Batter Up! Baseball on the Lower East Side
July 9, 2013

Summer is upon us, and it’s time for beaches, beer, boardwalks and baseball. New York City has a long history with America’s summer pastime, dating back almost 200 years!

A Game in Progress in Central Park's Great Lawn

The 1858 Brooklyn Eckfords (precursors to the Dodgers) played at Union Grounds, the first enclosed professional baseball field in history, located across the East River from the Lower East Side in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

"Give me an E, Give me a C, Give me a K..."

Similar to today’s Subway Series rivalry, the Eckfords often played the New York Mutuals, who represented Manhattan. The Mutuals were an early baseball dynasty – founded in 1857, they generally either won or played in the League’s championship game for decades. In 1872, the Mutuals came in 3rd in the National League, losing only to the Boston Red Stockings and the Baltimore Canaries (do those names sound familiar…?) and in 1872, The Mutuals executed the first triple play in professional baseball history.

An unidentified New York Mutuals player

Baseball is clearly in New Yorkers’ blood!

Down in the Lower East Side, baseball has always been an important sport for immigrants arriving to America. When Puerto Ricans migrants began moving to the neighborhood, the game reached new heights in popularity.

Puerto Ricans first became familiar with the game in the early 1900’s, during the Spanish American War, when American troops would organize games with local Puerto Ricans. By the time mass Puerto Rican migration to America began in the 1930s, baseball was already Puerto Rico’s most popular sport with the ‪Liga de Béisbol Profesional drawing huge crowds. Once established in the Lower East Side, Puerto Rican immigrants began organizing into local teams such as the San Juan Baseball Club. In this early advertisement from 1924, The “New York East Side’s” San Juan Baseball Club is playing the Porto Rican Stars in an inter league game in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn.

This mixture of Puerto Rican and New York enthusiasm for baseball culminated in a 1947 five game series between the Ponce Lions of the Puerto Rican Pro Baseball league and the New York Yankees of the Major League Baseball’s American League. The series resulted with a sweep of the Yankees by the Lions proving that the Puerto Rican league could go toe to toe with the Major Leagues. It didn’t take long for the most talented Puerto Rican players, many from the working class population of the Lower East Side, to be drafted into American leagues. However, due to the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Puerto Rican players were relegated to the Negro League, as were all Hispanics.

Louis Castro, who may or may not have been the first Hispanic player in the Major Leagues, seen here in 1902 while playing on the Philadephia Athletics. Castro was probably born in Colombia, but lied and said he was born in New York so that he could play legally. According to Castro’s biographer, Nick Martinez, "He laid the stake and made it easier for everyone else who is Latin to come in and play the game of baseball."

Once the color barrier was broken, a flood of Puerto Rican and Puerto Rican-American players entered the Major Leagues. Of this wave of players perhaps none is more famous then hall of famer Roberto Clemente, who with 12 golden glove awards, remains heralded as one of the greatest outfielders of all time. It was New York’s own Brooklyn Dodgers that gave Clemente his first break, signing him to a minor league contract straight out of the ‪Liga de Béisbol Profesional.

Stickball, or what baseball looks like for most Lower East Siders

Puerto Ricans remain a force in Major League Baseball with the St. Lois Cardinals’ Carlos Beltran an almost sure lock for this year’s National League All Star game, right here in New York City!

On July 16th (a week from today!), Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, will host the Major League Baseball All Star Game, marking the 9th time New York City has hosted the event. Fans vote on the starting lineup and players from California to Florida will make their way to Queens to show their stuff and try to win the “Midsummer Classic” for their League; National League versus American League.

– Posted by Michael Stallmeyer and Lib Tietjen