Jersey City's baseball history From Jackie Robinson to Rickey Henderson, the city had a ball
by :Jim Hague Jersey City Magazine Correspondent
Mar 23, 2007 | 6709 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jersey City has a rich and storied sports history that could fill books, particularly when it comes to baseball.

The city spawned the professional career of the most influential African-American athlete of the 20th century, and saw prominent games in their stadiums, played by both minor and major league teams.

Jackie Robinson

Easily the most historic moment in Jersey City baseball history occurred on April 18, 1946, when a 26-year-old African-American from California named Jack Roosevelt Robinson, also known as Jackie, took the field for the Montreal Royals against the Jersey City Giants, a Class AAA affiliate of the New York Giants, for Opening Day of the International League baseball season.

With that, Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the modern era of organized professional baseball. The game took place, appropriately, on a field known as Roosevelt Stadium, which was at the foot of Danforth Avenue at Route 440 in Jersey City, at a spot then known as Droyer's Point.

Opening Day of the baseball season was always festive in Jersey City. Each year, Mayor Frank Hague closed the city's schools and required all city employees to purchase tickets for the Jersey City Giants' home opener, guaranteeing a sellout for the Giants.

For this game, the Giants sold 52,000 tickets, more than double the stadium's capacity of 23,000. It was also the start of the first full baseball season since the end of World War II. But all eyes were focused on the much-anticipated debut of second baseman Robinson, who was booed unmercifully during his first plate appearance.

But Robinson managed to put on a memorable display for the thousands who jammed the ballpark in anticipation of seeing history. Robinson had four hits - three singles and a three-run homer. He stole two bases, scored four runs, and had four RBI in a 14-1 Montreal rout of the home team.

By the end of that first game, Robinson was receiving cheers instead of boos.

A year later, Robinson was well on his way to a Hall of Fame career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. More importantly, he opened the door for many other African-American ballplayers who followed in his footsteps. His accomplishment in Jersey City was later honored with a bronze statue of Robinson that adorns the PATH station at Journal Square.

The Skeeters

But the history of baseball in Jersey City doesn't begin and end with Jackie Robinson. In fact, baseball has been part of Jersey City since 1870, when the Jersey City Champions claimed the National Association amateur championship. But 15 years later, the amateurs weren't the only ones swinging bats there.

In 1885, professional baseball saw the formation of the Jersey City Skeeters, who played in the Class AA Eastern League. The Skeeters were affectionately nicknamed for the pesky mosquitoes that plagued West Side Park, where the team played (now the site of the College Towers housing complex near New Jersey City University).

In 1902, a new ballpark was erected with a seating capacity of 8,500 - a giant park at the time. It was nicknamed Skeeters Park.

In 1903, the Skeeters had a year that remains in the annals of professional baseball greatness. A recent listing by baseball experts called the 1903 Jersey City Skeeters the No. 7 minor league baseball team of all time. The Skeeters won their first 16 games in 1903 and finished 92-33, a record that stood for nearly 40 years.

The Skeeters were managed by Billy Murray, who would eventually manage the Philadelphia Phillies. The team's best player was outfielder Harry "Moose" McCormick, who led the Eastern League in batting and hits and was second in runs scored. McCormick later became one of the best pinch-hitters in the big leagues and went on to become the long-time baseball coach at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Other members of the historic Skeeter team were shortstop Mickey Doolan, who later played in the majors for 13 years and coached the Cubs and the Reds for six years, and catcher Fred Brown, who later became a U.S. Senator from New Hampshire.

After that historic season, the Skeeters were never the same. The franchise remained in Jersey City for the next 30 years, never winning a league title again. The Skeeters' last year of operation was 1933.

The Giants

In 1937, minor league baseball returned to Jersey City, this time with the Jersey City Giants, the Class AAA affiliate of the New York Giants, who moved their minor league affiliate from Albany to Jersey City. They used the brand new Roosevelt Stadium, built a year earlier by the national Works Progress Administration (WPA), established by President Roosevelt.

Designed by architect Christian H. Ziegler, the stadium was named for President Roosevelt by Mayor Hague in recognition of the program that brought jobs to the city during the Depression. Considered the best minor league ballpark of the time, the bowl-shaped Roosevelt Stadium was an architectural masterpiece, built at a price of $1.5 million.

Mayor Hague promised that as long as he was in office, no team in baseball would outdraw the Jersey City Giants on Opening Day.

On Apr. 23, 1937, the Giants played their first game at the new stadium with an overflow crowd of 31,234, the largest minor league single-game attendance ever. The Giants lost to the Rochester Red Wings that day, with future Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston hitting a game-winning single in the 12th inning.

The Opening Day attendances at Giants games continued to rise. In 1940, more than 50,000 attended - and the stadium's capacity was only 23,000.

A year later, 61,164 fans jammed Roosevelt Stadium on Opening Day, the largest single attendance for a minor league game. It's a record that still stands.

The Jersey City Giants boasted two International League champions, in 1939 and 1947, and the ticket sale bonanza for Giants' home openers continued until Hague left office in 1949.

