The Real Story of the Brooklyn Dodgers

The fifties seem to have been the time that New York City peaked.  By the sixties, California was on the ascent.  And the critical blow that seems to have taken the heart out of the city was moving the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles.

To this day, there are people who are bitter about it.  Many of them were not even born when the Dodgers left, but they have inherited the marks of survivor's trauma.

These individuals, who are generations removed from Ebbets Field, will still curse Walter O'Malley, the then team owner, for relocating the team.

You are in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O'Malley; and you have a gun with two bullets. So who do you shoot?

And, of course, the Dodgers fans would say: You shoot O'Malley twice.

Brooklyn Dodgers — The Ghosts of Flatbush (2007)

But most of what the legends tell us is false or taken out of context.

It is true that Walter O'Malley wanted to maximize his profits.  What corporate owner doesn't?  But what is often ignored is the responsibility of Robert Moses, an unelected bureaucrat — actually more of a dictator — who controlled bridge and road construction in the metropolitan area.

Moses and O'Malley had locked horns for years.  Ebbets Field was deteriorating, and the neighborhood was going to seed.  So O'Malley suggested that Moses condemn the decaying meat market on Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue, which was going to be abandoned anyway, in downtown Brooklyn.  Then sell it to O'Malley at below market prices.  Moses had done similar for others, so why not do it for O'Malley?  After that, O'Malley would build the stadium with his own money.

This proposed stadium was right next to the Atlantic Terminal, where NYC subways and the Long Island Railroad system converged — the epicenter of public transportation for Brooklyn.  It would have even been convenient to commuters from the suburbs.

But Robert Moses was against it.  He wanted an automobile-friendly location in Queens.  He suggested Flushing Meadows.  To the Dodgers' fans, this was just as odious as moving them to Los Angeles.

Robert Moses would not budge.  It was his way or the highway.  The city would help only with a move to Queens.  So O'Malley sent out signals that he would move out of the city altogether if Moses did not relent.  Still, Robert Moses would not budge.

O'Malley eventually had enough and left.  What is most amazing is how O'Malley got labeled the villain.  His name became a swear word in New York.  Yet the major malefactor was the government bureaucrat.

Looking backward, what almost everyone misses is the projection of memories on the history of the events.

Although Brooklyn at that time was quite urban, a lot of the borough had single-family and multi-family housing.  It was a sort of concentrated suburb.  Brooklyn still is that way to this day.  Outside the downtown areas, Brooklyn did not have the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan, though it had heavy industry.  In many ways, it was actually a collection of European ethnic enclaves.  It was a transition zone.  One's parents or grandparents were immigrants, and you grew up officially an American, but being nurtured in a local culture that was a hybrid between America and the old country, whatever that old country was.

In many ways, Brooklyn had an old-school feel with traditional values.  And the Dodgers were a focus for all of them.  The Dodgers reflected diversity.  Moreover, by signing on Jackie Robinson — the first black in the Major Leagues — the team became a symbol of hope for blacks.

Brooklyn was a borough of dreams, and the Dodgers represented those dreams.

But was it sustainable?

Brooklyn was called the borough of churches, and in the fifties, that meant something.  By the sixties, secularism had taken over.  The 1965 immigration laws changed the ethnic profiles of the area.  Today, Bensonhurst is heavily Chinese, while Sunset Park is heavily Latin American.  Its European character was gone, and that was part of its attraction.

Postwar containerized shipping required cheap space, which meant a move to New Jersey.  The dock jobs in Manhattan and Brooklyn were devastated.  The Navy Yards were decommissioned by the sixties.  The 1964 opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows bridge allowed a massive migration of Brooklyn's paisans (Italians) to Staten Island, which is now the most Italian county in the United States.  Ironically, if one wants to hear the old Brooklyn accent, one has to go to Staten Island.

One could have lived a nice life in 1950s Brooklyn, working in a blue-collar job, but what was one to do when those blue-collar jobs fled?  By the 1970s, with a huge spike in crime, Brooklyn was expected to go the way of Detroit or Newark, becoming another post-industrial slum "of color."

Baseball players were not paid enormous sums in those days. Some of the players lived close to Ebbets Field and took on local jobs during the off season for extra money.  One could take the subway to the game next to a team member.  There was a plebeian, democratic feel to all of it.  That would not have lasted after free agency took over baseball.

We project a halcyon memory on the team, but that moment was ephemeral.  Even had the Dodgers remained in Brooklyn, none of the subsequent changes could have been prevented.

Robert Moses eventually got the baseball stadium in Queens that he wanted, but it was for the Mets (Shea Stadium), and it came at the taxpayer's expense.  O'Malley would have paid his own construction costs in Brooklyn.

Ironically, Barclay's Center — home of the Brooklyn Nets — was built right where O'Malley wanted the new stadium.  In the end, who was right?

For that answer ask the people of the Bronx.  When Robert Moses rammed through the Cross Bronx Expressway, he utterly destroyed thriving communities.  Meanwhile, Brooklyn has rebounded and gentrified, but it will never resemble the old borough it once was.

The takeaway lesson is that the real villain was an unelected government bureaucrat.  It is time to stop blaming Walter O'Malley, even if O'Malley was no saint.  And it is time to realize that change is inevitable, and governments usually make that change worse.

Image via Max Pixel.

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