Memories of Old New York and the Departure of the Dodgers
Richard J. Garfunkel
July 24, 2006
I was never a Dodger fan, and never was I once in Ebbets Field, but for some strange reason my sister Kaaren was. The New York teams were well represented in our family. My father was an old-time Giant fan. Since he had grown up in Manhattan, being a Giant fan came naturally to him and many others of his generation. By the time he was 13 years old, in 1917, the Giants had been the most successful franchise in New York and had been led by their famous manager John McGraw for almost 16 years. They had stars like Christy Mathewson, Joe “Iron Man” McGinnity, Art Devlin, Larry Doyle, Rube Marquard, Chief Meyers, and Jeff Tesreau, They were also the most successful New York franchise with six pennants and five seconds in those 16 years. The Yankees had never won a pennant until 1921 and had only finished second three times in that same period. The Dodgers also had their own problems. They were a second division club for most of those years with only one 2nd place finish before finally a pennant in 1916. Kaaren eventually became disillusioned with the Dodgers when they traded Jackie Robinson to the Giants at the end of the 1956 season.
Of course being raised in Mount Vernon, which was not far from the Bronx, and being influenced by my mother, I became a Yankee fan. As a youngster growing up, my neighborhood was made up of fans from all three teams. That period from 1947 through 1957 before the departure of the Dodgers and Giants for the West Coast was the Golden Age of New York baseball. Other than 1948, a New York team was in the World Series every year. There were “Subway Series” in 1947, 1949, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956. My father, who liked the Giants took me often to the Polo Grounds, an antiquated and rusting hulk of a stadium which originally was built in Coogan’s Hollow, the last vestige of a farm granted by the King of England, in the 17th Century, to John Lion Gardiner. The property became the Coogan estate when a Gardiner descendent married James J. Coogan, who was elected the first Borough President of Manhattan in 1890. Twenty years after the original stadium was built in 1911 a fire swept through the 16,000-seat stadium and destroyed it. Eventually a concrete oval stadium was built and by the time it was enclosed in 1923 it held 55,000 fans. Ironically while the reconstruction was being done, the Giants played in Hilltop Park, the home of the Highlanders. After the opening of the new massive Polo Grounds, Hilltop Park, which was obviously located on a hill and occupied by the Highlanders Baseball Team. The Highlanders owed their name to the location of their ballpark and the fact that their owner Joseph W. Gordon’ name reminded some folks of the famed British Army unit (Gordon’s Highlanders) In 1913 the current owners (Farrell and Devery) of the Highlanders, who were quite often were referred to in the press as the Yankees, were unhappy with their antiquated park, and therefore accepted an invitation to play in the Polo Grounds. They stayed there until 1922, when John McGraw asked the then present owners Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston to take their team and leave. It is a mystery why he did that. The Yankees were big draws and outdrew the Giants in 1920, 21, and 22 and most would have thought that the added revenue would have been hard to resist. Maybe the Giants felt that they were being overshadowed by the presence of their new star Babe Ruth. John McGraw, an exponent of “inside” baseball or “little ball” as they term it today, hated Babe Ruth and his home runs. Of course the rest is history and McGraw expected them to move to Queens or someplace else and “whither on the vine.” They moved directly across the Harlem River and built “The House that Ruth Built.” The Yanks still remain there on property purchased by William Waldorf Astor and the Giants, who eventually went broke, left in 1957 and currently play in San Francisco. Many years later, in 1974-5, when the Yankee Stadium was being re-constructed they moved over to Queens and became guests of the City of New York, in Shea Stadium, for two unhappy seasons.
