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Documentary Review: "Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush"
2007-07-11 23:17
by Bob Timmermann

I’ve often wondered if the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1940s and 1950s truly existed. Fans from Brooklyn speak of the team in a manner ascribing them with qualities that extended well beyond the confines of Ebbets Field.

They are referred to not just in terms of civic pride, but also almost with the same fanatical devotion as the most zealot adherents to any major religion. HBO’s documentary “Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush,” skirts the edges of this view of Brooklyn Dodger fandom, but manages to bring some voices of reason and reality to provide a semblance of balance.



It seemed to me that if you looked on a map of the United States in 1949, you would find a dot indicating where Brooklyn was. But I often wonder where this “Brooklyn” described in the documentary was. The former residents of the city interviewed in the film make their old home out to be a place where everyone’s troubles went away and people of all races were united by their love of the Dodgers, which was cemented by the signing of Jackie Robinson.

But competing forces endanger the idyllic world of “Brooklyn”. One on hand, there is the increasing suburbanization of the New York area, sending most of the Dodgers fan base further out into Long Island. And on the other hand, there is Walter O’Malley, the man who cares not about the Dodgers and their fans, but seemingly just about making a buck. Or in O’Malley’s case, a lot of bucks.

And then there is the one force that cannot be stopped: Robert Moses, a man who held so many government positions in the New York area in the 1950s, that I’m hard pressed to figure out what title he had at the time.

The first 90 minutes traces the Dodgers history through 1955. Various Brooklynites speak at length about how their lives revolved around the Dodgers. Some are eloquent and some are quite annoying, especially comedian Pat Cooper and CNN host Larry King. I rolled my eyes each time they appeared on screen as they just recited the same tired jokes or remarks about Brooklyn.

For me, the best part of the documentary was the examination of the 1955 World Series and especially Johnny Podres’ recollection of Game 7. Watching Sandy Amoros’ catch (and ensuing double play) sent chills down my spine as it was described. And Thomas Oliphant saying that before Elston Howard what would be the final pitch of the Series that his father said just one word all game: “Changeup.” And it was a changeup that Howard hit to ground out to Pee Wee Reese to end the game.

But the 1955 World Series win just covered over the problems the Dodgers and O’Malley were facing. They had an old stadium. O’Malley had a place in mind to build a new stadium in Brooklyn, but need the approval of the seemingly omnipotent Moses to get the land. Moses said no, and O’Malley started looking around for a new home. And I’m not spoiling the ending here, but that place ended up being Los Angeles.

It was telling who was and was not interviewed. Peter O’Malley spoke in defense of his father. Buzzie Bavasi, who got his start under Branch Rickey, was not quite as supportive and viewed Walter O’Malley as more of a businessman than a baseball man. Carl Erskine, Duke Snider, and the late Clem Labine spoke for Brooklyn players. But two major figures in Dodger history at the time: Vin Scully and Don Newcombe are not heard from. And Scully isn’t even heard at all.

One problem this film had for me is that I already knew the story. So I wanted to watch and learn something new. But that would have to be even more tales of backroom deals and maneuvering to see where the Dodgers would end up playing. But that would probably make for a pretty dull film. For many people, the Brooklyn Dodgers are nothing more than a few newsreel images. And people want to watch athletes, not owners for the most part.

This film also reminded me of an earlier HBO sports documentary about John Wooden and UCLA basketball “The UCLA Dynasty.” The film showed Wooden and UCLA as not just a successful basketball program, but also as some special dynamic force that brought the UCLA campus together amidst the turmoil of the 1960s. That gave Wooden and his UCLA teams credit for a lot more than what they actually accomplished. Couldn’t they just be a series of good basketball teams?

The Brooklyn Dodgers were a successful and profitable baseball franchise. But they weren’t as profitable as its owner wanted them to be. And to this end, first the owner got rid of a fairly profligate front office executive in Branch Rickey and then ultimately moved his team to another city where he could make even more money.

Just what made the Dodgers so beloved in Brooklyn or at least create the perception that they were the most beloved sports franchise of all time? I found the documentary to hand out mostly platitudes about the topic. Did the residents of Brooklyn have such a dismal life that once the Dodgers left town, they had nothing to live for? I doubt that. The problems of Brooklyn in the 1950s were far deeper than just one baseball team moving to Los Angeles. But that might not make a very interesting movie either.

2007-07-12 05:42:53
1.   Alex Belth
"Did the residents of Brooklyn have such a dismal life that once the Dodgers left town, they had nothing to live for?"

Um, kind of. I actually can't say for sure because I wasn't alive and my family--although they were die-hard Dodger fans--were lived in Manhattan (my grandfather did live in Borough Park when he was a kid but he, along with many others from his generation, was a Giants fan, go figure). I think what the documentary showed was that the Dodgers were something that people in Brooklyn rallied around, and, after Robinson, even people around the country rallied around. But by the mid-fifties, the old families were leaving Brooklyn. So the landscape of who lived in Brooklyn started to radically change. The Brooklyn Eagle folded, which, as they mention, was no small deal either.

There is a lot of romanticism about Brooklyn. They are the proud underdogs on the five boroughs--at least they were then; now Brooklyn has become very much like Manhattan in many ways. I think when old Brooklnites lament the loss of the Dodgers they are really lamenting the loss of their childhood, of what made their generation unique.

