By Ed Wendell
In 1892, a young man named Max Rosner immigrated to the United States from Hungary. He eventually settled down in Woodhaven, opening a Cigar Store on Jamaica Avenue near Forest Parkway that would operate very profitably for many years. He also became a resident of Woodhaven when he bought a home on 76th Street.
If that was all that Max Rosner ever did, it would be an American success story. But Rosner was no ordinary man, and his success story was far from ordinary.
As a newcomer to this country, Rosner became enamored with baseball, which was a relatively new sport at the time. He watched the local teams and eventually tried out and played shortstop for a semi-pro team.
In time, Max Rosner took over as manager of the Bushwicks, a Brooklyn-based team that played frequently at Dexter Park in Woodhaven, Queens.
In October of 1922 Max Rosner and partner Nat Strong purchased Dexter Park and the Bushwicks from the Ulmer Brewery for $200,000. Ulmer Brewery had been forced to cease operations due to prohibition.
Dexter Park became the home field for the Bushwicks and for the Brooklyn Royal Giants, one of the top teams in the Negro Leagues.
They began immediately to improve the ballpark, building a new concrete grandstand which increased the capacity to 13,000 (six thousand individual seats and bleachers which accommodated seven thousand people).
The playing field itself was one of the largest in the United States. The distance from home plate to the centerfield fence was a whopping 450 feet and only the legendary Hall of Famer Josh Gibson was able to hit one over it.
The newly remodeled stadium opened nearly 100 years ago, on April 15, 1923.
Over the years, Rosner was also well known in Woodhaven for his charitable contributions. Numerous times, Rosner donated the use of Dexter Park for benefit games to raise funds for charities, including a series of games which helped construct a new building for Jamaica Hospital.
Rosner was famous for being the first one at the ballpark every morning, often to the chagrin of his groundskeepers. He was such a beloved figure to the residents of Woodhaven that he soon became known, even in the press, as Uncle Max.
Under his ownership, Dexter Park was a prime source of entertainment for residents in Woodhaven and the neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens that surrounded it. Dexter Park wasn’t just a home for baseball; Dexter Park also hosted Boxing, Soccer, Football, Polo (with horses) and in later years, Stock Car racing.
Every year, once the Major League Baseball season was over, legendary ballplayers such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Dizzy Dean would come to Woodhaven to play ball.
And over the years, legendary players from the Negro Leagues like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige played right here in Woodhaven, years before the color barrier would be broken in Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson.
Dexter Park was also famous for the introduction of night games, a full eight years before it was adopted in the Major Leagues.
Although it was initially seen as a fad or a novelty, night baseball proved to be so popular with fans that in years to come, day games became far less frequent. Today, the majority of baseball games are played at night.
The lights at Dexter Park were designed by Herman Rosner, Max’s son, an electrician. When you consider the difficulty of fully lighting a field, while lighting the sky for fly balls while not blinding the fans or the players – this was a tremendous achievement.
Major League baseball on television hurt many semi pro teams, the Bushwicks included. Rosner shifted gears and converted Dexter Park for Stock Car Racing. Eventually, the crowds dwindled and after Rosner passed away, the park was sold and demolished, and new homes were built on the land.
This year, the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society requested that Dexter Court and 86th Road, where the box office of the old stadium used to sit, be renamed in Max Rosner’s honor. The proposal had the support of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association, the Woodhaven Business Improvement District and Community Board 9.
Councilman Robert Holden enthusiastically sponsored the proposal and last week it passed unanimously in the City Council.
The attention that the street naming will generate will help highlight Woodhaven’s role in baseball history.
From playing host to many of the greatest players in Major League Baseball, to playing host to the greatest players in the Negro Leagues, to being the birthplace of the great innovation of Night Baseball – there is a lot for residents of Brooklyn and Queens, and Woodhaven in particular, to be proud of.