LONDON: The Racing Journal
Auto racing and baseball have parallel seasons. About the only common ground they have had is that many race tracks lie on former baseball fields.
In the fifties, weekly stock car racing was booming. In fact over a thousand speedways hosted them every week during warmer weather periods. Sometimes, things did get complicated.
Pioneering NASCAR promoter Ed Otto was from New Jersey. It is said he bankrolled Bill France, Sr’s early efforts to get NASCAR started. Otto found himself a useful venue to stage racing, Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. It was right across the Hudson River from Manhattan in NYC. Roosevelt had been a minor league baseball field.
With a seat capacity of over 15,000, Otto paid the best purse in the circuit. It drew such a great field of racers that NASCAR regional director Bob Sall had an edict that once eighty Sportsman/Modifieds signed in, the pits were closed.
Roosevelt drew the cream of the crop. Drivers like Frankie Schneider and Wally Campbell were regular competitors. Racing from Roosevelt was televised in NYC by the Dumont (now Fox) Broadcasting Com. It was a great success.
Otto’s headaches began from a source other than racing, baseball and NYC politics. The Brooklyn Dodgers, after years of being “da bums,” had prospered and suddenly won the 1955 World Series beating their NYC rivals, the Yankees.
The Dodgers were owned by Walter O’Malley. He was unhappy that the Dodgers played their home games in a ramshackle old park named Ebbets Field. He demanded a new facility from the city.
Politicians wouldn’t bite, despite backroom “sweetheart deals” with unions and business owners, it was said the city would not pay for a new park. This was ridiculous. A successful new stadium would have made millions, especially with the new found success of the Dodgers.
The tight-fisted O’Malley wouldn’t “grease any wheels,” which would have given him the new park. As a power play he decided to threaten the politicos by having the Dodgers play elsewhere, costing the city tax monies. O’Malley picked Roosevelt Stadium. He secured the lease away from Otto. The track was dug up and racing was done there after the 1955 season.
The Dodgers did play home games there in 1956-57. Still, he didn’t get the new home. Wined and dined by Los Angeles, that city gave him a six million dollar tract of land, called Chavez Ravine. They also built Dodger Stadium.
Getting approval from the National League would be difficult since St. Louis was the furthest west NL team and a trip to California would be expensive, O’Malley convinced his friend Horace Stoneham to move the NY Giants to San Francisco, which he did, taking the popular Willie Mays out west.
The Giants played their home games at the Polo Grounds, a huge 65,000 Stadium in northern Manhattan. Stepping out to the plate was Ed Otto again. He leased it, installed a quarter mile track and scheduled stock car racing in 1958.
One problem: There wasn’t a NASCAR track nearby. In those days you either ran NASCAR or you didn’t. The nearest track was Freeport Stadium, the most successful, at that time weekly speedway.