The author wishes to thank Professors Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson for the opportunity to present an earlier version of this article at the “Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder” symposium at Columbia University in March 2007.
Back in the days when the Brooklyn Dodgers toyed with the emotions of their endlessly faithful fans by having three runners end up on one base, fielding fly balls with their heads, or losing a crucial World Series game on a dropped third strike, it was said that “anything can happen in Brooklyn.” The substitution of long-reviled Dodger owner Walter O’Malley by New York City’s planning czar Robert Moses as the villain in the tale of the team’s move to Los Angeles proves that anything can still happen when the Dodgers are concerned. After all, if Moses was responsible for the “fall of New York,” as Robert Caro subtitled his classic biography of New York’s “power broker,” how much easier to pin responsibility on him for the far simpler task of driving the Dodgers out of town by blocking Walter O’Malley’s plan to replace Ebbets Field with a new stadium at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in downtown Brooklyn.
That Walter O’Malley might one day be seen as the victim, and not the villain, in the chain of events that led the Dodgers out of Brooklyn and to Los Angeles would not have seemed even remotely plausible in the immediate aftermath of the Dodgers’ departure. The day after the move was formally announced, Dick Young of the Daily News headlined his column “Lust for more $ killed Brooks” and concluded that O’Malley was leaving Brooklyn, “a rich man and a despised man.” The Post’s Milton Gross, O’Malley’s erstwhile trusting confidante and designated biographer, accused the Dodger owner of “hiding behind statements that seemed to have substance but really were only shadows…. Damn the fans, California, here we come…. Baseball is a game that can be played by children, but the way O’Malley played it he should have asked for his acreage on Wall Street.” “The only word that fits the Dodgers is greed,” Arthur Daley concurred, writing with “galling resentment” a few days later.
Such sentiments eventually received classic expression when Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield “dared each other to compose a list of ‘the 10 worst human beings of the 20th century.’ We each wrote the same three names, in the same sequence: Hitler, Stalin, Walter O’Malley.” As Newfield wrote, “you’re not really from Brooklyn unless you hate the man who broke our teenage hearts…. O’Malley killed a generation’s innocence.” And when the news came in December 2007 that Walter O’Malley had been elected to the Hall of Fame, Pete Hamill remembered his father, who “cursed O’Malley whenever the name came up,” and responded on behalf of “the millions of us who still subscribe to an almost biblical injunction: ‘Never forgive, never forget.’ “ More dispassionate accounts of the Dodger move generally concurred that responsibility for the move rested with O’Malley, and that his “true motive” was indeed greed.
There was to be sure one prominent dissenter from this indictment—Walter O’Malley himself. In his testimony before Brooklyn congressman Emanuel Celler’s antitrust subcommittee in the summer of 1957, O’Malley charged that his plans for a new Dodger stadium in Brooklyn had fallen victim to “sabotage” by New York politicians. Robert Moses, he claimed, had been unresponsive to his initiatives and over the next few years, in interviews with friendly journalists, he elaborated on Moses’s lack of support for his efforts.
O’Malley had not convinced his congressional inquisitors. Nor had his self-serving attempt to shift responsibility for the move off of his shoulders carried much weight in the court of public opinion. That began to change, however, with the publication of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Moses in 1975. In one brief mention in his twelve-hundred-page book, Caro launched the now current indictment of Moses in this matter, asserting that Moses “killed, over the efforts of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, plans for a City Sports Authority that might have kept the Dodgers and Giants in New York.” In his book-length account of the move, based on New York City archival documents, urban historian Neil Sullivan agreed that Moses’s “antipathy to the Dodgers’ proposal” doomed any chance of success.
Relying on Moses’s own papers, that claim was echoed and amplified by Michael Shapiro in his vividly written chronicle of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Last Good Season. “Robert Moses is the bad guy in this story,” Shapiro wrote.” He was arrogant, imperious and cruel.” According to Peter Ellsworth, “O’Malley had the necessary funds, a plan, and a site for a new stadium…. O’Malley was desperate to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn but … Moses would not budge.” Recounting “the Best New York Sports Arguments,” Peter Handrinos contended that Moses had “the final say-so over the Dodgers’ future in Brooklyn, and he did everything in his vast power to kill it.” To the question, “Did Brooklyn abandon the Dodgers?” Handrinos answered: “It was Robert Moses who abandoned the Dodgers.”
This perspective shaped the most widely disseminated accounts of the Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles, ESPN’s 1996 television history of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the recent HBO documentary, The Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush. “Moses did not lift a finger to help O’Malley,” Caro says in the ESPN film. “Moses,” Caro added, “was not solely to blame for the team leaving, but it would have been so easy for Moses to keep the team here.” In The Ghosts of Flatbush, Michael Shapiro asserts that O’Malley’s plan for a new stadium in downtown Brooklyn was “perfect, beyond perfect, it was ideal.” It “seemed so reasonable” Shapiro said, but according to the film’s narrative, “Robert Moses was not a reasonable man.” In his own appearance in the HBO documentary, Robert Caro concludes that “all Robert Moses had to do was say yes and the Dodgers would have stayed in Brooklyn and Robert Moses said no.” As one television critic described it, “HBO set up a titanic clash of meanies: O’Malley versus Robert Moses, in the first ultimate fighting championship to decide if the Dodgers would stay in Brooklyn. The decision rested with Moses, and he kept saying no, no, no and no. No, Walter!”
