Move west opens baseball to nation

Move west opens baseball to nation

Many older residents of Brooklyn, N.Y., will swear they were in the stands of Ebbets Field 50 years ago Monday to watch the Dodgers play the last game in their Flatbush home. In actuality, the Brooklyn Dodgers' final home game was witnessed by 6,702 customers amid 25,000 empty seats.

Although an official announcement didn't come for another fortnight, it was a foregone conclusion that the Dodgers had decided to leave their tiny, antiquated facility in Brooklyn and transfer the franchise to Los Angeles.

The Dodgers were going to Hollywood for the 1958 season, and Major League Baseball and Brooklyn would never be the same. The move that broke the hearts of thousands of Brooklyn fans triggered a new era in baseball, transforming the national pastime into a truly, coast-to-coast sport and opening doors to further expansion throughout North America.

"Think of it, for 50 years Major League Baseball didn't go beyond the Mississippi River, and now there are eight teams, the size of one league 50 years ago, west of the Rocky Mountains," former Dodgers general manager and San Diego Padres president Buzzie Bavasi said recently. "None of us at the time knew what to expect, but the Dodgers and the Giants going to the West Coast changed a lot of things in baseball."

The Giants, who had played in New York City since 1883, agreed to accompany the Dodgers to California and settled in San Francisco. Once a National League powerhouse and a World Series champion as late as 1954, by 1956 the Giants were playing to dwindling crowds at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan, while staring at them from across the Harlem River in the Bronx was the majestic splendor of Yankee Stadium.

The Giants' decision to leave New York actually predated that of the Dodgers, but it was Walter O'Malley who was chiefly responsible for both NL clubs in the nation's largest city to move from the Atlantic to the Pacific. O'Malley, the Dodgers' principal owner, convinced his Giants counterpart, Horace Stoneham, to inhabit California and leave in their wake a city whose aging infrastructure was unable to secure modern lodgings for their clubs.

Just as many city residents of the time were taking flight from the five boroughs into the growing suburban outer lands of Westchester, Long Island and New Jersey, the Dodgers and the Giants left their old digs behind for a promise of a brighter future in markets that would be their own, well, at least until the Los Angeles Angels and the Oakland Athletics arrived.

The American League's expansion into Southern California in 1961, and the transfer of the Kansas City A's to the Bay Area in 1968 were examples of how valued those territories had become in the years the Dodgers and Giants nourished the areas.

Expansion also came to New York. Almost from the moment the Dodgers and Giants headed west, a movement grew, largely from a New York attorney named Bill Shea, to bring a National League franchise to the city, which was finally achieved with the creation of the expansion Mets in 1962. That same year, Major League Baseball expanded into Texas with the Houston Colt .45s, renamed the Astros three years later when they moved into the sport's first enclosed facility, the Astrodome.

Before the decade was out, MLB added two more West Coast teams, in San Diego and Seattle, moved into the Deep South with the Braves leaving Milwaukee for Atlanta, and even ventured into Canada with the Montreal Expos. Taking a cue from the second-chance success in New York, baseball replaced teams that had moved from Milwaukee, Kansas City and Seattle and put second teams in Texas (the Arlington-based Rangers) and Canada (the Toronto Blue Jays). Washington, D.C., today has its third team, the Nationals.

How much of this would have happened anyway is open to conjecture, but who knows how things would have been different if O'Malley had been able to acquire the land he wanted in Brooklyn to build the ballpark he envisioned to replace Ebbets Field?

There were previous attempts to cultivate Los Angeles. Potential moves by the St. Louis Browns and Cleveland Indians were rejected by the AL for the same reason that almost thwarted O'Malley's efforts -- the belief that only one team on the West Coast would not be economically viable.

"The league turned us down at first, unless we could get another team to go with us," Bavasi said. "Even when our move was passed, there was still some resentment. The other owners thought it would be too expensive for their teams to travel to the West Coast."

Stoneham's decision to forego a planned move to Minneapolis where the Giants' Triple-A affiliate was then located and follow O'Malley to California was critical to the plan's acceptance. The Giants were committed to leaving New York. As Stoneham commented, "I feel sorry for the kids, but I haven't seen many of their fathers lately."

