Documentary Review: "Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush"
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.