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New York filled with sports ghosts

At the corner of Montague and Court Streets in Brooklyn, in the ghostly quiet of last Sunday morning, I stood outside a glass-fronted bank and gazed up, to a spot in the air where Branch Rickey offered Jackie Robinson a contract with the Dodgers organization 67 summers ago.

It was there, at the former 215 Montague Street, that the Brooklyn Base Ball Club had its front office from 1938 to 1957, and even now one doesn't require a powerful act of imagination to picture the corner as it once was: The trolley-dodging pedestrians who gave the team its nickname, the advance ticket office that saved you the schlep to Ebbets Field, and the two men meeting on an upper floor on August 25, 1945 -- three weeks after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- to transform post-war America.

The TD Bank branch wasn't open, but it was lit from within -- and fairly quickly so was I, fogging the front window to see the gorgeous mural of Ebbets Field on the back wall, behind rows of empty desks. Today, signatures are procured within to open checking accounts and guarantee loans, but "once upon a time" -- in the phrase of a small bronze plaque outside -- signatures secured the services of Robinson, Snider and Campanella, and also sealed the team's abandonment of Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1957.

So many of these places where history was made have vanished, or become banks and pharmacies and other factories of our daily drudgery, bereft of plaques or any other hint of their former glory, so that we usually go about our errands oblivious to them.

It isn't true that every other business in New York has become a Duane Reade drugstore. But there was, last I checked, a Duane Reade drugstore at 51 West 51st Street in Manhattan, the former address of Toot Shor's famous saloon, where Joe DiMaggio and Jack Dempsey ate, where Shor literally drank Jackie Gleason under a table, and Yogi Berra allegedly said upon meeting the writer Ernest Hemingway: "What paper are you with, Ernie?"

Seated one night at the circular bar, Frank Sinatra watched Dempsey, then Bing Crosby, then Babe Ruth walk through the front door. "When Babe Ruth walked in," Sinatra recalled in a film clip in the 2009 documentary Toots, "I damn near wet my pants."

Today you can purchase Depends on the former site of Shor's, but have very little reason to wet your pants there, which is an irony evident in many of these ghostly shrines.

Ruth himself used to sign his contracts at 1639 Third Avenue in Manhattan, in the offices of Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert, whose Ruppert Brewery sprawled over four blocks of the Upper East Side. That brewery's front door was near the corner of East 91st Street, where the portal to a kind of anti-brewery stands today: It's a health club -- a branch of the New York Sports Club -- so that this former shrine to Knickerbocker Beer and Ruthian excess is now a temple to physical fitness and self denial.

This seems to be a theme connecting these ghost buildings of New York. Upon his arrival in the city, after signing with the Jets, Joe Namath was introduced to Toots Shor, who in turn introduced him to the New York press at a cocktail party-slash-press conference on January 23, 1965. Eventually, the pair had a falling out -- specifically a throwing out, when Toots tossed Namath after an argument -- and Broadway Joe opened his own swinging joint, Bachelors III.

That place is still there, still a pickup spot, still full of fur coats and heavy breathers, but now 798 Lexington Avenue, on the corner of 62nd Street, is a pet shop, American Kennels, and the only pedigree the customers care about is the pooch's, not the building's.

It's a pity, because these places are frequently unmarked and on the surface unremarkable, like speakeasies, known only to a few passers-by. And so the old U.S. Customs House in downtown Houston, at 701 San Jacinto Street -- built in 1911 as a post office -- remains a Military Entrance Processing Station, just as it was on April 28, 1967, when Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army on the third floor there, in a room full of draftees leaving on a 6 p.m. bus for Fort Polk, La. and fates unknown.

Other buildings softly whisper their history to anyone interested in listening. Embedded in the floor in Posvar Hall, the largest academic facility on the University of Pittsburgh campus, is home plate from Forbes Field, home of the Pirates from 1909 to 1970. Displayed under glass like a cooked pheasant, the plate is where Bill Mazeroski was mobbed after winning the 1960 World Series with a walk-off home run. Or rather, it's a few yards from the same spot: The exact location of home plate evidently became a restroom, and it's a pity they didn't leave the plate there, under Lucite, full-bladdered students racing for home in homage to all the others who did so -- including Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth, who hit his last three home runs there, in the same game, on May 25, 1935, five days before his final at-bat.

As a kid, I worked Twins and Vikings games at Minnesota's Metropolitan Stadium, which was torn down and replaced by the nation's largest shopping mall. To this day, I cannot pass the Mall of America without hearing the voice of Frank Sinatra, who nearly wet his pants when Ruth walked into Toots Shor's.

People race in and out with their shopping bags and middle-distance mall stares. And all the while Sinatra's singing: "The air was such a wonder from the hot dogs and the beer/There used to be a ballpark right here."

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