Years ago, I had become a bit more curious about the Dodgers because of my neighbors, the O’Hara family. Mr. William J. O’Hara, (1915-2002), was the father of a friend of mine and he was a local politician. He was a short-time member of the old Westchester Board of Legislators, and for the rest of his life he was referred to as the Commissioner. When his son, Billy, showed me, in the early 1950’s, one of Roy Campanella’s old gloves I learned that Mr. William O’Hara was connected to the Dodgers. I had never thought much about it when I was a youngster. I just was tremendously impressed with that famous big leaguer’s glove. I have no idea whether the O’Hara’s went to Ebbets Field and I was never asked to go with them. In fact, I can never remember going to a ballgame with anyone but my father or grandfather in those days. Mr. O’Hara was well connected and he also had a life-long relationship with the NY Football Giant’s Mara family as he had gone to Fordham College with Wellington Mara and Vince Lombardi. Even though I remained close to their family up until Mr. O’Hara’s death in 2002, I rarely, if ever, talked about his connections with the Giants and the Dodgers. One day, late in his life, and before he became sick in the mid 1990’s, we did talk about the Dodgers and how Walter O’Malley came to control that franchise. He told me that he had worked for O’Malley after law school and that O’Malley had gotten control of the Dodgers with practically no money! With those memories and thoughts in my mind, I started to reflect on the Dodgers and the stories he related.
In 1908 Charles Ebbets, who owned the Brooklyn Dodgers, wanted to build a new stadium. Ebbets, born in 1859, worked as a young man for six years at various jobs for the Dodgers before they entered the National League in 1890. In that year they had begun to be known as the Bridegrooms because six members of the team had been married in the off-season. When Ebbets rose to become secretary of the Brooklyn franchise he was given stock from one of the partners, a Mr. Harry Von der Horst. Von der Horst felt that if Ebbets owned part of the team he would be more loyal to its future. Eventually he had gained control of the club in 1898 after the death of the owner Charlie Byrne. As he was able to accumulate more money, because of the success of his club under the new manager Ned Hanlon, he bought more of the minority stock in the club. The Dodgers, who were known variously as the Trolley Dodgers, and the Bridegrooms, were then nicknamed the Superbas after a very popular local vaudeville troupe named Hanlon’s Superbas. That name caught on quickly and even in the 1950’s some old-timers still referred to the team as the Superbas. By age 45, in 1904, Ebbets controlled most of the stock and bought out the last of the outstanding shares owned by his early mentor Harry Von der Horst.
The Dodgers played in the antiquated Washington Park, located between 3rd and 5th Streets and Ebbets started to dream of a new home for the team that would attract more upscale fans. Unfortunately, reflective to the vagaries of baseball economics, he had money problems. Having to raise the necessary funds to complete his venture, he sold 50% of his ownership in the club for $100,000 to two builders who were brothers, Ed and Steve McKeever. The effort to create this new stadium, which would be eventually named Ebbets Field, would take four years and was finally opened in 1913. Unlike the old wooden stands of Eastern Park, where they variously played and Washington Park, they were now in a modern two-tiered steel and concrete edifice that attracted over 25,000 to their inaugural game. Reluctantly the McKeever Brothers allowed it to be named after Ebbets. The new Ebbets Field, located on a 4.5-acre lot bordered by Bedford Avenue, Sullivan Street, Franklin Avenue, and Montgomery Street, was formerly an area that had been occupied by squatters, shanties and an illegal garbage dump. At one time it was known as the “pig sty.” The park officially opened on April 9, 1913, but the “real” first game was an exhibition against the American League NY Highlanders (forerunners of the Yankees.) Ebbets Field would be in business for another 43 years when the Dodgers ended their last home season in Brooklyn while facing the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 24, 1957. Before 6,702 curiosity seeking fans, the now moribund Brooklyn franchise ended their career in Brooklyn with a 2-0 victory, before heading off to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. The official demise of the ballpark would come with the demolition ball in February 23, 1960. On that day 200 persons, including Lucy Monroe, who sang the National Anthem along with members of the McKeever-Mulvey family, watched the end come. A few weeks’ later gold-plated bricks were sold for $1 and flowerpots were sold with infield soil for 25 cents. The cornerstone was sold to Warren Giles, the National League President who donated it to the Hall of Fame.
