Dem Brooklyn Bums Go West

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Walter Francis O'Malley is infamous because he moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1957. Thirty-six years later, Wilfred Sheed dedicated My Life as a Fan not to, but against, "the villainous Walter O'Malley." According to Peter Golenbock's Bums, one man claimed the best news he ever received was learning of O'Malley's death. Carl E. Prince, in Brooklyn's Dodgers, collects these epithets: O'Malley was a "Gaelic Machiavelli," a "cold schemer who would cast aside any loyalties in order to make a dollar," "lured by the glint of gold in California, and oblivious of the loyal, broken-hearted fans they [the Dodgers] left behind them."

As Neil Sullivan observed in The Dodgers Move West, this "is poor history." Yet emotion is reality: Brooklyn Dodgers fans have a legendary intensity of feeling. Even The New York Times observed that "Few baseball clubs have had greater identity with, and greater impact on, their communities than the Dodgers have had on Brooklyn."

In 1883, Charles Byrne, a Brooklyn real estate developer, bought a professional baseball franchise and hired Charles Ebbets as the office clerk. Their East New York ballpark stood at the junction of several streetcar lines. Fans dodged speeding cars to get into the park. They were called dodgers. The team adopted this nickname. In 1912, Ebbets, who became club president in 1898, built a 25,000-seat stadium in Pigtown, a 4-acre shantytown on the border of Flatbush and Crown Heights, and named it for himself.

After his death in 1925, Ebbets was succeeded by Wilbert Robinson, the club's eccentric general manager. Uncle Robbie once handed an umpire his laundry list instead of the starting lineup, into which he did not put men if he could not spell their names. Sometimes, he forgot their names entirely: players might not touch a bat for an entire season.

Some players also betrayed a shaky grasp on the essentials: in 1926, Babe Herman hit "the most remarkable triple in the history of the game." It put three men on base?the same base?when the runner on second, the runner on first and Herman all slid into third, one after the other.

The quality of play so declined that, by 1937, few minded when a leather-lunged fan finally began bellowing "ya bum ya" at bad players. Willard Mullin, a World-Telegram cartoonist, left Ebbets after a losing double-header: his cab driver asked, "What'd dem bums do today?" Mullin began caricaturing the team and its fans with a tatterdemalion derelict resembling Emmett Kelly. Thus, the Dodgers won their final nickname: the Bums.

Meanwhile, the fans were in a class by themselves. Hilda Chester, "a rather large woman with a leaning toward flowered print dresses," rang cowbells, one in each hand, to support the Dodger cause. The Dodger Sym-Phony, five guys from Williamsburg with tuba, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum and trumpet, first made noise at Ebbets on Aug. 24, 1941. When the band disagreed with an umpire's call, they played "Three Blind Mice." The trumpeter blew "Charge" whenever the Dodgers rallied. The tuba played a funeral march as opposing players stalked back to the dugout after an out, the bass drummer timing his stroke to coincide with the player's bottom hitting the bench.

A sign on the right field wall read: THE DODGERS USE LIFEBUOY. There, early one morning, a Giants fan scrawled in red: AND THEY STILL STINK. The "h" in the Schaefer Beer sign lit up to indicate a hit; the "e" to indicate an error. Abe Stark, a clothier from Pitkin Ave., promised a new suit to any hitter whose ball hit his billboard: HIT SIGN?WIN SUIT. His fame from the sign helped elect him Brooklyn borough president and City Council president.

In 1950, O'Malley, a corporation lawyer, became president and principal shareholder of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He first contemplated replacing Ebbets Field in 1948 and announced his intentions in 1953. No one took him seriously. People were more focused on the team. Brooklyn Major League Baseball's greatest moment was 3:43 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 1955. Bottom of the ninth, game seven of the World Series, Dodgers ahead 2-0, Yankees at bat. With two men out, Elston Howard grounded to Pee Wee Reese at short. The Dodger snagged and threw the ball to first, where Gil Hodges, one foot nailed to the bag, leaned far to his left and caught it. From 3:44 until 4:01, it was practically impossible to get a dial tone on Manhattan's telephones: the system was overwhelmed by the largest volume of calls since VJ Day in 1945. Hundreds of thousands of Brooklynites poured into the streets, cheering, laughing, crying tears of joy.

Motorcades clogged Flatbush Ave., Kings Hwy., Atlantic Ave., Ocean Pkwy., 86th St. and 4th Ave. Long into the night, Brooklyn resounded with clanging cowbells, popping toy cannons and firecrackers; there were bonfires and dancing in the streets, wild cheering, auto horns sounding and spoons banging against pots and pans. The bars were jammed and the drinks were free.

O'Malley had announced two months before that the team would "...have to have a new stadium..." after the 1957 season. Then he sold Ebbets Field to a real estate developer, subject to a three-year lease. O'Malley wanted to show that the "show was on the road."

