On October 8, 1957, Brooklyn Dodgers publicist Arthur “Red” Patterson shocked the baseball world when he announced that the team was moving to Los Angeles.
Since that time, Brooklynites have clung to their hatred of then-owner Walter O’Malley. Some would go so far as to say that the Dodgers’ abrupt departure destroyed Brooklyn’s soul and caused the borough’s steep decline during the 1960s and 1970s.
Columbia University journalism professor Michael Shapiro thinks the O’Malley-bashers are wrong, and in his new book, “The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together” (Doubleday), he has amassed evidence to exonerate O’Malley. According to Shapiro, the real villain is New York City power broker Robert Moses, who rebuffed O’Malley’s efforts to build a new stadium in Brooklyn.
“It’s time to forgive O’Malley,” Shapiro said. “I’m not saying we have to like him, but he’s the wrong man.”
Shapiro, 50, grew up in Brooklyn on Flatbush Avenue in a two-story home with his grandparents and parents. Their block, he said, was “overwhelmingly Jewish, mostly older people of my grandparents’ generation, from Eastern Europe. It was unusual to see Christmas lights on my block.”
He attended East Midwood Jewish Center Day School and the Yeshiva of Flatbush. After graduating from Brooklyn College, he left New York City for the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. The geographic change shocked his belief system. “I grew up in an insular world,” he said, “within an area of about one square mile. That Brooklyn was parochial, not a particularly vibrant place. It wasn’t until I moved out of the city that I observed a Jewish community more aware of the world.”
After college, Shapiro worked as a reporter for New Jersey’s Bridgewater Courier-News, then for a suburban edition of the Chicago Tribune. His writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. He has written four nonfiction books.
All of 4 years old when the Dodgers left town, Shapiro spent his childhood and adolescence feeling that Brooklyn’s glory days had just eluded him. “By the time I was aware of the world, and of baseball, the Dodgers were gone,” he writes. “My only association with Ebbets Field was the day the older boys from down the block came home from its demolition.”
Returning to an earlier era, Shapiro said, “allowed me to resolve something for myself. I was trying to re-create this world that sounded too wonderful to be true — with tons of kids and everyone getting along, no matter if you were Jewish, Italian or Puerto Rican. It sounds too rosy by half, but in many ways it was true. There was this sense of neighborhood life, and I had missed it.”
Shapiro suggests that the glue that held Brooklyn together, from Brownsville to Brighton Beach, was the Dodgers (their nickname was shortened from the “Trolley Dodgers”). For much of their 81-year history, the Dodgers had been lovable losers — “Da Bums,” in the vernacular — and overshadowed by the dominant, smug Yankees.
The Dodgers’ misery ended in 1939, when baseball guru Larry MacPhail took over the club. In 1944, O’Malley, Branch Rickey and Pfizer Pharmaceutical’s president, John Smith, bought the Dodgers. Under Rickey’s watch, Ebbets Field was awash with wondrous talent, including shortstop Pee Wee Reese, center fielder-slugger Duke Snider, pitcher Carl Erskine and Jackie Robinson, the first black to play in the majors.
The team won National League pennants in 1947 (Robinson’s rookie year), 1949, 1952 and 1953 — only to be defeated by the Yankees in the World Series every year. The team finally broke through in 1955, beating the Yanks. Finally, the “Boys of Summer” had won it all.
“The Last Good Season” chronicles the 1956 campaign, when Brooklyn’s aging corps struggled to defend the title. (They won the pennant in a close race over the Milwaukee Braves, but lost the World Series to the Yankees and Don Larsen’s perfect game.) By then, O’Malley had bought out his partners and owned the team outright.
O’Malley was, first and foremost, a businessman. Notwithstanding the team’s success on the field, O’Malley was unhappy with the plummeting attendance at rundown Ebbets Field, which had opened in 1913.
Vowing to move to a new venue after the 1957 season, O’Malley labored to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn. “It was no secret that O’Malley wanted a new stadium,” Shapiro said. “What wasn’t so clear was how desperate he was to stay in Brooklyn.”
To do the deal, O’Malley required Moses’s help. Moses was not an elected official, but from the 1930s through the 1960s he physically shaped New York as, at various times, both planning and parks commissioner. Holding the power to condemn huge swaths of land for public purposes, Moses could have helped O’Malley acquire the necessary real estate. (O’Malley had already agreed to pay all construction costs.)
O’Malley approached Moses and floated several sites, including one in the center of Brooklyn, near the Fort Greene meat market. Shapiro believes that this was O’Malley’s best plan. “If he had been able to put the stadium at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic, be still my Brooklyn boy’s heart,” Shapiro said. “That would have been an amazing location: You could have driven there, you could have taken the subway or [Long Island] railroad, you could have walked.”
Instead, Moses offered compromises — including a site in Bedford-Stuyvesant — that O’Malley rejected. He also tried to persuade O’Malley to move the Dodgers to a new, publicly financed stadium in Queens. O’Malley rejected the offer because he wanted to own the facility.
As Moses diddled, Los Angeles politicians jumped into the fray. O’Malley had turned down their initial entreaties, but then they upped the ante: They would hand over 300 acres of prime real estate and build access roads. In Dodger Stadium, built for $10 million and opened in 1962, O’Malley created one of the finest baseball facilities — one still in use today.
In Los Angeles, one of Brooklyn’s few home-grown players developed into a superstar as Sandy Koufax helped lead the Dodgers to three World Series titles before retiring in 1966. “When Koufax refused to pitch on Yom Kippur [during the 1966 World Series], he became a huge hero among Jewish fans,” Shapiro said. “Imagine if he had done that in Brooklyn.”
Shapiro, who now lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and two children, notes that this story has a happy ending. In 2001, professional baseball returned to Brooklyn, when the Cyclones (a minor-league affiliate of the Mets) began play in Coney Island in a new, city-built stadium. Shapiro took his family to see a game, and his book ends with this experience: “A man behind us chanted, ‘Let’s Go Cyclones,’ and others took up the call,” he writes. “But then came an older man’s voice, yelling, ‘Let’s go Brooklyn.’ I looked around me and could at last feel what I had missed.”