A Review

September 23, 2017

Review of Baseball’s Peerless Semi-Pros: The Brooklyn Bushwicks of Dexter Park by Thomas Barthel

(St. Johann’s Press: Harworth NJ, 2009. $29.95 on Amazon)

 

Not really. I mean, I’m going to review this book for you, but I can’t think of a compelling reason for you to read it.  Not that it’s a terrible book, but its scope is extremely limited, perhaps to those who live within walking distance of Dexter Park, a now-demolished baseball stadium on the border of Brooklyn and Queens.  I’ve often noted that the borderline between those boroughs consists largely of a serpentine network of cemeteries, on both sides of a twisty parkway formerly known as the Interborough Parkway, more recently re-named after Jackie Robinson, who is buried a hardball’s throw away from Dexter Park.  Since I live about a mile from that morbid border-zone, and pass the site of Dexter Park on my subway ride to and from work, that explains my initial interest in this book, which I enjoyed reading.  Any appeal it has to a broader readership rests on general interest in 20th-century semi-pro baseball, a subject on which I, for one, had a deep and abiding ignorance until I read this book.

Let me get the book’s shortcomings out of the way first, though: its chief appeal is to local denizens of Brooklyn and Queens, and the minutiae of different neighborhoods and the baseball teams that represented them. These may be just names to you. Baseball’s Peerless Semi-Pros contains a lot of names, mostly those of professional ballplayers who played, or who would play, or who had played in semi-pro games while semi-pro ball thrived in New York City, some of them quite well known names:  Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig barnstormed in Dexter Park, Whitey Ford pitched there as a teenager growing up in Queens, Phil Rizzuto’s high school played its games on the site, Joe DiMaggio was photographed there (standing next to Rizzuto), Bob Grim played his high school ball there as well (for Franklin K. Lane High School, sandwiched in between Dexter Park and Cypress Hills Cemetery, where Jackie Robinson’s grave rests).  And not only Yankees: Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants and other major leaguers played for or against the Bushwicks in exhibition games, and the greatest Negro League stars, including Robinson, Satchell Paige, Josh Gibson, Smokey Joe Williams, Martin Dihigo, and Willie Wells, played here frequently as well. But the structure of Baseball’s Peerless Semi-Pros is strictly chronological, so for the most part it gives a dry annual account of which players played for which teams in which year at Dexter Park, until the Negro leagues and semi-pro baseball itself ceased to exist in the mid-1950s, far from the most arresting of catalogues to read, unless you’re drawn to this material for other reasons.

By the time Dexter Park was razed in 1955, much like Ebbets Field, a few miles deeper into Brooklyn and a few years later, semi-pro baseball in New York City was pretty much eradicated as well.  I grew up in Brooklyn, but I never so much as heard the Bushwicks' name, or their ballpark’s name, or even of their existence until I read this book, which was a shame. One truth that Baseball’s Peerless Semi-Pros brought home to me was how major leaguers needed to hustle dollars and cents by playing ball on major-league off-days during the season, and before the season, and after the season, and how comparable the sums they received for playing what amounts to pick-up games were to their daily wages in the big leagues. George Earnshaw, for example, a former star pitcher for Connie Mack’s Athletics in the early 1930s, was sent to the minors in early 1937, but instead "on Sundays, he went up to New York to pitch for the Brooklyn Bushwicks for $200 a week" ( p. 135).  Two hundred bucks per week was good money in 1937 for pitching once a week, comparable to big-league salaries and well above a minor-league paycheck.

Perhaps more significantly, after players’ big-league days were done, they couldn’t afford even to think about retiring on their savings:  until salaries exploded towards the end of the 20th century, major league players didn’t get paid enough to be able to retire. They just found jobs, and often the job they found most easily was that of semi-pro baseball player. A player who’d lost his big-league skills could often eke out a surprisingly long semi-pro career, often well into his forties. He’d be comparably paid, partly on the basis of his fame as a major-leaguer but also partly because his deteriorating skills were often sufficient to allow him to thrive against semi-pro competition.