At a glance, the team had never been more prosperous. The ballpark had drawn two million paying customers in 1951 and led the National League in home attendance five times between 1947 and 1957. Yet the team's attendance figures showed a declining trend. For less discriminating fans, televised baseball obviated going to the ballpark.

O'Malley blamed Ebbets itself. With a capacity of 32,111, it was among the country's smallest Major League stadiums. Posts and girders blocked the view from many seats. Worse, the stadium had only 700 parking spaces in a single lot on Montgomery St. Hundreds of thousands of Dodger fans had moved from the tenements to suburbia. At first, fans drove from the suburbs to find only on-street parking. Many complained of vandalism to their cars.

Furthermore, Jackie Robinson drew a new audience to the ballpark for which many old-line fans were unprepared. Sullivan quotes an interviewee: "When the blacks started coming to the game, a lot of whites stopped coming... [The blacks] didn't care about the Sym-Phony or Hilda Chester... They didn't have the history that we had." To such bigots, Ebbets seemed "an uninviting place in an increasingly unfamiliar neighborhood."

O'Malley proposed that the Dodgers would build their own domed stadium, with no posts, protection from inclement weather, convenient restrooms and 12,000 parking spaces. He would build it above the Long Island Rail Road terminal at Atlantic and Flatbush Aves. in downtown Brooklyn, which would provide easy access by mass transit. However, he wanted the city to use its power of eminent domain to condemn the land, assemble the site and sell it to the Dodgers at a reasonable price. Otherwise, the private landowners would gouge him. The man to make the decision was Robert Moses, the chairman of the city's committee on slum clearance, who turned it down in August 1955. Moses directed more than 30 different public agencies, most created under laws that he had drafted, and all serving his agenda: the construction of highways to speed automobile traffic to and from suburbia. Public funds diverted to a new stadium was money diverted from highway and bridge projects. Also, Moses disliked spectator sports: here, as elsewhere, Moses' private prejudices dictated public policy.

New York politicians did not take O'Malley seriously because they did not believe he would leave Brooklyn. This was a mistake. O'Malley had contacted Los Angeles officials during the 1956 World Series. In October 1956, while the Dodgers stopped in Los Angeles on their way to Japan, O'Malley met with Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. A few months later, in early 1957, he visited Los Angeles to meet Hahn and Mayor Norris Poulson.

Nearly a decade before, the city of Los Angeles had assembled a 183-acre site at Chavez Ravine for a housing project that had never been built. Poulson determined the city could transfer the site to the Dodgers by structuring the deal to satisfy the federal requirement of a substantial public purpose.

In May 1957, the National League authorized the Dodgers to move if the decision were announced by Oct. 1, 1957. A month later, O'Malley bought the Chicago Cubs' Pacific Coast League franchise and Wrigley Field stadium in Los Angeles for $1 million. Now he had a place to play ball until the new stadium was completed.

The Brooklyn fans realized O'Malley was serious. They demonstrated at Borough Hall, Ebbets Field and the Dodgers' main office at 215 Montague St., their picket signs reading "Brooklyn is the Dodgers. The Dodgers are Brooklyn," and their buttons reading "Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn." Robert Moses published his opinions in an article, modestly entitled "Robert Moses and the Battle of Brooklyn," in the July 22, 1957, Sports Illustrated. He wrote that losing the Dodgers was a "damn shame," while arguing most of Brooklyn's 3 million people really did not care, citing the declining attendance at Ebbets.

On Sept. 14, 1957, 17 days before the National League's deadline, New York City Corporation Counsel Peter Campbell Brown finally ruled the city could condemn the Atlantic Ave. site for the Dodgers. Two days later, Los Angeles announced its formal negotiations with the Dodgers. The deal had been reached some time before. The city would give the Dodgers the Chavez Ravine site and allocate $2 million for preliminary grading. The county of Los Angeles would spend $3 million for access roads. The Dodgers would build a $10 million stadium with 50,000 seats and parking for 24,000 cars; give Wrigley to the city and any oil and gas revenues derived from the site to a trust fund for youth recreation.

On Sept. 17, Mayor Wagner and Nelson Rockefeller offered O'Malley a new deal for the Atlantic Ave. site. O'Malley murmured the offer had merits. The city's board of estimate wanted more money. O'Malley objected. That ended the new deal.

On Sept. 24, the Dodgers beat the Pirates in the last game ever played at Ebbets. After the last out, Gladys Gooding, the Dodgers' organist for a generation, played "Auld Lang Syne." On Oct. 7, 1957, the Los Angeles City Council approved the deal and the Dodgers announced the move in an Oct. 8 press conference at the Waldorf-Astoria. The New York Times attacked O'Malley as motivated by greed. O'Malley was burned in effigy before Borough Hall.

The Bums went west because Poulson and Hahn could structure a deal and no one could in New York. O'Malley's crime, as Sullivan observes, was to remove the fig leaf from baseball. He betrayed the secret that the game is a business, assaulting the fans' romantic attachment to the team, the set of illusions against which all talk of profit and loss, demographic shifts and market forces struggles in vain. Perhaps the price of candor is infamy.

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