Hey, you can't go home again, right?

2007-07-12 06:45:21
2.   Murray
I think you're onto something, Alex, when you say that people lament the loss of their childhood more than anything else when they describe Brooklyn's relationship with the Dodgers. If you force an old-time Brooklynite to explain how life in Borough Park differed from life in Hell's Kitchen, just about the only answer you'll hear involves the Dodgers. They played the same street games, listened to the same radio stations and read the same newspapers. Their schools generally were the same and there was little variation in the local cuisine. Some of the local bakeries and breweries might have been different, and sure, residents of Yorkville probably didn't read the Eagle or the Long Island Press. Everything else about the experience is the same.

With that being said, however, as a New Yorker who grew up Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, to the extent I feel any nostalgic passion about a baseball team that moved out of Brooklyn twelve years before I was born, it's pride that the breaking of the color line in 1947 happened specifically in Brooklyn and New York in general. The environment was right for it, pushed along by the city's role as a media capital, and Brooklyn embraced those Dodgers as much their 1941 pennant winners.

I often wonder whether the results would have been the same had the Robinson Dodgers been unsuccessful. The Giants had Willie Mays and Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson, but the last nostalgic Giant fan was Mrs. Payson.

2007-07-12 06:54:10
3.   Alex Belth
I think you are right about Robinson being a big part of the Dodgers emotional, and, now, historical, appeal.

By the way, I also liked the stuff on Robert Moses in the documentary. That's very compelling stuff.

Funny you should mention the Giants. I get together with a (growing) group of old New York Giants fans two or three times a year. These old guys are great, a lot of characters, and they bring old scorecards, photographs and other memorabilia. One of the guys lives in my building. His name is Henry and his father used to work in the undergarment business. He'd hook the players up with undergarments for themselves as well as for the players' wives or girlfriends. Henry's father looks a bit like Jon Lovitz, and Henry has a photo album with pictures of his father with Mays, Irvin, Jackie etc.

We're meeting tonight again. Cait Murphy, who wrote a new book about 1908, is going to be there.

2007-07-12 07:28:55
4.   Raf
It seems to me that of the 3 teams of "The Era" the Giants were the ones that are "forgotten." A shame, really.

I haven't caught the documentary (don't have HBO), but I'd like to see it, if only to see what Robert Moses has to say. It's mindboggling, when you see how much control he had back then.

I had brought this up over @ DT; according to Bill Veeck in "Veeck as in Wreck," O'Malley was looking to move the Dodgers out of Brooklyn when he saw the success Lou Perini was having with the Milwaukee Braves. Can't really say that I blame him; he was first and foremost a businessman. AFAICT, Brooklyn never stood a chance to retain the Dodgers. Even if (NYC Mayor Robert) Wagner & Moses had given O'Malley the patch of land he wanted at Atlantic & Flatbush (could you imagine a ballpark there today?), it probably would not have been enough.

The Dodgers move west is a fascinating topic, one I can never get enough of, no matter how much I read, see or hear on the topic.

2007-07-12 07:33:38
5.   Bob Timmermann
You might want to read Henry Fetter's "Taking on the Yankees", which presents a much different view of why O'Malley moved the Dodgers than Michael Shapiro. Fetter writes mainly about the Yankees, but also about their principal rivals.

The documentary had a lot of Shapiro in it. Shapiro's book is called "The Last Good Season."

2007-07-12 07:50:13
6.   Raf
5 Ok, I'll check it out. I wish there were more reviews on amazon, but I'll take what I can get. Guess I'll check it out of my local library. Same goes for Shapiro's book.

I'm also due for a re-reading of Neil Sullivan's "The Dodgers Move West," which got me hooked on the subject.

2007-07-12 08:13:23
7.   Jon Weisman
"The Last Good Season" review from Dodger Thoughts:

2007-07-12 09:49:15
8.   Philip Michaels
"The Dodgers Move West" is a pretty interesting take on the whole subject. The author is a professor of public administration and, thus, avoids some of the more romanticized aspects of the story to focus on the urban planning and public policy issues. Plus, it's refreshing to read a book about the Brooklyn Dodgers in which Walter O'Malley is not portrayed as Satan's favorite baseball executive.
2007-07-12 11:28:06
9.   mbtn01
I enjoyed Shapiro's book quite a bit, and the documentary. Contrast his take from the "7th ring of Hades alongside Hitler" remarks from some of the other commentators in that series.
2007-07-12 11:34:49
10.   Jay Jaffe
I'll second (or third) the recommendation of "The Dodgers Move West." It's a very evenhanded take on the subject that strips out the emotional aspects to show that for whatever Walter O'Malley's power, resources, and desires, he was significantly outgunned by Robert Moses. The book can be a bit dry, but its facts provide a welcome antidote to the weepy nostalgia and the Hitler comparisons.
2007-07-12 15:30:22
11.   Xeifrank
Bob, are you going to the SABR convention at the end of the month. It's in your favorite city. vr, Xei
2007-07-12 17:04:20
12.   Bob Timmermann
I will indeed be there. Look for plenty of photos and perhaps an exciting trip through where my family grew up.

There may be cows!

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