The Dodgers Move West by Neil J. Sullivan ( Oxford University Press, $17.95) is a scholarly work that analyzes in dispassionate detail the real reasons why the Brooklyn Dodgers were uprooted in 1957 and moved 3,000 miles to Los Angeles. The New York Giants were shifted to San Francisco at about the same time, but the author considers that situation only in passing. This book is about the Dodgers and their owner, Walter O'Malley.
For three decades it has been an article of faith among Brooklyn diehards that the Dodgers left town only because of O'Malley's greed—his unseemly desire for the lush economic pastures of Southern California. But, according to this fascinating book, the story was a good deal more complex than that.
O'Malley came to realize that Brooklyn in the 1950s was a changing and disintegrating community and that the essentially middle-class fans who supported the ball club were rapidly moving to the suburbs. The upward-striving children and grandchildren of the immigrants who had arrived in Brooklyn around the turn of the century were leaving their beloved borough for split-level houses farther out on Long Island, and while they continued to follow the Dodgers on radio and television and in the newspapers, they weren't as much in evidence at Ebbets Field itself.
That beloved stadium was a deteriorating antique with almost no parking for cars, and it wasn't all that handy to public transportation. Ebbets Field was an old-fashioned neighborhood ballpark that was losing its neighborhood clientele. As the author says, "For all the passionate prose written about the devotion of the Flatbush Faithful, the attendance figures are rather underwhelming.... The Dodgers' park may have been lovably old, dirty, and decrepit, but it was not jammed to the rafters with cheering partisans." In 1955, the year the Dodgers won the World Series for the first time, attendance at Ebbets Field barely topped 1,000,000, averaging 14,355 a game, less than half its tiny 31,902-seat capacity.
The unsentimental O'Malley, worried about the future of his ball club, had given clear, repeated warnings that he was not going to stay in Ebbets Field and that he needed New York City's official assistance to create a new, larger, more convenient stadium. Sullivan doesn't canonize O'Malley or dismiss the slick, devious side of the man's nature, but he argues persuasively that the major blame for the Dodgers' departure from New York lies more with the bickering, indolent and shortsighted leaders of the city government than with O'Malley's lust for the buck. " 'Leisurely' is the kindest description one can apply to the actions taken by New York officials," he writes. The people in Los Angeles who wanted the Dodgers worked hard and efficiently to overcome local opposition and to solve the complex problems that stood in the way. "Their counterparts in New York," Sullivan says, "were indifferent or hostile to measures necessary for keeping the team."
The move to California eventually proved to be a financial and artistic triumph for O'Malley, but when the switch became official in the fall of 1957, the Dodger owner was taking a huge gamble, which Sullivan says he was reluctant to take. Roz Wyman, one of O'Malley's strongest supporters on the Los Angeles City Council, told Sullivan that as late as the first week of October 1957, O'Malley informed her that he still wanted to keep the Dodgers in New York.
The villains in the piece—although that is a gross oversimplification of the author's careful, balanced analysis of the factors involved—were New York's do-nothing mayor, Robert Wagner; the power broker Robert Moses; and the squabbling political leaders in New York's five boroughs, who were incapable of agreeing on a concerted course of action (such as they followed several years later when New York built Shea Stadium for the infant Mets). The end result was inevitable: Goodbye, Brooklyn; Hello, Los Angeles.