Twilight at Ebbets Field

This article was written by Rory Costello

This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 26, 2006)


Ebbets Field has been gone for nearly half a cen­tury, but the place still has a remarkable grip on our consciousness. Two recent books have been devoted to the lovable old ballpark in Flatbush. Yet even these in-depth works don’t shine much light on what happened after the Dodgers left Brooklyn. They touch briefly on some teasing references to post-Dodger history, but there’s more to this period than mere footnotes. It is a buried chapter of stadium lore — featuring two Hall of Fame stars.

This article does not reexamine whether club owner Walter O’Malley or New York City power broker Robert Moses could have kept the club from going west. By late 1957, it was a foregone conclusion. In major league terms, Brooklyn had been reduced to a bargaining chip or at best a fallback option in case O’Malley’s negotiations with Los Angeles blew up. People like Abe Stark — the local tailor (“Hit Sign, Win Suit”) turned City Council president — were hoping against hope.

What many don’t recall is how long Ebbets clung to life. Even people who are Brooklyn to the bone, like journalist Pete Hamill, are prone to misty memory. On his web site, Hamill says, “Within a year after the Dodgers lammed to Los Angeles, Ebbets Field was smashed into rubble.” Not true — the Bums played their last home game on September 24, 1957, but the wreck­ ing ball did not swing until February 23, 1960.

To recap, the Dodgers played the ’57 season on the first year of O’Malley’s three-year lease-back deal with developer Marvin Kratter, who had bought the property for $3 million on October 30, 1956. Kratter hinted in October ’57 that another club might relo­ cate to Ebbets, but that may have been just a PR red herring. In 1958, the new Dodger home was the Los Angeles Coliseum; meanwhile O’Malley was also paying for three other parks: Wrigley Field in L.A., Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City (where the Dodgers had played seven “home” games in ’56 and eight in ’57), and Ebbets. The cagey Irishman estimated his carrying costs on the Brooklyn facility at $170,000 a year — $80K in rental, $40K in maintenance, and $50K in real estate taxes. So in an effort to cut his losses, he subleased.

Enter Robert A. Durk, a local home builder who thought he saw an opportunity. Durk, aged 36 in early 1958, was the front man for Ebbets Field Productions. This venture had grand plans for various sporting attractions and other events; rent would be paid on a percentage basis. One such hope was to bring in the Yomiuri Giants, Japan’s version of the Yankees, to play a Latin American team.

The idea was years ahead of its time, but didn’t pan out. Instead, a demolition derby paid a visit. Jack Kochman’s Hell Drivers apparently were hell — on the Ebbets Field turf. The New Jersey-based troupe put on two performances a day from May 30 through June 1. Kochman’s Auto Thrill Show survived through 2004, as did the man himself, who passed away at the age of 97. For better or worse, there are likely no other records of the “Smashing! Crashing! Racing!!” (as the spectacle was billed in a New York Daily News ad). Charlie Belknap, who took over the business in 1989, said, “Jack probably would have remembered those shows because they were in the metropolitan area. But he wouldn’t have kept programs or anything like that. He’d have said, ‘That’s clutter-get rid of it.”

The evidence shows that Ebbets Field Productions staged only one more event: the Hamid-Morton circus, also booked for two daily performances from June 29 through July 12. Robert A. Durk Associates, Inc. (liabilities: $86,828-assets: $9,110) declared bankruptcy in August 1958. Durk, who later became an ad man in Connecticut, then faded from the scene. He died in 1988.

The most popular post-Dodger activity at 55 Sullivan Place was soccer. On May 25, 1958, 20,606 spectators braved the rain to see Hearts of Midlothian (Scotland) beat Manchester City (England) 6-5 on a muddy pitch. Had the weatherbeen better, the crowd might have approached capacity. One day short of a year later, Dundee and West Bromwich Albion drew 21,312-the best turnout of the twilight years. There were 15 pro­grams in 1959, played both in the afternoon and under the lights. New York Hakoah, a Jewish-oriented team in the old American Soccer League (ASL), moved in from the Bronx. A strong array of international squads-from Italy, Spain, Poland, Sweden, and Austria, as well as the U.K. — built the audience for the ASL.

At first it might seem surprising to see what a draw­ing card this sport was — it did better than a lot of Dodgers games toward the end. But it is less remark­able in view of Brooklyn’s historically large and varied immigrant population. Plus, there was an echo of when Dodger fans occasionally crossed the line from avid and boisterous to riotous. Hundreds of unruly Napoli partisans erupted on the field to attack the officials on June 28, 1959. A patrolman was also knocked out with a linesman’s flag.

