- Baseball’s Peerless Semipros: The Brooklyn Bushwicks of Dexter Park
In Baseball’s Peerless Semipros: The Brooklyn Bushwicks of Dexter Park, independent historian Thomas Barthel documents the history of one of the biggest spectator draws in New York City during the first half of the twentieth century. The semipro Brooklyn Bushwicks rarely left their home of Dexter Park near the Queens/Brooklyn border, and for good reason. The Bushwicks seldom played in an organized league, and in their best attendance years they averaged 15,000 paying customers for Sunday doubleheaders. Even as minor league and semipro baseball declined in the 1940s, the Bushwicks still outdrew the bigleague Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Braves in 1945.
Max Rosner, the team’s innovative owner, was a Jewish immigrant from Austria-Hungary. He kept the turnstiles spinning by advertising “Big League Baseball at Workingman’s Rates” (p. 18). In the team’s early days Rosner subverted the city’s Sabbath Statute by offering free admission and charging for a scorecard, which conveniently cost the same as regular admission. The circumvention did not always work, and Rosner reportedly spent many afternoons in jail waiting for his friends to bail him out. He also pioneered night baseball in the city in 1930 (five years before the Cincinnati Reds held Major League Baseball’s first nocturnal contest), allowing even more working people to attend games. Rosner understood that if he put a quality product on the field many area fans were willing to buy the cheaper ticket at nearby Dexter Park. The Polo Grounds or Yankee Stadium were seventy-five minute trips for Bushwick residents, and even a Dodgers game required taking four different subway trains.
Bushwick fans were pleased with what they saw from Rosner’s nine, even though a group of hardcore fans know as the “tenants” cheered lustily against the home team. The roster usually included a mix of three to five men with major league experience, locals who chose to stay near home rather than endure the grind of the minor leagues, up-and-coming prospects, and semi-pro regulars. The Bushwicks were paid well for these “second jobs”; in 1929 position players earned $30-$50 per Sunday, or the equivalent of the weekly pay of a factory worker (p. 80). Rosner scheduled the best semipro squads, black teams, and barnstormers, yet the Bushwicks typically took three-quarters of these contests.
Barthel’s account is basically a year-by-year overview of Bushwick baseball and does not engage with existing historiographies. Yet historians of sport and race may find some useful nuggets here. In contrast to the lily-white, all-male confines of Major League Baseball, Dexter Park featured players from many different backgrounds. Though the Bushwicks did not employ any African-American players, Buck Lai, a Hawaiian-Chinese infielder was a longtime stalwart. Large crowds attended games against the University of Japan and Meiji University. In 1937 the Hawaiian All-Stars came to Dexter Park with pitcher Jackie Mitchell, the “girl wonder from Chattanooga” whom Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned from professional baseball in 1931 (p. 138). In [End Page 289] addition, frequent contests with Negro League teams provided the stiffest competition for the Brooklyn club.
Newspaper accounts showed the race-making/unmaking that occurred in Dexter Park. One writer connoted racial difference by referring to the Cuban Stars as the “mezzo-tinted athletes from the oasis of the Atlantic” (p. 71). However, many journalists were impressed by the Stars’ play. “Call it the great national pastime if you must,” a local columnist stated, “but all afternoon these Havana bred baseballers kept giving lessons to their American rivals” (p. 113). Games against black teams prompted writers to trade in stereotypes over the supposed comedic aspects of black baseball and how “colored teams” were able to withstand the heat better than whites but also brought out appreciation for Negro League skills. A sports editor noted that “without the sepia-tinged opposition” the Bushwicks would have no decent...