Blaming Moses, and absolving O’Malley, has a “man bites dog” appeal—”Could we all have been hating the wrong man all these years?” Shapiro has asked—that has made it an irresistible hook for the most influential recent accounts of the Dodgers’ move. It has persuaded many who had “for more than 40 years … placed Walter O’Malley … in my pantheon of minor villains” that “an opinion cherished for nearly half a century must be discarded, however reluctantly.” Indeed, this reassessment of blame for the team’s move has now established itself as the received wisdom on a still controversial subject. As veteran sports columnist Dave Anderson recently complained: “Fifty years later, historical revisionists have all but beatified Walter O’Malley for absconding to Los Angeles with the Brooklyn Dodgers after the 1957 season.”
“Revisionism” may be fashionable, but it is wrong. True, the “revisionists” are right on one point: Robert Moses opposed O’Malley’s plan for a downtown Brooklyn stadium. But, although often treated as something of a revelation in recent years, this was no secret at the time. Moses opposed O’Malley’s proposal privately in meetings and correspondence with the Dodger owner and city officials. He opposed it publicly, in statements to the press, media appearances, and a much publicized article in Sports Illustrated in which he lambasted what he called O’Malley’s “skullduggery” and “shenanigans,” while presenting his version of the “battle of Brooklyn” to a national audience. However, in order to evaluate fairly Moses’s responsibility for the Dodgers’ move from Brooklyn, that opposition, and indeed Moses’s actual role in the city’s power structure, must be placed in context. When that is done, the revisionist case collapses.
To see why this is so, it is first necessary to consider the full extent of the substantial governmental subsidy, as well as the practical problems, required to implement O’Malley’s proposal for a downtown Brooklyn stadium, which have generally been ignored in revisionist writings. Second, it is crucial to recognize that Moses was not acting alone. It was not the case, as one sympathetic reviewer of Shapiro’s book wrote, that “the city government of New York and the political patriarchs of Brooklyn were inclined to look favorably on [O’Malley’s] plan,” but were single-handedly blocked by Moses. In fact, Moses’s views were shared by a solid consensus of political and public opinion that similarly opposed that plan. Finally, the effort to assign responsibility for Brooklyn’s loss of the “Bums” should look beyond both O’Malley and Moses and consider the role played by the Dodgers’ fans themselves in the chain of events that led to the team’s departure.
It was, after all, their declining support for the team—Ebbets Field attendance declined by over 40 percent within a few years after peaking at 1,800,000 in 1947—that precipitated the crisis over the team’s future in the first place, and thereafter they proved remarkably passive as their team edged out of town. When local officials failed to accede to O’Malley’s agenda, they did not have to contend with any significant grass-roots pressure to do so. Moses’s opposition went unchallenged at the time. That lack of a challenge, at a time when Moses was being challenged on numerous fronts—and with a fair degree of success, is the key to understanding why Moses prevailed and O’Malley failed.
The story of the Dodgers’ unbuilt downtown Brooklyn stadium does not confirm Robert Caro’s portrayal of an all-powerful Moses, free to shape the future of New York in accordance with his own conception of the public good. Instead, it provides additional support for the emerging “post-Caro” scholarly consensus that, as Hillary Ballon and Kenneth Jackson have written in the introduction to a recent comprehensive reassessment of Moses’s career, “Moses was not omnipotent” and had to operate “within a system of constraints.”
On August 16, 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ president Walter O’Malley took the baseball world by surprise by disclosing that the Dodgers were planning to vacate Ebbets Field—and in the very near future. Announcing that seven Brooklyn “home” games would be played in Jersey City in 1956, he added that “we plan to play almost all of our ‘home’ games at Ebbets Field in 1956 and 1957 but will have to have a new stadium shortly thereafter.” “Our days at Ebbets Field are numbered,” O’Malley said.
Ebbets Field had been the Dodgers’ home since 1913; O’Malley “had pounded for years at the hopeless inadequacy of outmoded Ebbets Field” and “oft-expressed” his belief that it had outlived its usefulness, sportswriters reported. “We had a ballpark that was overage” and that was increasingly expensive to maintain, O’Malley later explained. “Our fans,” he declared “require a modern stadium with greater comforts, as well as adequate parking facilities…. Baseball with its heavy night schedule now is competing with many attractions for the consumer’s dollar and it had better spend some money if it expects to hold its fans.”
The site that O’Malley selected for a new Dodger ballpark, to be built, owned, and operated by the ball club, was at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in downtown Brooklyn, a location that he insisted was the only “practical site for a ballpark in Brooklyn.” “This is not a threat,” he said, but “we’re down to … our last chance” to keep the team in Brooklyn. The Dodger owner even warned that if his proposal was not implemented, both the Dodgers and the New York Giants were likely to move out of the city, claiming that “if one team goes, the other will go.
The Dodgers, O’Malley said, “are—and have been for some time—ready, willing and able to purchase the land and pay the costs of building a new stadium.” “I want to own my own ballpark,” O’Malley insisted, but “we need the help of the city to acquire the necessary land at a reasonable price.” To do so, O’Malley proposed that the city use its power of eminent domain to condemn the stadium site, using funds available under the Title I slum clearance program, and then sell it to the Dodgers.