Although Ebbets had hosted a good deal of boxing and American football in its past, neither sport was vis­ible there during 1958-59. Brooklyn was considered a possibility for the AFL as that rival league was forming in 1959, but the New York Titans (later the Jets) went with the Polo Grounds instead. Other ideas were merely fanciful. In July 1959, Abe Stark-briefly acting mayor in Robert Wagner’s absence-injected himself into a racial debate over the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. Dr. Ralph Bunche, the eminent statesman and civil rights leader, and his son ran into the club’s color bar­rier. Stark postured against Forest Hills and announced that he had gained permission from Marvin Kratter to use Ebbets free of charge for Davis Cup matches and the National Championship. But the flap died down within a week, and with it Stark’s sentimental hope.

At its core, Ebbets Field was still a baseball venue. In the spring of 1958, Long Island University played six home games there and St. John’s played four, under the auspices ofthe Dodgers. LIU coach William “Buck” Lai, a Dodgers scout and instructorat theDodgertown Camp for Boys, was instrumental. Then in ’59, LIU returned for one more, while St. John’s played two. These matches weren’t much of a draw-especially the first year, most Dodger fans were still in shock or mourning. College ball was a pretty thin substitute.

However, the St. John’s roster boasted two future big leaguers, even if they were “cup of coffee” guys. Brooklyn­ born infielder Ted Schreiber hit a game-winning two­ run homer at Ebbets on April 24, 1958; in 1963, he made 55 plate appearances for the New York Mets. A further look at Redmen alumni in the majors shows Billy Ott, who enjoyed two brief stints in the outfield with the Chicago Cubs in 1962 and 1964 after signing as a free agent before the 1960 season. Larry Bearnarth, another early Met who later became a major league pitching coach, was probably just a little too late. He had a great collegiate career at St. John’s, but he most likely did not play with the varsity as a freshman in 1959.

Even now, Ted Schreiber (who went to Ebbets three or four times a year growing up) has clear recall:

“I remember it almost like it was yesterday. I just got through basketball season and I was struggling for hits. Most of my career, I never saw the ball hit the bat. But a lefty was pitching, so the angle was good, and the ball was out in front of the plate. My concentration was so keen, I didn’t look up, I was running hard to first base. Then I heard a rattle, and I knew it had to be the ball in the seats. The crowd was just a handful, people who loved college ball-that time of year wasn’t conducive to real good baseball.

”And you know what was special? The field was so smooth! The regular places I played in Brooklyn, the Parade Grounds was good, but get in front of a ball in Marine Park, you deserve combat pay. I was impressed. As soon as you come out of the tunnel, you see the lights and it takes hold. It was very exciting to be on a major league field.”

Stepping down another level, high school players still had the pleasure of performing at Ebbets too, as the Dodgers also sponsored the Public School Athletic League finals. On June 23, 1958, Martin Van Buren High of Queens defeated Curtis High of Staten Island 5-3. The next year, on  June 5, Roosevelt High (Bronx) was the champ, and Curtis once more the runner-up, in a 6-5 battle before a crowd of 4,000.

Going younger still, there is a nice anecdote about Babe Ruth ball. Paul Jurkoic was born in 1946 and grew up on Governor’s Island when it was an Army post. He knows it must have been the summer of 1959 when his Fort Jay all-star squad came to Brooklyn­ the base paths were 90 feet long, not the Little League distance. Jurkoic still has vivid memories of that spe­cial day:

Our opponents were from somewhere in Brooklyn… Fort Hamilton, or maybe Gravesend. The game was attended only by the family and friends of the players — a very small crowd indeed — maybe a few hundred. I don’t remember ever being in the locker room (disappointment!), so I suspect we traveled to and from the game in uniform. What I most remember was that the field was still very well kept, even though the Dodgers weren’t there anymore.

The infield grass was very green and healthy, and was mown short-like a golf fairway, and there were no pebbles or other obvious imperfections on the dirt part. This was like playing in heaven for us, because although the Army did a pretty good job of maintaining the field we played on (which was also used by the soldiers, I believe), it was not up to major league standards. I was struck by the Spartan appearance of the dugout. I had thought that a big league dugout would be somehow more fancy than it was. I also have an impression about the telephone that the managers used to call the bullpen — it was missing, but the wires were hanging out of the wall where it had been. It was definitely a thrill for all of us to play in a real big league stadium.

Yet the most intriguing baseball action during the “twilight era” had fallen into total obscurity until this research unearthed it. A team called the Brooklyn Stars played at Ebbets in 1959. Their sponsor was one of “The Boys of Summer” — Roy Campanella, about 18 months after the auto accident that made him a paraplegic.

