Moving the Dodgers: Blame Moses or O’Malley?

HOWARD MEGDAL: I have heard all the revisionist arguments. I know what a difficult man Robert Moses was, thanks in ridiculously fantastic detail from Robert Caro. I understand getting the stadium he wanted was difficult, and that poor Walter O’Malley would have had to settle for free land and a free stadium in Queens.

It is still unconscionable that O’Malley moved the Dodgers clear across the country.

Yes, there was more money to be made in Los Angeles. But forgive me; if baseball enjoys an antitrust exemption, if it is, as the great A. Bartlett Giamatti put it, “a public trust”, then surely an owner has greater responsibility than to simply find the location with the greatest profit margin. Perhaps he shouldn’t be required to lose money.

But moving to Queens- effectively, becoming the Mets five years early- would hardly have doomed him to lose money. Indeed, the suburban exodus actually would have played to his advantage, with former Dodgers fans, now Mets fans, coming to his stadium from throughout the city, Westchester, Rockland, and obviously, Long Island. Even better, his attendance would have been boosted by the Giants leaving town for Minneapolis- their destination before O’Malley convinced Horace Stoneham to join him in California.

And I haven’t met a single Brooklyn Dodgers fan- not one- who would have stopped rooting for that team in Queens. Los Angeles, however, made rooting for the Dodgers a logistical impossibility. O’Malley took their team.

Had the Dodgers stayed at the Ebbets Field location, of course, those fans could surely have joined forces with their National League brethren as well. And the Dodgers were hardly suffering, attendance-wise, as the end of their time in Brooklyn approached. As late as 1956, with O’Malley speaking repeatedly about how dilapidated Ebbets Field was, calling the surrounding neighborhood unsafe, the Dodgers still ranked second in the National League in attendance, behind only the Milwaukee Braves.

So my heart doesn’t bleed for Walter O’Malley. If your sole criteria in absolving him is that a city leader was also stubborn, or that he made more money in Los Angeles than the scads of money he was set to make in New York, then feel free to consider O’Malley an unjustly vilified man.

But in my house, the idea that O’Malley made it to the Hall of Fame at all, let alone before Gil Hodges, is a national travesty.

JASON CLINKSCALES: Howard carries on an understandable grievance on behalf of those before us who saw Dem Bums as the progressive, community-knit team that wore their colors proudly for the borough. However, over fifty years after the Brooklyn Dodgers went west with Harlem’s New York Giants, the idea of Walter O’Malley’s greed and only his greed being the reason for the move is a bit unfair as New York City’s “master builder”, construction czar Robert Moses truly did play a significant role.

Michael D’Antonio’s excellent read, Forever Blue, is the most detailed and most likely in retrospect, honest book that discusses the move. It’s never going to give someone like Pete Hamill (or Howard) any sympathy for O’Malley, but it’s bold enough to tell the other side of the story in the face of a decades-long controversy. However, you probably don’t need the book to understand that this story is part urban studies, part Greek tragedy; all resulting in Vin Scully as the voice of the Los Angeles, not Brooklyn Dodgers today.

Brooklyn, as the rest of New York City, was changing before the Dodgers left for Los Angeles. It was changing thanks to the highways that helped develop new suburban communities and the second Great Migration that led to the sociological phenomenon known as white flight. The new black and Latino residents could have become the growth target of the Dodgers fan base, however, they did not have the economic prowess yet as they came to New York for work and a new start at life. The Dodgers were losing money in a dilapidated Ebbets Field because established fans were not going to drive to a stadium with limited parking and public transportation was not very accessible at the time.

O’Malley was prepared to build a privately-funded domed stadium on Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, but needed Moses to part the proverbial sea of bureaucratic red tape to declare eminent domain on the essentially empty lot. Moses instead tried to push him into an empty land in Flushing Meadows in Queens as he had a vision for what to do with Flatbush and Atlantic. Without going into much detail, several civic leaders in Los Angeles put the bug in O’Malley’s ear; one he swatted away less and less as Moses became more and more inflexible.

The land O’Malley wanted had been untouched for years before and remains a battleground to this day as the New Jersey Nets have fought for the last six years to build the kind of hideously designed Barclays Center. We’re talking about an almost seventy year-old quagmire in the most populated borough of the largest metropolis in the United States.

Howard does make a point that O’Malley wouldn’t have lost a ton of greenback if he took up the Flushing Meadows stadium… over time. Initially, it would have been hell, considering that the same factors that harmed the franchise in Brooklyn wouldn’t have changed much in Queens. Add the idea of how parochial many fans were about the city’s most boastful borough, the Queens Dodgers may have not had the same ring to it. However, O’Malley would have never had a rainout, would have ample parking spaces and better public transportation because of both the city’s subway and Long Island Railroad.

Yet, it wasn’t Brooklyn.

What exactly did Moses have planned for that space on Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues? Seemingly nothing unless he dreamt of a basketball team as the centerpiece of a luxurious commercial and residential development before the Nets were even born.

It must be understood was at least one owner was going to take his team to California before the 1950s concluded. Baseball needed new life; new fans and new revenues in order to not only compete with other entertainment, but to take advantage of the changes in American society. Western expansion may have been ideal for its owners, but with teams struggling in existing markets at the time, it wouldn’t have exactly been prudent to build new franchises in new locales from scratch if there was nothing settled in old ones. The lack of brouhaha about the first Washington Senators moving to Minneapolis (becoming the Twins), the Boston Braves to Milwaukee or the New York Giants moving to San Francisco came from poor management and/or being unable to compete with the other MLB ticket in town.

The Dodgers were an excellently-operated organization and beloved, even in lean years, by fans, media and of course, politicians who could have threw a bone to O’Malley, but were rendered useless by Moses. Yet, their attendance actually declined for years, even in the World Series-clinching 1955 season. What didn’t help matters was seeing the Braves, a woeful franchise in Boston that grabbed short-lived success in Milwaukee, atop the attendance charts.

Look, Walter O’Malley is an anathema to the Brooklyn Dodgers faithful, but having him sit at the table with Stalin and Hitler still seems like a bit much. Yes, he was a businessman who made a calculated decision to uproot one of the few things that could ever bring thousands of people together for two-plus hours a day. Yet, O’Malley saw many of those people leave and not come back. He saw that no matter his efforts – several which included being the first team with a television contract – Ebbets Field couldn’t be saved after years of mismanagement before he joined the Dodgers. He also found that Robert Moses was not a Brooklyn Dodgers fan at heart.

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