When the Dodgers Played in Brooklyn

Roy Campanella (right) and Willie Mays (left) were staples of New York baseball when the Dodgers were in Brooklyn. (via Library of Congress)

Willie Mays and Roy Campanella were staples of New York baseball in the 1950s. (via Library of Congress)

Baseball is a sport obsessed with its own history, and consequently, obsessive baseball fans frequently find themselves looking backward at past eras with a longing gaze. Remote from present limitations, the past can be viewed in a different light, enabling one’s imagination to fill in all the whimsical details.

Since I live in Brooklyn, my mind often turns to the period following World War II, when the Dodgers played in town, and New York teams ruled the baseball universe. (Yankees fans still believe this to be true today, but it was especially true in the ‘40s and ‘50s.) From 1947 to 1956, a New York team appeared in the World Series every year except for 1948. The Yankees and Dodgers faced off in the Fall Classic on six different occasions during that stretch, and the Bronx Bombers, as they tended to do, took home seven World Series titles.

The playing locations, too, were iconic, reminiscent of a different time and sports culture entirely. Ebbets Field stood on an otherwise unremarkable neighborhood corner at the intersection of Bedford Avenue and Montgomery Street in Brooklyn. Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds were within half a mile of each other.

“You could walk from one to the other in 15 minutes,” famed sportswriter Roger Kahn writes in The Era: When the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers Ruled the World.

Beyond all this, the individuals themselves stand out as giants in the baseball landscape, their stature hardly diminished six decades later. Joe DiMaggio became a mythic figure before his career was even half over. Jackie Robinson’s influence, of course, transcended the sport itself. And Willie Mays was the best player of them all, someone who covered center field’s great, green expanse like no one had ever seen. Even the managers, men like Casey Stengel and Leo Durocher, possessed their own renown and intrigue.

The decade also stands as a unique moment in American history, an affluent and hopeful time as the country enjoyed the fruits of its post-war labor. New York was a happy, comfortable place for many.

“We were safe and optimistic and prosperous and peaceful in our New York, the capital city of the world,” Kahn writes.

As such, people had money to spend, and baseball profited as a result. According to Kahn, the 1948 Yankees, who finished in third place in the American League, set a club record for attendance, drawing well over 2 million fans that season. A year later, the three New York City ball clubs drew over 5 million fans combined, even though the Giants finished near the Nationals League’s basement, and Ebbets Field was one of major league baseball’s smallest parks.

What was it like to grow up as a baseball fan in New York City at this time, I often wonder? How did it feel to watch a game at Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds? To see Jackie Robinson turn a single into a double, his legs churning up dirt as he dashed toward second base?

My uncle remembers. He grew up in Brooklyn during this period, a Dodgers fan despite his father’s love for the Giants. Not even the franchise’s move to Los Angeles extinguished his love for Dodger blue.

“I was always loyal to the boys,” he told me one recent afternoon at his apartment in Manhattan (he has since migrated across the East River). Before the team’s flight west, however, before Walter O’Malley became the most despised man in Brooklyn, the Dodgers were a fixture in the New York baseball scene, an alternative to Yankee royalty.

As it has many American boys, past and present, baseball captivated my uncle, the game’s players, statistics and story lines serving as fodder for his young imagination. He found just about any way he could to follow the Dodgers.

“I remember taking a radio to bed with me all the time, you know, hiding it from my parents, and radios weren’t that little or portable at the time,” he said with a laugh. “And there were also some games on TV, but it’s amazing how grainy the picture was. It was pretty much just one shot, with the camera looking down at the pitcher and catcher, and then they’d follow the ball whenever it was hit.”

Indeed, Americans began buying TVs in droves during this period, with the 1947 Fall Classic the first to be televised in American homes.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“In a practical sense,” Kahn writes, “television was born during the Era.”

Still, the technology remained primitive, and the reception was nothing like we’ve come to expect in the decades since. Fans still very much preferred their live baseball. In 1950, the Dodgers and Phillies sat tied atop the standings on the regular season’s final day, and they faced off at Ebbets Field for the National League pennant. Over 35,000 fans crammed into the park that day, nearly 3,000 over capacity and, according to Kahn, more crammed onto the roof of an apartment building across the street, much like the way fans do today outside Wrigley Field.

The game was on TV, but as Kahn wrote, “In 1950, people preferred to see baseball live, live and visceral and bloody and real, no matter how distant or perilous the perch.”

Newspapers also played a bigger role in how fans followed and digested the sport. The outlets didn’t just cover the games themselves; they also served as the era’s depositories of box scores and statistics.

