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forever blue

21 august 2009

It's an old joke in Brooklyn. You're locked in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O'Malley. You have a gun with two bullets. What do you do? Shoot O'Malley twice.

In Forever Blue Michael D'Antonio doesn't recommend shooting O'Malley at all, oddly enough. D'Antonio's biography of the man who brought the Dodgers out of Brooklyn sympathizes greatly with the portly team owner, reserving the role of villain for New York City overlord Robert Moses.

Forever Blue boosts the stock of O'Malley and loyal O'Malleyites like Buzzie Bavasi, Vin Scully, and Walter Alston. The book leaves Branch Rickey about where other historians have left him. Taken down a peg are Moses and Leo Durocher, though both of them are already pretty low in the estimation of anyone who cares. Unusually, Forever Blue is also critical of Jackie Robinson. Robinson comes across as hard to get along with and unreasonably hostile to O'Malley. D'Antonio doesn't say anything really negative about Robinson, but just by not genuflecting before him, he reverses a trend in baseball historiography.

In short, it's a contrarian book. D'Antonio's provocative sympathies and his vivid narrative style make for a highly readable study of O'Malley's role in baseball history. I toss mediocre baseball books aside like Robinson stole bases, with fierce decisiveness. I didn't toss Forever Blue; not only didn't toss it, but found it a true page-turner.

Even though I knew how it would turn out: the Dodgers would abandon Ebbets Field to the wrecking ball and find perpetual lotus-eating comfort in balmy Chavez Ravine, California, as O'Malley grew sleek and self-satisfied, and millions of fans who proverbially can't be bothered to stay past the seventh inning disported themselves with the team that a borough across the continent had lived and died with for so many gritty decades.

Except that caricature of Dodger nostalgia is far from D'Antonio's take on team history. His O'Malley, son of a Tammany insider, hustling product of Fordham Law, does everything in his power to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn, only to be foiled by the dastardly, sneering Robert Moses.

The Dodgers made lots of money in Ebbets Field, right up through 1957, their last season there. O'Malley took the money and poured it into the concrete of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. There seems to be no basic contention over these facts, and D'Antonio concedes them. O'Malley left Brooklyn not because he was losing money there, but because he wasn't making as much as he could elsewhere. That's the American way.

Between O'Malley, the city fathers, and the National League, some way should have been found to keep the Dodgers close to Flatbush Avenue – if not perhaps precisely at Sullivan and McKeever. Forever Blue is a success story with a happy ending, where a paternalistic benefactor, bringing happiness to millions, literally heads off into the sunset. But longer-sighted people could perhaps have found a way to let O'Malley have his pot of gold and keep major-league baseball in residential Brooklyn.

Think of it: Ebbets Field in the 1990s and 2000s, riding the same mixed wave of nostalgia and home run fever that made Wrigley Field and Fenway Park into block-square cash machines for Cubs and Red Sox owners. Gentrifying Brooklyn of the boom years with a certified historic jewel of a ballpark in its midst. Just in terms of sheer lucre, somebody missed a terrific opportunity.

That's even without appealing to community spirit. But of course, community spirit is just what Moses, O'Malley, and everyone else involved in losing the Dodgers cared less about. Moses, as quoted by D'Antonio, openly disparaged the sense of civic identity that the ballclub gave the borough. For Moses, Brooklyn was a place to drive through on your way to the city from eastern Long Island. The more of it that could simply be paved over, the better.

So instead of a nobly greying Ebbets Field, we got 45 years of Shea Stadium, a place that seemed incidental to its own parking lot. (O'Malley's greatest complaint about Ebbets was that there was no place to park: no matter that eight million people lived a dime away by subway.) And Shea had to be replaced in turn by CitiField – which attempts, on the windswept landfill of Willets Point, to replicate, well, Ebbets Field.

And L.A. got the heart that was ripped out of still-living Brooklyn. It's still hard to believe. I've known some Boston Braves fans and even some St. Louis Browns fans, none of whom are unhappy that the Atlanta Braves and Baltimore Orioles have thrived. Expos fans are taking the Washington Nationals pretty hard, but they're doing it in French in a strange country where people seem to think everyone should be able to visit a doctor when they're sick. Now, I'm not from Brooklyn, I've never lived or worked there, and I'd frankly have grown up rooting against the Dodgers had they stayed. And they left Brooklyn a year and a half before I was born. But I still think of them as only temporarily exiled. For those blue caps to read "LA" seems like a cruel joke.

Not that it seemed cruel to Walter O'Malley, who beams with unrepressed delight from every California-shot picture in D'Antonio's book. And not that it seemed cruel to lots of other displaced Dodger-lovers. On a CD somewhere I have a recording of a song by Danny Kaye, "Oh Really? No, O'Malley." It's a typical patter song, credited to Kaye himself, which is to say it was probably written by his wife Sylvia Fine. In the song, Kaye squirms with excitement at every detail of an L.A. Dodger contest against the hated Giants (who by this point had decamped from Manhattan to San Francisco, of course).

Kaye, like O'Malley and the Dodgers, had left inner-city Brooklyn for Southern California. In his song, you can hear the glee of someone who had gotten it all: Hollywood, fame, eternal warmth, Sunset Boulevard. And he had gotten to keep his Dodgers. A great paunchy Santa Claus had delivered them to his be-palm-treed back yard. In America of the 1960s, that was known as having it made.

D'Antonio, Michael. Forever Blue: The true story of Walter O'Malley, baseball's most controversial owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles. New York: Riverhead, 2009.