The saga of the last surviving Brooklyn ballpark wall just keeps getting murkier and murkier. The latest news: Con Ed, which since the 1920s has owned the Gowanus property that once was a series of ballparks named Washington Park, tells the Voice that it is going to tear down part of the brick wall that runs along Third Avenue — but debate still rages over whether that section is a historic baseball artifact or just, you know, a wall.
First, some history. Brooklyn’s original National League team, the one that would ultimately become known as the Dodgers (for fans’ adeptness at ducking trolleys en route to the games), played at a series of wooden ballparks at various corners of Fourth Avenue and Third Street between 1883 and 1913, when they finally decamped for then-new Ebbets Field. That was not the end of major-league ball in Gowanus, however: The Brooklyn Tip-Tops of the rival Federal League arrived in 1914, and built a new steel-and-concrete stadium on the old Dodgers site, playing there for two years before the Feds lost their war with the established leagues and gave up the ghost.
The final Washington Park was demolished in the 1920s when Con Ed took over the property, but one wall — stretching the length of Third Avenue between 1st and 3rd Streets — was left standing. The question for baseball history buffs ever since has been: Which stadium was it built for? Citing photos that show a wooden fence running along Third Avenue in the Dodger days, Brooklyn historian Brian Merlis and Brooklyn ballparks blogger David Dyte (disclosure: Dyte writes occasionally for my own blog) have argued that nothing survives from the Dodger era, and that what remains is from the Tip-Tops park — though both note that this would still make it the only remnant of major-league ball in Brooklyn, contemporary with Wrigley Field (which was itself originally built for the Fed League’s Chicago franchise).
Brooklyn baseball historian Tom Gilbert, however, holds out hope for a Dodger link. Noting that the wall changes design in two places — the middle has what were once arched windows, while at either end there are squarish columns — and that a 1914 construction photo shows the windowed section in place while the columned bit is incomplete, Gilbert suggests that this indicates part of it was preserved from the earlier ballpark. “We couldn’t think of any reason why anybody would start a project like this where 200 feet of the wall would be started and the rest wouldn’t,” he says of the group of Society for American Baseball Research members that researched the wall’s provenance. He says he consulted architects and masons who agreed that the photo could show an earlier wall being shored up to go with new construction.
As for a Library of Congress photo uncovered by Dyte that appears to show most of the block in early 1914 with no wall present, Gilbert says “photography distortion tricks” could be to blame.”Maybe all we have here is that they saved a foundation. Or maybe they saved a couple of feet of windowed wall. But an expert opinion was it looked like they were saving something.”
Dyte and Merlis insist this is all wishful thinking. Merlis (disclosure: he gave us the above photo from his website for this story for free) says, “From my maps and photos, it seems like the [entire] wall went up after the 1913 season. Sometime around ’14 or ’15.” A Brooklyn Eagle photo posted on Dyte’s BrooklynBallparks.com site seems to concur, though Dyte acknowledges the reproduction is pretty poor quality.
The reason all this saber-geekery matters is that Con Ed (disclosure: they supply the electricity that is letting me type this article) has promised not to disturb anything “considered historic,” if anyone can agree on what that means. Con Ed spokesperson Joy Faber says after consulting with wall historians (including Gilbert) the utility is “in the process of preparing the structure to be demolished and replaced with a new structure,” while retaining the wall — but only the windowed wall and the northernmost columned section. The southern half of the wall will soon be razed, says Faber, to make way for a “one-story building [that] will house fire protection systems that supports the entire Con Edison complex, as well as storage.”
Opinions differ on whether this is a historic tragedy or an okay compromise. (The partial wall-razing, not the storage building. No historians care about storage buildings, at least not until they’re way older.) Gilbert says he’s confident that what Con Ed is “planning on tearing down is actually nowhere near the historical part,” saying he has evidence (which he hadn’t put his hands on as of this blog posting) showing the wall section marked for death was built after the Tip-Tops moved out. Dyte disagrees: “I’d like to see some proof that it postdates the Federal League before they knock it down.”
Merlis agrees with Dyte that the whole wall is most likely from 1914: “If the wall looks the same throughout, with those parapets, it was probably built at the same time. At that time, it was nothing to build a wall like that — you could get a gang of Italian guys to knock it off in a week.” Yet he thinks keeping a portion of it while razing the rest is a fine solution. “All they need to do is to keep a piece of it and put a plaque on it,” noting it was built for the Federal League on a site used for major-league ball since the 19th century, he says.
“It’s really an ugly wall,” Merlis adds. But “it’s still a very historic thing.”