When the National League Abandoned New York

Part Three

And so it came to pass that winning the 1954 World Series turned out to be the New York Giants last hurrah. After winning the National League pennant and defeating the Cleveland Indians in four games to take the World Series, they went into a tailspin. In 1955, the Giants finished in third place and dropped to sixth place in 1956 and 1957. Consequently, attendance at the Polo Grounds dropped from 1.2 million fans in 1954 to 653,000 by 1957, the lowest in the National League. The Giants were in big trouble and their owner, Horace Stoneham, efforts to convince New York City officials to build a new stadium for his Giants in Manhattan over the New York Central’s West Side freight yards fell on deaf ears.

Stoneham began the process of moving his franchise to Minneapolis where he owned a Triple A minor league team. Why not, Major League Baseball was on the move in the 1950s. America’s post World War II identity was overwhelmed by a tsunami of change driven by consumerism and the growth in population thanks to the Baby Boomers. Traditional population centers could no longer accommodate this growth and Americans began migrating west in large numbers. Eventually, this movement expanded to include the south and southwest as A/C became reliable and readily available.

Baseball hadn’t expanded in decades, but these migrations convinced owners of second-rate teams in multi-team cities   to realize the opportunities available if they moved their franchises to baseball hungry cities. This movement began with the Boston Braves, who moved to Milwaukee in 1952. The Braves achieved attendance records that forced other owners to give pause when they examined their own financial models. The Braves couldn’t match the Red Sox popularity, so they successfully escaped Beantown for the town that Schlitz made famous.

Two other franchises took note of the same message, the St. Louis Browns and the Philadelphia Athletics. The Browns were up against the St. Louis Cardinals owned by the Anheuser-Bush family with their deep pockets. The Browns threw in their Missouri chips in 1954 and skedaddled to Baltimore where they re-invented themselves as the Baltimore Orioles.

The Philadelphia Athletics, once Connie Mack’s ship of state were in deep trouble, forced to play in a decrepit ballpark located in a lousy part of town. They lost the attendance battle to their National League rivals, the Phillies. Their owners  caved in after the 1954 season and sold the team to a Kansas City cabal who took the team to western Missouri for the 1955 season.

Stoneham wasn’t the only dissatisfied New York baseball owner. Walter O’Malley hated Ebbits Field, his small and obsolete ballpark in Crown Heights that opened way back in 1913 with a meager capacity of just under 32,000 fans. Granted, Dodger attendance remained at just over one million fans from 1954 though 1957, but O’Malley envied the Braves success in Milwaukee that averaged over two million fans during the same period.

I believe that despite O’Malley’s absolute dissatisfaction with Ebbits Field, his first instinct was to remain in Brooklyn. To this end, he proposed a spectacular state-of-the-art circular domed stadium with a capacity of 52,000 to be built above the Long Island Railroad yards at the junction of Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue in the heart of Downtown Brooklyn.

One could say that Walter O’Malley was a visionary who could see into the future, but O’Malley’s vision didn’t materialize until almost sixty years later when the Barclay Center opened in 2012. This new home for the Brooklyn Nets basketball team has a capacity of 19,000 basketball fans. Barclay Stadium, named after the bank, otherwise known as The Bark, could only have become a reality after a lengthy process of gentrification that step-by-step rebuilt and renewed Brooklyn neighborhoods resurrecting them from being considered to be a collection of sub-standard slums into viable neighborhoods. 

The 1950s was a time of white flight from American cities to the suburbs and Brooklyn was no exception. Downtown Brooklyn, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Williamsburg and Crown Heights were hemorrhaging white middle-class residents who were fleeing tenements and apartment houses for new affordable developments rising on former potato fields in Nassau and Suffolk counties. These new suburbanites came to depend on their automobiles as the car culture changed their lives.

O’Malley’s domed stadium could have ruined him as a stadium in Downtown Brooklyn would have had to depend on the subways and the Long Island Railroad to transport Dodger fans to and from the games. This deteriorating urban neighborhood was devoid of major highways or any concept of adequate parking.

Overshadowing these issues, O’Malley’s proposal conflicted with the future plans for Downtown Brooklyn as envisioned by the city’s chief planner, construction tsar and all-around powerbroker, Robert Moses (RM). O’Malley was in a fight that he couldn’t win.

RM countered with a proposal for the Dodgers to move to a new city-owned stadium that he would build for the Dodgers in Flushing Meadows, Queens. (This eventually became  the  location of Shea Stadium and its successor, Citi Field.) O’Malley refused to consider RM’s proposal, famously saying, “We are the Brooklyn Dodgers, not the Queens Dodgers.”

I suspect, that by this point, O’Malley was already deep into his negotiations with the Los Angeles city fathers. and had come to realize the extent of the incentives and treasures these-baseball starved leaders were willing to grant him if he brought his Major League team to their city.

My suspicions are based on the fact that O’Malley approached Ford Frick, the baseball commissioner, sometime before the next owners’ meetings scheduled for Chicago in late May of 1957. On May 28, Commissioner Frick confirmed that the National League owners had agreed to allow the Dodgers and the Giants to move to Los Angeles and San Francisco respectfully so long as both teams made the move.

Two weeks prior to these owners’ meetings, O’Malley entered into a contract with the City of Los Angeles called “The Arnebergh Memorandum” whereby he committed to moving the Dodgers to LA for the 1958 season. In return the city agreed to acquire 350 acres of land in Chavez Ravine for the construction of the Dodgers new stadium. In addition, the city would help O’Malley arrange financing and construct the parking lots and all access roads needed to reach the stadium. It was only after O’Malley signed this agreement that he approached the commissioner and his fellow owners.

Stoneham had also been busy negotiating with the mayor of San Francisco, George  Christopher. Stoneham too, had been offered a package that included a new baseball stadium that became Candlestick Park and enough other incentives that convinced Stoneham to move west and trade in his team’s interlocking orange “NY” for and orange interlocking “SF.”

Stoneham confirmed the Giants were moving to San Francisco for the 1958 season on August 19, 1957. For reasons unknown only to himself, O’Malley let the story leak out starting with Stoneham’s announcement, but the Dodgers didn’t get around to a formal announcement until October 8, 1957.

O’Malley’s treacherous and disgraceful behavior made him the central villain of a sarcastic joke popular with all Brooklyn Dodger fans:

If you were stuck in a room with Hitler, Stalin and O’Malley and you had a gun with only two bullets who would shoot?

You’d shoot O’Malley twice in case the first bullet didn’t kill him.

(To be continued)   .