The Dodger partnership was never perfect and even the naming of a manager was a problem. Eventually an old crony of John McGraw and a veteran of the defunct Baltimore Orioles team, Wilbert Robinson was named. Uncle Robby, as he was known, would be a fixture in Brooklyn for many years after. In fact, during his long tenure with the Dodgers, the team was also nicknamed the “Robins” for a time. Robinson, born in 1864, started with the old Baltimore Orioles, of the National League and was a pretty decent ballplayer. He once held the single game record for seven hits (1892) and eleven runs batted in, coincidently in the same game. When the Orioles dropped out of the National League in 1902 (that franchise would eventually become the Highlanders and then the Yankees, in the new American League in 1903, under the ownership of Frank Farrell and Big Bill Devery, who bought it for $18,000) Robby retired and started a new career running a meat market. In 1911 his old Oriole buddy John “Mugsy” McGraw, who had become the highly successful manager of the NY Giants, asked him to join the Giants as a coach. They got along until 1913, when after a game they had a falling out over a “missed” sign, and the argument spread to that evening. It became so unpleasant that they soon parted company. Charlie Ebbets, whose Dodgers and fans hated the Giants, saw an opportunity to hire the popular and much loved Uncle Robby as the Dodger’s new manager. Wilbert Robinson was always well liked, and at one time, Colonel Tillinghast ’Til” L’Hommedieu Huston, the then co-owner and partner of Colonel Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees, wanted Robby to manage the Yankees. He was never able to convince Ruppert to hire Robby and eventually Ruppert, the Knickerbocker Beer Baron bought him out. (Colonel Huston was an engineer and a real army colonel. Jacob Ruppert was an honorary colonel in the New York State National Guard.)
In 1925, Ebbets, while visiting Clearwater, Florida, took sick and died at the age of 66. A few days later, after enduring a long rain at Ebbets’ burial at the Greenwood Cemetery, his partner Ed McKeever got a cold. It seems that the late Charles Ebbets had been buried in an oversized coffin, but the gravediggers had not been informed and had to spend an hour widening the grave. The over-exposure to the inclement weather had led to Ed McKeever’s sickness. Unfortunately the cold turned into pneumonia and Ed died shortly after. Because Ed McKeever had been divorced and remarried, and his only son, who he had groomed to take over the club, had become estranged from him, the management of his shares went to his older brother Steve.
Eventually after the sorting out of the wills, the heirs of both Charles Ebbets and Ed McKeever owned 50% of the stock. The son in law of the late Charles Ebbets, one Joe Gilleaudeau, represented his family’s ownership along with Steve McKeever, who was known as the “Judge.” After the deaths of the two owners, Uncle Robby’s position became more difficult. He had been always a buffer between the two groups but a feud between him and Steve McKeever broke out. Eventually after six more difficult years he was forced out in 1931. His old friend Colonel Huston made him president of the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern League in 1933. Unfortunately, a year later in 1934, he fell down a flight of stairs that resulted in many severe fractures. In the hospital he died of a heart attack. He was only 70, but since he had been around so long, people thought that he would have been much older.
