Dem Brooklyn Bums Go West

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

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,
, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.