Exorcising the Dodgers

Pitcher Billy Loes winds up while pitching for the Dodgers, circa 1950.Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

Ebbets Field Apartments in Crown Heights, overlaid with a drawing to scale of Ebbets Field as it was. Photo: Christopher Nesbet [Photo and Illustration]

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.”

Fans demonstrating in 1957 to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn.Photo: Diamond Images/Getty Images

Between us on the table was a deteriorating plastic bag, probably 30 years old, inside of which was an even older envelope, its paper crispy and torn, which in turn contained a handful of dirt the rabbi had scooped in 1956 from the third-base line at Ebbets.

“There is an ancient custom,” he said. “When a traditional Jew dies, they sprinkle some soil from Jerusalem over him. I told my wife, Jerusalem is fine. I lived for a year in Jerusalem, I’ve washed enough soil from Jerusalem out of my chinos. Jerusalem is okay—I’m going along with tradition. In addition to that, this goes into the casket with me. Sacred soil from Ebbets Field. One can be a Brooklyn Dodger fan eternally.”

I suggest to him, as tactfully as possible, that this might be a little over-the-top. He responds that I’m a product of my era, in which baseball is accepted as merely another bizutainment instead of what it truly is: the instrument of a kind of ecstatic communal spirit bordering on the sacred.

Like many Dodger fans, Kushner sees O’Malley’s defection as the Watergate of American sports—not just a local betrayal but evidence that the entire system was incurably corrupt.

“When the Dodgers left Brooklyn,” he said, “I swore off professional athletics. I could no more root for a baseball team than I could root for U. S. Steel or General Motors. It’s a private, profit-making corporation taking advantage of the innocent lambs who are foolish enough to be their fans.”

To this day, he refuses to speak the name of the L.A. Dodgers aloud. “It’s like Voldemort,” he said. “My kids know never to say the name in my presence.” He refers, when strictly necessary, to “the Los Angeles National League team.”

With Atlantic Yards, we are witnessing the birth of post-mythic Brooklyn, an 81-square-mile metaphor for nothing.

the most powerful emblem of the death of Old Brooklyn is the fate of Ebbets Field itself. On September 24, 1957, the last Dodger pitch snugged itself, at roughly the speed of a sedan screaming down the Long Island Expressway, into the pocket of the last Dodger glove at Ebbets field. Over the next couple of years, the stadium hosted a ragtag lineup of small-fry events: soccer matches, high-school-baseball games, demolition derbies. Then, in 1960, Ebbets itself was demolished by a wrecking ball painted (with signature Brooklyn tact) to look like a baseball. In 1962, as the Dodgers were christening their luxurious new stadium in Los Angeles, and the concrete bowl of Shea was beginning to rise in Queens, the city replaced Ebbets with a complex of bland 25-story towers of sand-colored brick—a housing project designed (in the spirit of Moses) to serve as a rational hive of low- and middle-class living. The middle, however, had dropped out, so, like most such projects, the Ebbets Field Apartments quickly deteriorated into a magnet of urban blight.

Marty Adler, another Long Island superfan, spent many years in the shadow of these towers. His life has been like a brilliantly sustained piece of performance art about the fate of Brooklyn’s Lost Generation. He grew up, surrounded by his entire extended family, in Borough Park, commuting frequently to Ebbets by subway or trolley or bike, eating homemade sandwiches in the stands, playing a couple of magical high-school-baseball games there, and (during the glory years of the mid-fifties) getting himself fired for inattentively selling peanuts. Like Rabbi Kushner, Marty was 20 when the team left. Eight years later, he joined the exodus to Long Island, where he became arguably the world’s most fervent Dodgers evangelist—he founded the Brooklyn Dodger Hall of Fame, wrote the Brooklyn Dodgers Newsletter, organized reunions among the surviving players, and lobbied to Dodgerize the names of New York’s roads and bridges and schools. To make a living, however, he commuted every day back to the epicenter of Fallen Brooklyn, where he served for twenty years as the assistant principal of Crown Heights middle school. His office window looked out at what used to be the stadium’s grand entrance rotunda. But the view had changed: It was now just the vertical block of sand-colored bricks. The place where he’d seen a hundred-odd life-defining baseball games was now one of the city’s rougher slums.

