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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Expulsion from Eden
Book Review by Robert A. Moss

Bob McGee. The Greatest Ballpark Ever: Ebbets Field and the Story of the Brooklyn Dodgers. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005, 336 pp., $26.95, cloth.

 

Although denizens of Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, or Wrigley Field might take umbrage at the title of Bob McGee's book, they should count their blessings: their dreams and jousting lists abide, while fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers are refugees who trade in memories. The Greatest Ball-park Ever is a tandem history of the Brooklyn Dodgers and of Ebbets Field, the fabled "bandbox" on Bedford Avenue where the Dodgers played from 1913 until their departure for Los Angeles after the 1957 season. Ballpark makes no claim to dispassionate history. Indeed, McGee has infused his book with both the recollections of fans (a lifelong friend of the reviewer is included on page 198) and authorial judgments pronounced on the main protagonists. I would take more exception to his historiography if I didn't agree with his conclusions.

Ballpark is a tragedy in six acts. These comprise (1) the early history of baseball in Brooklyn from 1860 to 1883; (2) the advent of Charles Ebbets and the building of Ebbets Field (1883 to 1913); (3) the managerial reign of Wilbert Robinson (1914 through 1931), which includes the pennant-winning seasons of 1916 and 1920, followed by the descent into the "Daffiness Boys" period; (4) the renaissance under
fiery manager Leo Durocher and executive vice president Larry MacPhail (1938 through 1942), which brought Brooklyn the pennant in 1941; (5) the replacement of MacPhail by Branch Rickey (1942 through 1950), who would develop the Dodgers' farm system as he had that of the Cardinals, bring Jackie Robinson to Ebbets Field in 1947, and, with manager Burt Shotton, win pennants in 1947 and 1949; and (6) the rise of Walter O'Malley, who forced Rickey out in 1950, became principal owner and president of the Dodgers, and reaped the rewards of Rickey's planning on the field (including pennants in 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956) while he harvested financial rewards off the field and plotted the eventual move to Los Angeles.

In McGee's telling, Ebbets is the hero, O'Malley the villain. Ebbets remarked in 1920 that "no man belongs in baseball who is in the game solely from the box office standpoint." O'Malley's view is encapsulated by his decision to move to L.A. in 1957: "I am going to take it; I'm going to tell them that today. And I'm going to make a barrel of dough." McGee, who is particularly strong on the early history of Brooklyn baseball, demonstrates how Ebbets was a sportsman who made his living in baseball but cared about his neighborhood and its citizens, whereas O'Malley was a businessman who cared for neither. As Pete Hamill wrote in a column titled "Never Forgive, Never Forget" (1988), "They had destroyed our innocence. In one filthy act, they told us that we fans were just a pack of gullible marks—romantic fools who believed all the myths about America. They told us baseball wasn't the most beautiful game devised by man nor were the Dodgers its most elegant artists. Baseball was a racket, said That Son of a Bitch O'Malley, a businessman's hustle like any other. The innocent fable was a lie. Money was everything, greed the ruling principle."

After an introductory chapter ("Hallowed Ground") that describes the heartbreaking destruction of Ebbets Field in 1960, Ballpark proceeds chronologically, tracing the origins of Brooklyn baseball in the 1860s, including the Brooklyn Atlantics. The Atlantics upset the previously undefeated Cincinnati Red Stockings in an 1870 game at the Brooklyn Capitoline Grounds, handing baseball's first professional team its lone defeat in eighty-five games. In 1883, the same year that the Brooklyn Bridge opened, the Brooklyn "Polka Dots," named for their stockings, moved into Washington Park. Charles Ebbets, at age twenty-three, was the club's assistant secretary and general handyman. By 1889, the American Association Brooklyn Bridegrooms (there were a number of marriages on the team that year) won the pennant but lost an acrimonious playoff with the National League New York Giants. Undaunted, the Brooklyns jumped to the National League in 1890 and beat the Giants for the pennant. It was about this time that they became known as the "Trolley Dodgers."

McGee's history of Ebbets's progress to principal owner and president of the Dodgers in 1898 makes for fascinating reading: Brooklyn politics, Brooklyn's merger with Manhattan, real estate speculation, and haphazard financing are nicely integrated with on-field baseball exploits, which included the Brooklyn Superbas (the nickname recalled a popular vaudeville act) winning the championship of the National League in 1899 and 1900 with a team whose key players, including "hit 'em where they ain't" Wee Willie Keeler, were imported from the Baltimore Orioles.