The two principal heirs, level headed Joe Mulvey, McKeever’s son in law, who had an excellent job with MGM Pictures, and Joe Gilleaudeau, who worked for Stetson, were not baseball men. They were not willing to commit themselves full time to a business that was constantly losing money. Therefore, in 1945, after years of problems and a number of years after the death of Steve McKeever, they directed the families to divest themselves of 75% of the stock in the club for approximately $1,000,000. Three buyers came forth; the famous baseball man Branch Rickey (1881-1965), John L. Smith, a chemical manufacturer and Walter O’Malley, (1903-1979) who had been a lawyer for the Brooklyn Trust, which had a mortgage on Ebbets Field and had been part of their management team since 1942. O’Malley had been hired by the President of the Brooklyn Trust, one George V. McLaughlin in the 1930’s and was given the job of carrying out mortgage foreclosures against failing businesses. Later he was asked by McLaughlin to handle the legal affairs of the Dodgers. When McLaughlin put the deal together to buy the stock he included O’Malley who had acted like a son to him. Reporters wondered how O’Malley fit in the picture and whether he was just a stand-in for his boss. Branch Rickey had been a baseball man all his life, who had started his short major league playing career in 1903. He was out of baseball after a few mediocre seasons, graduated from Ohio Wesleyan College, coached baseball at the University of Michigan, where he earned his law degree and gained the nickname as the “Mahatma” for his theatrical religiosity. He came back into the major leagues in the years before World War I with the old St. Louis Browns team, was fired, and then enlisted and served in World War I. After the war he returned to St. Louis to work for the Cardinals. There he remained there for two decades, and though he was fired as their field manger in 1925, he remained in the front office and built the famous Gas House Gang Cardinal teams and created a multi-layered farm system that insured Cardinal success up and through the 1940’s.
Of course, at this time, O’Malley had to come up with approximately $346,667, and he borrowed most if not all of it. Mr. O’Hara told me that he had no money! But somehow he was able to raise it. It seemed that the triumvirate had only to put down $82,000 each. The remaining $800,000 was financed by $75,000 paid by Smith and O’Malley would pay $75,000 from his share of the future club profits. The Brooklyn Trust loaned the balance of the money. Of course the question remained, where did O’Malley even get the $82,000?
In July of 1950, John L. Smith died of cancer, and change was in the wind. After a few rancorous years with O’Malley as his partner, Branch Rickey indicated that he wanted to sell his shares, but his partners had the right of first refusal. Smith, who had usually sided with O’Malley, would probably not have voted to remove Rickey as President, because he had made the Dodgers quite profitable. The team was successful, the farm system was stocked with young prospects and the Dodgers had never been as financially successful. After Smith’s death, and his widow and the Brooklyn Trust were named his executors, O’Malley moved in on the widow. He convinced her to turn over her stock to his administration, and when that happened, he was in complete control of the club.
Even though Rickey had paid approximately $346,667 and that is what O’Malley offered him for his one-quarter share, he wanted $1,000,000. Rickey, as the operating partner and the general manager of the club, had reached the end of his five-year contract in 1948 and was now on a year-to-year contract renewal that paid him handsomely over $150,000 per year. The other partners, Mrs. Smith and Walter O’Malley, made a fraction of that amount as co-owners of a team that did not generate a great deal of profit and therefore dividends. O’Malley wanted to now get rid of Rickey in the worst way. He knew that Rickey was in debt, borrowed to the hilt on his life insurance, owned his stock on margin and was in a financial jam. He offered him the same figure that he had paid for the Dodgers, $346,667. He assumed that he would be desperate, unable to get a buyer for his minority stock, and would go away quietly.
Therefore, of course, Rickey had to come up quickly with a buyer who was willing to pay that sum of money. His old fraternity brother John Galbreath, a multi-millionaire, who owned the Pittsburgh Pirates, connected him with the New York builder William D. Zeckendorf, who offered him $1,050,000 for his shares. O’Malley was not happy but he had to come up with the same amount of money to match the offer. After the contracts were signed with Zeckendorf, O’Malley raised the money and Rickey was paid off. Zeckendorf supposedly received a $50,000 fee for his time and effort. But many believed that this so-called deal was just a sham, and the $50,000 check was later endorsed over to Rickey. On paper it seemed like Branch Rickey finally had achieved financial security and had finessed O’Malley. He also was immediately hired by his old friend John Galbreath to become general manager of the Pirates. But not everything was as it seemed. Rickey had to pay the bank $300,000 to retire his debt, and the rest of the money was to be paid out over 10 years at $72,000 per year. Ultimately Rickey had to go into debt to pay his capital gains taxes in advance, so that the annual payment for the estate remained free and clear.
