From Batters to Battallions: A Brooklyn Armory Sits On Baseball History
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From Batters to Battallions: A Brooklyn Armory Sits On Baseball History

This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.

Exterior of the armory today.

The 47th Regiment Armory on Marcy Avenue has loomed over its neighbors since 1883. The brick-layered building with crenelated turrets occupies an entire block, bounded by Marcy Avenue to the South, Harrison to the north, Heyward Street to the west and Lynch to the east. Up until 2011, when the federal government consolidated several regiments, the armory served as the drill hall for a branch of the New York National Guard.

Although the State of New York still owns the building, it has occasionally hosted community events but mainly serves as a film set for Hollywood blockbusters like The Amazing Spider Man 2 and Noah. Some days, the armory’s garage doors are open and crew members can be seen wheeling equipment into the spacious former drill hall. Concealed beneath the foundation of the imposing structure, however, are the remnants of the site’s mostly forgotten but more intriguing past.

Long before soldiers filled the armory’s halls, the forebears of Jackie Robinson, Duke Snyder, Pee Wee Reese, and other Brooklyn baseball heroes graced this tract of land. Nothing commemorates this particular history, but for nearly two decades, from 1862 until the armory’s construction in 1883, Lot 2233 was the Union Grounds, a popular skating pond and baseball field that hosted the Grand Old Game before the Brooklyn Dodgers or their home stadium on Ebbets Field even existed.

By the time Union Grounds opened as a recreational venue, baseball had been a popular sport  over a decade.Was the game a local invention? Baseball’s origins remain heavily debated, but historian Thomas W. Gilbert, an expert on Brooklyn’s baseball past, writes that the modern version of the sport “took shape between 1855 and 1870…in and around New York City and Brooklyn.” In fact, the rivalry between what were then-separate cities helped spark the sport’s popularity. That an estimated 3,000 spectators came out on May 16, 1862 for the inaugural exhibition game at Union Grounds was no surprise.

* * *

The earliest records of the site date back to 1699, when the lot was most likely marshland. Over the next century and a half it changed hands among many of Brooklyn’s most famous aristocrats — the Remsens, the Scholes, the Johnsons, the Cammeyers, the Wyckoffs. The conveyances show no known evidence of any development on the site until 1861.

That year, William H.B. Cammeyer obtained a lease for the land from his father, the well-respected leather merchant John E. Cammeyer, and several other proprietors. It was the son who had the vision to turn the empty hollow into a baseball field and skating pond. Those who knew William, known as “Cap,” described him as a “genial, whole-souled man” who “was as happy as the little children who visited his resort.” The recreational park drew great crowds. Skating was as popular in winter as baseball was in the spring, summer and fall.

In the winter, the pond was “a model for pleasure and comfort,” the most popular skating pond in Brooklyn. Visitors of all ages and skill levels would first step into a warm, well-ventilated room with three large always-burning stoves where they could lace up their skates. The waiting room also contained a restaurant, and a man referred to as “Old Bamberry” would whip up his eponymous cakes, a special favorite of the children.

Print of Union Skating Pond from 1863 (NYPL Digital Collection)

In the middle of the ice, music rang out from a Chinese pagoda filled with lamps that emitted a warm glow. “It was indeed like looking through a kaleidoscope,” reads one nostalgic Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from 1893, ten years after the pond’s closing, “watching the ever changing groups of beautiful colors and symmetrical forms.” Certain nights of the skating season were set apart for carnivals that seemed to attract “the entire population of Williamsburgh.   

* * *

Cammeyer’s project is considered the first enclosed ballpark in history and it became a point of pride for the neighborhood as it achieved its primary objective: “to provide a suitable place for ball playing, where ladies can witness the game without being annoyed by the indecorous behavior of the rowdies who attend some of the first-class matches.

