Walter O’Malley was recently inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame. If you grew up in Brooklyn when the Brooklyn Dodgers were still there as I did there is no worse villain than Walter O’Malley. O’Malley’s election to baseball’s Hall of Fame is as apposite as the Pope bestowing sainthood on Vladimir Putin. If you ask Brooklynites who are old enough to remember the Dodgers who the three worst people of the 20th century were you’ll get the same answers – Stalin, Hitler, and O’Malley.
O’Malley gave all sorts of phony reasons for moving the Dodgers. He claimed to be losing money in Brooklyn though his franchise was in fact the most profitable in baseball. See Roger Kahn’s The Era for the full details on O’Malley’s perfidy and mendacity. Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers also details O’Malley’s deviousness as well as depicting the role occupied by the Dodgers in the life of New York’s most populous borough. O’Malley left because no matter how much money he was making in Brooklyn he knew he could make more in LA. Forget about Baseball’s unique exemption from federal antitrust laws, forget about fan loyalty or player allegiance – Jackie Robinson retired rather than be traded to the hated New York (soon to be San Francisco) Giants. It’s just a business which of course it now is. Anyone who makes an emotional investment in a professional team is terminally confused. I’d sooner root for Exxon than a collection of itinerant millionaires who change uniforms as frequently as a feather changes direction in a whirlwind. And Exxon pays a dividend.
The Dodgers were the soul and spirit of Brooklyn. They were put together by Branch Rickey. Rickey was famous for his baseball perspicacity and his stinginess. O’Malley hated him because of his success and eventually forced him out of the Dodger’s front office. But Rickey made him pay through his padlocked wallet before he left. The Dodger’s flawed excellence animated life in Kings County. Over the decade from the end of the forties until just before they left for the lush but addled climes of southern California they had the best team in baseball, yet except for their win in 1955 they always found a brilliant way to lose the World Series to the Yankees. They also found ways to lose two National League playoffs – 1946 and 1951. Their loss to the New York Giants in 1951 in the bottom of the ninth inning of the third and final game of the playoffs, Bobby Thomson’s shot heard round the world, was the blackest day of my young life. After the fatal home run my best friend and I walked around our neighborhood in shock. It was worse than the electric chair. But there was always next year – until they were gone.
The Dodgers lived in Brooklyn and were often seen around town. Consider some of their starters. Pee Wee Reese was the peerless shortstop who was a 10 time all star and who had his best years after he was 30. This despite losing three seasons to military service during World War II. Reese was the sort of guy whose numbers rarely looked remarkable, but who always managed to get the clutch hit or make the brilliant fielding play. I hope his Hall of Fame plaque is far away from O’Malley’s. In the final game of the 1955 World Series, the only series won by Brooklyn, Reese was part of a legendary play that saved the game for the Dodgers. Sandy Amoros a left handed outfielder who is only remembered for this play was put into the seventh and deciding game when the starting left fielder Jim Gilliam was moved to second base in the sixth inning. Gilliam was right handed and couldn’t have made the great catch Amoros made. With two men on base in the Yankee half of the sixth Yogi Berra sliced a ball into left field. The left handed hitting Berra was a pull hitter and Amoros was moved into left-center field. He raced towards the left field line and just made the catch. Gilliam who was right handed and thus wore his glove on his left hand would have had to make the catch back handed; he wouldn’t have been able to reach the ball which the left handed Amoros just got to. Reese who had run to the third base line screamed at Amoros for the ball and then made a brilliant relay to first base doubling up Gil McDougald and killing the only scoring chance the Yankees had. The Dodgers won 2-0.
The right fielder on the great Brooklyn Dodger teams was Carl Furillo. Baseball seems to have largely forgotten him, but he was the best right fielder of his time. He was a great hitter; he won the National League batting championship in 1953 with a .344 average. In the field he was remarkable. Called the Reading Rifle because of his great arm, he played the problematic right field wall in Ebbets Field with psychic brilliance. The scoreboard was part of the wall which had a sharp angle in it. No one but Furillo was able to tell where a ball that hit it would go. So a ball off the scoreboard or any part of the right field wall was always a double except when Furillo was in the game. He knew where the ball would come down and with his strong and accurate arm, he held opposing hitters to a single when the ball hit the wall. His arm was so strong that he once threw a man out at first base after what should have been a single to right field. I was at that game. The hitter was Mel Queen said to be the slowest man in baseball. He hit the ball on one bounce to Furillo who charged the ball got it on a single bounce and threw a one-hopper to Gil Hodges at first. Queen was out by a step.