Ironically Rickey’s deal with Zeckendorf raised the value of the Dodger’s stock considerably and may have sowed the seeds for the Dodger departure from Brooklyn. O’Malley had to match his offer to remain in control of the Dodgers and probably from that day on he had cash flow problems. Though O’Malley was personally well off I assume that he felt almost immediately that he would have to build a new stadium to replace Ebbets Field, which had virtually no parking and only held 35,000 seats. When he saw the success of the former bankrupt Boston Braves, when they moved from their antiquated Commonwealth Avenue Braves Field, (now Boston University’s Nickerson Field,) to Milwaukee in 1953, he realized that the Dodgers would not be able to compete financially if they remained in the 42 year old Ebbets Field facility.
Meanwhile the so-called Golden Age of New York baseball had started with the end of the Second World War. The Giants who had dominated baseball in the early 1900’s had resurgence in the mid and late 1930’s under the leadership of “Memphis” Bill Terry and the skills of Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell. They led the National League in attendance in those Depression Years from 1933 to 1938, with an average of 10,034 persons per game! In 1933, when they were in the World Series they drew only 604,471 and led the league! Times changed and they again began to slip becoming a 2nd division team in between the managerial tenure of Mel Ott to the era of Leo Durocher, who came over from the Dodgers in 1949. In between those years their all-time high attendance peaked at 1,600,793 in 1947 and started to shrink to 653,923 in their last year in the Polo Grounds in 1957. Ironically they led the league in 1933 with 604,471 fans and went broke in 1957 with about the same attendance.
The Dodgers had been in a trough of failure from their pennant-winning year of 1920 until their resurgence with the front office management of Leland Stanford “Larry” McPhail and the field generalship of Leo “The Lip” Durocher in 1939. They had been in the 2nd division of the National League in 14 of those previous18 years! But in 1939 the Dodgers started their remarkable transformation from their days as the “Daffiness Boys” of the mid 1920’s until the unsuccessful reign of Casey Stengal as manager in the late 1930’s. From 1939 until their departure to Los Angeles in 1958, they finished in the top three in the league 18 out of 19 times. This included seven pennants and six-second place finishes. Even in their small ballpark they led the National League in attendance in ten of those years. In the war year of 1943 they led the National League with only 661,739 fans and by 1947 they almost tripled their attendance with an all-time Brooklyn high of 1,807,526 fans. Again, through the next ten years of the Golden Age their attendance would slip to a low of just over 1,000,000 fans and 5th in the league in 1957. This, of course, was the slippage and erosion of the fan base that Walter O’Malley was quite aware of and feared the most. Ebbets Field could not be expanded as it bordered on four city streets and extra parking was almost unavailable. During those final years in Brooklyn, O’Malley made, what seemed to be a “Herculean” effort to find another location in Brooklyn or Queens for the Dodgers, than affectionately known as “Dem Bums.” Many never thought that he had made enough of an effort. Later on sportswriters and people like Pete Hamill claimed that he had no real intentions of staying in New York. Hamill and others brought forth so-called documentary evidence of O’Malley’s real interest and desire of going to the “golden” west. But, there is no doubt that the politicians of the day, which included Mayor Robert F. Wagner and Park’s Commissioner Robert Moses fumbled the ball and allowed both Dodgers and Giants to leave. In truth, the city could probably not have supported two national League franchises, and the Giants, who were in much worse financial shape than the Dodgers, were going to leave anyway. The Polo Grounds was a horrible rusting hulk and the chances that a better location, with parking for the Giants was slim and none.
