Ten Days in August: A Last Chance for Brooklyn?

This article was written by Henry D. Fetter

This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 28, 2008)


Hard as it may be to believe, the Brooklyn Dodgers have been the Los Angeles Dodgers for half a century—and have now played more seasons in Chavez Ravine than in Ebbets Field. By August 5, 1957, the storied history of the Brooklyn Dodgers was fast approaching its final days. But as the Dodgers, who were just 31⁄2 games out of first place, prepared to play seven games against their archrival New York Giants over the next ten days, one sliver of hope, however thin, for the future of the Dodgers in Brooklyn remained: Would even the most mercenary, avaricious, and unsentimental owner really pull a team out of its long-time home if they had just won the National League pennant—and, who knows, the World Series as well?

Although those games are scarcely remembered today, none of the memorable Dodger–Giant confrontations over the years, not even Bobby Thomson’s pennant playoff–winning “shot heard round the world” in 1951, was played for higher stakes—the fate of the franchise itself. As the two crosstown rivals squared off, every- thing, except for the signed and sealed documentation and formal announcement, appeared to be in place to move the Dodgers to Los Angeles and the Giants to San Francisco. Dodger owner Walter O’Malley had met with Los Angeles officials in Florida in March and in Los Angeles in May to negotiate the acquisition of a site, in centrally located Chavez Ravine, on which to build the privately owned stadium he had been unable to build in Brooklyn. New York Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham, under O’Malley’s guidance, had worked out a stadium deal with the San Francisco mayor at a meeting in May in New York City. The National League had approved the franchise shifts at the end of that month. Testifying before a congressional antitrust committee in late June, O’Malley would not make any commitment to stay in Brooklyn and charged that any chance to do so had been “sabotaged” by city officials. In his own testimony a few weeks later, Stoneham more forthrightly signaled that an announcement of the Giants’ move to San Francisco was imminent.1

Despite these forebodings, not everyone had abandoned hope for the Brooklyn Dodgers. O’Malley’s artful dodging of any direct question about his future plans for the team kept Brooklyn hopes alive. Amidst the gathering evidence of betrayal, attendance at Dodger home games through the end of July had kept pace, somewhat surprisingly, with that in recent seasons.2 Milton Gross, a New York Post sports columnist close enough to O’Malley to have been tapped as his biographer, ventured an early August wager that “for my money the Brooklyn Dodgers are far from becoming the LA Dodgers.”3 Perhaps Dodger success on the playing field could derail the franchise-shifting machinations in the executive suite.

On August 5, 1957, Brooklyn was in third place in the National League, 3 games behind first-place St. Louis, fully engaged in a tight pennant race with the Cardinals, the second-place Milwaukee Braves, and the fourth- place Cincinnati Reds. True, the veteran team that had won four out of the last five National League pennants was beginning to unravel. Jackie Robinson had been traded into retirement the previous winter. Team captain Pee Wee Reese, hobbled by back and leg trouble at the plate and in the field, had given way to Charley Neal as starting shortstop. Three-time league MVP catcher Roy Campanella was batting .233, with little of his former power. Pitching ace Don Newcombe, fighting a losing battle with alcohol (a battle intensified by his shellacking in the seventh game of the 1956 World Series), had lost the stuff—and confidence—that had brought him 27 wins, along with the MVP and (first ever) Cy Young awards the year before.4 But first baseman Gil Hodges, center-field slugger Duke Snider (headed toward his fifth consecutive 40-home-run season to tie a league record),5 and right fielder Carl Furillo were enjoying productive seasons. Don Drysdale had emerged as a new pitching star, and second-year outfielder Gino Cimolli was batting over .300. After briefly holding and then slipping out of first place in early June, the Dodgers had managed to stay close to the league lead, never falling more than five games back thereafter.

