With much being said about the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier at Ebbetts field, we at Brooklyn On Line could hardly let the event go pass without saying a word on the matter.
I was born in 1963, 5 years after the Dodgers were removed from Brooklyn. I was born into a family which bled Dodger Blue, and interacted with the Dodgers and their players on a daily basis. The Dodgers are still an open wound in my house. By 1968, at the tender age of 7, my father had brought me to a double header at Shea Stadium. I carried on a pleasant conversation at the age of five with Tug McGraw at the Mets Bull Pen where the bleachers hang over the side. Baseball has been a religion for me, as it was for my family. But even as I worshiped the feats of Agee, Harrelson, Seaver, and later Apodaca, Kingman, and Sterns,and into my adulthood watching Keith Hernandez, it wasn't until I reached adulthood when I finally began to realize how important the Dodgers were to our community.
As a youngster growing up in Canarsie, a neighborhood with a strict racial line running down the double yellow of Flatlands Avenue, in order to see my beloved Mets, I would take the LL train for 40 minutes to Metropolitan Avenue. The elevated train passes on the way though East New York, and some of the most despondent areas of the city. We passed over blocks upon blocks of vacant and crumbling housing. Then I would transfer for the G train and ride to Queens for 20 minutes, making the connection for the 7 train and another 30 minute ride to reach Shea. It's a trip I made often. I could it do in my sleep.
On the way home we would take the Command Bus back to the Junction. It cost a couple of bucks. Or sometimes we would take the train route back. It was always a MAJOR trip to and from the stadium. And after disembarking from the train, you still needed to walk about a mile to the stadium gates. Shea itself is one of the most poorly designed Stadiums in the country. From the bleachers your nearly a mile high and the players are like ants on the field. Even field level seats don't have the view of some bleacher seats at new Yankee Stadium.
Despite the local passion for the Mets and the long roots of my family to the National League franchise, the Mets are still called "the National League Metropolitan Baseball Team of New York". If I ever had any doubt about what this meant, those doubts where erased sometime in the early 1980's, after moving from Canarsie to Midwood, and the first time I stood on the corner of Empire Blvd and Bedford Ave, looking across at the Ebbetts Field houses in Crown Heights. This is a pilgrimage every Brooklynite should make at least once. When you stand in the shadow of what was once Ebbetts Field, you are standing on holy ground.
The first thing that came to mind that warm summer day was, how did they fit a stadium here? By the standards of housing projects that I've seen in Canarsie, Coney Island, Bushwick and Sheepshead Bay, Ebbetts Field Houses is very very small. I tried to stand back and imagine a Baseball Stadium, but I couldn't see it. Shea Stadium is a Massive structure with 1/2 mile of parking lot surrounding it in every direction. This plot was just a little larger than a normal city block. And there are garages around it, a warehouse and a gas station. Where was there room for the stadium here?!?!
I walked around the plot, the back of which has been renamed for Jackie Robinson, and then did a quick scout of the neighborhood. There are 4 story walk-ups around the corner call the Ebbetts Field apartments, slightly older than the 20 story building now standing on the old playing field. And then the reality of the Dodgers started to sink in. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have lived in those buildings in the middle of the summer of 1948, without air conditioning, peering out the window. A small Ebbetts field would indeed have been perfect for servicing the Passions of Brooklynites at that time.
Ebbetts Field was truly centrally located. I could walk from my house to he sight today in under an hour. I could be there by train in 20 minutes, and by trolley even less. Located near Prospect Park, I could have easily blown summer day after summer day playing ball all morning in Prospect, and the after see the game. In fall I could spend time in the Library and snuck out for a 1:30 start. I would have never made it to class until October. And it was all close enough to home that no one would have even noticed my absence.
In Brooklyn, like much of New York, social life is street life and vice versa. The stoop is the universal symbol of Brooklyn Life cycle. We pound balls off of it as kids, hang out on it as teens, court our lady friends into adulthood, and retire on it into our old age. Ebbetts Field was an extension of our stoop. I read over an over again how Brooklyn was the perfect place for Robinson to break in because of our Melting Pot, and ethnic neighborhoods. There is certainly ethnic neighborhoods, but Brooklyn is not a melting pot. And it never has been.
In Brooklyn, we have made a legacy of turning cultural strife into productive reflection and reason for ethnic pride. We have also made a mess of things on more than one occasion. It was not long ago that I ran to Crown Heights, in the shadow of Ebbetts Field, in the mists of a flaming ethnic riot, facing what I can never perceive as anything short of Black Anti-Semetism turned violent against my co-religionists. I was prepared that night to give my life for my people if need be and to pay witness to how as Brooklynites, we are really just one community in so many ways, were once again defining ourselves by the play of competition in Crown Heights. I on saw that night bands of people marching up the hill on Eastern Parkway, breaking bottles and wrecking havoc. And as enraged as I was, I was also in tears to see Brooklyn ripped to shreds in this way.
Growing up, I heard of all the Dodgers. There was Reiser, and Reese, and Campy and Robinson, and most importantly there was Gil Hodges. I met him just prior to his death in his Bowling Alley then located in Georgetown. For some reason, I've heard more Gil Hodges stories then any other Dodger. For me Robinson was just one of the Dodgers. The names are Legendary, and Robinson was one of the Legendary Dodgers of Brooklyn. A great player - yes by from what I hear. Better than Campy? Who knows, I wasn't there at the time.
So from where I sit on my stoop, I firmly believe everyone has missed the point with the Robinson celebrations. This should not be a celebration of Jackie Robinson, although he deserves all the credit he gets. He did not thrive, as some conjectured, on the veracity of the barbs and competition. He died young from diabetes and stress. He was a sacrifice on the alter of civil rights.
No - this it should be a celebration of Brooklyn. It was not accident that Brooklyn was the first community to break baseballs color barrier. When all was said and done, Branch Rickey KNEW he could bring an outstanding Black Athlete into the borough without loosing the support of the fans, helping his team win on they way. It's the very nature of Brooklyn that we live, culturally speaking, in each others living rooms, and on each others stoops. And there were not that many Dodger Fans who were going to let some loud mouth punks take a chance at the Series away from us because of their personal bigotry.
And would Robinson be happy today to see to see so many great Black ballplayers come into the sport, make the big bucks, and stand on their own?
Well, I never knew the man, Hank Aaron seems to feel he could speak for him. But my only feeling about it is that Jackie was a Trolley Dodger, and a Brooklyn man through and through. And he would not have been happy the night of the riots, or to see the streets below the LL train on my childhood path to Shea, or to see the Towers standing above second base. And in true Brooklyn spirit, regardless of many differences I can conjecture would separate his world view from mine, I would firming agree with him, 100%