Not always, though. I was surprised to learn that the level of competition in semi-pro baseball often was such that batters who’d lost the ability to hit big-league pitching found that they could no longer hit semi-pro pitching either. When Whitey Ford showed Yankee scouts how well he could pitch as a 17-year old pitcher in 1946, it was sufficient to draw their interest (and their capital) that he could hold the Bushwick batters to occasional contact. Super-stars like Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio did well batting against the Bushwicks’ pitchers, but I came across no tales of the time one of them hit six homers in a game or drove in a dozen runs, which is what you might expect if they had batted against grossly inferior pitching. Super-stars did well, but of course they did well against major league pitching as well, and the outcomes in Dexter Park are similar to good days by DiMaggio, Gehrig and Ruth in American League stadiums.

The only superhuman stat I came across in the semi-pro leagues was the 18-0 Win/Loss record that Whitey Ford put up, pitching in an inferior semi-pro league to the one the Bushwicks played in. According to Ford’s SABR-bio, "The team went 36-0 to win the Queens-Nassau semipro league, with Ford winning 18 games without a loss when pitching," which is perhaps not that far out of line with Ford’s Win/Loss record in professional baseball. (He went 51-20 in the Yankees’ farm system the next few seasons, and 9-1 in his rookie A.L. year.)   As to the Negro League super-stars, Buck O’Neil is quoted here (p. 71) as responding to a comment about how unfortunate it was that Negro League players never got to bat against the best pitchers in the world with the quip, "How do you know they didn’t?"

Bill once wrote (I thought a bit hyperbolically) that MLB could support hundreds of teams, if it wanted to, and if the demand were there,  continuing to play baseball at a very high level of play, but this book really brought Bill’s point home to me. Dexter Park, demolished around the time I was learning to crawl, was a capacious and vigorous structure, seating over 15,000 paying customers (estimates go as high as 20,000 for special occasions), and equipped with lights and other amenities before any big-league stadium had them. The Bushwicks were very proud of their lighting system, which allowed for night baseball from the 1930 season. I can’t vouch for the quality of the lighting, of course, and I’m dubious about it, if only because I doubt that any early lighting system measures up to contemporary technology, but also because the Bushwicks’ lights were apparently portable: they carried them to away games so they could play night ball when they were the visiting team as well. But they did play many games under those lights five years before the Reds played the first major league game at night (and decades before the Cubs installed theirs in Wrigley Field.)  Wrigley, Ebbets, Fenway, Braves Field, and Dexter Park were all constructed at about the same time, between 1912 and 1917, and while Dexter Park’s capacity was the least of the five, it wasn’t the least by very much.

Indeed I might use the seating capacity of the five ballparks as an approximation of the quality of play, which might have been four-fifths of the capacity of the smallest big-league park in the 1910s. The most astute spectator can distinguish the quality of play between the worst MLB teams and the best semi-pros, but to most fans, it’s all highly skillful play. There are certainly photographs and newspaper articles showing the Bushwicks’ fans to be similar to the fans in Ebbets Field—some of them are, in fact, the same exact people, such as the Dodger’s #1 rooter, a foghorn-voiced lady named Hilda Chester, who appears throughout numerous accounts of the Dodgers in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.  One 1940s Dexter Park observer wrote of her: "Hilda Chester was a frequent visitor and would humorously give Tim Adams a hard time, yelling ‘pull up your pants, Timmy.’ He would tug at them for a second to humorously acknowledge her." This anecdote, and many others, appears in http://www.covehurst.net/ddyte/brooklyn/dexter.html, which probably summarizes most of Barthel’s content effectively for most people’s purposes. It also features some choice photographs of famous players at Dexter Park, pictures of the park itself, and the commemorative plaque that now stands on Jamaica Avenue as the only tangible sign of the long-since-vanished venue’s existence.