It was, however, evident from the start that, even at condemnation prices, the cost to the city to acquire the parcel O’Malley wanted—principally occupied by the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) terminal and Fort Greene meat market—amounted to several times more than the Dodgers’ offer to pay $1.5 million to acquire the site. When that condemnation expense was ultimately calculated, the land acquisition cost was put at over $9 million. The city would therefore be subsidizing about $8 million, or 90 percent of that expense. To say, as one critic of Moses does, that O’Malley “asked Moses to condemn the land so that O’Malley could afford to buy it and build a stadium on it” glides over this essential—and fatal—problem with O’Malley’s plan.
Moreover, the highly subsidized land-acquisition cost was only the tip of the iceberg of public financing that would be required for O’Malley to build and own the stadium he envisaged. To implement the Flatbush-Atlantic plan entailed the redevelopment of the entire area so that a ballpark could be accommodated. The existing wholesale meat market would have to be relocated, as would a new railroad terminal—and the bankrupt Long Island Rail Road, already in debt to the state, was not going to be able to do that under its own depleted steam. City-financed traffic improvements and parking-garage construction in the area would be necessary—and expensive. Apart from actual stadium construction expenses, the tab to the city for the site acquisition and related improvements required to build and support a stadium in downtown Brooklyn was estimated to be $20 million.
Nor could relocating the existing facilities in the area to make way for the stadium be as easily done as Moses’s critics have assumed. Michael Shapiro has said that “O’Malley needed Robert Moses to condemn land where a meat market was being vacated,” but clearing away the market was hardly a done deal. Stymied by repeated objections to proposed relocation sites, the market site was not vacated until the late 1970s.
The bottom line was that the Dodgers could only build what O’Malley billed as a privately owned stadium constructed at his expense if the city (or other public agency) incurred costs of over $10 million, in addition to land-acquisition expense, for relocation of the market and traffic and rail improvements. When an overall estimate of the total cost of the downtown stadium project, taking into account the vast array of related improvements that O’Malley’s chosen location would entail, was eventually made, the city’s share was calculated to be more than $40 million—about $300 million in today’s prices.
O’Malley was willing to incur the direct expense of stadium construction and was not, as is often claimed, demanding that New York build a stadium for him. However, his assertion (echoed by O’Malley’s defenders and Moses’s critics) that “I have never asked the city of New York to build me a ball park, to give me land, to give me a subsistence or a subsidy” was by no means a complete and accurate accounting of the financial implications of his proposal. The “reasonable price” that O’Malley was willing to pay for the land was not only far below what the land would cost the city to acquire through condemnation proceedings, but also it did not take into account these ancillary, though essential, additional expenses to the city at all. To conclude that “the evidence indicates that O’Malley was prepared to purchase land and construct a stadium” for which purpose “he needed the cooperation of the city government—not to build him a stadium but to condemn private land, compensate the original owners, and then sell the property to the Dodgers,” simply misapprehends the extent of the public subsidy necessary to build the Dodger-owned stadium in downtown Brooklyn that O’Malley envisaged. It also obscures the reasons why O’Malley was unable to overcome Moses’s opposition to his plan.
By the mid-1950s, Robert Moses was in his fourth decade in government service. New York’s preeminent “master builder” and “power broker” had served as chairman of the New York State Parks Council since the administration of Governor Al Smith in the 1920s. In the 1930s Moses, while retaining his statewide responsibilities, became New York City parks commissioner as well as chairman of what would become the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. In 1942 he was named to the New York City Planning Commission, and after World War II he was appointed the city’s construction and slum clearance coordinator. Taken together, these multiple, interlocking responsibilities constituted an unprecedented, and unduplicated, concentration of power over virtually all of the region’s transportation, recreation, and housing infrastructure.
Moses had rebuffed O’Malley in private for some time before O’Malley’s August 1955 announcement, and had no trouble doing so again once O’Malley went public. Moses again challenged O’Malley to justify having the city condemn land for the benefit of the privately owned, very-much-for-profit, commercial enterprise that was the Brooklyn Dodgers. Even apart from questioning the legality of such a process under Title I, Moses insisted that the price O’Malley proposed to pay to the city was far too low. “We have told you,” he had reminded O’Malley,”verbally and in writing that a new park for the Dodgers cannot be dressed up as a Title I project…. Let’s be honest about this…. Every conference we have attended over several years began with a new Dodger ball field as the main objective with other improvements a peripheral and incidental purpose.” Moses wrote on August 26, 1955, to Brooklyn borough president John Cashmore, who had presented the details of O’Malley’s plan, “We have no confidence in Walter O’Malley’s scheme to put a Dodger Field at the Brooklyn terminal of the Long Island Rail Road.”
Throughout the two years of open debate that followed, Moses repeatedly butted heads with O’Malley. He did so in a highly public Gracie Mansion meeting with New York Mayor Robert Wagner and other local officials a few days after the announcement of the Dodgers’ downtown stadium proposal. In that “old fashioned town meeting” as O’Malley labeled it with mock jocularity a few days later, Moses bluntly confronted the Dodger owner: “What you say is that unless a way is found to provide a new home for the Dodgers at this location you will pick up your marbles and leave town.” Moses took to the airwaves in an appearance in December 1956 on the Sunday television program Let’s Find Out to make it clear that, as a newspaper account headlined it, “Moses Prefers Housing to New Home for Dodgers.” In the summer of 1957, he presented a detailed critique of the Dodger proposal to a nationwide audience in a lengthy article in Sports Illustrated.
