Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

A once-elegant Lower East Side house where a gruesome sport played out

July 4, 2022

The Federal-style brick house at 47-49 Madison Street has been battered by the elements for more than two centuries.

But imagine what it must have looked like after it was built in the early 1800s. In post-colonial, population-booming Gotham, it was likely a comfortable home for a single family on a respectable street—formerly part of the Rutgers farm on today’s Lower East Side.

Perhaps the commercial space on the ground floor was part of the original layout, a storefront for a merchant or artisan whose family occupied private quarters on the second and third floors, with bedrooms behind those dormer windows.

But distinguished streets in New York City have a way of becoming disreputable pretty quickly. Already looked down upon because of a typhus outbreak there in 1820, Madison Street (known until 1826 as Bancker Street) “turned less desirable,” states the 2012 guide book, Lower East Side.

Madison Street’s slide continued through the next decades. Not only was it near the rough and ready East River waterfront, where boardinghouses and dive bars for sailors abounded, but it was dangerously close to the Five Points, the notorious slum district a few blocks north.

By the middle of the 19th century, 47-49 Madison’s days as a family home were long over. At that point, the house had transformed into a venue for a kind of gruesome entertainment contemporary New Yorkers generally have a hard time understanding: rat baiting.

Rat-Baiting at “Sportsman’s Amphitheater”

“Rat killing was the premiere gentlemen’s betting sport of the mid-19th century,” stated Atlas Obscura in a 2014 post. “The boys of the Bowery were paid 5-10 cents for each rat collected, and spectators crowded into the hall to bet on how many rats the fighting dogs could kill in a given time span.”

In the early 1850s, the rat pit at 47-49 Madison was called “J. Marriott’s Sportsman’s Hall.” Marriott’s wasn’t the only rat-fighting venue in New York City at the time. Not far away at 273 Water Street, a man named Kit Burns entertained crowds by pitting rats against terriers.

47-49 Madison Street in 1939-1941

“Behind closed doors all over the area, the debauched pastime thrived, with politicians and well-to-do society members coming downtown to gamble amid the saloons and slums of the Five Points,” stated Atlas Obscura.

After Marriott departed, 47-49 Madison Street had a new owner. Harry Jennings was an Englishman who continued staging rat fights for sport. In a 1910 Brooklyn Times Union article recalling Jennings, a man who was his neighbor across Madison Street wrote: “Boys at that time could sell all the rats they could catch….He would put a certain number in the pit, and the dog that could kill the most in a given time was considered the winner.”

Kit Burns’ rat pit on Water Street

“I well remember the racket they used to make—men hollering, dogs barking, and rats squeaking.”

Jennings ended up doing time for robbery. When he came back to New York, the sport of rat-baiting was losing its appeal. He left Madison Street and became a legitimate rat killer, hired by fancy hotels and businesses to catch the innumerable rats that made their homes in high-class hostelries and stores.

“He made lots of money at his queer trade,” wrote The Evening World in an announcement of his death in 1891.

As for 47-49 Madison Street, the little house was occupied by an undertaker. In the 1960s, a discount store called Johns moved in. Today it’s a prayer hall, according to Atlas Obscura.

[Third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; fifth image: Wikipedia]

A peek inside a 1946 Yankees program—and the New York brands that advertised inside

April 25, 2022

I have no idea what a Yankees program looks like today. But I do know what it looked like in 1946, when the Bronx Bombers hosted the Cleveland Indians either in late April/early May, June, or August of that postwar year.

Strangely, the 16-page program doesn’t say when the series takes place. But it mentions the upcoming All-Star Game at Fenway Park, so it must have been before July.

The lineup of legendary players to take the field that day included Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio, and Bill DIckey, with Bill Bevens and Spud Chandler listed as pitchers. More interesting to me are the ads throughout the 16-page program—like Ruppert Beer.

The Ruppert ad for this Yorkville-brewed beer isn’t much of a surprise because the Yankees were owned by Jacob Ruppert from 1915 until his death in 1939. A plaque recognizing his devotion to his team stands in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park.