Around 1907, Ebbets began to plan a modern new ballpark to replace the inadequate, wooden Washington Park. New fireproof concrete and steel ballparks were going up in Philadelphia (Shibe Park) and Pittsburgh (Forbes Field), with both scheduled to open in 1909. Through dummy companies designed to keep down acquisition costs, Ebbets purchased the parcels of land in Brooklyn's "Pigtown," "Goatville," and "Crow Hill" that would become Ebbets Field. Ebbets's plans were made public in 1912, and the completed park, designed by Clarence Van Buskirk, opened in 1913 at a cost of about $500,000.

Curiously, Van Buskirk's design has recently been in the news as Fred Wilpon, owner of the Mets, plans a new stadium incorporating design elements of Ebbets Field. Wilpon singled out the marble entrance rotunda, a signature feature of the hallowed ballpark. The rotunda was a circular room, eighty feet in diameter, with Italian marble columns, a twenty-seven-foot-high dome, a marble mosaic tile floor containing a baseball design, and a ball-and-bat chandelier. It also contained fourteen ticket windows spaced around the circular walls. On the Opening Day of Ebbets Field, would-be patrons crowded into the rotunda to purchase tickets, and with the lines at each window extending toward the center of the rotunda, hundreds of angry fans were soon crammed together in the small room. Only a call to the police stemmed an incipient riot. (Apparently the architect, Mr. Van Buskirk, had not fully analyzed the geometric nuances of crowd control.) An exhibition game between the Yankees and the Dodgers followed. Brooklyn won 3–2 in the bottom of the ninth. Adding to the interest, one of the Dodger runs came on an inside-the-park home run hit by a young Casey Stengel, then in his second year with Brooklyn.

McGee also delves into the origins of the famous feud between the Giants and the Dodgers. Of course, interborough rivalry played a role, but it was accentuated by personal animosities. Giants manager John McGraw and Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson ("Uncle Robbie") had been teammates on the old Baltimore Orioles at the turn of the century, but they'd had a falling out and now detested one another. The bad blood carried over to their teams. When the Dodgers (or the Robins, as they were then called in honor of their manager) won the NL pennant in 1916, McGraw denigrated the accomplishment. Robinson told reporters, "We beat the Giants fifteen times in twenty-two games. Tell McGraw to stop pissing on my pennant." The mutual dislike continued after McGraw and Robinson had left the scene. By 1934, when the Dodgers had become a perennial second-division team, Giants manager Bill Terry was asked what he thought of the Dodgers' chances. He replied, "Brooklyn? I haven't heard a peep out of there. Is Brooklyn still in the league?" At season's end, with the Giants and Cardinals tied for first, the Giants faced the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds, having already beaten Brooklyn fourteen out of twenty games. The Dodgers took two straight from the Giants, knocking them out of first, and the Cards went on to win the pennant. Brooklyn fans derisively chanted, "Is Brooklyn still in the league?"

Bill Terry said to Casey Stengel, now manager of the Dodgers, "If your ball club had played all season the way you did the last two days, you wouldn't have finished sixth." Casey replied, "And if you fellas had played all season long the way you did the last two, you wouldn't have finished second." As Red Barber put it many years later, "All that Brooklyn had to compete with Manhattan was the Dodgers. Manhattan had the railroad stations, the tall buildings, the banks; Manhattan had Broadway, but Brooklyn had the Dodgers. When the Dodgers played the Giants, there was blood on the moon."

Despite pennant winning seasons in 1916 and 1920 (followed by World Series losses to Boston and Cleveland), the Dodgers' fortunes declined. Mediocre talent and mediocre seasons led to the colorful, if incompetent, era of the "Daffiness Boys." A legendary example occurred in 1926 when laughable Dodger baserunning following a bases-loaded double by Babe Herman led to three men stranded on third base and a resultant double play. Manager Robinson allowed that "it was the only time them guys have got together on anything the entire year." This incident is the basis for the (perhaps) apocryphal tale of the taxi driver, listening to the Dodger game on the radio and waiting at a traffic light, who tells the cop that the Dodgers have three men on. "Yeah?" the cop responds. "Which base?"