And yet in New York, Stoneham is barely remembered, while O'Malley, who died in 1979 at the age of 75, remains an object of scorn.

"Walter was not a baseball man," Bavasi said. "Walter was a businessman."

Baseball was O'Malley's business, however, and felt it fearfully in danger of significant profit losses if the Dodgers did not get a modern facility to replace Ebbets Field, which had a capacity of 32,000 and parking for 700 cars. The first known correspondence from O'Malley about a new stadium dates to October 1946, when he was the club's vice president and general counsel, four years before he purchased the controlling stock.

At issue was O'Malley's desire to build and operate his own stadium on land he hoped to obtain through eminent domain at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in downtown Brooklyn. It required the approval of Robert Moses, New York City's parks commissioner and the most powerful non-elected figure in the city.

Actually, O'Malley was a visionary. Brooklyn was changing with the migration to the suburbs. The site he wanted for the new park was adjacent to the Long Island Railroad station, which he felt was essential to get suburbanites to and from Brooklyn to see the Dodgers. The station required renovation, which proved a major obstacle.

Moses spent his career building roads and bridges for cars that would take people to the parks he had also constructed throughout the metropolitan area, particularly on Long Island. He didn't care about railways. Moses and the city pushed for a municipal property for the Dodgers, which O'Malley rejected out of hand.

"Walter wanted his own ballpark," Bavasi said. "He didn't want to be a tenant."

During this time, baseball's first franchise shift in 50 years gave O'Malley cause to think outside Brooklyn for the first time. The Boston Braves left New England to the Red Sox and moved to Milwaukee in 1953. Wisconsin welcomed the Braves with open arms and ticket buyers -- 1.8 million in '53 and more than 2 million in each of the next four years.

"The Braves' move to Milwaukee certainly got his attention," said Peter O'Malley, who succeeded his father as Dodgers president in 1970, until the family sold the team in 1998. "They started drawing 2 million people every year, and with improved revenues were becoming a very competitive club. My father felt it was necessary for the Dodgers to get a new stadium. He pushed for it in Brooklyn for a long time, about 10 years, and out of frustration began to look elsewhere."

Los Angeles renewed its efforts to attract a big league franchise in 1954. Two years later, while in New York to attend the World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers, Los Angeles County supervisor Kenneth Hahn met with Washington Senators owner Calvin Griffith at Toots Shor's, the popular watering hole frequented by sports and entertainment celebrities. Griffith, who later moved his team to the Twin Cities in 1961, was interested in what Los Angeles had to offer.

O'Malley got wind of this and had a three-word note delivered to Hahn that said, "Don't sign anything."

That was the beginning of O'Malley's seriousness in looking to Los Angeles. He had sold Ebbets Field and signed a three-year lease, then worked out a trade with Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley to acquire the territorial rights to Los Angeles, then site of the Cubs' Triple-A affiliate, in exchange for the Dodgers' farm club in Fort Worth, Texas. In addition, O'Malley scheduled seven Dodgers games each in 1956 and '57 at Roosevelt Stadium, a Minor League park in Jersey City, N.J., and purchased a twin-engine airplane for the team.

New York's response to all this was mostly silence. Moses wanted to build a 50,000 seat, municipal stadium on the site of the 1939-40 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, and offered to house the Dodgers there. O'Malley, by this time in serious negotiations with Los Angeles, declined. The Queens site later was used for the construction of Shea Stadium, the Mets' home since 1964.

"Robert Moses was not a bad guy," Peter O'Malley said. "He was a wise, brilliant man, much like my father. Moses had a vision of a municipal stadium at the World's Fair grounds in Flushing. My father was interested in building and operating a private stadium in Brooklyn, but couldn't get the land he needed."

"Moses took a bad rap," Bavasi said. "He just couldn't come up with 350 acres in downtown Brooklyn. He offered the property in Queens. Walter felt that if he had to move the Dodgers 30 miles, he may as well move them 3,000 miles. He felt that in Queens the team would still not be the Brooklyn Dodgers."

