Monday, March 23, 2009

Putting a stake in the heart of Dodgers nostalgia, new book on O’Malley points out that Brooklyn had rebounded by the 1960s

For Atlantic Yards watchers, probably the most significant thing about Michael D’Antonio's revisionist biography of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O'Malley, Baseball's Most Controversial Owner,and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles, is his effort to put Dodgers nostalgia in perspective, blaming it on Roger Kahn’s book The Boys of Summer, and his explanation of why the Brooklyn Dodgers were America’s team in a way that no team today--let alone the Brooklyn Nets--could be.

Remember, as Atlantic Yards boosters would have it, the Brooklyn Nets would salve a deep wound. When Atlantic Yards was announced in December 2003, the New York Times reported 12/11/03:
But the Brooklyn Borough president, Marty Markowitz, said the project would fill the hole left when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, a moment that he said still reduces him to tears.

(Actual quote: “crying like a baby.")

Eighteen months later, the Times had reified Markowitz’s sentiments into a gross generalization, reporting, in a 6/9/05 article headlined Unlike Stadium on West Side, an Arena in Brooklyn Is Still a Go:
Brooklyn, still smarting from the loss of the Dodgers nearly 50 years ago, is generally more welcoming to projects that could help put it on the national map.

Nah.

Recovery after six years

Remember, the Dodgers left in 1957. Consider this excerpt from Forever Blue published in Sports Illustrated:
Was it true? Had O'Malley crushed Brooklyn's spirit? The answer is no. In 1963, after the Dodgers vanquished the Yankees in the World Series, a New York Times editorial titled Joy in Flatbush declared, "At last the wounds have healed." In 1969, when the New York Mets won the World Series, Brooklyn honored them with a rally at Borough Hall. The victory made the Dodgers seem like ancient history.

But then, in 1972, Kahn published one of the most romantic and moving baseball books ever written. The Boys of Summer turned the Brooklyn Dodgers into paragons of virtue, living symbols of all that was good about America before the upheavals of the 1960s: the counterculture, the shock of political assassinations and the wrenching protests over the Vietnam War. The book became a best seller and a sports classic not only because it was a good read but also because it was infused with the author's love for the team. Still, Kahn wouldn't deny that it also benefited from something in the national mood. TIME magazine described The Boys of Summer as part of a wave of nostalgia in popular culture that included the movie The Last Picture Show and the musical Grease. Like many a good story, the book had a villain: O'Malley, whom it depicted as a cheerless, money-obsessed old man.


Beloved in Southern California

At a reading and discussion Saturday at the Brooklyn Historical Society, New York Times sportswriter Richard Sandomir introduced the book by recounting an anecdote about meeting Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver, who, upon meeting D’Antonio, exclaimed, “You’re writing a book about Walter O’Malley! Walter O’Malley brought baseball to the West Coast! I love Walter O’Malley!”

Indeed, D’Antonio writes:
As much as he was reviled in New York, O'Malley was loved in Southern California, and in the end he viewed his success there as a gift from Robert Moses. He revealed this once, in a note to an old friend. It was the only document among his papers that expressed this view of his nemesis. O'Malley wrote: "Bob became an enemy when he sabotaged our plans to build a stadium in Brooklyn. He became a benefactor when his opposition became so violent that we left Brooklyn and happily became established in California."

It's plain to see that O'Malley was right. And the sons and daughters of Brooklyn have reason to let go of their old grudge. Truth is good for the soul. Forgive, and forget.


AY vs. Dodgers

Remember, in a September 2007 New York Magazine article headlined Exorcising the Dodgers, Sam Anderson wrote:
Atlantic Yards is Dodgers nostalgia run amok: New Brooklyn getting rich on the dying myth of Old Brooklyn—a supposed tribute to the borough that may well end up defacing the Brooklyn it’s pretending to honor.

America’s team?

Back in November, 2005, Scott Turner of Fans for Fair Play savaged the relevance of Dodgers nostalgia in the context of the Atlantic Yards saga, contrasting owners, their devotion to sports, their commitment to local fans, the players, ticket costs, and commitment to local businesses, among other things.

An exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York in 2007 about the “Glory Days” of New York baseball (1947-57) added a gloss:
Why do the Glory Days continue to exert such a hold on the fans who experienced them? In part, is is because baseball was the big game in town, not yet truly challenged by the other league sports such as football or basketball. But while it was the big time, it was not yet the big business it is today.

More from the book

D’Antonio adds more context on that issue. In an interview Friday with the New York Times, he was asked for context:

Q: "Forever Blue” describes the Brooklyn Dodgers as “America’s team before there was such a term.” Explain.

MD: Brooklyn, with its spirit and history as a first home for immigrants, has always had a special place in America’s heart. During the Great Depression, when the Dodgers were called the “Daffiness Boys” and “dem Bums,” the team had such hard luck that fans who loved the underdog loved them. In the 1940s, as they started to win regularly, management put together an ethnically diverse squad that resembled the idealized units of soldiers in movies about World War II.

Everyone could relate to someone on the team, and this became even more true when Jackie Robinson arrived and broke the color barrier. In the future, the Dallas Cowboys football team would claim the title of America’s team because they were powerful winners. I think the Brooklyn Dodgers held that title first because they were much more. This is why they drew more fans on the road than any other team in their league, more even than they saw at Ebbets Field.


On Leonard Lopate

In an interview Friday on WNYC radio’s Leonard Lopate Show, the host, at about 7:45, brought up the issue.



LL: In World War II movies, there was always a guy from Brooklyn who would go to great lengths to find out if the Dodgers had won that day.

MD: They were not just Brooklyn’s team. In many people’s hearts, across America, they were America’s team. And I think it’s because. in the 30s, they were perennial losers... but they were lovable. And then they started to win...

During the discussion Saturday at the Brooklyn Historical Society, D’Antonio added another layer, explaining that the Dodgers were the first team to have a national radio contract.

Consider that there’s no market for national coverage of the Nets. Consider also puffery from the likes of State Senator Marty Golden, who declared, according to a 4/14/06 Courier-Life article:
“It is the chance of a lifetime to have stars such as Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson and all the others have their home court based in Brooklyn.”

Two of those three have already been traded.

An Atlantic Yards mention

During Friday’s interview, at about 15:05, Lopate misleadingly suggested (as other journalists have done) that O’Malley wanted to build on the Atlantic Yards site and, though his interviewee seemed to assent, described accurately the site of what is now the Atlantic Center mall.

LL: Well, He wanted to build a field in a big empty space that is controversial again today.

MD: Right.

LL: Bruce Ratner wants to build an arena where Walter O’Malley wanted to build a new stadium: Atlantic Yards.

MD: This spot, back in the late 1940s, was home to a public market that was all meat dealers and butchers, surround also by retail meat shops. It was one of the worst places to wander through on a summer day, you can imagine, the gutter ran with blood.
...In those days, the housing around it was all substandard. Also, there was usable space over the Long Island Rail Road tracks.


Yes, there was usable space, but it would’ve been very expensive to build a deck.

Effect on Brooklyn

At about 24:55, Lopate tried to connect past and present.

LL: What effect do you think the Dodgers’ move had on Brooklyn’s development?

MD: Y’know, I think it did knock the spirit out of Brooklyn for a while.

LL: The ballpark, which everybody loved, was replaced by some of the most ugly housing anybody could imagine. And that almost seemed symbolic of what was going on.

MD: It is, and it’s also, I think, symbolic that they never got to develop the property O’Malley was targeting into the center of entertainment and retailing that he envisioned. It would be so wonderful if we had that park there.

LL: I’m not so sure I feel the same way about the Atlantic Yards, but that’s a whole other matter.

It is a whole other matter, because 1) O’Malley wanted to build at the site of the Atlantic Center mall and 2) as far as I know, he was planning a ballpark, nothing more. Note that D’Antonio lives on Long Island, not Brooklyn.

Revisionism regarding Moses

The villain in D’Antonio’s saga is not O’Malley but rather Robert Moses, who was adamantly against a Brooklyn ballpark, and instead wanted to put a ballpark in Flushing Meadows in Queens, the eventual location of Shea Stadium. In fact, Moses had identified a location by 1945.

D’Antonio on Saturday suggested that "this guy wanted to give Brooklyn a private stadium," and there was a way for Moses to use eminent domain to get him the property.