Squads at every level played on the field, including collegiate, amateur, and professional teams. But it was the Eckford Club of Brooklyn which truly made the Grounds their home, occupying the field from its opening year in 1862 until the club disbanded in 1872. The Brooklyn Historical Society has a scrapbook from the now defunct Eckford Social Club, which existed for more than eight decades after the baseball team folded. From its pages, we learn that the first field the baseball team played on in April 1856 was the vacant corner of a Greenpoint shipyard.  The club, which initially consisted mainly of shipwrights, took its name from Henry Eckford, a Scottish-American naval architect for both the United States and the Ottoman Empire who rose to prominence due to the success of his ships in the War of 1812.  Later, the team moved to play on grounds at what was then Calvary Street in front of an old manor house owned by the Berkus family. The Greenpoint field, then known as the Old Manor House Grounds, is now McGolrick Park.

Eckford was one of the top clubs in Brooklyn, a city which one of the team’s players, Ed “Pincher” Brown, described in a scrapbook clipping as having “furnished more ballplayers than any city in the Union, and all good ones.” Another of the team’s best players and the most famous was Frank Pidgeon, the club’s first president, who baffled opposing hitters with “clever underhand pitching.” Pidgeon was also an ardent defender of keeping the sport amateur — he often spoke with nostalgia about his early playing days. “We would forget business and everything else on Tuesday afternoons,” he said, “go out on those green fields, don our ball suits, and go at it with a rush. At such times we were boys again.” He lost interest when the sport became a business.

The club, which was part of the National Association of Base Ball Players along with several other teams from Brooklyn and New York, was able to upgrade its venue when Cammeyer welcomed Eckford to make Union Grounds their base. The new home paid off immediately. That year, the fifth official season of the association, Cammeyer spearheaded the league

s first championship series, a three-game series that took place throughout the season. In seasons prior, the team with the best record was awarded the title.

A Leslie’s print from 1865 depicting the game between Atlantic and Eckford at the Union Grounds. Framing the scene are drawing’s of the era’s most famous players. (Scanned from The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History.)

An estimated 5,000 spectators cheered from the sidelines as Eckford pitcher Joe Sprague led the team to victory against its greatest rival and defending champion, The Atlantics, in the first game. The Atlantics evened the series in the second game at the Capitoline Grounds in present day Brownsville. Clippings from the scrapbook tell of how the rubber match was postponed because Eckford refused to play without Sprague, who, as a member of the 15th regiment, was fighting in the Civil War. So, the teams agreed to wait until he received a 15-day furlough. Apparently, combat had no ill effect on Sprague’s pitching abilities and he put together a terrific outing in front of a vast crowd, securing an 8-3 victory and the silver ball that Cammeyer had chosen as the victor’s spoils. Eckford defended its title the next year, before the Atlantics stormed back and took three straight in the years that followed.

A portrait of the Atlantic Club, the 1865 champions. (Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Over time, the game grew into the business that Pidgeon deplored, signaling a turn toward the future of organized sports. In 1864, Cammeyer decided to enclose the Union Grounds and began charging for admission — there is some discrepancy in terms of pricing, but it appears to have started at a dime per head.

Union Grounds was the venue for many great games, including an historic 1869 contest between the Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball’s first professional team, and the Brooklyn-based New York Mutuals. Storied clubs from all over Brooklyn and across the country came to play the Brooklyn clubs, including teams from Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. The Ivy League championships were also played at The Union Grounds on occasion and alumni would flock to the field to watch the university nines from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, including one 1869 game between Harvard and Yale which ended with an outlandish 41-24 score. In 1879, Daft’s English Cricket club played its first ever baseball game against the Providence Baseball Club; their “errors were ludicrous” and Providence won 15-1 after just five innings when the game was called for darkness. In spite of their follies, the cricketers “excited great laughter and applause from the crowd.

The Association began permitting player payment in the 1869 and 1870 seasons, and the players began to receive a percentage of the admission profits. By 1871, the Association gave way to the precursor of the National League, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Eckford did not participate in the 1871 professional season and though a team with the same name played in the 1872 season, it quickly disbanded and the storied club had finally run its course. The Brooklyn social club by the same name lasted until 1956.

The Mutuals initially came from the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey but moved to the Union Grounds in 1868 and played there for the next eight years, until its last season in 1876, when Cammeyer became its short-lived manager. The Atlantics, the old dynasty from the amateur days, moved from the Capitoline Grounds to the Union Grounds in 1873, but only continued playing there in an official capacity until 1875. Cammeyer, seeking to keep professional baseball going at the grounds, helped bring the Hartford Dark Blues over to Brooklyn from Connecticut in 1877, but the gambit lasted only a single season.

