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Who's Really to Blame for Dodgers Leaving Brooklyn?

Who's Really to Blame for Dodgers Leaving Brooklyn?
AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz, File
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On May 28, 1957, Major League Baseball’s National League voted to allow the Brooklyn Dodgers to move to Los Angeles. It’s been 61 years since that day of baseball infamy, which later allowed the New York Giants to depart for San Francisco, but the anger of longtime fans of “Dem Bums” remains. In fact, there are baseball fans holding a grudge who weren’t even born when the big move took place. It’s just one of those sports controversies that refuses to die, that is cultivated from one generation to the next.

Much of the blame for the move has historically fallen on the Dodger’s then owner Walter O’Malley. One of the famous jokes of the time among Brooklyn fans went, “If you had a gun with only two bullets, and you were in the room with Hitler, Stalin, and O’Malley, who would you shoot? O’Malley. Twice.”

O’Malley had gained majority ownership of the Dodgers in 1950 during a winning era for the franchise. From 1946-57, the Dodgers unequivocally dominated the National League as its winningest team. They won five pennants, finished a close second three times, and won the World Series in 1955 against their dreaded cross-town rivals, the New York Yankees. And they were the only team in the NL that was making a profit.

Despite all this good news, the Dodgers faced a rocky future. They may have been fielding one of the best teams in baseball, but it was an aging team. And their stadium, Ebbets Field, was falling apart. Built in 1912 before the age of mass spectator sports, the facilities were poor and only certain sections had decent views of the field. Profits were dwindling, and fans were not turning out for games. Poor parking, poor facilities, and the stadium’s location in a minority neighborhood during a time of racial prejudice kept people away. Fewer ticket sales meant less cash for new players and stadium improvements.

O’Malley searched around Brooklyn for a location to transplant his team. He had the cash to build a new stadium but he lacked the money necessary to secure the land. Armed with a fresh stadium design by star architect Buckminster Fuller, O’Malley approached the city of New York to strike a deal.

By City of New York, I am referring to Robert Moses. Director of city planning, the self-appointed master builder for all things public, Moses was the final word on any public project in New York City. Mayors and governors came and went, but the unelected Moses made or broke projects based on his own opinion of their necessity.

O’Malley eyed the Atlantic Yards section of Brooklyn where Flatbush and Atlantic avenues intersect. It was a suitable area with easy public access, and Fuller’s modern design allowed for plenty of seating and plenty of parking. The new Dodgers stadium would be the envy of baseball fans everywhere.

 Moses refused. He did not believe that a baseball stadium in Brooklyn was in the public interest, and he would not allow the Title I provision of the Federal Housing Act to be used to obtain land for such a purpose. This was laughable because Moses, history would later show, applied Title I to projects whenever it suited him. It was said that he displaced more people for his parks and roadways than any natural disaster ever could.

 Moses offered O’Malley the yet-to-be-built Shea Stadium in Queens, where Moses was trying develop chunks of Flushing property for corporate allies. O’Malley refused.

 “I want to be in Brooklyn,” O’Malley said. “These are the Brooklyn Dodgers. If I'm going to be outside Brooklyn, I could be 30 miles outside of Brooklyn or I could be 3,000 miles outside of Brooklyn and it's not going to matter to me.”

Well, it just so happened that 3,000 miles away, the city of Los Angeles was looking for a baseball team. Roz Wyman of the L.A. City Council was searching for new ways to raise the city’s profile, and adding a sports team or two seemed like a good idea. She had reached out to O’Malley in 1955 to entice the Dodgers to come out west. She offered a brand new stadium to sweeten the pot, but he refused. However, Moses’s rebuke forced O’Malley to reevaluate his position.

The National League was open to the idea of a move. It wanted to expand west, but O’Malley could not make the move alone. There needed to be at least two teams on the West Coast to start or the venture wouldn’t work. O’Malley turned to Horace Stoneham, owner of the beleaguered New York Giants.

The Giants suffered the same home field troubles as their Brooklyn rivals. The Polo Grounds, located in upper Manhattan, were in even tougher shape than Ebbets Field. Stoneham was considering moving to Minneapolis, but after O’Malley shared his own plans, Stoneham accepted an offer from San Francisco.

The two New York teams did not make their plans public until near the end of the 1957 season. Brooklyn fans were crushed, and the Dodgers winning their final game at Ebbets Field did not make them feel any better.

The Giants won their first home game in San Francisco on April 15, 1958 against the L.A. Dodgers, 8-0. Three days later at their own inaugural home game in L.A., the Dodgers beat the Giants 6-5.

Ebbets Field was torn down in 1960 with a wrecking ball painted like a baseball. In its place a large apartment complex was built. In 1964, the same wrecking ball was used to demolish the Polo Grounds. A public housing project sprung up in its place in 1968. Shea Stadium was home to the New York Mets from 1964-2009, when it was torn down to make way for a parking facility for Citi Field, the current home of the team. The Atlantic Yards, which Robert Moses once refused to convert to public use, became home to the Barclays Center arena, home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and NHL New York Islanders, in 2012.

So who is to blame for the Brooklyn Dodgers leaving New York? The fans didn’t buy enough tickets to compel the team to stay. Moses gave them no choice but to leave. Wyman enticed them to leave, and O’Malley gave the final order. Perhaps there is enough blame to share among all the parties involved.

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