Roosevelt Stadium: The Forgotten Ballpark

By David Krell

This article was published in the 2017 The National Pastime.

Bordering Hoboken — which dubs itself the “birthplace of baseball” because of the legendary 1846 game between the Knickerbockers and the New Yorks at Elysian Fields — Jersey City stands on the edges of the Hudson River and Newark Bay, somewhat obscured by the baseball notoriety of its neighbor to the northeast and the epic annals of baseball history created across the Hudson. Ebbets Field is remembered as a shrine of love for baseball, Yankee Stadium is revered as an example of grandeur, and the Polo Grounds is honored as the home of a baseball reinvention led by John McGraw. Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium, a jewel of a ballpark boasting a 25,000 capacity within a Ruthian home run of Newark Bay, goes largely unrecognized for its contributions, including being the site of Jackie Robinson’s first regular season game in Organized Baseball.

As a member of the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ AAA team in the International League, Robinson took the field on April 18, 1946, against the Jersey City Giants; he went 4-for-5, including a three-run home run and two stolen bases, to lead the Royals in a 14–1 victory. It was a precursor to glory — the Royals won the Little World Series over the Louisville Colonels of the American Association and Robinson led the International League in runs scored and batting average. A statue of Jackie Robinson stands outside Jersey City’s Journal Square PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) commuter train station.

“There was a lot of fanfare at Roosevelt Stadium,” wrote Robinson in his 1960 autobiography, Wait Till Next Year: The Story of Jackie Robinson, written with Carl T. Rowan. “Mayor Frank Hague was there, with a lot of school children he had ‘liberated’ by declaring a holiday. I remember the parades, the brass band’s playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and the marvelous beauty of this ‘day of destiny’ for me.”1

Without a masterful politician, of course, Roosevelt Stadium would not have gone beyond the blueprint stage. Tammany Hall had Boss Tweed; Jersey City had Mayor Frank Hague, who cleared, paved, and smoothed roads to civic projects by pushing buttons of graft, bribes, and political favors.

When Hague died on New Year’s Day in 1956, obituaries underscored his impact on New Jersey’s second largest metropolis — and his means of maintaining, strengthening, and using power. The New York Herald-Tribune wrote, “Mr. Hague ruled his industrial bailiwick in a manner which some described as benevolent despotism, and others dismissed with the term ‘Hagueism’ which became a sort of epithet. What the city’s 3,000-odd municipal employees, forced each year to kick back 3 per cent of their annual stipend for the local party war chest, thought was another matter.”2

Hague served as mayor from 1917 to 1947, when he stepped down for his handpicked successor; nephew Frank Hague Eggers received an appointment as Jersey City’s mayor, but lost the mayoral election in 1949 to John V. Kenny, a former member of the Hague guard. Technology nudged Hague toward City Hall’s exit door and away from his infamous desk, which had a compartment facing visitors — Hague could open the compartment with a button, making it easy for those wishing his favor to place the requisite amount of money inside. New Jersey Governor Walter Edge mandated the replacement of paper voting ballots with voting machines to lower the likelihood of vote tampering on Election Day.

By even the most generous of yardsticks, Hague’s was not a modest existence; he neither hid nor apologized for largesse:3

  • 14-room duplex
  • Summer home on the Jersey Shore
  • Traveled in Europe
  • Spent winters in Florida
  • Bought $400,000 worth of property in seven years

In Hague’s 1956 obituary, Newark Star-Ledger reporters Charles Sullivan and Bruce Bailey wrote, “As mayor of Jersey City, Hague’s word was undisputed. He gained enough power to declare flatly, ‘I am the law,’ and that became his trademark.

“Hague’s domineering personality reached into every corner of New Jersey and was felt on the national scene when he backed the late Franklin D. Roosevelt for president.”4

It is President Roosevelt, of course, for whom Roosevelt Stadium was named. Built on the site of the defunct Jersey City Airport in the Droyer’s Point section, Roosevelt Stadium belonged to a roster of projects under the umbrella of the Works Progress Administration, established under the Roosevelt presidency in 1935 to create jobs on public projects during the Great Depression and headed by Roosevelt adviser Harry Hopkins. The federal government footed WPA’s cost of $11 billion, which funded 8.5 million jobs in the country’s infrastructure:5

  • Roads: 650,000 miles
  • Public buildings: 125,000
  • Bridges: 75,000
  • Parks: 8,000
  • Airports: 800

Ending in 1943 because unemployment plummeted when government contractors expanded jobs during World War II, the WPA did more than put laborers to work — it also funded the artistic community:

  • Federal Arts Project
  • Federal Writers Project
  • Federal Theater Project

Two weeks before Christmas in 1935, Hague spoke at the stadium’s groundbreaking, heralding Roosevelt’s involvement: “We owe to President Roosevelt’s efforts the realization of our dream. He has been considerate of Jersey City in giving us this beautiful stadium. Besides the stadium, I am happy that its construction will provide work for nearly 1,000 men and through them hundreds of our citizens will benefit. This is a very happy occasion for all of us.”6

