As usual, there was a crop of good baseall books released in 2004. In case anyone is doing some last-minute holiday shopping, consider: "The Numbers Game," by Alan Schwarz, "Brushbacks and Knockdowns," by Allen Barra, “Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution, " by Neil Lanctot, "Saving the Pitcher," by Will Carroll, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," by Buster Olney, and one of my favorites, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups." I know it wasn't released this year, but "A Legend in the the Making: the New York Yankees in 1939," by Richard Tofel is essential reading for any self-respecting Yankee fan. You can find these books in stores or on the Internet, but in case you want to hunt for a wider selection of baseball literature, check out R. Plapinger Baseball Books (email@example.com).
Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson, authors of "Red Sox Century," and "Yankee Century" released another fine team history this season, "The Dodgers: 120 Years of Dodgers Baseball." All three books are a must for any baseball library. Thanks to Glenn Stout, I am going to run excerpts from from all three books in the coming week. First up is Chapter Ten from the Dodger book, which is about the teams' final days in New York.
LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN By Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson
The party didn’t stop for hours. As soon as the ball settled into Gil Hodges’ glove, Johnny Podres leapt in the air, arms spread wide like a huge V for victory. Before his feet touched the ground again thousands joined him, maybe millions, as every Brooklyn fan in the universe leapt in the air too. And the Dodgers started leaping and running and Campy grabbed Podres and Jackie Robinson, the tired man with the bad heel who didn’t play in the biggest game the Brooklyn Dodgers ever played, was first out of the dugout and out-raced every other Dodger on the bench to the big knot on the field where, as Red Smith noted, Podres was soon “lost from sight in a howling, leaping, pummeling pack that thumped him and thwacked him and tossed him around, hugged him and mauled him and heaved him . . .”
And from there it spread, all the howling and thumping and hugging, downtown and across the bridge to Brooklyn, where it exploded. For once, Brooklyn rose higher than Manhattan and in seconds there were people on the streets and cars honking and people dancing in their houses and swilling Schaefer beer just like the Dodgers in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse, pouring it over each other in delight.
Impromptu motorcades formed on the streets and cars paraded down Fulton Avenue, dressed in shaving cream like newlyweds on the way to the honeymoon - “World Champs” “Bums no more” and “The Yanks is Dead.” Around Borough Hall businessmen tore up newspapers – Brooklyn ticker tape – and tossed it from office windows. Stores emptied and their owners stood on the streets, closed early, and took it all in, but also watching out, a little afraid of what the crowds might do. But mostly people did nothing but smile and look for other faces smiling and watch the cars and listen to the horns as every cop with a Brooklyn beat was called on to keep the streets clear and make sure nothing bad happened. But for now next year had come and that was enough and no one really knew what to do but breathe in it in and feel something wonderful they had never felt before.
It changed toward nightfall as the liquor flowed and block parties broke out and joy was splashed with a little out and out frenzy and the bars filled and the business of Brooklyn shut down early. The Dodgers had a party that night at the Hotel Bossert and thousands of fans gathered around outside, cheering the Dodgers as they entered the hotel and danced throughout night.
And it wasn’t a dream. Best of all, it wasn’t a dream. It was there, later that evening and the next day, in all the papers, “Brooks World Champs” in the World Telegram, “Dodgers Win First World Championship” in the Herald Tribune, “Dodgers Capture 1st World Series” in the Times, and the best of all in the Daily News, “Who’s a Bum!” and “This IS Next Year.”
The writers had to struggle with words to describe it, for as Red Smith noted accurately “One has to pause for a moment and consider before the utter implausibility of the thing can be appreciated.” But not in Brooklyn. In the Daily News Joe Trimble wrote “They won’t make October 4 a red-letter day in Brooklyn. They’ll print it in letters of gold from now on because it’s only the greatest date in the history of the batty borough.” John Drebinger of the Times added simply “Brooklyn’s long cherished dream has come true,” and Harold Rosenthal of the Herald Tribune couldn’t help but observe, “The Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series and if that reads a trifle peculiarly, it should. It’s never been written before because it never happened before. But it happened yesterday . . .”
The party was terrific, glorious, everything Brooklyn had asked for and waited for and hoped for and more, a party that would be replayed and talked about like the game that just took place, the shared stories of “Where were you?” and “Who were you with? and “What did you do?” the chain of happiness wrapping it’s wide arms around every Brooklyn fan everywhere, so much so that fifty years later the mere mention of the Dodger world championship makes old fans young again.
But the hangover that would soon follow would prove to be more than sobering. For it would do two things - embolden O’Malley in his quest for a new ballpark and make the Dodgers even more desirable to suitors. They weren’t a team that was the clear second choice in the city of their birth, like the lowly Boston Braves to the Red Sox, the recently fallen Philadelphia Athletics to the more potent Phillies or historically pathetic St. Louis Browns to the proud Cardinals. The Dodgers were number one in Brooklyn, a place of three million people, and world champions, for now, second to no one, not even the Yankees.
And in only two short years those two things would combine and conspire to take the Dodgers away, to sever the Dodgers from Brooklyn forever.
