On October 21, 1944, as heavy rain and autumn winds pelted the five boroughs, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, approaching an election for an historic fourth term, toured through fifty-one miles of New York City streets in a large motorcade. With his wife Eleanor at his side, the aging President defied terrible weather to greet his fellow Americans from an open car (and sometimes without a hat). "There was no doubt," the Times wrote, "that he wanted to be seen by as many New Yorkers as possible."
For Brooklyn, considered one of FDR's strongholds, the highlight of the tour was an appearance at Ebbets field. An estimated 10-15,000 Brooklynites waited for the President's arrival, "huddled under umbrellas or snuggled deep into their upturned coat collars." (NYT, Oct. 22, 1944). First in line was Joseph Weissman, a 58-year old shoemaker, at 5am. A 16-year old Fort Hamilton High School student named Frank Inciardi joined the line at 6:30, telling the Eagle, "I know I'm too young to vote, but he's my president too." Johnny Haines, the chief usher for Ebbets Field stated, "Am I excited! Holy smokes!"
The rally was first and foremost a platform for the re-election of Senator Robert F. Wagner and other New York Democrats. Prior to the President's arrival, the crowd politely cheered for local policiticians and other speakers. As the rain came down, the official Ebbets Field organist Gladys Gooding, who had wrapped herself in a woolen blanket to stay warm, entertained the crowd with baseball, patriotic and other well-known tunes. The crowd even joined in a ironic rendition of Rogers and Hammerstein's "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" moments before the man of the hour appeared.
"It was the President's arrival...in a big open car accompanied by Mrs. Roosevelt...that really sparked the rally. No sooner had the big gates in deep center field opened and the car came into view than the crowd rose to its feet thundering a welcome." (NYT, Oct 22, 1944).
The President's car drove across centerfield and onto a large platform specifically designed for his visit. Microphones were positioned in such a way that the President could make his speech without leaving the car (and once again "hiding" his need for a wheelchair). As the President hushed the crowd, an attendant tried to place a coat over his shoulders and a hat on his head. But he quickly shrugged these off as he waved his arms and began to speak:
"You know I come from the state of New York. And I've got to make a terrible confession to you...I come from the State of New York and I practiced law in New York City," said the President, "But I've never been to Ebbets Field before. I rooted for the Dodgers! And I hope to come back here someday and see them play."
President Roosevelt's stoic performance in the rain was seen by his admirers as yet another great gesture by a great President. But many historians believe there were other motivations at play. As FDR eagerly drove through the city streets without any proper covering in the pouring rain, he was attempting to prove to his critics that he was healthy. In truth, the President's health was failing quickly. The attendant's attempt to cover the President at Ebbets Field and the President's defiant decision not to wear a coat and hat were subtle signs of his determination to overcome an illness that his staff greatly feared.
Just six months later, on April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died while vacationing in Warm Springs, Georgia. Brooklyn's beloved President would never get his wish to come back and see the Dodgers play.
Blogger's Note: You can see President Roosevelt's visit to Ebbets Field and hear some excellent historian commentary in PBS' American Experience video online (fast forward about a 1/3 of the way through the linked video to the New York visit segment).