With the impending abandonment of Shea Stadium and ongoing murmurs about moving the Yankees out of the Bronx and into Manhattan, New York City might just have a couple of big empty spaces to fill in the next few years. During a couple of trips to baseball games around the Northeast, Matt, Brett and I took some time to find out what happens to New York ballparks when they die.
Our first stop was the former site of Ebbets Field, where the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers played before heading out West for the sunshine, easy living, and indifferent fans of Los Angeles in 1958. By 1960, Ebbets was a pile of rubble.
Brett had read that we would find a mural on the subway station that once served the stadium and now drops people off on the not-so-swanky side of Prospect Park. We had no trouble finding the mural, but couldn't get too close, since it was kept behind a chain-link fence. The hard part was finding the actual site of the park. We knew we were getting close to the site when we came upon a McDonald's which claimed to have a Brooklyn Dodgers museum. We took a look inside what Brett (the only Dodger fan among us) called the coolest McDonalds in the country. A series of beautiful black and white photos of the stadium and the Dodgers hung on the walls, paying homage to the Brooklyn Dodgers' glory days. Even though they call it a museum, the employees and customers still looked at us funny for standing around gawking without buying anything.
After getting a couple of differing sets of directions, we headed off in the general direction of the apartments which occupy the space that was once the ballpark. We wandered around trying unsuccessfully to look inconspicuous, and speculating on which building we were looking for. Finally, we came across one of the blue signs with orange lettering which designate a building as public housing. It read, "Ebbets Field Apartments." We had struck gold, albeit some pretty dingy gold. Another tip from Brett's book clued us in to the existence of a plaque commemorating the demolished stadium.
On the way around the grounds, we saw an unbelievably mangy dog pacing on the facade of a Cool Runnings Auto Shop, and a lot of people milling about, looking vaguely dissatisfied with their lot in life. We asked a couple of residents of the apartments if they knew where to find the plaque, but nobody seemed to know. Eventually, we came across a small piece of bronze reading, "This is the former site of Ebbets Field," accompanied by a baseball surrounding the number "1962." Not quite a poetic paean, but pretty clear nonetheless. A little further down the road, we came across a wall which looked older than forty years, with metal letters reading "Ebbets Field" attached - possibly a piece of the old park. Despite the ignominy of being the site of some pretty dumpy projects, the site was commemorated quite nicely.
A year later, after watching the Yankees barely squeak by the Boston Red Sox on a Saturday afternoon, Brett and I walked across the McCombs Dam bridge. We were in search of the site of the Polo Grounds, the funny-looking rounded corner rectangle where the New York Giants played until they too moved west, in 1957.
We had better directions this time, and Manhattan's grid layout makes finding addresses much easier. Again, we came upon a cluster of tall, grimy buildings filled with publicly-funded housing. We walked down a mountain of concrete steps, and saw a sign declaring the spot the "Polo Grounds Towers." I may not be an expert on the lifestyle of society's uppercrust, but I imagine most real polo grounds don't have broken glass scattered all over the sidewalks.
Unlike Ebbets, we weren't sure exactly what we were looking for, because we had no word of a plaque or other commemorative material. Based on Brett's notes from his ballpark book, we tried to calculate the layout of the park, so we could stand near home plate. We never quite got there.
We did take a picture of a sign reading, "These houses sit on the site which Willie Mays made famous. Please keep it clean." Seeing Brett's camera, a woman demanded that we also get a picture of the flowers she had planted. We told her of our search for home plate, and she and a couple of her friends consulted among themselves and gave us three different possible sites. Rather than investigate further, we stuck around chatting with the women. The one who had planted the flowers told us a little bit of Harlem history, even though she "technically" lived in Washington Heights. Since On the way back to the steps, we got a shot of her flowers, and I cracked myself up by calling out "the Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" and watching Brett's face turn colors, filling with his Dodger-Blue blood.
Consulting the notes one final time, we made our way toward Broadway and turned right, heading north to 165th street. We were on our way to Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, which was built on the grounds of Hilltop Park, where the New York Highlanders, later known as the Yankees, played until 1914.
While not exactly Fifth Avenue near the Met, we found this section of Washington Heights to be considerably nicer then either of the other two locations we had visited. However, a reverse correlation exists between how swanky the neighborhood is and how well it commemorates its former use. We walked all around the hospital, three blocks square, and didn't see a single mention of Hilltop Park. No plaque, no sign, nothing. Across Broadway, a small park honors some soldiers, but not a word about New York's (and half the country's) favorite baseball team, at least as far as we could see.
After our excursions, it occurred to me that the best thing the neighborhoods surrounding Shea and Yankee Stadium can do is to happen to house a world-class university. Shea might make out better than its historic neighbor to the north, since Flushing isn't as heavily populated and economically depressed as the South Bronx. Unless Yale decides to move down from New Haven, though, expect to see a housing project with a small plaque about Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle if the mayor and The Boss manage to give midtown Manhattan another economic boondoggle on the West Side.
Who are we? ©1998 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. Questions or Comments?