A couple of weeks ago Prospect Park's ballfields were too soaked for Little League play, and so Joshua's game was relocated to Washington Park, a place Emily and I had never heard of. It turned out to be at Fourth Avenue and 3rd Street, a couple of blocks from the Gowanus Canal, and we arrived to find ourselves in a rather oddly configured space. There was a middle school at 5th Street and Fifth Avenue, separated from Washington Park by 4th Street, which dead-ended in a traffic circle after half a block instead of going all the way through to Fourth Avenue. Above 4th Street was a playground, separated from the spongy, nouveau artificial turf of the Little League field by an old, dignified-looking stone house with a red roof.
The field was full of Little Leaguers, attended to by parents and coaches and ice-cream hawkers and Sandy the Seagull, there to drum up awareness of the Cyclones' upcoming season. The next hour was amiable chaos, as separate Little League games spilled over into each other, kids were dissuaded from climbing chain-link fences, and parents cheered and carped at teenage umpires and remembered not to do that and cheered some more. Joshua and his Screaming Eagles teammates were annihilated (I'd put it more kindly, but it's true), but they had fun and we took our son to the bathroom in that stone building and then cut up to 3rd Street so we could hit Fourth Avenue and walk down to the subway and head home to Brooklyn Heights.
On the way, I saw a historical marker outside that old stone house; still wondering about this rather odd pocket of Brooklyn, I stopped to peek at a leaflet. A quick glance made me realize we were in no ordinary place; further study revealed we were somewhere extraordinary. Reviewing everything that's happened in the vicinity of the Old Stone House, you'll swear I'm making it up. But it's all true.
The Old Stone House was built by a Dutch settler named Claes Arentson Vechte in 1699 in what was then rich farmland below the hills of Park Slope, near the Gowanus Creek and its treasure trove of foot-long oysters. On August 27, 1776 the house stood at a crossroads through which units of the fledgling Continental Army needed to retreat to reach the fortifications at Brooklyn Heights on the western end of Long Island, across Gowanus Creek. Unfortunately, they were cut off: The Vechte house — then owned by Claes's grandson Nicholas — had been occupied by some 2,000 British troops and Hessian mercenaries, and used as an artillery position against the Americans. As their fellow soldiers fled towards the Heights, some 400 soldiers of the 1st Maryland Regiment attacked the Vechte house six times, wresting it from the British twice before breaking off the assault and fleeing for the Heights themselves. 256 Marylanders were killed, and buried by the British in a farm field — a mass grave now lost somewhere beneath the gritty businesses of Third Avenue. (A marker affixed to the American Legion Hall at Third Avenue and 9th Street remembers them.) Two days later, an unseasonable fog would help George Washington — who'd watched the battle at the Vechte house from Brooklyn Heights and admired the Marylanders' bravery while lamenting the loss of life — escape across the East River with his 9,000 remaining men. At the time, the Battle of Brooklyn was the largest in the history of North America.
The history of the Old Stone House doesn't end there, however — and there's a reason you're reading about it on this blog. By the late 1800s it was part of a park that was lower than the urban landscape now surrounding it. The park was used for skating in the winter, though it had hosted baseball exhibitions as far back as the 1850s, including games between the legendary Brooklyn amateur club known as the Excelsiors and their opponents. In 1883, the Washington Base Ball Park rose around the Old Stone House, which would be used as a “ladies' house” and for storage at the ballpark. Washington Park was bound by Third and Fourth Avenues and 3rd and 5th Streets — the exact parcel of land that now includes the playground, Little League fields, the stub of 4th Street and the middle school.
The new park's tenant was Charles Byrne's Brooklyn Base Ball Club, of the Inter-State League. Their first game at Washington Park came on May 12, 1883, with Brooklyn beating Trenton, 13-6. Byrne's team would jump to the American Association in 1884 and take on a variety of nicknames, including the Atlantics and the Bridegrooms. For the 1888 season, they fielded a team strengthened by their acquisition of another American Association team — the Metropolitan Club, generally referred to as the New York Metropolitans, or sometimes as the New York Mets. Founded in 1880, the Mets had shared the Polo Grounds in northern Manhattan with the National League's New York Gothams, later to be known as the Giants. But their owner had miscalculated after the 1885 season, leaving the Polo Grounds for a cricket ground in Staten Island, very near the stadium where the Staten Island Yankees play today. Buying the attendance-starved Mets let Brooklyn protect its fan base. It also gave Brooklyn a ready-made star in Mets slugger Dave Orr, whose Washington Park fans would chant for him to knock it into the Gowanus.
In May 1889 Washington Park burned down, though the Bridegrooms' uniforms and gear were safe, as they'd been stored in the Old Stone House. Reconstructed under the watchful eye of the club's secretary, Charles Ebbets, it reopened less than two weeks later. Brooklyn won the American Association pennant in 1889, and opened the 1890 season as a new member of the National League. Brooklyn moved to Eastern Park (in what's now East New York) for the 1891 season; Washington Park would soon be torn down and the Old Stone House buried as part of an effort to raise the park's elevation to match that of its neighbors. (The house would be dug up and reconstructed in the 1930s with stones from the original house, becoming part of J.J. Byrne Park — the name by which many Brooklynites still refer to the site.)
In 1898 Charles Byrne died and Charles Ebbets took over the Brooklyn club, by then often known as the Superbas or the Dodgers. One of his first orders of business was to leave Eastern Park and return to the Gowanus area. Brooklyn's new home for the 1898 season was a second Washington Park, built catty-corner from the first one across Fourth Avenue. Brooklyn would call this new park home through 1912, the last campaign a 58-95 disaster whose final days were witnessed by a 21-year-old outfielder named Charles Dillon Stengel. Casey, by the way, hit .316 in 17 games.
In 1913, Stengel and his Brooklyn teammates moved to their new home, a state-of-the-art park known as Ebbets Field. But Washington Park would have an odd and short-lived encore — it was completely rebuilt in 1914 as the home of the Federal League's Brooklyn Tip-Tops, and at the time looked very much like Chicago's Weeghman Park, today known as Wrigley Field. The Federal League shut down after 1915 and the third incarnation of Washington Park was torn down in 1926, though the left-field wall can still be seen on Third Avenue, between 1st and 3rd Streets. (It's part of a Con Ed facility.)
With the Tip-Tops extinct and Brooklyn's National League team off first to Flatbush and then to California, professional baseball was gone from a site that had been hallowed by a critical early battle of the American Revolution and then steeped in the freewheeling excitement of the sport's formative years. But baseball isn't gone: Stop by the Old Stone House on a Saturday and you might well see kids in uniform trying to launch a coach's pitch on the same arc followed by long-ago drives struck by the Mets' Dave Orr while Charles Ebbets watched. Retrace one of Orr's blasts and add a couple of bounces and rolls and you'll be in territory that Casey Stengel once patrolled, beneath a second ballpark's outfield walls. One of those walls remains; spend an hour in Washington Park and you'll learn how much else does, too.
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