Meanwhile in the Bronx, and in the other league, the Yankees were also taking away entertainment dollars from the Dodgers. From 1920 until 1957 they led the league in attendance 30 times and finished second seven times. Only once in 1925, the year that the “Babe,” George Herman Ruth had his famous “belly-ache” did they not finish in the top two. The Depression did not hurt attendance in the Bronx as badly as their neighbors in the other Boroughs because of their great lineup of stars, winning ways, and bigger ballpark. But also in the war year of 1943, with people working double shifts in war plants, attendance shrunk to only 618,330 and they still led the league! Like all of baseball, peace brought the fans into the parks in droves. The stronger American League with the bigger ballparks showed tremendous increases in fan interest. The Yankees started a remarkable run of five years of 2 million plus fans in 1946. That explosion in fan interest peaked with a then New York City baseball record of 2,373,901 in 1948, a year where the Yanks finished in 3rd place. In those five years they drew 11,183,406 fans to the Bronx. The Yankees would not match those numbers again until 30 years later (1976-1980). The Dodgers, even in their greatest years (1946-1950) drew only 7,822,960, and the Giants 6,507,259. Therefore the Yankees were drawing about 80% of the combined total of the other two New York teams who were also doing quite well on the field! To put that in even greater perspective, the Dodgers from 1921 until 1938, a period of 18 years from their last pennant until the beginning of their emergence as a National League power only drew 11,438,887 fans or an average of 8,253 per game. The Yankees during that five-year period averaged 29,047 fans per game.
O’Malley was well aware of the impact that air travel would have on the country, and was also cognizant of the financial condition of the Giants, his cross-town rival. Horace Stoneham, the owner of the Giants was really losing money. Their attendance was hundreds of thousands less than the Dodgers per season and they were seriously considering moving to Minneapolis, the location and home of their top Minor League franchise, the Millers. With this in mind, O’Malley was really in a panic. If the Giants moved from New York their age-old natural rivalry would end! Therefore the seeds were planted for a cross-country move to the West Coast. O’Malley was wise enough to make sure that San Francisco would welcome the Giants with “open arms” while he was planning to go to Los Angeles. Of course O’Malley knew his business. The first year they were out in Los Angeles they broke their franchise record for attendance. The next year they went over 2,000,000 fans, and since that inaugural season out west they have been over 2,000,000 forty-one times in 44 seasons. They have even broken the 3 million mark 19 times. No club, not even the Yankees have approached those marks. The Yankees have only passed the 2 million mark 29 times in their legendary history and have only passed 3 million seven times. The Giants weren’t so lucky. Their early seasons were decently successful. They drew over 1 million up until 1968 when attendance started to slide, and they hit bottom in 1974 when they drew only 519,987 or 6,420 per game. Eventually attendance crept back up in the 1980’s. They finally broke 2 million when they won the pennant in 1989. Success finally arrived along with Barry Bonds and the Giants broke into the 3 million mark the last six seasons. In fact, in 2000 the Giants outdrew the Dodgers for the first time in attendance since they were both in New York in 1954 when the Giants won the pennant and World Series. It only took 52 years!
The Golden Age, which saw this great “on field” dominance of New York teams, finally came to an end in 1957. The Yankees had won the pennant 10 times with one 2nd place finish. The Dodgers had won the National League flag four times and finished 2nd four times, and the Giants won the pennant twice and finished 2nd three times. Every year, except 1948, one of the New York teams was in the World Series, and nine World Championships came to New York in those eleven years. The Dodgers and Giants long run in New York had come to a close. The previous ten years had seen the emergence of the Dodgers as superpower in the National League, but that was not enough to keep them in New York.
Names like Robinson, Snider, Campanella, Reese, Hodges, Furillo, Erskine, Loes, Cox, Newcome, and Gilliam soon became memories like the ones that they followed. There are few old-timers around these days that can remember Nap Rucker, Zach Wheat, Rube Marquard, Dazzy Vance, Babe Herman, Dolph Camilli, Whitlow Wyatt, Hugh Casey, Pete Reiser, Freddie Fitzsimmons, Max Carey or Burleigh Grimes. Ebbets Field was the fan’s connection to those early days of baseball in New York. The Brooklyn Dodgers are now ancient history and they have been out of New York almost 50 years. Amazingly it will not be long before Shea Stadium becomes older than Ebbets Field. Who would have thought of that back in the middle 1950’s when the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants ruled baseball?