Only a few weeks after the World Series win, O’Malley decided to go on a public relations campaign to tout Fuller’s design for a domed stadium. There was far more interest in the Dodger team than his plans for the franchise, and as O’Malley tried to explain the concept of Fuller’s geodesic dome design, eyes glazed over, reporters stopped writing in their notebooks and readers turned the page. His pipe dream cost O’Malley what little credibility he had, both with the press and with the political figures he was destined to deal with.
His argument in regard to the Milwaukee Braves also fall flat. O’Malley kept citing the Braves financial success as a harbinger of their success on then field, warning that the Braves were on the cusp of outspending everyone for talent and intimated that the Dodger farm system couldn’t compete. “I must make money,” he said. How many kids can the Dodgers sign up when the Braves scouts can say: “Look, I’ll get you four times as much.”
But reality did not match that perception – at least not yet. The Dodgers were reigning world champions - Brooklyn had finished 13 ½ games ahead of Milwaukee in 1955. Young Johnny Podres had just won two World Series games and seemed to be a star in waiting. Their Montreal farm club had just won another International League title. Brooklyn’s double-A farm team from Mobile captured the Southern Association and single-A Newport News won the Piedmont League. The only Milwaukee farm teams that had won anything were in C ball. The same bonus rule that forced the Dodgers to keep Koufax on the roster for two years was, in one sense, working. It was holding down the size of bonuses paid to amateur players. Milwaukee’s competitive advantage cited by O’Malley didn’t reflect reality.
O’Malley’s logic simply didn’t resonate. He came off as a man who had neither a compelling vision of the future nor a sober assessment of the past, but as one who simply felt uncomfortable in the present. Although attendance at Ebbets Field was disappointing, fans weren’t clamoring for a new park or citing it as a reason they weren’t coming out to see the Dodgers, and no matter where a new ballpark was built there were thousands of Brooklyn residents destined to be displaced or inconvenienced and no one seemed concerned about that at all. Had the Braves been beating up on Brooklyn, or if the farm system had thoroughly collapsed or fans recoiled in horror at Ebbets Field, the result may have been different. But at the time, even though Ebbets was sorely outdated, there just didn’t seem to be a compelling need for a new ballpark apart from O’Malley’s desire for one, and he was never ever able to convince anyone otherwise.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers had a world title to defend. Many thought 1955 would be the last hurrah for a team that had been together for nearly a decade. Despite the performance of their minor league teams, there wasn’t a great deal of talent in the Dodger system – they were winning minor league championships with good minor league players – not prospects.
Yet the organization seemed stuck in a holding pattern and team did little to try to rebuild. In the offseason before 1956 the only significant trade sent Don Hoak to Chicago for Cub third baseman Ransom Jackson. While Jackson was a solid player, and Hoak something of a disappointment, the trade seemed to be made more to force Robinson out of the lineup that to respond to any need. And when Johnny Podres was drafted into the service it appeared as if a long slide was ready to begin.
But the same resiliency that enabled this team to finally succeed after so many failures was still in place. Although Robinson reported to spring training with his hair sporting more salt than pepper and a paunch above his belt, as if on a personal campaign to embarrass Dodger officials he played so well in the spring that he beat out Jackson and was in the lineup on opening day. Even Alston finally seemed resigned to Robinson’s role on the club, saying, “If Robby sets his mind to beating out a man for a position, he’ll beat anybody out.” Although the two players would, in the end, split playing time as Alston went with the hot hand, Robinson, despite diminishing skills, could still, on occasion, summon skills that seemed long gone. So could Reese, Campanella, Hodges, and Furillo.
On opening day the club celebrated the raising of the first world championship banner in their history, a pre-game ceremony never before seen in Brooklyn. It showed, because at the end, when the crowd rose for the singing of the Star Spangled banner, there was no one assigned to raise the flag on the flagpole. After a delay, the Marine color guard took over, and then, as Tommy Holmes wrote, the Dodgers “tripped over their unprecedented eminence and fell flat on their manly faces,” losing to Robin Roberts and the Phillies 8-6.
For the first month the club muddled along, looking old and looking nothing like the last year, looking as if they were about to resume their perennial and now purely ceremonial search for next year. But in mid-May the Dodgers got some unexpected boosts from some unexpected places.
The press started writing the team’s obituary, and in one report a scout from the Giants went right down the lineup and pronounced everybody over the hill. Then, on May 12, a sore-armed Carl Erskine bounced back to toss a no-hitter.
Two days later, the Dodgers made a move.
Since starting in game two of the 1955 World Series, pitcher Billy Loes had done little to endear himself to the organization. He never been the big winner they first envisioned when he first came up, and by 1956 they considered him something of an odd duck. He once told Charlie Dressen he never wanted to win twenty games because “then you’ll expect me to do it every year.” After an indifferent spring marred by a bout with tendontitis, on May 14 he was sold to Baltimore. One day later, the Dodgers turned the money around and purchased the most hated man in Brooklyn, Sal Maglie, from the Cleveland Indians.
The previous summer, when the Giants finally admitted they were going nowhere, they’d dealt Maglie away. He was thirty-eight and the Yankees were desperate to acquire him, but the Indians, who didn’t need him, outbid New York just to keep him out of their hands. Maglie hardly pitched in the last half of 1955 and by 1956 he was the last man on the staff, completely forgotten, when the Dodgers pried him away.