My favorite story, recounted by McGee, involves second baseman Frenchy Bordagary and manager Casey Stengel in 1935. One day, Bordagary didn't slide into home and was thrown out. Casey asked him why he failed to slide, and Frenchy replied that he had some cigars in his back pocket. Casey fined him $100. The next day, Bordagary hit a home run and proceeded to round the bases by sliding into each base. When he got back to the dugout, Casey fined him another $100, having previously told Frenchy, "There'll only be one clown on this club, and that'll be me."

Burleigh Grimes, the old spitball pitcher, followed Stengel as manager in 1937. The team did not improve, but there were two notable events. Cartoonist Willard Mullin, of the World-Telegram, created the iconic Brooklyn Bum, who became the enduring symbol of the Dodgers, and the Brooklyn Dodgers band, an amateur group dubbed the Sym-Phony, was formed. Like the Bum, the Sym-Phony (tuba, snare drum, base drum, trombone, and trumpet) became a fixture with the Dodgers for the remainder of their time in Brooklyn, serenading umpires with "Three Blind Mice" and generally livening up the proceedings.

There was also a non-event which, had it occurred, would have been notable indeed. The Dodger front office considered signing Satchel Paige, but manager Grimes was not enthusiastic and the momentum died. It would be another ten years before Branch Rickey would bring Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn and change baseball forever. Meanwhile, the Dodgers were in debt to the Brooklyn Trust Company—more than half a million dollars—and Brooklyn Trust wanted something done to salvage their investment. In 1938, George McLaughlin of the Trust Company tried to interest Branch Rickey in taking over the Dodgers' front office. Rickey demurred but recommended Larry McPhail, who had made champions of the Cincinnati Reds. McPhail accepted on condition that the bank give him the resources for improvements to Ebbets Field and for new players. Surprisingly, he got what he wanted: $200,000 for physical plant, $50,000 to buy star first baseman Dolph Camilli from the Phillies, and $110,000 to install lights at Ebbets Field. The first night game, June 15, 1938, was memorable; Johnny Vander Meer ("The Dutch Master") of Cincinnati no-hit the Dodgers. It was his second no-hitter in a row, the previous gem coming against the Braves. No other pitcher has ever pitched successive no-hitters.

McPhail's other major coups came in the off-season. He named Leo Durocher to succeed Grimes as manager of the Dodgers, passing over Babe Ruth, who had briefly been a Dodger coach. (Ruth promptly resigned.) And he brought Red Barber from Cincinnati to Brooklyn to announce Dodger games on the radio. With vigorous leadership in the front office and on the field, the Dodgers began an uphill climb that culminated in the pennant-winning team of 1941. That team fielded many stars, including Dolph Camilli, Billy Herman, Joe Medwick, Cookie Lavagetto, Dixie Walker, Kirby Higbe, Whit Wyatt, Hugh Casey, and the fabulous rookies, Pete Reiser and Pee Wee Reese ("The Gold Dust Twins"). Durocher would manage the Dodgers through 1946 and for part of the 1948 season before moving to the Giants. McGee gives us Durocher's take on his experience, and it is well worth repeating: The fans "came to root, and . . . never gave up. It was Brooklyn against the world . . . they were not only complete fanatics, but they knew baseball like the fans of no other city. It was exciting to play there. It was a treat. I walked into that crummy, flyblown park as Brooklyn manager for nine years, and every time I entered, my pulse quickened and my spirits soared."

Throughout Ballpark, McGee's research is solid (there are eighteen pages of notes plus a five-page bibliography, and a seventeen-page index), and he proves himself a master of Ebbets Field arcana. Here are two tidbits that parallel events in Bernard Malamud's classic novel, The Natural. In both the book and movie versions, Roy Hobbs, the eponymous hero, comes into Chicago in a horrendous slump; but Iris, his good angel, attends the game at Wrigley Field and Hobbs responds with a magical home run. In the novel, the hit is described as follows: "The ball shot through [the pitcher's] astounded legs and began to climb. The second baseman, laying back on the grass on a hunch, stabbed high for it but it leaped over his straining fingers, sailed through the light and up into the dark, like a white star seeking an old constellation." In a delightful parallel, McGee tells us that in 1916, before there was a fence on top of Ebbets Field's twenty-foot wall, balls that bounced fair into the stands were home runs. The Dodgers second baseman "George Cutshaw was fortunate enough to hit a ground ball into right field that hit the angled wall just so, went up into the air, and spun with just enough English over the wall for a home run." In the movie version of The Natural, Hobbs's homer breaks the clock on top of the Wrigley scoreboard, while in the novel, the clock scene occurs at Ebbets Field where Hobbs "bashed the first pitch into the clock on the right field wall. The clock splattered minutes all over the place and the Dodgers never knew what time it was." In 1946, McGee informs us, Bama Rowell of the Boston Braves "hit a ball that broke the Bulova clock atop the Ebbets Field scoreboard."

