Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His “Baseball Insider” column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at email@example.com .
My recent stay in New York included two trips to Yankee Stadium, one to Shea Stadium and one to KeySpan Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, the minor league club of the Mets in Coney Island.
I also caught up with Celia Bobrowsky, director of Community Affairs for Major League Baseball. Celia held the same title for the Detroit Tigers the last couple of years, and took the opportunity to move to New York to be closer to her roots and family. Though she’s not Orthodox, she spent a Shabbos in my home and came for Pesach meals while with the Tigers. She was also introduced to some of the popular Lunch and Learn speakers under the Gateways umbrella who came to town through Ohr Somayach Detroit.
Anyway, when Celia left Detroit I thought the best gift I could give her would be The Jewish Press Dining Guide, and I circled the Manhattan establishments close to her office. We lunched at one of the midtown restaurants that advertises weekly in The Jewish Press and that has become one of her favorites. Then we trekked a few blocks to her high-in-the sky baseball-appointed Park Avenue office.
Celia showed me some of the great baseball-related items she’s collected while working in the headquarters of baseball, but the top drawer of her desk contains one of her prize possessions – The Jewish Press Dining Guide.
While I enjoyed the games and catching up with Celia, the time spent with Marty Appel was the highlight of my trip. We go back over 30 years to when Marty was the twenty-something head of public relations for the New York Yankees and I headed a national baseball monthly. Marty went on to represent many baseball-related people, events and organizations, and handles public relations for the Israel Baseball League. Somewhere along the line, he’s found time to write 16 books.
Our time together at Marty’s impressive midtown office/residence was constantly interrupted by calls from writers and radio/television types seeking information regarding Yankees legend Phil Rizzuto, whose passing dominated the news. Marty was an award-winning executive producer of Yankees games on WPIX-TV. Not only was he Rizzuto’s boss, he was a friend of the family.
We swapped Rizzuto stories. Marty related that Rizzuto and his bride of 64 years, Cora, had a relationship that most couples could only wish for. The former Yankees shortstop couldn’t wait to scoot home after each game. As Marty put it, “Cora is 85, but still turns heads.”
Being a couple of baseball seasons older than Marty, I was able to give him some personal memories of Rizzuto as a player. We – my young pre-teen yeshiva classmates and I – would take a bus to the ballpark for midweek summer afternoon games whenever the Yankees came to Detroit in the early 1950’s. We rooted against the Yanks but for Rizzuto. After all, he was the smallest player in the major leagues at the time and looked more like one of the guys in the yeshiva’s higher grades.
We marveled as he took fielding practice from his shortstop position and quickly realized why he was called “Scooter.” He covered a lot of territory quickly. We loved it when he jumped high in the air while throwing to first base, practicing for the time he would cover second base as a runner would be sliding under him. Rizzuto mastered the art of bunting and the art of being courteous to kids hounding players for autographs.
In the late 70’s, when I was a member of the media, Detroit boasted a Lakewood kollel for a few years. One of the new kollel fellows asked if I would take him to a ballgame before vacation ended. Since he was from New York, I took him to a Yankees game at Tiger Stadium.
As we were going through the corridor to our seats, I spotted Rizzuto in the distance heading our way for the elevator to the broadcast booth. I brought the kollel fellow over to Rizzuto (we knew each other from the baseball beat) and introduced him. Rizzuto shook hands with him and asked, “Which yeshiva did you go to?” “Lakewood,” the young kollel fellow replied, somewhat surprised at the question. “I heard of that,” Rizzuto said. Just then, the elevator to the broadcast booth opened and Rizzuto scooted in.
“That was Rizzuto,” Marty Appel said when I related the story. “You don’t know if he meant he heard of the yeshiva or the town. But he always made you feel good.”
After dazzling each other with Rizzuto tales, we headed uptown to the Museum of the City of New York, where Marty had an appointment with one of the museum’s top officials. We arrived early and had a chance to take in the display that Marty had a hand in – The Glory Days: New York Baseball 1947-1957. It’s quite impressive and we traded anecdotes as we shuffled along visiting the photos and memorabilia.
The following day, I focused on an earlier piece of New York baseball history -Washington Park, the ballpark Brooklyn’s National League club played in prior to Ebbets Field. I called a car service to pick me up from my sister’s Boro Park home and hoped for an English-speaking driver to take me to the Red Hook area of Brooklyn near the Gowanus Canal. I lucked out. Shimon Gifter turned up. Not only did he speak English, he spoke baseball fluently.
There were three versions of Washington Park, named after America’s first president. The first Washington Park opened in 1883 on property bordered by Fourth and Fifth Avenues, Third and Fifth Streets. George Washington slept there. The Gowanus House was his headquarters during the Battle of Long Island in the Revolutionary War. Later the house had a more important historical role as the clubhouse for the Brooklyn baseball team.
A newer ballpark a pop-up away, seating over 18,000, opened in 1898. A colorful entrance at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Third Street was festooned with flags and bunting. The first-base line ran along Fourth Avenue while the third-base line followed Third Street. Leftfield was along Third Avenue – which today happens to be right across the street from the front entrance to the Jewish Press building.
Non-baseball mavens see a 20-foot high brick wall that borders the Con Edison storage yards on the site. That’s the exterior of the leftfield wall, the other side of which was where Casey Stengel made his major league debut as a leftfielder for Brooklyn in 1912.
The area is also where the Brooklyn club became the Dodgers. Previously the team had been known by many names including the Atlantics, Bridegrooms (several players married during the off-season), Superbas and Robins. To get to Washington Park, fans had to dodge trolleys and so the Brooklyn team became known as the Trolley Dodgers and, eventually, just the Dodgers.
Charley Ebbets was a one-man front office who became the owner of the team. He was concerned that the foul odors from the nearby factories and Gowanus Canal would keep fans away and began buying property near and along Bedford Avenue that led to Ebbets Field. While the Dodgers moved to Ebbets Field in 1913, a third version of Washington Park was being readied.
In 1914, a new entry challenged the American and National leagues as a third major league. The new Federal League put a team in Brooklyn called the Tip Tops. Owned by the Ward Baking Company, manufacturers of Tip Top Bread, the team used a renovated Washington Park. Steel replaced wood in the ballpark, and the owners also lured fans by offering bigger contracts to established major leaguers. Brooklyn’s Federal League team hurt attendance at Ebbets Field, and other cities had similar experiences.
The owners of the Tip Tops topped off Washington Park by building five 80-foot-high light towers in 1915. The plan was to introduce night ball in 1916 (well ahead of the first major league night game in Cincinnati’s Crosley Field in 1935). However, the Federal League was having financial problems and ceased operations after the 1915 season. An agreement was reached between the leagues allowing two Federal League club owners to buy major league franchises and for players to return to the major leagues without penalty if their services were sought.
While you’ll find plenty of history in each issue of The Jewish Press, you’ll find plenty of baseball history across the street from the newspaper’s headquarters.