Gil Hodges, who along with Carl Furillo is not in the Hall of Fame, was a peerless first baseman. Now that O’Malley’s in the Hall they’re better off out. Posthumous contagion is still a possibility. Hodges started out as a catcher. He was too big and clumsy for the position. Moved to first base he became Nijinsky. Despite being right-handed handed he perfected the throw from first to second base. He was also a power hitter. On August 31, 1950, he hit four home runs in a single game – only the second man along with Lou Gehrig to accomplish the feat in a nine-inning game. I remember watching each home run on a different TV set as I was traveling all over south Brooklyn that evening for some forgotten reason.
Duke Snider was one of three Hall of Fame center fielders simultaneously playing in New York. He was the most emotionally fragile of the three. Mantle and Mays were godlike. Snider would sometimes sulk when things went wrong, he had slumps that verged on clinical depression; he was sensitive to the charge that he couldn’t hit left-handed pitchers and that he did so well because everyone else on the Dodgers was right-handed and thus opposing teams were reluctant to pitch left-handers against Brooklyn. But he was a great fielder and he hit 407 home runs in his career. He also hit 40 or more home runs in five consecutive seasons (1953-57). He was a great player who was loved by the Brooklyn fans as much for his flaws as for his extraordinary talent. As of this writing, he is the only member of the 1955 World Series champions still alive.
Roy Campanella was both the best and sunniest catcher in baseball. He was the most valuable player in the National League three times. There wasn’t anything required of a catcher that he couldn’t do except be mean. He hit for power and handled pitchers like a pediatrician reassuring a first-time mother. A broken neck suffered in an automobile accident left him paralyzed for the last 35 years of his life. Most people with cervical spine injuries similar to his are dead after 10 years. No one made better use of “The Tools of Ignorance” than did Campy. A catcher for the ages.
I’ve saved the best for last. Everyone knows about Jackie Robinson’s immense social standing in ending baseball’s shameful color barrier. What seems to get lost is what a great athlete he was. In my opinion, he was America’s greatest all-around athlete. UCLA’s only four-letter man. He was an All American football and basketball player. He was great on the track and the favorite to win the long jump in the 1940 Olympics that were canceled by World War II.
Everyone said that baseball was Jackie’s worst game; yet on a great team, he was the best player. The color barrier and World War II conspired to make him a rookie at age 28. His talent was so immense that he should have been in the big leagues before he was 20. Robinson had the most complete game of his time. There wasn’t anything he wasn’t a master at. Fielding, hitting, and base running – he was as good at each as you could get. Add this skill to a competitive drive unequaled by any I’ve ever seen in any athlete and you get the perfect player. His career only lasted 10 years owing to the late age it began at and to the ravages of diabetes that he developed as a player and which killed him at age 53.
Watching Jackie Robinson on third base was a life altering experience. He threatened to steal home on every pitch, darting down the line as the pitcher delivered the ball. It drove pitchers crazy and though he actually did steal home 19 times there’s no telling how many wild pitches, balks, and bases on balls his unique base running skills caused. If you were a Dodger fan it was heaven. If you were an opposing pitcher it was hell.
I met him on several occasions along with several other of the Dodgers. He was as mild off the field as he was fiery on it. Little kids in Brooklyn at the time were not aware of how important his appearance in baseball was to the country. All we knew was that he was the greatest player on a wonderful team. Everyone tried to copy his pigeon-toed gait which was so distinctive. Robinson was an athletic hero who really was a hero. So now both Robinson and O’Malley who despised each other are in The Hall of Fame. Don’t invest your emotions in professional sports. It’s not a game.
Finally, I knew Rudy Giuliani would never be president. Kids who grew up in Brooklyn when the Dodgers were there and who rooted for another team always had something seriously wrong with them. Giuliani rooted for the Yankees.