The winter hits me in the face as I step out of the brownstone. Snow immediately fills my hair and my jacket is soaked.
This is going to be a long walk, but no one said a pilgrimage is supposed to be easy.
I turn onto Bedford Avenue and head south, staying close to buildings for shield from the weather on at least one side. My phone tells me it’s a 1.2 mile walk down this road, to the edge of Prospect Park. To 55 Sullivan Place.
To the most historic sports site in the borough.
The ACC Tournament will host a Carolina-Duke game later in the evening, but before that, it’s time to pay tribute. I walk.
My hands are red and raw. I stuff them into my pockets. The wet coat doesn’t make them any warmer, but at least they’re out of the wind. I’ve tried to avoid puddles and slush, but I can still feel my feet getting wet.
At Bedford and Eastern, I pass W.E.B. Dubois High School on the left. Four blocks later, Medgar Evers College is on my right. Pioneers in civil rights, both, but neither is my destination this morning. I continue on southward.
At Montgomery, the buildings fall away on both sides, and the landscape opens up in front of me. After a few more steps, the wind slices into my back. The walk back will be brutal, but this is no time to think of that.
Looming in front of me, is a brick building, 25 stories high.
It’s a 1,300 unit high-rise apartment complex—the kind that, in other areas of the city, would be called “the projects.” Like much of Brooklyn, it’s been renovated and rebranded over the last decade and now boasts “modern construction, spacious rooms and great closet space.”
I’m not here to see the apartment building, though. Not really. What I came all this way for on such a miserable morning is long gone. The high-rise sits on its former location, and, built in the mid-1960s, it’s actually been here longer than its predecessor, torn down at 48 years old.
Behind a metal fence is the sign I’m looking for. In letters over a foot high it advertises the name of the building and the one that was here all those years ago.
The home of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1912 to 1957, Ebbets Field was one of the most recognizable ballparks in the first half of the 20th century. Its entrance featured a marble rotunda with chandelier that fans passed through to reach their seats.
Advertising covered the outfield walls, including famous signs hawking Schaefer Beer and Abe Stark Suits, the latter featuring the tag line “Hit sign, win suit.”
Ebbets Field hosted 28 World Series games, most of them between the Dodgers and the crosstown Yankees, and nearly all of them ending in heartbreak for the Brooklyn team. The Dodgers won one World Series in Brooklyn, in 1955, two years before they moved.
An All-Star Game was held at Ebbets Field, and Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer threw a no-hitter there, his second in a row.
All of that history is fascinating. None of it is why I’m here. The Polo Grounds, former home of the New York Giants baseball team, is home to just as much history, but finding its former location never crossed my mind.
This isn’t merely a baseball history walk. It’s a pilgrimage. So I walk past the front of the Ebbets Field Apartments, past the plaque commemorating its baseball past, and turn right down Sullivan.
Behind the high-rise, across McKeever Place, is a much smaller building—a junior high. School is in session, so I approach cautiously, not wanting to cause any alarm.
There’s a brightly-painted basketball court out front and a welcoming mural on the wall.
The sign over the front door reads, “Jackie Robinson School.”
On April 15, 1947—70 years ago next month—somewhere behind me, on a spot now buried under 25 stories of brick and glass, Jack Roosevelt Robinson stepped out of the dugout and ran out onto the Ebbets Field infield.
He would make the Hall of Fame as a second baseman, but on this day, he took his position at first base, breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier in the process.
This was never a sports pilgrimage at all. Not really. Robinson’s courage in the face of unimaginable torment changed the face of America. It’s why a little wind and snow wouldn’t stop me from taking this walk.
I spend a few minutes in contemplation, then turn back toward Bedford to head north. Two residents of Ebbets Field Apartments are struggling to carry at mattress from a delivery truck into the building. I approach them, but then think better of it. They have today’s problems of their own to deal with, most immediately, how to avoid dropping the mattress into a puddle. They don’t have time to talk about a long-gone team or a man who died before they were born.
I look back, once, at the school mural, showing three images of Jackie, with the long-gone stadium in the background. He smiles down on the basketball courts, where generations of children have played pick-up, just a few yards from sacred ground.