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A Brooklyn sports heritage | by Hobo Matt
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A Brooklyn sports heritage

Blessed be the memory of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

 

Gazing back through the rosy haze of history, we recall the Dodgers as the cherished sons of Brooklyn, a noble band of knights-errant who brought honor to the land by playing baseball the way it was meant to be played, simply for the love of the game. Representing a borough of immigrants, they integrated earlier than any other team, their fans united in adoration of stars both black and white: Jackie and Pee Wee, Campy and Gil, Newk and the Duke. When "Dem Bums" finally vanquished the hated New York Yankees and brought a championship to Brooklyn in 1955, after having fallen short against their villainous crosstown rivals in each of their past five World Series appearances, it seemed to validate the belief, later phrased so eloquently by Martin Luther King Jr., that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

 

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Some guys with bats hanging out at Dodger spring training ahead of the team's triumphant 1955 season. From left to right: Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges.

 

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This is the weirdest picture of the Dodgers I could find. They've just set a Major League record with ten straight wins to open the 1955 season, and manager Walter Alston is celebrating by breaking a record over the head of Don Zimmer, who went 4 for 4 with two doubles and a home run in their 14-4 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. Simultaneously caught mid-blink, from left to right, are Jackie Robinson, Joe Black, and Duke Snider. Gil Hodges is the only one who dares to gaze upon the scene with uncovered eyes.

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And so it was with great horror that Brooklynites watched the Dodgers, the borough's heart and soul, move to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. The greed. The deceit. The betrayal! Animosity for the team's owner, Walter O'Malley, ran rampant, expressed succinctly in this old joke:

 

If Hitler, Stalin, and O'Malley are in a room and you only have two bullets, who do you shoot?

 

O'Malley, twice.

 

It's supposedly an old joke, anyway. You can find it repeated all over the place, but I haven't discovered a reference to it in any source published before 2000. I wonder if "memories" of the joke are just mutations of this story told in 1984's Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

 

On the larger subject of historical fidelity, who knows if the Dodgers were really as universally revered, as central to Brooklyn's identity, as the old stories make it seem. They certainly had their share of die-hard fans, and attendance at their home games at Ebbets Field exceeded the league average almost every year from 1919 on, but not always to the extent you might expect. During their final five seasons, they finished in first place three times but their home-game attendance was less than eight percent above the league average, and it even dipped below average in 1957. Perhaps decades of romantic reminiscences by a generation of fans whose youths were defined by the Dodgers' presence and then their absence have warped our view of the past, transforming a fairly popular ball club into the stuff of legend.

 

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A couple of ridiculous-looking, straight-out-of-central-casting fans await the start of game four of the 1949 World Series at Ebbets Field. You can see more photos of handsome Brooklyn fans here.

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But regardless of how grounded in reality it is, the Dodger mythos is now firmly established in the public consciousness. (Meanwhile, nostalgia for the New York Giants, who moved to San Francisco the same year the Dodgers left town, runs nowhere near as high. The Giants were the better team over the decades, with five World Series titles to the Dodgers' one, although they were less successful in the years leading up to their move. They did win the World Series in 1954, however, and they had a young man who would become one of the greatest players of all time, if not the greatest, Willie Mays, roaming center field. But their fan base, judging by their home-game attendance at the Polo Grounds, didn't quite match the Dodgers'; it probably didn't help that the eternally dominant Yankees played right across the Harlem River, one subway stop away. And being located in Manhattan, with all its iconic attractions, meant the Giants could never be as synonymous with their home borough as the Dodgers could.)

 

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Back in the early years of Ebbets Field, fans could watch games for free if they climbed high enough up in the trees that stood beyond the outfield walls. Youngsters were also known for lying on the sidewalk outside the stadium and peering beneath a big double door in right-center field to get a glimpse of the action.

 

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Tree-climbing Giants fans would pull the same move up on Coogan's Bluff above the Polo Grounds. Their view wasn't as good, with the infield obscured, but they did get their exploits memorialized on a Life magazine cover.

