There Used to Be a Ballpark

Fans had a great view of the Hudson River and the Palisades from Hilltop Park.

There Used to Be a Ballpark is a song written by Joe Raposo and recorded by Frank Sinatra for Sinatra’s 1973 album, Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back.

The song expresses sadness at the loss of a baseball team and its ballpark, which once gave its fans and players joy. The song is.typically assumed to be about Ebbets Field and the Brooklyn Dodgers, but it could by about any team and any park in any city in America where baseball is played.

There used to be a ballpark in northern Manhattan known as Hilltop Park, the home of the New York Highlanders, a team now known as the Yankees.

Hilltop Park sat on one of the highest points in Manhattan, on a site now occupied as Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, spanning between 165th and 168th streets and between Broadway and Fort Washington Avenue. The park was constructed in only six weeks and was huge by today’s standards. Left field, facing north to 168th Street, was 365 feet from home plate. Center field was 542 feet and right field 400 feet.

A roofed single deck wooden grandstand stood along Fort Washington Avenue; the center field bleachers were on the corner of 168th Street and Broadway. There were no clubhouses, so players had to dress in hotels. Capacity of Hilltop Park was 16,000.

Opening Day, 1903
Officially known as New York American League Park, the playing grounds opened on April 30, 1903. The Highlanders, who began as the Baltimore Orioles before moving to the newly-formed American League, won that first game against the Washington Senators. 6-2. It was one of the few bright spots for the Highlanders from Hilltop Park.

They finished second three times in their 10-year stay, including a heartbreaking loss by 41-game winner Jack Chesbro in 1904. to the Boston Pilgrims (now Red Sox) in a game that decided the American League pennant.

But the most part, the Highlanders played bad baseball. They were last in the American League in 1908, and in 1912 they were last again with a 50-102 record under skipper Harry Wolverton, worst record in the mostly illustrious history of this storied franchise.

Several other memorable moments occurred at Hilltop. In September of 1908, Washington’s Walter Johnson pitched three shutouts over the Highlanders in four days.

And on May 15, 1912, after being heckled for several innings, Detroit outfielder Ty Cobb leaped the fence and attacked his tormentor. He was suspended indefinitely by league president Ban Johnson, but his suspension was eventually reduced to 10 days and $50.

Move to the Polo Grounds

The New York Giants actually played at Hilltop Park for a brief spell after a fire burned the Polo Grounds to the ground in 1911. The Giants built a new, concrete and steel Polo Grounds on the same site at 155th Street and 8th Avenue. The Yankees, as they had become known, moved into the Polo Grounds as co-tenants with John McGraw’s Giants in 1913.

Hilltop Park was demolished in 1914 and replaced by the one-story tabernacle of Billy Sunday, a baseball player turned evangelist. Following the demolition of the tabernacle, groundbreaking ceremonies for Columbia Presbyterian took place in 1925. A bronze plaque, left, in the medical center garden marks the spot where home plate was located.

The armory, which still stands, was built behind the left-field fence in 1909. Three apartment buildings from the Hilltop days remain standing on 168th Street, east of the armory.

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audobon Ballroom, corner of 165th Street and Broadway, a spot adjacent to the old Hilltop Park.

After their move to the Polo Grounds, the Yankees eventually wore out their welcome. In 1920 they acquired Babe Ruth from the Red Sox and began to outdraw the Giants in their own park. Forced to move, the Yankees built the magnificent Yankee Stadium across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds, at 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The SportsLifer Top 50 Countdown

In the third installment of his all-time top 50 sports events attended, the SportsLifer recalls the play of Willie Mays, Joe Namath, Lawrence Taylor and others.

First installment: 41-50. includes the St. Louis Hawks, Holy Cross, and a Ranger rout.