He could still pitch. Over the years he’d beaten the Dodgers twenty-three times, primarily in big games with a lot at stake. He just hadn’t had much of an opportunity to throw since joining Cleveland.
Brooklyn fans could hardly bear it when they first saw Maglie in a Brooklyn uniform – it just didn’t look right, like seeing Jackie Robinson in Yankee pinstripes. But the players were delighted to have him. Robinson, in fact, was the first man to greet him when he entered the clubhouse. Although Maglie had made him his particular target, Robinson never assigned a racial motivation to Maglie’s beanballs – he knew the pitcher hated every hitter without prejudice. Robinson and the other Dodgers knew Maglie brought to the team a certain toughness that was lacking in their other pitchers.
After a few relief appearances to build up his arm strength, in June he went right into the rotation, and in his first start twirled a shutout against Milwaukee. Maglie’s presence seemed to light a fire under Don Newcombe. The big pitcher was 9-5 at the end of June, but over the final three months he would win eighteen games as Maglie helped the cause with thirteen wins.
All of a sudden the Dodgers were in the pennant race. The only problem was that everybody else was, too. For much of June the Dodgers, Braves, Cardinals, Reds and Pirates were tied together atop the National League in a huge knot. But the one-two punch of Newcombe and Maglie, backed by Clem Labine in relief, gave the Dodgers enough pitching to stay close with both the Braves and the Reds into September in what Red Smith called “the most ulcerous three-team race in living memory.” Then Jackie Robinson, after being benched for a few weeks, got hot and suddenly moved back into the cleanup spot. He turned the clock back one last time and the Dodgers clawed to the front. Over the final weeks Brooklyn and Milwaukee traded first place back and forth.
With three games left to play Brooklyn still trailed the Braves by a half game. After a rainout against the Pirates on September 28, the Dodgers played a doubleheader on the 29th, a Saturday.
So far, Dodger fans had been lukewarm to the pennant race. On Thursday against Philadelphia the club drew only 7,000. But for the Saturday afternoon doubleheader more than 36,000 packed their way into Ebbets Field.
Maglie was part of the reason. Four days before he had twirled a no-hitter, against Philadelphia. This day he started and finished game one, a 6-3 win, and in game two Alston gave Clem Labine a rare start. He collected a complete game win as well, and as the Braves lost in twelve innings to the Cardinals, the Dodgers entered the final day of the season leading by one game.
Newcombe, despite a heavy cold, started for Brooklyn. The game drew a big crowd – 31,000 – but there were still scattered empty seats. Nevertheless, as Tommy Holmes wrote “Beneath a Flatbush sky as dull and heavy as a Milwaukee rooters heart,” the Dodgers cracked five home runs and Newcombe held on to win the game 8-6. The Dodgers won the pennant to and there was celebrating again throughout Brooklyn.
It put the Dodgers back into the World Series, but all the news wasn’t good, at least for Walter O’Malley. Over the past several seasons some observers had blamed Brooklyn’s runaway pennant runs for their slide in attendance. But while the 1956 pennant race had been hotly contested all season long, attendance had risen only slightly, and most of that was due to the seven games played in Jersey City. Still, that experiment had been less than successful. It wasn’t as if Jersey City fans had been waiting to see major league baseball their whole lives - it was a short trip to both New York and Philadelphia. And because the Jersey City Giants were a Giant farm club, most Jersey City fans rooted for the Giants. The Dodgers were booed every time they played in Jersey City, and as far as the players were concerned, they hated the inconvenience and felt playing in Jersey City put them at a competitive disadvantage. Although they finished with a record of 6-1 at Roosevelt for the season, in a pennant race decided by the narrowest of margins, playing on unfamiliar and hostile ground could have cost them. And while attendance was relatively good, and the parking revenue sent O’Malley to his abacus, it didn’t cause Dodger fans to respond by going to Ebbets Field in larger numbers. In the end, the experiment did nothing for O’Malley but cost him a measure of goodwill.
His response after Brooklyn’s win on the final day was telling. Instead of touting the performance of his team, O’Malley told the press “the time seems propitious to report that real progress is now being made to get a new stadium worthy of our team, our community, and our fans.” It was bald faced-lie. O’Malley hadn’t budged from his insistence on the site at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue. That still wasn’t available, something any number of commissions and authorities were powerless to do anything about.
The Dodgers had won their second straight pennant, but unlike 1955, in 1956 they had been pushed to the limit once again and began the series with an exhausted pitching staff. Newcombe, in particular, was out of steam. Despite winning twenty-seven games, a performance that later in the fall would earn him both Cy Young and MVP honors, he had tired down the stretch. In his final two appearances he had been unimpressive.
The Yankees won the American League pennant in usual fashion – easily – taking over first place in April and romping to a nine-game margin for the season, making them a 3-2 favorite entering the Series. Mantle had chased Ruth for much of the year before settling for 52 home runs.
In game one the Yankees eschewed conventional wisdom and despite Brooklyn’s vaunted right-handed power, chose to start left-hander Whitey Ford opposite Maglie. Ford had won ten of his last eleven.
After the Yankees hit in the top of the first, he appeared to be on his way to eleven of twelve. Mantle cracked a long home run onto Bedford Avenue where it was reported to be “bouncing off hoods of automobiles in the parking lot for half a minute.”
