The year was 1935. Babe Ruth, the Bambino, was reveling in the twilight of his fame. The Sultan of Swat, the King of Swing, the Colossus Of Crash had seen better days. Years of hard living and several automobile accidents had taken their toll, but the Babe could still draw a crowd—and the racially diverse spectators at the Dyckman Oval were his kind of people.
On September 29, 1935 they came in droves.
That sunny afternoon an estimated 10,000 fans came to the 4,600 seat Dyckman Oval to see their hero play on a team of former all stars and minor leaguers in an exhibition game against the New York Cubans of the old Negro League. The price: Fifty-five cents for the grandstands and $1.10 for the big spenders in the box seats.
The game, for which Ruth was paid three thousand dollars, would be one of his last.
Amid the sea of fans, one lone reporter, Tom Meany of the New York Telegram, realized the tragedy unfolding before his very eyes.
“The spectators seemed to sense they were watching something pathetic…There were neither newsreel nor still cameras in evidence and no telegraph keys clattered brassily in the press box, which had less than half a dozen occupants. No civic dignitaries, not even an alderman, could be observed in the crowd.”
Paid to play just the first game of a double-header, which the Cubans won 6 to 1, Ruth took to the plate between games to give the ticket holders a bit more bang for their buck. Over the next five minutes, Meany and the 10,000 fans witnessed a piece of baseball history that would never be entered into the record books.
As pitcher Clyde Barfoot hurled balls from the mound, The Babe, for a fleeting moment, sprung back to life, slamming ball after ball out of the park. Those in attendance swore one particular baseball was hit further than any in the previous history of the Dyckman Oval.
But as Ruth faded into the stuff of legend, the Dyckman Oval was entering its heyday…
When the Dyckman Oval first appeared in the sports pages in January of 1920 it was a homely affair located at 204th Street and Nagle Avenue. That first year the Oval was used primarily for ice skating competitions.
That spring Hylan made an impromptu visit to the Oval to see Jeff Tesreau’s team battle the Cuban Stars. Not recognizing the Mayor as he approached, a later shame-faced gateman demanded to see a ticket. “I haven’t any,” responded the mayor. Gateman, “Well, you’d better get one if you want to see this game.”
Luckily for both parties a manager spotted the Mayor and escorted him into the Oval where he immediately took to the mound.
The mayor threw four pitches against the opposing team—three of them strikes.
Soon boxing was added to the roster. Pugilism would become a staple of the Oval for years to come, but at the time, many doubted the Dyckman Oval could survive the 1920’s.
By 1929 the Dyckman Oval played host to mainly soccer games. Lawsuits and years of poor management had left the once thriving facility on life support.
It was not until 1935, the same year Ruth played his exhibition game that things turned around for the Dyckman Oval, but first a deal with the devil had to be made.
A 2003 Sports Illustrated article written by Daniel Coyle provides a wonderful description of Pompez.
“Pompez was a criminal in the eyes of the police and a crown prince in the eyes of Harlemites. From his cigar store, the soft spoken Cuban ran a numbers bank—a lottery that filled his pockets to the tune of $8,000 a day—which he used to fund his Negro league baseball team, the New York Cubans. Courtly, suave and scrupulously honest with his clients, Pompez was beloved in Harlem for his civic generosity.
All went swimmingly for him until an evening in 1931 when the Bronx-based gangster Arthur Flegenheimer, better known as Dutch Schultz, employed his .45 revolver to persuade Pompez to hand over control of the numbers game. Needing another source of income, Pompez turned to sports enterprises. In 1935 he leased a vacant field at Dyckman Oval from the city and transformed it into one of the finest sports palaces in Manhattan.”
Pompez put his money to good use. Under his renovations the Dyckman Oval was transformed into shining new 10,000 seat arena with modern conveniences like floodlights for playing well into the night.
A master showman, Pompez knew how to fill the house. If Babe Ruth didn’t dazzle them then perhaps a boxing exhibition with Joe Louis, a new car raffle—whatever it took.
The Oval, often called “Harlem’s Own,” was also a melting pot where all New Yorkers could gather and simply enjoy a ball game—and Pompez’s New York Cubans knew how to delight.
Player-manager Martin Dihigo was clearly a house favorite. Dubbed “El Maestro” by fans and sportswriters alike, Dihigo could play all nine positions with equal skill. His lightening speed fastballs remain the stuff of legend. Often called the most versatile player in the history of baseball, the six-foot-three, 210 pound, right-handed Cuban would eventually be elected to the Mexican, Cuban and American Halls of Fame.
The entire team, comprised of Cuban, African-American, Puerto Rican and Dominican players proved a force to be reckoned with—even when playing against legendary teams like Satchel Paige and his Pittsburgh Crawfords.
But the days of wine and roses couldn’t last forever—the team’s owner, Alex Pompez, was, after all, a career criminal. When rival gangsters gunned down Dutch Schultz in October of 1935, Pompez went back into the numbers rackets.
The move would prove a serious miscalculation.
In 1936 New York County District Attorney Thomas Dewey was preparing an indictment against Pompez for his involvement in the policy rackets. Receiving a tip, Pompez fled the country.
When Mexican authorities arrested Pompez on March 28, 1937 he was traveling under the name Antonio Moreno. Federales in Mexico City nabbed baseball’s greatest fugitive as he stepped into a bulletproof car with Chicago license plates.
On May 16, 1939, after providing lengthy testimony for the prosecution, Pompez pleaded guilty to conspiracy in return for a two year suspended sentence.
When the Cubans were readmitted to the Negro National League in 1939 they would find themselves without a home.
In 1938, perhaps to spite the admitted gangster, the City of New York demolished the Dyckman Oval and turned the grand old field into a parking lot.
Today the Dyckman Houses sit on this once hallowed sporting ground.
In 1943 Pompez found a new home for the Cubans inside New York’s famed Polo Grounds.
Lacking fan support, the New York Cubans folded in 1950.
Pompez went on to become a respected talent scout who once played a role in signing Willie Mays.
Credited with opening baseball’s “Dominican Pipeline,”