Sunday, July 11, 2010
Bleeding Dodger Blue
One of the greatest myths in sports history is that the Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn in 1958 and headed out west in an act of betrayal and selfishness while leaving behind many blue collar fans who suffered for years like a jilted lover watching his sweetheart dump him for the captain of the football team. The narrative has a lot of appeal as it romanticizes the small town qualities of civic pride and neighborhood solidarity that are ingrained in the American ethos. Call it a sport version of Billy Joel's Allentown. Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin added to the lore when asked who would they kill if they were in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O'Malley and had a gun with two bullets. The answer, no doubt uttered after one too many shots of Jameson Irish Whiskey, was that they would shoot O'Malley twice to make sure he is dead. Thus was born another variation of the Cold Hearted Capitalist that would make Ebenezer Scrooge smile: This time the scoundrel is O'Malley, a slave to the bottom line, who stole the soul from hard working Brooklynites who toiled by day in the factory and longed for those long summer nights when they could listen to their beloved Dodgers on the radio or go to fabled Ebbets field and watch the game live.
It is all very heart rendering. It has everything going for it except the truth. I just finished reading Forever Blue by Michael D'Antonio. The book offers a very balanced account of the personalities and political and economic dynamics that made the Dodgers leave Brooklyn for the riches of California. In hindsight the move is a no brainer, whether motivated by sheer greed or not. But D'Antonio belies the notion that O'Malley just picked up and left town to enrich himself. That version is simply not true. The other side was never told over the years. Think of a divorce among two once respectable people. You hear one side and accept it but you know deep inside, that life is more complicated than that. The rest of the story comes out and you realize the truth lies somewhere in the middle of a complicated tale indeed. The gist of the book is that O'Malley did everything he could to keep the franchise in Brooklyn while still being able to make money. O'Malley was up against some very strong economic, demographic, and technological developments: Brooklyn's population was declining as its residents left for Nassau and Suffolk counties, Ebbets Field had little parking making a trip to the ball park for a modern suburban family difficult, and television just gave many people another reason to either stay home or watch the game at the corner bar. Contrast this with the landscape of southern California: massive population and economic growth, a culture that worshiped the automobile, and a willingness to build a stadium with 17,000 parking spaces. Despite what seemed like a very easy decision to make on economic grounds, O'Malley clug to his native Brooklyn and negotiated with Robert Moses to build a new park in Brooklyn. It was not to be. Moses, probably the most powerful man in the history of New York politics never elected to an office, put him off seemingly wanting O'Malley to leave town. D'Antonio offers some insights into the era that are humorous and contrary to popular perceptions. Here are a few gems:
1. In 1949-50, Branch Rickey was trying to sell his shares in the team. And who should pop up as a potential suitor?
That's right. None other than Joseph Kennedy, Prohibition financier and scion of the Kennedy clan. And here is an exact quote on page 123: "Kennedy had even talked about his son Jack becoming president of the team if Rickey remained as general manager." Gotta love that one.
2. Jackie Robinson watched Willie Mays play for the Birmingham Barons, a Negro league team. Robinson advised Branch Rickey to sign Mays to a contract. Rickey refused because he had been told by a scout that Mays "could not hit a curve ball."
3. 1951. This was the year of Bobby Thompson's "shot heard 'round the world." The myth is of a city enthralled by baseball. The 1950's are often referred to as "The Golden Era of Baseball." But here is a little cold water to throw in the face of that myth: the Dodgers and Giants played a best of three playoff at the end of the '51 season. The first game at Ebbets Field was not a sellout. There were 2000 empty seats. The next day was worse. 38,609 people showed up at the Polo Grounds. It had a capacity of 55,000.
4. 1952. Game six of the World Series. Dodgers and Yankees. The Dodgers could have won the series with a win. How enthusiastic were the Brooklyn faithful? Five thousand empty seats! Amazing!
5. 1954. The Dodgers won the pennant in 1953 and finished second to the Giants in '54. However, their attendance dropped by 140,000.00. They were ninth in attendance among sixteen major league clubs.
6. After the 1956 Dodger World Series victory, O'Malley who was being lobbied very hard by a consortium of Los Angeles business and civic interests, refused to meet with them, convinced he would be able to build a new stadium in Brooklyn.
7. Walter O'Malley was prescient. Even in the 1950's, he saw the potential of what was then know as "pay per view." He envisioned a system where a small electronic box would be placed atop a TV set and fans would pay a per game fee to watch the game.
8. The Giants moved to San Francisco at the same time the Dodgers went to LA. But that move was not controversial. What was it about Brooklyn that caused such a long term resentment towards O'Malley while the Manhattanites who routed for the Giants didn't really give a hoot what Horace Stoneham did with his team.
It is fascinating reading, especially in hindsight. So if you are a history buff and baseball fan and want a straight up account about an era in New York sports history, read it. Forever Blue by Michael D'Antonio (Riverhead Books, 2009)