Moses fought O’Malley’s plan every step of the way, but the basic reason that the Dodger stadium plan failed was that Moses was not alone in opposing it. One hardly had to be a supporter of Moses to oppose governmental aid to the Dodgers. Longtime Moses opponent, New York City councilman and former Manhattan borough president Stanley Isaacs, denounced any attempt to “invade the city and seize large parcels of property” for a project that was nothing more than “an effort to take care of the Dodgers.”
There was simply no significant political support in New York for a public subsidy for a privately owned stadium operated by a profit-making enterprise. When, in a last-minute bid to avert the move to Los Angeles, the New York City Board of Estimate considered a bid by Nelson Rockefeller in September 1957 to acquire the stadium site and then lease it to the Dodgers rent free for twenty years, there was no support on the Board—not even from Brooklyn’s borough president Cashmore—for a proposal under which the city would condemn the land and resell it at a sharp discount to a corporation that Rockefeller would organize for lease to the Dodgers. Instead, it was roundly denounced as a “give-away” of taxpayer money.And Cashmore, O’Malley’s key ally, had already made it clear that the “best interest” of the city and its taxpayers was not necessarily that of the Dodgers and pointedly advised the Dodger owner that any downtown Brooklyn stadium plan would have to “especially” safeguard the interests of local property owners.
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Even within Brooklyn itself, O’Malley faced strong opposition from both national and local political leaders. When O’Malley appeared at a congressional anti-trust committee hearing chaired by House Judiciary Committee chairman Emanuel Celler of Brooklyn in June 1957, Celler pointedly asked, “Do you think that a baseball club which has made the profits that your club has should be benefitted by acquisition of land by eminent domain?”
In his own committee testimony, New York City Council president and future Brooklyn borough president Abe Stark—best remembered for the “Hit Sign, Win Suit” billboard that his clothing store sponsored under the scoreboard on the right center field wall of Ebbets Field—was especially strident, charging that “Dodger management has maintained a cold war of silence and evasion toward the people of New York while engaging in a warm flirtation with the mayors of the Pacific coast…. What sort of Frankenstein monster are we creating which today can reach out and threaten the right of the people of New York to watch their own baseball teams?” As to O’Malley’s downtown stadium plan, Stark said that he “strongly felt that it didn’t belong there because it was in the heart of the business area, the housing and the market place of Brooklyn, as well as for many other reasons” and that he had “no intention of voting for large sums of public money” to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn.
That same month Brooklyn congressman John J. Rooney, who represented the Flatbush-Atlantic area for decades and was second to none as the plain-speaking voice of the ethnic white working class who provided the core of the team’s fan base, took to the floor of the House of Representatives to denounce O’Malley:
For years the Brooklyn Club has coined money for the few stockholders of its closely held stock. The owners never shared any of their profits with the fans. They took advantage of the Dodger fans at every turn over the years…. I say let them move to Los Angeles if the alternative is to succumb to an arrogant demand to spend the taxpayers’ money to build a stadium for them in Brooklyn. I am opposed to uprooting decent citizens living in my congressional district … in order to put more money in the pockets of my dear friend Walter O’Malley and the private profitmaking Brooklyn Baseball Club stockholders…. Let Walter O’Malley and his stockholders who have no civic pride for Brooklyn, where they made their money, move to the west coast in quest of more almighty dollars.
The one solution for the Dodger stadium problem that emerged from the political process was the creation of the Brooklyn Sports Center Authority by the New York legislature in the spring of 1956. The authority was authorized to issue bonds to finance construction of a new stadium in Brooklyn. However, as both O’Malley and Moses recognized, this was nothing more than politically motivated window dressing.
While its enactment was pending, an opponent of the Sports Center Authority proposal had pointedly observed that “pitching for the Dodgers we have the city administration” and “catching as usual, we have the people of New York City.” Precisely to avoid this line of attack, the New York State Legislature chartered the stadium authority only after its proponents had provided assurances that it would not be a burden on the taxpayer. Brooklyn borough president Cashmore, O’Malley’s most stalwart political ally and “an earnest advocate of the Brooklyn arena,” acknowledged that he “fully recognized that the financial feasibility of the Sports Center program must be a prime consideration.”
What killed the authority was not anything that Moses did or did not do, but that it did not meet that crucial criteria—it lacked financial feasibility. To require that the stadium be self-financing and not a drain on general governmental revenues doomed it to fail. Moses did not think that the authority could generate the income necessary to fund the bonds that would underwrite construction of the stadium, and he was right. In a meeting with the authority’s consultants in January 1957, the Dodger boss agreed to pay an annual rental of $500,000 for exclusive control and management of the facility; the contemplated bond issue would require that the authority generate net income of $1,100,000 annually for debt service. As a committee of the Board of Estimate concluded: “In light of the estimated costs of the project, and with conventional open market revenue bond financing without an acceptable guarantor, the likelihood of the project being financially feasible is remote.”
