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Did Walter O’Malley Betray New York When He Took the Dodgers to California?

Adapted from “Baseball Goes West: The Dodgers, the Giants, and the Shaping of the Major Leagues” by Lincoln Mitchell. 

From the New York perspective, the story of why the Dodgers and Giants left the New York is one with many potential villains and no heroes. The two individuals most often described as the villains in this story are Walter O’Malley, the owner of theDodgers and Robert Moses, the New York City Parks Commissioner who for decades was an extremely powerful behind the scenes force in New York City politics and land use.[1]O’Malley and Moses make great villains. By the late 1950s, both were older wealthy men who looked the part. O’Malley was a big affluent looking man frequently seen with a cigar in his mouth and a smile on his face. Moses, cut a very different profile. He was a prototypical permanent government type. Despite never holding elected office, he had been in and around government in New York for decades. Although he had been credited with building much of modern New York City, by the late 1950s, criticisms around the racial impact of his work and his undemocratic style were beginning to be more frequent.

Every Brooklynite of that era knew that if you were stuck in a room with Hitler, Stalin, Walter O’Malley and only two bullets, the right thing to do was to shoot O’Malley twice. This was, of course, gallows humor that was not exactly fair to O’Malley. However, a more challenging question for Brooklynites might be what to do if Robert Moses were in that room as well and if you had only one bullet. This joke is kind of funny, but in poor taste and should only be taken so far. Moses was an autocratic and insensitive official and O’Malley broke the hearts of many fans of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, but neither committed genocide or were brutal dictators. The joke reflects the need many felt to find somebody to blame for the Dodgers’ departure. The strong need for a villain in this story is in part a way to deflect attention from the failure of the people of Brooklyn to support the Dodgers. That is the third angle in this debate, that the Dodger and Giants fans stopped supporting their teams and left O’Malley and Stoneham little choice but to head west. Again, all these narratives focus more on the Dodgers than on the Giants, but many of the same issues pertain to both.

In broad strokes, the blame O’Malley argument is that the Dodger owner betrayed the people of Brooklyn, ripping a good team out of the borough for no reason other than personal avarice. Implicit in this story is the view, that may in fact be accurate, that Brooklyn was a special place, and that the Dodgers had a particularly intense relationship with the people of Brooklyn, more so than those of other cities with their teams. O’Malley, according to this story, had a good thing in Brooklyn, but could not resist the greener, and more lucrative, call of Southern California. This storyline tends to view Horace Stoneham as a more or less hapless dupe of O’Malley willing to move his Giants to the less lucrative, and chillier, destination of San Francisco, to ensure the success of O’Malley’s plan. Moses is a less obvious villain, but his role in the departure of the Dodgers and Giants stems from his alleged unwillingness to agree with the teams about constructing new stadiums. Robert Caro, in his extraordinary biography of Robert Moses, describes how Moses rammed through, over the opposition of protesting neighborhoods, approval for new expressways, for two great new bridges, the Throgs Neck and the Verrazano… killed, over the efforts of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, plans for a City Sports Authority that might have kept the Dodgers and Giants in New York, and began happily to plan the housing projects that he had wanted on the sites of the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Fields all along.”[2]

In Caro’s book, that can hardly be described as laudatory towards its subject, the author only mentions O’Malley, the Giants or the Dodgers in the quote above. Horace Stoneham is not mentioned at all. There is reason to believe that if Moses was really the primary reason why the two teams left, Caro would have spent more time on the question in his comprehensive biography, or would have made sure that the material he wrote in earlier drafts made it into the final published version of the book.

The intensity of the debate over whether O’Malley or Moses is more at fault for the Dodgers and Giants departure, and the more general need to find somebody to blame has been used by several generations of primarily Brooklynites to avoid looking more closely at the extent to which they are responsible for the two teams’ departure for California.

In the 1950s, despite the growing popularity of television and baseball’s growing experimentation with televising more games, most teams still relied substantially on selling tickets to generate revenue. As noted earlier, attendance in general was down across baseball during this period. This contributed to franchise moves in the early 1950s as well as to the consistent allure of the west coast for the Giants and Dodgers.

Table One provides an overview of some attendance figures from1947-1957. The number in parentheses following the total attendance figure for that years is the ranking of the Giants or Dodgers across the Major Leagues. There were 16 big league teams during these years.