I’ve never heard of Major’s Cabin Grill. It’s on 34th Street, a long subway ride from Yankee Stadium, but why not? I like the warning about betting and gambling at the stadium.

I’m glad to see Schrafft’s make an appearance in the program; the restaurant chain famous for its ice cream was highly popular at the time. Apparently the ice cream bars they sold to fans at the stadium were in short supply.

The Hotel New Yorker today may not be a five-star kind of place, but it had a better reputation in the mid-20th century. This is the first time I’ve seen it described as a “home of major-league ball clubs.”

Here’s the actual scorecard, plus some fun ads on the sides—especially for the famous Hotel Astor rooftop. At one time, this was a glamorous place for dining, dancing, and catching a cool breeze in a city without air conditioning.

During the Civil War, Brooklyn held a spectacular ice skating carnival

December 12, 2021

Ice skating had always been a winter pastime in New York, when the many ponds that once existed in Manhattan routinely froze over. But when the lake at the new Central Park opened to skaters in 1858, the ice skating craze of the 19th century city officially began.

“Carnival of the Washington Skating Club, Brooklyn”

Central Park may have been the top spot for gliding across ice and showing off your skating attire—and maybe finding romance, too. Ice skating was perhaps the only activity men and women could partake in together without breaking social customs or having a chaperone in tow.

But Brooklyn wasn’t about to let Manhattan have all the fun. On a Sunday afternoon in February 1862, the recently formed Washington Skating Club held a magnificent skating carnival at Brooklyn’s Washington Pond, on Fifth Avenue and Third Street in today’s Park Slope.

“Skating Carnival in Brooklyn, February 10, 1862,” Harper’s Weekly

Brooklyn in 1862 was a separate city, of course—a newly formed booming metropolis of about 266,000 (compared to Manhattan’s 805,000) that threw its support behind the Union and sent many soldiers to Civil War battlefields.

But the war didn’t preclude spending a afternoon and evening frolicking on the ice in princess, wizard, and other costumes, with a 25-piece band playing nearby and fireworks lighting up the winter sky.

Six thousand Brooklyn residents attended the skating carnival, which began at 3 p.m. “Reflector lamps” on poles helped illuminate the ice, and moonlight gave the carnival an ethereal glow.

“The bright sky, the exhilarating atmosphere, and the excellent condition of the ice proved temptations too strong for even discontent to resist, and by sundown the up-cars were thronged with eager crowds of both sexes and nearly all ages, from the toddling ‘3 year old’ to venerable age,” wrote the Brooklyn Evening Star.

The only thing spoiling the carnival? Pickpockets. Police arrested four men who were “mixed up among the skaters, endeavoring to ply their vocation,” stated the Brooklyn Times Union on February 12.

Washington Park wasn’t just the site of a skating carnival. Here, the short-lived sport of ice baseball was played in the winter (above, in the 1880s)…while fans shivered.

[Top illustration: MCNY MNY122495; Second illustration: Sonofthesouth.net; third illustration: Fine Arts America]

The 1957 rallies to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn

May 24, 2021

By the mid-1950s, the writing was on the wall. Shabby Ebbets Field, opened in 1913, wasn’t cutting it for Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley. He wanted a newer, bigger stadium for his team.

But one key city official wasn’t on board with O’Malley’s plan for a Buckminster Fuller–designed domed ballpark with plenty of parking at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. That man “was Robert Moses, who basically held veto power over any city project budgeted at more than $250,” wrote David Hinckley in the New York Daily News in 2017.

While Moses was trying to convince O’Malley to build his new ballpark in Fresh Meadows, Queens, O’Malley began scouting out sites 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, according to Hinckley.

In the spring of 1957, Dodger fans still thought they had a chance. So a group of Brooklyn businessmen led by Henry Modell (of Modell’s Sporting Goods fame) formed an organization aptly called the “Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn Committee,” based at the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn Heights.

