The Los Angeles faithful are thrilled that Magic Johnson and others have bought the team—but they should be wary of the franchise's complicated history.
In this season of Easter and Passover, Los Angeles is celebrating its own resurrection and new birth of freedom. The Dodgers have been liberated, we are told, from the evil yoke of over-leveraged, divorce decree-saddled owner Frank McCourt, whose cash-strapped mandate to make bricks without straw on the ball field had the same lack of success in recent years as Pharaoh's more literal command to the enslaved Israelites (Exodus 5:6-18, for those keeping score at home). (Before he is officially run out of town, let the record reflect that McCourt has sold the team for $2 billion after buying it for $430 million, which is generally the type of result that yields acclamations of business "genius"—deserved or not—and that under his ownership the Dodgers won their first division title since 1995, appeared in the playoffs four times and advanced to the National League Championship Series twice, coming closer to a pennant and World Series berth than at any time since Ronald Reagan was president.)
But who can deny that the final years of the McCourt regime were dismal ones for the team and its fans? And so all are hailing Magic Johnson and his investor group for leading the team and its fans into the Promised Land. Or at least promising to do so, much of course as McCourt had himself done—and been acclaimed by the local press—when he had rescued the team from Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. eight years ago. "Magic for Dodgers" and "Dodger Fans Have Big Smiles Now," the headlines proclaim. We shall see.
There is one note is particularly prominent in the chorus of hosannas about the sale of the team. As Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times, giving voice to many, writes, "the Dodgers are credible again, promising again, connected to their city again...[Magic] can proactively reestablish the bonds of this city's most enduring yet most abused connection with a sports franchise." But as anyone from Brooklyn knows, this is absolute hogwash.
It was, after all, the move of the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles that should have shattered for all time the conceit that a team was "connected" with its city or that a team's fans had any equity stake in "their" team. If that move proved anything, it was that any "bond" between team and town was actually hostage to the untrammeled diktat of the team's real owners—and they were not to be found watching the games in the bleachers ( or even the boxes). That Los Angeles appears to yearn for a "bond" with "its" team only shows that sports writers and sports fans never learn.
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Indeed the fervent hope that team and community will enjoy a mutual embrace in Los Angeles reveals something of a regression from the civic self-awareness that permeated much of Brooklyn's ( and New York's) deliberations about the fate of the Dodgers when Los Angeles came calling in the first place. It is easy enough to categorize Dodger owner—and all-time Brooklyn villain—Walter O'Malley as a bottom-line driven who betrayed the team's fans in an unholy quest for greater profits elsewhere - or to demonize New York "power broker" Robert Moses (as is now the fashion, however misguidedly, as I have pointed out) for driving O'Malley out of town by spurning his allegedly reasonable proposals for a new stadium in Brooklyn. But what may be the most compelling aspect of that more than half a century-old saga is that the Brooklyn Dodgers were perceived in the debates over its future in its traditional home, not as a civic asset with a claim on public support, but as a privately owned, profit-making business enterprise that was expected to make its own way in the world.
In the view of local officials (including those who were long-time opponents of Moses), denounced proposals to "invade the city and seize large parcels of property" for a project that was nothing more than "an effort to take care of the Dodgers." Instead, it was roundly denounced as a "give-away" of taxpayer money. Brooklyn Borough President John Cashmore, O'Malley's key ally, had already made it clear that the "best interest" of the city and its taxpayers was not necessarily that of the Dodgers. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Emanuel Celler of Brooklyn pointedly asked O'Malley in a congressional hearing in June 1957, "Do you think that a baseball club which has made the profits that your club has should be benefited by acquisition of land by eminent domain?" New York City Council President and future Brooklyn Borough President Abe Stark charged that "Dodger management has maintained a cold war of silence and evasion toward the people of New York while engaging in a warm flirtation with the mayors of the Pacific coast..." He had "no intention of voting for large sums of public money" to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Congressman John J. Rooney, who represented downtown Brooklyn for decades denounced the Dodger owner on the floor of the House of Representatives:
For years the Brooklyn Club has coined money for the few stockholders of its closely held stock. The owners never shared any of their profits with the fans. They took advantage of the Dodger fans at every turn over the years... I am opposed to uprooting decent citizens living in my congressional district. ..in order to put more money in the pockets of my dear friend Walter O'Malley and the private profit making Brooklyn Baseball Club stockholders.....Let Walter O'Malley and his stockholders who have no civic pride for Brooklyn, where they made their money, move to the west coast in quest of more almighty dollars.
Nor did the team's fans, or the public at large, appear to take issue with their political leaders' conviction that the baseball team was a private business that should look after itself with no special claim on the public weal. New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. was up for reelection in November 1957, the month after the Dodgers announced their departure for the West Coast but efforts by his Republican opponent to make the loss of the Dodgers (as well as the Giants) a lightning rod for dissatisfaction with the Mayor's assertedly ineffectual leadership style fizzled at the polls. In November, Wagner was re-elected by an overwhelming majority, rolling up 75 percent of the vote in Brooklyn itself.
And so Brooklyn lost the Dodgers to Los Angeles, but without any illusion that the team was anything but the private property of its owner. It was almost 50 years ago that Harold Kaese of the Boston Globe observed that "big league baseball is strictly a business for those who make money off those who think it is strictly a sport." True then and true today. To repeat what I said earlier: Sports writers and sports fans never learn—or simply don't want to.