Streams

What the Dodgers Meant to Brooklyn

Monday, July 26, 2010

More than 50 years after the Dodgers left Brooklyn, many in the borough still think of the lovable Bums as their team. Fans fondly recall the glory days of the 1955 World Series and legendary players like Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and a young Sandy Koufax. WNYC spoke with Michael Shapiro, author of "The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together," about the lasting appeal of a team that’s long gone. An edited transcript:

WNYC: You call the Brooklyn Dodgers the most local team in baseball. Why was that? How were they different than the Phillies or, closer by, the Giants and the Yankees?

Shapiro: All those teams represented a city. The Dodgers represented a fifth of the city, a borough. Rather than all of New York, like the New York Mets – the New York Mets are not the Queens Mets, they are the New York Mets – the Brooklyn Dodgers were Brooklyn's team and I think that in itself set them apart, in good times and in bad.

The passion that the fans have for the Dodgers is legendary –

And somewhat exaggerated, but go ahead.

But the Dodgers really only won in the ‘40s and ‘50s and before that it wasn't all that rewarding to be a Dodgers fan, right?

The fact is that for much of their history the Brooklyn Dodgers were not a very good team. The thing about the Brooklyn Dodgers and the mystery of them is that here's a team that from 1947 to 1957, for 10 years, was the best team in the National League – they go to the World Series five times – and the second best team in baseball. Of course, four out of the five times they go to the World Series they lose to the Yankees. They win a World Series once, in 1955, and two years later they vanish.

Another part of it too is that for most of those 10 years the core of the team, these legendary players, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Clem Labine, were together. And most of them lived in Brooklyn. In fact, they would carpool to the ballpark, to Ebbets Field. I mean it was a really local team. The idea that you would have baseball players, Brooklyn Dodgers, whose kids played on local little league teams – this was all part of the Dodgers as a truly local sport.

The Dodgers somehow became the repository of all these highly romanticized, and in some ways justified, notions of what baseball was supposed to be.

Brooklyn, I don't think, ever thought seriously that Walter O'Malley would move his team to Los Angeles. And I think that sense of the Dodgers leaving, the Eagle going out of business, the trolley stopping running, the navy yard shrinking dramatically – all happened at roughly the same time. After the Dodgers left, Brooklyn sank. And really, the Brooklyn of today – the Brooklyn that is hot – stands in great contrast to the Brooklyn that I knew growing up in the ‘60s and the ‘70s.

This romanticized notion, it sounds like it's sort of at odds with what the reality was at the time. The Dodgers were called The Bums…

Well, they were The Bums because they were the lovable team. Something would always go wrong to deny the Dodgers - especially when they were good - a chance to win the World Series; famous or infamous plays. Before that they were know as the Daffiness Boys because they were really bad. Dave Herman their most famous player getting hit on the head with a fly ball, three guys on one base, these are sort of the legendary stories of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

But there's something important here. When I went back to look at the Brooklyn Dodgers, writing a book about it, what I wanted to understand was, What did I miss? Did I really miss something by being too young to have ever gone to Ebbets Field? And was this really romanticized to the point where it totally exaggerated the thing. What I came to understand is that what the Dodgers were about was a topic of conversation. That, in many ways, is what really makes cities work and what holds cities together. For six months of the year in baseball there's a game virtually every day. Which means there is something for strangers to talk about in the elevator, waiting at the grocery store, all those ways in cities that people interact with people they don't necessarily know. And there's always that game to talk about: on the stoop, in the street, waiting for the subway. I think you can make a really powerful argument that what Brooklyn lost after the Dodgers left was a topic of conversation.

The Dodgers win the World Series in 1955 and years later, my parents, who were not big baseball fans – my mother certainly couldn't have cared less – I asked my mom what was it like when they won. And she goes, "We won." We? Who’s “we”? All of a sudden it was “we.” The team was Brooklyn, Brooklyn's team. If the Dodgers left in 1939, I don't think anybody would have cared very much because they weren't missing anything. But this was a team that people looked at with a considerable and justified amount of pride. And then to lose them as they did and lose that conversation was a very difficult thing. So, yes, there is always a glossy image of what it was really like back then, but the fact is that something was a lost in Brooklyn when the Dodgers left.

The Dodgers back then were drawing about 1 million or 1.2 million fans a season.