The Stars first came to this author’s attention in 1999 as a side note while writing the history of baseball in the Virgin Islands. One key source, a St. Croix native named Osee Edwards, also mentioned that he played for this semi-pro squad of black and Latin players. Osee worked as an X-ray technician in a Brooklyn hospital. He and his teammates adver­tised their games around the community, posting flyers in places like barbershops. He talked about Campy as well as facing another Dodger hero of the ’50s, Joe Black. Two years after Joe’s last major league appearance, the first black pitcher to win a World Series game was a school teacher in his hometown of Plainfield, NJ. But he still hurled on occasion for a local team called the Newark Eagles, a namesake of the Negro League team of 1936-48, whose Brooklyn forerunner played one year at Ebbets in 1935.

A letter seeking confirmation went out to Mr.Black shortly thereafter, but his brief reply was a damper. He pooh-poohed the idea that his old battery mate could have been involved.However, the newspaper archives show that his memory was not as clear as Osee’s. Looking back, Roy Campanella was a surprisingly busy man after he got out of the hospital in late 1958. His health was delicate, but he was still tending to his business ventures (and the misadventures of his wayward stepson David). He attended spring training at Vero Beach and went out to Los Angeles for the big night in his honor at the Coliseum on May 7. He appeared at Yonkers Raceway on July 1. In August, he even acted in an episode of the TV show Lassie. Among all these other activities he fit in the forma­tion of a ball club at his old home field.

Other Stars opponents included the Gloversville Merchants, who represented the leather-goods town on the southern fringe of Adirondack Park. They and the Newark Eagles met at old Hawkins Stadium in Albany, which by coincidence was also razed in 1960. Campy’s club often played in doubleheaders with teams such as the Memphis Red Sox from the Negro American League. The Negro Leagues, another institution on its last legs, would limp on through one more season.

But Ebbets Field had one last baseball hurrah-built around a genuine icon. On August 23, 1959, none other than Satchel Paige was the main attraction in a doubleheader that drew 4,000 fans.

Barnstorming with the Havana Cubans, he gave his age as “somewhere between 40 and 60.” The Kansas City Monarchs topped the Stars 3-1 in the opener. Then Satch — wearing a Chicago White Sox uniform lent to him by former employer Bill Veeck — came on to strike out four in a three-inning start. The master allowed three runs, but only one was earned. He gave up a homer when he got cute and tried to sneak a second blooper pitch by Monarchs player-manager Herm Green.

Yet even after the Cubans’ victory had faded into autumn, a flicker of life was still visible. The Hakoah soccer club scheduled a series of four Sunday double­ headers. As it turned out, though, only three were played. Thus the last known sporting event at Ebbets took place on October 25, 1959.

Literally at the center of the action was Lloyd Monsen, Hakoah’s star striker and a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Monsen was born in 1931 to Norwegian parents and grew up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. He states, “The Ebbets Field soccer scene was a large part of my career.” For example, he scored a goal and two assists in the May 12, 1957, match between Hapoel F.C. of Israel and an ASL all-star squad, which also presented Marilyn Monroe and Sammy Davis Jr. as entertainers. A trove of photographs and other items remains in Lloyd’s possession, including a series of ASL newslet­ters. The November 1, 1959, issue explains what hap­pened to that fourth Sunday outing. The games had been slated for November 8, but were rescheduled for Thursday the 5th and then canceled.

“Not that the American Soccer League would like to leave the confines of Ebbets Field, but circum­ stances beyond our control make it so. For instance, the Sunday blue law that ball games not commence before 2:00 P.M., the end of Daylight Saving Time and no lights if a twin bill is scheduled, makes it impera­ tive for the ASL to call it quits at the Brooklyn park. Maybe if Ebbets Field is still around next year and not knocked down for a housing project, the ASL will again consider staging shows there next spring.”

 Monsen adds, “Ebbets was better than any of the other stadiums we used. Crowds were in the thou­ sands, quite good for us — but probably not good enough to support business.” He further recalls, “The dirt infield was still there in the right-hand corner of the field. The groundskeepers had leveled the mound and removed the rubber.”

Indeed, during this time the most loyal Brooklyn foot soldiers were still at their posts. This is a chance to salute the most diehard retainer of them all — a man who may not have gotten even a line in any of the books about the team. Joseph Julius “Babe” Hamberger started as a clubhouse boy in 1921 and worked his way up to assistant traveling secretary. Although a number of club employees went west, Babe couldn’t bear to leave the only workplace he’d ever known. So he served as superintendent in the twilight phase, along with a skeleton crew that includ­ed a part-collie, part-chow watchdog named Angel.

Gay Talese, who was a sportswriter for the New York Times before becoming a best-selling author, visited Ebbets Field after the L.A. Dodgers won the World Series that October. Always a writer who pur­sued the offbeat, Talese filed a brief but arresting report that captured the ghostly feel of the place. The decay would hasten after the Dodgers declined to pick up the two-year option on their lease in 1960 and the property reverted to Kratter. There is a visible difference in the number of broken windows on New Year’s Day and several weeks later. 

