By Ed Wendell
The Union Course Racetrack operated from the 1820s through the early 1870s and Dexter Park ran from around the turn of the century to the mid-50s.
Combined they were only open for a little over 100 years but they left a lasting impact and a legacy that will be honored this year by the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society – and both are celebrating big milestone anniversaries this year!
First up is the Union Course Racetrack, which officially opened in October of 1821 but really hit the big time 200 years ago this month when 60,000 people came to see the matchup between American Eclipse (from the North) versus Sir Henry (representing the South).
These match races were a new phenomenon largely due to the recent availability of steamship travel.
Before their arrival, a horse from one region would need to walk a few hundred miles before reaching its destination where it would be expected to race. And races in those days could run anywhere from 12 to 20 miles in a single day!
This also resulted in more people traveling great distances to see these highly anticipated races. Previously, big races would attract crowds of six to eight thousand people.
The race that took place on Tuesday, May 27, 1823 brought 60,000 to our community (which wouldn’t be called Woodhaven for quite some time yet).
Just two decades after the demise of the Union Course, people began playing loosely organized games of baseball in a nearby park. Pretty soon, semi-professional teams from all over were brought here to play and in 1922 the local team, the Bushwicks, were purchased by Max Rosner, a former player/manager with the team. The next year, in 1923, a new expanded baseball stadium was opened.
Dexter Park made a few wonderful contributions to baseball. First up, it was the site of many contests featuring the greatest baseball players of all time.
Hall of Fame sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were just a few among the many famous ballplayers that would come to Woodhaven for exhibitions.
Dexter Park also played host to many of the Negro League teams and some of the great players of that era including Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, both of whom would end up in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
It was common for the Negro League teams to come into Woodhaven to face off against the Bushwicks and fans would flock to see these contests, decades before Jackie Robinson would break the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947.
Josh Gibson was reportedly the only player to smack a homerun over the centerfield fence which was 30 feet high and 418 feet away from home plate! Once known as “the Black Babe Ruth,” fans at Dexter Park became so impressed with his power that they began calling Ruth “the White Josh Gibson.”
And finally, Dexter Park introduced night baseball in 1930 (which wouldn’t be used in the major leagues for another half-decade).
The Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society will honor both sporting achievements this year starting next Monday, May 15, with a visual presentation on the famed race between Eclipse and Sir Henry.
This will take place at historic Neir’s Tavern (87-48 78th Street) and starts at 7 p.m.
Come out and hear all about the fascinating circumstances that led to this race. Please note that everyone who attends will receive a commemorative racing sheet featuring all of the main characters of this dramatic story.
And on Saturday May 27, starting at 10 a.m., the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society will be leading a brief walking tour around the Union Course racetrack and telling the story of the great race that took place exactly 200 years ago that day.
And commemorative racing sheets will be given to the first 60,000 fans that show up for the walking tour!
And Max Rosner, owner of Dexter Park and the Bushwicks, will be honored with the unveiling of a street sign in his honor on Woodhaven’s birthday!
Come to Dexter Ct. and 86th Road on July 1 at noon to pay honor to this beloved figure in Woodhaven’s History and celebrate our community’s founding!
And please tell your neighbors and help spread the word about Woodhaven’s substantive contributions to the sporting world.