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Brooklyn Dodgers, The Ghosts of Flatbush

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When Walter O’Malley—author Pete Hamill’s choice for the third most evil man in history—pulled the Dodgers out of Brooklyn with the bibulous Horace Stoneham in tow, this baseball tycoon drove a dagger deep into our city’s heart. Our borough minus the Dodgers is like Romeo bereft of Juliet, corned beef on white bread, Abbott less Costello, and Steve Lawrence sans Edye Gorme. As the poet wrote: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” Who, besides a brainless Supreme Court in 1922, would argue that baseball was a sport, not a business?

Since 1957, despite the resurgence of Yankee power and the birth of the Mets, there has been a void in New York, New York. That vacuum, which Mother Nature abhors, was filled on July 11 when HBO Productions in conjunction with major league baseball aired a documentary film, Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush. This wonderful voyage back in time to our “Glory Days” (the title and the subject of an excellent exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York as well) under the aegis of executive producers, Ross Greenburg and Rich Bernstein with able assistance from Brian Hyland, Amani Martin, Ezra Edelman, and Caroline Waterlow evokes another time and a revered place in New York City as well as American history.

Narrated by Liev Schreiber, currently starring in Talk Radio, this engrossing film opens with a splendid view of Brooklyn’s Great Bridge, which couples art and technology in high fidelity. The camera eye fixes on Manhattan; then retreats into Brooklyn, where the film’s principal narrative charts the heroic odyssey of Jack Roosevelt Robinson and his pilgrim’s progress into mainstream America by way of Brooklyn. Fortified with “talking head” testimony from Dodger teammates Duke Snider, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Clem Labine, Johnny Podres, and Ralph Branca and enriched by the recollections of Rachel Robinson, his beautiful, articulate, and courageous wife, the film features amazing footage of this “American Samurai,” re: David Halberstam, in action. Before Jackie’s advent into major league baseball, black athletes projected either brute force: Jack Johnson and Joe Louis or gifted clowns like the Harlem Globetrotters. Black stereotypes pervaded film, radio, and graphic arts.

Prior to 1947, the Dodgers rarely won anything but abuse. Apart from an occasional pennant, say-hey, in 1916, 1920, and 1941, they inspired cartoonist Willard Mullin to fashion a pathetic figure garbed in rags and answering to the rubric, “Bum.” The Dodgers apparently were prone to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Witness Mickey Owens’s great blunder expertly captured and conveyed in this film. The Dodgers held a 4-3 in the last inning of game four in the 1941 World Series with two out and two strikes on Yankee outfielder Tommy Henrich. He swung at a wicked curve or an illegal “spitter” and reached first base, safely. Unnerved, ace reliever Hugh Casey yielded a single to Joe DiMaggio, a double to Charlie Keller, a walk to Bill Dickey, and another double to Joe Gordon. The Yankees won 7-4. They easily took the fifth and last game from the dispirited Dodgers by a score of 3-1. “Dem Bums” had to wait till next year, once again.

That image no longer fit when a daring, dignified, daunting, and different Mr.Robinson moved into our neighborhood. With a solid stroke of his cocked bat, that mesmerizing pigeon-toed dance off first base, a sensational steal of home plate, and a spectacular catch of Eddie Waitkus’s line drive with the bases loaded,Robinson redefined baseball, blacks, and American culture. As the film shows so forcefully, Jackie led his team to six pennants (almost eight since two were lost on the last day) in ten years and the only World Series flag to fly inBrooklyn. Here, the narrative picks up steam from authors Jules Tygiel, the definitive Robinson scholar and Jonathan Eig, a recent entry into the field of dreams with a book, Opening Day… about Jackie’s rookie year. For the next ten years, Robinson earned respect, admiration, loyalty–indeed love with his exemplary deeds on and off baseball’s Elysian fields. Jewish fans cheered their hero with affectionate rubrics in Yiddish: Yonkel get a hit! Yonkel  steal a base! For a young African-American Brooklyn native, Louis Gossett, Jr., Jackie replaced white comic book heroes. Later an Oscar winning actor, Gossett then had a role model who was a tall, dark, and handsome player: one who created a ballet while turning double plays with Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges.

The ebb and flow of Dodger fortunes and Robinson’s pivotal role in the epic drama are effectively captured and comically imparted in the animated recollections of comedian Pat Cooper, TV personality Larry King ne Zeiger, Dodger owner, Peter O’Malley, baseball executive “Buzzie” Bavasi, TV executive, Ed Goren, retired educator and fervent Yankee hater, Herb Ross. Veteran journalists Melvin Durslag and Lester Rodney offer pithy commentary that enriches the text, measurably. Ninety-seven years young, Rodney defines the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson’s salutary impact on sport as well as on society. “They introduced democracy. When you changed baseball, you changed America.”

Would 1955 represent Yogi Berra’s “deja vue all over again”? Could the Dodgers get off the proverbial shneid (string of bad luck)? After losses to those Bronx Bombers or, if you will, Damn Yankees in ’41, ’47, ’49, ’52, and ’53, the Brooklyn nine dropped the first two games at Yankee Stadium. Robinson’s theft of home plate, however, in game one followed by Berra’s tantrum expertly captured in the documentary indicated that the Dodgers would ”not go gently into that good night” with poet Dylan Thomas. Back in Brooklyn for games three, four, and five, the Dodgers “raged against the dying of the light” sweeping all three. Crafty Whitey Ford beat Karl Spooner in game six: setting up a “do or die” seventh game. It pitted young southpaw, Johnny Podres, victor in game three against veteran, Tommy Byrne. Joan Hodges pleaded with Jesus to spread glory since, logically, the Yankees had already won so many titles. NYU President John Sexton, then a Catholic school student held a crucifix with his classmate until the last out, an Elston Howard ground ball, which Reese fielded and threw to Hodge at first. The weighty crucifix, released in glee, smashed into Sexton’s head. In adjacent Manhattan, future journalist Tom Oliphant breathed a sigh of relief and offered an ode to joy. God apparently had opted for neutrality in ’55; but reversed course in ’56 as the Yankees regained the title.

