Baseball has returned to its roots, to hallowed ground, to a sacred shrine, to Jersey City.
No joke. Jersey City, not Brooklyn, is the birthplace of integrated Organized Baseball, and Jersey City, not Cincinnati, had the first big-time night game. There is history aplenty in Jersey City, and now after a 16-year hiatus, baseball is back in town. Transplanted this season from Williamsport, Pa., the team is the Jersey Indians, a Double A club in the Cleveland system.
Operating right across the Hudson from Yankee-Met territory may seem like a tall order, but minor league baseball has been cropping up in some major places of late, like the 71,330-seat Superdome, where the New Orleans Pelicans, a Cardinal farm, opened several weeks ago before 18,197 fans, and in San Jose, Calif. (pop. 446,000), where Oakland's Triple A farm team moved this season from Tucson. "The stadium, not the city, is the major consideration," says Bobby Bragan, president of the minor leagues. "More than anything, major league clubs want good parks for their farm teams."
Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium, which seats 24,170, is being refurbished by the city at a cost of $75,800. Unfortunately, work was just getting under way in April when the Indians opened their Eastern League season. Playing in a depressing setting that featured poor lighting, patchy grass and a Ferris wheel from a nearby carnival turning just behind the center-field fence, they lost six of nine games during their first home stand. The temporary scoreboard in right field failed to indicate balls and strikes. What information it did supply was indecipherable, because someone forgot to put headings, such as hits, runs and innings, over the number slots.
The Indians, a collection of young players from places like Pearland, Texas, Effingham, Ill. and Temperance, Mich., at first seemed awed to be playing in sight of Manhattan's colossal World Trade Center and the Empire State Building. They also cursed the condition of the field and wondered where they would find inexpensive apartments without long leases, the only type of accommodations they could afford on their $800-$1,000 monthly salaries.
It remained for the team captain, Benny Heise, to offer an encouraging word to his teammates. "This is an average minor league field," said Heise, 25, the well-traveled brother of Bob Heise, the well-traveled utility man now with the Kansas City Royals, "and we'll get used to playing in this area."
Sure enough, the players located a suitable apartment complex in nearby South Orange and, after losing their first five games, began making some good plays in the field. But the Indians were less adept with their bats, scoring only 28 runs in those first nine home games. "These kids are from small towns," says Manager John Orsino, a former big league catcher and the only Jersey resident on the team. "They're overanxious." Whatever the state of their anxiety, the Indians had an 11-33 record at the end of last week and were mired in last place, 18 games behind the division-leading Three Rivers Eagles.
Nevertheless, the Indians have inspired enthusiastic support from their home fans. The crowds have averaged 1,007 a game, a figure topped in the eight-team league only by the Waterbury, Conn. Giants, and the Indians attracted a league-record 8,886 to their first Sunday contest. The darling of the exuberant crowds is the youngest Indian, 19-year-old First Baseman Angelo Lo Grande. When Lo Grande, who is hitting barely .200, comes to bat the fans holler, "Let's go, An-ge-lo!"
"The fans are knowledgeable and fair," says Orsino. "They cheer when we play well and boo when we play bad." According to one loyal Jersey City booster, produce salesman Frank Petrocelli, "The fans will turn out in greater force when summer comes. This is more of a rural town than a cosmopolitan one. A lot of people go to New York only once a year, and they want something local to identify with."
Jersey City has had minor league baseball teams intermittently since 1878 and has fielded some noteworthy players, such as George Stovey, a black pitcher who won 35 games in 1886, and George (Twinkletoes) Selkirk, the Yankee who was nicknamed after a Jersey show girl. Once during the 1920s the Donnelly family, which operated the franchise, lured fans to now-razed West Side Park by staging a night game. "We rented kliegs from the Majestic Light Company," Frank Donnelly, the team's general manager, told the Jersey Journal. "But the lighting was only so-so, and we couldn't stay with it. The score of that game was something like 11-0. It was burlesque." It was also far ahead of the times; the majors did not play a game under the lights until 1935.
The heyday of Jersey City baseball occurred in the 1930s and 1940s when the Triple A Jersey Giants played under the not-so-benevolent aegis of Mayor Frank (I am the law) Hague. Although his annual salary was only $6,250, Boss Hague owned a $125,000 estate and wintered at Biscayne Bay in Florida. "Good investments," he said when asked how he could afford such a luxurious life-style on his low salary.
Roosevelt Stadium, which Hague built, was put up in 1937 with some $3 million of WPA funds. It is a handsome art deco structure with a brick, glass and wrought-iron facade. During his 1941 reelection campaign Hague had his Hudson County heelers sell a minor league record 61,164 tickets for Opening Day. Some 40,000 fans crowded into the park, and as Hague triumphantly threw out the first ball a plane flew overhead trailing a banner that read BEAT HAGUE—VOTE AMERICAN.
On April 18, 1946 Jersey City was the scene of the pro debut of a 28-year-old Montreal Royals infielder named Jackie Robinson. "They threw a black cat on the field and booed him," recalls Stadium Superintendent Al Keenan. "Then he got three singles and a home run, scored four runs, drove in four and stole two bases. In the end they gave him a standing ovation." Robinson returned to Jersey City with the Brooklyn Dodgers to play seven regular-season games in 1956. In 1960 and 1961 the Havana Sugar Kings, refugees from Castro's Cuba, made their home in Jersey City, but then baseball quietly disappeared until the Indians arrived last April.
Mayor Hague never would have recognized Opening Day, 1977. For one thing, it was Opening Night. For another, only 1,643 fans were on hand. A reform mayor and gubernatorial candidate named Paul T. Jordan threw out the first ball. And Dominick Pugliese, the dapper little city council president who helped bring back baseball, beamed through it all. "We've had rock concerts on this field," he said. "They created a bad image, but we wanted to keep the place going. I still think it's a beautiful park. When the high school and college teams get off it in the summer, the grass will improve. Pretty soon we'll have 1,000 new seats, better lighting and a new scoreboard."
Few of the players on the field that night will be future stars like Bobby Thomson, Monte Irvin, Whitey Lockman and Sal Maglie—Jersey Giants who later became New York Giants. Indeed, the Indians lost to the Bristol Red Sox 3-2 in 10 innings in a game that featured 11 errors and nine double plays. No matter. The noisy crowd kept chanting. "Let's go, An-ge-lo!"
Manager John Orsino is the only Indian who calls New Jersey home in the off-season.