One of the great stories of New York City in the 1940s that our course somehow manages to miss is the tale of Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the integration of major-league baseball. Coincidentally, the great tabloid columnist Jimmy Breslin has just come out with a short biography (in the Penguin Lives series of slim and highly readable biographies of historic figures) of Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who in 1947 signed Jackie Robinson to the team and broke baseball’s color line.
In Breslin’s plausible account, Rickey was “neither a savior, nor a samaritan,” but “a baseball man,” who saw an opportunity to make an important contribution to civil rights, while also pulling off a brilliant strategic coup for the Dodgers and a highly profitable business move.
In all three ways, Robinson’s arrival to the Dodgers was a huge success. Robinson became, of course, a civil rights leader and a figure of racial pride for African-Americans. His mere presence on major-league fields, where he was often the target of crude racism, helped make the issue of racial segregation and injustice a national problem. (It helped that, in some ways, because of the effects of World War II and the context of the emerging Cold War, the time was right to raise the issue.) His place on Dodger’s roster produced a windfall for the Brooklyn club, which saw a leap in attendence from African-American fans. And, Robinson’s prowess on the field, especially his excellent hitting and his aggressive baserunning, was the key ingredient in bringing about the Dodger’s halcyon years. After long struggles, the team won the pennant in ’47, ’49, ’52 and ’53 and went on to win the World Series against the Yankees in 1955.
Two years later, the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles–another transition of historical significance. The Dodgers of the 1940s and 1950s may have been the epitome of the era in baseball when the sport was a major entertainment industry of the industrial city. The team’s home stadium, Ebbetts field, was located in Flatbush, in the heart of the working-class city. (The team’s name came from the fact that fans were forced to dodge streetcar lines to approach the stadium.)
Its fan base was multiethnic; the ethos populist. Players–called famously, “da bums”–often lived among the fans, for whom they were local heroes as much as athletic superstars. In a number of respects, in other words, the world surrounding the Dodgers was a bit like the world in which Stella and Stanley Kowalski live.
Coincidentally, the Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1957 in good part because the city’s planning czar Robert Moses saw no place for the team and its stadium in his vision of the automobile city.
When Moses and the team’s new owner and president Walter O’Malley came to loggerheads over stadium location, O’Malley picked up the team and took it to L.A. to the true automobile city, L.A. The move was among the clear signs that the urban industrial world that had supported the Dodgers was being displaced by a new social geography.
The Dodgers new home in Los Angeles is an equally famous and illuminating part of that city’s history. So that the new stadium and its acres of parking lots could be built, the city arranged for many poor residents of Chavez Ravine to be cleared out. For our purposes, though, it’s enough to know that the Dodger’s move across the country signified a momentous historical transformation. If the Brooklyn Dodgers represented the baseball of the industrial city, the LA Dodgers were a team for the space age and the freeway metropolis.