The Brooklyn Dodgers

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The Brooklyn Dodgers

As the first team to break baseball's color barrier with the signing of Jackie Robinson in 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers captured America's imagination during the 1950s, when they fielded a brilliant team of men with nicknames like Duke, The Preacher, PeeWee, and Skoonj. Unable to beat their cross-town rivals, the New York Yankees, in World Series after World Series, the Dodgers became media darlings—a team of talented, loveable, but unlucky underdogs. Cheered on by their legendary loyal fans, the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in 1955, only to break Brooklyn's heart by leaving for Los Angeles two years later.

The borough of Brooklyn first fielded a baseball team in 1849, as members of the Interstate League and then the American Association. When Brooklyn joined the National League in 1890, the team was nicknamed the Bridegrooms. The club won the pennant that year, but by the end of the decade they had gone through six different managers and had not won another championship. They had, however, acquired a new nickname which finally stuck. As Roger Kahn notes in The Boys of Summer, "Brooklyn, being flat, extensive and populous, was an early stronghold of the trolley car. Enter absurdity. To survive in Brooklyn one had to be a dodger of trolleys." Thus, the team became the Trolley Dodgers, which was later shortened to the Dodgers.

The Dodgers reclaimed the National League pennant in 1900, only to see their championship team disperse when many of their players joined the newly formed American League the following year. The team's ownership was also in a state of flux. But a young employee of the team, Charles Ebbets, managed to purchase a small amount of stock and gradually work his way up the ladder. Ebbets eventually took over the team and secretly began buying up land in Flatbush. In 1912, he built Ebbets Field, a gem of a ballpark, which would provide baseball with its most intimate setting for over 40 years.

At first it seemed as if the new field would only bring the team good luck. In 1916, the Dodgers won the pennant and then played in its first World Series. Managed by the dynamic Wilbert "Uncle Robbie" Robinson and led by the incredible hitting of Casey Stengel, the Dodgers nonetheless lost the series to the Boston Red Sox that year, whose team featured a young pitcher named Babe Ruth.

In 1920, the Dodgers took the pennant again, only to lose the series to the Cleveland Indians. Then, for the next two decades, the team fell into a miserable slump, despite being managed by such baseball legends as Casey Stengel and Leo "the Lip" Durocher. But the Dodgers never lost their loyal fans, for, as Ken Burns notes in Baseball: An Illustrated History, "No fans were more noisily critical of their own players than Brooklyn's—and none were more fiercely loyal once play began." The team's misfortunes were widely chronicled in the press, who dubbed the team the "Daffiness Dodgers." But sportswriters were oddly drawn to the team, despite its losing ways, and they portrayed the team as an endearingly bad bunch of misfits. The team soon became known as "Dem Bums" and their dismal record the subject of jokes in cartoons, newspaper columns, and even Hollywood movies.

In 1939, Hall of Fame broadcaster Red Barber became the distinctive voice of the Dodgers. He announced the first baseball game ever televised in August 1939. Two years later, president Larry McPhail and coach Leo Durocher had put together a great team, described by Ken Burns as "noisy, hard-drinking, beanballing, and brilliant on the basepaths." They finally won another pennant, and faced the Yankees in a World Series that would lay the groundwork for one of baseball's best rivalries. The Bronx Bombers, led by the bat of Joltin' Joe Dimaggio, won in five games. And, as Burns has written, "The Brooklyn Eagle ran a headline that would become a sort of Dodger litany in coming seasons: WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR."

Following the loss, the Dodgers brought in Branch Rickey from St. Louis to be their new general manger. One of baseball's greatest minds, Rickey, a devout, teetotalling Methodist, had revolutionized the game of baseball by developing the farm system. Rickey had long sympathized with the plight of African Americans, who were barred from major league baseball and played in their own Negro Leagues. He believed that "The greatest untapped reservoir of raw material in the history of the game is the black race. The Negroes will make us winners for years to come, and for that I will happily bear being called a bleeding heart and a do-gooder and all that humanitarian rot." But Rickey would be called a lot worse when he decided to break baseball's color barrier following World War II.

Rickey set out to find a great African American player "with guts enough not to fight back" against the abuse he would be bound to endure. He found Jackie Robinson, a brilliant young athlete from Southern California. In 1947, Robinson became the first African American to play major league baseball, when he broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers. His presence on the field unleashed a torrent of racial hatred, but both Robinson and Rickey stuck to their guns. Baseball would never be the same.

In Robinson's first year in the big leagues, the Dodgers won the National League pennant and Robinson was voted baseball's first Rookie of the Year. On a multi-talented team that featured Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges, Robinson's athleticism and competitiveness brought the Dodgers to new heights. Nonetheless, they lost the Series once again to the Yankees. And Brooklyn fans were forced once again to "Wait Till Next Year."

During the early 1950s, Walter O'Malley became president of the organization, Red Barber was joined in the booth by another future Hall of Famer broadcaster, Vin Scully, and the Dodgers fielded teams of such talent that they continued to win every season. The 1953 team, dubbed the "Boys of Summer," won a record 105 games. But they still could not win the World Series. As Roger Kahn has written, "You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat … A whole country was stirred by the high deeds and thwarted longings of The Duke, Preacher, Pee Wee, Skoonj, and the rest. The team was awesomely good and yet defeated. Their skills lifted everyman's spirit and their defeat joined them with everyman's existence, a national team, with a country in thrall, irresistible and unable to beat the Yankees."

Finally, in 1955, the Dodgers did the unthinkable. They beat the Yankees in the World Series. Two years later, something even more unthinkable occurred. In what historian and lifelong Brooklyn Dodgers fan Doris Kearns Goodwin calls an "invidious act of betrayal," team president Walter O'Malley moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles and an unforgettable era of baseball history came to a close.

—Victoria Price

Further Reading:

Burns, Ken, and Geoffrey C. Ward. Baseball: An Illustrated History. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Kahn, Roger. The Boys of Summer. New York, Harper Perennial, 1998.

Prince, Carl E. Brooklyn's Dodgers: The Bums, The Borough, and the Best of Baseball 1947-1957. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.

Rampersand, Arnold. Jackie Robinson: A Biography. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

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The Brooklyn Dodgers

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