On the Drawing Table: Ebbets Field Scoreboard
Sometimes I fall into a well while working on something. By “fall into a well” I mean find myself stalking off on a tangent away from what I am supposed to be working on to pursue a new idea or concept.
My most recent tangent brought me to the corner of Bedford Avenue and Sullivan Place in Brooklyn. Ebbets Field to be exact.
In the history of American sports there is no place that is eulogized and mythicised as Ebbets Field. Pretty much every baseball fan can close their eyes and see the scoreboard with its famous red and white Schaefer Beer logo on top and yellow Abe Stark sign below. It’s as iconic as the white arches of old Yankee Stadium or the exploding scoreboard in Chicago.
The reason for my recent tangent was the story and illustration I did of Gil Hodges. I wanted to show some of the great old Ebbets Field advertising behind Gil so began looking for period photos. I depicted Gil in a 1951 home jersey, so I needed whatever ad that appears behind him to be correct to 1951. I had a few 1951 photos but none showed the detail or ads that I wanted.
Luckily I knew someone who might be able to help – artist Graig Kreindler. You’ve no doubt seen him on TV or in a magazine – he’s the modern baseball Norman Rockwell. Graig specializes in bringing old black and white photos of the greats of the game to life in full color oil painted brilliance. And, like me, he’s a stickler for the details. We often swap intel on uniform colors, cap logos and ballparks, so I shot him a late night email. Graig and I both work late night hours so it was no surprise that he replied to my midnight email in minutes with a bunch of 1951 Ebbets Field photos he had in his files.
From Graig’s photos, I settled on using the famous Abe Stark “Hit Sign Win Suit” sign that was on the bottom of the scoreboard. I selected a small section of the sign and wrapped up my illustration. But something got me thinking about the scoreboard. I made the turn onto that tangent.
This set me off on a path of recreating the evolution of the Ebbets Field scoreboard. Sure, we all know the mid-1950s red Schaefer sign version – but what did it look like in 1950? 1946? 1940? I wanted to know.
I decided to start in 1938. That is the year Larry MacPhail took over as the team’s executive vice-president and general manager. One of the first things he did was modernize and refresh Ebbets Field. I wanted to know what the scoreboard looked like, and using period snapshots, recreated it:
As you can see, it was pretty basic. Not only did it lack the bright Schaefer sign on top, but it didn’t even have a clock. What was interesting was that the Abe Stark sign on the base was pretty much the same as it was when the Dodgers left in 1957. Another thing of note is that the ad on the top was for Consolidated Edison, the electric company that served Brooklyn at the time. And because it was just a standard billboard, the messaging changed often, sometimes in the same year. Here is the 1940 version of the scoreboard showing a different ad:
By 1941 the Dodgers had gone from the National League’s “lovable losers” to heavyweight contender. After making a serious run at the pennant in 1940, the Dodgers finally won in ’41. Interestingly, this was the first time a clock appeared atop the Ebbets Field scoreboard. It is a Bulova-sponsored clock, but it is different that the one that graced the scoreboard in the 1950s:
World War II brought a major change to the scoreboard. Instead of changing ads from Consolidated Edison, the company patriotically stayed with a standard War Bonds message from 1942-1945:
The end of World War II brought a new innovation to Ebbets’ scoreboard in the shape of a light up “Hit” and “Error” indicator. While it wasn’t as eye catching as the later “h” and “e” that lit up in the Shaefer sign, it did add a bit of illumination to the scoreboard. You can see the indicator at the top of the scoreboard, just below the Consolidated Edison sign. Another new addition was three large speaker boxes on each side of the clock.
