Sunday Morning Coffee — April 7, 2024 — There Used To Be….

I’m a Sinatra fan. No bones about it. Give me That’s Life, Something Stupid, New York, New York, Strangers In The Night, Come Fly With Me and of course My Way and find me with a big smile.

In fact, I distinctly remember a couple of New Year’s Eves back in the late 70s, early 80s, where I rang it in with Frank and 3,000 of our closest friends at the old Sunrise Musical Theater, west of Fort Lauderdale. Today, that one time performing arts center now stands as a church. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

However, that has nothing to do with this morning’s SMC. One of my favorite Sinatra tunes is a fairly unfamiliar one to most, There Used To Be A Ballpark. Recorded in 1973 it was one of his most gloomy. Essentially, it’s a ballad about old baseball stadiums that are no more.

And there used to be a ballpark where the field was warm and green. And the people played their crazy game with a joy I’d never seen. And the air was such a wonder from the hot dogs and the beer. Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here……. Now the children try to find it and they can’t believe their eyes ‘cause the old team just isn’t playing and the new team hardly tries…..Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here.”

There used to be a ballpark. Top: Ebbets Field and the present day Ebbets Field Apartments. Bottom- The Polo Grounds and today’s Polo Ground Towers.

Many believe the song was about Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, which the Dodgers vacated in 1957 to move to Los Angeles. Ebbets Field stayed intact until 1960 when another kind of ball, a wrecking ball, literally hit it out of the park. Others say the song is about the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan; specifically Washington Heights, my birthplace, the former home of the New York baseball Giants before they too headed West following that same 1957 season. Sinatra was an avid Giants fan. The expansion New York Mets played very lousy baseball in the Polo Grounds for two years, 1962-63, before moving to the newly built Shea Stadium in 1964. The words, “….’cause the old team isn’t playing and the new team hardly tries…” probably gives more credibility to the Polo Grounds rather than Ebbets Field as the song’s subject but it certainly could mean both old shrines. The Polo Grounds was demolished in 1964 four years after the Ebbets Field obit. For an old baseball stadium buff like me, they truly paved paradise and put up not a parking lot but in this case apartment complexes aptly named Ebbets Field Apartments and Polo Grounds Towers. Somewhere on each site the original home plate still resides. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ‘till it’s gone? 

But that’s not what this is about. Today’s story is “There Used To Be A Ballpark” backwards. It’s about the closing and demolition of a once famous and powerful resort/casino in Las Vegas that will ultimately be developed into a ballpark. Maybe Sinatra’s words: “And the people played their crazy game with a joy I’d never seen” in this case really means craps, blackjack and roulette.

Say goodbye to the Tropicana Resort & Casino at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and what else but Tropicana Avenue. Back in the day the Trop used to be on the southern end of the Strip, save for the Hacienda a mile down the boulevard which was born a year earlier. It’s where Mandalay Bay is now. Today that Las Vegas Blvd/Trop Avenue corner also houses MGM Grand, New York New York, Excalibur, Park MGM and for a little while longer, the physical structure of the Tropicana.

Opened in 1957 the Trop was developed by Ben Jaffe, a part owner of the lavish Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. Its $15 million cost was the most expensive Las Vegas development up to that point. Highlighted by manicured lawns and gardens, the initial project had 300 rooms while 150 more were added two years later. Under mob control from almost the beginning, that influence was still present two decades later when the FBI uncovered a skimming operation by the boys from Kansas City.

In 1959 the Folies Bergere, in all its jiggling glory, opened and brought thousands of guests through the casino. The Folies closed almost half a century later in 2009. The Tropicana Country Club, with an 18-hole golf course, first teed off in 1961 on the site that is now the MGM Grand. Through the years demand for the resort was high, ultimately keying 1,467 rooms. In its heyday the Trop was revered by its guests as much as Caesars Palace, Bellagio and Wynn are today. At one time or another all the Vegas marquee attractions took a turn at the Trop from singer Eddie Fisher who headlined opening night to Siegfried and Roy, who first debuted as an act in Folies Bergere. Also Louie Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Jayne Mansfield, Gladys Knight, the Osmonds, Rodney Dangerfield, Ann-Margret, the Supremes and well, you get the idea.

Suspect ownership issues plagued the property for three decades. Once known as “the Tiffany of the Strip” because of its high-end clientele, that ultimately came crashing down in the early 1980s when its new owner Ramada Inns Inc., trying to cope with a recession, instead targeted the resort to middle class America like the rest of its hotel properties. The Trop quickly went from Tiffany to Zales.