“I read the box scores in the newspaper every day,” my uncle remembers. “The box scores didn’t tell you as much back then. Now you can look at a box score and figure out a lot of stuff, but I remember reading box scores and following statistics in the weekend papers. They don’t have that any more. The New York Times especially would have pages and pages of statistics for every hitter and pitcher.”

Of course, newspapers aren’t all that has changed in the decades since DiMaggio and Mays played in New York. Everything from ticket prices to a fan’s experience at the ballpark to the way we watch and follow the sport has transformed.

Hearing my uncle talk about attending games at Ebbets Field is a good reminder of how many alterations the sport has undergone.

“I remember it was three dollars for the most expensive seats,” my uncle told me. “Sixty cents for the grandstand, maybe a quarter for bleachers. The reserved seats were a little more. They didn’t always sell out—they had good crowds, and it was a small stadium. It was a bandbox confined by that square block it was on.”

Writing about Ebbets Field during the 1947 World Series, which pitted the Dodgers and Yankees against each other, Kahn remarks about the park’s disparity with Yankee Stadium: “With half the capacity of Yankee Stadium, the joint shuddered with twice the noise. Colored balloons floated from the stands. A blimp floated overhead, almost obscuring [Yankees starter] Bobo Newsom in its shadow. The joint was jumping.”

The players, too, had a different relationship with the fans. They weren’t quite so distant and removed as they are now. My uncle and his friends used to huddle around the players’ entrance at Ebbets Field, looking for autographs or even just a glimpse of their ball-playing heroes. Kids would come carrying self-addressed postcards and attempt to thrust them into the players’ hands as they entered and left the clubhouse, hoping these postcards would be autographed and then returned in the mail.

“You don’t see them anymore, you just don’t see the players,” my uncle said about today. “But then, you saw them right up close. You’d see how some of them were just big and healthy looking from being out in the sun. And I remember Roy Campanella specifically. He was surly, always pushing his way, barreling his way out. Some of them stopped and talked, though, and some of them ran away from the attention a little bit.”

My uncle’s favorite player was Jackie Robinson. He admits to having some sense of Robinson’s greater significance in the back of his mind, but he was mostly struck by how fast and aggressive Robinson was, how he would taunt pitchers on the base paths. Robinson’s speed brought a whole new dimension to the game; he did things many fans had never seen before.

One time, my uncle saw Robinson leaving the clubhouse after a game at Ebbets Field. He ran after him, postcard in hand, and whether through his own foot speed and determination or Robinson’s sympathy, the Dodger eventually stopped and turned around. My uncle remembers making eye contact with Robinson and handing him the postcard, a young kid starstruck by seeing his favorite player so up close.

“That was my moment with Jackie,” he says, a smile revealing the thrill that has hardly diminished six decades later. He later received the postcard in the mail with Robinson’s autograph and has kept it ever since.

While the era retained a timeless quality, a sense of enduring legacy that continued in the years afterward, signs of forthcoming change persisted. Television’s novelty didn’t lead to immediate transformation, but by the end of New York’s baseball dominance in 1957, the proliferation of TV sets in American homes cut into baseball’s attendance figures.

From 1947 to 1957, “attendance at the three New York ballparks dropped from 5.6 million to 3.2 million” annually, according to Kahn. This decrease in attendance didn’t signify any drop in baseball’s popularity among American citizens, however. Instead, major league baseball’s diminished attendance demonstrated TV’s growing power, and a new avenue through which owners could generate revenue.

By 1955, Kahn writes, “the Dodgers earned $787,155 for local television and radio rights, roughly $250,000 more than the combined salaries of their players.” The World Series, too, was first broadcast coast-to-coast for the first time in 1951, meaning the reach of teams like the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants now extended far beyond the bustling avenues and bridges of New York City.

These new opportunities for money became a main motivation in Walter O’Malley’s decision to move the Dodgers to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. O’Malley wanted a new park in Brooklyn (specifically where the Barclays Center now stands on Atlantic Ave.), but the city refused, offering instead a plot of land in Queens, where the Mets now play.

Whether O’Malley would have stayed in Brooklyn if given a new stadium in his desired location remains an open question. The Dodgers (and Giants) bolted for California regardless, leaving behind a borough of over two million inhabitants and scores of brokenhearted Dodgers fans.

For my uncle, following the Dodgers became nearly impossible outside the newspaper’s box scores. Regular season games weren’t televised nationally, and he acknowledges “a big part of our lives” simply ceased to exist.

