Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Brooklyn Dodgers Almost Stayed

O'Malley vs. Moses: Dodgers Leave New York

Children in Brooklyn learned to hate Walter O'Malley. Their hatred was dark and personal, for O'Malley had ruined their lives. He had taken the Dodgers away to Los Angeles before many had gotten a chance to see them, and follow them, and love them.

After O'Malley abandoned Brooklyn, many grew up believing that if he not done this terrible thing, Brooklyn would have been a better place. O'Malley was not just any villain. He was Brooklyn's villain. He was the man Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield placed in their own triumvirate of evil, along with Hitler and Stalin. But, as people began to learn more about O'Malley and about the circumstances of the Dodger's departure, they began to discover that perhaps, perhaps -- Pete and Jack notwithstanding -- Brooklyn's hatred was misplaced.

"Could Brooklynites have been hating the wrong man all these years?" - asks Michael Shapiro, author of The Last Good Season in a New York Times article.

Although the team was doing well, by the 1950s Ebbets Field was deteriorating. The plumbing was horrible, and the walkways sometimes smelled like urine. Over the years, seats had been added to increase the capacity of the park, which caused crowding. The fans were so close to the field that they could talk to the outfielders, and so close to each other that it was possible to hear almost anything said in any part of the ballpark.

The condition of the stadium, along with the growing popularity of television and radio, hurt attendance at Ebbets Field. Even during the Dodger's 1955 championship year, Ebbets Field averaged only 13,400 fans per game, the lowest level since 1945. Another factor that was blamed for causing the drop in attendance was racial tension. When Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, many African-Americans came to see him play. Some felt that this increased tensions in the ballpark, and drove families away.

However, on the other side of town, the New York Yankees were drawing huge crowds in their ballpark. Yankee Stadium, in the south Bronx, was in a location riddled with even more racial conflict than Brooklyn.

The real issue was access. Yankee Stadium is easily accessible by subway or highway. Yankee Stadium also has plentiful and convenient parking for its fans. Ebbets Field, on the other hand, was not easy to get to for the many who had moved from Brooklyn to Long Island after World War II, and there was little parking.

Owner Walter O'Malley decided the Dodgers needed a new stadium. In 1952, he invited industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes to help design a new stadium to replace Ebbets Field. The New York Times described his plans as being "a grandiose order."

They included "a retractable roof; foam rubber seats; heated in cold weather; a 7,000 car garage from which fans can proceed directly into the ballpark; hot dog vending machines, providing dogs with mustard, positioned throughout the stadium; a new lighting system minus the existing steel towers; and instead of grass, a field covered in a synthetic substance which could be painted any color."

The project was derisively called "O'Malley's Pleasure Dome." O'Malley had the money to pay for the ballpark, but he needed a location from the city in which to put it. He had a site in mind: the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. But obtaining it required the help of Robert Moses, one of the most powerful men in the city. Walter O'Malley needed his help if the Dodgers were to stay in Brooklyn.

Robert Moses

The land O'Malley wanted for the new stadium -- at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues -- was part of a proposed redevelopment project a little over a mile from Ebbets Field. It was currently occupied by a Long Island Rail Road Depot, Fort Greene Market, and number of other small businesses.

The land was too expensive for O'Malley to buy himself. He needed the condemnation power that Washington had granted Moses under Title I of the Federal Housing Act. Moses, as Slum Clearance Commissioner, had the power to determine where new housing would replace tenement housing, and where school, parks, hospitals, and libraries would go. The Federal Housing Act was intended to eliminate urban slums by giving local agency funds to purchase property and sell it to conform to a larger "public purpose."

So O'Malley turned to Moses, asking him to sell him the Atlantic-Flatbush site under Title I. Moses, however, replied that the ballpark was not a Title I project, and did not fit under the category of for a larger "public purpose." Moses had the ability to make the stadium a Title I project and did not.

However, Moses did not reject the proposal because he did not feel that it fell under Title I, but because he simply did not care about Brooklyn or the Dodgers. Moses saw Brooklyn as a single borough in a vast city, and he cared little about spectator sports. He was more interested in creating more parks for picnicking and swimming, roads to travel on, and public housing.

In January of 1957, Walter O'Malley issued an ultimatum: "Unless something is done in six months, I will have to make other arrangements. There is still a short time left before we could be forced to take an irrevocable step to commit the Dodgers elsewhere."

For more than four years, O'Malley had pursued Robert Moses, only to be frustrated time and time again. Moses truly did not want the Dodgers in Brooklyn. His vision was to have the Dodgers play at a city-owned stadium in Flushing Meadows, Queens. O'Malley moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. Ironically, the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues in Brooklyn, where O'Malley dreamed of building his stadium, still stands undeveloped.


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