Reflections on Ebbets Field
By Daniel Campo
At the turn of the 20th century, the baseball team in Brooklyn was known as the Superbas and they played ball at Washington Park, between First and Third streets along Third Avenue near the Gowanus Canal. While the park was convenient for its patrons, located in a densely developed part of the borough and connected to trolley lines on 3rd and 5th avenues, fans and players frequently complained about the awful odors emanating from the canal and nearby industrial works.
By the end of the aughts, Charles Ebbets, team owner and president, had grown unsatisfied with these rented grounds, even after spending significant money to upgrade and enlarge the seating area in 1907. In addition to the odors and the limited capacity of its wooden grandstand (undoubtedly a fire trap), the owner was unhappy with those who watched the games for free from the roofs of nearby tenements and the adjacent American Can Factory. At the same time, the advent of reinforced concrete was ushering in a building boom in baseball; several of Brooklyn’s rivals had already built or were in the process of erecting larger, “fireproof” ballparks.
After touring some of these newly built parks, including Shibe Park in Philadelphia and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Ebbets hired the architect Clarence Randall Van Buskirk to design the franchise a modern ballpark with more seats and fan comforts commensurate with these facilities. Van Buskirk worked on plans in secrecy for over a year, while Ebbets, through a dummy company began buying up properties on a large block bound by Bedford Avenue and Montgomery just east of Prospect Park. The subterfuge was intended to prevent landowners to squeeze him on the lots that would comprise the ballpark assemblage.
In 1913, the team moved to Ebbets Field at 55 Sullivan Place, in what is now considered the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Like the new ballparks of its rivals, Ebbets Field was a two-tier concrete pavilion concentrating seating around home plate, which was strategically placed near the block’s narrower southwest corner. With its gracefully arched brick window bays, pilasters, Corinthian columns and roof ornament, Ebbets Field was one of the more elegant of the ballparks constructed during this era. Its entry rotunda at the corner of Sullivan Place and Cedar Place (now McKeever Place), featured marble wall treatments, gilded ticket cages, and a marble mosaic floor inlaid with a stitched baseball pattern at its center, while a 12-arm “bat-and-ball” chandelier hung from the stuccoed ceiling above. But like its counterparts in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit, Ebbets Field was less an architectural gem and more of a utilitarian structure that could be incrementally expanded as the team’s market grew (unlike CitiField or the new Yankee Stadium, which were designed and built in its more or less final form). Starting with an initial capacity of 18,000, additions to the stadium over the years — enlarging bleachers and extending the upper deck around the lower seating bowl — brought the park’s capacity to 34,000 by 1937 and filled out its footprint with all but its left field bleachers, covered in two decks.
When Ebbets Field was completed in 1913, its market was relatively local, with most fans traveling to the park by trolley, subway or elevated train, or on foot. Indeed when unveiling the plans for the park, Dodger management boasted that the field was in proximity to 15 points of transit that connected to 38 different transit lines. Aside from cementing the franchise’s nickname as the “Trolley Dodgers,” or later, just Dodgers (officially becoming the teams name in 1932 after 18 years as the Robins), its location was also well connected to growth markets in southern and eastern Brooklyn, areas that were still developing during the 1910s. But by the 1950s, the park’s location had become a liability, ill-suited to the growing metropolitan scale of its fan base, who were now spreading out across Long Island and throughout the region. The stadium offered only 750 parking spaces and no nearby highway access. Even if Robert Moses had accommodated then Dodger owner Walter O’Malley’s 1955 request to move the Dodgers to the more centrally located site at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, where the Brooklyn Nets now play basketball, Ebbets Field would have still met the same fate, demolished in the 1960 to facilitate the construction of an apartment complex.
The demise of Ebbets Field was not terribly different than other beloved parks of its day. Beginning in the 1950s, major league teams demanded new, larger stadiums on sites accessible to suburban fan bases within their own or new cities. In 1957, when the Dodgers left Brooklyn along with the Giants who left Manhattan for San Francisco, other teams were doing the same (the Boston Braves, St. Louis Browns and Philadelphia Athletics and Washington Senators all relocated during the 1950s). During the following decade, most of the teams that did not relocate, received new, taxpayer-financed stadiums on spacious sites well connected to regional highways, much like what the Dodgers replacement, the New York Mets received when Shea Stadium was completed in Queens in 1964.
These trends resulted in the eventual demolition of all but two ballparks from the early 20th century era, Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston (the last to be taken down was Tiger Stadium in 2009 on Detroit’s Westside, a loss still mourned by many Tiger fans). Yet a generation and a half later, most of the mid-century parks have been demolished as well (Dodger Stadium in L.A. is one of the few survivors). Again threatening relocation, teams have demanded and received (mostly) downtown sites for the construction of nostalgically inspired, amenity-laden palaces mostly paid for with public money, and an ever larger share of the profits they generate. We preserve ballparks in memory more than in actual conservation of bricks and masonry.
Few current Brooklynites ever saw the Brooklyn Dodgers play, and likewise, there are only a few Dodger fans who possess memories of the team’s 1940s-50s golden era and its stellar roster of players, including future hall of famers Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Roy Campenella. As the Dodgers begin their 51st season at Dodger Stadium (and their 55th in L.A.), they have played there for six more seasons (and counting) than their 45-year run at Ebbets Field. While memories of the Dodgers grow more distant from the collective consciousness of Brooklyn’s 2.6 million residents, the team’s legacy is still very much with us. The design of the Met’s new home, CitiField in Queens, was inspired by Ebbets Field and includes an updated version of the park’s famed rotunda. And bringing the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn has been justified in part as returning a major league team to the borough which lost the Dodgers.
As part of the Atlantic Yards project, city and state leaders gave the Nets a home at Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, the location denied the Dodgers, and conflated bygone allegiances, rivalries, and civic identities. Playing now in an arena named for a global bank amid a constellation of well gentrified Brooklyn neighborhoods, the Nets betray the “old school” image they attempt cultivate through their branding strategy and marketing campaigns. Tying the Nets identity specifically to Brooklyn rather than “New York” — a regional catch all that encompasses over 20 million people — captures both the nostalgia for the Dodgers and Brooklyn’s relatively recent ascension as hippest place in the universe. Time will tell if it was a wise long term strategy. Surely public money spent to lure the Nets in and subsidize Atlantic Yards could have been better spent.
By contrast, the 1,300-unit housing complex, the Ebbets Field Apartments, which replaced the beloved home of the Dodgers, was a more modest and far better public investment. The immense rental complex, whose 26-story towers dwarf the more modestly scaled development east of Prospect Park, is architecturally uninspiring and a mere footnote in the history of the borough. Yet it serves a vital function, being built as part of New York State’s Mitchell Lama program, which sought to increase the supply of affordable housing for New York’s rapidly diminishing middle class of the 1960s and 1970s (the complex’s owner opted out of Mitchell Lama in 1987). Similarly, the site of the Polo Grounds, the Giants home until they left for San Francisco was rebuilt in the mid-1960s as public housing. While these developments do little to excite our collective memory or sense of community, they continue to serve as the homes of thousands of New Yorkers and perhaps will continue to do so long after the Mets, Nets, and the region’s other sports franchises again demand new facilities.
Daniel Campo is assistant professor at the School of Architecture & Planning at Morgan State University. He is the author of the forthcoming The Accidental Playground: Brooklyn Waterfront Narratives of the Undesigned and Unplanned (Fordham University Press, August 2013).