As August began, Arch Murray, the New York Post Dodger-beat writer, reported, “In the dugouts and front offices of the National League the general consensus of opinion remains unchanged. The Dodgers, the feeling is, still are the team to beat and both the odds and the sentiment are that they’ll eventually pull another pennant out of the wild scramble that moved into August today with five teams refusing to be counted out.”6 And the National League schedule now handed the Dodgers an opening. From August 5 to August 15, the Dodgers would play seven games against the sixth-place New York Giants and four against the even more hapless last- place Pirates, while their three rivals locked horns in an internecine shootout. “They’re going to play the Giants and the Pirates for two solid weeks,” Cincinnati manager Birdie Tebbetts said of Brooklyn, “while we, the Braves and the Cardinals have to battle each other. That certainly should put them out in front.”7

On the night of August 5, things got off to a good start for the Dodgers—and for Brooklyn—although Duke Snider was sitting out the series with a bad knee and Pee Wee Reese had been benched after bobbling a ground ball and then throwing it away for a costly error before being pulled for a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of a tough 1–0 loss to the Braves in Milwaukee a few days earlier. Before an Ebbets Field crowd of 15,070, the Dodgers “harvested a little pennant hay while the moon shone,” beating the Giants 5–2, with Clem Labine relieving Don Drysdale in the ninth inning to pitch to Willie Mays with two on and two out. Drysdale had given up 10 hits, including a home run to Mays, but Labine got him to ground out on a 3-and-2 count to save the game.8 “Gaining Ground,” the New York Post headlined the game’s box score as the Dodgers closed to within 21⁄2 games of the idle Cardinals, two games behind the second-place Braves.9 Recent history lent support to the belief that a Dodger drive for the 1957 pennant was about to kick into high gear. With 60 wins, Brooklyn had now matched the number of wins the team had in hand on August 5, 1956, when that year’s eventual pennant winners were in second place and only two games off the pace.

The next night the Dodgers continued to roll, loading the bases with no outs in the bottom of the first inning. But Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, and Roy Campanella went hitless that game against Giants’ rookie starter Curt Barclay, who breezed to a 5–0 win over Brooklyn’s 1955 World Series hero Johnny Podres. It was none other than Bobby Thomson, recently returned to the Giants after a stint with the Braves, who broke up a scoreless pitchers’ duel in the sixth, with a run-scoring triple that forced Podres out for a pinch-hitter in the Dodgers’ half of that inning. He then compounded the damage by driving in two more runs with another triple in the eighth; Thomson’s successes only made the hurt worse for the 18,202 Ebbets Field faithful who witnessed the setback.10

Another familiar nemesis struck the next night at the Dodgers’ part-time “home” in Jersey City. Tagged, unfairly or not, with a reputation for not being able to win big games, Don Newcombe went to the mound in quest of his tenth victory for the year and his first in almost a month. In front of a season-high Roosevelt Stadium crowd of 25,913, Newcombe held a 5–3 lead going into the ninth inning but then served up a three- run home run to 40-year-old pinch-hitter Hank Sauer, as the Giants came from behind to win 8–5. As he headed off the field, Big Newk apparently spat at the fans behind the dugout and was gone from the clubhouse when the game ended, a reprise of his disappearing act after being knocked out of the box by the Yankees in the seventh game of the 1956 World Series.11

Back at Ebbets Field the following evening, and with a midnight train to catch to Pittsburgh, manager Walter Alston told reporters before the game, “We’ll try to take care of that by getting ten in the first two innings.” But it was the Giants who scored four in the first and five in the second as they blasted their former teammate—and Dodger killer—Sal Maglie out of the box en route to a 12–3 rout that left even the Dodger diehards among the 18,753 in attendance badly shaken.12

Staggered by losing three out of four to the Giants, Brooklyn took little relief from the quick weekend road trip to Pittsburgh. Although Duke Snider returned to the lineup and promptly belted a home run in each of the first three games in Pittsburgh, Furillo—who had recently been hitting at a .500 clip—replaced the Duke on the injury list with a sore elbow after the first Forbes Field contest. The Dodgers won the first two games but were swept in the series-concluding Sunday double- header, earning only a split of the four games against the worst team in baseball, before returning to New York.

