Well, they lost the World Series that year to the hated Yankees, when Mickey Owen dropped a third strike. But nobody gave up on them. "Wait till nex' year" became the perennial battle cry, and for the next 15 years they were one of the finest baseball clubs in the country. Then suddenly, with the stealth of a flat thief, Walter O'Malley took them away. They were still making money at Ebbets Field, despite the old ballpark's rickety condition and despite television. Dodger fans, after all, were loyal. But the Dodgers, in O'Malley's opinion, were just not making enough money. One barren spring, Ebbets Field was left empty and dark, the dugouts abandoned, the infield turning to brittle dust, the great greensward of the outfield gone brown and mottled, the bleachers, where so much laughter, joy and sorrow had been staged, whipped by a cold wind. Today the old ballpark is gone. Still another housing project is planted on its site, with only a brass plaque to tip a chiseled hat to a rowdy and innocent past.
The operative word in the whole matter of the Dodgers is innocent. Baseball was a sport then, and if you came from Brooklyn, baseball meant the Dodgers. There were always some nonconformists; I remember a guy named Jackie McEvoy who rooted for the Giants and Buddy Kelly, who later died in Korea, rooting for the Yankees. But the Dodgers really were "The Pride of Brooklyn" and Dixie Walker really was "The People's Cherce." This vast confraternity of baseball maniacs held that borough together in a very special way; first, they provided common ground: Italians, Irish, blacks, Jews, Poles, all went to the games. Second, they provided something to talk about that did not involve religion, politics or race. And most importantly, they helped refute the canards about Brooklyn that puzzled so many of us when we were kids: the tree, the Brooklyn accent, the William Bendix type in all the movies, etc.
Memories, memories ... Snider, Hodges, Robinson, Reese and Campanella, who slugged the Dodgers to within a hairbreadth of the 1951 pennant.
Dodger fans believed in myths. They were romantics, of course, hoping that the impossible could be made possible, but often they settled for small victories. If the headline on the back page of the Daily News said FLOCK BEAT JINTS 3-2, then all was well with the world. It was no small surprise that when Bobby Thomson hit The Home Run off Ralph Branca to win the 1951 pennant for the Giants, several people in Brooklyn committed suicide.
I suppose that such emotions over a group of grown men playing a boy's game seem rather ludicrous today. But the people of Brooklyn had this one thing, this one simple belief: that ballplayers were the best people on earth. And in the evenings, thousands of fans, literally, would walk across Prospect Park to the night games, past the Swan Lake and the Zoo and out onto Flatbush Avenue, joined together by this odd faith in people named Snider and Furillo and Campanella and Cox. They were part of an experience larger than themselves, something that involved gray scoreboards, Red Barber, peanuts, special cops, the Brooklyn Sym-Phony, the crowds on the streets outside, Gladys Gooding at the organ, the roar at the crack of the bat, Pete Reiser breaking his skull against the concave outfield wall, Snider dropping home runs into the gas station on Bedford Avenue, black men laughing with white men in the bleachers when Robinson took his jittery lead to second, beer, hot dogs, laughter. Laughter. The Dodgers were called Dem Bums, and the laughter came in part from knowing that they were not.
And when they left, the people of Brooklyn were shocked. As deeply shocked as they had been by almost any other public act in their time. They had given the Dodgers unquestioned loyalty. They had given the Dodgers love. It never mattered to the fans that the Dodgers also made a lot of money. Hell, they should make a lot of money. The important thing was the game, the field of play, the heroes. But O'Malley took them away. For money. Nothing else. Sheer, pure greed. And for a lot of people that was the end of innocence. Romantics are always betrayed in the end, and O'Malley did a savage job of betrayal.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard was crucial to Brooklyn for at least one very good reason: it gave us work. It even gave me work. In 1951, during the Korean War, I went to work at Shop 17 in Building 63 of the Navy Yard as an apprentice sheet-metal worker. The number of men working there had declined from a peak of 70,000 during the Second World War to about 40,000, but the Yard was still the largest single employer in the borough. I hardly know the boy I was then; in memory it was a rough wild time, with a lot of drinking in the saloons of Flushing Avenue, much laughter with welders, and kindness from various people who said I was a bloody fool to be working with my hands when I could still go back and finish high school. I had one great job, with a thin, coughing black man who was a welder-burner and who stopped working every half-hour to drink milk. He said it coated his lungs against the filings of burnt metal. He coughed a lot anyway. We were working on an aircraft carrier named the Wasp, which was being re-fitted to accommodate jet aircraft. All the old bulkheads had to be removed, to be replaced with sturdier walls. His job was to burn around the edges of the bulkheads with an acetylene torch. My job was to pile into the bulkheads with a huge 20-pound hammer and knock them flat. It was an orgy of sheer animal fury, setting yourself, swinging ferociously, beating and smashing those bulkheads until they fell, while the thin black man coughed and laughed. "You some crazy white boy," he would say.