But Ford had never beaten the Dodgers in Ebbets Field and in 1955 the Yankees hadn’t managed a win there either. After Ford held Brooklyn scoreless in the first, Robinson led off with a home run of his own and the Dodgers started to tee off. Hodges hit a home run in the third and Ford was knocked from the game, trailing 5-1. Sal Maglie again proved to be the master of the big game and Brooklyn went on to win, 6-3.
After game two, the Dodgers were ready to celebrate. The Yankees had jumped out to a 6-0 lead over off Newcombe in the second, then, as Tommy Holmes wrote, Brooklyn’s “muscle hitters took complete charge.” Duke Snider led a six-run rally off Don Larsen in the bottom of the inning with a home run and the Dodgers went on to batter a host of Yankee pitchers to win 13-8.
Yet all was not well. After the game Newcombe got into it with a parking lot attendant who asked him “Do you fold up?” Newcombe hit him with a right hand before passer-by pulled him off. He was not only hurting, but the carping over his perceived inability to “win the big one,” – he had yet to win a game in the World Series - had gotten under his skin. He even asked for permission to stay home for game three, but the Dodgers turned him down – Newcombe was occasionally used as a pinch hitter and Alston thought he might need him.
And now the Dodgers were headed to Yankee Stadium. Brooklyn was a different team away from Ebbets Field, and the Yankees knew it. So did Whitey Ford.
In Brooklyn Ford stayed away from his off-speed pitches, afraid the Dodgers would pull the ball, which allowed them to sit on his not-so-fast fastball. But in Yankee Stadium he was able to use his full repertoire. The result made the phrase “would have been a home run in Ebbets Field” the most overused of the Series, for the Dodgers hit fly ball after fly ball that would have been out in Brooklyn but helped make Ford a Hall of Famer in New York. He cruised to a 5-3 win and the Yankees were back in the Series.
In game four it was more of the same, only this time Tom Sturdivant did the trick for New York against Carl Erskine. The Yankees hit two home runs, the Dodgers none, and New York won 4-2.
The Dodgers were reeling. Newcombe was suddenly persona non grata on the Dodger staff. Alston announced that Maglie would start game five and Labine game six. Newcombe wasn’t even in the conversation.
In game five, Sal Maglie pitched perhaps the best game of his postseason career. He was perfect into the fourth inning, when Mantle pulled a chip shot home run into the right field stands, and in the sixth the Yankee packaged two singles around a two-strike bunt by Larsen to score a second run. Apart from those two momentary lapses, Maglie was in complete control.
And completely outpitched. Yankee starter Don Larsen, after being knocked from the box in the second inning of game two, worked Yankee Stadium, good luck, an abbreviated wind-up and a moving fastball to perfection. Twenty-seven Dodgers went to the plate and twenty-seven sat down as Larsen, aptly described as “the imperfect man,” twirled the first and only perfect game in World Series history, although there three or four near misses for base hits and Maglie noted later that in Ebbets Field it would have been a different story. True enough, but Larsen had still accomplished what no pitcher had done before or since. The Dodgers were one game away from the end of the season, but they were going back to Ebbets Field.
Incredibly, game six was the best game of the Series, and probably the best pitched. Like Larsen, Yankee pitcher Bob Turley had abandoned a full wind-up late in the season, and like Larsen, he suddenly discovered he was possessed of an extra measure of command and energy. Over nine innings he shut Brooklyn down completely, giving up only three hits and striking out eleven in what he later called “my finest game of the season.”
But Clem Labine was just as good, even better. Making only his fourth start of the season, he kept New York off balance with a big overhand curve and responded with what he described as “the best game I’ve ever pitched.” After nine innings, the game was still scoreless.
Neither manager wanted to make a move. Labine held the Yankees in the top of the tenth and Turley returned to the mound to face the Dodgers. With one out, he committed the pitcher’s original sin and walked Gilliam. Reese followed with a sacrifice, putting the winning run on second base with two outs. Duke Snider stepped in and Stengel didn’t hesitate. He ordered Turley to walk the left-hander, bringing up Jackie Robinson.
The move made total sense. Snider was in his prime while Robinson, was clearly near the end of his career. He not only looked old, but felt old. Over the summer he’d begun to be bothered by the symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as diabetes.
But he was still Jackie Robinson. Down in the Dodger clubhouse, Ralph Branca, who was serving as Brooklyn’s batting practice pitcher for the Series, was watching the game on television, surrounded by reporters who had anticipated the end of the game as soon as Gilliam reached second. As Robinson stepped in Branca intoned “Come on, Jackie . . . come on, Jackie . . .”
Robinson fouled Turley’s first pitch straight back. Then the pitcher went downstairs, trying to get Robinson to hit the ball on the ground.
Robinson reached down and hooked the ball to left. Enos Slaughter got a bad break and misjudged the drive. Instead of racing back he ran directly toward the wall along the left field line.
The liner didn’t drop, but rocketed over his outstretched glove. It hit the concrete wall then ricocheted toward the infield, ruining any remote chance he had to field the ball and make a throw to the plate. Gilliam scored. The Dodgers won 1-0 and the Series was tied.
