Jersey City once had a modest sized minor league baseball stadium on the shores of Newark Bay that lasted for 50 years before being demolished. But Roosevelt Stadium had a much larger role in baseball history than that description would suggest.
It was there in 1946 that Jackie Robinson broke through organized baseball’s color barrier. April 18 was opening day for the Jersey City Giants, AAA affiliate of the New York Giants. And they were hosting the Brooklyn Dodgers AAA team, the Montreal Royals, at Roosevelt Stadium.
Daily News sportswriter Gene Ward was there that day and he described the scene in the next day’s paper:
“Mayor Hague opened Jersey City’s 1946 baseball season with all his typical fol-de-rol and flourish before 25,000 constituents in neat, bunting-draped Roosevelt Stadium yesterday, but a young Negro ball player named Jackie Robinson stole the show! Making modern diamond history with this debut for his race in organized baseball, Robinson performed prodigious feats as he led last year’s flag-winning Dodger farm club from Montreal to a 14-1 triumph. Seldom has a ball player found himself in such a spot, or in such a spotlight, but the cool colored lad who first rose to athletic prominence as football star at USC, was the sensation of the day.”
Specifically Robinson had four hits, including a three-run homer. In addition to his three RBIs, he scored four times and had two stolen bases.
Roosevelt Stadium also plays an oversized part in my own baseball history. In 1956 and 1957, the Brooklyn Dodgers played seven or eight of their home games in Jersey City. The arrangement was part of a ploy by Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley to try to pressure New York City into building a new stadium to replace Ebbets Field, which he thought was too small and had virtually no parking. The implication was that if city officials didn’t come through he could pop across the river to Jersey City. As we know, he instead popped across the country to Los Angeles.
One of those games was against the Cincinnati Redlegs, as they called themselves at the time. My father knew somebody who knew somebody who knew the brother of Redlegs second baseman Johnny Temple. So not only did my six-year-old self get tickets to the game, but I found myself in the visitors clubhouse after the game. Johnny Temple shook my hand and probably ruffled my hair or some such thing. I also remember first baseman George Crowe going out of his way to offer a cheerful greeting.
I have no idea who won that game. And I have long since lost whatever momento they no doubt gave me, likely an autographed ball. But I never forgot shaking hands with a four-time all-star second baseman. It is one of my most vivid baseball memories. It is also an example of a connection with kids that Major League Baseball lost when they decided to start letting games run past midnight, choosing to accommodate the television networks and advertisers rather than its young fans.
In researching this post, I was dismayed to find out that after retirement Temple lost everything in a bad business venture and was later arrested and charged with larceny of farm equipment.
Named after FDR, Roosevelt Stadium was a product of the New Deal. It was built as part of the Works Progress Administration. During its four years of construction between 1934 and 1937 it provided 2,400 badly needed jobs in Depression era America.
Opening day was April 24, 1937: the Jersey City Giants vs. the Rochester Red Wings. Mayor Hague, who controlled Jersey City for some 50 years, was said to have twisted the collective arms of his vast constituency into buying 50,000 tickets. Seating capacity at Roosevelt was 24,500. Here’s how the Paterson Morning Call reported on the stadium opening:
“Rochester Red Wings spoiled what otherwise was a grand and glorious re-entry into the International League by Jersey City at Roosevelt Stadium today when they defeated the Jerseys, 4 to 3, in a 12-inning battle. Jersey City fans packed the immense $1,500,000 ballpark in the rafters and overflowed onto the field back of the center field fence and established a new minor league attendance record with 31,234 paid admissions.”
The Giants were a fixture at Roosevelt Stadium until 1950. A decade later the stadium hosted another International League team after the Cuban Revolution sent the Havana Sugar Kings into refugee status and they landed in Jersey City for a two year stint.
There wasn’t much baseball after that. My personal memories of the stadium included seeing my first international soccer game there. I was a 16-year-old high school soccer player at the time and a volunteer who helped with the team took me there to see Glasgow Celtic. He was of Scottish descent, so he had no interest in whoever it was Celtic were playing and I have no idea who it was. A decade later I was back at Roosevelt Stadium for a Pink Floyd concert.
My last experience with the stadium was during the 1977 baseball season when the Cleveland Indians put a AA Eastern League team there. I went to a few games that summer, but it was a fairly dismal season of baseball. In addition to Cleveland’s minor leaguers, the Jersey City Indians had a few Toronto Blue Jays prospects. Toronto had just entered the American League and didn’t have a fully flushed out farm system yet. At age 40, the stadium was showing its age. And to make things worse, the Indians were a terrible team, finishing dead last with a 40-97 mark. Seems to me that every time I went they got hammered. Yet they managed to draw 60,000 fans that year, which was fourth in an eight-team league. Under the circumstances that seemed to confirm that Jersey City was a pretty good minor league baseball market. Yet after two seasons, the Indians folded shop and that was the end of minor league baseball in Jersey City. And, by 1985 that was the end of Roosevelt Stadium.