The crowd of 26,263 murmured and buzzed in anticipation. Bat in hand, a young man emerged from the dugout and stepped onto the on-deck circle, his face resolute. His teammate was retired by the veteran on the mound, and it was now the rookie’s turn to do battle with the right-hander. Approaching the mound, the assembled crowd- inexplicably low for opening day, with entire rows empty- gave him a warm reception. The young man later told reporters that he did not feel any special anticipation on this day, at his first at-bat, but that seems unlikely. Not only was he taking his first at-bat as a professional player employed by a Major League Baseball club, but he was doing so against one of the winningest pitchers in the league.
The rookie dug in as the veteran on the mound got his signs from his catcher. The crowd held its collective breath as the right-hander let loose. In his first at-bat with a major league baseball club, the rookie grounded out to first. He would end up going 0-3 in the game, reaching base on an error and scoring a run. The run would be the first of 947 he would score over the course of his career. He logged his very first hit two days later, the first of 1,518 that Jack Roosevelt Robinson would hit in his ten-year career.
Throughout most of his career, Robinson faced enormous hostility when the Dodgers were on the road. Fans hurled vile racial epithets at him and death threats were common. Hotel owners refused to let him stay in their establishments. Restaurant owners refused to let him eat in their establishments. At home though, back in Brooklyn, things were very different. Home to just over 2.5 million people, men and women of virtually every race and ethnicity made their homes in post-World War II Brooklyn. It was far from an idyllic post-racism utopia, but people in Brooklyn were generally more accepting of others than in many other places in the United States. Baseball was the glue that brought the people of Brooklyn together, regardless of their race and ethnicity; the Brooklyn Dodgers were that glue. Jackie Robinson was a Brooklyn Dodgers, and nothing else mattered.
French-American historian Jacques Barzun wrote in 1954, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” and the relationship between the people of Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Dodgers demonstrated just that. Owing very much to the borough being home to millions of immigrants between 1890 and 1940, and the notion that understanding America’s game was one of the pathways to truly become American, immigrants dedicated themselves to not only understanding, but actively following baseball.
The working-class residents of the boro personified the uniform, projecting their wants, hopes, and insecurities onto the team. The team was just as multicultural as Brooklyn, with African-Americans Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Joe Black, and others, Cuban Sandy Amaros, Italian-American Carl Furillo and Ralph Branca, Czechoslovakian-American George Shuba, German-American George Hermanski, Lithuanian-American Johnny Podres, Jewish Sandy Koufax, and others. Despite winning six National League pennants, the team could never get over the hump, just Brooklynites felt like they lived in the shadow of Manhattan. According to Branch Rickey,
“My eight years in Brooklyn gave me a new vision of America, or rather America gave me a new vision of a part of itself, Brooklyn. They were wonderful years. A community of over three million people, proud, hurt, jealous, seeking geographical, social, emotional status as a city apart and alone and sufficient. One could not live for eight years in Brooklyn and not catch its spirit of devotion to its baseball club, such as no other city in America equaled. Call it loyalty, and so it was…A baseball club in any city in America is a quasi-public institution, and in Brooklyn the Dodgers were public without the quasi.”
In the late 1950s, the perfect storm of politics, greed, and pig-headedness resulted in the Dodgers leaving for Los Angeles, leaving an Ebbets Field-shaped hole in Brooklyn. According to author and professor Michael Shapiro, “When the Dodgers left, it didn’t rip the heart out of the borough. That’s too much. I think people said that because they couldn’t quite put into words the sense of what was lost. The departure of the Dodgers denied Brooklyn, for half the year, this common conversation- the idle chitchat you have with people on the subway or waiting for the elevator or going to the butcher. Baseball informed so much of that. ‘Can you believe that Furillo last night? Snider’s a bum! Is Hodges gonna get a hit?’ It created a relationship between strangers- you felt close to them, if only for a minute or two. What was lost was each other.”
The Mets were born in the ashes of the Dodgers’ move, and they filled the baseball void for many, but the relationship between team and people never grew as deep. The Mets played ‘all the way’ in Queens. Older, beloved players began retiring, and newer players often did not immerse themselves in the city, owing to the end of the reserve clause and the introduction of free agency. In short, many if not most adopted the blue and orange, but they were simply a team that they followed and rooted for, but were not part of the fabric of the community as the Dodgers had been.
All that changed in 1999, when Sterling Equities purchased the St. Catherine Stompers, the NY-Penn League affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. The City of New York, already investing millions in the revitalization of numerous neighborhoods within the city, including Coney Island and the St. George neighborhood of Staten Island, agreed to allocate $110 million dollars in public funds to develop and build a stadium for the new minor league affiliate of both the Mets and the Yankees- who were also interested in bringing their own affiliate to the city- contingent upon both sides agreeing to not to veto the other side for overlapping territorial rights. The Stompers were moved to Queens, where they were renamed the ‘Queens Kings’ and played at The Ballpark at St. John’s University for the 2000 season. At the end of the year, the Blue Jays terminated their relationship with the team and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced that a new stadium would be built on the site of the former Steeplechase Park, paving the way for Cyclones to be born.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and given that it had been nearly a half-century since the last time professional baseball had been played in the boro, the men and women of Brooklyn had a lot of catching up to do. Almost 300,000 fans cycled through the turnstiles of what was then Keyspan Park in 2001- 289,381 to be exact, a league attendance record until 2007, when the Cyclones brought in 294,972. In almost the 20 years since, they’ve continued packing the house, leading the New York-Penn League in attendance for nineteen straight seasons. This past season, the Cyclones won their first New York-Penn League championship. For the first time since 1955, a championship trophy was lifted in Brooklyn.
Interestingly enough, this is a Brooklyn phenomenon. While the Dodgers are long gone, along with most of the old timers who followed them, their spirit lives on in today’s fans. While the Cyclones lead the league in attendance year after year, the Staten Island Yankees, located a few miles and a few minutes away by car, are struggling. The 2019 Staten Island Yankees had brought 119,195 fans through the gates, almost half of what the Cyclones did. The number was even more stark in 2018, when they brought in 72,894, as opposed to Brooklyn’s 202,495. Despite nine division titles and six league titles, Staten Island has always trailed Brooklyn in attendance, often times by a considerable margin. Like the Cyclones, the Staten Island Yankees generally put out a competitive product. Like the Cyclones, they put an emphasis on the fan experience, from giveaways and special guest appearances to on-the-field entertainment and mascots. Like the Cyclones, their home park, Richmond County Bank Ballpark is scenic, located on Staten Island’s northern tip with a view of the Manhattan skyline and the surrounding New York harbor.
Baseball simply runs in the blood of Brooklynites.