Given what would soon take place, it would have made a nice story, a wonderful story, for the Dodgers to win the 1956 World Series in Ebbets Field, keyed by a Jackie Robinson base hit in what would prove to be his final season. But in the end, the legacy of the Dodgers in Brooklyn, and of Robinson, would not be stuff of fairy tales, but hard, clear reality.
In game seven, Alston reluctantly turned to Newcombe. Since his game two shellacking, he’d done nothing to give his teammates any confidence. He seemed to have succumbed to the fiction that he couldn’t win the big one, not helped by the fact that his elbow had ached since pitching the season finale against Pittsburgh. He was, by turn, sullen and morose, testy and withdrawn. The Dodgers weren’t optimistic.
The Yankees didn’t wait around. Berra homered in the first and the third. By the fourth inning Newcombe was gone, about to go on a bender that would affect the rest of his career. And the Dodger bats, which so often had rattled the outfield fences at Ebbets Field and sent screams of delight from the Flatbush faithful, were all but silent. Johnny Kucks scattered three hits, and the Dodgers fell, 9-0, a score that Tommy Holmes noted bitterly was “the formal statistical figure used to denote a forfeited game,” after which he added that the most common reason for a forfeit is “the failure of a ballclub to put in an appearance.” And in this game, the Dodgers did not. And although no one yet knew it, more than the World Series had just come to an end.
Jackie Robinson, appropriately, was that last man at bat that day for Brooklyn. He struck out, but when Berra dropped the ball, Robinson, for one final time, cut loose on the base paths again.
Another player might have simply allowed himself to be tagged out, but not Robinson. He started running – hard as always – and forced Berra to make the throw to first for the final out.
The Dodgers had precious little time to mourn their loss. As soon as the Series ended the club gathered for a post-season goodwill trip to Japan. Many players didn’t want to go, and Robinson did not, but the others soon embarked on the long cross county plane trip. They stopped in Los Angeles for a layover before continuing on, first to Honolulu and then Japan.
Walter O’Malley made the trip too. But for him the stop in Los Angeles was far more significant than any goodwill generated in Japan.
Kenneth Hahn, a city councilman from Los Angeles, had traveled to the World Series hoping to entice an owner into moving his team to Los Angeles. For several years civic support for a major league team had been gaining momentum in LA. Hahn had targeted Calvin Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, who was desperate to get out of the nation’s capital. Several months before, he had tried to approach O’Malley, but had been put off.
Things had changed. When O’Malley learned that Hahn was at the Series, he requested a meeting. This time he told him straight up that the Dodgers would be interested in going to Los Angeles. It was becoming more or less common knowledge that the Giants were also contemplating a move west, would need a companion, and that Los Angeles was the more lucrative market.
O’Malley’s sudden interest got Hahn’s attention. The Senators would be nice, but the Dodgers were another animal altogether. LA wouldn’t be getting just another failed franchise, but perhaps the only other major league team, apart from the Yankees, that had a national following.
When the Dodgers stopped in Los Angeles on their way to Japan, O’Malley met with Hahn again and started discussing specifics. According to Hahn, it was then that O’Malley committed to Los Angeles, although he told Hahn he would continue to make public overtures to staying in Brooklyn – he didn’t want to ruin attendance in the 1957 season. Over the next few months it became even more certain that New York still wasn’t going to give the Dodgers what they wanted and that Los Angeles was eager to accommodate him. He was even able to convince Los Angeles authorities that they wouldn’t have to give the Dodgers as much as other teams. O’Malley didn’t want the city to build a ballpark – he’d do that himself. All he wanted was land.
Of course, in the long run that would be far more profitable for the team, which wouldn’t have to share revenue or pay rent, but for now it looked good to the pro baseball forces in city government. The anti-baseball crowd had already been working overtime to convince the public that the city shouldn’t be in the business of building a ballpark. Providing the team with land – and the ever-important infrastructure of roads – would prove to be a much easier sale.
Now the ball was rolling and the Dodgers were beginning an inexorable shift to tilt toward Los Angeles. And while the team was in Japan, on October 30, 1956, the tenth anniversary of the signing of Jackie Robinson, O’Malley sealed their fate. He sold Ebbets Field.
The buyer was Marvin Kratter – within a decade later he’d become familiar to many sports fans when he purchased the Boston Celtics. But for now, Kratter wasn’t interested in buying any team. Like William Zeckendorf, the Boston-based Kratter was high-powered developer. But Zeckendorf’s interest was in commercial property. Kratter built apartment complexes. It just happened that he wanted to build 6000-plus apartments where Ebbets Field now stood, which was precisely what Robert Moses had wanted built there all along.
Moses had made it clear that the only place he would be willing to have a ballpark built for the Dodgers was not in Brooklyn at all, but in Queens, at Flushing Meadows. There wasn’t really anything wrong with the site except for the fact that it wasn’t in Brooklyn – they weren’t the Queens Dodgers, and never had been, even though that borough included many expatriate Brooklynites and Dodger fans, and provided easier access to those that had moved out to Long Island.