Occupying a special place in both my heart and memory, I used the Trop regularly in the mid-80s as a place to stay and play. My dad introduced me during one of his gambling junkets. At the time, living in Arizona, it was friendly and an easy plane ride for me. Back then, at that joint, ten dollars of blackjack action probably got a comp buffet. Play $25 and you became a part owner. The atrium to the rooms’ elevators was lined with parrots and cockatoos constantly yapping covfefe. On the mezzanine level was a top notch steakhouse and Italian restaurant. The Trop got old, tired and so yesterday for me in the early 90s. Now, four decades later, I’ve become old, tired and so yesterday, too.

So Andi and I went back for one final walk through a week ago last Tuesday, seven days ahead of its final day—April 2. I had actually been there twice in the five plus years we’ve lived here, both times to see Rich Little in the resident comedy club, The Laugh Factory. It’s probably been at least three years since seeing Little’s act, which these days is him sitting on a stool playing old Tonight Show VCR clips of when he was relevant.

Our walk through was mainly what I thought it would be: an institution on life support, in end of life hospice. About 50 people milled around, some for a convention that no doubt looked for the cheapest host space available. Others like us were taking a final look. One blackjack and roulette table were operating, no dice games. The stained carpet and paint chipping off the wall hasn’t changed much since Bush-Gore. The steakhouse and Italian joint were still there. A nice memory. Otis Elevator cars had the charm of livestock chutes. And for some reason, not one, not two, but three urinals on the main level were sealed off. I’m guessing many used the attractive elevator cars instead. And then there were the stray cats, on some nights more cats around the exterior of the property than hotel guests. Kept around by hotel staff who fed them presumably straight from the luscious employee cafeteria. To feel at home the felines will probably relocate to the just as attractive Circus Circus. Talk about herding cats.

Rates for humans, not cats, on the final Trop weekend went from less than a hundred bucks a night to over $500. Pay another $50 and rumor has it they threw in pillows and a stained blanket.  The 30-minute final walk-through was more than enough for me. No need to stay a night for old times’ sake.

Conceptual drawings of the Tropicana site for a ballpark or, if it doesn’t work, an opera house.

Bally’s Corp, which today owns the Trop, made a deal with baseball’s Oakland Athletics to develop the site for a $1.5 billion baseball stadium. The announcement, much like the Tropicana itself, experienced a blasé reaction from local residents not moved much by the team or stadium coming to town.

The plan has the hotel/casino demolished this fall and then construction will begin in about a year for a 33,000 seat stadium with first pitch set for opening day, 2028. The new stadium capacity is actually 7,000 more than the A’s drew for its four game opening weekend series at the decrepit Oakland Coliseum last weekend. Only 26,000 for the four games. Do the math. Bally’s also plans to build a new hotel/resort on part of the site as well.

The Oakland A’s are pretty much the Tropicana of its sport: old, rundown, mismanaged and very little future to be excited about. If the team doesn’t work out, the design of the stadium can always be franchised as the Sydney Opera House East.

So when Sinatra sang “….and the new team hardly tries” maybe he wasn’t referencing the New York Mets but instead the forthcoming Las Vegas A’s playing one day on a site whose glory days are long ago and might have been better off paved and used as a parking lot.

And who knows? If things don’t work out perhaps a Michael Buble’ or Harry Connick Jr. can take the Sinatra ballad, stand on Las Vegas Blvd. and Tropicana Avenue and croon, “There used to be a casino right here.”

9 Comments

  • Ken Rich says:

    Thanks for reminding us that ballads tell a story with different meanings to different audiences. Thanks for sharing.

  • Linda says:

    Creative excellence once again!!!

  • Bob mesecher says:

    Fabulous article……one of your very best.

  • Jim Nettles says:

    I agree with Bob, one of your best! Adios Tropicana, we hardly knew ye.

  • Dennis Stein says:

    I remember going to the Dodgers/ Giants games at Ebbets Field and thr Polo Grounds in the 50s – that was the best rivalry in sports at the time!

  • Mark says:

    Do you really think that the ballpark will be built? I’m not really sure. The henchmen Fisher is playing Las Vegas as a fool. The Trop can be rebuilt to a new glory and will draw more then the armpit of Oakland ever would.

  • Roy Abrams says:

    One of your best… If not your best.

    I grew up about a half a mile from Ebbbets Field. As a Yankee fan. Go figure.

  • Betty Anne Cooper says:

    Hi Roy,

    As I write this, I am so moved it is indescribable.

    First of all, your creative writing here is unsurpassed. I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about what once was… what used to be and where so many parts of my life used to be.

    You have made it so cathartic presenting the beginning of things and the inevitable end. Couple this with the uncertainty of the future and you have uplifted my soul, which I really needed right now. The photo of you leaving the Tropicana topped it all off. Thank you so much for your talent, your kind heart, and your understanding of this world as no one else does.

  • Lori Rubin says:

    Roy, I too am a Sinatra fan. I guess it takes one to know one?!? Anytime I go to a wedding or Bar Mitzvah I will request for his songs to be played at the reception.

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