As late as January 29, 1960, lawyer William Shea continued to dangle the possibility that Ebbets might host a team from the Continental League, albeit temporarily. (The permanent site in Flushing, Queens­ which Robert Moses offered and Walter O’Malley rebuffed — later became Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets.) Of course, Branch Rickey’s would­ be third major league never got off the ground. It folded in August of that year. And less than a month after Shea held out that last faint hope, the wreckers descended.

Jane Leavy’s biography of Sandy Koufax refers briefly to a charity game played that final morning, when Campy, Carl Erskine, Ralph Branca, Tommy Holmes, Otto Miller (catcher from the inaugural season, 1913), and 200 fans gathered to bid their old home adieu. However, newspaper accounts don’t mention anything of the sort, and it would seem doubtful on a winterday. The closest thing may have been “Oisk” posing with the baseball-painted wreck­ing ball that also leveled the Polo Groundsfour years later.

Relics of Ebbets Field have survived in New York City. Marvin Kratter donated 2,200 seats to the dia­mond that bore his name at Hart Island, the spooky prison/potter’s field site east of the Bronx in Long Island Sound. Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island in the East River got the lights. Ironically, that park had been built by Robert Moses, who commanded his city makeovers from the nearby Triborough Bridge Authority headquarters. Over the years, though, nature overran Kratter Field, while the original fix­tures at Downing had grown scarce by the time it was demolished in 2000.

Yet the center-field flagpole, also donated by Kratter Corp., has stood for more than four decades at 1405 Utica Avenue in East Flatbush. The most ardent supporters had hoped to transplant it to Borough Hall in October 2005, as part of the 50-year celebration of Brooklyn’s lone World  Series championship. In another irony, this spot is just a Carl Furillo throw away from the old location of the team offices. Sad to say, though, the current owners are holding out for $50,000. Lucre vs. friendly allure — Ebbets Field’s past still resonates in its prolonged afterlife.

 

Notes

  1. Joseph McCauley Ebbets Field: Brooklyn’s Baseball Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2004. Bob McGee The Greatest Ballpark Ever. Piscataway,NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
  2. ‘”Feeler’ Received for Ebbets Field” New York Times, October 17, 1957,
  3. Jeane Hoffman “O’Malley Loaded with Baseball Parks” Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1958,
  4. Roscoe McGowen “Dodgers Sublet Brooklyn Home” New York Times, March 5, 1958, 41.
  5. New York Times, August 26, 1958, 48. The Polo Grounds was con­ siderably more successful than Ebbets Field after its prime tenant pulled out. The National Exhibition Company (corporate name of the New York Giants) continued to focus on business at the Manhattan stadium under its lease there. Events included mammoth gatherings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as long-running stock car racing and rodeo See Roscoe McGowen, “PoloGrounds Is Still Profitable to the Giants;• New York Times, March 16, 1958, SI.
  6. Gordon S. White Jr. “Soccer Fans Riot and Injure Three Officials and Patrolman at Ebbets Field” New York Times, June 29, 1959,
  7. William R Conklin “New Pro Eleven Needs Field Here” New York Times, August 16, 1959,
  8. Philip Benjamin “Stark Acts to Force Forest Hills to Drop Bias or Cup Matches” New York Times, July 11, 1959,
  9. “Schreiber’s 1\vo-Run Circuit Drive Enables John’s to Beat Manhattan” New York Times, April 25, 1958, 38. In a related curiosity, Schreiber’s final major league at-bat on September 18, 1963, (he lined into a double play) was the last regular-season out in the Polo Grounds. However, a Latin All-Star Game that deserves to be better known took place on October 12.
  10. Michael Strauss “Van Buren Defeats Curtis for S.A.L. Title with Rally in Eighth” New York Times, June 24, 1958, 42.
  11. “Roosevelt Beats Curtis Nine by 6-5″ New York Times, June 6, 1959,
  12. “Memphis to Meet Stars’ Nine Today” New York Times, July 12, 1959, This article notes that baseball entertainer “Prince Joe” Henry was scheduled to appear between games that day. However, Mr. Henry has stated to this author that he was (a) out of the game in 1959, (b) never appeared at Ebbets Field in his career, and (c) always appeared in game action, not between games.
  13. “Negro 1\vin Bill Today” New York Times, July 26, 1959,
  14. “Paige Fans 4 Men and Allows 3 Hits in 3 Innings Here” New York Times, August 24, 1959,
  15. Gay Talese “Brooklyn Displays Little Enthusiasm After Dodgers Win” New York Times, October 9, 1959, 34.
  16. Joe Reichler “Buffalo 8th Club in Rickey League” Washington Post, Times Herald, January 30, 1960, 12. Shea was quoted twice floating the same idea inJuly
  17. Daniel J. Wakin “Ebbets Lights Dimmed Again” New York Times, September 27, 2000, Bl.

 

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