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Bummed Brooklynites Took Dodgers for Granted

Commentary

January 29, 2004|Michael Shapiro | Michael Shapiro is the author of "The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers and Their Final Pennant Race Together" (Doubleday, 2003).

When we hear the Dodgers are being sold, Brooklyn people like me dream of having them back. It never happens. The Dodgers left Brooklyn 47 years ago, and you would think that after all this time we have come to accept that they are gone. We have not.

Instead, we pine. We long for Brooklyn's good times, when the Dodgers played at tiny Ebbets Field and every single day for, oh, 50 years was sunny.

We can be a tedious lot; people wonder why we can't let go.

But things still feel unresolved. A few years ago, a fellow named Dan Bern wrote a song called "If the Dodgers Had Stayed In Brooklyn," in which he attributes virtually everything that has gone wrong in the world since 1957 to Walter O'Malley's fateful decision to move the team to Los Angeles. He makes a powerful argument, if a bit overdrawn in spots. Still, it is understood that there endures in the Brooklyn soul a void, a vacuum. We abhor the vacuum. We want the Dodgers back.

For the longest time we believed that this was our due -- that O'Malley had wronged us. A couple of years ago, in the course of researching a book about Brooklyn and the Dodgers -- I was 4 when the team left -- I discovered that the true villain of the piece was not O'Malley at all. It was the unelected baron of New York, Robert Moses, who stood between O'Malley and the domed stadium he longed to build in downtown Brooklyn. And so there was a new person to blame, which was useful for pumping life into this enduring tale of love and betrayal.

But lately I have been wondering whether I had missed something, that our endless rage at O'Malley and our more recent bitterness toward Moses blinded us to something even more painful: that it is our sin that cost us the Dodgers, that this unresolved hurt is, in fact, an act of divine or supernatural retribution for our collective responsibility for our arrogance, our blindness, our conceit. Did we lose our Dodgers because we did not sufficiently love them, and what they meant?

The conventional wisdom has it that by the mid-1950s Ebbets Field was empty and that Brooklyn was a changed place, and not for the better. This is not true. White people were moving to the suburbs; blacks and Latinos were moving in. But Brooklyn circa 1955 was still much as it was a decade before. This meant that perhaps 15,000 people came to Ebbets Field to see a game. Not a sellout in a ballpark that seated only 32,000, yet well above attendance averages at the time.

But O'Malley noted these numbers and then looked at the far larger crowds the Braves were drawing in Milwaukee and decided he could not compete without a new ballpark. "New" is the operative word here. In the post-Depression and postwar view of the good life, new was infinitely more alluring than old. Old was your parents' house. Old was your neighborhood. People wanted new.

So they left the row houses of Crown Heights and Park Slope and drove out along the Sunrise Highway (yes, there is a metaphor here) to split-level homes in towns with inviting names like Valley Stream and Oceanside.

They left behind friends and neighbors and relatives and the Dodgers, most of whom, it should be noted, still lived in the middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge, where boys rang their doorbells for autographs and the players' wives shopped locally.

People returned to visit their parents and maybe see the Dodgers, doing so in the belief that the team and their folks would somehow always be there. And if the new lives they had fashioned looked out on the backyard and not the street, that was OK. The street was always too loud and the neighbors too nosy. Then one day their parents got old, and the Dodgers were gone, and with the team went the last vestige of the old world that they had, in fact, abandoned. All O'Malley had done was to turn out the lights.

A few years ago, the New York Mets' entry-level farm team moved to Brooklyn and became the Cyclones. Such was the excitement about this event that the team set up a website so people could write their thoughts about its meaning. Hundreds of postings appeared, from people who recalled the Dodgers and from others too young to have gone to Ebbets Field. The messages were, at their core, all the same: We now have back what we lost. This was not merely about baseball. For the joyous writers soon discovered that what they had lost, and now found again, was the company of one another at the ballpark.

It took us a generation of penance to learn this. We have found what vanished with the Dodgers' departure at an always-sold-out, 8,500-seat minor league park in Coney Island, just as others, in their own ways, have at Baltimore's Camden Yards and Cleveland's Jacobs Field, the new ballparks built to feel like Ebbets Field.

Our redemption is close; we might in a few years have our own basketball team, the Brooklyn Nets. But without the Dodgers, without the team we lost, it feels incomplete.

We were not guiltless. We turned our back on the world we now recall so fondly. And so, if it's all the same to the team's new owners, we're ready to have the Dodgers back.

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