I’m not a fan of 42, the Jackie Robinson movie from 2013. I felt the flick played fast and loose with the facts when the actual story told truthfully would have been more powerful. In any case, the movie tried to recreate some of the iconic ballparks of the era including Ebbets Field. Problem is, the scoreboard they showed Jackie playing in was the better-known 1957 version, not what it looked like in 1947, the season the movie was supposed to take place. The actual Ebbets Field scoreboard in Jackie’s rookie season is much less photogenic that the movie depicts:
Now comes the fun part. The Ebbets Field scoreboard we all know and love made its appearance in 1949. Schaefer Beer took over the top section of the scoreboard and created the first version of their iconic sign. The large script “Schaefer” would stay constant from now until the stadium was demolished in 1960. Taking the place of the utilitarian box with a light up “H” and “E” for hit or error is a neon “h” and “e” cleverly hidden in the Schaefer logo. Two small details that were added in 1949. The first is the “344 FT.” in the upper left corner of the scoreboard that marks the distance from home plate. The second is the change in the Yankees scoreboard on the bottom – the gray letters on black have now been changed to blacl letters on white. Despite the know look, the Bulova clock remains the same as it had since 1941:
The big change to the scoreboard in 1952 was the addition of eight flagpoles with pennants representing the National League teams. One small change that happened in 1952 was the “BALLS” and “STRIKES” indicators swapped sides. (Thanks to Harry Klaff for the info). Another tiny detail is the arrows in Abe Stark’s sign, which changed between red and black over the years, are now black for the remainder of the Dodgers’ time in Brooklyn:
The final and best known version of the Bulova clock made its debut in 1953. Though this is the basic look of the scoreboard for the rest of the time the Dodgers called Brooklyn home, there was some subtle changes in the Schaefer messaging to the left and right side of the ad through the years. Here is the 1953 version:
The Schaefer messaging style changed almost every season, reflecting the beer company’s latest ad campaign. One minute detail added in 1955 was the small “INC.” added to the right of the “K” in the Abe Stark ad. When the Dodgers won their one and only World Championship in 1955, the scoreboard appeared like this:
And finally, when the Dodgers played their final season at Ebbets Field in 1957, the scoreboard would have looked like this:
As a graphic designer who loves the history of my craft, recreating the different ads was a lot of fun. Especially since I had to hand draw all the lettering, just like the originals were. I enjoyed trying to figure out what the Bulova clock looked like through the years, especially since there were no clear close up photos to work from. Recreating the two versions took a lot of squinting and sleuthing trying to find what the typefaces were. And then there was the colors. The later 1953-1957 clock used a simple black and white color scheme, but the earlier 1941-1952 one showed several colors. I couldn’t find any color images of the clock at the time I was working on these drawings, so I took a leap of faith and chose red, white, and blue. Fortunately, I found I had assigned the right colors to the right places when I subsequently found a color image of the clock from that era.
Of course, for all the research I did, my drawings have room for improvement. There were certain details I couldn’t be sure of, most noteably the ball and strike indicator. For some reason I could not find a clear shot that showed how the scoreboard marked the balls and strikes. One photos showed what appeared to be an “X.” Other ballparks of the period used this, so I decided to do so as well. Luckily, reader Gary C. (not me, just another guy with a great name) sent me some clear photos that show exactly how the balls and strikes were indicated. My drawings now reflect these new details.
Another fun aspect of creating these drawings was the subtle difference in the typeface used for the team names. These were hand painted signs, so I had to recreate each letter, just like the original sign painters did. And in getting into the details, I found there were three different versions used over the years. Look closely and you can see:
One last thing about the Ebbets scoreboard. As I said in the beginning, the one constant from 1938-1957 was the yellow Abe Stark sign along the bottom. Being the son of a garment cutter and having been one myself, anything related to the old rag trade interests me, so indulge me here.
For those interested, Abe Stark owned a clothing store on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn. He was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan before the turn of the century and his tale is the classic American Dream scenario: newsboy at age 6; working in a clothing store age 11; owner of his own store age 21. To bring in more customers Abe bought an advertising panel in Ebbets Field sometime in the 1920s. This wasn’t the scoreboard ad we all know, but a square panel on the outfield wall. He had the same “Hit Sign Win Suit” offer back then, but according to legend too many players hit the sign. That’s why he changed his ad to the bottom of the scoreboard. Hitting a sign that close to the ground on the fly was much harder and Abe saved himself a bundle in free suits and slacks.
Now one thing I always wondered about was what the heck the “GGG” on both sides stood for. Turns out GGG Clothes was a mid to high quality brand of off the rack suits and other mens wear that stores such as Abe Stark sold and custom tailored for customers.
Abe became interested in politics and in time became the unofficial mayor of Brooklyn. While he never fulfilled his dream of becoming mayor of New York, his name lives on for those of us who love baseball history and have pored over photos of Ebbets Field, daydreaming of what it must have been like to see a game there.
This was a fun project to do, but I have to say it probably took me away from other things I should have been taking care of. And I have no idea what the heck to do with all the illustrations I did. I mean, who really cares about the nuances of a long gone scoreboard for a team that no longer exists?