In refusing to extend a public subsidy to the Dodgers for the Brooklyn stadium plan, political opinion reflected public opinion. From the moment that O’Malley went public with his plan for a new stadium in downtown Brooklyn in August 1955, he was fighting a losing battle. It quickly became apparent that O’Malley had miscalculated very badly if he expected to win the ensuing contest for public financial support. “It cannot be expected,” the Times lectured, “that the city will make any outright gift of land to professional baseball.” And: “The city administration should do everything it can to keep the teams here, short of taxpayer subsidy in any form to professional baseball.” The city’s corporate elite, for its part, saw no reason for the city to extend itself financially on behalf of a fellow capitalist while they were groaning under the burden of self-described “over taxation.” Even local Brooklyn businessmen criticized the proposed stadium site as impractical and opposed the condemnation of land for the benefit of the Dodgers as “probably illegal and certainly immoral.”
The man in the street—or the bleachers—largely agreed. Mayor Wagner’s mail included letters from the taxpayer “disgusted” by his own high property levy and opposed to seeing public funds in any amount going to the support of a private business; from the homeowner who had been battling persistent basement flooding for more than seven years and was skeptical “that the world was coming to an end because the Brooklyn Dodgers do not have a park large enough”; from the “avid baseball fan for over twenty years” who thought that any money spent on the Dodgers could be expended more usefully on the children of the city; from the Brooklyn dentist who considered it the height of “audacity, gall and imprudence” for O’Malley to not simply ask the city for help, but to specify exactly what he wanted to be given to boot; from the man who asked, “Has anyone calculated how many thousands of people live in the area involved … is it just that thousands of people should be made homeless so others can have more comfort to enjoy watching their favorite sport?”; and, speaking for many, the “Brooklyn resident” who made it clear that he at least wasn’t having any of the Dodgers’ blustering—”If they are so dissatisfied with the support Brooklyn is giving them, let them get the hell out of Brooklyn!”
The city’s baseball fans may have lived and died with the triumphs—and tragedies —of the Dodgers on the ball field. Those with a socially conscious cast of mind may have celebrated the team’s initiative in breaking the sport’s color line. But the “social democratic polity” celebrated by Joshua Freeman in his history of Working Class New York also bred an aversion to the kind of “corporate welfare” that O’Malley was seeking, to the detriment of a Dodger future in Brooklyn.
In addition to outright opposition to O’Malley’s proposal, there was another thread in the public temper of mid-century Brooklyn and New York that played a crucial role in deciding the Brooklyn Dodgers’ fate. “Catastrophe looms in Brooklyn,” the Times had portentously announced in response to O’Malley’s initial announcement that the Dodgers’ future in Brooklyn was uncertain. Yet the public response to that impending “catastrophe” was characterized by complacency bordering on apathy. That the Dodgers might actually move appears to have simply been beyond the imagining of the team’s fans. Many undoubtedly shared the belief expressed by New York Post sports columnist Milton Gross as late as August 1957 that”for my money the Brooklyn Dodgers are far from becoming the LA Dodgers.”
As the crisis escalated and “catastrophe” loomed ever closer, Dodger fans remained remarkably passive. An entirely ineffectual and by then irrelevant “Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn Committee” was formed only in the spring of 1957—”at long last” one newspaper pointedly noted—amidst what was variously characterized as “startling” apathy and “exasperating indifference” about the fate of the team. It did not help that Brooklyn’s only daily newspaper, the 115-year-old Eagle, had ceased publication in early 1955. Two years later O’Malley would say that “I’m the only major league club in the country without a newspaper, which is important believe me when you want to promote something.” That was just as true when it came to saving a ball club.
Walter O’Malley’s August 1955 announcement that seven Dodger “home games” would be switched from Ebbets Field to Jersey City pending the construction of a new stadium was immediately seen as a challenge to Brooklyn’s fans. Jackie Robinson called it an “omen of the future … an indication of what can happen to Brooklyn if the fans don’t shake themselves and come out to see some games.”
It was a challenge that Dodger fans did not meet. While the Dodgers were winning five National League pennants between 1947 and 1955, Dodger home game attendance declined from over 1,800,000 to just a bit over one million. The news that the future of the franchise was at stake did not reverse that trend. Dodger home-game attendance continued to lag well below the record totals of a few years earlier. The 1955 world championship Dodgers had one thing in common with the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates: they were the only teams in the National League with lower home attendance than in 1941. Even amidst a “death struggle with the Milwaukee Braves for the pennant” in the last week of the 1956 season, a half-filled Ebbets Field was compared to a “deserted village.” Only 15,200 fans were on hand to witness Sal Maglie’s clutch no-hitter against the Phillies on the night of September 25. “Is that civic pride?” New York Times columnist Arthur Daley asked. “Don’t think that [construction of a new ball park] will solve the problem,” Daley warned. “The new ‘home’ … will provide more seats to stay away from.” Moses did not hesitate to argue against O’Malley’s plea for a new stadium, by asking: “What proportion of the 3 million and more residents of Brooklyn really care a great deal in view of the slim attendance at Ebbets Field?”
Some of the intensity of the borough’s identification with the team seems to have dissipated over the years as well, as new leisure patterns and the flight to the suburbs of much of the traditional fan base took their toll. In September 1941, one million fans had thronged the streets to cheer that year’s pennant winning team; only 300,000 did so in 1955. Far from being a social glue knitting together the borough’s increasingly diverse population mix, the increasing presence of African-American fans at Ebbets Field in Jackie Robinson’s wake was accompanied by a sharp drop in the numbers of white fans in the grandstand.
