [Stairway] is a critical conduit for residents of Polo Grounds Houses, a public housing development that now stands where the Yankees, Giants, Mets and even New York Jets played over half a century ago."
Rob Ruck sits in an office in Wesley W. Posvar Hall on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh and reminisces. Most mornings, Ruck, a member of the history department at the university, walks down a hall of the building and sees home plate preserved under Plexiglas in the floor of the building. It's there to commemorate the site of the great Forbes Field, where the Pirates played from 1909-70.
"Home plate is not exactly where it was," Ruck said. "If it were, it would be in a women's bathroom."
The stadium was torn down in July 1971, and Posvar Hall was finished in '74. Outside the building, visitors can see portions of the original outfield walls of Forbes Field kept intact, right by the jewel of the Oakland neighborhood, Schenley Park. There are two historical markers nearby: one on the Forbes Quadrangle side of the street honoring Barney Dreyfuss, the Pirates owner who had Forbes Field built. The other commemorates the team's 1960 World Series championship.
Fittingly, a group of Pirates diehards congregates by the old Forbes fences each Oct. 13, the anniversary of the Game 7 triumph in that series, the one the Pirates won on Bill Mazeroski's home run. They make sure to arrive by 1:05 p.m. ET and listen to the original broadcast of the game in its entirety.
Ruck, the author of several sports books, including "The Tropic of Baseball," which is about the game in the Dominican Republic, said these touches, as well as the park and campus surroundings, make for a much less depressing brand of nostalgia.
"It really was nestled into the community: the university and the South Oakland community," Ruck said. "There were a lot of Irish, a lot of Italians. The ground crew was Irish, the ticket takers were Italian. People went by trolley and bus. The ballpark wasn't surrounded by a sea of parking lots.
"There's a wistfulness, sure, but one good thing is that the stadium wasn't simply demolished and paved over. As wrenching a change as it must be for people, they didn't make it into a shopping mall."
The site of Shibe Park, the Philadelphia field later was known as Connie Mack Stadium, is right next to a shopping mall. It's called Hope Plaza, and it has a Rite-Aid drug store, a Thriftway supermarket, a Game Stop store, a Super Dollar City and an H&R Block location, among other businesses.
The actual square of land that housed the Philadelphia A's and Phillies is now the enormous Deliverance Evangelistic Church. The park, which was demolished in 1976, was located between Lehigh Avenue and Somerset Street and 20th and 21st Streets.
One can still see the townhouses along 20th Street where fans would sit on the rooftops to watch games for free until the winter prior to the 1935 season, when A's co-owner Jack Shibe erected what became known as the "Connie Mack spite fence," a 22-foot barrier that eliminated the view of non-paying customers.
There's a colorful painting of the old yard inside the church near the administrative offices. And while congregants -- there are 4,000 of them -- might walk right by it without much of a thought on their way to worship, people do notice.
"Usually it's delivery people or folks from around the neighborhood," a church spokesperson said. "They'll comment on it. They'll tell us memories: 'I remember when my dad took me to the games.' Things like that. Beyond that, it's not something that's mentioned much.
"But when it is mentioned, it's always with happiness, comfort and warmth. They smile. They always have nice things to say."
The same goes for the site of Sick's Stadium, the ballpark in South Seattle that housed the popular Minor League Rainiers team and the not-so-popular Seattle Pilots, who lasted just one year in the Major Leagues before moving to Milwaukee in 1970. Named for beer baron Emil Sick, the park was opened in 1938 and was considered new-age.
Now it's a Lowe's hardware store. The historical sign marking where the stadium stood is faded and graffiti-laden. The Lowe's store has a glass case with some memorabilia in the entryway and a home plate outside the sliding doors in front, but the steel sculpture of a batter is facing the wrong way. The painted strip inside the store that signified where the pitcher's mound stood was erased when the store redid its floors.
For those who grew up attending games at quirky Sick's, which could hold about 20,000 people at its maximum, it's another sad situation.
"I'm a Seattle native and I've seen all these things disappear that I grew up with," said Dan Raley, a longtime sports journalist who wrote the book "Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers."
"And that one, that ballpark ... that hurts me more than anything else."
In the back of Lowe's on a slow Tuesday morning, Ray Fann, an internet sales department manager for the company, is busy pulling merchandise from high shelves. He said he's hardly ever asked about the history of the site, which also includes an Amazon.com facility next door. He never hears about how fans used to take in games for free from nearby "Tightwad Hill," where apartments now stand.
Having grown up on a 2,200-acre farm in Ferndale, Wash., and seen it turn into a golf course, strip mall, community college and nursing home, he hoped some people do remember.
"People need to know how things evolve," Fann said. "I think it's important to [know] the history behind that, and know how things came to be what they are."