But he never switched allegiances—“a Dodger fan wouldn’t switch to the Yankees,” he says. And whenever the team traveled east, to either Philadelphia or eventually back to New York when the Mets came to town, my uncle would go see them. He even had the fortune of watching Sandy Koufax throw a no-hitter against the Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium in 1964.

Glancing back at this period, when the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees dominated the baseball scene, the singularity of the time—its unique cast of characters, its prized ballparks and heroes—is striking. The era serves as a reminder of how much America and baseball has changed in 60 years. Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds are gone, and the old Yankee Stadium, which housed Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle, is now a parking lot.

But studying the sport during this period also validates the role baseball has always played in America. Baseball, then as ever, serves as an escape for society, a playing field onto which Americans, young and old, can project their dreams and fanciful imaginations. Heroes are still made out of men in uniform, the crack of the bat is still met with jubilant roars, and the grass remains as green as ever.


Alex Skillin has written for SB Nation, Beyond The Box Score, The Classical, Sox Prospects, Fire Brand of the American League, and Celtics Blog, among others. Read all of his writing on his website, and follow him on Twitter @AlexSkillin.
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Bobby
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Bobby

I think the location of Shea (and later Citi Field) is the greatest shame of the whole story here. If the park had been situated in a dense area of Brooklyn with an identity then I think the Dodgers/Giants tradition could have been better preserved. Throwing the stadium in the middle of a park and highway interchange removed any possibility of having a neighborhood feel to the experience. By the way, Old Yankee Stadium is indeed gone but there’s no parking lot where it used to stand. It’s a complex of ball fields that replaced old Macomb’s Dam Park, the… Read more »

Greg F
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Greg F

Of course, if they had built a new stadium around a neighborhood in Brooklyn, the Dodgers never would have left in the first place.

J. Fox
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J. Fox

You say “From 1947 to 1956, a New York team appeared in the World Series every year except for 1948. ” But of course the Yankees were in the World series in 1957 and 1958. Even more remarkable was that every World series game played between 1949 and 1956 was win by a New York team, the two non-gotham teams to qualify in those years, the 1950 Phils and the 1954 Indians, were both swept

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

This article raises more questions than it attempts to answer. For the definitive history of the Dodgers’ Brooklyn days, read Forever Blue by Michael D’Antonio. The book is fascinating for it reveals O’Malley as being almost pushed out of Brooklyn as opposed to pulling a midnight run to LA as has been so popularly theorized. The demographics spelled doom for the Dodgers. As the middle class grew and moved to North Jersey and Long Island, the automobile became the staple form of transportation. That alone was a killer for the Dodgers. And keep this in mind: the famous (or infamous,… Read more »

Edward Baker
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Edward Baker

Today they would be scalping tickets at 1k a pop, but this was 63 years a go, a vastly different time, it was a day game and day games, no matter how crucial, weren´t all that big a draw. People were working and sneaking a look at a tv or a listen to a radio, but they were working. Free time was at a premium and the leisure industry was all but in its infancy. Today nearly all games are played at night, everything is on tv and the best seats are tax deductions. Back then, for an ordinary working… Read more »

Greg F
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Greg F

Agreed. Season playoff game tickets were available last minute, on days people may or may not be able to attend – getting time off work may not have been as easy as now. Amazing how “only” 34,000 plus attended game 3 of the 1951 NL playoffs, yet many thousands and thousands more say they were “at the game”. As was said, a different time.

Edward Baker
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Edward Baker

In discussions of Brooklyn´s changing demographics in the 50s there is a subtext that is very rarely made explicit. The 40s and 50s were the culmination of the great internal migration of Southern blacks that began around World War I and peaked around World War II and its aftermath. That changing demographic, the blackening of Brooklyn, was a key factor in O´Malley´s decision to run away to the biggest suburb on the planet. It is an ugly irony that the club that opened the Big Leagues to the black players, who were the motor of its success between 1947 and… Read more »

Philip
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Philip

I second Dennis Bedard’s recommendation re: “Forever Blue.” Another interesting thing of note is that in November 1947, baseball nearly expanded to the West Coast. Commissioner Happy Chandler proposed added two clubs to each league. The new teams were to play in Hollywood (Los Angeles), Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco. The National League approved the plan unanimously. But with Cleveland abstaining, the American League struck it down, 5-2 (the Yankees supporting the expansion proposal). And so it wasn’t until 1961 that the majors finally expanded. Ironically, it was various franchise moves itself that often helped pushed expansion. When the… Read more »

Mac Vernon
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Mac Vernon

Baseball is sometimes referred to as timeless; well actually it isn’t, about 99.99% of human history passed before it came along. However it has been around longer than any of us, which means it passes most people’s litmus test for being old, timeless and historic. A lot has changed since the earliest written mention of “base ball” in the 1700’s but a lot has stayed the same from one generation to the next. This got me to remembering watching the Brooklyn and then the L.A. Dodgers. Duke Snider was my first baseball “hero.” I didn’t see him until we got… Read more »

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Re Mac Vernon. About the ubiquity of radio, you forgot the neighborhood barber shop and later when the transistor radio came out, you could hear the games being broadcast for miles across the Long Island and Jersey beaches. A different era indeed.

mike
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mike

In 1956, the Dodgers motto was, ‘Wait Till Last Year.’

