Sunday, January 30, 2011

Heroes and Villains

When I first began rooting for the Mets in defiant opposition to family tradition and the Bronx’s elite home team, baseball’s history actually mattered. Old-Timers’ Day promotions drew big crowds. The eight-year-old me experienced genuine awe in seeing former greats like Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, and Bob Feller in the flesh. I listened closely when the game's oldsters reminisced about playing alongside and against the likes of Ruth, Williams, and Cobb. By osmosis, I received an education on the old Dodgers-Giants rivalry. I knew the teams' owners—taking the late Horace Greeley’s advice—simultaneously left New York after the 1957 season for the West’s greener pastures. and wondered how this dastardly pair could have anything so awful.

The prevailing sentiment in this neck of the woods considered Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley a bona fide scoundrel, not ever to be forgiven for whisking away Brooklyn’s beloved Bums. Columnist Jack Newfield christened him “one of the three worst villains that ever lived”—the others being Hitler and Stalin. As for Horace Stoneham, the Giants’ owner, any lingering vitriol that existed was tepid by comparison. (And, really, attendance in the antiquated Polo Grounds was 653,923 in 1957, and the city had confiscated an area of its less than ample parking space to put up housing projects.)

I just finished reading Michael D’Antonio’s Forever Blue, a fascinating account of Walter O’Malley, his fabled team, and the rapidly changing times that inspired the controversial move. It could be justly said that the book was sympathetic to O’Malley. He was no Hitler. In fact, when compared to the Boss, George Steinbrenner, in my opinion, he was positively upright, of sound mind, and a paradigm of virtue.

Sure, the Dodgers’ owner was foremost interested in making money—lots of it—and he hungered, too, for accolades regarding his baseball and business acumen. Nevertheless, the more writers and historians unearth, the less cut and dried O’Malley’s purported treachery appears. Despite attendance being down in old Ebbets Field, the Dodgers were still—courtesy of television and radio deals—one of the most profitable franchises in the game (unlike the Giants). O’Malley had also honed in on what today we would call his “brand.” He merchandised Brooklyn Dodgers’ stuff before it was the rage. Yes, he wanted a new ballpark in a better location. The increasingly dilapidated Ebbets Field’s seating capacity was only 32,000, with less than 1,000 available parking spaces. It was not particularly accessible by either automobile or mass transit, and the neighborhood was pretty unsavory and not about to get any better. After the war, Long Island and the New Jersey suburbs were where many Dodger fans and their families relocated. Driving to a game at Ebbets Field with a young family in tow was a major hassle to put it mildly.

So, really, O’Malley had a winning case for a new ballpark and found a Brooklyn location that he coveted. However, he needed the help of city fathers to procure the land—or, more aptly, master builder Robert Moses, who wielded the real power back then (but that’s another story altogether). The Dodgers’ owner was actually going to pay in full the building costs of the new stadium. But Moses had his long-term sights set on a stadium complex in some swampy area in Queens called Flushing Meadows. He didn’t care about the Dodgers, and he didn’t like being told what he had to do.

To make a very long story short, the preponderance of evidence suggests that O’Malley sincerely wanted to remain in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, he pushed the envelope by selling Ebbets Field to a developer, meaning that either he got what he wanted, or would pick up his marbles and move elsewhere. Funny…but there would be no Mets without O’Malley’s move—no miracle in 1969, the only truly documented one of its kind. And nobody can argue that the Los Angeles relocation wasn’t ultra-profitable for the O’Malley family and the Dodgers. But, hey, that proposed stadium project in Queens turned out all right as well. The Mets, born in 1962 via league expansion, established an all-time baseball attendance record in 1970—drawing over 2.7 million fans—in a then state-of-the-art ballpark called Shea Stadium. It seems there was a heaping helping of money to be made in New York, and a heaping helping of money to be made in Los Angeles, too. And one final postscript here: When Shea Stadium’s demolition began in 2008, it was standing almost as long as Ebbets Field, built in 1913, had been when it sadly welcomed the wrecking ball. Time flies when you're having fun, it would seem, and all things come to an end. That’s the long and short of it in baseball and in life.

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