First the move out, now the sellout Dodgers: The ballclub, which left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, is being bought by Rupert Murdoch - in what some see as another betrayal.

September 14, 1997|By Jeffrey M. Landaw

Rupert Murdoch's Fox Group agreed to buy the Dodgers 40 years, almost to the day, after they and the Giants left New York for the West Coast.

The Sun's Peter Schmuck probably spoke for most people outside New York when he wrote Sept. 5: "The late Walter O'Malley is considered the pioneer who turned Major League Baseball into a truly national pastime when he moved the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles."

Nobody disputes that the major leagues needed to establish themselves outside the Northeast, and that San Francisco and Los Angeles deserved big-league ball clubs (well, I cling to the stereotype that Los Angeles fans will leave a double no-hitter in the seventh inning to beat the traffic to the beach, but let that go). But people who care about baseball, wherever they are, should understand that the final judgment on the way the big leagues came to California belongs to Talleyrand: "It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder."

In that Arcadian time when nobody had heard of the Dallas Cowboys, you could have called the Brooklyn Dodgers America's Team. "There wasn't a movie, a novel or a story about World War II that didn't have a character from Brooklyn involved in it." observed Red Barber, the Dodgers' first broadcaster, in his memoir "Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat." And all of them were Dodger fans.

Then, after the war, came Jackie Robinson. Rooting for a sports team doesn't usually take on the character of a moral crusade, but Robinson and the Dodgers made it one. My fifth-grade daughter is reading a lovely testimony to that fact: Bette Bao Lord's novel "In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson," based on her experiences as a young girl newly arrived from China.

And then, after threats, warnings and public wrangling, the Dodgers were gone.

The Dodgers weren't the first team to move, of course, and they weren't the last. But they were moving out of New York - and they were the first team to move while still in evident financial health (they drew 1,028,258 in 1957, quite respectable for the time, while finishing a distant third in an eight-team league).

When Walter O'Malley died in 1970, Red Smith wrote:

"The inescapable fact was that O'Malley, making large profits in Brooklyn, took Brooklyn's team away to make even bigger profits. You didn't have to be a Dodger fan to be affected by the move. It had always been recognized that baseball was a business, but if you enjoyed the game you could tell yourself that it was also a sport. You quoted William Wrigley's dictum that baseball was too much a sport to be a business and too much a business to be a sport.

"O'Malley was the first to say out loud that it was all business - a business that he owned and could operate as he chose, and the community the team had pretended to represent for almost seventy years had no voice in the matter at all. From that day on, some of the fun of baseball was lost."

But baseball lost more than just fun. The loss of the National League created a vacuum in the nation's media capital that football rushed to fill.

If the Baltimore Colts' National Football League title game of 1958 against the New York Giants had had to compete for rTC attention with off-season stories on three baseball teams, the media might never have discovered it was the "Greatest Game Ever Played." The football Giants might not have developed their pipeline into the CBS sports department (Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote, Pat Summerall - did I miss one?). The intellectuals might not have fastened on football as the ideal game for the 1960s.

But the Dodgers and the baseball Giants had vanished, and football, with brilliant leadership and a game that fit television better than baseball did, began to metastasize. By about 1968, when New York had two teams again but both of them were terrible, baseball's prestige was as low as it had ever been, or would be again until the labor strife of the 1980s and 1990s.

There is a grim satisfaction in watching the NFL struggle with carpetbagging owners, sociopathic players and justifiably angry fans and congressmen the way baseball had to. But it doesn't undo the damage, and it's not clear that anything can. And considering who's buying the Dodgers, it may get even worse.

Except - except - for stabbing Brooklyn in the back, O'Malleys' Dodgers have been something of a model operation. They've kept ticket prices relatively low; they've protected their players (they carried the great catcher Roy Campanella on the disabled list for a year after the auto accident that crippled him for life), and they've changed managers about once a generation. (The last manager to leave the Dodgers against his will was Charley Dressen, fired for demanding a two-year contract after winning pennants in 1952 and 1953.) Rupert Murdoch is likely to find those customs as attractive as protecting the privacy of the British royal family.

Baseball fans, especially New Yorkers of a certain age, should chew long and hard on this one: Fox may just make Walter O'Malley look good.

Jeffrey M. Landaw, a Sun makeup editor who was brought up in New York, often wears a reproduction 1938 Brooklyn Dodgers cap.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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