Today not too many people remember Dexter Park, but in the first half of the twentieth century it played host to many the top baseball stars of the majors and the Negro Leagues. Those who attended games there remember it with respect and affection. Some stoutly maintain that it was in Brooklyn, but it was actually right over the county line in Queens.
The early history of Dexter Park is obscure. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Union Course racetrack, established in 1821, occupied the area between Jamaica Avenue (then Jamaica Plank Road) and Atlantic Avenue. Its location just outside Brooklyn was not a coincidence. The racing business, associated as it usually is with gambling and other vices, was not considered a congenial neighbor in the City of Churches, but the state legislature was willing to allow and even encourage racing in Queens.
Despite its dubious reputation, the Union Course produced at least one hero, who was by all accounts a man of upstanding moral character. In 1857 Hiram Woodruff purchased a plot of almost ten acres between Cypress Hills Cemetery and Jamaica Avenue, east of Elderts Lane. In those days, popular pastimes for the upper classes were riding, sleighing, and sometimes racing on Jamaica Avenue. They and their horses required refreshment, and several roadhouses, including Woodruff’s, provided for them.
In the 1880s Woodruff’s hotel and the land around it became Dexter Park. By that time, Brooklynites had been entertained by such clubs as the Atlantics, Eckfords, and Excelsiors, and baseball was an exceedingly popular pastime. The earliest reference to the name Dexter Park, or to baseball being played there is on July 3, 1885. The South Side Observer reported:
Dexter’s on the plankroad and just east of the Kings county line is a complete resort for Sunday baseball players. The participants are a class
who have been under the eye of the Kings County authorities for some time, but escaped arrest by stepping over into this county. Applause and yelling are the order of the afternoon, and intoxicants are sold.(1)
Dexter Park made news again in 1900 when neighbors complained of pigeon shooting that allegedly occurred daily and put residents in terror for their lives.(2) There is conflicting evidence as to whether a racetrack still existed on the site by then.
In 1901 the William Ulmer Brewery acquired Dexter Park, which became home to multiple sports and amusements. A 1909 newspaper advertisement boasted of a baseball field, bowling alleys, swings, a dancing pavilion, and a carrousel, in the “most conveniently located and most attractive picnic grounds in the greater city.”(3) Conrad Hasenflug, the proprietor, was a former state senator; managing all these amusements was a job for a man of consequence. Although Hasenflug was listed as the proprietor, the actual ownership remained with the brewery.
The Bushwicks–The baseball field was leased in 1905 by John W. Connors for his Brooklyn Royal Giants. Connors was one of the few black owners in the Negro Leagues. He founded the Brooklyn Royal Giants with the profits generated by his supper club, the Royal Cafe.
Semipro and black baseball gradually became more commercial and better organized. The teams were also starting to attract savvy and ambitious business people. Both types of ball lacked a cooperative infrastructure for scheduling, apportioning gate receipts, umpiring, and securing playing grounds. They were often forced to rely on promoters who, for a percentage of the gross receipts, would schedule games and arrange fees and guarantees. One such booking agent was Nathaniel Strong. A native New Yorker and City University of New York graduate, Strong began as a sporting goods salesman. He became a promoter and quickly realized the importance of controlling the more profitable venues. A 1910 decree by then governor, Charles Evans Hughes, forced most racetracks to close and made some large parks available for baseball. By the early twentieth century Strong controlled several semipro ballparks, including Brighton Oval.
While Strong was empire building, another enterprising gentleman, Max Rosner, was building a baseball team. Born in 1876 in Hungary, Max had come to America, married, and was becoming a successful businessman. In 1903 he saw some of his factory employees playing baseball and offered to back them by buying uniforms and equipment. This was commonplace enough; lots of churches and companies sponsored amateur and semipro teams. The first team disbanded in 1910, and in 1911 Max organized the Cypress Hills team and leased Dexter Park. The Cypress Hills team was less than a rousing success. A far more proficient team, the Ridgewoods, was making a name for itself at the Wallace Grounds.
In 1913 Rosner founded a new team, the Bushwicks, and in partnership with Nat Strong, purchased the Ridgewoods. The Ridgewoods finished out the 1913 season and were then subsumed by the Bushwicks, but the new team continued playing at the Wallace Grounds. Meanwhile, Strong, having been crossed by John Connors, took his revenge by gaining control of the Brooklyn Royal Giants. He made them a traveling team with no home grounds. This act, and his tight control of eastern semipro ball, made him hated and feared by black baseball men.
