Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

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this world of sports, card-playing, dancing, eating, social badinage and variants of courtship was supposed to have been replaced by high-rise apartment houses, it is still flourishing, with more than 10,000 members and a $175 fee for a 10 month season,” an earlier Times story in 1976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

Everyone ate at Jack Dempsey’s in Times Square

May 21, 2018

He wasn’t just a champion heavyweight but a cultural icon of the 1920s and 1930s.

So what does a cultural icon do after his days in the ring are over? Open what today’s critics might consider a celebrity theme restaurant in the busiest part of the city, of course.

Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant, as it was officially called, opened its doors in 1935 on 49th Street, across the street from the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden.

In the restaurant’s early years, Dempsey was known to hold court at a table, a legendary figure greeting customers and glad-handling guests.

“The former heavyweight champion was a gallant hose,” The New York Times wrote a day after opening night. “He was everywhere, from the furthest corner of the glowing main dining room to the edge of the soft red carpet near the entrance.”

Pinned to the lapel of his morning coat was “a kewpie doll. That, it was confidentially explained, symbolized the new venture.”

Times Square changed and the restaurant moved to the Brill Building, and eventually Dempsey’s attracted dwindling crowds. “During its waning years, Mr. Dempsey was a fixture in the corner booth, where he usually sat with his back to the window, greeting customers,” wrote the Times in 2000.

In 1974, the restaurant closed after a lease dispute, its memorabilia lining the walls packed up—but not before an appearance in the first Godfather movie.

Dempsey died in 1983, and today the corner where he held court in his original restaurant on 49th Street is now named for him.

[Third photo: MCNY x2011.34.3827; fourth photo: Wikipedia; fifth image: MCNY 97.146.164]

The magic of indoor ice skating on the East Side

March 5, 2018

In the 1860s, New Yorkers were crazy about ice skating, and there were plenty of daytime and moonlit places to hit the ice, including Central Park and Union and Washington Ponds in Brooklyn.

But to experience the enchantment of (temperature controlled) indoor ice skating, city residents laced up their skates and donned skating costumes at the Empire City Skating Rink, which spanned 62nd and 63rd Streets between Third and Second Avenues.

It must have been quite an experience gliding around this football stadium-size rink. “Skaters exclaim, ‘how do they do it? Is not this splendid music and illumination?'” stated ads for the rink, which invited visitors to come see “the splendid sheet of ice like a mirror with thousands skating on it.”

Before winter 2018 ends, consider what New Yorkers did for amusement in 1868 and see the Museum of the City of New York’s “New York on Ice” exhibit, which runs through April 15.

[Top image: MCNY 29.100.1544; second image: New York Herald 1870]

Stan’s sprawling sports empire at Yankee Stadium

May 25, 2017

It all started with Stan’s Sports World on River Avenue in the Bronx, across the street from Yankee Stadium (the Yankee Stadium built in the 1920s, that is).

Then came Stan’s Sports Bar, right next door, in 1979. This once rough and tumble place still has its wonderful old-school neon sign, shadowed by the elevated subway tracks.

Stan was Stan Martucci, a Staten Island family man who was more of a sports memorabilia kind of guy than a bar owner, his son (who owns the place now) told a reporter in a 2009 New York Times article.

The Stan’s empire expanded. There’s also Stan the Man’s Baseball Land and Stan’s Pro Cap Dugout, for official fitted MLB caps.

The newish stadium might be a little farther away, but for millions of Yankee fans who went to games in the gritty Bronx of the 1980s and 1990s, Stan’s is synonymous with Yankee baseball greatness.

How New York kids played baseball in the 1940s

April 17, 2017

Adult-organized Little League? Uniforms? Post-game snacks supplied by parents?

Not in New York neighborhoods like this one, where baseball-crazy (or stickball?) boys turned empty lots between tenements into playing fields and made rocks, cardboard, and patches of dirt their bases.

This photo goes back to 1940, and judging by the long pants and shirts they’re wearing, I’m guessing it’s early in the season, as it is right now.

[Photo: MCNY by Roy Perry: 80.102.107]

The beauty and magic of New York City on skates

January 5, 2017

What is it about skating that captivated so many New York City illustrators and painters during the 19th and early 20th centuries?

[Below, “Skating in Central Park,” 1910]

glackensskatingincentralpark1910

It could be the challenge of capturing the motions of skating, the gliding or rolling skaters do, kind of an unchoreographed dance even the clumsiest person can master.

Or perhaps in the case of ice skating, artists can’t resist the glorious winter colors that frame New York’s frozen ponds and lakes.

[“Skaters, Central Park,” 1912]

glackensiceskatingcentralpark

Skating might also have been seen as a little risque. During the Gilded Age, ice skating was one of the few social activities men and women could do together without upsetting the boundaries of the era’s gender-specific spheres.

[“Roller Skating Rink,” 1906]

glackensrollerrink1906

Ashcan School artist William Glackens painted these three images of New Yorkers on skates. He may have simply enjoyed depicting spirited scenes of day-to-day life in the city where he lived and worked (his studio was on Ninth Street off Fifth Avenue).

The roller skating rink painting, however, stems from an actual trip to a city rink Glackens made with Robert Henri and other Ashcan painters.

“The hilarious evening, in which Glackens was the first to fall, encapsulates the artist’s fascination with the modern city and its popular attractions,” wrote the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has this work in its collection.

The beginning and end of the Brooklyn Marathon

November 7, 2016

Runners have been crossing the Central Park finish line of the New York City Marathon, cheered on by thousands of fans, since 1970.

brooklynmarathonstart1909

But Brooklyn beat Manhattan on the marathon front by decades. Starting in 1908, Brooklyn began holding its own marathon—on chilly February 12, President Lincoln’s birthday, no less.

brooklynmarathonwinner1909

For the 1909 race, “the runners started at the Thirteenth Armory in Crown Heights, ran along Ocean Parkway, then past Coney Island’s silent amusements to Sea Gate and back, a 26-mile run,” wrote John Manbeck in Chronicles of Historic Brooklyn.

brooklynmarathonsecondplace1909

These photos from 1909 show us the 150 runners at the start being sent off by thousands of onlookers . . . and then the first and second-place winners.

The marathon appears to have been held in fits and starts and modified versions through the 1920s, then quietly disappeared.

[Photos: Bain Collection, LOC]