In my searching, I also came upon a more tangible remnant of the ballpark that preceded Ebbets Field as (maybe) the Dodgers’ home field, a section of a still-standing wall that may have stood as part of Washington Park (the alternative explanation is that this chunk of brick wall was erected for the Brooklyn Federal League team in 1914—in either case, it’s old.)  The detailed account of this wall can be found here: http://www.brooklynballparks.com/, plus a lot more information about various early-baseball sites, including Dexter Park.

This sifting through architectural remains coincides with another interest of mine, stuff in and around New York City that no longer exists. Twice a year, I lead a walking tour of Lower Manhattan on "Literary Sites Below Chambers Street" (the oldest part of the city, which was virtually the only settled part until the 19th century), none of which are actually standing. I point out various sites on which literary history, or sometimes just plain-old American history, took place—for example, I point at the faculty parking lot at Pace (capacity: about 12 cars—I got to park there last sometime in the mid-1990s) that in the mid-19th century used to hold a tavern called the Pewter Mug, where a fledgling political reporter named Walt Whitman would gather gossip and scoops from the pols who hung out there. (I can actually do most of the walking tour without leaving the Pace campus, which comes in handy in foul weather.)  Or I can point to the Manhattan stanchion of the Brooklyn Bridge, and note that a century before the Bridge opened to traffic, the very first Presidential Mansion stood right there, and George Washington conducted the nation’s first business on that very spot.

So for me, it’s fun exploring defunct sites of baseball history, especially those in my neighborhood, but it’s also instructive to realize through gazing on these sites how much baseball has changed within my lifetime. Not only are players being paid incomparably more than they were only a half-century ago, but even the most marginal major-leaguers at this point have little need to seek work outside of baseball, or in the off-season. They may choose to work—most, I imagine, do—but they don’t need to. In 1938, by way of contrast, future Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt, a Brooklyn native, pitched his final game for the Brooklyn Dodgers on May 15th, and promptly went to work pitching for the Bushwicks: "When August began, Waite Hoyt’s record was at 7-5. But as the summer progressed [he] was at his best….", ending when he won a game on October 9th, against the Bay Parkways, another semi-pro team from Brooklyn. (I grew up on Bay Parkway.)  By early October, Bay Parkway’s outfielder Joe Greenberg had persuaded his big brother Hank to play for his team, Hank just having completed his 58-HR season the week before. Playing in a doubleheader at Dexter Park, Greenberg was held to 2-for7 by Waite Hoyt and a pitcher named Johnny Bittner. The Greenberg brothers’ team lost, and the Bushwicks swept, the doubleheader. I don’t think you’ll often see that sort of thing today, two Hall of Famers facing off in a semi-pro game in the inner city, with the greatest slugger in the game making five outs in seven tries.

Such anecdotes convince me that semi-pro baseball of the sort played in Dexter Park was, perhaps inconsistently, at a higher level than I’d given it credit for. The high level of play perhaps explains the gaps in certain players’ careers that I’d pondered before, with no satisfactory answer.  Take Marius Russo, one of the least memorable Yankee stars of the World War II era. Russo was a Yankee teammate of Phil Rizzuto, and also a predecessor of Rizzuto’s at Richmond Hill High School, which you’ll remember played its home games at Dexter Park for both of them. But Russo, despite being over three years older than Rizzuto, began his minor league career the same year that Rizzuto did, 1937. And while it’s true that Russo went to college (LIU, Brooklyn) and Rizzuto did not, I wondered if the lower quality of college ball (compared with the competition in the minor leagues) might have held back Russo’s development. It turns out, though, that Russo made serious progress in his pitching in the 1936 season for the Bushwicks before beginning his career as a Yankee farmhand. "Working with [Bushwicks’ coach and former big-league catcher Charlie] Hargreaves," Russo says in his SABR-bio, "was a great experience for me. He was smart, experienced in big league ways and he taught me a lot about pitching that I never learned in college ball." There is really no equivalent to this level of play anymore: college-ball has perhaps stepped up its level of coaching and competition, and minor league instruction has no doubt improved, but if so, they have each done so to fill the gap left by semi-pro baseball’s absence from the game.