The following year, on April 18, Max was arrested at the Wallace Grounds for the heinous crime of charging admission to a baseball game on the Sabbath.(4) Blue laws had been a problem for semipro and black baseball since their inception. Since most men worked six days a week, the opportunities to play or watch baseball were limited. There was some “twilight” ball, but the most profitable and convenient day was Sunday. On the other hand, non-fans complained of rowdy drunken baseball hooligans overrunning the trolleys and their otherwise peaceful neighborhoods, spoiling their one day of rest.
Ironically, it was not playing baseball that was illegal, but charging admission. In one newspaper article the citizens of Ridgewood are reported to have explained that the prime offenders were not the enclosed parks where admission was charged. At these sites crowds were controlled. However, at the unenclosed parks drunken fans spilled riotously out onto the streets.(5) Max was found not guilty. Like other owners of the day, he skirted the issue by offering free admission and requiring the purchase of a scorecard, which coincidentally cost the same as admission.
The Wallace Grounds had a wooden grandstand, and on September 19, 1917, it burned. The Bushwicks were forced to finish the season as a traveling team. For the following season, Max folded the Cypress Hills team and leased Dexter Park for the Bushwicks. The First World War, although hard on professional baseball, was a boom time for semipro and black baseball. Corporations saw sponsoring teams as a good way to build morale and esprit de corps while discouraging union membership.
In the early 1920s, with the coming of prohibition, breweries found it prudent to divest themselves of their real estate holdings. In the fall of 1922, Rosner and Strong purchased Dexter Park and conveyed it to Dexter Park, Inc., in which they were shareholders. They brought in new investors and replaced the wooden grandstand with a 6,000-seat, concrete and steel, single tier, covered grandstand. The capacity nd quality of the park were unique in semipro ball.
The Bushwicks were one of the top teams, always in demand, and, as such, were an important cornerstone of Strong’s control of black and semipro ball in the East. If Strong refused to do business with a team, it would lose one of its most profitable bookings. Black versus white games were popular with both black and white fans. Because black clubs were relatively few, those that existed were dependent on games with white semipro teams for much of their income. Many black clubs did not have dependable access to adequate home grounds, whereas the Bushwicks had an excellent field. The Bushwicks were also worthy–and profitable–competition.
Lights–Attendance was good and, in 1924, 2,000 more bleacher seats were added along the left field line. The Bushwicks attracted big crowds to their Sunday doubleheaders, but that was only one day a week. In the late 1920s, the minor leagues were experimenting with temporary lighting to attract fans on weeknight evenings. Max’s son, Herman, had become an electrical engineer and was interested in lighting the park. Strong opposed the lighting project, but was overruled. Light towers were installed on the top of the grandstand, and the first night game was played on Wednesday, July 23, 1930. The lights at Dexter Park were the first permanent installation of a focused lighting system in the United States.(6) The first night game in the major leagues would not take place until 1935, and Ebbets Field did not enjoy night games until 1938.
The late 1930s and early ’40s were the halcyon days of Dexter Park and the Bushwicks. They played on Wednesday and Friday nights, with a Sunday doubleheader. The claim in a 1931 advertisement of “Big League Baseball at Workingmen’s Rates” was not an idle boast.(7) Max Rosner was a good judge of talent and was willing to pay for superior players. He attracted young players on the way up and major leaguers at the end of their careers. For example, Waite Hoyt, released by Brooklyn in May 1938, finished out the season as a Bushwick. George Earnshaw and Lefty Gomez also wound up their careers as Bushwicks. Even Max wasn’t always a genius, though. In 1920 he gave a tryout to a young first baseman from Columbia, but didn’t hire him because the Bushwicks already had a first baseman. Lou Gehrig had better luck in the majors.
Some of the Bushwicks were not just extraordinary ballplayers, but extraordinary people. Fred Price, second from left in the team picture, right, was a war hero who sacrificed his shot at the major leagues to serve his country. Having worked his way up the Giants farm system, Price was close to earning a major league berth when he enlisted in October, 1940. During more than five years of duty he received three battle stars and a Purple Heart. Hit by shrapnel in the right knee, he was hospitalized for two and a half months and unable to walk for two months. When his tour of duty was finally complete in January, 1946, Price had served longer than any other ballplayer during the Second World War. At age 28, he returned to the Giants for spring training in 1946. Although apparently not handicapped by his war injuries, he didn’t make the major league team. He refused the Giants’ offer to go to Triple A, and returned to New York where he signed on with the Bushwicks. After a short stint as a Bushwick first baseman, Price continued playing semipro ball with Cedarhurst, the Springfield Greys, the Union City Reds and finally the New York Equitable Life team. Price was a success in business, too, finishing his career at Equitable as employee benefits manager.(8)
Dexter Park was a profitable stop on the barnstorming circuit. Casey Stengel, Dizzy and Paul Dean, Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, and Pete Gray all made appearances there. Gehrig (his earlier rejection notwithstanding) and Babe Ruth appeared together three times. In 1934 the Bushwicks reportedly attracted a crowd of 20,000 for an exhibition game against the Bay Parkways, which featured New York Giant pitcher Carl Hubbell.(9)
Fans could take the Jamaica Avenue trolley or the elevated train to the Elderts Lane station. Once at the park, they could look forward, not only to good baseball, but to a variety of concessions: ice cream, Rheingold beer, Merkles hot dogs, Kist soda (orange, sarsaparilla or cream), and, of course, peanuts. Joe Prince called the game over the public address system. You could rent a leather seat cushion, and, just like today, displeasure with events on the field sometimes resulted in a shower of them.(10)
Decline–Some changes took place in the park grounds during this period. The carrousel, bowling alley, and dance hall disappeared. The area where the carrousel had been was given over to parking. The hotel became the Dexter Park Casino and later Frank Fischetti’s restaurant.