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It was O'Malley's desire for a new ballpark to replace the aging Ebbets Field that drove his decision to move the Dodgers to Los Angeles. He originally had a plan to keep the team in Brooklyn, however, by building what would have been the world's first domed stadium, designed by Buckminster Fuller, on a site near the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. O'Malley wanted the city to use its power of eminent domain to help him acquire the land he needed, forcing unwilling property owners to sell under the premise that the new ballpark would serve the common good. His scheme would have also required heavy public expenditures on infrastructure to support the stadium. Robert Moses and other government officials were less than enthusiastic about the idea. Here's Brooklyn congressman John J. Rooney addressing the matter on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1957:

 

For years the Brooklyn Baseball Club has coined money for the few stockholders of its closely held stock. The owners never shared any of their profits with the fans. They took advantage of the Dodger fans at every turn . . . I say let them move to Los Angeles if the alternative is to succumb to an arrogant demand to spend the taxpayers' money to build a stadium for them in Brooklyn. I am opposed to uprooting decent citizens living in my congressional district in the vicinity of . . . Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues in order to put more money in the pockets of my dear friend Walter O'Malley and the private profitmaking Brooklyn Baseball Club stockholders. . . . Let Walter O'Malley and his stockholders who have no civic pride for Brooklyn, where they made their money, move to the west coast in quest of more almighty dollars.

 

Ebbets Field was razed (with a wrecking ball painted to look like a baseball) a couple of years after the Dodgers left, in 1960, but numerous parts of the ballpark managed to escape destruction. After demolition began, fans were invited to come take seats for free. At an on-site auction held after most of the stadium had been torn down, a wide array of items were put up for bid, including "bats, balls, plaques, pennants, player stools, Ebbets Field sod, grand stand seats, bases, the pitcher's rubber, lockers, bricks, ushers' uniforms, pictures, electrical fixtures, bat racks and team schedules". The auction only raised about $2,300 in total, whereas you can now find many Ebbets Field seats selling online for more than that. Even a single brick can go for well over $1,000 these days.

 

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Fans carrying off some goodies from Ebbets Field. Note the pots of sod in their hands. The Baseball Hall of Fame has one such pot in its collections, although the sod died long ago and now it's just a pot of dried-up dirt.

 

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An illustration of the unique bat-and-ball chandelier that lit up the Ebbets Field rotunda. This appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1913, the year Ebbets Field opened.

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Marvin Kratter, who purchased the stadium in 1956 and then built the Ebbets Field Apartments in its place (and who also built the Bridge Apartments — a.k.a. the Four Sisters, a name I continue to repeat in hopes it will one day catch on — above I-95 in Washington Heights), also gave away lots of stuff to be reused elsewhere. He provided 2,200 seats and some lights to furnish a pair of ball fields for workhouse inmates on Hart Island. The first game at the newly christened Kratter Field pitted the workhouse all-stars against a team of army men from the island's Nike missile battery. According to the NY Times, "the soldiers claimed seven runs in their first time at bat, but the inmate scorer and umpire said it had been only five. . . . The home side also got five runs in its first turn, but by then it was 3:50 P.M. and the game was called because it was time for the regular count of prisoners." (Here are a couple of photos from 1991 showing remnants of the seats at the abandoned fields, which have since been cleared.)

 

According to an article from 1961, one of the seats sent to Hart Island was subsequently "liberated", shipped across the country "by ferry, limousine and jet plane", and given to Chuck Connors, the star of TV's The Rifleman. Connors had previously enjoyed a glorious career with the Dodgers, grounding into a game-ending double play in his one and only plate appearance with the team, at Ebbets Field in 1949. (He also played 66 games for the Cubs in 1951, as well as 53 games of basketball with the Boston Celtics between 1946 and 1947.) When Ebbets was being torn down, Connors asked his agents to help him locate his favorite seat from the ballpark, K-16, so that he could have it installed at the new Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. It turned out the seat had already been taken to Hart Island, but the warden "agreed to pardon" it for Connors. Prior to the completion of Dodger Stadium in 1962, Connors used K-16 as his chair on the set of The Rifleman. I don't know if he actually succeeded in having the seat installed in the new ballpark. A photo from 1964 shows him with an Ebbets Field seat in his house, which suggests that may have been the final destination of K-16, but it's unclear whether the seat in the photo is K-16 or a different one. It has a plaque on it that reads "Last Chair From Ebbets Field, Presented To Chuck Connors By The City Of Brooklyn", while there was no such plaque on K-16 when it was photographed for the 1961 article.

 

Kratter sent 500 lights to Randall's Island, where they illuminated Downing Stadium. Many of the individual fixtures were swapped out for new ones over the years; I don't know what happened to the remaining original ones after Downing was torn down in 2002 and replaced by Icahn Stadium.

 

An outfield flagpole donated by Kratter was put up outside a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in East Flatbush. The VFW hall was later occupied for many years by the Canarsie Casket Company, and the flagpole remained standing until around 2007, when a church that had acquired the property began work to expand the building.