Their goal, as outlined in a letter to the Brooklyn Tablet in May 1957, was to convince officials to go ahead with the domed stadium plan, have residents sign petitions, and “organize and stage borough-wide rallies and mass meetings to demand action.”

The rallies happened outside Brooklyn Borough Hall beside the imposing columns; adult and kid fans held placards, wore buttons, and hoped that a show of support would keep the beloved team in the County of Kings.

Unfortunately, these rallies didn’t make a dent. O’Malley announced his plan to move the Dodgers to Los Angeles at the end of the season. Ebbets Field was demolished in February 1960—by a wrecking ball designed to look like a baseball.

[Top image: Keyman Collectibles; second and third images: Brooklyn Daily]

An early image of ice skaters in Central Park

January 11, 2021

The building of Central Park began in 1858. Later that year, the first section opened to the public: the “skating pond,” aka the Lake.

You’ve probably seen paintings and illustrations of 19th century New Yorkers ice skating in Central Park and on the ponds of Brooklyn. But this Currier & Ives lithograph (after a painting by Charles Parsons) might be the earliest.

In “Central-Park Winter, the Skating Pond,” it’s 1862, the middle of the Civil War. Yet the frozen pond is a scene of pure joy: couples in fancy skating outfits (yep, they were a thing) glided together, a rare opportunity for socially acceptable coed mingling.

Kids play, adults fall, a dog is getting in on the fun, and everyone is enthralled by the magic of the ice under Bow Bridge.

[Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

A 44th Street stable built in 1865 is a survivor

August 17, 2020

The postage stamp–size former stable on West 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is a Civil War era survivor.

Built as part of a row of carriage houses on this one-time “stable street” in 1865, it’s the only one that still stands, according to a 2001 New York Times article. And it appears remarkably similar to the way it must have looked more than 150 years ago.

Once horses and carriages went in and out of this charming little building, and grooms may have lived upstairs. Now, the arched windows and doorways have been painted a color that matches the sidewalk.

One doorway is boarded up, the main entrance has been bricked in, and the “for rent” sign is obscured by the kind of wood boards merchants hastily put up in the spring to protect their property from rioters.

It certainly wouldn’t have been boarded up in Gilded Age New York. The first owner of the stable was Wedworth Clarke, an oil dealer living in a brownstone at 55 West 45th Street, according to the Times article.

Clarke may have used the stable to house carriages designed for ordinary use on city streets. But this was trotting horse country in the 1870s, explains a plaque closer to the Sixth Avenue side of the block near the Algonquin Hotel.

At the time, the area “was a hub for much of the trotting activity during one of the high points of harness horse history.” Trotters owned by Gilded Age wealthy men with last names like Vanderbilt and Rockefeller kept their horses within a half mile, the plaque reads.

In the late 19th century, fortunes rose and fell. The Clarke family “sold 47 West 44th Street to Edward Brandon, a prominent Wall Street stockbroker who often traded for the financier Jay Gould,” stated the Times.

“Brandon went bankrupt in 1890 and the next year had to sell 47 West 44th to Henry G. Trevor, a sportsman who founded the Shinnecock Golf Club on the East End of Long Island and lived at 6 East 45th Street.”

In 1900, with this stable block becoming more commercial and posh (Delmonico’s was about to open up on the Fifth Avenue end), Trevor sold the stable to the new Iroquois Hotel, which it was attached to.

The stable may have been used for deliveries or for guests who needed cab service to the theaters and restaurants of this newly minted entertainment district.

At some point in the ensuing decades, the stable became a restaurant itself. Here it is in a 1940 photo, renovated into a place with the gangland-like name of “Trigger’s.”

The trail goes cold after this. It served as the headquarters for a women’s press organization; it probably did more turns as a restaurant or bar.

In the 2001 New York Times article, a representative of the Iroquois Hotel said that the hotel planned to turn it into a banquet space, but that hasn’t happened. The next chapter for this 1865 stable remains in question.