When the National League gave the green light to the shift of the Dodgers to Los Angeles in May 1957, “no great outcry from baseball fans” in Brooklyn was reported. Sports columnist Red Smith remained skeptical that the team would move and advised readers to “keep cool.” Nor did the team’s supporters vote with their feet. Fans neither stormed the turnstiles in a show of support for Brooklyn-based baseball, nor stayed away in protest against impending betrayal. Despite the gathering evidence that a move was in the making, attendance at Dodger home games through the end of July in 1957 kept pace with that in recent seasons. Complacency and business as usual prevailed instead.
Perhaps the failure to mobilize effectively to “keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn” also reflected the fact that an ever-increasing number of the team’s longtime fans were no longer keeping themselves in Brooklyn—or, indeed, New York City. O’Malley had touted the Atlantic-Flatbush location as being “nearer Wall Street and Rockefeller Centre [sic] than the Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium or Ebbets Field,” but that was hardly a geographical advantage in a decade when almost half a million Brooklynites were flocking to the suburbs, followed by an equal number in the 1960s. O’Malley himself had moved from Brooklyn to suburban Long Island in the early 1950s, and was living in Amityville, just down the Long Island Rail Road tracks from Robert Moses’s own home in Babylon.
There had been no significant public pressure on Wagner, Moses, or other city officials to get behind the Dodgers’ plan. Nor was there any retaliation after they had failed to head off the move. Mayor Wagner doubted that the loss of the Dodgers, as well as the Giants, would become much of a political issue—and he was right. There was an election in New York City in 1957, and one observer speculated that Wagner might lose a lot of votes if the National League teams left town.92 An attempt by New York City Republicans to make the departure of the two teams a lightning rod for dissatisfaction with the Mayor’s assertedly ineffectual leadership style fizzled at the polls.93 In November Wagner was reelected by an overwhelming majority, rolling up 75 percent of the vote in Brooklyn itself.
In conclusion, if Robert Moses balked at underwriting O’Malley’s agenda, he was not alone. The failure to implement the downtown Brooklyn stadium plan was a collective decision. The entire spectrum of New York officialdom (extending well beyond Moses and embracing his most stalwart political enemies and some of Brooklyn’s own most prominent politicians ), and a solid consensus of newspaper and public opinion, opposed the massive subsidy of public funds (about $300 million in today’s dollars) that was required to implement O’Malley’s plan. “Moses,” as Joel Schwartz concluded, “operated within the grooves of municipal policy,” and that was the case here.95 To pin the blame on Moses for the fate of Brooklyn’s beloved “Bums” misreads the political context within which Moses operated, as well as the shifting parameters of power in the mid-century metropolis.
Fifty years after the fact—at a time when the Dodgers have played more seasons in Chavez Ravine than they did at Ebbets Field—the point is not to “beatify” Robert Moses, and thereby reverse what Dave Anderson characterized as the “revisionist” take on O’Malley.96 But it is to recognize that making Moses the fall guy shifts the spotlight away from the man who triggered the chain of events that inexorably led to the city’s loss of the Dodgers ( and the Giants too)—the Dodger owner himself. The embittered Brooklynites—or in many cases, ex-Brooklynites—who cursed O’Malley for stealing their team away from them did grasp that essential truth. Sometimes, the folk wisdom is right.
1.ï¿½ Dick Young, “Lust for More $ Killed Brooks,” New York Daily News, Oct. 9, 1957.
2.ï¿½New York Post, Oct. 9, 1957.
3.ï¿½ Arthur Daley, “It’s His Own Description,” New York Times, Oct. 14, 1957 (cited hereafter as “NYT”).
4.ï¿½ Jack Newfield, “O’Malleys can’t dodge their shame,” New York Daily News, Jan. 29, 1990.
6.ï¿½ Pete Hamill, “Baseball Hall of Fame opens door for former Dodger owner Walter O’Malley,” New York Daily News, Dec. 4, 2007.
7.ï¿½ Andrew Zimbalist, Baseball and Billions (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 125–28; Harvey Frommer, New York City Baseball: The Last Golden Age 1947–1957 (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 23–27; Roger Kahn, The Era 1947–1957: When the Yankees, the Giants and the Dodgers Ruled the World (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1993), 342.
8.ï¿½ O’Malley testimony in U.S. House of Representatives, Hearings before the Antitrust Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, Organized Professional Team Sports Hearings, 85th Cong., 2d sess. 1957, Hearings (1957), 1859–60.
9.ï¿½ Ibid, 1866–67.
10.ï¿½ Melvin Durslag, “A Visit with Walter O’Malley,” Saturday Evening Post, May 14, 1960, 31, 104–06; Gerald Holland, “A Visit with the Artful Dodger,” Saturday Evening Post, July 13, 1968.
11.ï¿½ Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), 1018.
12.ï¿½ Neil Sullivan, The Dodgers Move West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 50.
13.ï¿½ Michael Shapiro, The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers and Their Final Pennant Race Together (New York: Doubleday, 2003).
14.ï¿½ Peter Ellsworth, “The Brooklyn Dodgers’ Move to Los Angeles: Was Walter O’Malley Solely Responsible?” Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 14.1 (Fall 2005): 35.
15.ï¿½ Peter Handrinos, The Best New York Sports Arguments, (Sourcebooks, 2006), 102–03.
16.ï¿½ Robert Caro interviewed in ESPN Home Video, The Last Trolley: A Tale of Two Cities (1996).
