Hallowed ground of Ebbets Field would have been 100 years old on Tuesday
Former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine vividly remembers the massive crane and the wrecking ball attached to it that was painted white with red bands to resemble the seams on a baseball. He graciously posed for photographers beside the heavy equipment on Feb. 25, 1960, the day Ebbets Field died, then watched the demolition begin with the visitors' dugout.
He could not bear to look anymore.
"When they dropped that ball and it crashed through the roof and all the way down to the dugout, it was too much,'' said Erskine, 86. "I caught a cab and went back to the hotel.''
If the Dodgers had not fled to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, if Ebbets Field somehow had remained intact -- the bandbox where organist Gladys Gooding played "Follow the Dodgers,'' where the off-key Sym-Phony taunted umpires by belting out "Three Blind Mice,'' where Hilda Chester rang her cowbell to back the "Bums'' -- it would have marked its 100th anniversary on Tuesday.
Erskine could not stand seeing that wrecking ball swing more than once because the pit of his stomach told him more than a grand old ballpark was being leveled to make way for drab apartment buildings.
"It certainly signified the end of an era, it really did,'' he said during a phone interview from his native Anderson, Ind. "Watching the demolition of this magnificent shrine was too much.''
Current fans are accustomed to character-less stadiums loaded with luxury suites to cater to the rich and famous. As hard as it may be to imagine, Ebbets Field was confined to a city block in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, bound by Bedford Avenue, Sullivan Place, McKeever Place and Montgomery Street. Of necessity, the site was intimate. A double-decked grandstand accommodated most of the original capacity of 23,000. It was a mere 301-foot poke to the rightfield pole.
Ebbets Field formally opened on April 9, 1913. The Dodgers were blanked by the Phillies, 1-0, an appropriate start for a team that often was almost delightfully inept. The "Bums'' would not bring home a pennant until 1941, when they fell to the mighty Yankees in a five-game World Series. They also suffered World Series defeats at the hands of the pinstripes in 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953 and 1956. Their lone World Series triumph while playing on land that once included a garbage dump came in 1955, a seven-game classic against the hated Yankees that sent a borough into delirium.
As exhilarating as 1955 was for "The Boys of Summer'' and Brooklyn, the ballpark experience extended far beyond winning and losing. Players, fans and stadium employees were not strangers for long.
"The fans are what impressed me the most," said first baseman Jim Gentile, 78, promoted to the Dodgers late in their final season in Brooklyn. "They were rabid fans. They loved the Dodgers, the Bums.''
The hard-throwing Erskine usually welcomed the proximity to fans who called for "Oisk'' to strike out another batter. "We saw a lot of fans up close and they saw us up close,'' he said. "And they weren't bashful if you had a bad day.''
That players lived nearby only deepened the relationship. Marc Levine, 40, of Commack recalled that aspect before he and his 8-year-old son, Aspen, attended a game against the Red Sox on Thursday night at Yankee Stadium.
"I wish I was able to be in that stadium to hear the roar of the crowd and the crack of the bat, to have been in Brooklyn.''
When Gooding would launch into "Follow the Dodgers,'' the fight song she wrote, when the Sym-Phony (for phony symphony) would make its racket, when the plump Chester would bellow "Hilda is here!'' from the bleachers, the atmosphere took on the feel of a family reunion.
"I knew the ushers at Ebbets Field by their first name,'' Erskine said. "I knew the cops. I knew the grounds crew. I knew the ticket-takers. They were all part of the scene. They all meant a lot to me.''
The celebrated righthander, who threw two no-hitters at Ebbets Field -- against the Cubs on June 19, 1952, and the New York Giants on May 12, 1956 -- kept in touch with Kenny Smith, an usher in the upper deck in rightfield, long after he had thrown his last fastball. "He probably would have ushered for nothing,'' Erskine said.
Tears flowed after owner Walter O'Malley, thwarted in his effort to build a new stadium at Atlantic Yards, where Barclays Center now sits, was lured by the Hollywood set to Los Angeles. There were more tears when the final out was made at Ebbets Field.
"As you were going into the dugout, you could see people with their handkerchiefs out,'' Gentile said. "It was just a tough situation, that's all. You've got to go where the money is, and the park was old.''
Erskine believes the Dodgers "absolutely'' could have been successful if they had remained in Brooklyn. The certainty is that they struck gold out West. They won five World Series titles and drew 3 million fans every year from 1996-2010.
Levine celebrated his 40th birthday by bringing Aspen to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown last weekend.
"There was the cornerstone from Ebbets Field,'' he said. "Everybody rubbed it for good luck, so we did, also.''
At the time of its 100th anniversary, Ebbets Field might still be magical.