1 Brooklyn Beginnings
The first baseball games were played in open fields, but the first baseball park—the first place constructed specifically for the game, with places for paying spectators and surrounded by walls to keep non-payers out—was constructed in Brooklyn, New York, by a politically well-connected entrepreneur named William Cammeyer, who built it on land he owned, called Union Grounds, on Rutledge Street in the southern portion of Williamsburg. The year was 1862, a year after the start of the Civil War and more than half a century before another politically well-connected entrepreneur, Charles Ebbets, would open a far more famous baseball park in Brooklyn. Ebbets Field would last for forty-seven years and become the stuff of legend; Union Grounds survived for barely more than two decades, but its short life belied its influence: from Cammeyer’s enclosure the baseball park was born. Union Grounds marked the beginning of the idea that baseball, the game of infinite space, should be played in an urban structure of very finite space, fitted and sometimes contorted into the urban grid. Union Grounds, constructed on a site bordered by Marcy and Harrison Avenues and Rutland and Lynch Streets, was a green field of play, a thing apart from the city and at the same time intimately connected to it.
Cammeyer, whose resources came from a family-owned leather company, did not build his baseball park out of a love of the sport. He was a businessman, and known to travel in the social circle of William Magear Tweed, the notorious boss of Tammany Hall. Like Tweed he endeavored to present a respectable face to the world even as he was trying as hard as he could to fill his pockets. Cammeyer preferred to use Union Grounds for the more genteel activities of horseback riding in the summer and ice skating in the winter—the problem was that those activities weren’t making him enough money, and he could not afford to maintain Union Grounds as a losing investment. Williamsburg, a prosperous and tranquil enclave early in the nineteenth century, was, like many parts of Brooklyn and New York, already giving way to the dense, gritty city of the industrial age, and its population was increasingly made up of immigrants whose notions of summer recreation did not include horses. Cammeyer saw that baseball, which in the middle of the nineteenth century was a game played mainly by a collection of clubs that operated more like fraternal associations than professional teams, was becoming increasingly popular as a source of working-class entertainment, and was beginning to be an economic entity as well as a recreational one. It was moving toward professionalism in awkward fits and starts that included, among other things, players paid under the table and, in the case of a team that Tweed sponsored, players who were given no-show jobs on the city payroll. When the Fashion Race Course, a racetrack on Long Island, sponsored an all-star game in 1858 pitting players from various Brooklyn teams against their counterparts from New York, then a separate city, the track owners charged an admission fee of ten cents, probably the first time people were required to pay for the privilege of watching other people play baseball. There was potential in this, Cammeyer realized, especially if the game could be played in a place designed specifically for it rather than on a racetrack taken over for the occasion. Instead of charging the teams rent for the use of his field, he would charge the spectators.
Cammeyer caught the wave of baseball’s steady progress toward professionalism, and pushed it forward. In the years before the Civil War, the game, which had been played in various forms in the United States for several generations, was codified into something roughly like modern baseball, as differing sets of rules gave way to relatively consistent practices. For all that some historians of the game would embrace a mythology of its rural origins, baseball’s ultimate form would be established more on the streets of New York than in the meadows of New England. It was in the metropolitan sprawl of New York and neighboring Brooklyn that the greatest number of teams was located—according to historians Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows, there were nearly one hundred of them by 1858—and it was through their mutual negotiations that the rules were established. The sport was largely self-governing. In the spring of 1854 the New York Knickerbockers, one of the earliest and most established teams—it was set up with a constitution, bylaws, and a set of playing rules in 1845—convened a meeting at Smith’s Hotel on Howard Street with the two other best-known teams in the city, the Gothams and the Eagles, to try and sort out inconsistencies in the manner of play, most particularly the standard distance between the bases. The meeting at Smith’s set the distance between the bases as “forty-two paces,” and from home to the pitcher as “not less than fifteen paces,” according to John Thorn, the baseball historian. The first team to score twenty-one “aces”—runs
in today’s parlance—was the winner.
Three years later, the Knickerbockers organized another gathering at Smith’s, which by then had moved to new quarters on Broome Street. At this second meeting the teams agreed to dispense with the rule of twenty-one aces and instead limit games to nine innings, with each team having three outs per inning. More relevant to the form of the ballpark, the teams agreed to establish the idea of foul territory, demarcating a line that extended from first base toward right field and third base toward left field to determine precisely where a batted ball had to go to remain in play.
New York had players, it had a clear set of rules, and it had fans. (It also had the major national sports journals, which by giving extensive coverage to the city’s baseball teams further institutionalized New York’s version of baseball’s rules as the standard.) What New York lacked was wide-open playing fields, since the years of baseball’s development coincided with the city’s own explosive growth, as blocks of tenements and brownstones and factories, not to mention railroad tracks, spread out over the grid of streets. They made most of New York a city in which the man-made all but squeezed out any presence of nature. It was not just Williamsburg that was changing; New Yorkers from all neighborhoods who wanted to play baseball had trouble finding flat, open space large enough to accommodate the game. Early games were often played in Madison Square, but games were technically illegal in city-owned open space, and while that law may have been enforced only sporadically, the pressures of urbanization, including the presence of nearby streetcars, brought an end to active baseball play at Madison Square by the mid-1840s. The favored locale of many of the region’s baseball teams, including Alexander Cartwright’s Knickerbockers, shifted to the other side of the Hudson River to one of the area’s most popular pleasure grounds, the Elysian Fields in Hoboken. Its owner, John Cox Stevens, began hosting organized baseball games in the 1840s, attracting New Yorkers not only with the allure of his pastoral setting but with the claim that Hoboken was free of the yellow fever that afflicted New York.