* * *

In those early years of professionalism, misconduct was prevalent throughout the clubs, causing the public to sour on the sport during the 1870s. An article in the Brooklyn Eagle recalled how  “corrupt practices on the part of the ball players at last destroyed popular interest in the noble game and matches became gradually less frequent until they seemed to have ceased altogether.”

At some point, Cammeyer had cordoned off a section of the grounds as a bettors’ ring. This led to one particularly dreadful instance in September of 1876, reported by The New York Times. The annual “picked nine” game — that is, a scheduled exhibition game in which two captains selected their side for a single game — between the best players from Brooklyn and New York. The fishy business began when two New York players, were designated with selecting the representatives from each city, as opposed to one man from New York and the other from Brooklyn. Both captains then selected a disproportionate number of players from just two clubs. The betting originally favored the New York side, but shortly before the game, the odds flipped to the “Brooklyn” team. In the first inning, New York’s center fielder (who was one of the captains), allowed an easy fly ball to pass right through his outstretched hands and, after he refused to catch another easy out, his own pitcher stopped play and openly accused the man of throwing the game. New York’s pitcher and a few other players wanted to leave the field and call the game, but they were convinced to continue.

The New York Captain received even more vitriol from the crowd after he tried to push an opposing player off third base and the crowd called for his ejection, though he remained on the field. In the final inning, New York’s third baseman — who throughout the game had been making wild throws to first base — stepped up to the plate and laced a fastball down the middle for a base hit. But he “did little more than walk around the bases, each of which from first to third, he failed to touch, when, if he cared to, he could easily have made a home run.” He had no choice but to score the tying run after the following batter poked another hit.

With the game tied, the pitchers from New York and Brooklyn shook hands and, “refusing to engage in such a disgraceful affair walked off the field.” The umpire called the game a draw — leaving the betters in limbo. After the game, several players continued throw out accusations of foul play and police had to be called in to break up the ensuing scuffle. The Times called the whole game “the most disreputable proceeding” ever on display at the Union Grounds.

The scandal was not the end of baseball at the Grounds; games continued to be played at the site over the next few years, but the enthusiasm for the sport — and for ice skating — waned. The site had become a far cry from its halcyon days, when carnival skaters formed “one great ferment of rapidly intermingling gods, goddesses, gnomes, devils, kings, and cobblers, in all varieties of color and costume” and baseball fans formed “a strong and constant stream,” filling “all the avenues of approach” to the Grounds.  

For a time, there was hope that the Grounds would become a public park, but with the 47th regiment looking for a new armory site, the State of New York purchased the land. When demolition began on the Grounds, the baseball fences vanished and the skating pond buildings disintegrated into nothing but “a mass of beams and boards.” Cammeyer died in his home at 44 Macron Street 15 years later at the age of 78, never in that time to be involved in the sport again.

* * *

The armory, consisting of load-bearing brick with a limestone trim, was originally designed by architect William Mundell (with later additions in 1899 designed by Isaac Perry). Construction began in 1883 — the cornerstone was laid on October 11 of that year — and the 47th Regiment was able to occupy the building by 1885. A building structure inventory form conducted in 1992 by the New York Parks and Recreation department’s historic preservation division described the interior as “relatively simple and utilitarian” compared to New York City’s other armories, but with a “high degree of integrity of design, materials and craftsmanship.” Its utilitarian design came in handy, as the armory was host to several banquets and athletic events over the years.

Armory Drill Hall. )New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center).

The 47th Regiment, a volunteer infantry unit which drilled at the armory and consisted of local Brooklyn men, was originally organized in 1862 and served in the Civil War, first stationed at Fort McHenry in Baltimore and then in Washington, D.C. as part of the 3rd Brigade.

When the Great Brooklyn Trolley Strike of 1895 turned violent, the 47th Regiment — and every other National Guard unit in the city — was called into active duty in order to quell any further outbursts. They assembled at the armory and remained on strike duty for over two weeks.

Three years later, at the tail-end of the Spanish-American War when the United States established a formal military presence and took control over Puerto Rico, the regiment received orders to head to the island. In October, its soldiers embarked from Newport, Rhode Island on the transport ship The Manitoba, and reached Ponce, Puerto Rico two days later.

