Growing Up at the Old Ballparks

My nephew John Morrow at the site of Ebbets
Field in Brooklyn. John was about 12 at the
time. Now he's about to start college.

John Morrow, our nephew in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, is trying to decide where he's going to college. Which isn't possible because it was only a few years ago that he was a rambunctious four-year-old who was delighted to be picked up and turned upside-down by his uncle. And I think it was about a year ago when he was ten years old and I knocked his socks off when I hit a jump-shot from the three-point-line at the basketball goal in his grandmother's driveway in Wilmington at Thanksgiving.

So they tell me he's trying to decide among colleges in upstate New York and Pennsylvania, but I'm not sure I believe it. But he sent me something a couple days ago that convinced me that he's grown into a thoughtful, articulate young man who will do well wherever he goes to college.

He wrote an essay that he will submit with his application. For his topic, John wrote about a holiday tradition that somehow developed over the years during the annual holiday trek my wife Jane, her mom and I make to Glen Ridge.

During one of those trips we visited our niece, Alice Gougan, who was living in Brooklyn at the time. John and his dad Bob are baseball fans, so while the nieces, aunts, mothers and grandmothers shopped and visited museums, I suggested the guys try to find what is regarded by many as baseball holy ground -- the former site of Ebbets Field, where the Brooklyn Dodgers played until the team was moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season.

It took some doing, but we finally found the spot in Flatbush where the Boys of Summer played when New York was the capital of the baseball world. There wasn't much of a reminder -- a concrete, tombstone-like plaque nearly hidden by a bush, surrounded by a gigantic public housing complex.

And so began the tradition. In the holiday trips that followed over the years, we found the sites of other old baseball parks. We stood at the spot where home plate had been at the Polo Grounds, where Bobby Thomson launched "the shot heard 'round the world" in 1951. We found the site of Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City where Jackie Robinson played his first minor league game as a member of a previously all-white team. We discovered Hinchliffe Stadium, a wonderful old ruin of an Art Deco ballpark in Paterson where Negro League teams had played in the days before Robinson broke Major League baseball's color barrier.

I took a photo of John and wrote an essay about each visit. My old friend Jeff Houck in Tampa posted the Ebbets Field essay on his lively blog, Sidesalad. I posted essays and photos of the other ballpark pilgrimmages on Drye Goods.

And yes, over the years, I realized that the kid was growing up.

John remembered all that, and his college application essay explained how those trips had taught him more than just baseball history. He summed up his experience in this beautiful paragraph: "When we went looking for old baseball locations we found urban history, learned about the benefits of redevelopment and preservation and we encountered people I would never have met anywhere else. Uncle Willie embraces learning that way and I hope to do the same for the rest of my life."

So, wow, what can I say. Thanks, John. You've made me very proud. I think we can find a few more old ballparks in the Greater NY/NJ metro area in the coming years, and if we run out of ballparks to track down maybe we can start looking for old lighthouses. There are some great stories associated with them, too.

(Here are links to the essays about our visits to the old ballparks: Ebbets Field, Polo Grounds, Roosevelt Stadium, Hinchliffe Stadium. )