By a quirk of owning a historical Strat-o-Matic set as a boy, I grew up under the misconception that Russo was a more significant player in baseball history than he was—he was the Yankees’ best starting pitcher in 1941, the year of the Yankee team in the Strat set I owned, and I relied heavily on him to pitch key games, because that card was terrific: Russo had 14 wins in 1941, 209 innings, and a nifty 3.09 ERA. He led the 101-game-winning Yankee pitchers in starts, in IP, in ERA, in strikeouts, in WAR, and was my main man, or my main card, whenever I managed those Yankees. He was only 26 that year but that was the last good year he had, and his career petered out before he turned 30.  According to Barthel’s account, Russo pitched plenty for the Bushwicks, both before and after his Yankee career, and a little bit during it:  Russo’s Dexter Park appearances began in the mid-1930s and continued through the early 1950s, while Russo as a Yankee in 1944 managed a team that played in Dexter Park.

Another curious name I came across in Baseball’s Peerless Semi-Pros was that of National League outfielder Jim Hickman, a Tennessee native, who played for the Bushwicks. This is a different Jim Hickman, of course, from the one who played outfield for the Mets and Cubs in the 1960s, also from Tennessee. (And different from Piano Legs Hickman, who was not a Tennessean.) According to both of their Baseball-reference.com entries, they have no relation to each other. The earlier Jim Hickman, I learned from Barthel’s book, played mostly for the Brooklyn Dodgers but extensively for the Bushwicks after his major league career was over. Hickman, in fact, settled in Brooklyn, and died there in 1965, in the middle of the later Jim Hickman’s career as a regular for the Mets, a few miles north of Dexter Park. I was a little surprised, given the popularity of the Dodgers and the Bushwicks, that I learned of this coincidence in 2017—it’s the sort of thing that some enterprising reporter should have dug up while these two Hickmen were still alive and living in the same city.

Turns out, though, that the earlier Hickman had indeed died in Brooklyn, according to Baseball-reference.com, but not in 1965, or anytime in the 1960s but rather in 1958, when not even the most enterprising young reporter would have heard of the later Jim Hickman. I guess that counts as another demerit for Barthel’s research, since I wouldn’t have bothered tracking down the date of Hickman’s death unless I had a very good reason to run a tracer on that data point.

A third career I learned about through reading this book was that of Buck Lai, the Chinese-Hawaiian-American ballplayer whom Rob Neyer discussed at length in a chapter of his Baseball Legends book, the point of which was to settle Lai’s status as an early Asian-American big leaguer.  Neyer’s conclusion was that Lai occupied a nether-region of big-league status: he apparently was on the Giants’ roster for a couple of days early in the 1928 season, but never got into a game, so while he doesn’t appear in the record books, he does have a claim to being on a big-league roster during the regular season, make of that dubious status what you will.  But Barthel filled me on his semi-pro career in the New York Metropolitan region (Buck Lai settled here by marrying a Brooklyn girl he met on an early exhibition tour of New York.) His son became a baseball coach at a local college, the same one that Marius Russo had briefly played for, LIU, where he eventually became Director of Athletics. The elder Lai appears at various points as a Bushwick, both in Neyer’s account and in Barthel’s, giving me a clearer picture of his career and that of numerous other figures.

Baseball’s Peerless Semi-Pros paints a vivid picture of a type of ball I knew little about. It reminded me most of all of one of my favorite (and badly underrated) baseball books, Philip Roth’s Great American Novel, which if you haven't already, please run out right now and read it, whether you’ve got your pants on or not.  Roth’s novel is an over-the-top fable of a fictional third major league that thrived in the 1940s only to have its records expunged from post-war memories, and a hilarious read.  I just wrote an essay on Roth and other writers and filmmakers of the 1970s (coming out from Cambridge U. Press in a few months) but didn’t get a chance there to do more than mention this novel, which has much of the same flavor of early 1940s America as Baseball’s Peerless Semi-Pros (and is much easier to find—St Johann's Press of Harworth NJ, as it’s spelled on the title page, or Haworth NJ as it’s spelled on the copyright page, is not a major publisher).  As it was played before most of us were born, baseball used to have a wholly different atmosphere—intimate, human, gritty—that it has largely shed itself of in recent years, and one worth breathing in for a short while.

