AROUND NJ

When the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson Made History in New Jersey

By Eric Model

Roosevelt Stadium. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Before Los Angeles, there was Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium.

Back in its time, it was considered the great betrayal — something beyond comprehension. The Dodgers were moving out of Brooklyn to Los Angeles. The baseball Giants were not far behind, simultaneously moving from Coogan’s Bluff (Polo Grounds) to San Francisco.

Little known is that the Dodgers started their move out of Brooklyn a couple of years earlier (1956 and 1957) when they played some “home games” outside of Brooklyn, and in New Jersey — at Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium.

It is generally accepted that those games were moved to Jersey City, in part, as a negotiating tactic with the Borough of Brooklyn, in pursuit of a new stadium to replace Ebbets Field.

At the time, Walter O’Malley decided that what the Dodgers needed to compete with up-and-coming teams like the Braves was a new stadium, and he proposed that the city of New York build him one in downtown Brooklyn, near the terminus of the Long Island Railroad (ironically not very far from the soon to open Barclay’s Center, new home for the New Jersey Nets).

O’Malley envisioned a futuristic structure, a stadium covered by a dome to make it possible to play baseball in any weather. The city rejected O’Malley’s proposal and, instead, offered to build a stadium in the 1939 World’s Fair grounds in the Flushing Meadows neighborhood of Queens, at what would eventually become the site of Shea Stadium (and now Citi Field).

O’Malley, who questioned whether or not the Dodgers could still represent Brooklyn if they played in Queens, examined the site. Noting that Flushing Meadows was surrounded by water on three sides and cemeteries on the fourth, O’Malley doubted the neighborhood could sustain a major league baseball team. He rejected the city’s offer.

Thus, perhaps to demonstrate he did not feel compelled to keep the team in Brooklyn, he scheduled a handful of Dodger games at Roosevelt Stadium.

So there it was on April 19, 1956 that the Brooklyn Dodgers raised their 1955 World Champion Banner over Roosevelt Stadium in New Jersey.

The Stadium which called itself “home” to the Dodgers was itself a project promoted by Jersey City mayor and political boss Frank Hague. It was built in 1937, as a Works Progress Administration project on the grounds of what was the Jersey City Airport at Droyer’s Point.

Named for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the author of that New Deal agency, Roosevelt Stadium was designed in Art Deco style. The bowl-shaped stadium was two-stories high at the grandstand, with the bleacher and outfield areas surrounded by a low concrete wall. Terrazzo flooring ran through most of the facility. There were 20 entrances to the stadium, with the main entrance facing Newark Bay.

While it had just 24,000 seats as opposed to Ebbets Field’s 31,497, Roosevelt Stadium had 10,000 parking spaces compared to 700 at Ebbets Field.

Initially constructed as a home field for Jersey City’s International League affiliate of the New York Giants, the stadium later saw its most common use be for high school football.

There were also boxing matches, music concerts and recreational events staged there.

But it is perhaps best known as the site where Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier while playing in the minor leagues on Aug. 18, 1946, in a game between the Montreal Royals, a farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Jersey City Giants. Robinson would repeat the feat in the major leagues the next year.

“In its heyday, the stadium was the scene of epic baseball games between the Jersey City Giants and the Newark Bears, contests that a sportswriter who was there called ‘better than those played in the major leagues,'” Dan Weissman wrote in 1984.

Interestingly, because of Jersey City’s historical connection to the New York Giants as a Giants farm club, the “home crowd” in Jersey City on that April, 1956 day actually booed the Dodgers.

Ultimately, of course, the Dodgers left for Southern California where they are now a fixture. But back East the scars still persist in Brooklyn, where the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues still stirs controversy these many years later.

In Jersey City, renovations were made to Roosevelt Stadium in 1970, but a 30-foot light tower fell off the roof in 1978, weakening the integrity of the stadium’s exterior walls and light towers. By the 1980s, the field was beyond run-down.

Upon its demolition in 1985, one of Roosevelt Stadium’s seats was donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and another one was sent to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. The town homes and condos of Society Hill now sit where the stadium once did.

These days, not many folks remember back when the Dodgers called Jersey City home. In fact, fewer and fewer can even recall Roosevelt Stadium (though this writer fondly recalls a Beach Boys-Eagles concert there in 1976).

Eric Model explores the “offbeat, off the beaten path overlooked and forgotten” on SIRIUS-XM Radio and at www.journeysinto.com. This article is adapted from a “Journeys into New Jersey” piece originally in New Jersey Newsroom.