We can't save Yankee Stadium, but maybe it's not too late for Washington Park?

From the New York Times

February 10, 2007
Stoic Link to Baseball History Stands Guard

Once upon a time in Brooklyn, they used to play baseball here.

Tucked away among ancient factories and garages is a massive relic of the Dodgers’ old ballpark. Not Ebbets Field, but Washington Park, where Brooklyn played before moving to Flatbush. It is believed to be the oldest standing piece of a major league ballpark in the country. And almost nobody knows it is there.

At the foot of Park Slope, a block from the Gowanus Canal, is a Con Edison truck depot and storage facility bounded by First and Third Streets and Third and Fourth Avenues. Running the length of Third Avenue is a 20-foot-high stone wall that makes up part of a loading dock. The high, small windows of the wall have been bricked up.

From 1898 to 1912, Washington Park was the home of the team alternately nicknamed the Bridegrooms, Superbas and Trolley Dodgers.

“You sure?” said a security guard, Greg Montrose. “The Dodgers? Here?”

Ebbets Field is at least commemorated by a plaque and an eponymous housing project. Yankee Stadium’s infield will be preserved in a public park. And Mets officials say the position of the bases will be marked in the parking lot that will replace Shea Stadium. Today, there is not so much as a plaque to commemorate where Brooklyn won its first modern pennants.

“If there’s history there, it deserves some recognition,” said Marc Okkonen, a baseball historian. “Maybe no one wants to remember.”

The field did not seem to be beloved in its time. The nearby canal gave off a constant stench, and as a late-season call-up, Casey Stengel, once remembered, “the mosquitoes was something fierce.” After the team’s move to Flatbush, a renovated Washington Park was the home of the Tip-Tops from the upstart Federal League for two years, and then sat unused until Con Ed bought the land in 1922. Only the wall survived.

In July 2002, Con Ed announced plans that would have required the demolition of the wall. The plans were blocked by the Society of American Baseball Researchers, which organized an e-mail campaign and brought in historians and architects to attest to the site’s importance.

They concluded that the wall was part of a carriage shed built in 1899 as part of an expansion of the ballpark, which had opened a year earlier.

“That would explain why there are no pictures,” the author Chris Epting said. “Who takes a picture of a stadium parking lot?”

The wall’s appearance supported the finding. Horse stalls were notoriously susceptible to fire, as were ballparks; the first Washington Park burned down in 1889 after a player’s discarded cigar ignited. The brick construction of the carriage shed would have kept flames from spreading to the wooden grandstands. Tom Gilbert, a researcher who spearheads conservation efforts, said the presence of horses was probable.

“I’m going to assume that windows mean something that needs to breathe is on the other side,” he said, laughing.

Con Ed has made unofficial proposals for the site’s preservation since 2002, said Gilbert, but all have included moving the wall or only retaining the cornerstone.

“They offered to save one brick,” Gilbert said. Con Ed did not respond to repeated inquiries about its plans for the site.

Preservationists have officially asked the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to investigate the site as a potential landmark. Simply having a file open at the commission could be enough to gain an injunction on future Con Ed construction projects.

“We are aware of the wall, and have not ruled it out as a potential landmark,” said Lisi de Bourbon, a spokesperson for the commission.

The commission is in the midst of designating as landmarks some 2,000 buildings in Brooklyn, but the process can take decades. It is sometimes accelerated by political or financial champions, neither of which Washington Park has.

“The commission is often very reluctant to landmark something against the wishes of the landlord,” Gilbert said.

Con Ed did not respond to repeated inquiries about their plans for the site.

Recent preservation efforts have focused on publicizing the site’s links to history. A 2005 Brooklyn Cyclones promotion celebrated Archibald Moonlight Graham, whose single major league appearance was made famous in W. P. Kinsella’s novel “Shoeless Joe” and the film version, “Field of Dreams.” Graham played the field for two innings in a 1905 game at Washington Park.

The opening of the park was a major event, something of a homecoming for the Dodgers, who had played since 1891 in what was then distant East New York.

On April 30, 1898, the season was “inaugurated at the new grounds in South Brooklyn before a crowd of 15,000,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported. “And the war with Spain lapsed into temporary insignificance.”

Thanks to a home run by Philadelphia’s Big Sam Thompson, the home team lost that day, a trend they upheld more often than not over the next half-century.

“It was,” The Eagle continued, “for its size and enthusiasm, one of the most orderly crowds on record … save for the few lingering cranks.”

“Base ball” was a different game then — a 1908 contest against St. Louis used only one ball for all nine innings — but contemporary newspaper accounts painted a picture that was unmistakably Brooklyn.

It was here that the entire team, including the Hall of Fame Manager Ned Hanlon, was arrested several times for attempting to play baseball on Sundays.

It was here that Cubs Manager Frank Chance, after being bombarded with soda bottles for much of the game, returned fire with one, cutting a young boy’s leg. Chance had to be taken from the park in an armored car with a police escort.

And it was here that three of the hated New York Giants were jailed after entering the grandstand to assault a fan who heckled them.

Small and outdated, Washington Park inspired its first bout of nostalgia when the team announced it would leave after the 1912 season. On opening day that year, 30,000 fans overwhelmed the park’s official capacity, 18,000. Fans sat along the foul lines and in the outfield, no doubt contributing to the record 13 ground-rule doubles the Giants recorded en route to a 19-3 drubbing of the Dodgers.

At the last game that season, also against the Giants, the park was sent off in style as a regimental band blared “dolefully about Auld Lang Syne,” wrote The Eagle.

“The game with the New York Giants yesterday was also an old story,” Grantland Rice wrote in one of his earliest published articles in The Eagle, “for the Giants won.”

Considering the fondness with which longtime Brooklynites recall Ebbets Field, it is surprising that the remnants of Washington Park are not acknowledged. Because there were few photographs and baseball had not yet become part of the popular culture, Gilbert said, the game’s history for many people begins around 1920.

“Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth are household words, and you’re got to reference and revere them,” he said. “But if you disrespect Hughie Jennings, who cares?” Jennings was a Hall of Fame manager and shortstop at the turn of the century.

“It’s only within the last 10 years that people have regarded ballparks as history,” Epting said. “I bought a seat from Pittsburgh’s old Forbes Field from a lady who kept it on her porch. Forty dollars.”

He agreed that Washington Park should be designated as a historic site — Stengel played his first game here and Cy Young his last — but he does not seem disappointed.

“It’s one of those diamonds in the rough,” Epting said. “Once there’s a plaque or souvenir stand, it becomes a spectacle. It drains the charm of doing the detective work yourself.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Posted Under: Brooklyn, Stadium

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