A History of Greenpoint in Twenty-Five buildings: The Mansion House
The Mansion House is not just part of Greenpoint history, but also of baseball history. The colonial era house, near today’s Engert Street, was the home of the fabled Greenpoint baseball club, the Eckford Club. Many baseball historians claim that the Mansion House was first ever clubhouse in baseball history! Certainly the Eckfords, who played for many years on the grounds of the mansion etched their names into baseball history, but first, here’s a little bit about the house.
Like the Meserole Mansion and Dirck the Norseman’s house, someone should have preserved this historic structure. I am not sure when it was demolished, but I think it might have lasted up until 1911. The house predates the United States. It was the Schenk farm in the 1760’s, but was then bought by the Wyckoff family who held if for generations. We do not know what it looked like, but it was certainly built by the Schenk family with wood they cut locally. It was probably similar to other Dutch colonial structures and over time wings were added, one of which later became the team’s clubhouse.
In 1857 shipwrights from the Collyer and Webb shipyard formed an amateur baseball team. Founded by Frank Pidgeon who pitched in what many call the first All-Star game in 1858, Pidgeon believed that baseball should be amateur and fought a losing battle against professionalization of the sport. The first players were amateurs, full-time shipwrights who had only one afternoon a week to practice, but were so strong from the grueling labor of cutting wood for ships that they could hit for power.
They found a ball field around the still undeveloped fields surrounding the mansion. It is hard to imagine but in those days people hunted in these Greenpoint fields and fished Newtown Creek. Soon though, the area became thick with houses and the team moved to the Union Ground in Williamsburg, which also made history by becoming the first fully enclosed baseball stadium. It was at these grounds the Eckfords became twice-national champions in front of delirious Greenpoint fans.
In my book “Greenpoint’s Forgotten Past” I described how the star pitcher of the Eckford, James Sprague, hurt the club by enlisting in the Union Army, but was brought home to pitch and win the rubber game of the championship series. The Mansion House continued to be the clubhouse, but later moved to Grand Street.
The team also made history because its first baseman, Al Reach, became the first acknowledged fully professional baseball player when he left the club in 1864 to join the Philadelphia Athletics in 1864. Reach would found the Philadelphia Phillies and become a millionaire, but he was not the only Eckford Club player to found a team. Jimmy Wood founded the Chicago White Sox and came back to Greenpoint to raid the club and take many of its best players, which was a severe blow to the club. Professionalism quickly killed the club and it folded in 1872, but lived on for eighty more years as a prominent Brooklyn social club.
There is one more piece of baseball history related to the Eckford Club. One of its pitchers, “Phoney” Martin developed a pitch that moved away from the batter and proved difficult to hit. Years later Martin claimed that he was the inventor of the curveball, but a few other pitchers also made the same claim.
There is another interesting historical tidbit related to the building. Thomas Clarke, the Irish revolutionary who was the first man to sign the proclamation of Ireland’s Independence, was a night porter at the mansion house in the early 1880’s when he was involved in a plot to dynamite London. He was part of a dynamite school somewhere in Greenpoint that taught young Irishmen the basics of explosives. Perhaps the school was in the Mansion House, but of course this is all conjecture.
One thing though is certain. The Eckford Club made history. If you visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown there is a large vat that contains a hundred and sixty four gilded baseballs the Eckfords won in competitions against other early baseball sides. Today one of the few remnants of the club is a yellowing scrapbook in the Brooklyn Historical Society that reveals the forgotten glory of this once celebrated Brooklyn club, that was for a time the best baseball club in America.