Ross Greenburg’s masterful documentary addresses a second important theme: the struggle for control of the Dodger franchise and the subsequent move to Los Angeles, where, auteur Woody Allen argues, the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn at a red light. Which donkey deserves the pin on his tail? What powered the feud between Brach Rickey and Walter O’ Malley and the later confrontation between the latter and the omnipotent Moses? Conventional wisdom pointed the finger at Walter O’Malley who, former aide Buzzie Bavasi characterizes as “all money” in contrast to Branch Rickey who represented “all baseball.”  Columbia Professor Michael Shapiro persuasively argues that “heavyweight champ” Robert Moses easily defeated O’Malley, only “a light heavyweight.” Here, the controversies that continue to swirl over these fallen idols incite deeper analysis than “sound bite” commentary provides.

A Bronx-born, Brooklyn resident, O’Malley proudly hailed from Irish catholic roots, He was a Democrat in political persuasion and not averse to strong drink. Conversely, Rickey was a dyed in the wool, Midwestern rock-ribbed Republican Methodist who detested hard liquor. Their conflict betokened a clash of core values. With the support of  Pfizer Pharmaceutical CEO, John Smith, O’Malley gained majority control of  Dodger stock. Steeped in religion, Rickey saw the handwriting on the wall in 1950. Securing a bargaining edge from realtor, William Zeckendorf, Sr. he teased a one million dollar buy-out from O’Malley. He then departed for Pittsburgh. A comparable polarity plagued O’Malley’s relations with Moses, Jewish by birth but a catholic convert. If the Irish tycoon lusted for money, Moses worshipped power. In his imperious way, as the film discloses, he offered O’Malley Flushing Meadow, site of a once and future world’s fair, for a Dodger transplant. The Dodger owner balked at a Queens venue for his Brooklyn team. For the vaunted power-broker, it was his way or the highway. Outfoxed, O’Malley cultivated various offers to relocate. Fascinated by the success of the Braves’ relocation to Milwaukee in 1954, O’Malley jumped at an offer from Rosalind Wyman, a young councilwoman in LA who offered 352 acres of prime real estate and tax breaks. He opted for the highway. He got his kicks on Route 66 and discovered a modern gold mine in Chavez Ravine. His cupidity yields the film’s funniest line. Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger asks:  “If you have Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Walter O’Malley in the same room and a pistol with only two bullets, who do you shoot? Answer: You shoot Walter O’Malley twice!”

Ross Greenburg, head of HBO sports and Jewish-American success story with an impressive list of hits in his resume which includes Emmy winner  Nine Innings from Ground Zero, plus Wait ‘Till Next Year, Curse of the Bambino, and The Shot Heard Round the World among others, deserves kudos for this remarkable documentary. Pulling no punches and illuminating gray areas in our city’s history, the film is more than a baseball saga. It evokes a post-war Brooklyn:  multicultural and multifaceted but held together by that “glue deal” and unifying force: the Dodgers. We ride the roller-coaster of euphoria and defeat, heartache and resurgence, the wonderment of 1955 and sadness of 1957. I was particularly impressed with the assault on Robert Moses. The film provides a forum for authors Robert Caro and Michael Shapiro to demolish the recent surge of revisionist history–largely derived from Columbia University, my alma mater– that attempts to rehabilitate our latter-day Mussolini, “master builder” and community wrecker. Here, the script “tells it like it was” sparing no one who contributed to the Dodger exodus.

As the film approaches closure, we relive that traumatic event when the wrecking ball smashes into the façade of our secular shrine, Ebbets Field. We experience 400 blows as Frank Sinatra mournfully sings “There Used  to Be a Ballpark…” Robert Caro delivers an indictment reminiscent of Emile Zola’s J’Accuse. Moses said no; so the Dodgers had to go. Close to death, an ashen-faced Clem Labine, to whom this film is dedicated, finds no relief from the pain that attended his departure from Brooklyn. Carl Erskine recalls his love affair with local fans. Broadcaster Charlie Steiner evokes an eight year old boy’s sense of loss. “Where’s the Duke” Where’s Carl Erskine? Clem Labine?…And Los Angeles might as well have been Saturn. It was so far away.”

 At this juncture, tears fell freely down my face. Somewhat embarrassed, I turned to Ron Schweiger seated on my left. He was crying too. As we exited BAM’s elegant theater, a hard rain, matching our tears, fell on Brooklyn. Despite that deep sense of loss and those haunting ghosts, shades of Henrik Ibsen, this powerful and poignant film propelled us back into a special time and a precious place. Echoing Edward R. Murrow, I could hear it now. Thousands cheer and we are young again. Brooklyn is green and jubilant. Can today’s youngsters, I wonder, capture that “loving feeling?” Will they too shout carpe diem (seize the day) and freeze the play? Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush provides a living as well as loving legacy. A generation at twilight time, given voice in this poignant film has much to teach us today if only we watch, listen, and learn.