What the author left out--at least in his talk (I haven’t read the book yet)--is that O’Malley wanted the land at a huge discount, as explained in Henry Fetter's book Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball.

The effect of consolidation

D'Antonio also traces the loss of the Dodgers to Brooklyn's status as a borough, not a city, without its own mayor and city planning department to steer its destiny. That certainly makes sense, but it's not the whole story.

"They gave away so much" in losing their autonomy, D'Antonio said of Brooklyn leaders and voters who agreed (narrowly) to consolidation in 1898.

Maybe, but he leaves out, as explained in the book Gotham, by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike L. Wallace, that Brooklyn was in a difficult situation, running out of water and needing to be part of a larger entity to have bonds issued for public works.

6 comments:

  1. Don't get me started on the mistake of 1898.

    But as for the dodgers...

    Anecdotal evidence is that the dodgers leaving was a shock to the system. they werent perenial losers(philadelphia athletics, boston braves, st louis browns, washington senators).

    They were in full vibrancy having been to the world series six times in the eleven years prior to their exit and most recently 2 years prior to their exit.

    Such an abrupt removal of the team was like having an unexpected death in the family. And as such they would mourn much longer than if some distant relative had passed. Part of the family was gone.

    The real culprits, moses or no moses, was attendance, development and transportation.

    When ebbets was built it was an undeveloped area. By the time they left it was densly developed and had started to decline. As was/had downtown brooklyn. Sports teams had regularly moved to cheap(outlying) areas. Atlantic terminal/yards was anything but outlying. Or cheap.

    Attendance dropped from 1.8 million in 1947 to 1 million in 1957. You lose 45 percent of you revenue, you leave. Or fold.

    But wait, the yankees lost 40% also.
    And the giants 60%.

    That means that(40%+45%+60%) or 1.5 teams worth of audience had left. New York had become capable of supporting only one team. The two lowest attendance teams left.

    Part of the problem was that the existing market (middle class) were leaving brooklyn in tremendous numbers. When they came to games, they drove. There was little parking. They stopped coming as much.

    I am no fan of omalley, but in a declining attendance market with shiftng tansportation patterns each and everyone of us would have made the same decision.

    Fight a losing battle in a declining economic climate or become wealthy in a warmer weather climate. Where do Brooklynites go when they have had enough? Florida. So can the holier than thou Brooklynite attitude against Omalley for leaving.

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    1. Mike D.1:10 PM

      More evidence of this argument -- and these trends -- can be found if you fast-forward a few years, and see how many fewer fans the Mets drew in 1962 and 63 at the Polo Grounds, compared to how they drew in 1964 at Shea Stadium -- a million more fans (1.9 million) walked through the turnstiles at Willets Point in 1966 than did in Coogan's Bluff in 1962 (900,000 and change). The Dodgers would have been fine if they'd moved to Flushing, but staying in Brooklyn would have been a move about 40 years ahead of its time (and would have created the "China Wall" of traffic Moses feared, no doubt).

      But keep in mind a huge difference between the Flushing of 1957 and the Flushing of 1964: The Long Island Expressway wasn't there yet.

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  2. There's a lot more to this. The Dodgers were still profitable, unlike most teams that moved. More hre:
    http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/06/sports/sp-kahn6

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  3. hate to disagree... that article states that they were the most profitable form 1947-1956.

    but it was a descending number as is evidenced by the attendance figures.

    http://www.baseball-almanac.com/teams/laatte.shtml

    they only averaged 13,000 fans a game in the year they won the world series. down from 23,000 in 1947.

    just like any current owner a shiny new bauble of a stadium was his only hope as winning teams drew less as the years went by.

    if i knew what ticket prices were in 1947-1957 you could see the chart of gross revenues.

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  4. Take a look at TV and radio revenues, too.

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  5. Attendance 13,000 in a year they won the series.

    Capacity 32,000.

    60% of the seats were empty.

    Neighborhood/Boro/City in decline.

    Pissy city government.

    Offer of cheap land in an untapped market.

    Not really a tough call.

    And i bet they didnt make 40% of their revenue off of tv/radio. Where would one find such numbers?

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