|A half-century ago, a baseball era ended in New York and another started in California|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 23 August 2007 11:47|
Led by owners Walter O'Malley and Horace Stoneham, the Dodgers and Giants moved west after the 1957 season, leaving New York without two of the National League's cornerstone teams and bringing major league baseball to Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was the first step to making the national pastime truly national.
Until 1957, baseball did not stretch farther west than Kansas City and St. Louis. There were just 16 major league teams, three of them clustered in the country's largest city, New York. The rest of the nation had minor league ball with the Triple-A American Association, International League and Pacific Coast League as well as various Double-A and Single-A leagues.
But the demographics of America were changing and California was outgrowing the PCL Hollywood Stars, Los Angeles Angels and San Francisco Seals. Soon, they would have the Dodgers and Giants and National League president Warren Giles would haughtily announce, ``Who needs New York?''
The seeds of the trek west were planted years before in the dreary Polo Grounds, ancestral home of the Giants, and intimate Ebbets Field, the bandbox ballpark where the Dodgers played.
The Polo Grounds had 55,000 seats but they were hardly needed, because the Giants rarely sold more than half that amount. The Dodgers only had 32,000 seats and management wanted a new, larger stadium with better parking in a downtown Brooklyn location.
It was in this setting that O'Malley and Stoneham decided to pack up their teams and head for more fertile ground. Stoneham had decided on Minneapolis, home of the Giants' top farm team. But O'Malley had grander plans after being first approached and then intrigued by Los Angeles.
O'Malley had been talking about enlarging or replacing Ebbets Field as early as 1946 and began approaching the city of New York with his plans in 1953, the same year he was first contacted by LA officials.
ay in Los Angeles.
For the Dodgers to move to California, logistics demanded that O'Malley find a traveling partner. Stoneham, experiencing his own case of wanderlust, would be perfect. But it took some convincing.
In March, 1957, a month after O'Malley acquired territorial rights to Los Angeles in a swap of minor league franchises with the Chicago Cubs, the Dodger boss wrote an internal memo detailing a three-hour meeting with Stoneham. In it, O'Malley said, ``Mr. Stoneham made up his mind some time ago to move his franchise from New York to Minneapolis. He told me this was quite independent of anything Brooklyn might do. ... I asked Mr. Stoneham if he had considered San Francisco and he said he was not at all impressed by that location.''
That would change.
On May 28, 1957, the National League voted permission to the Giants and Dodgers to move. Now, for the first time, the whispered rumor of the two teams abandoning New York became a very real possibility.
``We all thought he was just using it for leverage (for a new stadium),'' longtime Dodger executive Buzzie Bavasi said. ``Walter was a New Yorker. Why would he want to move to California?''
A tract of prime real estate near downtown Los Angeles, awarded free of charge, was one very good reason.
O'Malley had insisted all along he had no desire to move.
``We want to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn,'' he said. ``The Dodgers belong in Brooklyn.'' It was, he said, the intrangience of Moses that forced his hand.
But he also recognized the potential for baseball in California when few others did. And soon, the Dodgers were on their way to LA.
New York politicians were outraged. After all, the Dodgers consistently drew over 1 million customers when that was the benchmark for gate success. In fact, in 1956, the year before the move became inevitable, Brooklyn sold 1,213,562 tickets, more than nine other teams in baseball's 16-franchise universe.
O'Malley's ambition was widely blamed, even though he found a willing traveling companion in Stoneham. In fact, the Giants were the first to go, announcing their intention to relocate in San Francisco on Aug. 19, 1957. Less than two months later, on Oct. 8, the Dodgers said they were leaving for Los Angeles.
It was a jolt to New York's psyche. The teams were like family. Giants Hall of Famer Willie Mays played stickball in the streets of Harlem, before and after games at the Polo Grounds. ``Spalding dot,'' he said, remembering the pink ball he hit two, three, maybe four sewers. Dodger Hall of Famer Duke Snider remembered going to neighborhood movies in Brooklyn and finding half his teammates in the theater.
Partners in the move west, the on-field rivalry between the Giants and Dodgers was fierce. Joe Dickman, moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958, the same year as his beloved Giants, remembers the rivalry.
``I was living in Brooklyn and became a Giants fan,'' he said. ``I would never go to Ebbets Field wearing anything Giants - you wouldn't get out of there alive. I'd get a nickel for the subway and my mom would pack me a lunch, and at 13 or 14 I would go to the Polo Grounds alone.''
On Sept. 24, 1957, just 6,673 fans showed up for the final game at Ebbets Field with the Dodgers shutting out Pittsburgh 2-0. Snider sat it out, preferring to have a home run hit the previous day be his final at-bat at the old ballpark.
``Nobody wanted to move but it was no surprise,'' he said. ``It was in the papers all season and the LA people were always around. We tried to stay out of it. We were still playing baseball, trying to win games.''
Former Dodger Don Zimmer said the season-long rumors weren't a distraction, but had a slightly different memory of the players' reaction when the announcement came.
``There were some guys that were hoping that we went,'' Zimmer said. ``A guy like Snider lived in California. It was no distraction because I don't think anybody believed it would happen. And it happened, and that was it.''
Five days after the final Dodgers game at Ebbets Field, the Giants played their last game in the Polo Grounds, losing 9-1 to Pittsburgh as 11,606 fans showed up, some carrying signs that read, ``Stay Team, Stay.'' It was too late for that. The team was gone.
The Dodgers were welcomed enthusiastically in LA, housed for two seasons in the 90,000-seat Coliseum which was ill-fitted for baseball, before moving into Chavez Ravine. In San Francisco, the Giants settled in minor league Seals Stadium for two years and then in a wind tunnel called Candlestick Park where fans often watched games wearing parkas.
Before the move west, Stoneham had dispatched Chub Feeney, then a Giants executive and later National League president, to scout the site for the proposed stadium. Feeney visited Candlestick Point in the afternoon, when the winds were gentle. He never went there at night when the weather got nastier and when most games would be played.
Both teams enjoyed attendance jumps, the Giants nearly doubling ticket sales in their first year and the Dodgers showing a boost of about 500,000.
By 1974-75, the Giants attendance tumbled to just over a half-million, fewer fans than they attracted in their final years in New York. They rebounded during the nationwide baseball boom and have been over 3 million every year since 2000, helped by Barry Bonds' pursuit of the home run record. The Dodgers passed 3 million for the first time in 1978 and have eclipsed it 18 times since then.
O'Malley was ahead of his time by spreading baseball to the west coast. One-third of the 30 current major league teams are located west of Kansas City, five of them in California.
New York went without National League baseball for five years until the league granted an expansion franchise called the Mets. Their birth gave the rickety old Polo Grounds one more reincarnation and the new team spent two seasons there before moving into a new stadium on the very land Moses insisted O'Malley occupy. Eventually, the Polo Grounds was turned into a housing complex.
Ebbets Field was leveled in 1960 with several old Dodgers on hand. Pitcher Carl Erskine turned away when the wrecking ball first hit the dugout. He couldn't watch. ``I got sick,'' he said. ``I said goodbye and I left.''
In Brooklyn, where the home of the Dodgers once stood, a housing project was erected. Forty years after the team abandoned Brooklyn, a visitor to Ebbets Field Apartments found a sign on the side of one of the buildings.
It said: ``No Ballplaying.''
AP sports writer Janie McCauley in San Francisco and AP freelance writer Mark Didtler in Tampa contributed to this report