 

Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn's borough president at the time, heard about the flagpole coming down and alerted his buddy Bruce Ratner, who arranged to purchase it from the church. Ratner was the driving force behind the massive Atlantic Yards development (now called Pacific Park) that is, and will be for many more years, under construction in Prospect Heights. He and Markowitz, the cheerleader-in-chief for Atlantic Yards during his time in office, had the flagpole erected outside Barclays Center, the centerpiece of Atlantic Yards and the first of its buildings to be completed. They dedicated the pole in late 2012, after the arena had premiered as the new home of the NBA's Nets and been announced as the future home (for a few seasons, anyway) of the NHL's Islanders.

 

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The Ebbets Field flagpole outside Barclays Center.

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(News coverage of the flagpole, as well as the plaque on its base during its East Flatbush days, identified it as the center-field flagpole from Ebbets Field. If you look at old photos of the stadium, you'll see there was in fact a flagpole above center field, one of several located on the roof, but these poles look smaller than the Barclays pole to me. I suspect the Barclays pole is actually the larger flagpole that stood prominently in right-center field beside the scoreboard, capped with a ball finial that appears to match the one atop the Barclays pole.)

 

So why buy a flagpole from an old baseball stadium and put it outside a basketball arena? Well, Ratner and Markowitz surely understood the lure of the Dodgers — Markowitz was kind of obsessed with the team himself, in fact — and they were never hesitant to remind people that, as mentioned in seemingly every article written about the Nets' move from New Jersey, Atlantic Yards was bringing major professional sports back to Brooklyn for the first time since the Dodgers left, something Markowitz had been talking about doing since his first successful campaign for borough president in 2001.

 

Markowitz was also on hand at Barclays Center a few months after the flagpole dedication for a presentation of the Dodgers' 1955 championship pennant before a Nets game, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the opening of Ebbets Field. The pennant has a very funny history, having been stolen from the Dodgers in Los Angeles in 1959 by a group of four sportswriters who decided it belonged back in New York. Coincidentally, when the pennant was originally displayed for the fans at Ebbets Field during the 1956 season, it was flown from the scoreboard flagpole, the one that (I believe) now stands outside Barclays Center.

 

(Of course, the Atlantic Yards crew was just the latest in a long line of profit-seekers trying to co-opt some of the Dodgers' warm fuzzies for their own purposes. When the New York Mets opened their new ballpark, Citi Field — named, like Barclays Center, for a scandal-tarred banking giant — back in 2009, "some of the team's fans complained loudly that the stadium, with its extensive tribute to Jackie Robinson and its architectural nod to Ebbets Field, seemed to be more focused on the Brooklyn Dodgers' history than on the Mets'.")

 

But beyond the obvious Brooklyn sports connection, there's another, subtler tie between Atlantic Yards and the Dodgers. Barclays Center sits right across Atlantic Avenue from the site that Walter O'Malley wanted for his dome. And like O'Malley's quest for a new stadium, Ratner's push to build Atlantic Yards was inevitably going to be controversial. It wasn't just that the 22-acre megaproject would dramatically reshape the neighborhood; it's that, as with O'Malley's plan, it would require loads of taxpayer funds and the seizure of private property to do so. But this time, with Ratner promising all sorts of affordable housing and new jobs in addition to a sports venue (developers are often better at promising than developing), the government has been on board all the way, forcing out residents and offering more than $700 million in public financing to help make the project a reality.

 

So if you're Bruce Ratner, and you're trying to show everyone that all the subsidies and tax breaks are beside the point, that you and the Russian oligarch you sold the Nets to are really all about serving the people and bringing joy to the masses, then it certainly couldn't hurt to take an old remnant of Ebbets Field, a physical reminder of the sainted Brooklyn Dodgers, put it up as a public monument with your name on it, and then hold a ceremony for it with Jackie Robinson's daughter in attendance.

 

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The plaque on the Ebbets Field flagpole.

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And could there possibly be a more appropriate place to pay tribute to a team remembered as the embodiment of all that is good and pure in sports than here at — yes, these are real names — the Resorts World Casino NYC Plaza, opposite the GEICO Main Entrance of Barclays Center?

 

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Postscript

 

The aforementioned ridiculously named plaza outside Barclays Center has taken on new life in 2020 as a community hub for protestors in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder. On the evening of June 2, demonstrators raised a Black Lives Matter flag up the Ebbets Field pole. In response, someone on Twitter shared the following words written by Jackie Robinson in his autobiography, made all the more poignant when you consider that Jackie, an Army veteran who was once court-martialed after refusing to move to the back of a bus, must have laid eyes on the American flag hanging from this pole countless times during his baseball career: "I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world."

 

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Jackie Robinson, in Army uniform, signs a contract to play with the Montreal Royals, a Dodgers farm team, on October 23, 1945. He would spend the 1946 season with the Royals before breaking the major league color barrier with the Dodgers in 1947.

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Taken on September 11, 2015