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“As the years went by, [Ebbets Field’s] mystique only grew, as did the aura of the men who played there and the fans who adored them. … The Brooklyn Dodgers live on.”
Thus does narrator Liev Schreiber neatly summarize the history and demise of perhaps baseball’s most democratic and accursed team at the start of HBO’s two-hour documentary “Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush,” which premieres Wednesday night on the pay cable channel. And had he so desired, Schreiber could have added “… live on and on and on.”
In this 50th anniversary year of the Dodgers’ last season in Brooklyn, their dramatic story is being told anew in various and sundry fashion. And nobody has done or will do it better than HBO in the latest installment of its justly acclaimed “Sports of the 20th Century” series.
You need to be of a certain age to remember those marvelous Dodgers, but you need not be a New Yorker. From 1947, when they shattered baseball’s unwritten and unforgivable color barrier by bringing Jackie Robinson to the major leagues, until 1956, the Dodgers were never very far from the horsehide spotlight as their triumphs and travails captivated fans across the nation.
During those magical 10 seasons, the Dodgers won six pennants but nonetheless endured as a symbol of futility. They lost two other pennants on final-inning home runs, by Dick Sisler of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1950 and Bobby Thomson of the archrival New York Giants in 1951. And they lost five of six World Series encounters with the haughty New York Yankees, the first four in a row.
Only when an obscure young pitcher named Johnny Podres shut out the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1955 Series could Dodgers fans abandon their traditional mournful cry of “wait ‘til next year.” (When the Yankees again beat them in the 1956 Series, the lament was amended to “wait ‘til last year.”)
HBO covers all this with its customary electronic collage of archival films and talking heads, the latter including such ex-Dodgers as Podres, Carl Erskine and Duke Snider (plus Clem Labine, who died in March). The documentary opens with a longing, lingering look at Brooklyn scenes from the ‘40s and ‘50s as Frank Sinatra sings his haunting 1973 version of “There Used to be a Ballpark Right Here.”
Also told poignantly is the now familiar tale of how Branch Rickey defied tradition and the social customs of the time by making Robinson the first black man in the majors since 1884. As journalist Lester Rodney says, “That’s the intrinsic meaning of the Brooklyn Dodgers. … they introduced democracy. When you changed baseball, you changed America.”
Nowadays that might sound farfetched. But in the late ‘40s, in a largely segregated society, Robinson’s impact was enormous — and so was the abuse he suffered from many sources.
Author Jonathan Eig cites a team picture in which southerner Dixie Walker, a fan favorite, is looking away from the camera. Says Eig: “He was sending a message that he will be on the team but he will not be of the team as long as Jackie Robinson is on the team.”
Rickey traded Walker after that season.
Executive producers Ross Greenburg and Rick Bernstein devote much of the film’s latter stages toward analyzing the declining fan base and attendance that led to the franchise’s transfer to Los Angeles in 1958. Many older fans have long blamed the move on Walter O’Malley, the club’s avaricious and calculating owner, but the documentary casts New York City building and parks commissioner Robert Moses as at least an equal villain.
With ancient, tiny Ebbets Field virtually in ruins, O’Malley reportedly lobbied Moses for years to build a modern ballpark with adequate parking in Brooklyn at largely his own expense. Moses, a man even more devious than O’Malley, insisted such a facility be in neighboring Queens on the site where Shea Stadium now stands.
“But then they won’t be the Brooklyn Dodgers,” O’Malley replied. “If I’m going to move 30 miles, I might as well move 3,000 miles.”
Then it was that O’Malley began seriously entering discussions with Los Angeles officials eager to bring major league baseball to the West Coast. When O’Malley persuaded Giants owner Horace Stoneham to go west with him, the dastardly deed was all but done.
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