The site also had an interesting history in regard to the Dodgers. Once upon a time Moses had wanted to offer it up as a home for the United Nations, not the best use for such a huge piece of undeveloped property, but the only option then available, for Moses didn’t control a site in Manhattan large enough to meet the U.N.’s needs. But William Zeckendorf had swooped in and provided a wonderful solution, one that the Rockefeller family gladly purchased and then donated to the international organization. That had left Flushing Meadows available for other Moses projects, of which a ballpark was now one of many multiple uses under consideration. One can’t help but wonder what Moses reaction would have been if Zeckendorf had been able to buy into the Dodgers. Moses owed him a huge favor. Flushing Meadows certainly would have been available, but so may have the site at Flatbush and Atlantic, perhaps in exchange for the housing space he wanted at Ebbets Field.
That was going to happen now, but not the way Moses had envisioned it. Instead of trading Ebbets Field for a ballpark site, O’Malley’s sale to Kratter gave him cash to build a park on free land in Los Angeles, unrestricted by the plans of anyone else.
For all the sturm and drang that would take place over the next twelve months in the state legislature, the Board of Estimate, the impotent Brooklyn Sports Authority And other governmental entities looking to stick their finger in the pie and wash their hands of responsibility if the Dodgers left, the deal was essentially done. While Kratter had agreed to give O’Malley a three-year lease, ostensibly to give New York time to meet O’Malley’s demands for a domed stadium, that was all public relation b.s. Over the next few months O’Malley would pay lip service to New York’s efforts to convince him to stay, using New York to extract more and more from Los Angeles.
Over the winter, in relatively rapid fashion, O’Malley and Los Angeles officials decided on a site for the ballpark – Chavez Ravine – and O’Malley acquired the Cubs’ minor league franchise in Los Angeles, which simultaneously gave him territorial rights over the Los Angeles area. Everything was in line. All Los Angeles had to do was find a way to convey the land to O’Malley, and he was gone.
That would prove difficult, but not undoable, for O’Malley and Los Angeles officials had selected a parcel of the land that was already controlled by local government – 183 acres had been designated for use for public housing, which local government then massaged to include “public use,” a much broader definition. The remainder, some 300 acres, was in the private hands of those Los Angeles mayor Norris Poulson had described as “squatters and a handful of small home owners whose goats, cows and chickens roamed about.” In other words, most residents of Chavez Ravine were Mexican immigrants with little political clout who could be steam-rolled and made to disappear.
But in the winter of 1956 and 1957, that was still background noise. Oh the press, particularly Dick Young in the Daily News, was beginning to beat O’Malley to death by typewriter about his overtures to Los Angeles, but to many Dodger fans, despite increasing evidence to the contrary, the notion that the Dodgers would ever leave Brooklyn seemed about as likely as the Brooklyn Bridge sinking into sea. They saw the stories every day and they even read some of them, but in their hearts they didn’t believe it.
In a sense, many Dodger fans had left Brooklyn already, even if they hadn’t moved yet. To them, Ebbets Field had already passed into the realm of nostalgia. They didn’t go there anymore, themselves – at least not very often. But in the rose colored glasses of the mind’s eye Brooklyn was still the same place it had been when they were growing up and coming of age in the years surrounding the war, a colorful neighborhood of character and characters. Reality no longer matched that vision – Hugh Selby’s violent, hard-edged portrait of Brooklyn gone to seed entitled “Last Exit to Brooklyn” would soon be the more accurate portrayal - but a more nostalgic viewpoint was kept under glass now, preserved in the memory and untouchable. The irony would be missed by most, but the authors of most of the sticky nostalgia that would flourish in another decade or two about Brooklyn would all be written by people who, like Walter O’Malley, would leave Brooklyn, too. It was still a great place, but even more so from the vantage point of Staten Island, Westchester, of Long Island.
Their words would put the Brooklyn of their childhood in a kind of literary scrapbook, one that glossed its rough edges and exalted its most mundane aspects into pure romance. They would create a place, and mourn for it, that had only existed the way childhood itself exists, as a transitory moment.
And they would blame not the passing of time for its demise, but Walter O’Malley. He would become the villain - and rightfully so – but not for the reasons most chose to assign him. He became a symbol for the alienation many former and soon to be former residents felt toward the more discrete forces that changed their home forever and, like the Dodgers, were “forced” to leave it. O’Malley abandoned Brooklyn, to be sure, but he had a face and a name and was an easy target. The truth was a lot of people abandoned Brooklyn at about the same time – the fathers of kids just coming of age, young professionals, city and state government, factories and businesses. They were all Walter O’Malley’s.
In one sense, O’Malley was a victim of that exodus as well, swept up in the same tidal forces that sent families to Long Island and shut down the Brooklyn Eagle. In recent years O’Malley’s role in the Dodger move has been recast to one of reluctance, a move forced upon him by larger forces – Robert Moses, and other intransigent government authorities. To a degree, that is true. But since the first day he took over the team, in regard to getting a new ballpark built in Brooklyn O’Malley himself made the wrong moves, at the wrong time, over and over again. From his stiff arming of William Zeckendorf to signing on with Buckminster Fuller, every move O’Malley made reflected his ego-centric myopia and his attendant lack of political skill and vision. In fact, he was damn lucky that Los Angeles bailed him out and that some other team didn’t beat the Dodgers to Los Angeles. For if they had, the alternatives, in retrospect, aren’t very appealing.
