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In ‘57, final days of summer moved New York

- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2007

One by one, owners of the six other teams cast their votes at the National League's midseason meetings in Chicago: Phil Wrigley of the Cubs, Gussie Busch of the Cardinals, Lou Perini of the Braves, Bob Carpenter of the Phillies, Powel Crosley of the Reds and John Galbreath of the Pirates.

The vote was unanimous, and so Walter O'Malley of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Horace Stoneham of the New York Giants had permission to move their ballclubs to the West Coast.

The date was May 28, 1957, 50 years ago today, and to some the idea was unthinkable. New York without National League baseball? Without the Giants of John McGraw and the Dodgers of Jackie Robinson? Without the most intense rivalry in all sports?

It seemed like a dream, a nightmare to many. But although O'Malley and Stoneham claimed it was far from definite that their teams would move -- after all, they still had four months of bills to pay in what later would be called the Big Apple -- the deed essentially was done. And that September it became official.

O'Malley, the Dodgers' devious boss, was responsible. For years he had demanded that New York build him a huge stadium in Brooklyn to replace decaying, 33,000-seat Ebbets Field, making impossible demands of Mayor Robert Wagner and parks commissioner Robert Moses. Finally, Moses agreed to let him have "a nice parcel of land" in Queens.

"But then they won't be the Brooklyn Dodgers," said O'Malley, shedding crocodile tears.

In truth, O'Malley had no intention of staying, even though the Dodgers were the second-most profitable team in the league behind the Milwaukee Braves, who had cashed in big after abandoning Boston. The vast Los Angeles area had only one major professional sports team, the NFL's Rams, and was sure to be a baseball hotbed.

Besides, the concept of teams moving no longer was foreign in baseball. The Braves had moved in 1953, the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore in 1954 and the Philadelphia Athletics to Kansas City in 1955 -- the game's first franchise shifts since 1903. Clearly, tradition was taking a beating from the promise of untold riches elsewhere.

Before asking permission to move, O'Malley set the stage. First, he scheduled seven "home" games in Jersey City for each of the 1956 and 1957 seasons, dropping a broad hint that he wanted a new stadium or else. Second, he bought the Class AAA Pacific Coast League's Los Angeles franchise from Wrigley, giving him rights to that area. Then he persuaded Stoneham to move west with him, a vital factor because the distance to the Coast made it imprudent for visiting clubs to play only one series a visit there.

The selling job wasn't hard. Stoneham, a heavy drinker, was no match for the smooth-talking O'Malley. Though both clubs had decaying parks in declining neighborhoods -- Ebbets Field in downtown Brooklyn, the Giants' Polo Grounds in Harlem -- their attendance figures varied widely. Despite slipping to third place after winning six pennants in 10 years, the Dodgers drew 1,028,258 in 1957, not far below the 1,213,162 attracted by the 1956 NL champions.

For the Giants, the situation was much direr. After drawing 1,155,067 during the pennant-winning season of 1954, the club skidded precipitously to 629,179 in 1956 and 653,923 in 1957. Understandably, Stoneham was more than willing to seek a new home.

"I had intended to move out of New York even before I knew Mr. O'Malley was intending to move," Stoneham told author Peter Golenbock. "I had intended to go to Minneapolis. We had a [Class AAA] ballclub there, and so I had the rights to the area. ... And then Walter called up and said, 'Why don't we go to the Far West together?' "

Though longtime Giants fans (including John McGraw's widow) were stunned, the greater gloom settled over Brooklyn. For years, a love affair had existed between the Dodgers and their boisterous fans. And to many others around the country the Dodgers were Brooklyn, particularly after they brought integration to the major leagues with Robinson in 1957.

How sadly did Dodgers fans mourn as the 1957 season proceeded inexorably to its close? Broadcaster Larry King, a Brooklynite to the core, likes to tell how he and a friend decided to write down jointly the names of the three evilest men in history. When they compared their lists, they were identical.

Hitler. Stalin. O'Malley.

But then and now, too many owners put profits ahead of loyalty. The National League magnates of 1957 were not stupid. They could envision and even taste the greater profits visiting teams would accrue in 1958, even with the transplanted teams playing in temporary homes (the Dodgers in the L.A. Coliseum, the Giants in minor league Seals Stadium). So they voted without guilty consciences. And then both O'Malley and Stoneham talked from both sides of their mouths:

O'Malley: "All I can say now is that this move opens the door for exploration of further possibilities."

Stoneham: "At this time, I wouldn't say that we would go."

It was a double dose of baloney.

Fortunately for our memories, many of the players involved felt badly for their abandoned fans. One of them was Duke Snider, the Dodgers' classy center fielder. Although he was a native Californian, Snider didn't want to change venues.

"It was an open secret [during the 1957 season] that the Dodgers were moving," Snider wrote in "The Duke of Flatbush," his 1988 autobiography. "The people of Brooklyn had become more than just neighbors. They were like family, and the thought of leaving them was a sad one. ... Worst of all, there would be no more Ebbets Field. ... No more fans screaming at 'Dem Bums' and calling my roommate [Carl Erskine] 'Oisk' and me 'Dook.' "

Too bad and tough luck. The Dodgers and Giants were going. And in the final days of that dark September, they would be going, going, gone.