The Zambonis and skates have all been packed away, basketballs are only around to get dribbled and dunked for another week or so, and the summer Olympics have yet to begin. With this doldrums in the sports calendar, what's a fan to do? Oh yeah...I almost forgot...our national pastime, baseball!
And on the train this morning baseball seemed to be all around me. I had my head buried in The Natural, which I was just reading for the first time, and as Roy Hobbs was stuffing his gut with lobster salad, milk, corned beef, anchovies and hamburgers, and Judge Banner was putting his shady machinations in motion, two young kids sat down next to me and started talking about the perfect game San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain just tossed. As they went on reeling off numbers and stats like a couple of zombie census workers another pair of kids got on the train dressed in baseball uniforms, lugging bats and fiddling with their gloves. It was uncanny. I thought for sure if I looked at one of their bats it would have Wonderboy burned into it...well, only if it had been wood and not aluminum. After looking around the D train for more signs of the diamond, I plunged back into The Natural and made it to the gut-busting finale. Poor Roy! If you haven't read it, you should. And if you don't know much about its Brooklyn-born author, Bernard Malamud, you should stop by and have a look at Evan Hughes's great book, Literary Brooklyn. In it he offers up, among other things, a terrific portrait of Brooklyn's Depression-era Jewish milieu from which writers like Malamud, Daniel Fuchs, and Alfred Kazin emerged.
Anyway, all of this is a round about way of saying I had no idea what to write a blog post about until I realized the subject was right under my nose and all around me in the air: Baseball. But what about it? We've had posts in the past about Dodger babies, Duke Snider, Dodger valentines, and even the diary of a Dodger fan. As you can see, one thing in our baseball coverage hasn't changed: the Dodgers. But the Dodgers are far from the only team this borough has seen. Inspired by the story of that grizzled, barnstorming, semipro playing journeyman, Roy Hobbs, I decided it was about time we poured out the limelight on another crew of stick swingers: The Bushwicks.
This photo, printed in the Eagle April 10, 1949, shows from left to right: first baseman Pat Petrino, second baseman Ray Triebel, shortstop Gar Del Savio, and third-sacker Al Cuccinello.
The story of the Bushwicks begins and ends with their owner, Max Rosner. Rosner came to the States in 1892 from Hungary and quickly established himself in the cigar trade. Legend has it he was out and about one day and saw some employees from his cigar concern hustling up a game on a field at Morgan and Metropolitan (not too far from Peter Cooper's old glue works -- that must've been a stinky diamond) and got the notion to sponsor a team, thereby boosting his cigar business. This team, playing their home games at Paramount Field in Williamsburg, were imaginatively called the Paramounts. Until 1902 when he got spiked in the head, Rosner also played shortstop for his club. The Paramounts disbanded in 1910 and just a few years later, in 1913, Rosner founded the Bushwicks, though some Eagle articles don't have the Bushwicks appearing until 1916. In any case, the team that Rosner would guide for close to 40 years was born. Early games were played at the Wallace grounds at Halsey St. and Irving Ave. in Bushwick, but after that ball field burnt down the team made their home at Dexter Park, right between Cypress Hills and Woodhaven, near to where Franklin K. Lane High School stands today.
This photo accompanied Rosner's obituary in the Eagle on November 29, 1953. He died at 77 in the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital.
Being a semipro club meant that the Bushwick players existed somewhere between being full fledged professionals and your average working stiff. Most semipro players had to work regular jobs 6 days a week, leaving Sundays as game days. For the first three decades of the 20th century semipro ball was big. In his wonderful book chronicling the life of the Bushwicks and semipro ball in general, Thomas Barthel quotes an Eagle article from 1914 listing a few of the clubs that played in Brooklyn: Jimmy Gilbert's West Ends, the Original Empires, the Brooklyn Real Estate Brokers and the Atlantic Stars are just a few of the quirky names these teams had.
The Bushwicks regularly hosted the best pre-Negro league teams, such as the Brooklyn Royal Giants, the Adrian Page Fence Giants, the Cuban Giants, and the Philadelphia Giants. In addition to these squads, Rosner occasionally wrangled big name Major Leaguers to play at Dexter Park, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Barthel estimates that the Bushwicks were drawing a crowd of around 15,000 for each of their Sunday double headers. Numbers even Charles Ebbets would love.
The 1916 Bushwick team.
However, by the late 1940s with the advent of TV and the integration of the Majors, semipro ball lost a lot of its lustre. Rather than heading out to Dexter Park, people could stay home and watch games for free. And without the talented African-American players coming through town competition thinned out considerably. The Bushwicks eventually folded in 1951 and Dexter Park, long the scene of many semipro dreams, was turned over to auto racing. Of course there's more to the story of the Bushwicks than I can fit here in this blog post, but if you visit us you can browse our 7 folders of photos, numerous newspaper clippings, and Barthel's valuable book. Who knows, maybe you'll even find a story to beat The Natural.