There is no evidence whatsoever that if O’Malley and the Dodgers had remained in Brooklyn, the team would have ended up with a ballpark, domed or otherwise, that would still be standing today, or that the Dodgers would have been able to remain in Brooklyn as a Brooklyn team. At best, they may have ended up with a utilitarian structure like what had been constructed in Milwaukee. That ballpark would be abandoned by the Braves in little more than a decade, a place people drove to and away from as long as the team was winning, but didn’t feel compelled to visit when they were not. At worst, they may have gotten a dome thirty years before technology and architecture knew how to build one successfully. And given the economic decline of New York in the late 50’s and early 60’s, even a new ballpark may not have been enough to save them, and the Dodgers certainly would not have been enough to “save” Brooklyn from the changes that were taking place everywhere. It would have been impossible to renovate Ebbets Field. The park was in rough shape by age thirty and by 1957 Lee MacPhail’s repairs were starting to fail as well. The absolute worse case scenario would have been for the Dodgers to stay in Brooklyn, in Ebbets Field. Had that happened, instead of being moved while still in their relative prime, the Dodgers would have died on the vine. There’d have been no nostalgia in that.
The Dodgers and Brooklyn were successful together because each flowered at the same time. And by 1957 summer was coming to an end for both.
Just two months after the World Series, an unthinkable trade demonstrated to just what degree that was true. As if determined to start breaking the bonds that bound the Dodgers to Brooklyn and the fans to the Dodgers in advance of their leaving, on December 13 the Dodgers announced the trade of Jackie Robinson to the New York Giants for Dick Littlefield and $30,000.
In fact, Robinson had already made the decision to retire. He had signed on to become an executive with Chock Full ’O Nuts and had even signed a contract with Look magazine to break the story in a ghost written article, a contract that required his silence on the matter until the story appeared. The trade blind-sided him, just as the story later blind-sided the Dodgers and Giants.
Brooklyn howled, and in their anger at Robinson’s loss many fans were prepared to bid the team good riddance. Then Robinson’s story appeared and now fans believed he’d simply strung everyone along to line his own pockets. That seemed like another smack in the face Everything, apparently, was for sale – the Dodgers, loyalty, the past. And even though Robinson admitted in the article that now “my legs are gone and I know it,” the Giants had genuine interest in him. Owner Horace Stoneham was essentially prepared to offer him a blank check to play one more year – pinch hitting, perhaps platooning with Red Schoendienst at second base, and mentoring Willie Mays and the next generation of Giants stars on the horizon.
Robinson was tempted – he knew he could still play – but if he backed out of his retirement now it would look like he was motivated solely by money. He stayed retired, and the Dodgers and Giants rescinded the trade.
So much had changed since he arrived in the major leagues it was hard to believe it. There were now more than fifty African Americans in the majors, and another hundred in the minors. Every team but the Red Sox, Tigers and Phillies was integrated. There was no going back.
But at the same time, the Negro Leagues were dead, and only a few all-black barnstorming teams remained of that legacy. And baseball, beginning with the Braves move, had started a long slow movement toward suburbanization, abandoning the inner city, and significantly, doing nothing to make black fans feel welcome at big league ballparks. While Robinson would enter private business, and take on, somewhat awkwardly, a public and political role in the civil rights movement outside the game, in baseball he was never awkward. Until his death he would continue to push for equality in the game, taking his battle from the field to the front office.
His larger role as a true symbol and figure of courage sometimes makes it easy to forget just what a remarkable player he was. Almost by himself, he brought speed back into major league baseball. From 1947 through 1953 he was clearly one of the best players in the game, if not the very best, a player whom Yogi Berra accurately described after his death as someone who “could beat you in a lot of ways.” He wasn’t a power hitter, yet he often batted cleanup on the Dodgers, and even after his legs were gone he remained the greatest baserunner of his time. Moreover, in his ten years with the Dodgers, they won six pennants, competed for another four, and won their only world championship in Brooklyn. And although he led the league in few individual honors and set no lasting records, he is, unquestionably, baseball’s all-time leader in guts and courage.
To the Dodgers, the loss of Robinson was like losing a leg. Without him, the team suddenly seemed to be exactly what they were--old and slow.
In 1957 they were never in the pennant race as the Braves finally fulfilled their promise. And as the season unfolded and it became clear that the Giants, too leaving New York, headed to San Francisco, there was little question that the Dodgers were destined to follow them.
There was no yearlong celebration of what was about to pass, no long goodbye, just a slow accumulating chill. Dodger fans stood on the porch and watched their ballclub slowly back up the truck. Some complained, wrote letters, signed petitions and formed committees, but most just watched in silence, angry, and slowly drifted away. It had always been Brooklyn against the world, hadn’t it? Well, guess what? The world won. Didn’t it always?
Blame was tossed back and forth in the newspapers and most of it landed, rightly, at O’Malley’s feet, but he acted oblivious. He was already looking ahead.
Dodger fans couldn’t do that. Ebbets Field looked the same, and sounded the same, and smelled the same in 1957. Gladys Gooding still played the organ between innings and after the game, and kids still gathered for autographs and the ushers still took tickets, but already, in 1957 it was beginning to seem inauthentic. The fans and the team were both caught playing out the string, and not even the return of Johnny Podres, or the emergence of a twenty year old kid pitcher named Don Drysdale, on his way to winning seventeen games, was cause for much excitement. Hell, no one would get to see him grow anyway. And where was he from? California. Even that other kid, the one from Brooklyn, Koufax, was finally past the date where he had to be kept on the roster and all of a sudden it looked like he belonged. Early in the year he struck out fourteen while beating the Cubs and in June he was even leading the league in strikeouts. He was starting to look good and all of a sudden Alston just stopped using him. Didn’t it matter where he was from anymore? It didn’t.
