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Baseball has returned to its roots, to hallowed ground, to a sacred shrine, to Jersey City.
No joke. Jersey City, not Brooklyn, is the birthplace of integrated Organized Baseball, and Jersey City, not Cincinnati, had the first big-time night game. There is history aplenty in Jersey City, and now after a 16-year hiatus, baseball is back in town. Transplanted this season from Williamsport, Pa., the team is the Jersey Indians, a Double A club in the Cleveland system.
Operating right across the Hudson from Yankee-Met territory may seem like a tall order, but minor league baseball has been cropping up in some major places of late, like the 71,330-seat Superdome, where the New Orleans Pelicans, a Cardinal farm, opened several weeks ago before 18,197 fans, and in San Jose, Calif. (pop. 446,000), where Oakland's Triple A farm team moved this season from Tucson. "The stadium, not the city, is the major consideration," says Bobby Bragan, president of the minor leagues. "More than anything, major league clubs want good parks for their farm teams."
Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium, which seats 24,170, is being refurbished by the city at a cost of $75,800. Unfortunately, work was just getting under way in April when the Indians opened their Eastern League season. Playing in a depressing setting that featured poor lighting, patchy grass and a Ferris wheel from a nearby carnival turning just behind the center-field fence, they lost six of nine games during their first home stand. The temporary scoreboard in right field failed to indicate balls and strikes. What information it did supply was indecipherable, because someone forgot to put headings, such as hits, runs and innings, over the number slots.
The Indians, a collection of young players from places like Pearland, Texas, Effingham, Ill. and Temperance, Mich., at first seemed awed to be playing in sight of Manhattan's colossal World Trade Center and the Empire State Building. They also cursed the condition of the field and wondered where they would find inexpensive apartments without long leases, the only type of accommodations they could afford on their $800-$1,000 monthly salaries.
It remained for the team captain, Benny Heise, to offer an encouraging word to his teammates. "This is an average minor league field," said Heise, 25, the well-traveled brother of Bob Heise, the well-traveled utility man now with the Kansas City Royals, "and we'll get used to playing in this area."
Sure enough, the players located a suitable apartment complex in nearby South Orange and, after losing their first five games, began making some good plays in the field. But the Indians were less adept with their bats, scoring only 28 runs in those first nine home games. "These kids are from small towns," says Manager John Orsino, a former big league catcher and the only Jersey resident on the team. "They're overanxious." Whatever the state of their anxiety, the Indians had an 11-33 record at the end of last week and were mired in last place, 18 games behind the division-leading Three Rivers Eagles.
Nevertheless, the Indians have inspired enthusiastic support from their home fans. The crowds have averaged 1,007 a game, a figure topped in the eight-team league only by the Waterbury, Conn. Giants, and the Indians attracted a league-record 8,886 to their first Sunday contest. The darling of the exuberant crowds is the youngest Indian, 19-year-old First Baseman Angelo Lo Grande. When Lo Grande, who is hitting barely .200, comes to bat the fans holler, "Let's go, An-ge-lo!"
"The fans are knowledgeable and fair," says Orsino. "They cheer when we play well and boo when we play bad." According to one loyal Jersey City booster, produce salesman Frank Petrocelli, "The fans will turn out in greater force when summer comes. This is more of a rural town than a cosmopolitan one. A lot of people go to New York only once a year, and they want something local to identify with."
Jersey City has had minor league baseball teams intermittently since 1878 and has fielded some noteworthy players, such as George Stovey, a black pitcher who won 35 games in 1886, and George (Twinkletoes) Selkirk, the Yankee who was nicknamed after a Jersey show girl. Once during the 1920s the Donnelly family, which operated the franchise, lured fans to now-razed West Side Park by staging a night game. "We rented kliegs from the Majestic Light Company," Frank Donnelly, the team's general manager, told the Jersey Journal. "But the lighting was only so-so, and we couldn't stay with it. The score of that game was something like 11-0. It was burlesque." It was also far ahead of the times; the majors did not play a game under the lights until 1935.