17.ï¿½ ESPN Home Video, The Last Trolley; HBO, The Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush (2007).
18.ï¿½ Richard Sandomir, “Those Dodger Blues Just Won’t Go Away,” NYT, June 29, 2007.
19.ï¿½ Michael Shapiro, “Forgiving the Demon of the Dodgers,” NYT, March 16, 2003.
20.ï¿½ Walter Bernstein, “Hardball in Brooklyn,” Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 2, 2003; See also Paul E. Steiger, “Power Broker to Dodgers: You’re Out!” Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2003.
21.ï¿½ Dave Anderson, “Bury My Heart at Ebbets Field,” NYT, Sept. 30, 1957. Anderson insisted that “to anyone who was around the Dodgers and Ebbets Field in those years … O’Malley has always been the villain. And always will be.” For similar dissents, see Stan Isaacs, “They Play It Once More: Dodgers Leave Brooklyn,” July 16, 2007, at www.thecolumnists.com/isaac/isaacs281.html, and David Nasaw, “Hitler, Stalin, O’Malley and Moses,” NYT Book Review, May 25, 2003, 8.
22.ï¿½ Robert Moses, “Robert Moses on the Battle of Brooklyn,” Sports Illustrated, July 22, 1957, 26–28, 46–49.
23.ï¿½ Steiger, “Power Broker to Dodgers: You’re Out!”
24.ï¿½ On the limits of Moses’s power, generally, see Leonard Wallock, “The Myth of the Master Builder,” Journal of Urban History (August 1991): 339–62, and Jameson W. Doig, “Regional Conflict in the New York Metropolis: the Legend of Robert Moses and the Power of the Port Authority,” Urban Studies, vol. 27, no. 2, (1990): 201–32.
25.ï¿½ Hillary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, “Introduction,” in Ballon and Jackson, eds., Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), 66.
26.ï¿½ Brooklyn Dodger press release, August 17, 1955, O’Malley Papers; NYT, Aug. 17, 1955.
27.ï¿½NYT, Aug. 18, 1955.
28.ï¿½NYT, Feb. 25, 1957, Aug. 17, 1955.
29.ï¿½ Melvin Durslag, ” A Visit with Walter O’Malley,” Saturday Evening Post, May 14, 1960.
30.ï¿½ Brooklyn Dodger press release, dated August 17, 1955, O’Malley Papers.
31.ï¿½NYT, Aug. 18, 20, 23, 1955.
32.ï¿½ O’Malley testimony in U.S. House of Representatives, Hearings before the Antitrust Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, Organized Professional Team Sports Hearings, 85th Cong., 2d sess., 1957, 1860.
33.ï¿½NYT, Aug. 18, 1955.
34.ï¿½Organized Professional Team Sports Hearings (1957), 1853–54 ; New York Herald Tribune, Aug. 18, 1955; Moses to O’Malley, August 15, 1955, Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Papers—New York City Municipal Archives (hereafter “Wagner Papers”).
35.ï¿½NYT, Aug. 20, 1955.
36.ï¿½ Interim Report of Brooklyn Sports Center Authority, November 15, 1956 (assessed land value $9.831 million, total improved value $17.120 million); memorandum from George McLaughlin to Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., June 13, 1957 (land and relocation costs to the city to obtain stadium site estimated at $10 million, with additional costs to city for neighborhood improvements of $10 million), Wagner Papers; NYT, Aug. 7, 1957 ( engineering report estimates cost of land at $9 million).
37.ï¿½ These numbers may seem almost ridiculously low in today’s terms, but should be multiplied by seven and one-half times to reflect changes in price levels since the 1950s.
38.ï¿½ Shapiro, Last Good Season, 70.
39.ï¿½NYT, Aug. 18, 1955; NYT, Nov. 2, 1955. The city’s consultants would later estimate a garage construction cost of $6.5 million. Cashmore to Wagner, June 19, 1956 (enclosing June 13 Clarke-Rapuano Report), Wagner Papers.
40.ï¿½ George McLaughlin to Robert F. Wagner, June 13, 1957, Wagner Papers.
41.ï¿½ Shapiro in Ghosts of Flatbush (italics in quotation added by author).
42.ï¿½ The time-consuming and ever more expensive saga can be followed in NYT, May 20, 1961, Oct. 18, 1963, Oct. 24, 1968, Aug. 19, 1969, Dec. 5, 1969, March 5, 1972, July 14, 1976, March 18, 1977.
43.ï¿½ Robert Moses to Deputy Mayor John Theobald, April 22, 1957, Wagner Papers.
44.ï¿½NYT, Aug. 7, 1957.
45.ï¿½ See, for example, Irving Rudd, Ebbets Field: A Memoir (Hall of Fame Games, 1984), 19; Ric Burns and James Sanders, New York: An Illustrated History (New York: Knopf, 1999), 509.
46.ï¿½ O’Malley testimony in Organized Professional Team Sports Hearings (1957), 1860.
47.ï¿½ Sullivan, Dodgers Move West, 55.
48.ï¿½ For a brief sketch of Moses’s career, see Jameson Doig, “Regional Conflict in the New York Metropolis: the Legend of Robert Moses and the Power of the Port Authority,” Urban Studies, vol. 27, no. 2, (1990): 203–04.
49.ï¿½ Robert Moses to Walter O’Malley, August 15, 1955, Wagner Papers.
