Jackie Robinson was a key part of the Dodgers' 45-season stay at Ebbets Field. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
Los Angeles — There used to be a ballpark ... Frank Sinatra sang the words.
“There used to be a ballpark right here/Where the field was warm and green/And the people played their crazy game/With a joy I’d never seen...”
Sinatra sang the lyrics with pathos, with powerfully reverent nostalgia. A dirge for ballparks that used to be and for the ballclubs that once played in them. Abandoned Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and the Polo Grounds in Manhattan.
Ebbets Field was an ancient ballpark that was crushed into one lopsided city block. And it was to this ballfield that Sinatra primarily aimed his lyrics.
It was a bewitching ballpark:
Two-decked grandstands started deep in right field adjoining a traffic-clogged thoroughfare. The stands stretched past first base toward home plate, cutting a corner, then stretching again past third to left field. Then the stands cut a right angle out to deep center field. There, at the double-decked bleachers the stands stopped. Flush again at the busy avenue.
Connecting the stands in the right field corner with the stands in dead center was a two-dimensional concrete wall with high wire netting across the top. The scoreboard was located in the middle of the wall, in straight-away right field.
And at the base of the scoreboard was a tailor’s sign, “Abe Stark — Hit sign, win suit.”
I don’t think any batter ever hit the sign.
But lots of baseballs were hit off the wall, ricocheting crazily — and a lot were hit over the high wire fencing and into Bedford Avenue and its heavy traffic.
The team that played in Ebbets Field was the Brooklyn Dodgers — nicknamed gloriously “Dem Bums,” by Willard Mullin, the still-revered sports cartoonist for the long-gone New York World Telegram.
Once outfielder Babe Herman hit a monstrous drive at Ebbets Field. Herman was the quintessential Brooklyn ballplayer. He roared around the bases as the ball careened through the outfield. He slid into third base. A triple. Babe stood up in a crowd.
In their merry manner, the Brooklyns managed to have three runners at third base.
You could look it up. It’s classic Brooklyn baseball history.
Dazzy Vance pitched with Hall of Fame success for the Brooklyn Robins at Ebbets Field in the 1920s. Van Lingle Mungo pitched at Ebbets Field, semi-successfully for the renamed Dodgers, in the 1930s. So did a young, raw Sandy Koufax two decades later.
In my own visits into my boyhood and nostalgia, I envision Jackie Robinson standing at home plate. He is twitching his thumb down the seam of his baseball pants. Then he is lashing a single into left center, a line drive, and he is running his swaying motion to first base.
Then there is the image of Duke Snider lofting the ball to right, over the wall, over the high wire fencing, into the hubbub on Bedford Avenue.
There is Roy Campanella, his No. 39 crisscrossed by the straps of his chest protector, urging on the pitcher. And Pee Wee Reese fielding a ground ball to the right of shortstop and throwing a batter out. And time after time, Gil Hodges at first base digging a throw out of the dirt.
Then, perhaps my insomnia about to be defeated, the flash pictures of the incomparable Carl Erskine throwing his no-hitters. Two of them, inside Ebbets Field, 1952 and then 1956. The second just a couple of months before I transformed from baseball-loving spectator to baseball-loving sports journalist — and my move to Michigan 57 years ago this month.
Back when I was young, I used to believe Ebbets Field — inside of which a baseball diamond and outfield were packed — was the greatest place in the world.
I still believe that it was.
There used to be a ballpark . . .
The Dodgers played in this quaint, crushed ballpark from 1913 through 1957 — a run of 45 usually painful, sometimes glorious seasons. It became too crushed, and the Dodgers relocated to Los Angeles.
They took with them Sandy Koufax, Vin Scully, Pee Wee, the Duke, Gil Hodges, Don Drysdale and Erskine.
A few years later, there would be a new ballpark.
The other day I sat in Dodger Stadium, in what I rather stubbornly call the new ballpark. It was the reason the Dodgers went away from Brooklyn to play in Los Angeles.
Dodger Stadium was built into a canyon, Chavez Ravine, near downtown Los Angeles, on a 300-acre plot of the city. Certainly, it isn’t quaint. The view is spectacular — the high-rise buildings of the city are visible and in the other direction, the rugged San Gabriel Mountains.
It ain’t quite Brooklyn.
Sinatra never crooned a tune about Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles. But back in the 1970s, you could find him in the clubhouse hanging out with Tommy Lasorda in the manager’s office. And one Opening Day, Sinatra did sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Dodger Stadium.
There is no crushed feeling at Dodger Stadium.
But there is plenty of history in this new/old ballpark — and the Dodgers, to their credit, still cling to all of the treasured tradition that they collected back in Brooklyn.
It is very hard to believe — especially for a senior citizen living in a time capsule — the Dodgers have played longer in Dodger Stadium than they did in Ebbets Field. This is their 52nd season in the stadium so near to downtown, yet with so much space.
I call Dodger Stadium new, but it isn’t any more. Only two operating Major-League ballparks are older — Fenway and Wrigley.
And so far, the Dodgers have not placed three runners at third base at the same time in Dodger Stadium.
But just to maintain the old image, Juan Uribe at did arrive at third base a week ago — and got himself snared by the ancient, and rarely successful, hidden ball trick.
It was OK. The Dodgers have been winning with so much force since mid-June that the ballplayers turned the lapse into a joke. A shoe taped to a base — a gift to Uribe.
Well, Sandy Koufax beat the Yankees in the sweep clincher of the 1963 World Series in Dodger Stadium. And he pitched his perfect game two years later in the L.A. ballpark.
Once back in 1978, I watched Bob Welch, out of Eastern Michigan., strike out Reggie Jackson to end a World Series game. Of course, it was October, and I wrote something about this momentous duel in the sun.
A few days later, I wrote about the rematch between Welch and Reggie. And how the ball landed way out yonder behind the right-field fence.
Certainly, the finest moment in the history of Dodger Stadium occurred in the first game of the 1988 World Series. Kirk Gibson — out of Michigan State — limped to home plate as a pinch-hitter against the Oakland Athletics.
Gibson hit the historic home-run to win the ballgame. He struggled around the bases.
The Dodgers would win the World Series.
Now in Dodger Stadium the first picture in a rogue’s gallery of the franchise’s most precious players near the clubhouse entrance is the photo of Gibson.
Lots of irony in baseball.
The Dodgers have not played in a World Series since 1988.
A bit less than two months ago, they were a doomed, last-place ballclub. They were 9˝ games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks — managed by Kirk Gibson — in the National League West.
Fifty games later, the Dodgers are runaway leaders — a shift of almost 20 games in the division standings.
And the Los Angeles Dodgers play on — with their rich, shared history — and with new success — in what is now an ancient Dodger Stadium.
All that is missing is the chummy right-field wall — and the message, “Hit sign. Win suit.”
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter.