Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Meaning of Ebbets Field - Part III

When I asked Pulitzer Prize winning historian Robert Caro why Ebbets Field was so special, he said it was a home and everyone who went to the ballpark were part of a family who lived there.  Another way of describing that special place in Brooklyn would be to say it was a community and once people are part of a community, they don't forget the experience.

Charles Ebbets vision of Ebbets Field - Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 6, 1912

Based on the fan memories in our book, there are a number of aspects of community that stand out.  One is that a community welcomes young people and is preferably accessible to young people on their own without accompanying adults.  From Robert Caro taking the long subway ride from the upper West Side of Manhattan with his buddies from the Horace Mann school to the many people who remembered "sneaking" into a day game after school, there is no question young people flocked to Ebbets Field on a regular basis.  Alan Hiss told the story about how his older brother saved him from being forced to accompany his father to soccer games by telling their dad he was taking the "little guy" to the Dodgers game tonight.  Sometimes this was just a ploy on nights when the Dodgers weren't even home!

Ebbets Field site - 1912

When he chose the site for his new ballpark, Charles Ebbets counted on people like Robert Caro who would get to the park by one of the many subway and trolley lines.  If the Dodger owner was also counting on local residents walking there, it was based on faith not reality.  One of the reasons that everyone was surprised at the location was that Ebbets was probably the only person who could visualize a ballpark there.  Brooklyn Daily Eagle writer, Tom Rice, told prospective visitors to take hip boots to deal with the "mud and more mud" at a site that required an eight foot excavation on one side and an eight foot elevation on the other.

Standard Union, February 1, 1912

Those who went to Ebbets Field were also a community because the experience wasn't limited to watching the Dodgers play, as important as that was.  Recognizing that a vacant ballpark still costs money when the home team was not playing, Ebbets immediately began using the park for other revenue generating events such as boxing, football games (high school, college and pro), soccer as well as many other baseball games including Negro League clubs.  However the Dodger owner also made his park available for free for public school field days and other events.  Especially important were the literally hundreds of high school football games played at Ebbets Field in its 45 year history which gave many Brooklyn young people the opportunity to actually play sports on the same field where they watched their beloved Dodgers play.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 3, 1912 showing convenient subway access to Ebbets Field 

Finally any community worth its name has "characters" and Ebbets Field was never lacking in that regard both on and off the field.  Whether it was Babe Herman helping the Dodgers to put three men on third base at the same time, Hilda Chester giving orders to Leo Durocher while ringing her bell or the Brooklyn Sym-Phony band "entertaining" the crowd, there was always something going on which according to sports writer,  Dave Anderson make for an atmosphere like a country fair.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 13, 1915

This is, of course, hardly a new idea.  Nor is it new to suggest that Dodger fans were proud of being part of the historic breaking of the color line or that the Dodgers departure was tragic.  What's important, however, is to look at these things collectively, not individually.  It's doubtful if anyone who went to Ebbets Field disliked the experience, certainly no one Paul or I spoke to regretted having been there.  It's also doubtful anyone ever forgot their visit or visits to this historic park, which contributed to a feeling of being part of the community, the history and finally the tragedy which is why the memory of Ebbets Field remains so powerful so many years later.  It's a place which is gone forever, but will never die.

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