Going, Going, Gone

For fans of defunct major league baseball teams, the future ain’t what it used to be.

When Major League Baseball’s All-Stars take the field on July 14 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, a smattering of far-flung fans will no doubt be reminiscing about old-timers like Mel Ott and Eddie Joost instead of focusing on current-day favorites like Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter. Believe it or not, a small but devoted group of baseball enthusiasts maintain allegiance to bygone teams like the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia Athletics, Boston Braves and Washington Senators. They organize fan clubs, celebrate great moments in franchise history, and purchase memorabilia on eBay, all in the name of honoring the past of America’s pastime.

Brooklyn Dodgers

Ron Gabriel, who grew up two miles from Ebbets Field at a time when one could hear Red Barber’s radio play-by-play “from every open window in Brooklyn,” is one of those fans. These days Gabriel lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, but Brooklyn is never far from his mind. On October 4, 1975, at exactly 3:44 p.m., he founded the Brooklyn Dodgers Fan Club, 20 years to the minute that the team celebrated its first and only World Series title.

Gabriel went on to host annual meetings at his home, where he served hot dogs and Schaefer beer (a longtime Dodgers sponsor). When the 50th anniversary of the team’s championship rolled around in 2005, he organized a commemorative dinner and passed out bumper stickers that proclaimed: We Loved the Brooklyn Dodgers—and we STILL DO!!

For Gabriel and countless fans of “Dem Bums” (an affectionate nickname), the world turned upside down when the organization moved to Los Angeles following the 1957 season. “I went into a state of shock, and I still can’t believe it,” he says. Diehards were devastated and many, like Gabriel, never transferred their allegiance to another team. “Once a Brooklyn fan, always a Brooklyn fan,” he pronounces.

New York Giants

There is a common thread that binds fans of defunct teams, a certain poetry in their recollections that are valentines to the boys of summers past. You can hear it in the way they share stories—always in the present tense. With each re-telling, there are new insights, a deeper understanding. Instant replay? How about never-distant replays?

“We’re in the Twilight Zone,” offers Bill Kent, founder and president of the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society, a loosely knit group of lawyers, teachers and sports writers—plus “a lady umpire and a lady baseball player”—who participate in an online discussion group and get together three times a year.  “To us, the old Giants are still alive. We relive their exploits,” he says matter-of-factly.

Kent grew up in the Bronx, a trolley and subway ride away from the old Polo Grounds (home of the Giants) in upper Manhattan. As a youngster, Kent would sometimes sneak into the ballpark and stake out empty seats with his friends. Other times, he’d get picked to work the turnstiles at the gate, earning spare change and free admission. It was a highly coveted role. “There were always more kids than jobs,” he remembers.

Today, the Giants Nostalgia Society can’t afford to turn away potential members. Only three or four individuals turned out for the group’s first meeting, and the best-attended event attracted fewer than 50 people, including a sprinkling of New York Mets backers. “We don’t care. We have nice people and if they’re not nice, they’re out,” says Kent with a smile.

St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia Athletics

The 1950s were turbulent times for baseball fans. In 1953, the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore and the Boston Braves went west to Milwaukee. Ned Garver, who won 20 games for the 1951 Browns (52-102), was alluding to the club’s attendance problems when he said: “Our fans never booed us. They wouldn’t dare. We outnumbered ’em.” Today, however, the franchise’s legacy is alive and well. This year the St. Louis Browns Historical Society and Fan Club celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Predictably, attendance was also an issue for the Philadelphia Athletics. When the franchise moved to Kansas City after being sold in late 1954, the news didn’t come as a surprise. “For a couple of years it was clear the A’s were running out of money,” recollects Athletics buff Dave Jordan, who serves as chairman of the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society in Hatboro, Pennsylvania. “The city couldn’t support both the A’s and the Phillies,” he says, before admitting that when the mayor announced a Save the A’s committee, “I was one of the few people who took him seriously.”

Ironically, the Athletics Historical Society remains a robust organization with 800 members spread coast-to-coast. The society puts out a bi-monthly newsletter, operates a museum and holds functions to which original players are invited. There are a few youngish members, but for the most part, its ranks are filled with individuals who were Shibe Park regulars in the days of Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Collins and Mickey Cochrane.

For his part, Jordan’s favorite memory of the Athletics is the team’s 24-inning game against the Detroit Tigers on July 21, 1945, which was called due to darkness. “I kept score for 22 innings until I ran out of space,” he says, adding that he donated the incomplete scorecard to the A’s museum.

When the team moved to Kansas City, Jordan couldn’t help but remain a fan. “In 1955 and ’56 I went to Yankee Stadium when Kansas City was in town, but it wasn’t the same. They changed the numbers of quite a few players and I had to face the fact that the Phillies were all we had left,” he laments.

The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be

Of course, the once middle-aged fans of teams like the Philadelphia Athletics are now senior citizens and elder statesmen. “That’s something we at the society think about,” Jordan confesses. “Until recently, we had a big breakfast in the fall, and hundreds of people would show up.” But with the volunteers getting old, the functions are now being scaled back. (Never mind the fact that there are fewer and fewer players alive who wore the uniform.)

If nothing else, concessions to age are being felt in the sports memorabilia market. Mike Heffner, president of Lelands—a Bohemia, New York-based sports memorabilia auction house—says the 1980s and ’90s were the boom years for memorabilia of defunct clubs. “In the past few years, we’ve noticed a slowdown. People who were following teams in the 1940s and ’50s are mostly retired,” he says, “while others have passed away and their collections have been sold.”

Yet some items remain valuable not because of the passion of fans but because of their scarcity. The Seattle Pilots, for instance, played one season in Seattle (1969) before being reincarnated as the Milwaukee Brewers. “The Pilots didn’t have a huge fan base. And there aren’t a tremendous amount of devotees out there,” begins Heffner. “But a uniform patch or a team-signed ball is rare, so it’s tremendously collectible."

Similarly, the Houston Colt .45s (re-named the Astros in 1965), “were a terrible team, but they had really neat uniforms with a pistol on the front so the uniforms are highly collectible,” advises Heffner.

For better or worse, the latest franchise to join the brotherhood of bygone teams—the Montreal Expos—doesn’t show the same kind of promise in terms of memorabilia. “Canada and baseball don’t go together,” opines Heffner, highlighting the fact that the Expos moved to Washington D.C. in 2005, and now operate as the Nationals.

Of course, for fans like Gabriel, Kent and Jordan, their lifelong devotion has never been about money or memorabilia. Their teams may not be in the box scores and the ballparks long gone, but their boys of summer never grow old.

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