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A Look Back: Brooklyn, the Borough of Baseball

Perhaps no other team has generated as much ink and tears as the Brooklyn Dodgers. Their woebegone history, a mixture of abject failure and multiple near-misses, found some vindication in their 1955 World Championship over perpetual foes, the New York Yankees. They also will forever wear the honorable mantle of the team that finally ended the scourge of segregation in 1947. But perhaps no chapter in their history defines them as precisely as their abdication of the borough baseball called home since the 1840s when they moved to Los Angeles in 1957. Just two years after their long-awaited championship was finally achieved, paradise was lost.

For the next forty years, Brooklyn lamented what they once had. Die-hards did their best to follow the Dodgers in Los Angeles, despite the fact that the best in-game experience most could have was the summary of the contest in the next day’s newspaper. Few would switch allegiance to the hated Yankees. Relief for many came when the New York Mets joined the National League in 1962, even if they did play in Queens. But still, Brooklyn remained without professional baseball for almost four more decades.

It would again be the Mets who would bring hope to the lost souls of Brooklyn, with the unexpected assistance of one of the Yankees most vociferous fans, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The journey to bring the Brooklyn Cyclones to Keyspan (now MCU) Park was not an easy one, as the modern economics of stadium financing, as well as no small amount of Brooklyn pride, stood as obstacles to the game’s return. Today, the Cyclones are a celebrated part of a rejuvenated Coney Island, but it was not always that way.

The site that Giuliani proposed for the location of the stadium was land previously occupied by Steeplechase Park, one of the earliest amusement parks located in the historic seaside neighborhood. Running from 1897-1964, Steeplechase was the brainchild of George C. Tilyou, an amateur psychologist who got his start at Coney Island selling bottles of souvenir sand as a boy. After Steeplechase closed, the land served as a temporary home to multiple enterprises, from a small kiddie amusement park to the potential site of low-income housing. As early as the mid-1980s the idea of using it as a home to a multi-sport complex was floated in political circles.

That idea even went so far as to generate a name, the Sportsplex. Envisioned as the home of multiple amateur sports, the Sportsplex was used as an early bargaining chip between borough president Howard Golden and the City Council when they were first approached by Giuliani. The mayor, a rabid baseball fan, was attempting to broker simultaneous deals with the Mets and the Yankees to bring minor league baseball to the city, but he was not a fan of the Sportsplex and its price tag.

For decades, City politicians had promised to invest in the faded glory of Coney Island. None of those campaign vows came to pass and the former summer destination of Manhattan elites was a shadow of what it once was. Golden felt the Sportsplex was an appropriate compensation for those broken promises. Giuliani disagreed. The mayor spent the majority of 1999 meeting with City Council resistance. It was only when he agreed to spend over $30 million on renovations outside the park, and $30 million more on local youth sports incentives, that he was able to get the necessary approval. In April 2000, the City Council voted for the mayor’s plan by a tally of 48-1. Golden remained opposed to the bitter end.

For some, it wasn’t just the ninety million taxpayer dollars that the entire project would cost that was objectionable. To people like Golden, Brooklyn represented baseball excellence. The first baseball dynasty, the Atlantics, called the Bedford Stuyvesant Capitoline Grounds home. The inventor of the fastball and baseball’s first martyr, Jim Creighton, played for the Brooklyn Excelsiors. The Dodgers, for all their foibles, can boast of Hall of Famers like Wilbert Robinson, Zack Wheat, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Pee Wee Reese. Sandy Koufax, who admittedly earned the bulk of his stats in Los Angeles, was born, bred and got his major league start in Brooklyn. Gil Hodges, whom Hall enshrinement has eluded, is still a name that is breathed with reverence in the borough. With a resume like that, how could Brooklyn settle for a lowly A-ball team that would play fewer than 40 home games a season?

These egoic concerns aside, the council’s approval, cemented with the agreement of the New York Mets to purchase (and move) the St. Catharines Stompers from the Toronto Blue Jays, signaled the return of professional baseball to Brooklyn. In August of 2000 ground was broken on the new stadium in a ceremony attended by politicians and dignitaries, but not Howard Golden. The name of the new team was to be a democratic choice, in a contest sponsored by the New York Daily News and WFAN, the then-radio-home of the Mets. Over a thousand people chose some derivation of Cyclones, a nod to the historic wooden rollercoaster in nearby Luna Park that was built in 1927. Runners-up included the Knights, Eagles, Kings, Bums and Hot Dogs.

While the stadium was being built and the name finalized, the team played their first season in New York as the Queens Kings. Still a Blue Jays affiliate for one final year, the club called St. John’s University’s Jack Kaiser Stadium home. The fact that they were still a Jays farm club, coupled with the temporariness of their home, guaranteed that the Kings averaged fewer than 1,000 fans per game. Already existing concerns about the economic validity of Giuliani’s machinations became amplified.

The Cyclones made their debut in the brand new ballpark on June 25, 2001. Following a celebratory parade that included representatives from the Mets front office and 1,500 little-leaguers, the Cyclones played the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. A dramatic, bottom-of-the-ninth two-run home run by Edgar Rodriguez tied the game and sent the first tilt into extra innings. Future major leaguer Mike Jacobs won the game for the Cyclones with a sacrifice fly in the tenth. Baseball was back in Brooklyn.

The 2019 season marks the twentieth since the Wilpon family bought the St. Catharines Stompers. The ensuing two decades have seen a number of revitalization efforts in the Coney Island area, with many of them taking hold. While the amusement parks still have that gritty feel (no one would ever confuse Luna Park with Disneyland), many of the formerly rundown neighboring boardwalk shops, restaurants, and souvenir stands have been given a polish and the area is the most vital it has been in years. Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the Brooklyn coast, initiated much of the new development, including a planned three-block long stretch of housing that will include over 1,000 new apartments. Still, it can be said that the renewed vigor in the area began when the good people of Brooklyn finally got baseball back where it all began.

 

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