Bill
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Bill

I have read many accounts of why the Dodgers left Brooklyn- I lived there as a kid at the time. It seems overwhelmingly clear that the villain of the piece was Robert Moses, who was in charge of all major building projects in NYC, and literally did everything possible to thwart the Dodgers from staying in Brooklyn. O’Malley was a bastard, but he really had no concrete plans to leave Brooklyn until mid-1956 at the earliest. NYC should obviously have helped him to build a new stadium in downtown Brooklyn. I agree with a poster above that it is a… Read more »

Nick lotito
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Nick lotito

Like the author’s father, my dodgers’ loyalty followed them to Los Angeles. In fairness, my family moved to south fla a year before the dodgers went west. I now live in atl, but my son recently remarked he was a 4th generation dodgers fan. As a kid, snider was my hero. I admired Robinson and can still summon tears when reflecting upon what he and others endured. Later, I loved reading box scores from Koufax and drysdale starts. Then, hershizer and now Keshaw. As players change, it is difficult to define what it is that retains my loyalty to dodger… Read more »

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

I agree with the comment that there is a racial subtext to the Dodgers’ move, but it’s really not their fault that white fans-who, frankly, had the money-left Brooklyn. As someone said, the ticket prices in those years seem ridiculously low to us today, but represented a fairly significant chunk of change to working people in the fifties and, perhaps, even more so to African-Americans. Attendance for both the Giants and Dodgers was declining throughout the fifties, despite the elegia we read about the fans. Of course, attendance declined throughout baseball in the post-WW II era, probably caused by a… Read more »

Greg F
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Greg F

Actually, MLB attendance was dropping among all the teams. Most ballparks were in neighborhoods, many of them not so good, and parking was at a premium.

Once the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, with a new stadium and lots of parking, other teams began looking for this – which led to the Dodgers, Giants and other teams moving for greener pastures.

The world was changing, with TV and other new competition for leisure time, and baseball, for the most part, was using the promotion method of putting up a sign saying “game today”.

Vin Smith
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Vin Smith

The best thing that could have happened to baseball–and sport in general–would have been to elevate the Pacific Coast League to the status of a Major League. The level of play was pretty close to MLB at that time; many players preferred to play on the West Coast, thanks to longer seasons brought about by better weather. The pay was often equivalent, with the exception of the highest paid MLB starts–like Joe DiMaggio. What I think should have happened was the “Color barrier” would have been broken under this scenario to a far greater extent than it was the way… Read more »

Vin Smith
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Vin Smith

One further thought: The PCL enjoyed an Open Designation for a few years–making it basically a step above AAA. The thought of elevating the Pacific Coast League had been bandied about. One obstacle was the PCL owners did not want to invest in upgrading their ballparks–at least for the most part. Perhaps Sicks Stadium in Seattle, definitely Seals Stadium in San Francisco, and Wrigley Field in Los Angeles could well have started out basically the way they were in an early postwar expansion.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

That’s a great idea in theory, but it was never going to happen because (1) major league owners were never going to let a raft of competitors into the club; and (2) the idea of essentially conservative baseball owners working as partners with African-Americans was simply not a realistic prospect.

Plus, with all due respect, the idea of Birmingham embracing a Negro League team/ownership as “their” major league team is pretty far-fetched. Birmingham, as evidenced by the events in 1963, was one of, if not the, most segregated cities in America.

Dave Bontempo
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Dave Bontempo

I am re-reading The Era to cure the winter blues….I broadcast the first few fights at Barclays, walking a mile and a half to it from the hotel…Great sense of the neighborhoods and the sadness in seeing no stadium where the fights were…Would have been perfect. The Dodgers were my Dad’s favorite team and Roger Kahn brought it to life. Ghosts of Flatbush also is awesome. But enjoy the nostalgia. I could not find a Brooklyn Dodgers cap in a store that sold nothing but lids. In downtown Brooklyn. Just makes me wonder, since I wasn’t there, if it’s the… Read more »