Yeah, the Dodgers were doing well. They were doing financially better than the Yankees. You’re talking about an era, in the 1950s, where the Yankees won so often that is was possible to get a walk-up ticket to a World Series game. It wasn't as it is today. There was no Stub Hub needed then.

The problem was that Walter O'Malley, then owner of the Dodgers, saw that he could not continue being a profitable and successful owner if he stayed in Ebbets Field. And he wasn't wrong. Walter O'Malley was a businessman who had gone into the baseball business and he wanted, for the record, to stay in Brooklyn. He wanted permission to build a stadium in downtown Brooklyn where the Nets Barclay’s Center is now going to rise. And that permission was denied him in terms of condemning the land on that spot on Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue by Robert Moses, the powerbroker, the lord of all that fell and rose in New York.

So you contend that Moses was ultimately more to blame than O’Malley.

How about 100 percent. Not more. All.

THE LAST GAME AT EBBETS FIELD

While there were only about 7,000 fans at the last Dodgers game in Brooklyn, a young Harvey Sherman was there and told this story to StoryCorps:

Produced by Michael Garofalo for StoryCorps, a national nonprofit dedicated to recording and collecting stories of everyday people.

Didn't O’Malley’s plan depend on getting a lot of concessions from the city?

Nothing compared to what Los Angeles was giving him. All he really needed was a for Robert Moses to use his power, which he did all across the city for many years – decades – to condemn what was basically the site of an old wholesale meat market that had been abandoned on the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue. And once that land was condemned, he would use his own money to build that stadium. He wasn't asking for a handout. He wasn't doing what George Steinbrenner did years later in getting the city to basically build him a replacement for a perfectly adequate Yankee Stadium that had been refurbished in 1975. O'Malley wanted to stay in Brooklyn; his letters show it. He never wanted to leave. And if all had gone right Sandy Koufax would have been pitching in Dodger Stadium in downtown Brooklyn and I would have gotten to follow him.

Let’s talk about the last couple of years. O'Malley announced in August 1955 that the team was going to be leaving Ebbets Field…

Well, he didn't announce that he would be leaving until, he announced it at the very last minute in October of 1957. After the World Series he announces that he is going to leave. After having spent the previous year or so playing Los Angeles off of New York. But even until the end, he was still trying to find a way to stay. Because remember, Los Angeles only looks like a brilliant business move and a success in retrospect. It was not clear that he was necessarily going to be welcomed; he was a New Yorker. Los Angeles was foreign territory. And it was not a sure thing. Nor was is clear whether he was going to be able to have the city council approve this generous offer that was being extended to him. And there's a wonderful story that Rosalind Wyman, who was a Los Angeles City Council member who in many ways spearheaded bringing the Dodgers to Los Angeles, tells of the day that the L.A. City Council was taking a vote on whether or not to make this offer formal, whether to extend this offer to Walter O'Malley to come to L.A. The mayor of Los Angeles, Norris Poulson, calls her into his office and says, ‘Listen, no one at this point knows what Walter O'Malley is thinking so you've got to get him on the phone and you've got to ask him if we extend this offer are you coming?’ So Rosalind Wyman walks down the hall, goes to her office, places a call and gets O'Malley on the phone. And she explains to him exactly what the mayor has said: If you get this offer, are you going to come. She told me this story and she said O'Malley responded by saying, ‘I want to thank you for everything you've done, but I am a New Yorker and if I get a good offer here, I am staying. Rosalind Wyman thanks him, hangs up the phone, goes down the hall back to the mayor’s office and he asks, “What did he say?” And she replies, “I couldn't reach him.” The Los Angeles City Council votes to extend the offer; New York says nothing, no counter offer, and O'Malley leaves. Right until the end he wanted to stay.

What was the reaction like when they actually left?

It's a good question. Many people think that there was tearing of garments and putting ash on the foreheads and mourning, but the fact was by October of '57, first of all the team is not good anymore -- they had last gone to the World Series in '56 and lost in seven games to the Yankees. They finished in third place, but that core of the team is really aging. And this dance between L.A. and New York of are they staying or going, staying or going, to say nothing of whether the Giants are going to go to San Francisco, at this point had gotten really, really tiring. And by the time they left there were a few sort of tepid rallies -- keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn sort of thing -- but by the time they left the reaction in the papers was I am sick of both of them, enough already. It had gone on for so long and it had been so drawn out that a) it didn't come as a shock and b) was not attended by a week of mourning.