Second installment, 31-40. stars Lew Alcindor, The Mick, and the Boston Marathon

The SportsLifer countdown, 21-30, continues:

30. Joe Namath throws 70 passes in cold rain at Shea as Broncos hold on to beat Jets 33-24, 1967

29. Giants 36, Redskins 0, first game after death of New York owner Wellington Mara, 2005

Rangers tie Canucks 3-3 on Darren Turcotte goal with half-second left in game, 1992

27. Lawrence Taylor, left, and the Giants D stop Dan Fouts, Chargers 20-7 on way to Super Bowl 1986

26. Gil Fenerty scores 6 touchdowns, rushes for 337 yards, Holy Cross overwhelms Columbia 77-28, 1983

25. Knicks raise Earl Monroe’s #15 to the Madison Square Garden rafters, but Buck Williams, Nets win at buzzer, 1986

24. Willie Mays hits grand slam vs. Cubs, Juan Marichal wins 11-2, Candlestick Park, 1962

23. Georgetown rallies to stop North Carolina in overtime, NCAA East Regional Final, 2007,

22. Yankees beat Red Sox 12-11 on rookie Derek Jeter’s game-winning single in 10th, 1996

21. Giants crush 49ers 48-14 as Y.A. Tittle throws 4 TD passes (5 days before JFK assassination), 1963

Special Category

Saw Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in famous “rope-a-dope” fight in Zaire, 1974 (well I wasn’t really there, I saw it on closed circuit television)

Playing Ball, Riding the Rails

Old Newburgh, Dutchess & Connectictut railroad bridge in the woods, Verbank, NY.

Baseball and trains. Boy oh boy, what a powerful combination.

Playing big league ball and riding the rails. Well for 80 years, major league baseball teams traveled almost exclusively by train. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when jet travel became faster and cheaper, that travel by train became a thing of the past.

The Cincinnati Reds were the first team to fly, taking a plane to Chicago in 1934 to play the Cubs. A dozen years later, the New York Yankees became the first team to fly on a regular basis.

But not until 1958, when the Giants and Dodgers moved to California, did major league teams begin traveling full-time via the skies. Before that, St. Louis was baseball’s westernmost outpost.

On the train, ballplayers were able to spend a great amount of time together, playing cards, smoking cigars, drinking and talking baseball. That togetherness developed a culture and formed bonds among teammates that today’s players simply don’t have.

‘Always Together’

Don Zimmer, who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s and later managed and coached several different teams, once recalled: “On trains, we were together. You get on a plane, and you’re only talking to one person — the guy next to you. There isn’t the closeness now that there was then. We’d eat in the same dining car, we were always together. I’m not saying it was better, that was just the biggest difference.”

Buzzy Bavasi, former Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger GM and the Padres first president insisted money and a lack of camaraderie have changed the game.
“The players lived together, stayed together,” he said. “The players don’t know each other like they did years ago. We left on the train at 6 o’clock and would get into Chicago at 8 in the morning. The players had nothing to do but talk to one another. I think we ought to get back to trains. ”

All sorts of hijinks happened on those trains. For instance, there is the story of Babe Ruth and his diminutive manager, Miller Huggins. Supposedly one time, in the midst of an argument somewhere between New York and St. Louis, Ruth once grabbed Huggins by the heels and hung him upside down off the back of a moving train.

The Old Railroad
The remnants of an old railroad, the Newburgh, Dutchess & Connecticut, runs near my house in New York. The last train traveled the rails of the old ND&C in 1938.

Although it’s doubtful any major league teams ever traveled the ND&C, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hall of Famer Eddie Collins did. Collins was a native of Millerton, NY, the final stop on the ND&C line.

The railroad, originally named the Dutchess and Columbia, was a link in the New York, New Haven & Hartford line. The ND&C, which opened in 1871, ran from Hudson Junction, near the Hudson River and south of Beacon, NY, north through Hopewell Junction, Millbrook and Pine Plains, and eventually east to Millerton,on the New York-Connecticut state line.

The Millerton train station, above, still stands today.