Interestingly, New York did not make the Queens proposal to the Giants, who announced their intention to move to San Francisco on Aug. 19, 1957, turning the Polo Grounds into a morgue. The Dodgers' decision to move to Los Angeles didn't come until Oct. 8, one year to the day after Don Larsen's perfect game against Brooklyn in the World Series.

But on that Tuesday night of Sept. 24, most everyone in Brooklyn knew they were going. Duke Snider, who had homered in his last at-bat the previous game, decided not to play because he said he wanted his last hit at Ebbets Field to be a home run. Left-hander Danny McDevitt pitched a five-hitter as the Dodgers beat the Pirates, 2-0.

Long after the game, Dave Anderson, who was then writing for the New York Journal American, and Bill Roeder of the New York World Telegram and Sun were the last two writers to exit the press box and make their way to the tiny elevator.

"Smallest elevator in the world; you could get about four people in it," recalled Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize winner who last week announced his retirement from the New York Times. "The only exit you could use that late after a game was the night watchman's door on the first-base side. It dawned on me that I could be the last reporter to leave Ebbets Field after a game, so as we got to the door, I said, 'After you, Bill.'

"He went ahead of me, so I was the last guy out. I never talked about it that much. Then when the Brooklyn Cyclones [the Mets' Class A affiliate] came to Coney Island, the Times wanted me to do a Brooklyn baseball column, so I wrote about that last night at Ebbets Field."

The papers Anderson and Roeder filed their stories to that night ceased publication years ago, and the team they wrote about ceased representing Brooklyn. Los Angeles won over O'Malley with a deal that gave him 350 acres in the Chavez Ravine section to build Dodger Stadium, which opened April 10, 1962. Until then, the Dodgers had to make due in a facility built not for baseball but for the 1932 Summer Olympics.

"It was quite a gamble when you think about it," Peter O'Malley said. "Remember, when he moved the team to Los Angeles he had no idea where they were going to play. He had obtained Wrigley Field, a Minor League park that was even smaller in capacity [19,000] than Ebbets Field. There were negotiations with the Memorial Coliseum and the Rose Bowl, but he didn't know when the team got there where they would play until Dodger Stadium was built."

Since the Rose Bowl in Pasadena was not within Los Angeles County limits, which National League president Warren Giles stipulated must be where the Dodgers played, the Coliseum became their home from 1958-61 with a configuration not altogether suited for baseball. The left-field line was only 250 feet from the plate, so a 42-foot-high screen netting was placed from the foul pole to left-center to avoid the embarrassment of cheap home runs.

According to Bavasi, not all of the Dodgers players were comfortable with the move.

"One problem was that a lot of players didn't like to fly," Bavasi said. "Don Newcombe would take the train home from St. Louis, Milwaukee or Chicago. Except for Duke Snider and Don Drysdale, who both grew up in California, I don't think any of our other players had ever been west of the Mississippi. It was still a novelty for people in the East to come to California.

"It was a very emotional situation for some players. Gil Hodges' family never came to Los Angeles, and he was a real family man. Carl Furillo wasn't happy. Brooklyn was still on their minds."

Meanwhile, Dodger Stadium was under construction. O'Malley was so impressed by the cleanliness of Disneyland, the amusement park that opened in Anaheim in 1955, that he insisted the same care be taken with the appearance of Dodger Stadium. Most New Yorkers who visit there are astonished to discover that Dodger Stadium is two years older than Shea Stadium.

In Brooklyn, nostalgia for the Dodgers remains a torch that may never be extinguished. The Dodgers were not the first to follow the Braves' departure from a multi-team market to another city. The Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles in 1954. The next year, the Athletics left Philadelphia for Kansas City, so why the focus on the Dodgers' abandonment?

Those franchises in Boston, St. Louis and Philadelphia were having hard times financially and had become second citizens in those cities. The Dodgers were different. They were profitable with a very loyal fan base. There was a connection between the community and its ballclub that was unique. The Dodgers were a main part of Brooklyn's national identity.

"Walter O'Malley was a businessman, who made a business decision," Anderson said. "The people of Brooklyn were deeply hurt by what we all found out by that move, that baseball was not really a game but a business."

Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.