Here's an old Brooklyn Dodgers joke:
I grew up in Boston, a diehard Red Sox fan, long before anybody had a notion that there was some larger entity called Red Sox Nation. If there was such a baseball nation back then—besides, of course, what was our American baseball nation—it was located a couple hundred miles to the south.
Not the New York Yankees. They were already an empire, summoning up imagery of ancient Rome or the corporate behemoth U.S. Steel long before George Lucas's and then Steinbrenner's "evil empire" had entered the lexicon. No, it was the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team that came to symbolize the American dream.
For fans looking for a dose of baseball nostalgia that the All-Star Game festivities no longer provide, HBO has delivered the goods: "Brooklyn Dodgers: the Ghosts of Flatbush," which will air July 11 at 8 p.m. It is an evocative and bittersweet journey back in time, focusing on the Dodgers' postwar glory years, but ending with the borough's enduring tragedy—when owner Walter O'Malley moved his team, with its Brooklyn roots dating back to the 19th century, to Los Angeles.
Brooklyn is every bit as important as its team to the story. In the first half of the 20th century it was a borough of immigrant strivers from all corners of the world, people to whom Manhattan seemed every bit as distant as those countries from which they or their parents had journeyed. It was a patchwork community that united in one place—Flatbush, where the Dodgers played at Ebbets Field. And in 1947, when Jackie Robinson took that field for Brooklyn, in what came to be known as the "great experiment," the Dodgers had begun to showcase a team that truly mirrored the community.
Most histories, including Jonathan Eig's excellent new book "Opening Day," focus on the hurdles confronting Robinson, the relentless abuses he faced and the isolation he endured. But in the years that followed, the Dodgers developed a significant national fan base—call it Dodger nation—that embraced the team and Robinson (and later Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Sandy Amoros) as the embodiment of the postwar dream of a better America. As Lester Rodney, a former sportswriter for The Daily Worker reminds us in the documentary, this was a time when if you changed baseball, you changed America.
The social significance of that decade and of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Dodger Nation is unrivalled by anything attached to the modern phenomenon of Red Sox or their sprawling fan base. But through HBO's loving lens, we are reminded of some similarities. The Dodgers were, for most of their existence, an exercise in futility, a team cheered and lambasted by its own fans as "Dem Bums." They went a lifetime—65 or maybe 72 years (depending on who's counting what)—without winning a championship. And the team's fans suffered some of the worst Bucknerian moments in the game's history. There was Mickey Owen's passed ball on a strikeout that would have ended Game 4 of the 1941 World Series and tied the series at two games apiece; instead the Yankees rallied for four runs and took the series the next day. And there was "the shot heard round the world"—Bobby Thomson's two-out, three-run homer in the ninth inning of the 1951 playoffs to send the hated rival, the New York Giants, to the World Series.
That epic heartbreak aside, the postwar Dodgers proved to be one of the best and most dominant teams in Major League Baseball history, a team replete with names that resonate for fans of a certain age, indeed for true fans of any age: Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Carl Erskine, Carl Furillo and forever Jackie. Starting with Robinson's Rookie of the Year season, Brooklyn would win four pennants (and tie for another) in seven years; in 1953, they won 105 games and lost only 49. And each time, they would have to settle for a chorus of "wait until next year," as they lost the World Series to the Bronx Bombers. When at long last, in 1955 they won it all—in Yankee Stadium no less, with Johnny Podres's seventh-game shutout in and Sandy Amoros's game-saving catch—the New York Daily News blared from its front page: THIS IS NEXT YEAR.
As any student of tragedy might have suspected, it was just the setup for the worst loss of all—the loss of the team to Los Angeles. Indeed, that story is the documentary's most fascinating chapter, if only because it is less familiar than the on-field trials and triumphs and the Jackie Robinson saga. If we know it at all, it's as kind of a one-note: O'Malley betrayed Brooklyn (and, of course, compounded that sin by seducing Giants owner Horace Stoneham to abandon New York, too.)
But the documentary makes a fairly compelling case that O'Malley—an engineer, lawyer and, above all, businessman, but not in any true sense a baseball man—wanted to stay in Brooklyn and build a new stadium there. O'Malley, however, was no match for Robert Moses, the power behind all the thrones in New York City and the man who determined what and who went where in his domain.
Both Moses and O'Malley recognized that Brooklyn was changing. Its fan base was fleeing the urban confines for a suburban dream, leaving behind a poorer community that was less able to afford the price of a ticket. O'Malley thought he could solve the problem by building near a railroad station. But Moses had already embraced the expanse made possible by highways and bridges. He thought O'Malley should build in Flushing Meadows, Queens, where highways came together and where Shea Stadium would eventually be built to house the National League's make-up gift of the expansion New York Mets.
O'Malley was a man used to getting his way. Queens may have been only a hop, skip and a jump away, but it wasn't Brooklyn. If O'Malley was going to abandon his home base, he might as well do it for the big score in the country's latest dreamscape, Los Angeles. Of course, that is much of the reason why this fable still resonates so powerfully. The team died young; no new stars came along in Brooklyn to blur those memories. Ebbets Field fell to the wrecking ball. The ghosts of Flatbush play on in our hearts.