On September 1, the Dodgers threw in the towel on the season. Although Sal Maglie had pitched well when he could, that wasn’t very often. Brooklyn just let him go, waived out the league. The Yankees picked him up for the stretch run while the Dodgers, for the first time since World War II, really, played September baseball when the games meant nothing and October was just another page on the calendar.
That’s when the final, official and irrevocable steps would be taken to send the Dodgers out of Brooklyn. Back on May 29 the National League had given its approval for both the Giants and Dodgers to relocate to San Francisco and Los Angeles if they chose to do so. The Giants already had. And on October 7, the LA city council, to no surprise, formally voted 10-4 in favor of conveying the 300-acre Chavez Ravine site to the Dodgers, as well as committing nearly 5 million dollars in city and county funds for improvements. In exchange, the Dodgers agreed to give up LA’s old Wrigley Field, home of the Angels, which they had acquired in the territorial swap with the Cubs. Brooklyn’s formal announcement that they would move would come the next day, on October 8, when the Dodgers released a simple statement that would read simply “the stockholder and directors of the Brooklyn Baseball Club have today met and unanimously agreed that necessary steps be taken to draft the Los Angeles territory.”
That would be simply the parting shot to a body already cold and dead. For by the time of Brooklyn’s final home game at Ebbets Field, both those acts were a foregone conclusion.
The final game wasn’t a party but a wake - and a poorly attended one at that - as only 6,702 fans turned out. The crowd lifted Dodger attendance for the year to 1,028,258 fans. Once one subtracted the handful of dates for the games in Jersey City, that meant less than a million fans had turned out in Ebbets Field, the club’s lowest mark since 1944.
By the final game most Brooklyn fans, at least those that still cared to, had said their good-byes to Ebbets Field earlier, if they even bothered at all. Now nobody wanted to put another nickel in Walter O’Malley’s pocket.
No one brought up the names of Jim Creighton or Zack Wheat or Dazzy Vance or Bill McGunnigle or Wil Robinson, or any of the hundreds and hundreds of names that made up the legacy of Brooklyn baseball. The future didn’t exist, and neither did the past.
It was a quiet game, just another meaningless September contest between also-rans. Benny Daniels of the Pirates, in his first big league start, pitched opposite Brooklyn’s Denny McDevitt. There were only a few dignitaries in attendance – Brooklyn borough president John Cashmore, and Emmett Kelly, the sad-faced circus clown. Conspicuous in his absence was Walter O’Malley. Furillo and Snider didn’t play. Gil Hodges started at third base, Campy was behind the plate, Jim Gilliam at second and Sandy Amoros in left. Captain Pee Wee Reese started the game on the bench, but came in late to play third while Hodges shifted back to first.
The Dodgers took an early 2-0 lead – Gil Hodges knocking in Gino Cimoli in the third inning for the final run. And in the bottom of the eighth, with the Dodgers still leading 2-0, Hodges became the last Dodger to bat. He struck out and Gladys Gooding played “Say It Ain’t So” on the organ.
McDevitt went the distance, getting Dee Fondy of the Pirates to ground out to Hodges for the final out of the game. After the final out, Tex Rickards, the PA announcer, warned fans not to go out on the field. “But use any exit that leads you to the street.” Those words could have served as Brooklyn’s epitaph.
As a few fans went down to the field anyway and tore up chunks of sod, a recording of the old Dodger theme, song, “Follow the Dodgers,” played for a moment on the p.a., before Gladys Gooding broke in on her own composition and finished with a oddly tuneful rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.” Only a few dozen fans lingered for long in the stands behind the Dodger dugout. There were some tears, but mostly just silence.
Brooklyn and the Dodgers had come together at a special time, in a special place, with a special team. Now it was made even more special because it all just stopped, frozen in time, before any of those elements could deteriorate. They grew up, grew older together, and then it all just stopped. Pee Wee and Hodges, and Oisk and Jackie, not quite old enough to be considered old, Ebbets Field not yet quite falling down, old Brooklyn still just holding together.
Perhaps, in the end, that was the way it was meant to be, because for Dodger fans – Brooklyn Dodger fans – those days were never, ever going to be matched again anyway. America would never again be like it was those first years after the war, and neither would Brooklyn, when for a split second in time the pronouncement that “Brooklyn IS America,” sounded neither boosterish nor boastful. And the feeling that swept over everyone when Brooklyn won the 1955 World Series would never be repeated either. In a way, that’s what made them special and makes them special still today. The Dodgers left Brooklyn, but they also left behind memories that because they left, remain there still, pure and strong, a snapshot of the heart that has never dissipated or fade away.
The Dodgers then went on the road for the final three games of the season, wearing caps bearing the Brooklyn “B” for the last time. On their final day, September 29, they lost to Phillies, 2-1.
Sandy Koufax pitched.
And LA was ga-ga.
Copyright 2004, Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.