It is perhaps less necessary to review in detail the last acts of the Brooklyn tragedy. McGee is just as detailed and interesting in his discussion of the Boys of Summer decade (1947 through 1957) when the Dodgers, built by Rickey and sparked by Jackie Robinson, dominated the National League, winning pennants in 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956. In 1950, they lost out to the Phillies "Whiz Kids" on the last day of the season, and in 1951 they fell to the Giants' amazing comeback, capped by Bobby Thomson's unforgettable home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of the third playoff game. The peaks and valleys of play, together with the shabby obbligato of O'Malley's machinations, the vacillations and deceptions of New York politicians, and the inevitable changes in Brooklyn's neighborhoods, are all considered. These themes, which have been dealt with in other studies, still loom large in the memories of the Dodgers' remaining fans, now deep into middle age or beyond. Indeed, it is hard to believe that next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Dodgers' departure for Los Angeles, or that in 2008 the New York Mets will have played at Shea Stadium for as long as the Dodgers inhabited Ebbets Field.

But of all the memories the Brooklyn Dodgers left behind, perhaps the brightest is their lone World Series victory in 1955, their sole triumph over the New York Yankees in seven attempts dating back to 1941. McGee serves up a wonderful quote from Johnny Podres, who won the seventh game in 1955 with a masterful 2–0 shutout over Casey Stengel's Yanks: "[T]here was a hell of a party at the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn. I can remember that the champagne was really flowing. All you had to do was hold out your glass, and somebody would be there to fill it up. The streets were filled with people, and every so often I would go out and wave to them, then go back inside again, where everyone came over, shook my hand, and patted me on the back, poured me champagne. I doubt if there had ever been a night like that one in Brooklyn. There was one old guy who told me over and over that he had been waiting for this since 1916. Thirty-nine years. I can't imagine waiting thirty-nine years for anything. I really don't know how late that party went, or if it ended at all."

But end it did, permanently. McGee concludes his history with the bittersweet return of professional baseball to Brooklyn forty-four years later in the guise of the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Mets Class A farm team. A beautiful ballpark, Keyspan Park, was built on Coney Island, right next to the famed boardwalk. Sitting behind home plate, one sees the Cyclone roller coaster beyond the left field wall, the boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean beyond the center field wall, and beyond the right field fence, the tall steel framework of Coney Island's signature parachute jump. On the warmest summer evenings, the ocean breeze provides natural air conditioning and the jewel-like field glows under the lights.

The first Cyclones home game took place on June 26, 2001, with Mrs. Gil Hodges and old Dodgers Ralph Branca and Joe Pignatano in attendance, together with surviving members of the Sym-Phony band. The game, telecast by the local PBS affiliate, was memorable: the 'Clones, down 2–0 in the ninth, tied it on a two-run homer, and won it in the tenth on a sacrifice fly by Mike Jacobs (who debuted with the Mets last year and is now with the Marlins). "There it was," McGee concludes, "A walk-off. A media mob. Fifteen cameras. Satellite trucks. Fireworks. O'Malley was dead. His offspring had sold the Dodgers. And baseball was back in Brooklyn."

Well, not quite the same thing. Never will be. Not even if Fred Wilpon were to build the new Mets palace in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field were more than baseball history; they were a unique time and a place. Both are gone now, but McGee's Greatest Ballpark Ever, despite an occasional infelicitous phrase or grammatical gaffe, recaptures the time and recreates the place. This book, no small accomplishment, has earned a spot on my Dodger bookshelf, not too far from Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer and Peter Golenbock's Bums.

—EFQ

ROBERT A. MOSS is the Louis P. Hammett Professor of Chemistry at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Last summer, with his son Dan, he attended a Cyclones game in Brooklyn honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the Brooklyn Dodgers 1955 World Series victory. No, you can't go home again, but sometimes you can come close.

© 2006 Robert A. Moss

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