Don't Be Fooled, Dodgers Fans: Baseball Is Business

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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.

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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.

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.

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.
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