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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.

Comedian and Brooklyn native Pat Cooper recalled that, "to us, the Brooklyn Dodgers was a pick-up team. We never looked at it like a Joe DiMaggio. We never had that kind of 'wow, Joltin' Joe.' We had the Brooklyn Bums. But don't you come from New York City and call us The Bums. They ain't your Bums."

Fan Herb Ross said, "being a Brooklyn Dodger fan meant suffering. You always knew in your heart that the Yankees were gonna' beat us. It was just ingrained in us."

But they didn't always beat us. When I was eight years old, modeling my Little League batting stance after my own hero, catcher Roy Campanella, I can still recall sneaking in to school with a primitive transistor radio, the better to listen to the 1955 World Series between the Dodgers and Yankees.

Early in the series, my fourth grade teacher had to be wondering why I kept asking for a hall pass to hit the bathroom. Of course I entered the closest available stall and immediately tuned in for updates; at least until the day another teacher caught me in the act and delivered me back to my classroom. Thank heavens Miss Newman was a Brooklyn native herself, and let me listen the rest of the day, as long as I kept her informed with an occasional play-by-play.

By the time that series went to a seventh game, our teachers simply gave up trying to focus us on reading, writing and arithmetic. The principal actually allowed the game to be piped in over the school's PA system, and when pitcher Johnny Podres finally slew the mighty Yankees with a brilliant performance, the collective roar out of every classroom in our Long Island elementary school surely had to be heard 30 miles away, all the way west back to Brooklyn where so many of us had been born.

"It was always 'wait 'til next year, Dem Bums," Podres recalls in the film. "This is next year. Dem Bums won. Huh? And they never called 'em The Bums again."

From then on, the HBO special started focusing on the move west, and it became almost too painful to watch. O'Malley, who in 1950 had bought out the great Branch Rickey, the man who broke baseball's color line by courageously signing Robinson, actually envisioned a domed stadium for the Dodgers in Brooklyn and was going to pay for it himself. He needed the city to condemn the land where he was planning to build the ballpark, but Moses and Wagner balked, unwilling to believe his threats to move if he didn't get the deal he wanted.

Former Dodger General Manager Buzzie Bavasi is quoted in the film as saying "Walter did think the Dodgers were an institution in Brooklyn. And that anything the Dodgers wanted, he could get. But he forgot the fact that Mr. Moses was not a Brooklyn man. There's no way he could have turned (the offer to move to Los Angeles) down. Imagine someone giving you 352 acres in downtown New York."

But Rosalind Wyman, a former Los Angeles City Council member, said it best.

"Officials in the city of New York, they should have been strung up. I mean, that was the dumbest decision ever made in municipalities, to lose two baseball teams."

When they moved, the Dodgers lost me forever. Oh, I still tried to follow the exploits of my childhood heroes, Jackie, The Duke, Gil Hodges, Campy, Big Newk and Oisk (that would be pitcher Carl Erskine, in the vernacular of Brooklyn-ese). But their absence made this heart grow darker, and when the bumbling can't-anyone-here-play-this-game Mets came to town a few years later, my love affair with The Bums officially ended.

Still, I have my memories, along with this wonderful new HBO documentary and of course, that cherished print of Ebbets Field on the wall next to my desk a constant reminder of my boyhood infatuation. And if I listen closely...

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com.

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