Not so long ago, New York City had three baseball teams: The Dodgers, the Giants and the Yankees. Competition was fierce and team alliances were set in stone. But then, in the course of one year, only one remained: the others left town.
The end result is well known—in 1957, the Brooklyn Dodgers decamped to Los Angeles, becoming the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team now in the World Series. The Giants also skulked away to San Francisco but without much hand wringing from fans or sports columnists or impassioned correspondence to the Mayor.
Fingers have been pointed. Names have been called. Bitter jokes made. That got us to wondering whether the Municipal Archives collection of records from the administration of Mayor Robert Wagner might contain any interesting documentation. And indeed it did—boxes of correspondence from bigwigs like Robert Moses and from regular fans of “Dem Bums” the loving nickname for the team.
There are postcards, multiple petitions, telegrams, typed missives and hand scrawled letters. This constituent correspondence makes up the bulk of the files but interspersed are related materials from government agencies. At least 40% of the constituent correspondence came from women. Perhaps that’s because The Dodgers gave women free admittance at Saturday home games in 1956 and 1957? Most writers supported the Dodgers remaining in Brooklyn but some did not.
The Mayor’s correspondence includes copies of letters sent to and from Robert Moses and his vice chair, George V. McLaughlin. These merit a separate review to trace the machinations that led to the loss of the Dodgers and eventual launch of the Mets.
Lots of people know the Brooklyn Dodgers as the team that integrated baseball by hiring the legendary Jackie Robinson in 1945 to the eternal credit of general manager Branch Rickey. That was not a one shot deal. The team went on, in 1954, to field baseball’s first majority black lineup in a game against Milwaukee. But, for fans of the Dodgers these were a few great episodes in a long-running story of the upstart team. The 1940s and 50s’ teams had a great run—the second most wins of any baseball team, seven-time pennant winners, starting in 1941, World Series champions in 1955 and legendary players. Their stadium, in contrast, was in disrepair.
Ebbets Field, the home of the Dodgers, opened with an exhibition game against the New York Yankees on April 5, 1913. By 1953, the ballpark was outmoded and owner Walter O’ Malley was searching for an alternative site and larger park. Strapped for cash, the City was reluctant to fund construction of a new stadium. Instead, they created committees and special authorities. Legislation establishing a Sports Center Authority with the power to issue bonds was signed into law in 1956 by Governor W. Averell Harriman, paving the way for a new stadium. The Board of Estimate named a special four-person committee including the Brooklyn Borough President and the Deputy Mayor to examine the proposition of building a stadium at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. Studies were conducted. Hopes were raised. Behind the scenes, Robert Moses schemed. And the Mayor’s correspondence reflects it all.
One writer, who submitted petitions signed by “fans of all different faiths, not only Dodger rooters but also Giant and Yankee ones” suggested in her letter that keeping the team in Brooklyn would combat juvenile delinquency. “Think of the many lives that are saved during the summer,” she wrote. “Many youngsters go to a ball game and are kept off the streets this way.” Another writer echoed that and also pointed out that the Dodgers exemplified how “everyone works together regardless of race or color.”
Many were heartfelt pleas.
The business community was well-represented. Many writers pointed to the revenue at stores, restaurants and hotels generated by sports events and the influx of tourism.
Lots of the letters took a tone, such as: “I don’t know what sort of baseball fan you are but how can you just stand by and let the Dodgers move to Los Angeles?” wrote Barbara Englert. A Brooklyn-centric chauvinism was well represented as was a certain New York “seen it all” cynicism. “I am writing this letter as a loyal Brooklynite, New Yorker and Democrat,” one letter began. “I am putting them all together because they go together like coffee and cream with sugar).” Warning that the City was losing two teams the writer went on, “Both the Dodgers and the Giants need new ball parks. They laid it all in your lap. Let’s see you as the great mayor of the greatest city can do something to get the Board of Estimate on the move. If not, New York will become the laughing stock of the country sportswise. If Milwaukee, Kansas City, etc. can do it why can’t we.” Citing five topics to cover in her letter: the Brooklyn Dodgers, Walter O’Malley, Politicians, Robert Moses and Brooklyn, Miss Francis Morabito opined, “The politicians will make a big show of “trying” to do something but will be oh so unsuccessful!”
