Stay It Ain’t So

Could New York have done more to keep the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants?

Omalley  Stoneham
Walter O’Malley, left, and Horace Stoneham. Image used by permission. Copyright 2009 Robert E. Murphy, Sterling Publishing Co.

On opening day in 1957, New York had three beloved major league baseball teams—the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. A year later, only the Yankees remained in New York, the Dodgers and Giants having departed for Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, leaving behind countless distraught fans.

In the intervening years, much of the blame for the loss of the teams—the Dodgers especially—has been assigned to Robert Moses, a New York “power broker” and one of the most polarizing figures in the history of urban planning. In the new book “After Many a Summer: The Passing of the Giants and Dodgers and a Golden Age in New York Baseball” (Union Square), author Robert E. Murphy offers a balanced and comprehensive account of the events that led to the departure of both clubs, one that assigns responsibility in an even-handed manner. 

In the following Failure interview, Murphy explains why he took on the ambitious task of telling the Dodgers-Giants departure story.

Why did you write “After Many a Summer”?
I wanted to provide a historically accurate account of the events that transpired. Others have written about [the Dodgers and Giants] and skewed things in one direction or the other. Although it’s hard to be completely fair if you were born in Brooklyn in 1949 as I was. I’ve always had it in my gut.

In the book you note that the standard interpretation of events bothers you.
What I have tried to do is revise the revisionists. The historical tendency has been to blame Robert Moses for the Dodgers leaving. In his biography of Moses [“The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” 1974], Robert Caro tries to establish that Moses was a brilliant man who started off on the side of the little guy and gradually got power hungry and became ruthless. I believe that when Neil Sullivan [author of “The Dodgers Move West”] went back to look at why the Dodgers left Brooklyn, he was very much under the influence of Caro and was all too willing, in my opinion, to blame Moses, without balancing all the people involved. Then another book was written [“The Last Good Season,” by Michael Shapiro], which again said it was Moses’ fault, and then HBO did a television special, which quoted Caro and Shapiro liberally. By 2007 everyone who had an opinion on the subject was convinced that Moses ran the Dodgers out of New York.

What role did Moses play?
Moses wasn’t as uncooperative and uncaring about the fate of the Dodgers as the above-named authors suggest. He simply didn’t feel it was appropriate to let [Dodgers owner] Walter O’Malley get exactly what he wanted for the purpose of getting rich. And I think he was right about that. The responsibility has to go back to O’Malley, who was single-minded about getting the best ballpark and making himself the most successful sports owner in America.

Could the city of New York have done more to keep the Dodgers and Giants?
You could make the case that the city of New York failed to keep the teams. But it was a battle between forces that were completely different. What Los Angeles was willing to do to steal a team from another city was very different from what New York was prepared to do to keep one.

But another way to look at it is that New York almost had to fail because what Los Angeles offered was so attractive that O’Malley—being the person that he was—would have to have taken it. What ultimately happened is that Moses put up his hands and said, “If that’s what we’re up against, what are we going to do? We can’t offer that. We’d be voted out of office.” No other city could do what Los Angeles did because its motivation was different. Los Angeles swapped 300 acres in downtown L.A. for a minor league ballpark that was on two or three acres. So in his own way, Moses was very principled. He said, “There are things we can do and things we can’t do. We are more than willing to work with you on things that we can do.”

Take me back to 1956-57. Did Dodgers fans recognize that their team was going to move?
I think most Dodgers fans had a fatalistic attitude. They recognized that O’Malley was going to go where he could make more money and that they were going to lose their team. In April 1957 they started the Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn committee, but for the most part they treated it like any other season. Attendance didn’t spike in that last year. I don’t think they felt it would make any difference.

Which team was missed more, the Giants or Dodgers?
The answer is the Dodgers. Being that they were the Brooklyn Dodgers they were more closely associated with their fans than other teams. They were the only thing that presented Brooklyn—by itself—on a national stage. But this is not to underestimate how much the Giants were missed.

Tell me about O’Malley’s dream park. Did he really envision a domed stadium in Brooklyn back in the early 1950s? 
Definitely. O’Malley was very forward looking and he envisioned things that other people in the game didn’t. He understood the value of a domed stadium, because he was concerned about the amount of money he lost from rained out ballgames. But as wise as O’Malley was about modern baseball facilities, maybe if he got the stadium he wanted—a domed stadium—that would have backfired, because there hasn’t been a domed stadium that has been an attractive place for baseball. On the other hand, a dome in Brooklyn might have been considered so revolutionary that it would have been considered a wonder of the world. 

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