Did you watch the Field of Dreams game on Thursday night? I did, and despite my tepid feelings for the book and movie on which it was based, I enjoyed it! It was pretty clearly a publicity stunt organized by people who are far more interested in monetizing the game’s past—a fictionalized past at that—than visualizing a sustainable future, but it was also clear the people who organized the game cared quite a bit about the project. The stadium was beautiful. The uniforms were beautiful. The TV production had its blips but was very corny, in a charming way. Baseball has always advertised itself as a pastoral game, and for the first time MLB was able to build a professional game and TV production on a pasture, or at least pasture-adjacent.
The trouble with the game’s pastoral narrative is that it’s largely a myth. The game did not originate in idyllic Midwest fields but in cities, and most importantly New York City, the biggest American urban metropolis then and now. I won’t begrudge MLB for holding their Field of Dreams game, since they never claimed it as an origin story and made it very clear that this was based off of a 1989 movie from Universal Pictures, but I will take issue with the league and specifically the New York Mets for not yet recognizing the game’s rightful birthplace and turning it into a televised spectacle. Basically, I want a Field of Dreams game, but with the Mets, and there’s a significant historical precedent to make it happen.
As a caveat: calling New York City the game’s “rightful birthplace” comes with some issues. As historian Thomas W. Gilbert argues in his 2020 book How Baseball Happened*, batted-ball games similar to baseball suddenly appeared in many American cities around the same time in the mid-1800s, and to call any of them the true birthplace of the game would be difficult since they all had different rules and dubious documentation. But the modern game undoubtedly sprung from amateur baseball clubs in New York City, and though stories involving Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright and Albert Spalding are mostly bunk, one could very easily trace the origins of baseball with New York as the starting point. This will eventually lead to the Mets, I promise.
Organized baseball in 1850s New York City took place among clubs of upwardly mobile young men looking to outdo one another in athletic competitions, and in the late 1850s the two most predominant of these clubs were the Knickerbockers (originally based in Manhattan, and later Hoboken, New Jersey) and the Excelsiors (based in Brooklyn, not yet a part of New York City). These two teams played in many informal playoff series marred by cheating, gambling, and drunkenness, and there was little organization to determine a true champion. I promise this gets to the Mets.
In 1858, the Brooklyn Common Council (equivalent to today’s City Council) challenged New York’s to a best-of-three game series between the Knickerbockers and the Excelsiors, with the hope that getting city governance involved would add legitimacy to the proceedings. It was initially agreed upon that the first game of the series would take place at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, but the organizers soon faced a problem.
But after sensing the growing buzz on both sides of the East River, the committee decided to move the event to a facility with a large wooden grandstand, access to public transportation, refreshment stands, and bathrooms—the Fashion Race Course in Queens, a horseracing track that could seat 10,000 in its grandstand and hold 50,000 total. Named after a legendary racehorse of the 1840s, the Fashion Course was located near National Road and 44th Avenue in Corona, a few blocks from where the New York Mets play today.
- How Baseball Happened, p. 164
This was not the first organized game, but it was the first organized game with an admission fee, and it is considered to be the first all-star game with players from multiple clubs representing the New York and Brooklyn sides. With attendance figures listed anywhere between 4,000-10,000 fans, it was the most-attended baseball game ever up to that point, and it was one of the most momentous amateur baseball games ever. Anecdotes from that day show how strikingly similar it was to a Mets game today:
At the little railroad station there were a few of the enterprising gentlemen who made fascinating propositions to the innocent, whereby the latter can make huge amounts of money with the most trifling risks. There were three or four cases of benevolent gentlemen with three cards and a rather shaky table, whose sole purposes in coming out there seemed to be to lose all their heavy rolls of bills to the poor people around them...There was also the “walk-up-and-try-your-strength machine,” the “walk-up-and-try-your-weight machine”...Indeed, few of the people cared to be weighed, try their strength, or to gamble. They had come to see baseball.
- New-York Tribune, July 21 1858, p. 5
Let the reader fancy about nine thousand people simultaneously ‘making tracks’ for the same gate, with more than three miles of carriages, to take up their precious freight, and go through the same passage, clearing which, the motto is ‘everyone for himself, and the devil take the hindmost!
- Spirit of the Times, July 24, 1858
Sounds like a Friday night in Flushing to me!
So here’s my pitch: a regular-season recreation of the three game series between the Knickerbockers and Excelsiors, with the Yankees playing the part of the Hoboken club and the Mets their Long Island neighbors. I want the classic uniforms, the horses-and-buggies, the whole nine yards. Location: undetermined. Citi Field would make the most sense logistically, but it’s nearly a mile away from the original location and doesn’t present the same historical charm. The Fashion Race Course stood at National Avenue and 44th Street in Corona, basically the site of Corona Plaza where the 7-Line runs through. You can’t play a baseball game there, though there is a pocket park with a baseball field nearby, and if the neighbors don’t mind Pete Alonso and Aaron Judge home runs landing on the train tracks then it just might work.
But a better idea would be to hold the game somewhere in Flushing Meadows Park. The dedicated baseball fields would probably need a refurbishment, but hey, there was no diamond in the Iowa cornfields before Ray Kinsella started hearing voices, so we could make it work. There would be enough space for the horse and buggies, the carnival games, the three-card monte, and the parking jams. It’s perfect!
Especially for a franchise that’s so willing to display history that doesn’t belong to them, it seems fair that the Mets should claim a bit of this baseball origin story as their own. The Mets have no serious connection to the origins of baseball, but Queens does, and by the whims of Robert Moses and Walter O’Malley, Queens just so happens to be where the Mets play baseball. So let’s make this happen! Yankees at Mets, Flushing Meadow Park Diamond #10, mid-19th century dress code strictly enforced, standing room only, admission ten cents with $200 parking fees, with all proceeds going to charity as it did in 1858. Let’s continue the proud Mets tradition of claiming someone else’s history! And put it on MLB.TV so I can watch it without blackout restrictions, please and thank you.
*Note: this is not a paid ad for How Baseball Happened, but I do recommend it as a skeptical analysis of baseball’s traditional origin stories. It’s a fun book!