Stevens’s site was definitely free of the encroachments of the industrializing city. And, as A. Bartlett Giamatti would observe many years later, the very name Elysian Fields evoked classical aspirations to paradise, a metaphor that Giamatti would use frequently to describe baseball. Hoboken would have a decent run as the baseball capital. But it would not remain pastoral for long. Stevens, scion of an aristocratic family with a riverfront estate in Hoboken and a mansion in Manhattan, owned the ferries that transported visitors across the Hudson, and he wanted a larger crowd than baseball could provide. He positioned the Elysian Fields as an amusement park offering people of every stripe an escape from the pressures of the hectic city, and he gave them a merry-go-round, a racetrack, a bowling alley, and events staged by P. T. Barnum. Bars and hotels were built near the ball grounds, and Stevens was so convinced that he was providing New York with a necessary public amenity that he asked the city for a subsidy, even though Hoboken was outside the borders of New York City and, indeed, of New York State. With Stevens’s success at turning Elysian Fields into a proto–Coney Island, whatever wholesome appeal Hoboken’s natural setting might have had soon evaporated. It was a place that attracted the less respectable crowds, not to mention respectable folk hoping to pursue less respectable activities. George Templeton Strong, the lawyer and diarist, visited Hoboken from his home in Gramercy Park and reported, “I saw scarce anyone there but snobs and their strumpets.” It was, Strong observed in his diary, a “pity it’s haunted by such a gang as frequent it.”
Baseball was hardly the sport of the elite, but neither did the players nor their growing base of fans want to see the game played in the shadow of a raffish amusement park. With more and more teams in Brooklyn, Cammeyer saw that he could provide at Union Grounds a field both closer to home and free of competition from other forms of amusement. Brooklyn by the end of the 1850s had so many teams that “games [were] being played on every available plot within a ten-mile radius of the city,” according to Porter’s Spirit of the Times,
which called Brooklyn “the city of base ball clubs.” Many of the clubs were intimately connected to neighborhoods, sometimes even taking their names from local streets like Putnam Avenue and Atlantic Avenue, or local businesses like the Eckford and Webb shipyard. Brooklyn’s rapidly growing, heavily immigrant population—the borough had gone from a population of twenty-five thousand in 1835 to two hundred thousand in 1855, nearly half of whom were immigrants—sorted itself naturally into localized fan groups for each team. “More than any other American game, baseball was built on a geographical and psychological sense of localism—if we take localism to be simultaneously an attachment to one place and fear, antipathy or competitiveness toward other places,” Warren Goldstein has written. And Cammeyer realized that however bitter their neighborhood rivalries might be, the loyalists who rooted for the various clubs had one thing in common besides Brooklyn addresses: they could all become his customers.
The six-and-a-half-foot-high wooden fence that Cammeyer erected around Union Grounds was intended to keep non-paying customers out, not to create a dividing line between fly balls that could be caught and those that were out of play, the critical role that ballpark fences would come to play soon thereafter. Cammeyer saw his fence—which was more than five hundred feet away from home plate at the far point of center field, a distance no batted ball could reach—as a matter of capitalism, not ground rules. His motivations for presenting baseball inside a fenced enclosure were to attract a large crowd, make money, and yet retain some degree of decorum. The Union Grounds had a covered viewing section set aside for women and their gentlemen companions, a further statement of gentility intended to encourage the attendance of women, whose presence was thought to dampen the raucousness of men. “Wherever [the ladies’] presence enlivens the scene, there gentlemanly conduct will follow. Indecorous proceedings will cause the offenders to be instantly expelled from the grounds,” reported the Brooklyn Eagle
, in praise of Cammeyer’s decision to market the Union Grounds as a place of modesty and good manners, “where ladies can witness the game without being annoyed by the indecorous behavior of the rowdies who attend some of the first-class matches.”
Cammeyer knew better than to make the entire place into a demonstration of Victorian gentility. He saw, as Warren Goldstein wrote, that “the game appealed simultaneously to the culture of urban streets . . . and to the respectable and newly vigorous culture of middle class Victorian men.” And so there was another viewing section, distinctly separate from the one for ladies and couples, that was set aside for gambling. There, men could smoke, drink, and make bets on the game. Cammeyer had given them the equivalent of a saloon in the open air. He was prescient enough to realize that to market baseball to a broad audience he needed some degree of propriety, but not too much. He sought to position the Union Grounds as a place of mass entertainment, more respectable than the honky-tonk of Hoboken and yet lively enough to assure that no one would mistake it for a church. Not only was gambling encouraged, Cammeyer had a band playing throughout the ball game, keeping the crowds entertained.
When Cammeyer drained the skating pond and filled it in to create the playing field, he left intact a small, peaked-roof structure, something like a pagoda, that had stood at the far end of the pond. It was in what became the outfield, somewhat to the right of center field, about 350 feet from home plate, very much within the field of play. The outfield pagoda gave the Union Grounds the beginning of an architectural identity, and its very quirkiness, and the way in which its intrusive form made playing baseball on Cammeyer’s field different from playing anywhere else, established another pattern for early baseball parks: they were designed, as often as not, around obstacles, which made for certain eccentricities. There was no expectation that any field would look like any other, and if that meant that play was slightly different from one ballpark to another, that was all considered part of the nature of the game.
Copyright © 2019 by Paul Goldberger. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.