This article is an excerpt of an entire mini-podcast on the history of South Brother Island, available to those who support the Bowery Boys Podcast on Patreon (at the Five Points level and above). Join us on Patreon to listen today!
But that’s only one-half of the story. For of course there’s South Brother Island, less than 900 feet away, a smaller island separating its brother from Rikers Island.
South Brother Island wasn’t used in the same way as North Brother Island. But it isn’t entirely devoid of any human history; its just sort of odd history.
During the Civil War it hosted military regiments and the island was often used in yachting competitions. There were small farm settlements here. And even a few bouts of river piracy.
But in the early 1890s something rather unusual came to this virtually abandoned place — baseball.
New ballfields would be constructed here for use by traveling ball teams, the opening innings of a true national baseball league. (For both white ball teams and those of the burgeoning Negro League.)
These fields would have a very fascinating pedigree for baseball historians for they were built by a man who would change the fate of the game forever — Jacob Ruppert Jr..
He had a lifelong obsession with baseball. In 1894 he purchased South Brother Island for the purposes of building baseball fields here. For many years Ruppert even lived on the island during the summer.
According to the New York Sun: “He intends to spend more than two million dollars on improvements on the island which is his property. He will have a trolly line running all over the island and a ferry of his own on 92nd Street. There will be a large building containing ballrooms and a German restaurant.”
Ruppert also reportedly wanted to build a brewery here. “He adds that everything on the island will be of a thoroughly German character.”
Now this is at the very same time — the 1890s — that neighboring North Brother Island was populated with epidemic patients afflicted with tuberculosis, smallpox, leprosy and more.
But the idea of an island sporting resort here would not actually be considered odd; in fact there were many such resorts along The Bronx and Queens waterfront back in the late 19th century, including College Point, Clason Point and Bowery Bay Beach (on the site of today’s LaGuardia Airport).
So Ruppert had the right idea — although the project’s eventual execution was far less grandiose from his original designs. But by the early 1900s, Ruppert had turn South Brother into a sort of baseball fantasy island.
The baseball fields hosted a wide array of teams from several different leagues including one of the first and greatest black baseball teams: the Cuban Giants.
The Giants, one of the greatest African-American baseball teams from the era when the sport was highly segregated, first formed in 1885 in Babylon, Long Island.
They were a big draw in their day, so if they played out on South Brother Island, I assume facilities were substantial enough to cater to large crowds. (Sadly I have not been able to find any photographs of the island from this period.)
Since games were most likely played on the weekends, there were probably very few people on the island on June 15, 1904, to witness the disaster of the Gereral Slocum steamship fire, but the tragedy did comes to the shores of his island.
In fact there was so much calamity and chaos on North Brother island in the moments following the horrific tragedy that bodies of those who died and were found in the East River were taken to the shores of South Brother and from there transferred to the city morgue.
The captain of the General Slocum later said he considered running the ship aground at South Brother Island but decided against it due to its rocky shore. Thank goodness he did not, for it was the bravery of many nurses, doctors and patients on North Brother which saved so many that day.
In 1909 fire destroyed Jacob Ruppert’s summer house and it appears baseball moved off this island by this time. In fact, although the Ruppert estate would own the island for many decades, nobody would ever again LIVE on South Brother Island.
In 1915, Ruppert became the president of his family’s beer empire. Then, partially to fuel beer sales but with a genuine love for the sport, he (and lifelong business partner Tillinghast Huston) purchased a failing baseball team named the New York Yankees.
Four years later he famously purchased the contract of Boston Red Sox player Babe Ruth. Some reports claim Ruth “spent his off days swatting balls into the East River from Ruppert’s island” however the island was mostly abandoned by the time Ruth was playing baseball. Perhaps it was a day excursion?
The island remained in the Ruppert family until it was sold in 1944 to a private businessman. Six decades later, a descendant of Ruppert visited the island, now an overgrown haven for wild birds. (The city officially purchased the island in 2007.)
According to Jacob Ruppert Jr’s great-great-grand nephew K. Jacob Ruppert, “There’s no beautiful lagoon. It’s a mound of bird poop. But there are beautiful birds. I never thought I could walk up to a swan on her nest. The ground is nothing but bird droppings and broken egg shells.”