Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist
Sports Waves

HBO Documentary Brings Back Memories

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 10, 2007; 1:15 PM

The field of my own dreams has always been Ebbets Field, that bandbox of a ballpark where my once beloved Brooklyn Dodgers played until they broke my heart by moving to Los Angeles in 1957.

As I type these words in my home study, I can look up slightly to my left and peer at a framed print of the stadium my younger twin brothers gave me as a 50th birthday present more than a few years ago. Men in suits and fedoras and women in pretty dresses are milling around the front gate of the old stadium, kids are hawking newspapers with the day's starting lineups on the front page and if you listen closely with just your imagination, you can almost hear the conversations above the din of the crowd.

Maybe they were debating the merits of "Da Duke of Flatbush," slugging centerfielder Duke Snider, measuring his skills against Willie Mays of the hated Giants or Mickey Mantle of the truly reviled Yankees, who also played the same position.

Maybe they were trying to figure out how to get Gil Hodges out of that famous 0-21 slump he suffered during the 1952 World Series or how to get their kids in to Happy Feller's Knothole Gang, one of the first pre-game television shows.

Or perhaps they were wondering what feats of great daring that pigeon-toed Jackie Robinson might inflict on the opposing pitcher of that day, driving him batty as he faked a dash to steal home plate on one pitch, then taking off for real on the next.

All of those boyhood dreamy memories -- and the nightmare of the Dodgers departure -- came flooding back to me the other night watching an advanced copy of a brilliant documentary produced by HBO Sports in association with Major League Baseball. It's called "Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush," and makes it debut Wednesday (July 11) at 8 p.m., with a number of future play dates scheduled over the next month.

Despite MLB's involvement, there is no attempt to sugarcoat what in my mind constitutes one of the greatest heists in baseball history, the hijacking of both the Dodgers and Giants to the west coast by a couple of greedy owners more interested in chasing a buck than doing the right thing, ands MLB's inability or simple unwillingness to stop it.

They were aided and abetted by several arrogant and misguided public servants, specifically Robert Moses, a visionary urban planner who becomes a true villain in the piece, along with Mayor Robert Wagner and Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, who couldn't get what he wanted in New York and high-tailed it to the west coast, convincing Giants owner Horace Stoneham to take his club to San Francisco.

The documentary is being released on the 50th anniversary of those dastardly east coast to west coast moves, and the 60th anniversary of Robinson becoming the first African American to integrate America's so-called National Pastime in 1947.

It mostly covers the ten years from Robinson's arrival to the Dodgers departure, using old footage, some in color, still photographs and interviews with a wide variety of former players, their wives, politicians, historians, fans and sportswriters, among others. I found myself riveted to the screen as this often uplifting saga unfolded, culminating in such a bitter end.

Brooklyn was a borough of three million people in the 1950s, and the Dodgers were at the epicenter of the predominately working-class, polyglot community, a truly blue-collar team dressed in Dodger blue. It was an era when ball players actually had to work for a living in the offseason -- Jackie Robinson is shown selling a stove in an appliance store -- and many of them lived in the same duplexes and apartment houses their fans occupied as well.

Their symbol was a cartoonish "Bum." Thy had their own band, the Dodger "Sym-phony." Hilda Chester was a leather-lunged fan who showed up at every game and let any Dodger slacker have an earful. Duke Snider once became so enraged at her, he told her she needed a shave. The great Red Barber was up in his catbird's seat in the broadcast booth, joined later on by a young kid named Vin Scully, now arguably the greatest baseball voice of his or any other era, even if he left with the team for Los Angeles.

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