[Fourth photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services Tax Photo]

When summer meant the Brighton Beach Baths

May 27, 2019

Imagine an urban beach club spread across 15 acres, with country club amenities like swimming pools, tennis courts, and live music and dancing—all accessible via the D train.

That was the Brighton Beach Baths and Racquet Club, known simply as the Baths.

This “subway Riviera” on Coney Island Avenue opened in 1907, when dozens of beach clubs lent an air of exclusivity to the public beaches from Brighton Beach to Coney Island. (Below, in 1920)

You could say the Baths really had its heyday from the 1930s and 1960s, when the handball courts hosted national champions and Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman entertained the crowd.

In the 1960s, a record 16,000 members played mah-jongg and rummy and heard Borscht Belt comedians yuk it up on stage.

As postwar Brooklyn changed, other beach clubs disappeared. Soon the Baths was the only one left—catering to a loyal community of Jewish Brooklynites who didn’t decamp for the suburbs or Florida.

What a scene this “happy anachronism” was, as the New York Times put it in a 1984 article.

“Enjoying the tennis, paddle-ball and handball courts, swimming pools, areas for canasta, pinochle and penny ante, a miniature golf course and an outdoor tent that is a regular summer performance stop for such Borscht Belt comics as Myron Cohen, Henny Youngman, Red Buttons and Pat Cooper, is a membership seemingly composed of about 5,000 comedians, all of them indefatigable exponents of the one-liner,” the Times noted.

“Some 20 years after this world of sports, card-playing, dancing, eating, social badinage and variants of courtship was supposed to have been replaced by high-rise apartment houses, it is still flourishing, with more than 10,000 members and a $175 fee for a 10 month season,” an earlier Times story in 1976 stated.

With the annual fee climbing past $700 and not many old-timers remaining in a neighborhood now populated by Russian immigrants, the Baths shut down in the late 1990s. (Above, the crowd in 1983)

Like Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes and the Oceana movie theater, the world of the Baths disappeared—replaced by a pricey condo community called Oceana that now commands the same beachfront real estate.

[Top photo: screen grab from “Brighton Beach Baths #1”; second photo: MCNY, 1920, 2001.35.1.235; third photo: Brooklyn Public Library, 1987; fourth photo: New York Daily News 1983; fifth photo: Getty Images]

When “play streets” let New York kids run free

April 15, 2019

It’s unusual to see groups of kids playing in the streets of New York City anymore. (At least without an adult supervising.)

But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with parents at work and tenements too crowded for game-playing anyway, kids were free to roam the cityscape—running around sidewalks, playing ball in the middle of the road, or just sitting on the curb, horsing around.

The street wasn’t a safe place to play, of course. Newspapers headlines of the era tell the stories of countless children being injured or killed by cars or horses.

A public playground movement was underway. But by the 1910s, only 30 had been opened, and not always in the poor neighborhoods that needed them most.

So park officials and the Police Athletic League came up with a novel alternative so popular, they still exist today: play streets.

“Every afternoon (except on Sundays), New York City’s play streets were closed to traffic so children without easy access to parks or playgrounds could have a safe space to run, play games and practice sports,” explains Thirteen.org, the website for Channel 13.

The first play street opened in July 1914 on Eldridge Street between Rivington and Delancey Streets. Signs were posted so motorists knew to drive elsewhere; vendors were shooed away.

“The Parks Department brought in two of their street pianos, and the Eldridge Street Settlement organized a folk dance festival—turning a block that normally bustled with commerce into a place for music, sport and recreation,” stated Thirteen.org.

Soon, play streets began popping up everywhere, with 29 more opening in Manhattan that year. In 1924, play streets came to the outer boroughs, too.

Clearly play streets were a lot of fun for kids. What could be better than running free across the block with your friends, without worrying if you’ll be crushed by horse hoofs or run over by a car?

But parks officials had different motives for opening play streets. One was to prevent kids from becoming criminals.

“What would these children be doing if they were not playing in the street? Many of them would be learning to become criminals,” stated a 1915 New-York Tribune article, quoting a committee of officials.