Some of the future major leaguers who called Jersey City home during that time were Monte Irvin, Hank Thompson, Sal Yvars, Whitey Lockman and Bobby Thomson. In 1951, Thomson hit the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" that gave the New York Giants the National League pennant. It is considered the most famous home run in the history of baseball.

The Jersey City Giants remained at Roosevelt Stadium until 1950, when attendance dropped off considerably. The New York Giants moved the franchise to Ottawa.

The Dodgers

Major league baseball made an appearance in Jersey City in 1956 and 1957, when the Brooklyn Dodgers began a stint of seven home games each season at Roosevelt Stadium.

The move to Jersey City by Dodger owner Walter O'Malley seemed a tad bizarre, considering Jersey City was the long-time home of the minor league Giants and the city favored the New York Giants, not the hated Dodgers.

However, a year after the Dodgers won the 1955 World Series, the team brought its World Championship banner to Jersey City for the first game on Apr. 19, 1956. Cold and rainy weather limited attendance to only 12,214, but fans did see the Dodgers win a 5-4 decision over the Philadelphia Phillies in 10 innings.

The Dodgers would win six games at Roosevelt Stadium in 1956 and lose only one. That lone loss, 1-0 to the Giants, came when the immortal Willie Mays hit a home run clear over the back wall of Roosevelt Stadium, some 450 feet away.

O'Malley's experiment in moving the Dodgers out of Brooklyn's Ebbets Field worked wonders. The team averaged 21,196 fans per game in Jersey City, as opposed to 15,217 at Ebbets Field, an increase of 40 percent.

The Dodgers returned in 1957 for seven more games and winning five, this time drawing even more fans. It gave O'Malley the brilliant idea that he could move his team west from Brooklyn - although he didn't stop in Jersey City. In 1958, the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, a shift that still irks Brooklyn faithful to this day.

Cuban invasion

Minor league baseball had disappeared from Jersey City for a decade, before the Cincinnati Reds decided to move their Class AAA International League franchise to Jersey City.

The Jersey City Jerseys, comprised of mostly Cuban players that migrated from Havana during the Fidel Castro takeover, and managed by Nap Reyes, one of the first Latinos to ever play major league baseball, featured some standout players who made the majors. They included Cookie Rojas, Vic Davalillo, Leo Cardenas, Julian Javier, and two-time American League Cy Young Award winner Mike Cuellar.

The team, formerly known as the Havana Sugar Kings, frowned upon being called the Jersey City Reds because of the Castro revolution and the reference to Communism.

The team remained in Jersey City for two seasons, 1960 and 1961, with little success.

The Indians and Rickey Henderson

Minor league baseball then vacated Jersey City for another 16 years, before the Cleveland Indians decided to put its Class AA affiliate in the Eastern League in Jersey City. Some 90 years after being one of the founding members of the Eastern League, Jersey City once again had a franchise.

The Jersey Indians won just 40 games and lost 97 in 1977. However, it was the home of future major league pitchers Jim Clancy, Mike Darr and Jeff Byrd. Outfielder Garry Hancock was also eventually promoted to the big leagues by the Cleveland Indians and later played for the Boston Red Sox.

A year later, the Jersey Indians' affiliation was with the Oakland Athletics as the franchise's Class AA representative. The 1978 Indians featured four players who would eventually play for the A's: outfielder Ray Cosey, infielder Darrell Woodard, pitcher Mike Norris (who finished second in the 1980 American League Cy Young Award balloting) and a speedy 19-year-old outfielder named Rickey Henderson.

Less than a year after leaving Jersey City, Henderson would be called up by the Oakland A's. He would become baseball's all-time stolen base king and would carve a career that will eventually land him in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Even with all that talent, the 1978 Indians went 54-83 and finished in last once again.

The 1979 season was cancelled when a winter storm blew down two light stanchions at the stadium that were never repaired. Roosevelt Stadium was torn down in 1984, and today the Society Hill residential development stands there.

Homegrown ballplayers

Though Jersey City no longer fielded teams in professional baseball, it did manage to produce some great players who made the majors over the years. Dickinson High School product Johnny Kucks was a fine pitcher for the Yankees and won a game in the 1956 World Series. Pitchers like Jim Brady (Detroit Tigers) and Jim Hannan (Washington Senators) blazed the trail in the days before the major league draft.

The greatest success story to come from Jersey City was fireballing right-hander Willie Banks, who was drafted by the Minnesota Twins with the third pick overall in the 1987 draft, the highest selection ever by a New Jersey product. Banks, an All-State pitcher out of St. Anthony High School and the Gatorade High School National Player of the Year that year, went on to pitch in the majors for nine years.

Another great Jersey City baseball standout was John Valentin, a high school teammate of Banks' who gained fame with the Boston Red Sox. Valentin played 11 seasons in the majors with the Red Sox and the Mets and was the recipient of the 1995 Silver Slugger Award as the top-hitting shortstop in baseball.

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