 

 
 

COMMENTS (7 Comments, most recent shown first)

steve161
You're right, I don't feel a need to read it and it's all your fault. This excellent review gives me the sense of having learned everything I want to know about semi-pro ball in New York, neither more nor less. Great stuff.
7:03 AM Sep 25th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks, Tom. I think the 1941 S-o-M set had to have come out earlier than 1992, because I remember playing it as a young fellow, and I was 39 years old in 1992. But we're going on personal memories here, so they are far from reliable. I think I remember playing the historical set in the early 1970s.

As to W.T. Mons10's point about off-season work, well, there's "have to" and there's "have to." I suppose no one "has to" work--a player who chose to live in a flophouse on the Bowery (not that flophouses exist anymore) and eat out of trash cans could always have decided not to work, but until some point late in the 20th century, the vast majority of players (except those few born to independent wealth, and a few superstars) chose to work at pretty ordinary off-season jobs: clothing salesman, gas station attendant, insurance salesman, which supplemented their incomes usefully, both as sources of income and as fallbacks when their playing careers ended, neither of which current players need to do. MLB players might have earned above average yearly salaries from the start, but until salaries exploded in the late 1970s, they would often feel badly underpaid, run low on money during the season, need to borrow $$$ from the team, take speaking engagements for $10 or $20 fees, etc. Someone who made $9000 in 1966 (I just saw Tug McGraw's 1966 contract on display in Citifield last night) was doing okay, but he would often feel the need to pick up extra income in the off-season. (McGraw, as I remember, had trained to be a barber in case his baseball career didn't pan out.)
6:20 AM Sep 24th
 
trn6229
Thank you for your review, Steven. I also play Strat-O-Matic Baseball. I grew up in the Boston area but my mom was from Jersey. She was born in Jersey City. In 1977, when I was 15, I visited my grandparents home in Cliffside Park. NJ by myself. My mom's cousin Billy played APBA Baseball and he took me that summer to Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium and to a high school all star game at Roosevelt Stadium. I missed Ebbets Field, I was born in 1962. Brooklyn and baseball go together like peanut butter and jelly.

When SOM was researching the 1941 season, Marius Russo was consulted about player ratings. He was a friend of SOM researcher Steve Barkan. The 1941 came out around 1992.

Take Care,
Tom Nahigian
11:07 PM Sep 23rd
 
W.T.Mons10
When did professional baseball players no longer have to work in the off-season. Well, major leaguers have always been well-paid compared to the average person, and have never had to work in the off-season if they managed their money properly. Other professional players to this date make less than minimum wage, and have to work in the off-season.
8:46 PM Sep 23rd
 
MarisFan61
Real nice!!
I likewise was struck by that thing Bill said, and have always had doubt that it is so.
7:15 PM Sep 23rd
 
Gfletch
Hey, I really enjoyed that.

The James article you cited (that claimed that America could easily support a couple of hundred teams) had a significant effect on me. It was one of those, 'Ah Ha!" moments, clarifying the at that time unarticulated thought that talent is not in short supply. Not for anything.

You correctly identify the reason we are not aware of this: the marketplace only has so much room to support talent in any field. You can see proof of this on all of these talent shows, such as American Idol, America's Got Talent, The X-Factor, etc. On every show every year you hear several people who can sing as well as anybody, who nevertheless are never heard from again (not saying they don't manage unheralded careers; just not top-of-the-marquee careers).

When did professional athletes no longer have to work in the off-season? I would guess some time around 1980, give or take, for baseball. I think soccer players play soccer all year long (is that right?). I believe, though I don't know, that most pro sports teams actually prohibit their players from playing in the off season. I suspect that not playing your sport during the off season is a big negative for individual careers.
12:44 PM Sep 23rd
 
bearbyz
I also read the "Great American Novel" by Phillip Roth and highly recommend it.
12:01 PM Sep 23rd
 
 
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