Any sports fan can attest to the tightly knit community that forms around athletic teams and this is hardly more apparent than on the opening day of the Major League Baseball season. On April 1, both the New York Mets and Yankees opened 2013 at their respective home fields with “unblemished optimism” for the season ahead.
Like apple pie and jazz, baseball is woven deeply through American history with accounts of baseball games recorded as early as the late 18th century. The country’s first official team was the New York Knickerbockers and is widely credited for establishing the modern rules of the game in 1845. Just over 10 years later, there were 16 baseball clubs, or teams, in the New York area alone.
In Central Park, arguably the city’s most iconic outdoor recreation space, baseball played a defining role in community. A redesign in 1857 by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux grew the park to more than 700 acres of sufficient space to accommodate all classes of the city, drawing 7 million visitors by 1865. But a ban on recreational activities like picnics and baseball kept the park’s visitors strictly upper class: parties often arrived for an afternoon in the park via carriage, but city laws restricted small tradesmen from using their commercial wagons for family trips. And baseball was stringently prohibited: only school-aged boys with a written note from their principals were permitted to play ball in Central Park. The reigns loosened when working-class New Yorkers successfully petitioned for outdoor concerts on Sundays, their only day of rest, and over time parks officials made concessions from carousels to tennis; though not fully until the early 1950s when parks commissioner Robert Moses embraced the city’s evolved culture by establishing permanent softball fields on the Great Lawn to support corporate softball teams and neighborhood little league games.
Meanwhile, baseball as an enterprise was developing concurrently. In 1903, the Baltimore Orioles merged with the New York Giants and called a high point along Broadway between 165th and 168th streets home, appropriating a new team name—the Highlanders. However the team’s record was less than auspicious and in 1912, the teams’ owner, Bill Devry, added their iconic pinstripes to the uniforms with the hope that changing the team’s look would also change a 7-year losing streak. But most sports fans, and residents of New York and Boston alike, know legend was secured when Babe Ruth was signed for $125,000 and a $350,000 loan against the mortgage on Fenway Park—all to help Red Sox owner Harry Frazee finance a Broadway musical.
A move across the Harlem River in 1923 to what is now the former Yankee stadium left the Giants behind in the Polo Grounds. In their brand new stadium, record batting averages and undefeated consecutive seasons from Lou Gehrig to Joe DiMaggio secured the Yanks as a pride of the city. And each spring as the season starts anew, New Yorkers continue to exercise that eminent capacity to celebrate greatness.
But just in case Opening Day doesn’t conclude favorably, there’s always the Nostalgia Train to relive the glory days and revel in our city’s great history.
All photos by Shawn Alston