The United States government made a grant of $1,100,000 for the building costs. Jersey City shouldered $400,000 for costs associated with architect’s fees and services, engineering, and construction.7

Roosevelt Stadium debuted on April 23, 1937. Though the genesis of government projects goes unsung, for the most part, such was not the case for readers of the Newark Star-Eagle the next morning. Star-Eagle writer Charles Moran noted Hague’s importancee in bringing a team from Albany to Jersey City. “Politics, it’s a wonderful thing,” he declared. “It built the handsome Roosevelt Field Stadium [sic] in Jersey City, it materially assisted in bringing the prodigal franchise back to Hagueville; and Mayor Frank Hague fulfilled his promise to [Giants owner] Horace Stoneham and ordered the ‘faithful’ to appear in droves at the opening.”8

Hague’s partner in developing Jersey City was architect Christian Ziegler. Ziegler conceived, among other Jersey City structures, the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital at the Jersey City Medical Center. Ziegler’s predecessor as Jersey City’s “architect in chief” was John Rowland, who died in 1945.

Ziegler favored the “Art Deco” approach, described by Jared Goss, former Associate Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as flourishing during World War I and World War II: “And so, the Art Deco years were those of the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, the Skyscraper Era, and all their attendant personalities: the flapper, the vamp, and the Rockette; the bootlegger and the gangster.” Goss also noted other artistic influences. “But they were also the time of Art Moderne in the English-speaking world, of Le Style Moderne in France, of Nordic Classicism, Swedish Grace and Funkis in Scandinavia, of El Noucenstisme in Spain, of Zackenstil in Germany, of Estilio Português Suave in Portugal and its colonies — some of the many iteration of Art Deco. Further, it continued through the period of the Crash of 1929, the Great Depression, and the rise of Fascism, an era bracketed at both ends by devastating world wars. Art Deco encompasses and was informed by all of that.”9

Brian Kelly, Director of the Architecture Program at the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation observes, “You cannot talk about the history of American architecture without talking about Art Deco. The style was enormously popular in the 1920s and particularly the 1930s. Instead of ornamental excess, lavish cornices, and intricate columns, you had flat surfaces accentuated by calculated relief that cleverly recalled these features of traditional classical architecture while rendering them by using a more streamlined method. Art Deco buildings were fundamentally traditional, but at the same time, much simpler and more modern in appearance.

“It was a kind of rapprochement between tradition and modernity. The two greatest Art Deco buildings are the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. There are repetitive aspects complemented by flourishes of ornament in specific locations. Fundamentally, though, they’re stripped down. Some parts of the old Yankee Stadium and Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, where the Orioles used to play, had Art Deco influences.”10

The "Art Deco" name derives from the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.11 Art Deco buildings are bold in their simplicity, efficient in their design, and inventive in their execution. From the Space Needle in Seattle to Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, a variety of approaches exist within the Art Deco concept, but the common threads are sleekness, strength, and sustenance. Some examples include:

  • Los Angeles City Hall
  • Nebraska State Capitol
  • Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
  • Chicago Board of Trade Building
  • Kansas City Power & Light Building
  • Buffalo City Hall
  • Louisiana State Capitol
  • Los Angeles Union Station
  • Jefferson County (Texas) Courthouse

Roosevelt Stadium, the great edifice envisioned by Ziegler, propelled by Hague, and supported by a Franklin Roosevelt program, was an Art Deco hallmark of New Jersey’s second largest metropolis (second to Newark), as well as a home for the Garden State’s baseball enthusiasts. “This was a building that emphasized Jersey City’s strength,” explains William Neumann, Board Member of Preservation New Jersey, a non-profit dedicated to the advocacy of historic preservation. “Architecture, in a literal sense, cements the ideals, outlook, and faith of a community. When we build stadia, there is an art form with amazing amounts of craft and science behind it. Though it appears simple, architecture can enlighten and entertain.”12

Indeed, a ballpark’s aesthetics in an urban environment can affect the fan’s experience in ways that suburban venues cannot. “You are approaching it on a city street, it becomes visible, it rises as you draw near, you pass through the entry threshold and emerge eventually upon a sea of green — ideally with a city skyline beyond,” describes Notre Dame University architecture professor Phil Bess. “The most consequential challenge is the design of the ballpark cross-section, because it is there that the problems of ballpark, vertical and horizontal circulation, seating site lines, and proximity to the playing field are determined.”13

After the Giants left Jersey City for Ottawa in 1950, Roosevelt Stadium’s next baseball tenure of importance was hosting 15 Brooklyn Dodgers games in 1956 and 1957. When Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley struck a deal to use Roosevelt Stadium as the home field, it sparked curiosity — and ignited fear in the hearts of fans from Carroll Gardens to Coney Island. Cherished by Brooklynites since its unveiling in 1913, Ebbets Field faced jeopardy. Roosevelt Stadium represented “a step toward the eventual sale of Ebbets Field, possibly within two years. This [Roosevelt Stadium] is the type of setup we would like to have,” stated Dodgers assistant general manager Red Patterson.14

Instead, O’Malley moved the team 3,000 miles west to Los Angeles.