“Tough place,” he told me. “The cold months, seemed like every Monday morning you’d find a body. The roof was blacktop, and, since heat rises, junkies’d go up there to sleep. They’d get sick or mugged or thrown off the top. Monday morning, you call the police station up at 6:10, 6:15. ‘We have one break-in, a window on the south side. There’s a drunk on the corner—please send a patrol car, the kids are coming to school soon. I think there’s a body, someone was screaming.’ Every Monday, routine.”

Celebrating the Dodgers' World Series victory in 1955.Photo: Bettman/Corbis

Eventually, as the neighborhood spiraled further from his childhood memories of it, Marty had the school’s name officially changed to Jackie Robinson Middle School. He incorporated Dodgers history into the curriculum. And he swears that, in the evenings, when he was alone in his office, particularly in October and April, he would suddenly hear, with his actual ears, the ghost of the Dodgers’ announcer reading out the old lineups. “Batting first for the Brooklyn Dodgers: Jim Gilliam,” Marty said. “And Robinson and Cox and Snider and Hodges and Campanella, and—all the names. You live this all your life, and you listen and you hear the names.”

Marty has since retired; he lives now in a gated subdivision, directly off the L.I.E., that represents the full Robert Moses vision of exurban bliss, a parody of old brownstone Brooklyn. (The town is called, in an appropriate reversal, Lynbrook.) A few weeks ago, he took a trip to California to see all five of the state’s baseball stadiums. Except for an occasional visit to Coney Island for a Brooklyn Cyclones game (a Mets’ minor-league affiliate), he never goes back to Brooklyn.

Today, Brooklyn is undergoing another massive social shift—the biggest, in fact, since the Dodgers left: a real-estate boom, renewed cultural relevance, unprecedented diversity, a Leave It to Beaver murder rate, and even—in what seems like a karmic reversal of the Dodgers fiasco—a new major sports team on the way. At some point in the last decade, the borough scored its most lucrative contract since the Navy Yard closed: It became the main off-site production facility for Manhattan’s hipness. But as any reflexively anti-Establishment blogger will tell you, what looks on paper like the dawn of a new Golden Era might actually be the death rattle of Brooklyn’s authenticity. Historically, Brooklyn has been the antithesis of everything Manhattanites value most: a handy bulwark against the voracious real-estate-industrial complex across the river. Now it’s beginning to feel like an extension of Manhattan, the city’s shabby-chic east wing. The colonizers’ crimes against the spirit of Brooklyn are legion and heavily blogged. Williamsburg is a hipster theme park soon to be augmented by luxury waterfront high-rises. Park Slope is a parody. There are $2.2 million brownstones in Fort Greene. The old Navy Yard now houses a film studio. Red Hook is now a dock for the world’s largest cruise ship and will soon be home to the nation’s largest Ikea. The new frontier of gentrification extends deep into Bushwick. The lower-middle-class rabble, lifeblood of the Ebbets crowd, is being squeezed out and resegregated. The latest census shows a decrease in Brooklyn’s black population. If (as the chorus of old-timers insists) the Dodgers ripped Brooklyn’s heart out 50 years ago, we seem to have been left with the giant churning liver of gentrification, filtering out the toxins of poverty. We are witnessing the birth of post-mythic Brooklyn, an 81-square-mile metaphor for nothing.