It's been 53 years since they left--

My son, who is 15, says to me when he sees me wearing a Dodger hat or a Dodger shirt, he goes, “Dad, get over it. They are gone.”

But why is the connection still so strong? Why are you still wearing that stuff?

[Sighs] I came of age convinced if the Dodgers had stayed, everything would have been better. I would have grown up in an interesting place. I would not have grown up in the dull, flat Brooklyn that I knew growing up. I would have come of age in a dynamic, engaging, interesting place. And so the Dodgers for me represented a past that I missed out on. I think for people who are older it was a past that they remembered. And I think that towns don't get over that kind of thing so quickly. They really don't.

Michael Shapiro is a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is “Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball from Itself.”

 

BOROUGH HISTORIAN RON SCHWEIGER REMEMBERS THE DODGERS
Brooklyn borough historian Ron Schweiger has his own tale of woe about the Dodgers move to Los Angeles.

Produced by Stephen Nessen

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Comments [5]

JEFFS from Brooklyn, NY

Mr. Shapiro is full of half truths. New York State eminent domain laws clearly prohibited Moses from condemning the land to hand over to a private developer for a baseball stadium. While it may be true that Moses could have broken the law, there would have been lawsuits up the you know what. And if you don't believe that, just look at what's been going on with the Barclay Center.

Secondly, one can argue Atlantic/Flatbush was not the best location for a stadium. Remember this was 1956 and American love for owning their own home with a two car garage was just beginning. How were the fans to get to the new Stadium...look at a map of Brooklyn. It hasn't changed since then. There is no highway going into this area. Traffic going into this area for a night game would be a nightmare.

Moses' point, and believe me, I have no love for him, was the city has a great locatin for a Stadium at the confluence of the Grand Central Parkway, the Van Wyck and Long Island Expressways, a subway stop, a Long Island railroad station. This, and history now shows that on this issue Moses was right, But O'Malley would nave none of that. After all, he couldn't call them the Brooklyn Dodgers if they played in Queens.

Finally, why didn't baseball force O'Malley to leave the name and history in Brooklyn the way the NFL did for the Browns?

Shapiro continues with his one sided interpretation of one of the darkest moments and contempt for the fans in the history of baseball.

Aug. 06 2010 09:24 AM
Michael Meltzer

Just a fun story that I find is not in general circulation:
One day in the early 1950's (most baseball in those years was played in daylight) the Dodgers were at home, but off for the day.
I turned on the Yankee game on the radio. Somebody spotted Dodger 3rd baseman Billy Cox in one of the front rows and told Mel Allen, Mel Allen sent a message down to Billy inviting him up to the broadcast booth for the 7th-inning stretch.
He showed up, they had a routine chat, and at the end (remember now, this is before the days of 6-second delay), Mel Allen says: "Thanks a lot, Billy. With the compliments of our sponsor, have a box of White Owl cigars!" Billy Cox answers, "Nah! I can't smoke them damn things, they make me sick!"

Jul. 29 2010 05:56 AM
Allan Silver

The Dodgers were central to Brooklyn before 1947. You could follow games walking down a street by hearing the radio broadcasts coming from open windows. Bars chalked up inning by inning scores in their windows. "Dem Bums" were lovable when they were affectionately wretched. Their ascendency after The War was a wonderfully delighted surprise.

Jul. 26 2010 06:09 PM
"tissue paper" from brooklyn, ny

A day off from Erasmus Hall High School was something to look foward to to see the Dodgers play at Ebbets Fields in the '50s.
All Brooklyn highschools were there too.

Jul. 26 2010 03:41 PM
Michael Meltzer

In listing the "core" players, there's one important one you leave out, the answer to the trivia question, "Who was the Dodger catcher between Bruce Edwards and Roy Campanella?
Answer: Gil Hodges, whom everyone remembers only as a first baseman. Hodges had a house in the Midwood section, I think it was East 34th Street, and every day was visited by neighborhood kids and he cheerfully came out and schmoozed with them and signed their gloves and baseballs. He loved kids, and he was the great ambassador for the team

Jul. 26 2010 01:14 PM

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