New decade. New heroes. New opportunities. The future for baseball was brighter than a cloudless July day at the Jersey Shore. Or so thought the fans of Jersey City’s latest team. Forced out of Cuba by political strife in 1960 under Fidel Castro, the Havana Sugar Kings found refuge in Roosevelt Stadium; International League President Frank Shaughnessy told Sugar Kings owner Roberto Maduro that a move was not merely urgent, but necessary. The Associated Press reported, “The message said that an emergency existed in Havana because of tension between Cuba and the United States, and that the safety and welfare of baseball personnel ‘is or might be endangered.’”15 The Sugar Kings played their last game on July 12 in Miami and basked in the cheers of their new hometown fans on July 15 in a parade in Jersey City. One of the fans was Delphine Lisk who, after her boss denied her the opportunity to watch the parade, received the dubbing of Miss Jersey City by the mayor and rode with the team in the motorcade.16

An 8-3 loss to the Columbus Jets that night inaugurated a new era for Jersey City baseball that, once again, swept Hudson County into the joys and sorrows of being a fan. The following day augured no better for the team. “Today, the local heroes committed what would have been an unpardonable sin in the eyes of a less hospitable audience,” wrote Robert L. Teague in The New York Times. “They failed to hold a 2–0 advantage, and finished the contest still under the .500 level for the season and at the .000 mark for their efforts in their new city.”17

After the following season, the former Sugar Kings moved to Jacksonville and gained a new moniker — Suns.

Rock concerts, high school football games, and drum and bugle corps championships, among other events, took place at Roosevelt Stadium in succeeding years. By the 1980s, however, the neglect was too far gone; Jersey City’s City Council okayed demolition of the stadium in favor of housing.18 A report for the Historic American Buildings Survey noted the disrepair caused by “deterioration and abandonment” of the stadium:19

  • Baseball scoreboard and light towers collapse
  • Seats ripped out
  • Windows smashed
  • Vandalizing of interior spaces
  • Drainage system collapse, causing flooding of dugouts and locker room tunnels

Knocked down in 1985, Roosevelt Stadium exists in the custody of memories, where images, sounds, and stories of its better days echo like a monastery bell. Society Hill at Droyer’s Point, an apartment complex, stands on the site that two men, one through political strength and the other through artistic excellence, turned into a source of civic pride, an example of architectural excellence, and a haven for baseball fans in northern New Jersey.

DAVID KRELL is the author of "Our Bums: The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture" (McFarland, 2015) and the co-editor of "In the Arena: A Sports Law Handbook" (New York State Bar Association, 2013). David has spoken at SABR’s 19th Century Conference, Negro Leagues Conference, and Annual Convention. He has also spoken at the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, Queens Baseball Convention, Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, and Hofstra University’s New York Mets 50th Anniversary Conference. David’s writing has appeared in "Black Ball: A Negro Leagues Journal," "Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game," "The Baseball Research Journal," "The National Pastime," and the New York State Bar Association’s "Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Journal," and thesportspost.com.

 

Notes

1 Carl T. Rowan with Jackie Robinson, Wait Till Next Year: The Story of Jackie Robinson (New York: Random House) 149.

2 “Frank Hague’s Career: Absolute Ruler 30 Years, New York Herald Tribune, January 2, 1956.

3 Ibid.

4 Charles Sullivan and Bruce Bailey, “Frank Hague Dies at 81,” Newark Star-Ledger, January 2, 1956. This article was found in the Newark Public Library’s microfilm archives of the Newark Star-Ledger. Another article references Hague’s age at 79.

6 “Stadium Ceremony Attended by 2,000,” Newark Evening News, December 12, 1935.

7 “Sports Stadiums Near Completion,” New York Times, December 13, 1936.

8  Charles Moran, “Record Debut Heartens Jersey Giants,” Newark Star-Eagle, April 24, 1937.

10 Telephone interview with Brian Kelly, March 17, 2017.

11 “Art Deco Style 1925-1940,” Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/architecture/styles/art-d....

12 Telephone interview with William Neumann, March 21, 2017.

13 E-mail from Philip Bess to author, March 22, 2017.

14 “Patterson Likes Roosevelt Set-Up,” Newark Evening News, August 18, 1955.

15 “Havana Baseball Franchise Goes to Jersey City,” Associated Press, New York Times, July 9, 1960.

16 “Events and Discoveries of the Week,” Sports Illustrated, July 25, 1960.

17 Robert L. Teague, “Jerseys Lose But Fans Love ‘Em,” New York Times, July 17, 1960.

18 Joseph Malinconico, “Roosevelt Stadium: Glory Fading Fast,” New York Times, November 28, 1982.

19 Historic American Buildings Survey No. NJ-819.