The story of the Brooklyn Dodgers is very likely the most mythologized nostalgia bath in the entire 400-year history of New York. The official version—a legend you’ve probably fallen asleep to during late-night documentaries or wondered vaguely about while barreling down the Jackie Robinson Parkway—goes roughly like this. A hundred years ago, Brooklyn was the meltiest part of the New York melting pot. In Bay Ridge and Crown Heights and Midwood, mustachioed fathers with giant Old-World biceps gratefully worked themselves to death so their newly American kids could play stickball and mainline egg creams. The only force strong enough to unite all of the fractured cultures was baseball: early clubs like the Atlantics and the Excelsiors and the Bridegrooms and the Superbas and then, crawling out of the half-professionalized protoplasm, the Dodgers. And the relationship between Brooklyn and its Dodgers was almost obscenely intimate. Ebbets Field occupied one city block near the geographic center of the borough, where fans sat huddled in tiny seats stacked so close to the field they could curse the players personally, without raising their voices. All 3 million Brooklyn residents seemed to live directly next door to their favorite star. It was a magical civic soul-meld: Just as Brooklyn was the quintessential loser borough, the Dodgers were the quintessential loser team, a sacred band of holy fools who (barring a couple of minor victorious blips) stunk up the league for decades. (Even the name was an insult: Brooklyn wasn’t sophisticated enough to be trusted with a subway system, so residents crossing the street were forced to dodge trolleys.) When the team finally got good, in the era of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider and Roy Campanella, they still couldn’t win it all: They’d dominate the National League all season long, only to get ritually gutted by the Yankees in the World Series. Their epic chokes—a World Series game blown on a dropped third strike in the bottom of the ninth, an entire season wrecked by Bobby Thomson’s tragic “Shot Heard ’Round the World”—came to be more eagerly mythologized than their victories. But finally, just once, in October 1955, the gods of baseball dozed off, the cruel laws of the universe momentarily relaxed, and—thanks to a cocky young pitcher and a miraculous catch in left field and Mickey Mantle’s gimpy leg—the Dodgers beat the Yankees, setting off an orgy of multicultural celebration (with occasional arson) from Greenpoint to Sheepshead Bay.
Only two years later—exactly 50 years ago next week—Brooklyn fell from its short-lived glory. The baseball gods murdered the Dodgers with a poisonous cocktail of postwar affluence, the automobile, television, suburban Long Island, stubborn city-planning mastermind Robert Moses, and—the greatest villain of all—a greedy owner named Walter O’Malley. (Old Brooklynites still joke that, if you were to find yourself in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and O’Malley, armed with only two bullets, you’d have to shoot O’Malley twice.) It was a brutal hit, since the team didn’t just leave, they went on to an eternal and victorious afterlife in Los Angeles, the sprawling, public-transportationless anti-Brooklyn of the New World. Brooklyn’s slow decline into irrelevance—begun in 1898, when the proud independent city was swallowed by the bureaucracy of Greater New York—turned into a nosedive. The borough fell off the map, devoting itself entirely to gang violence, heroin, race riots, arson, homelessness, crack, and becoming a suitable background for late-seventies Travolta projects (Welcome Back, Kotter; Saturday Night Fever). New York officially ceded its baseball centrality to California, which today has five teams to our two. Basketball— a newish, nonallegorical sport—took over the borough’s streets.
This is the origin myth of modern Brooklyn, a story hammered as deep into the borough’s collective psyche as the Odyssey to the ancient Greeks’: The Dodgers united a multicultural Eden, but O’Money ate Southern California’s forbidden fruit, and the borough fell into darkness.
My first instinct as a skeptical modern inheritor of this legend is to punch it full of revisionist holes. The Dodger myth strikes me as one of the more self-indulgent stories a generation has ever cooked up in ahistorical homage to itself—an evergreen excuse for Manhattan’s power elite to wax nostalgic about the colorful poverty of their Brooklyn childhoods. The Dodgers have been so persistently overinvested with meaning—so puffed up on lofty flights of jock metaphysics—that they’re not even a baseball team anymore. They’re every big idea you’ve ever heard of: Equality, Democracy, Community, America.
Fortunately, revisionism turns out to be fairly easy. The Dodgers, first of all, were less a symbol of Freedom and Justice and Noble Suffering than of New Yorkers’ irrepressible self-regard; it takes a special talent for victimhood to kindle suffering out of supporting the most profitable dynasty in baseball over a ten-year period. (Between 1947 and 1956, the Dodgers played the Yankees in the World Series six times; the true sufferers were every fan and team outside of New York.) Furthermore, baseball in its so-called Golden Era was not some kind of precapitalist folk art—it was well on its way toward the ad-saturated mercenary professionalism we all know and loathe today. Duke Snider, the Dodgers’ heroic center-fielder, told a reporter that he would have retired in his mid-twenties if not for the money; he stood in the outfield during the World Series fantasizing about avocado farming. Even the team’s most noble act—breaking baseball’s color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson—was as much about economics as social justice: The Dodgers’ management saw minorities as baseball’s biggest and cheapest untapped labor pool. And, finally, there was a limit to the meltiness of the Brooklyn melting pot—by the fifties, at the height of Dodger glory, the borough’s democratic chumminess seems to have burned off: Its players and fans became (like their nemeses in the Bronx) accustomed to winning, tired of sitting together, and happy to watch the game on TV. Ebbets Field was getting shabby. Attendance sagged.