Last week, we talked about the lack of outrage over the late Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley’s induction into the baseball Hall of Fame earlier this month. And we debunked the idea that O’Malley was some kind of visionary for seeing the economic potential of the West Coast.
The truth is that any idiot in the 1950s knew that baseball could and would make money in California. Instead of planning an orderly expansion, however, the lords of baseball played the “build me a new ballpark” game. From the 1950s into the 1990s, dozens of American cities either built new ballparks or lost teams to the cities that did.
The only thing unique about Brooklyn was that, unlike Boston, Chicago, Atlanta or Los Angeles, it was not an independent city with control over its own purse strings. This meant that, even if the taxpayers of 1950s Brooklyn had been willing to give Walter O’Malley a heavily subsidized or free new ballpark, they could not have done so without the cooperation of New York City’s other four boroughs, none of which felt any particular urgency about making the profitable Brooklyn ballclub more profitable.
The upshot is that O’Malley must have known that the ultimatum he gave the city — help me build a new park or I’ll leave — would be refused. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the whole thing was public-relations cover for a move to the West Coast that he had already decided to make.
Could O’Malley have stayed in Brooklyn? Of course. In 1957, he was in the same predicament as the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs — stuck with small, obsolete pre-World War I ballparks in cities that refused to replace them with new facilities. Neither team moved, and today, of course, they are two of the most-profitable franchises in baseball, despite their tiny ballparks.
So how should we Brooklynites feel about O’Malley’s induction into baseball Valhalla? Personally, I take it as an insult — one in a long train of abuses that we have suffered at the hands of Organized Baseball. We deserve more respect. After all, Brooklyn is where the modern sport of baseball was born, the site of the first enclosed ballpark, the place where the first fans rooted for their boys to beat New York, the place where the first curveball was thrown.
Brooklyn fans bled royal blue from the team’s inception in 1884 to its last home game in 1957. Baseball’s color line was broken here, setting a peaceful example for integration elsewhere. It is absurd that the baseball monopoly has arbitrarily kept major league baseball out of what would be America’s fourth-largest city for the past half-century.
For a few days after it happened, I was puzzled that so many Brooklynites were calm and philosophical about O’Malley’s election to the Hall. One friend told me, “O’Malley was no hero, but he was smart. You couldn’t blame him for leaving a good baseball situation for a better one; after all, isn’t baseball a business?”
That is when it hit me why there was so little anger in Brooklyn last week. In the 1950s, people were starting to give up on Brooklyn and on New York in general. Property values were dropping; middle class flight to the suburbs was creating social upheaval; and corporations were leaving the city in droves. Losing the Dodgers rubbed salt in these wounds.
Today, Brooklyn is booming, fashionable and fast recovering its place as the core of New York. In the 1950s, the smart money — including Walter O’Malley — was exiting Brooklyn. Now that the smart money is once again pouring into the borough from all over the world, our 50-year old betrayal by baseball and the Dodgers has lost its sting.
Tom Gilbert is a writer and historian who lives in Greenpoint.
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