When the regiment arrived at their camp about two miles northeast of the city, other soldiers jokingly warned them that bands of guerrilla fighters were spread out through the surrounding hills. That evening The Times reported, G.A. Smith, a private from Brooklyn, took his fellow soldiers seriously and thought he saw three men attempting to climbing the camp’s fence. He fired. His fellow soldiers heard the shots and, “eager to join the fray,” began shooting as well, mainly at cornstalks. Most of them had never fired a gun before. They wouldn’t get a chance again, as they were stripped of their weapons. Soon after, another “accidental” shooting took place — this time, a Private, John Valentine, was shot through the shoulder and neck by 1st Lieutenant Arthur Meyer. It is not known whether he survived.  

Things calmed down for the 47th after that — their main duties consisted of garrisoning small towns within a 50-mile radius of San Juan. Despite the fact that the regiment’s commander, Col. William H. Hubbell, declared that the people of Puerto Rico were unable to govern themselves and the island was “reeking of sedition” when they left, the soldiers themselves had more issues with the island’s fleas. Most of the regiment returned home in March of 1899 in good health, bringing with them a variety of pets, including dogs, ponies, parrots, chickens, and monkeys. Their fellow Brooklynites lined the streets, as the soldiers disembarked from The Manitoba and marched to the armory, where a great crowd of 10,000 people awaited them.

Some drama took place at the armory in 1909, when a machinist of the 47th regiment named Frederick Kopp took ill and died. The young man’s parents and doctor argued that he had been sick for some time when a few of his colleagues came to his home in Williamsburg, forced him from his sick bed into their car, and drove him to the armory’s annual inspection wrapped in a blanket. “We’re soldiers. We’re responsible for this. Get out of the way,” the men purportedly told Kopp’s father as he tried to intervene. When it appeared that Kopp was too sick to participate in the inspection, the regiment’s Captain, John DeWitt Kleymer, ordered the men to return the private to his home. Along the way, they stopped at a local saloon for a drink and left Kopp shivering in their vehicle. The young private died two days later after contracting pneumonia. The 47th responded that the accusations were exaggerated and that, while indeed sickly, Kopp had gone on his own accord despite his mother’s protests. Eventually the regiment was not found responsible.

The armory also was caught up in the midst of an ideological battle on the eve of World War I. On March 13, 1917, the New York Tribune reported that pacifist activists campaigned for weeks, hosting mass meetings, distributing flyers and picketing the school, in an attempt to prevent a group of 300 high school boys from marching in their first military drill at the armory. But much to the pacifists’ chagrin, nearly every boy from the school, who was of age, turned out and those under the age of sixteen protested vociferously.

The rest of the century remained fairly quiet for the armory. Members of the National Guard continued to drill there weekly, high school athletes competed in track and basketball, and boxers duked it out in the ring.

In 2013, two years after New York’s National Guard was consolidated, the Hasidic Satmars in the neighborhood put together a bid to purchase the site from the Empire State Development Corporation, to alleviate “the perennial space crunch in its schools and synagogues.” The plan was for the armory to serve as the location for a yeshiva, housing, and a community hall. The sect had already used the armory on a few occasions, including the celebration of the anniversary of the escape from Nazi-Occupied Hungary of its founder, Joel Teitelbaum. At the time, two factions of the Satmars, the Zaloynim and the Aroynem, were embroiled in a bitter schism with financial overtones. Some members of the community viewed their joint bid for the armory as a possible step toward reconciliation, but the sale was never made final and the site remains under the control of the New York State Military and Naval Affairs.

Today, the armory’s neighborhood is bustling with family life. In the early mornings, the sidewalks are filled with children on their way to school, waiting on the corners patiently for the go ahead from their crossing guards. The surrounding architecture is charming and well-preserved. But there is little green space anywhere — just concrete, asphalt, and brick. Except, that is, for a small lawn in front of the armory’s former entrance hall. Despite the onset of winter, and the barren trees that are sprouting up from this little oasis, the grass remains surprisingly green — as if it’s preparing for spring, and the crack of leather against wood.

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Written by Punchland Staff

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