The most obvious (and calculated) candidate to replace Ebbets is the massive Atlantic Yards project, the $4.2 billion, sixteen-tower, 6,400-unit Gehry-designed commercial-residential-office complex that will redefine Fort Greene and Prospect Heights, ramp up gentrification, and (pretty much incidentally) be home to basketball’s Nets. Depending on whom you talk to, this is either Brooklyn’s long-awaited salvation—a Second Temple to atone for the destruction of Ebbets—or the most cynical use of a sports team ever, the worst thing to happen to Brooklyn since the Dodgers left. It’s impossible to say, of course, whether the development will draw the surrounding neighborhoods together, giving modern Brooklyn the civic center it so clearly lacks, or whether it will just act as a gigantic crinkly metal wall. But as a metaphor, it’s the exact opposite of Ebbets. Ebbets was a tiny, neighborhood-uniting orthodox baseball temple that was built, in less than a year, on an old dump crisscrossed by goat paths. Atlantic Yards is a huge, neighborhood-raping megadevelopment, pinned between two of its developer’s own malls, that violates every design principle of the borough’s small-scale, organic history. Construction is scheduled to take ten years. It is pure real estate, with sports as a footnote. The Nets haven’t grown, like the Dodgers did, directly out of the Brooklyn soil—they’ll be transplants, a squad of mercenaries paid to sell the neighborhood’s new regime. It’s hard to envision the natives finally bonding with the gentrifying hordes over $50 seats at a Nets game. (Bruce Ratner has skillfully scrambled the racial politics of the project, enlisting—some say buying—widespread black support and casting opponents as selfish gentrifiers.) Atlantic Yards is Dodgers nostalgia run amok: New Brooklyn getting rich on the dying myth of Old Brooklyn—a supposed tribute to the borough that may well end up defacing the Brooklyn it’s pretending to honor. The Nets are less a karmic reversal of the Dodgers tragedy than its logical conclusion. O’Malley ruined the borough by leaving; Ratner will ruin it by moving in.

Ironically, in terms of community building, Atlantic Yards has already been a rousing, unintentional success, even in its infancy—it’s become Brooklyn’s best excuse for daily conversation in decades. It’s the anti-Dodgers, bringing people together in anger. And it looks like it will provide the borough with a basis for outraged chitchat for at least as long as the Dodgers dominated the National League.

But sports, recent history has taught us, can transcend even the deepest cynicism—which is why it’s such a powerful tool for professional cynics. The Mets, for instance, were created and marketed in the early sixties as the shadow Dodgers: a socially engineered, faux-populist, TV-era stand-in for a phenomenon that had been (more or less) organic and communal. The Mets’ early lineups were stocked with washed-up ex-Dodgers, and their uniform colors were built out of Dodger blue and Giant orange. (The Giants, who radiate about 3 percent of the Dodgers’ nostalgic wattage, also left New York in 1957.) And thanks to the anesthetizing magic of baseball, it totally worked. By 1969, many old Dodger fans—including even the jaded Rabbi Kushner—were cheering on the Mets’ underdog championship run.

I asked Kushner, after his lament about the soullessness of corporate sports, what he thought about the idea of the Brooklyn Nets—surely one of the more brazenly corporate exploitations of a fan base in the history of corporate exploitation, a second dose of O’Malleyism on his home soil. But very suddenly, I found that I was the only cynic at the table: Kushner’s nationalism trumped his reason.

“It all depends on one thing,” he answered, “and one thing only. If they call themselves the New York Nets, I couldn’t care less. If they call themselves the Brooklyn Nets, I’ll go to their games. Then they’re my team. For the first time in my life, I’ll become a basketball fan.”

Since O’Malley’s betrayal, Kushner won’t say the word “L.A. Dodgers.” “It’s like Voldemort. My kids know never to say the name in my presence.”

Fifty years later, we are witnessing the baseball gods’ final taunting of the Dodgers. O’Malley left because the New York powers refused to condemn the site—at the time a decaying meat market—on which he wanted to build the team’s new geodesic dome. But today the city has gone stadium-crazy, dispensing left and right the kind of sweetheart deals that would have kept the Dodgers local forever.

Mets’ ownership is now trying to replicate some of Ebbets’s intimate magic: Citi Field is smallish and old-timey, designed exclusively for baseball, and will feature a giant knockoff of Ebbets’s famous rotunda. (Marty Adler has already spoken with management about setting up a permanent Dodgers memorabilia display inside.) But the stadium, however well designed, will always lack at least one essential component of the Ebbets mystique: Instead of being integrated into a neighborhood, it’s isolated by a big tangle of Moses’s roads. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have played for 46 years now in L.A.’s Dodger Stadium. They played for only 45 in Ebbets.

Fifty years later, all of New York City’s fault lines—race, class, identity, urban planning, the status-jockeying of the outer boroughs—still intersect at Ebbets Field. But it’s not easy to find. In its absence, the park has become the official mascot of America’s Field of Dreams sentimentality. It is everywhere sampled and remixed: in the expensive new wave of major-league imitations (Citi Field, Miller Park in Milwaukee, Safeco Field in Seattle), in rumors of an Ebbets-based themed Florida hotel, in a company that sells vintage hats and jerseys on the Web under the name Ebbets Field Flannels. But Ebbets is unrecoverable. Baseball and the city have changed too much.

