It’s that time of year again, when the crack of the bat and smell of hot dogs permeates the air. Baseball season is upon us, and there’s no better place to be a baseball fan than right here in New York City, since no other place is as rich in the history of the sport.
Although the common perception…or misperception is that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York (which is the reason why the Baseball Hall of Fame is located there), this has largely been discredited. The myth grew out of the conclusion of a 1905 commission appointed by Albert Spalding (yes, the rubber ball guy) and chaired by Abraham Mills, the 4th president of the National League. The purpose of the commission was to debunk the notion that baseball evolved from the British game of rounders, a view heralded by Henry Chadwick, an English born sportswriter and statistician who is often referred to as the father of baseball for his contributions to the development of the game. The Mills commission aimed to prove that baseball was a purely American sport. However, their information and conclusions were dubious and it is now widely believed that baseball was gradually evolved from rounders.
Early versions of base-ball, town-ball or round-ball were played by amateur clubs throughout the northeast. Competing accounts credit the codified development of the rules of baseball to two clubs, the Gotham Baseball Club in 1837 and the Knickerbocker Club in 1845. The first-ever published account of a game in a newspaper between organized clubs occurred in Brooklyn in October 1845 and by the 1850’s baseball was being referred to as the national pastime.
The Brooklyn Dodgers
Although there were many baseball clubs in New York at the time, one of the most successful, was a team from Brooklyn, alternatively known as the Atlantics, the Bridegrooms and the Superbas. They played in an industrial area of Gowanus between 4th & 5th Avenues on a site that was used as an impromptu headquarters for George Washington during the Battle of Long Island in the Revolutionary War. Fittingly, their ballpark came to be known as Washington Park. The team played there for several years until their lease ended. They subsequently moved to a diagonally adjacent site between 3rd & 4th Avenues. The team eventually adopted the name Trolley Dodgers, shortened to Dodgers, so named because their fans dodged the trolleys running down 3rd Avenue near the ballpark. They played 15 years at the second Washington Park before eventually moving in 1913 to Ebbets Field in Flatbush.
Another team named the Tip-Tops briefly occupied Washington Park, but the park was eventually sold to Con Ed and demolished for use as a parking lot. If you’re ever on 3rd Avenue between 1st and 3rd Street, look for the inconspicuous brick wall on the east side of the street. It is said to be the oldest surviving part of a former professional league ballpark in the country. The Dodgers won the 1955 World Series against the hated Yankees, but ended up moving to Los Angeles in 1957 when the negotiations for a new ballpark fell through. Ebbets Field was demolished in 1960 for the construction of apartment buildings.
The New York Giants
Manhattan, believe it or not, also has a storied history in Baseball. At 110th Street and 5th Avenue, fields originally used for polo were converted to baseball diamonds for the Metropolitans, and the Gothams, a team founded in 1883 who later became the Giants. With the extension of the city’s street grid in 1889 into upper Manhattan, the Gothams were forced to move from the original Polo Grounds. They acquired a site near the terminus of the 9th Avenue EL at 155th Street known as Coogan’s Hollow. A ballpark was constructed and the team moved in 1891. The ballpark eventually went through several expansions and reconstructions. The final Polo Grounds was designed by Henry Beaumont Herts who was also the architect of the Booth, Schubert, Longacre and Lyceum theaters, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The ballpark was quirky and unusual in that its horseshoe shape had very short right and left field walls but an extremely long center field at 483 feet. The ballpark hosted many iconic moments, including Willy Mays center field catch in the 1954 World Series, and the “shot heard ‘round the world”-the home run by the Giant’s Bobby Thompson that beat the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the National League pennant in 1951. The Giants won five World Series and 17 National League Pennants before packing up and moving to San Francisco in 1957.
The Polo Grounds was not only home to the Giants, but was also sublet to the Yankees from 1913-22 and was home for the expansion New York Mets from 1962-63. After the 1963 season, the ballpark lay dormant and the city claimed the land under eminent domain. The ballpark was demolished in 1964 with the same wrecking ball that was used to demolish Ebbets Field. A high-rise housing project was subsequently built on the site.
The New York Yankees
The origins of the Yankee organization can be traced to 1900 in Baltimore, when the National League blocked the nascent American League’s plans to locate a team in New York. Instead the team was established in Baltimore as the Orioles. But in 1903, the National League voted to allow the team to move to New York. The team played in Washington Heights at American League Park between 165th Street and 168th Street. The ballpark was nicknamed Hilltop Park due to its high elevation in northern Manhattan. The team, initially named the Highlanders, would play only 10 seasons at Hilltop Park before moving to the Polo Grounds and changing their name to the Yankees. The site is now occupied by Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. In 1921 and 1922 the Yankees and the Giants played in the World Series with all games played at the Polo Grounds. The Giants won in both World Series. By that time the Yankees had outstayed their welcome at the Polo Grounds and were asked to leave. They broke ground for a new stadium in the Bronx, right across the Harlem River from the Giants. The ballpark, designed by Osborn Engineering, was the first ballpark that could truly be called a stadium. It was massive by 1923 standards with a 58,000-seat capacity and three decks. The change must have been good, because the Yankees won their first of many World Series against the Giants in 1923. During its 86-year history, the stadium hosted 161 post season games, and 26 World Championships, more than any other stadium in the history of baseball. The new Yankee Stadium was designed by Populous just north of the original stadium which was demolished in 2009. The site of the original stadium is now a park.
With both of Dodgers and Giants abandoning New York, the largest city in the country was left for five years without a National League team and only one Major League franchise. In 1961 and again in 1962 Major League Baseball expanded to allow additional teams to join the league. The New York Mets joined in the 1962 expansion, filling the void left by the Dodgers and Giants. Adopting team colors of blue from the Dodgers and orange from the Giants, they played their first two seasons at the historic old Polo Grounds until their new stadium was completed in Flushing, Queens. The site was originally offered to the Dodgers, by Robert Moses. But Walter O’Malley, the Dodger’s owner at the time, turned down the offer because he wanted the Dodgers, not New York State to own the stadium.
Shea Stadium was named in honor of William Shea, a lawyer who chaired a Mayor Wagner’s committee to return National League Baseball to the city. Designed by the Architecture firm of Praeger, Kavanagh, Waterbury, Shea Stadium was the first new stadium built in New York since 1923. The stadium was designed as a multipurpose facility and followed the round stadium typology that was popular at the time, but was not particularly optimized for baseball. One patented innovation was two 5,000-seat sections that can be rotated to suit different events such as football games. In 1975, while Yankee Stadium was undergoing repairs, the Mets, Yankees, Giants, and the Jets all played at Shea Stadium. This is the only time in the history of professional sports that two baseball and two football teams shared the same facility. The Mets hosted five World Series (winning two of them) in their 45-year tenure at the stadium. Other notable events include the 1964 MLB All-Star Game and the Beatles landmark 1964 concert. Citifield, designed by Populous, replaced Shea Stadium in 2009. The design pays homage to Ebbets Field, with generous use of brick and exposed steel. The design incorporates the bridge motif from the Mets logo.
New York City has a long baseball history dating back to the mid-19th century. When you go to a ballgame, you are taking part in this rich tradition that is the both a local and national pastime.