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Friday, May 17, 2013

Forever Blue, by Michael D’Antonio, tells the story of why (or perhaps, how) the Dodgers packed up and left Brooklyn for Los Angeles. The Brooklyn Dodgers were as integral part of their community as any baseball team has ever been. The Dodgers provided the borough with a central identity that remains unique among other baseball crazy cities.

After several decades of ineptness, Larry MacPhail came over from the Cincinnati Reds and led the Dodgers to their first World Series in twenty-one years and only the third ever. Branch Rickey succeeded the old redhead and the Dodgers played in six World Series over ten seasons; finally winning their only title in 1955. Then, after the 1957 season, Walter O’Malley ripped the heart out of Brooklyn and moved the team to Los Angeles. It was a radical move that opened up the west coast to major league baseball. Kansas City had been the westernmost team before the Dodgers and Giants arrived in southern California in 1958.

No one denies that Walter O’Malley, who had pushed Rickey out of the ownership picture, was making money from the team. O’Malley was a shrewd operator whose father had been a Tammany Hall official. But Ebbets Field, opened in 1913, was an aging grand dame. Cars had replaced Trolleys (the team’s nickname was shortened from ‘Trolley Dodgers’, referring to the fans who had to avoid being run down at the confluence of trolley tracks outside the stadium) and there was limited parking at the stadium. O’Malley didn’t believe Ebbets Field would be a viable option for his team in the future. He had built a winner: now he wanted a new stadium to play in.

Therein lies the rub: there are two sides to this story. O’Malley wanted the government to acquire land in Brooklyn (at much less cost than he would have to pay privately), whereupon he would fund and build a new stadium. Robert Moses, the most powerful politician in New York City, wanted to use the site for a different purpose. He preferred a site in Flushing Meadows, where Shea Stadium would be built a few years later. O’Malley wasn’t interested.

In their fields, both men largely always got what they wanted. O’Malley had complete control of the Dodger organization and was an influential voice among the owners. Robert Moses was an appointed, not elected official, but he made the decision on highways, bridges and public housing projects. That meant big projects went through him.

Some put the blame on O’Malley, painting him as a greedy millionaire who betrayed a community and stole the Dodgers. Others point the finger at Moses, whose out of control ego wouldn’t let him compromise and forced O’Malley to accept Los Angeles’ offer. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, though the moderate viewpoint seems scarce. This book is very much pro-O’Malley. Which is not surprising, since the author had access to materials in the O’Malley family archives. That’s not to say it’s all wrong. But the reader does come away seeing O’Malley as a businessman, faced with an untenable situation, offering a reasonable solution but being rebuffed by a power mad politico. Essentially, Moses forced him to reluctantly move his asset to California.

Keep in mind this was happening in the mid-fifties and city-team stadium battles hadn’t yet become the norm. This was relatively new territory. Both men used the press and the political process to their advantage. O’Malley threw down the gauntlet when he sold Ebbets Field to a private developer in 1956. The team could stay for a few more years, but there was no doubt a new stadium had to happen. The question became, “Where?” The book indicates that Los Angeles lobbied hard for O’Malley, who consistently put them off, saying he wanted to stay in Brooklyn. But he kept his options open and when he finally accepted that Robert Moses wasn’t going to give in to him, the owner packed up his toys and went to his new home.

All was not easy-peazy for O’Malley once he arrived in LA. The team initially played in cavernous Memorial Coliseum (current home of USC football) and he faced legal challenges that could have left him without a new stadium. Video footage of poor Hispanics being evicted from Chavez Ravine so that O’Malley could have his stadium survives to this day. BTW, this is favorably explained in the book and a good example of the pro-O’Malley view it takes.

One thing I really liked about his book is the look at gives at the pre-O’Malley Dodgers and how he went from a complete outsider to owner. O’Malley and Moses both had it within their power to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn. But neither chose a path that led there. In 1957, The Kansas City Athletics (once based in Philadelphia, soon to be playing in Oakland) were the farthest west a team had to go. In 2012, there are ten teams further west than KC (home of the Royals). Baseball was changed when the Dodgers and Giants moved west.

The Giants, owned by Horace Stoneham, are an important part of the story. Baseball wanted a second team to move so that the Dodgers would have a geographical rival, as well as giving visiting teams more games when they flew all the way to Los Angeles. However, the book doesn’t give much attention to the Giants: this is the Dodgers’ story.

Forever Blue is a good book. I’d guess that the picture it paints is rather incomplete, really just giving Walter O’Malley’s side of events. But I believe it does tell a significant part of the story and it does convey what an emotional issue it was. I am looking for another book on the subject with a different slant to get a more balanced overall picture of things, but I liked this one.

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