Collins, who was born in 1887 and lived until 1951, would surely have taken the N&DC if he was traveling south to New York City, where he attended Columbia University.

Considered by some to be the best second baseman in baseball history, Collins finished his career with 3,315 hits, 744 stolen bases and a .333 lifetime batting average. He won the American League MVP in 1914 with the Philadelphia A’s. Collins played on the infamous Chicago “Black Sox” team which threw the 1919 World Series to the Reds, but was not in on the fix.

He later served as manager of the White Sox and general manager of the Boston Red Sox, and was instrumental in the signings of Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr.

Eddie Collins, Hall of Famer, rode the rails. Baseball and trains.

Big Brown Shoes

A friend of mine who loves to play the ponies sent me an e-mail recently, linking Big Brown’s stunning loss in the Belmont Stakes to an ancient proverb.

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of the shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of the horse, the rider was lost;
For want of the rider, the battle was lost;
For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost;
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Perhaps it would be wise to add the following line: For the want of a Triple Crown, a race was lost.

The ancient proverb has been around since the 14th Century, and may have had its beginning with the French military. Benjamin Franklin included a version of the rhyme in his Poor Richard’s Almanack. And during World War II, this verse was framed and hung on the wall of the Anglo-American Supply Headquarters in London,

It all points to a simple fact — you really do have to sweat the small stuff. Just ask Big Brown’s co-owner Michael Iavarone or trainer Rick Dutrow.

Softball Rally

The softball team rallied for five runs in the bottom of the seventh inning last night to win, 9-8. We’re now primed for a playoff run with a 6-4 record and four games remaining.

Meanwhile, gearing up for the big blue tournament next week in suburban New York.

Eight Changes for Major League Baseball

Eight changes major league baseball should make immediately:

  • Drop the rule giving the league that wins the All-Star game home-field advantage in the World Series. Give it to the team with the best record.
  • Institute instant replay immediately — for home run calls only, nothing else. Run a video control center like the National Hockey League.
  • Make the first-round playoff series best-of-seven. Give the teams that performed best in the regular season the best chance to win.
  • Make the designated hitter universal — everyone but the National league already has a DH. Pitchers should pitch and hitters should hit.
  • Use the team error in official scoring — why should catchable balls that fall between two or three fielders be called hits.
  • Mandate that each team schedule one home doubleheader per season, either on a Sunday or holiday, or better yet on both.
  • Schedule at least one World Series game as a day game each year, weekday or weekend will do.
  • Make affordable tickets available on a walk-up basis day of game for fans who don’t have fat wallets and corporate connections.

The SportsLifer Top 50 Countdown

This week, the SportsLifer continues his countdown of memorable events he has witnessed. In the initial installment last week, events 41-50 were featured.

40. Ron Hassey long home run helps Yankees Beat Blue Jays 7-5, September, 1985

39. The Boston Massacre, game two, Yanks beat Red Sox 13-2, September, 1978

38. Mickey Mantle makes final appearance at Yankee Stadium, Old Timers Day, 1994

37. Lew Alcindor, right, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and NCAA champion UCLA beat Providence at Madison Square Garden, 1968

36. Phil Esposito scores four goals against the Bruins, Rangers win 7-4 at Boston Garden, 1979

35. Miami Hurricanes crush Notre Dame 37-13 at the Orange Bowl, 1981

34. Giants defense dominates Dolphins 20-3 on way to second Super Bowl title, 1990

33. Yanks’ Ron Blomberg becomes first DH in history, Fenway Park, 1973

32. Alex Johnson home run in 12th inning helps Yankees beat Red Sox 2-1, September, 1974

31. Big East semifinals feature four Top 20 teams (UConn, St. John’s, Miami, Syracuse) 1999

Special Category

Bill Rodgers beats Jeff Wells by two seconds; Randy Thomas claims fifth place, Boston Marathon, 1978