50.ï¿½ Moses to Cashmore, August 26, 1955, Wagner Papers.
51.ï¿½ O’Malley to Moses, August 22, 1955, O’Malley Papers.
52.ï¿½ The meeting was even filmed and a clip is included in HBO’s Ghosts of Flatbush documentary.
53.ï¿½New York Post, Dec. 24, 1956.
54.ï¿½ Moses, “Robert Moses on the Battle of Brooklyn,” 26–28, 46–49.
55.ï¿½NYT, Feb. 22, 24, 29, 1956; on the antagonism between Isaacs and Moses, see Caro, Power Broker, 654–58, 665–66, 996–98.
56.ï¿½NYT, Sept. 20, 1957.
57.ï¿½ Telegram, Cashmore to O’Malley, September 8, 1957, O’Malley Papers. I thank Jesse Hecht for bringing this document to my attention.
58.ï¿½Organized Professional Team Sports Hearings (1957), 1854.
59.ï¿½ Ibid., 1816, 1819.
60.ï¿½ Ibid., 1817, 1821.
61.ï¿½Congressional Record, 85th Cong., 1st sess, June 3, 1957, 8246–47.
62.ï¿½ See press release issued by Mayor Wagner, dated February 6, 1956, Wagner Papers.
63.ï¿½ On the creation of the authority, see Henry D. Fetter, Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball 1903–2003 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 242–43; Sullivan, Dodgers Move West, 71–74. The text of the enabling legislation is set out in Chapter 951 of the 1956 Laws of the State of New York.
64.ï¿½ New York City councilman Robert E Barnes, quoted in New York Herald Tribune, Feb. 29, 1956.
65.ï¿½New York Herald Tribune, Feb. 22, 1956.
66.ï¿½ Cashmore to Wagner, June 19, 1956, Wagner Papers.
67.ï¿½NYT, April 9, 1956; Moses to Wagner, December 7, 1956, Wagner Papers.
68.ï¿½ Michael J. (“Jack”) Madigan to Charles Mylod (chairman of the Brooklyn Sports Center Authority), January 31, 1957, Wagner Papers. Madigan concluded, that “the realistic approach to the problem would be to recognize the impossibility of financing the stadium through open market revenue bonds.”
69.ï¿½ Minutes of Meeting of Sport Center Committee of Board of Estimate, March 12, 1957, Wagner Papers.
70.ï¿½NYT, Aug. 19, 1955.
71.ï¿½NYT, May 31, 1957.
72.ï¿½ Telegram, Alfred Perlman to Wagner, August 25, 1955, Wagner Papers.
73.ï¿½ Brooklyn Hub Association to Wagner, September 11, 1957, Wagner Papers.
74.ï¿½ Letters in Wagner Papers, August 1955.
75.ï¿½ Joshua B. Freeman, Working Class New York: Life and Labor since World War II (New York: The New Press, 2000).
76.ï¿½NYT, Aug. 19, 1955.
77.ï¿½ Milton Gross, New York Post, Aug. 7, 1957.
78.ï¿½NYT, April 19,1957; New York Herald Tribune, April 19, 1957; Murray Robinson, New York Journal-American, quoted in Sporting News, May 1, 1957.
79.ï¿½NYT, Jan. 29, 1955, March 17, 1955.
80.ï¿½Organized Professional Team Sports Hearings (1957), 1866. Robert Moses joined O’Malley in lamenting the Eagle’s demise. NYT, June 4, 1955.
81.ï¿½New York Post, Aug. 17, 1955.
82.ï¿½ Arthur Daley, ” The Deserted Village,” NYT, Sept. 27, 1956.
84.ï¿½ Moses, “Robert Moses on the Battle of Brooklyn,” 26–28, 46–49.
85.ï¿½NYT, Sept. 30, 1941; NYT, Sept. 17, 1955. In 1954 that season’s New York Giant pennant winners paraded before one million fans in Manhattan. NYT, Sept. 28, 1954.
86.ï¿½ See Henry D. Fetter, “Robinson in 1947: Measuring an Uncertain Impact,” in Joseph Dorinson and Joram Warmund, eds., Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports and the American Dream (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1998), 188–90.
87.ï¿½NYT, May 31, 1957.
88.ï¿½ Red Smith, “Red Smith Skeptical on Move out of N.Y.,” New York Herald Tribune, May 29, 1957.
89.ï¿½ Through the end of July 1957, Dodger home attendance was 688,480 compared to 640,000 in 1956 and 722,984 in 1955. Average home attendance in 1957 was 16,011 compared to 16,842 in 1956 and 16,066 in 1955.
90.ï¿½ O’Malley to Frank D. Schroth (publisher, the Brooklyn Eagle), June 17, 1952, O’Malley Papers. In the 1950s 476,000 white Brooklynites moved out of Brooklyn and another 469,000 would do so in the 1960s. Ira Rosenwaike, The Population History of New York City (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1972), 137.
91.ï¿½NYT, May 30, 1957.
92.ï¿½ Alistair Cooke quoted in NYT, May 31, 1957.
93.ï¿½NYT, Sept. 12, 22, 1957.
94.ï¿½ Fetter, Taking on the Yankees, 282.
95.ï¿½ Joel Schwartz, The New York Approach (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1993), 297.
96.ï¿½ Anderson, “Bury My Heart at Ebbets Field.”
By: Henry D. Fetter