Facing the Giants once again, this time for a three- game series starting on August 13 at the Polo Grounds, the Dodgers lost two out of the three, snuffing out the last lingering hope that they might yet contend for the pennant. In the August 15 finale, played before fewer than 8,000 fans—“the smallest Giant–Dodger crowd in recent memory”13—the Giants staged another late-inning rally (they scored the go-ahead run in the sixth and then piled on three more in the ninth), this time against Don Drysdale, and beat the Dodgers 9–4, driving “another spike into the pennant hopes of their transpontine rivals.”14 “The Dodgers look more and more like a tired, fading ball club,” the Post’s Arch Murray concluded, as he witnessed the “sad decline of the Dodgers whose glory seems to be running out along with their tenure in Brooklyn.”15 The Dodgers—and the future of baseball in Brooklyn itself—were now clearly “on the brink of disaster.”16

While the Dodgers floundered, the Braves reeled off nine straight wins against the Reds and the Cardinals to move into undisputed possession of first place. “The pennant race,” Murray wrote after the first series with the Giants, “is fast losing all semblance of the wild scramble it was only a week or ten days ago.”17 Losing seven out of eleven games to two of the worst clubs in the league, including five out of seven to the Giants, the Dodgers fell 81⁄2 games behind Milwaukee by August 15. “They’re just not good enough in every way,” one rival veteran told the Post’s Leonard Koppett.18

Although Dodger pitching had been touted as their advantage in the race, neither Newcombe nor Podres nor Maglie had been able to record a win during that ten-day stretch.19 Newcombe had left the nightcap of the August 11 doubleheader against the Pirates with a sore arm after three innings. He would not start again until August 21 (when he finally won his tenth game after six failed efforts) and then pitched only three more times without recording a victory the rest of the way. Maglie, who had won two games, including a no-hitter, in the final week of the 1956 season as the Dodgers pushed past the Braves into first place and held off the Reds, was gone on waivers (to the Yankees) at the beginning of September. Except for Gil Hodges, who played in every game against the Giants and the Pirates during that stretch, hitting .325 (13 for 40) and driving in seven runs, the lineup, laden with future Hall of Famers, that had dominated the National League for the past decade had finally broken down. Injuries had kept Snider out of the first series with the Giants and Furillo out of the second one. Campanella was solid, going 6 for 20 in the six games he played, but Reese was dismal, 3 for 25, after his return to the starting lineup (playing third base) on August 8.20

Not that the Dodgers, the defending league champions, after all, went into free fall. They kept pace with the Braves over the next month, splitting their remaining six games with Milwaukee, and even making up 21⁄2 games of that mid-August deficit by mid-September. But there was just too much ground to make up. Six losses in the last ten games left the Dodgers in third place, 11 games back, at season’s end. By then the Dodgers were playing before row upon row of empty seats in a largely deserted Ebbets Field, as Brooklyn’s fans finally realized that the team was leaving and that no reprieve would be forth- coming.21

All of the hard evidence suggests that, no matter what the Dodger players accomplished on the playing field over those final two months of the 1957 season, the team was going to move to Los Angeles. As the Giants and Dodgers had faced off at Ebbets Field during the first week of August, New York officials had publicly acknowledged what they—and Walter O’Malley—had known for months: that financing the construction of a new Dodger stadium in Brooklyn was economically unfeasible.22 Even while O’Malley remained coy about his future plans, Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham had announced in mid-August that his team was headed to San Francisco, a move that was clearly part of a package that included a Dodger move to Los Angeles.23 The National League had prepared a tentative schedule for the 1958 season that included Los Angeles and San Francisco but not Brooklyn and New York. And yet one cannot help but ask the question: Had the Dodgers, the “team to beat” for the National League pennant at the beginning of August, been able to go the distance, would they have left Brooklyn as and when they did? If Walter O’Malley actually pulled a world-championship team out of its hometown right after such a triumph, he would have been the first team owner in a major sport to make such a move—and to date the only one.24

Thanks to the Giants, O’Malley was spared such a dilemma, if dilemma it would have been. The Dodgers’ swoon in the first half of August had taken him off the hook, with the California-bound Giants delivering the coup de grace. And so it was that, on the afternoon of October 8, 1957, while the Milwaukee Braves were preparing to battle the Yankees the next day in Game 6 of the World Series, the Dodgers officially announced that the team was moving to Los Angeles. For this loss, the traditional rallying cry of the Dodger fan in defeat provided no solace. Next year would never come for Brooklyn. 

