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Exorcising the Dodgers

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Ebbets Field Apartments in Crown Heights, overlaid with a drawing to scale of Ebbets Field as it was.   

But by far the most irritating part of the Dodgers myth is that—despite its obnoxious ubiquity and subtle historical distortions and inherent racism and all the self-congratulatory backslapping—the core of it actually seems to be true.

Michael Shapiro—Columbia journalism professor, native Brooklynite, and author of The Last Good Season, a book about the Dodgers’ leaving—told me that his revisionist impulse was similarly crushed by the hard reality of the Dodgers. He intended to write a book that would dispel the great distorting myth of his sixties Brooklyn childhood: that life would have been better if the Dodgers hadn’t left. Instead, his research kept confirming it. Although his book pokes a few holes in the traditional version of the Dodger story—Moses, not O’Malley, is the primary villain—he leaves it generally intact. “There was something there,” he told me. “It was real.” But he’s no Pollyanna. The Dodgers, he told me, were not mystic vessels sent from God to administer virtue and nobility to earthlings. Their power was simpler, and more profound.

“When the Dodgers left, it didn’t rip the heart out of the borough,” he says. “That’s too much. I think people said that because they couldn’t quite put into words the sense of what was lost. The departure of the Dodgers denied Brooklyn, for half the year, this common conversation—the idle chitchat you have with people on the subway or waiting for the elevator or going to the butcher. Baseball informed so much of that. ‘Can you believe that Furillo last night? Snider’s a bum! Is Hodges gonna get a hit?’ It created a relationship between strangers—you felt close to them, if only for a minute or two. What was lost was each other.”

The tragedy of the Dodgers, in other words, was only incidentally about baseball. This was not just the death of a team, or the extinction of a fan base, or the sudden bankruptcy of Crown Heights hot-dog vendors—but the death of mythic Old Brooklyn itself. The team’s departure corresponded with a massive social shift that totally remade the borough. Industry shut down (most traumatically when the Navy Yard closed in 1966) and Brooklyn hemorrhaged its jobs just as a new set of job-seekers, mainly Puerto Ricans and southern blacks, moved in. Widespread poverty descended.

And the Dodgers weren’t the only ones who left—a whole generation followed O’Malley’s lead. The white middle classes—a couple of centuries’ worth of Europe’s persecuted poor—fled in new cars on even newer roads to the freshly minted suburbs of Long Island. Brooklyn became the center of the city’s black population. This pattern of so-called white flight wasn’t unique; it played out in most big American cities after the Second World War. But in a borough full of immigrants who’d achieved (after countless displacements) what must have felt like miraculous stability, the new shift seems to have struck with double force: The exiles were being reexiled. A whole generation of Brooklyn kids lost the mythic homeland right on the brink of adulthood, leading them to fetishize the People’s Republic of Stickball in a way that would have been impossible if they (or the Dodgers) had stayed. The Dodgers, of course, didn’t cause any of this—at most, their absence exacerbated things—but in the sloppy translation of history into public myth, they became powerful shorthand for it.

Forty-nine years and eleven months after the Fall of Old Brooklyn, in an effort to trace the expiring myth’s existential fallout, I drove out to Long Island to meet a couple of the old white flighters. Rabbi Paul Kushner answered the door of his Bellmore home wearing a Pee Wee Reese uniform. He grew up so close to Ebbets he could hear the crowd through his living-room windows; he cried when the team left. Now he’s 70 (we had to schedule our meeting around a colonoscopy) and bald, with the chalk line of a white beard wisping down his jawbones and tangling under his chin. He sat me at his kitchen table and held forth, for an hour and a half, about the imperiled soul of Brooklyn.

“The Brooklyn that I know and loved isn’t there anymore,” he said. “Right now, Brooklyn is an aggregation of individuals, an aggregation of racial groups, of ethnic groups. There’s nothing uniting us. There’s no borough. Marty Markowitz is not president of anything. He’s president of garbagemen and sewer cleaners, whatever keeps the infrastructure going. There’s no feeling of cohesion.”

Kushner is a fierce Brooklyn nationalist. Sitting 30 miles from Crown Heights, 23 years after leaving, in the middle of a bitter rant about the decline of his homeland and the alienation of Brooklynites, he still says, “There’s nothing uniting us.”


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