Table One[3]

Year Giants (Rank) Dodgers (Rank) Yankees (Rank)
1947 1,600,793 (3) 1,807,526 (2) 2,178,937 (1)
1948 1,459,269 (6) 1,398,697 (5) 2,373,901 (2)
1949 1,218,446  (7) 1,633,747 (4) 2,283,676 (1)
1950 1,008,878 (9) 1,185,896 (5) 2,081,380 (1)
1951 1,059,539 (7) 1,282,628 (4) 1,950,107 (1)
1952 984,940 (8) 1,088,704 (4) 1,629,665 (1)
1953 811,518 (10) 1,163,419 (4) 1,537,811 (2)
1954 1,155,067 (5) 1,020,531 (8) 1,475,171 (2)
1955 824,112 (12) 1,033,589 (8) 1,490,138 (2)
1956 629,179 (15) 1,213,562 (4) 1,491,784 (2)
1957 653,923 (15) 1,028,258 (10) 1,497,134 (2)

In 1947, the Dodgers and Giants ranked second and third in attendance. The Yankees ranked first in attendance that year, as they did in every year from 1949-1952 as well.[4] In 1947, the three New York teams combined to draw 5,587,526 fans. In that year slightly more than 28% of all fans who attended big league games did so in New York City. 

The Yankees solid attendance rankings during these years, never falling below 2nd place or 1,475,000 annual attendance, demonstrate the complexity of the problem facing the Giants and Dodgers. The Yankees ability to draw relatively good crowds contrasted with the Dodgers and particularly the Giants at a time when the Bronx, Brooklyn and northern Manhattan were all undergoing demographic changes. The Yankees during these years were the best team in baseball, winning nine pennants and seven World Series in these 11 years, but the Dodgers had great teams too and went to the World Series six times in this period. The Yankees continued to lead, or come close to leading, the big leagues in attendance throughout this period, while the Dodgers and Giants never ranked higher than they did in 1947.

The data also suggests that attendance in these years was bad throughout big league baseball.  It is no surprise that a pennant-winning team with colorful stars like Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, playing in New York City regularly led the American League in attendance, but in several of these years they drew only around one and a half million people. Baseball could have continued like that, as it had been for years, but it would have remained a much smaller and less-moneyed industry, and would have quickly fallen behind other sports like football and basketball.

From 1953 through 1957 the Milwaukee Braves led the big leagues in attendance every year. They had some very good teams in those years finishing second three times, third once and winning the pennant in 1957. They had two future inner-circle Hall of Famers, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn, for all five of those years. A third, Henry Aaron, joined the Braves in 1954. The Braves, during these years, were an excellent team with several high profile and exciting stars, but that is not the primary reason why they drew so well. 

The Braves remarkable attendance was largely due to big league baseball being new to Milwaukee in 1953, the year the Braves moved there from Boston. This could not have been lost on O’Malley and Stoneham. It could also not have been lost on these two men that Milwaukee was smaller than Los Angeles or San Francisco and much closer to other big league cities-Chicago is fewer than 100 miles from Milwaukee-than either of the west coast cities were. If the Braves could draw so well in Milwaukee, these men must have thought, imagine what the Giants and Dodgers could do in the west coast.

While the Dodgers and Giants regularly trailed the Yankees, and later the Braves, the two teams confronted different economic realities during this period. With the exception of 1954, when the Giants won the pennant over the second place Dodgers by five games, the Dodgers outdrew the Giants every year during this period. Moreover, they were in the top 25% of all teams for attendance in six of these 11 years and only fell into the lower half for attendance in 1957 when they were understood to be leaving Brooklyn at the end of the season. The Giants, however, were a different story. Beginning in 1952 their attendance was low, with the one exception of their pennant-winning 1954 season. Their inability to draw well the year immediately following their World Series victory made it clear that they were struggling.

O’Malley, Moses and indeed the people of Brooklyn, including those who had recently left the borough for the suburbs, were all being influenced by the same battery of changes in New York. The postwar boom had drawn people out of overcrowded urban neighborhoods into the suburbs. This meant that a trip to see the Giants or Dodgers play represented an investment of time and money that was made more difficult because, naturally, older urban ballparks like Ebbets Field and thePolo Grounds did not have sufficient parking. Additionally, the changing demographics of the neighborhoods of northern Manhattan and central Brooklyn meant that many white fans were no longer comfortable going there. Suburbanization, problematic infrastructure, crime and racism came together by the mid-1950s to make it clear that the Giants and Dodger could not continue in their longtime home fields.


[1] Few people have had as much influence on New York City as
Robert Moses. To a great extent, we live in Robert Moses’s New York.
Thoroughfares like the Cross Bronx Expressway or the Triborough Bridge, that
are still essential for the daily functioning of New York, were, for better and
worse, envisioned and built by Moses. Weekend getaways like Jones Beach and the
roads that take people there, as well as the paucity of parks in lower income
communities are also largely Moses’s doing. Robert Caro’s 1974 book The
Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
remains by far the best
and most comprehensive work on Moses as well as one of the best biographies of
anybody.

[2] Caro, Robert A. (1974) The Power Broker: Robert Moses
and the Fall of New York
New York: Vintage Books p. 1018

[3] http://www.ballparksofbaseball.com/1950-59attendance.htm

[4] In 1948, the Yankees were second in overall attendance tothe Indians. From 1953-7, the Yankees were second in attendance to the Milwaukee Braves.

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