HENRY D. FETTER author of “Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball” (Norton, 2003), received a McFarland–SABR Baseball Research Award for an earlier version of his article “Revising the Revisionists: Walter O’Malley, Robert Moses, and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers,” which will appear in a forthcoming issue of New York History.

 

NOTES

  1. S. House of Representatives, Hearings before the Antitrust Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, Organized Professional Team Sports, 85th Cong., 2d sess., 1957, 1,850–1,885 (O’Malley), 1,939–1,958 (Stoneham); Henry D. Fetter, Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (New York: Norton, 2003), 226–80.
  2. Through the end of July 1957, Dodger paid home attendance was 689,578, compared to 656,357 in 1956 and 710,595 in 1955. Average home attendance for each game date through July was 16,036 in 1957, compared to 17,272 in 1956, and 15,791 in 1955.
  3. Milton Gross, New York Post, 7 August 1957.
  4. On Newcombe, see Peter Golenbock, Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2000), 457–62.
  5. The record was later broken by Sammy Sosa, 1998–2003.
  6. Arch Murray, “Working Press,” New York Post, 1 August 1957.
  7. New York Post, 20 August 1957.
  8. New York Times, 6 August 1957.
  9. New York Post, 6 August 1957.
  10. Taking note of the smallish size of the crowd “in ideal weather and with strong representation from assorted groups who had bought blocks of tickets in advance,” Joseph M. Sheehan of the Times commented that “the franchise-moving talk surrounding both teams apparently has squelched much of the once-keen public interest in the Dodger–Giant rivalry” (New York Times, 7 August 1957). However, the crowds were only slightly lower than what they had been for the counterpart series with the Giants a year before in August 1956 (and more likely reflected a dulling, at least temporarily, of the rivalry in light of the Giants’ lackluster showing in the 1956 Dodger–Giant series attendance: August 14 (18,567); August 15 at Jersey City (26,385); August 16 (18,978). All were night games, as were the games in 1957.
  11. New York Post, 8 August 1957; Milton Gross, “The Long Ride Home with Don Newcombe,” New York Post, 11 October 1956.
  12. New York Post, 9 August
  13. New York Times, 16 August 1957.
  14. Ibid
  15. New York Times, 14 August 1957.
  16. New York Times, 20 August 1957.
  17. New York Post, 9 August 1957.
  18. New York Post, 20 August 1957.
  19. As Cubs General Manager John Holland told Arch Murray at the be- ginning of August, “Day after day . . . game after game they can throw a real good one at you Pitching has to pay off in the long run and I can’t see any reason why it won’t this time……. There just isn’t any club in the league that can match the Dodger pitching in quality or depth.” New York Post, 1 August 1957.
  20. Player records calculated from Retrosheet
  21. In their last four games at Ebbets Field, played on September 20, 21, 22, and 24, the Dodgers attracted a total of only 25,231 fans, including 6,702 for their Brooklyn Even so, total attendance for 1957 was 1,026,258, just shy of the 1,033,589 drawn by the 1955 World Champions, although well below the 1956 mark of 1,213,562 attributable to that season’s down-to-the-wire pennant race.
  22. New York Times, 7 August 1957; New York Post, 6 August 1957, 7 August 1957; Fetter, Taking on the Yankees, 244–46, 255, 278.
  23. On the Giants’ decision, New York Post, 7 August 1957, 8 August 1957; New York Times, 20 August 1957. On May 28, 1957, the National League had granted the Giants and the Dodgers the right to move to San Francisco and Los Angeles upon request to do U.S. House of Representatives, Hearings, 1,404–1,406; New York Times, 28 May 1957, 29 May 1957. For a more complete discussion, see Fetter, Taking on the Yankees, 226–80.
  24. Had the 1957 Dodgers won the pennant but not the World Series, the only comparable example in any major professional sport, before or since, would have been the move of the Boston Redskins of the National Football League to Washington after the 1936 season. That year, the Redskins won the NFL’s Eastern Division title before losing to Green Bay in the league championship game, although that was at a time when professional football lagged well behind major league baseball in popularity and impact.

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