One supporter even penned a ditty:
The site for the new stadium favored by fans and O’Malley was at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. O’Malley went so far as to offer $6 million dollars for construction and bring on famed architect Norman bel Geddes and futurist Buckminster Fuller who proposed a domed stadium for the site.
In 1957, as circumstances became clearer, Dan Daniel, the legendary sports writer for the New York Telegram and the Sporting News penned a column titled, Mr. Mayor, Dodgers not Fooling, in which he offered an open letter to Mayor Wagner that began, “Dear Bob:” Taking the Mayor and the Board of Estimate to task for blocking construction of the Brooklyn Stadium based on the belief that Dodgers president Walter O’Malley was bluffing he lamented that “New York City, which used to be the sports capital of the world, has been reduced to a second-rate power.”
No less an institution than the Association of Brooklyn Settlements chimed in to support construction of the stadium at the Atlantic Avenue site. “We ask you and the City of New York to live up to your commitments regarding the Brooklyn Sports Center Authority and proceed with the construction of the Brooklyn Stadium. We beg you to set up the machinery for “an overall community rehabilitation and improvement project looking to the construction of badly needed low rental housing.”
The letter also noted, “Incidentally, we and many other social welfare organizations are grateful to them for their help, for their generous gifts of tickets which can be used for those who subscribe to our worthy causes. “
The Reverend John B. O’Mara, pastor of Our Lady of Solace church proposed locating the ballpark in Coney Island, in a telegram to Moses, opining that the location would get sports fan “out from the congested city” and pointing out that abundant land was available at reasonable cost. Moses rejected the suggestion, claiming that the Luna Park site was required for housing and doubting the practicality of Coney Island as a location. Another group vying for the stadium was the Fifth Avenue Merchants and Civic Association of Bay Ridge. Touting excellent transportation facilities including access via the subway, the Belt Parkway and other roads, the association promised the site could accommodate 20,000 cars. Additional suggestions included Fort Greene Park, Gerristen Beach, and Staten Island. The alternative proposed by City Council President Abe Stark, however generated a firestorm. He suggested that the Parade Grounds in Prospect Park be converted from the ball fields for youth into the ballpark for professionals. Yowls of displeasure from the coaches, parents and youth ensued.
Another proposition was gathered via an intermediary from Frank Lloyd Wright who suggested the Dodgers move to the upper west side. The proposal suggested a roofed, air conditioned stadium that would seat 280,000!
However, the Goliath of development, Robert Moses ensconced in Randall’s Island and serving as the City Construction Co-Ordinator, the Commissioner of Parks and the head of the TriBorough Bridge Authority, among other titles, had a different site in mind: Flushing Meadows Park. He wrote a lengthy analysis of the Brooklyn and Queens sites in Sports Illustrated. And he worked feverishly to lure another National League team to the City during the period when he ostensibly was supporting the effort to retain the Dodgers (and Giants).
Interestingly enough, three of these locations now house sports teams. The Brooklyn Nets are at Atlantic Avenue, the New York Mets occupy Flushing Meadows and their minor league team, The Brooklyn Cyclones take the field in a beautiful stadium with a magnificent view in Coney Island.
There were opponents to a new taxpayer-funded Dodger Stadium, too. Citing high taxes and the escalating price of fuel oil, Walter Lowry of Jackson Heights wrote, “This is no time to subsidize stadium for Brooklyn Dodgers.” A resident on Lafayette Avenue, just up the way from the proposed site questioned,” Is it just that thousands of people should be made homeless so others can have more comfort to enjoy watching their favorite sport?” The president of the New York Central Railroad sent a telegram opposing the approval of a $100,000 study to help find a new site for the Dodgers. And the Taxpayers from the Borough of Queens also opposed the “handout” as did an irate Brooklynite.
By 1957, the fans were getting desperate as O’Malley was negotiating with Los Angeles. It was an election year, a fact that they pointed out to the Mayor.
In the end, none of it mattered. Los Angeles didn’t dither. They offered to build a stadium for the Dodgers and agreed upon a site. The team played their last game at home in September, 1957, beating the Pittsburg Pirates. In 1958, the legendary bums moved west, winning the World Series again the following year.