On every significant Dodgers anniversary, a squadron of reporters trek out to the Ebbets Field Apartments to note the ironic (or sad, or racist) disjunction between the site’s old holy status and its modern state, as if the Dome of the Rock had been replaced by a 7-Eleven. A few weeks before the 50th anniversary, like a salmon to the spawning ground, I headed out to Crown Heights. I brought my very own relic: a small block of decaying wood that Marty Adler had given me, which he said had been cut from an Ebbets Field seat. It was roughly the size of a cell phone, lined like an old elephant’s skin, with a thin layer of scuffed blue-gray paint on one side. As soon as I held it, something odd came over me. Although I am not from Brooklyn, and I have no personal connection to the Dodgers, over the next several weeks I carried this wood around like a piece of the True Cross. I wore it in my shirt pocket to the grocery store and on children’s playdates and to dinner parties; I left it on my desk while I worked. And occasionally, while strangers milled around me in Grand Central or Washington Square Park, I would reach up and tap it, like an obsessive-compulsive person, and, knowing it was stupid, imagine I was feeling a little ghostly surge of community. (Results were mixed.) I carried it with me, as an experimental talisman of brotherhood, to modern Crown Heights.

Over the centuries, Crown Heights has been a kind of laboratory of race and class: Seventeenth-century Dutch farmers with black slaves gave way to freed slaves in shanties, who gave way to rich white mansion-builders who gave way to the distinctive early-twentieth-century old Brooklyn hodgepodge. Today’s neighborhood is overwhelmingly Caribbean, with a strong pocket of ultra-Orthodox Russian Jews, and the two cultures co-exist in a kind of Anti-Ebbets self-segregation—a tension that erupted, in 1991, into three days of race riots. The Ebbets Field Apartments are seedy but are rumored to be getting better. They weren’t exactly the decrepit shooting galleries I’d imagined based on some of the stories I’d heard. In fact, they looked like most other large apartment buildings: nondescript towers with satellite dishes and air conditioners jutting out the back.

I walked the perimeter four or five times, always instinctively in the direction the players used to run the bases. Even after I studied vintage photos of the area, it was hard to imagine Ebbets Field here. There were a couple of Dumpsters near the spot where Jackie Robinson used to dance off third base to distract the pitcher. In Duke Snider’s center field, now a parking lot, a car’s entire hood was covered with the flag of Saint Lucia. Just beyond the old right-field wall, at what used to be the gas station where the Dodgers used to park their cars, and where Yogi Berra hit a heartbreaking World Series grand slam, was now a combination KFC/Pizza Hut. The cashiers stood behind a sheet of thick, counter-to-ceiling bulletproof glass. I felt something, briefly, when I stood in right field, the Italian Carl Furillo’s old territory, which now looked into a vast interior plaza between the buildings, over which a sign read NO BALL PLAYING.

The people coming in and out of the apartments generally ignored me. A community clearly existed here, but—no matter how many times I touched the sacred wood block in my pocket—it was clear that I was not a part of it: a double-edged exclusion that was probably more socioeconomic than racial. There were no long conversations with locals about baseball and race relations and 21st-century demography and life in the Caribbean. Instead, two old men told me curtly, in lovely, lilting accents, that they had never seen the old stadium. A 79-year-old who called himself “Pop,” sitting on a battered red foldout stool near the old rotunda, told me he remembered listening to the crowd from the sidewalk outside, and the smell of roasted peanuts, but that he preferred boxing. I approached some kids watching basketball at the Jackie Robinson Playground, but when I asked if they knew about Ebbets, they immediately got up and left. The only one who stayed said, “Don’t mind them, they’re rude,” then told me she knew all about Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers because she went to Jackie Robinson Middle School, Marty’s old school.

When I got back on the subway, and the train car’s population re-gentrified itself stop by stop as we approached Manhattan, the holy relic in my pocket suddenly didn’t resonate at all: It felt like a crappy old piece of wood, and I was embarrassed to have brought it all this way.

Exorcising the Dodgers