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Hardball in Brooklyn

The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together, Michael Shapiro, Doubleday: 368 pp., $24.95

March 02, 2003|Walter Bernstein | Walter Bernstein is a screenwriter and the author of "Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist."

For more than 40 years, I have placed Walter O'Malley, the man who moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, in my pantheon of minor villains, somewhere between Laurence Tisch, who ruined CBS News, and Bill Parcells, who deserted the New York Giants. Now, according to Michael Shapiro, he is not a villain at all. An opinion cherished for nearly half a century must be discarded, however reluctantly.

True, as Shapiro describes him in his informative and highly readable "The Last Good Season," O'Malley was not a very nice man. He was kind to his family, but that was about all. He was generally not to be trusted, "his stock in trade ... the wink, the nod and the empty smile." As a businessman, O'Malley was loyal only to his pocketbook. Still, as Shapiro tells us, O'Malley did try to keep the aging Dodger team safe at home in Brooklyn. That in itself, speaking as one reared in the shadow of Ebbets Field, gives him a pass out of villainy.

Before O'Malley came around, baseball had been played in Brooklyn for 100 years. The first team ever to pay a player was in Brooklyn. The first recorded curve ball was thrown in the late 19th century by a Brooklyn pitcher. An Englishman, Henry Chadwick, created the profession of baseball writer, but he did it for the Brooklyn Eagle, helped on occasion by his colleague Walt Whitman. One can speculate that baseball as we know it would not have existed without Brooklyn. It is a borough that has always produced wonders; think only of Mae West and Barbra Streisand.

Shapiro is excellent on Brooklyn, its history and its relationship to the Dodgers. Initially, the team was called the "Trolley Dodgers," a taunt from Manhattanites who thought Brooklynites were always dodging their numerous trolley cars. Until the 1940s, it was never a great and rarely a good team. The Dodgers did get to the World Series in 1916 and 1920, losing both, but those years were giddy exceptions. They were usually a very bad team. I still retain a child's memory of a fielder named Babe Herman (fielder is a euphemism for what he did), retreating under a fly ball and confidently holding up his glove as the ball landed 20 feet in front of him.

However, Shapiro feels that if the Dodgers had been a team that won more than it lost, they would not have inspired the loyalty of their fans. "Great teams are like beautiful people," he writes, "the focus of the imagination though not necessarily the heart.... A losing team has fewer admirers, but their allegiance endures, year after year. It is a relationship built upon hope and disappointment." You can extend that beyond baseball. Winning produces records and memorials. Losing produces art.

O'Malley bought the Dodgers through the Brooklyn Trust Co., whose president was a friend of his father's. The bank had found itself stuck with a flock of mortgages. Among them was the estate of Charles Ebbets, who owned the Dodgers and their stadium. O'Malley was a bankruptcy lawyer who had become wealthy during the Depression, what was called "a grave dancer." There were the usual battles among claimants to the Ebbets estate, and the bank threw O'Malley into the mix. When the smoke cleared, he was one of the owners.

For a while, he had to share ownership with Branch Rickey, the man who had brought the first black player, Jackie Robinson, to the major leagues. Shapiro feels this was not something O'Malley would have even contemplated. Rickey had won pennants with the Dodgers in 1947 and 1949. O'Malley despised him. He thought Rickey "a sanctimonious prig" who neither swore nor drank. Rickey was also a baseball man, which O'Malley was not, and a visionary. O'Malley had no use for visions that did not include dollar signs. His vice president, Buzzie Bavasi, thought he might have been "a wonderful guy except he loved money too ... much." Bavasi would have known. He had endeared himself to O'Malley while running the minor league Montreal franchise by pointing out the money he had made on peanut sales by cutting the number of peanuts in a bag from 35 to 34. "It had saved the team the cost of 4,000 peanuts a night."

O'Malley finally bought Rickey out but still hated him. Anyone who mentioned Rickey's name around the office was fined a quarter. Now, O'Malley found himself with a good ballclub but a bad stadium. He set out to find another site on which to build a new one. He even consulted Buckminster Fuller on what kind to build, and one of Fuller's students came up with a dazzling model that even had a dome. There was no thought of leaving Brooklyn. There was no feeling that a choice new site could not be found. Unfortunately, someone was in his way, a man Shapiro calls the real villain of the piece. His name was Robert Moses.

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