Friday, April 5, 2013

Ebbets Field Centennial

If, when the weather cleared for the gala opening of his new ball park on April 5, 1913, Charles Ebbets thought his good fortune was well deserved, it would have been hard to argue with him.  Of the seven Dead Ball era owners who both acquired a new site and built a new ballpark, the Brooklyn owner had by far the most difficult time, for reasons within and beyond his control.  Just for starters, all of Ebbets' peers had successful ball clubs and/or money - Ebbets had neither.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle depicts the changes which will accompany the new ballpark

Site acquisition was fairly straightforward for most of the other six owners, involving no more than seven different parcels of land.  Ebbets, on the other hand, had to acquire 30 different parcels while keeping secret his ultimate purpose to prevent price gouging which would have crushed his already fragile finances.  Construction itself was equally challenging because Ebbets had a site which required eight feet of excavation on one side and eight feet of fill on the other.  Only Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss had comparable challenges with his site, but he got lucky with mild winter weather.  At Ebbets Field, construction was significantly slowed down by a cold snap so severe, tug boats were frozen in New York harbor.

Final preparations for the April 5, 1913 gala opening 

Unfortunately the things beyond Ebbets control were magnified by his own mistakes.  First was his decision to act as general contractor while still running a ball club - Ebbets himself later admitted this was a mistake.  Far worse was his failure to line up the project financing up front which ultimately led to the sale of a portion of the club to the McKeever brothers.  Although the shared ownership didn't cause any immediate problems, the dilution of ownership sowed the seeds for the brutal 1930's battles between the Ebbets and McKeever heirs.

Left to right, Ed McKeever, Jenny McKeever and Charles Ebbets

So, if some 15 months after the announcement of the new ballpark, Ebbets thought he deserved a break on the weather, no one could blame him.  Nor could anyone blame him for wondering if now that he had built it, anyone would come.  Any fears on that score were quickly dispelled as a large throng took every means possible to get to the Dodgers new home.  Subway and trolley lines were packed with people, while an observer watching the apparently never ending line of automobiles claimed "there aint that many machines made."

Genevieve Ebbets (Charles daughter) about to throw the ceremonial first pitch

And all of this was for a game that didn't count which wasn't without a certain amount of irony.  After some heavy lobbying by Tom Rice of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the National League decided to allow Brooklyn to open the season (and their new ballpark) a day early with a one game series against the Philadelphia Phillies. But perhaps because they had waited so long, the populace decided an April 5th exhibition game with the Yankees was the real opener and they backed that up with their money and their presence.  Reports on the number in the ballpark ranged from 24-30,000 while supposedly another 5-10,000 were left outside craving admission.  Some of the latter group went so far as to risk "breaking their necks to get a peek at the players from an distance to two city blocks."

Action shot from the April 5 exhibition game with the Yankees

Those fortunate enough to get in, were not disappointed.  Setting the example for future generations of Dodger fans, many let out "shouts of hearty approval" as they reached the top of the ramp and got their first view of the new park.  There was quick consensus that Ebbets Field was "a wonder and no mistake." While the game itself didn't matter, it didn't lack for drama.  After Brooklyn took a 2-0 lead on home runs (inside the park, of course) by Jake Daubert and Casey Stengel, the Yankees tied it up in the 9th largely due to a Dodger error.  However unlike many future Yankee - Dodger encounters at Ebbets Field, this time the good guys won when future Hall of Famer, Zach Wheat singled home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.

This pictures gives a sense of the spaciousness of Ebbets Field before the addition of seats in the outfield

Happiest of all, and deservedly so, was Charles Ebbets who as he thought of the estimated $20,000 in gate receipts, must have been reminded of the lean years at Washington Park.  But for Ebbets, it was never just about the money.  In a piece in the Brooklyn Daily Times, he proudly wrote that Ebbets Field was "built for Brooklynites, by Brooklynites: is essentially a Brooklyn institution."  Even with his vision for the ballpark which bore his name, Ebbets may not have realized how embedded Ebbets Field would become in the fabric of Brooklyn before being untimely ripped out 44 years later.  Today on the centennial of that opening, the focus should not be on that sad finale, but on the memorable moments enjoyed by so many, due in no small part to Charles Ebbets' vision and commitment.

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