“A boy must play, so must a girl. If it is made illegal for him to play the natural and pleasant games of childhood, he will substitute something else.”

Another play streets goal was to solve what the Tribune called the “dance-hall problem.”

“Let boys and girls become accustomed to each other. Let them think of each other as playmates and not mysterious creatures whom they may not know until they grow older, and foolish and sentimental, and much of [the] vice problem will be solved,” the newspaper quoted Charles Liebler, the organizer of the original play streets.

Whether the “vice problem” was solved or not, play streets and the street games kids played are memorialized in this plaque on a Mulberry Street fence.

[Top photo: The Atlantic; second photo: MCNY, 1900, 90.13.2.250; third photo: MCNY, 1908, 93.1.1.3171; fourth photo: MCNY 96.184.197; fifth image: NYPL 1936; sixth photo: MCNY, 1935, 43.131.11.183]

A teen swims from Manhattan to Coney Island

June 18, 2018

Most contemporary New Yorkers would think twice about swimming in the city’s waterways.

But a century ago, marathon swim contests captivated the city, with thousands of fans cheering on competitive swimmers who tested their endurance in New York Harbor and the city’s rivers.

One of these competitors was 17-year-old Rose Pitonof. Born in 1895, the “swimming marvel,” as the New York Times later called her, won swim races in her home city of Boston.

That was pretty impressive in an era when most people didn’t know how to swim, and it was still controversial for women to pursue any kind of athletics.

On September 19, 1910, Pitonof attempted to swim the 17 miles from East 23rd Street in Manhattan to Coney Island’s Steeplechase Pier.

According to the New York Sun, she completed the course—which took her down to the harbor and then to Norton’s Point on the western end of Coney Island (where Sea Gate is today) in five hours and six minutes.

She did the same course a year later and won again, swimming 21 miles as she navigated three bridges amid choppy East River waters while doing the breast stroke.

“Coney Island never held a more enthusiastic or demonstrative crowd than that which welcomed the girl swimmer at Steeplechase Pier yesterday afternoon,” wrote the New York Times on August 14, 1911.

“From the time she first made her appearance around Norton’s Point thousands gathered along the shore to watch her progress and cheer her on to victory, and all bathing was suspended for practically the last hour of her swim.”

“At the finish of the swim she appeared in no way fatigued, and her only nourishment was a cup of coffee and a chicken sandwich.”

Pitonof wasn’t just an athlete—she was a performer too, and she worked the vaudeville circuit demonstrating high dives and other tricks.

She attempted a few more long-distance swims in the 1910s, including an English Channel swim (which another teen swim sensation from Manhattan completed) and a route from Sandy Hook to New York, but was unable to finish either.

She died in 1984, a generation before the launch of the Rose Pitonof Swim, an annual event that recreates her record-breaking journey from the East 20s to Coney Island.

The glory days of Julian’s 14th Street pool hall

May 21, 2018

If you spent any time east of Union Square from the 1930s to the early 1990s, you might remember Julian’s, one of the last of New York’s dark and smoky billiards halls. It ended its run on the second floor of the old Palladium building in 1991.

Ephemeral New York has celebrated Julian’s before, where (mostly) men and teenage boys shot pool and played hooky from work and life. But these noir-ish 1938 photos of Julian’s are another reason to bring it back again.

Reginald Marsh shot these images. He’s better known as an artist of the 1920s to 1940s who was drawn to the city’s seedy underbelly along the Bowery, at Times Square, and on Coney Island.

But he took a series of photos in the 1930s along 14th Street as well, capturing Depression-era New York’s grit, glamour, and many forgotten men.

A long shadowy staircase leading to the second floor entrance, the electric sign with “ladies invited” underneath, the ad for table tennis, the barber pole advertising a cut and shave to the left . . . these photos are an invitation to 1930s New York City. (Above photo, Julian’s in the 1980s).

[First and second images: MCNY: 90.36.2.30.1A; 90.36.2.30.1C. Third image: Warehouse magazine]