History of Bat Sports in Parks
Although baseball is an American invention, sports commonly played with a bat or stick descended from England and Ireland and had many common ancestors, such as Rounders. Cricket also came from this tradition, and today both are played in the parks of New York City. The Department of Parks & Recreation has a long tradition of both, and baseball´s earliest beginnings can be traced to New York´s open spaces.
Early Designs for Sporting Fields
Baseball evolved from cricket, which had been played for centuries before the advent of baseball, and which was popular in England. As Central Park engineer in chief in its early days, Egbert Viele designed an early plan for Central Park that featured a cricket pitch in the southwestern portion of the park, one of only two open spaces in the layout. Central Park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux also noted the usefulness of placing a cricket pitch near the southern end of the park, close to train access, and retained the feature in their Greensward Plan, which ultimately prevailed. The cricket grounds (also for baseball) in the "Southern Valley" were one of the first features to be built at the park. In 1865, proponents of the "national game" of baseball complained that permits for the Central Park fields were hard to come by, as apparently preference was given to the "English game" of cricket.
Use and Demand Grows
Local clubs played cricket matches frequently at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, sometimes against teams from faraway places like Philadelphia and even Canada. Prospect Park was such a big spot that the "Manhattan Cricket Club" played its home games there. The Staten Island Cricket and Tennis Club in the Livingston neighborhood on the Island´s north shore hosted many cricket matches; the grounds eventually were purchased by the city and now comprise Walker Park. In 1885, Parks officials opened Central Park´s North Meadow to cricket matches to accommodate demand for the sport. People played cricket in the United States (primarily in places like Philadelphia and New York) until around World War I, when pastimes like tennis and golf started to become more popular.
The Cricket Revival
Starting in the 1950s, immigrants from former British colonies helped renew interest in cricket in the United States. The Hyderabad Blues, a team from India, played an exhibition match against a team of American players at Randall´s Island in 1975 to a crowd of about 200 fans. In the years since then, cricket´s popularity has taken off to the point that today there are cricket fields in 15 parks across the five boroughs.
The sport is especially popular at Van Cortlandt Park and Ferry Point Park in the Bronx. When Parks dedicated a new cricket pitch at Spring Creek Park in Brooklyn in 2003, players from the United States Cricket Promoters Association and the New York Metropolitan Cricket Association played alongside council members and Parks officials to christen the new playing field. In 2007, the inaugural Mayor´s Cup Cricket Tournament hosted 28 teams playing in five parks.
The Birth of Baseball in New York
Baseball´s beginnings are apocryphal and murky, but Madison Square Park figures in at least some accounts of the sport´s birth. Some note that in 1845, the rules of baseball were officially set by Alexander J. Cartwright, a 25–year–old volunteer fireman, and the game as it is now known was first played in the vicinity of Madison Square.
Early baseball games were played in Central Park, the Parade Ground near Prospect Park, and even Carroll Park in Brooklyn, where the Star Grounds once existed. When Chelsea Park was acquired by the City in 1905, it was a crowded lot of tenements. Before the park was fully built in 1910, its interim use as a ballfield attracted hundreds, if not thousands to the site. The 1913 Annual Report listed regulation diamonds at eleven sites throughout Manhattan, including two at Chelsea Park.
Parks Bats for Bat Sports
Although it was sometimes difficult for nineteenth–century baseball players to enjoy fields at Central Park, by the 1930s, when recreation became a top priority of Parks, the game was embraced. In 1934, Parks announced that the informal playing fields in Central Park´s North Meadow would be formalized with permanent bases and backstops. Parks also held tournaments for both baseball and softball throughout the 1930s. (Softball began in the late 19th century as an indoor version of baseball, played with a larger, softer ball during the winter off–season months.)
Instead of clogging narrow neighborhood streets with games of stickball (which has been revived in recent years at "Street Games" demonstrations sponsored by Disney), young players took advantage of the many fields in playgrounds and larger parks. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and the five borough presidents threw out ceremonial first pitches on April 14, 1935 to open the baseball season at several of the city´s 159 baseball diamonds. Permits to play in 1940 required holders to note the name of the team, the average age of the players and whether or not they sported uniforms.
Today Parks hosts baseball and softball in all levels of play. Little League teams such as the Harlem Little League play at Jackie Robinson Park, Holcombe Rucker Park, Col. Charles Young Park and Central Park. In 2006, the Mid Island Little League team in Staten Island went on to compete at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Each summer, Central Park hosts leagues like the Broadway Show League, which takes advantage of free afternoons to compete with each other at Heckscher Ballfield, and the Media League, which fields teams from some of the many media organizations headquartered in Midtown Manhattan.
The Pros Come to Parks
Major League Baseball is also a big part of Parks history. "The House that Ruth Built," or Yankee Stadium, is under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department. The first Yankee Stadium opened on April 18, 1923 to a crowd of more than 74,000 fans who watched the Yankees beat the Red Sox 4–1. The original Yankee Stadium also supported baseball´s first triple–deck stands.
The new Yankee Stadium was constructed one block north of its predeccessor, across East 161st Street and River Avenue on portions of Macombs Dam and John Mullaly Parks. The stadium´s design evokes the old stadium by incorporating design elements of both the original 1923 stadium and its later renovation in the 1970s. The site of Old Yankee Stadium, and its field, will become baseball fields for all to use.
Shea Stadium, the Queens home of the New York Mets, was housed in Flushing Meadows Corona Park and was one of the park's many distinctive features. It too was torn down following the 2008 season. The stadium, located on the north end of the park at the edge of Flushing Bay, was the largest building constructed for the 1964-65 World's Fair, and also served as the home of the New York Jets from 1967 to 1983 as well as the Beatles first stateside performances in 1965. Most of the Mets´ 46–year history (except for the first two seasons while the stadium was being built) has been wrapped up in Shea, where fans had watched the Mets reach great heights (such as their 1969 and 1986 World Series wins) and tremendous lows (such as the catastrophic end to the 2007 season).
A new stadium evoking Brooklyn´s Ebbets Field (the Mets' debut in 1962 being a response by Major League Baseball to make up for the Dodgers´ departure in 1957) was built just beyond the outfield at Shea, and opened in time for the 2009 season. The memory of the Brooklyn Dodgers is also kept alive at Dodger Playground in Brooklyn, the features of which incorporate design elements from Ebbets Field, which was located just a few blocks away from the site.
The Brooklyn Dodgers also have a link to J.J. Byrne Park in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which was known as Washington Park when the Old Stone House of Gowanus, located at the rear of the park, served as the clubhouse of the Bridegrooms, the baseball team that preceded the Dodgers. Professional baseball returned to Brooklyn in 2001 when the Brooklyn Cyclones, named for the landmark roller coaster visible beyond the outfield fence, began play at MCU Park (formerly KeySpan Park) in Coney Island on Surf Avenue between West 16th and 19th Streets. The Cyclones are a Class A minor league affiliate of the New York Mets.
You´re Up to Bat!
From rounders to stickball to cricket to baseball and softball, New York City parks host a long tradition of "bat sports" that continues to this day. As the weather warms up, take advantage of all that Parks has to offer by watching a Major League Baseball game, or even playing a pickup softball game at your local park. Batter up!
Watch an It's My Park segment about wheelchair softball.
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