Nothing good lasts forever. Semipro baseball and Dexter Park were no exceptions. The two events that conspired to undo them were the collapse of the Negro Leagues due to the integration of Organized Baseball, and the coming of television. By 1949 the Bushwicks were losing money.
Much as Max Rosner loved his Bushwicks, he saw the handwriting on the wall, and introduced stock car racing in 1951. The infield was moved in and the track passed around the outside of the baseball field. In the same year, the Bushwicks folded. Their last game was played in Ramsey, New Jersey, against the Silk Sox.(11)
Max Rosner died on Nov. 28, 1953, at the age of seventy-six. (Nat Strong had died in 1935.) Stock car racing continued through 1955, when the Dexter Park property was sold. In the following year, the stands were torn down and replaced by one- and two-family houses.
Today, if you visit the site of Dexter Park, you will find little reminder of how special a place it was. The Dexter Park Pharmacy is still doing business on Jamaica Avenue. A newly erected plaque marks the approximate spot of the old ballpark but it is in the parking lot of a supermarket. Residences line Dexter Court, but you have to wonder if the occupants know anything about the area they inhabit. You wonder if they even know that they are living on a street named after a fabled horse (see box on next page), that crowds of 5,000 rabid Bushwicks fans lived and died with their beloved team, that Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson added to their legends on the spot where they now live. In the end, Ebbets Field and Dexter Park suffered the same fate. When we last visited Dexter Court, nobody was outside playing ball.
Where Dexter Park Got Its Name
In the 1860s, Dexter was a very famous and popular athlete: a trotting horse. The son of the more famous Hambletonian, he was born in Orange County, New York, in 1858. He was a handsome seal brown with a white blaze and four white feet. After being trained by Hiram Woodruff, he set a record in Buffalo while racing a mile in 2:17-1/4. He was immensely popular with the masses of his time, and his exploits were frequently (though not always accurately) immortalized by Currier and Ives.
Immediately following his record run at Buffalo, he was purchased by New York Ledger publisher, Robert Bonner, for a reputed $33,000. Bonner disapproved of betting, but collected trotters and drove them himself. Like all the other characters associated with Dexter Park, Dexter himself was no shrinking violet. Turf historian John Hervey described his temperament as: “… So wild and fractious that even being gelded did not tame his spirit. All his life he was high tempered, imperious, and dominant in his ways as well in his private life as in his public performances.”(12)
When the Ninth Avenue elevated train line was extended past his stable, Dexter was so displeased with the noise and sparks that Bonner was forced to move his residence and stables. It turned out to be a very profitable real estate investment. Dexter remained a favorite of Bonner and Woodruff and lived to the ripe and ornery old age of thirty.
Dexter’s death, on April 21, 1888, did not quite end his escapades. One story relates that Dexter was buried at Dexter Park. One of the legends of Dexter Park is that a large incline in right field, referred to as “Horse Heaven,” was the result of some equine interment.(13) Unlikely as this seems, it has been widely repeated and contains a grain of truth. According to a 1934 newspaper article, “Some years ago, workmen in LDexter Park dug up the jawbone of a horse and presented it to Charley Powell of the Queens Topographical Bureau.”(14) If, today, you go to the Topographical Bureau, you can view a jawbone fragment and some teeth that are labeled, “Teeth of the Famous Horse `Dexter’ of Woodhaven.” Despite numerous theories, no one knows when and where Dexter was buried. According to the Brooklyn Eagle, he was last seen stuffed and mounted in the Collins Museum, which once occupied the terminal of the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad.(15) The museum was long gone by the time the building was razed in 1914, and there is no report of what became of Dexter.