For more than a half-century, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants were two of baseball’s leading lights. They had the beautiful ballparks, the winning pedigree, the stars past and present. More importantly, though, they both had that ineffable quality that elevates a team into something more, an unofficial civic institution: The Giants’ home, the Polo Grounds, was the very essence of Manhattan, and no matter what anyone else had — or how many times they fell just short — Brooklyn always had Dem Bums.
Then, on May 28, 1957, MLB owners unanimously voted to allow both teams to up and leave the Big Apple for California. You may already know that part; all these years later, it still stings for some (just ask the next elderly guy you see at a Mets game). But just how did this happen? How did two teams seemingly so synonymous with a specific place and people wind up 3,000 miles away? How did baseball history get so thoroughly turned on its head?
For a while, it looked as though the Giants might lay claim to the title of Team of the 20th Century. Led by bombastic manager and literal vaudeville star John McGraw (not to mention studs like pitcher Christy Mathewson), New York won the pennant nine times from 1905 to 1924, winning three World Series. The Polo Grounds was the envy of the entire league, a 55,000-seat cathedral seated squarely amid the glamour of upper Manhattan.
But baseball is a fickle game, and soon enough the franchise’s fortunes changed. Roster mismanagement led to on-field struggles — at no point in the 1940s did the team finish better than third in the National League — and on-field struggles led to a drastic dip in attendance: While more than 1.5 million fans packed the Polo Grounds each year at its peak, by 1957 that number had dropped to just 654,000. Faced with declining revenue, more and more New Yorkers moving to the outer boroughs, city officials looking to claim the land for public housing and a crumbling park that hadn’t been renovated in decades, owner Horace Stoneham began to look elsewhere — out of “sheer economic necessity,” as team executive Charles “Chub” Feeney put it.
The original target was Minneapolis: Stoneham saw the attendance bonanza that accompanied the Boston Braves’ recent move to Milwaukee, and he envisioned similar riches for his team in the Midwest. But up and moving a Major League franchise was a tough sell; there were all kinds of scheduling logistics to consider. Moving in tandem with another club would help balance things out — say, someone already eyeing a move out west.
Unlike their East River rivals, the Dodgers were in decent financial shape — the only NL team that actually made money from 1952 to 1956. They had stars like Robinson, Reese and Snider, and they’d finally exorcised their Fall Classic demons and brought a title back to Brooklyn.
But owner Walter O’Malley wasn’t satisfied. He wanted a new stadium: Ebbets Field was a jewel, but it was a jewel of a bygone era — rickety and small and short on parking in the new age of automobiles — and O’Malley had a full decade haggling with city officials over building the Bums a new home. His preferred plan was like something out of Walt Disney’s wildest dreams, a 55,000-seat domed stadium at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush (now the home of the Barclays Center) that featured, among other things, a movie theater and a fully automated ticketing system:
But while O’Malley had the financing to build the stadium, he didn’t have the financing to buy the land. His plan? Ask Robert Moses, public planning czar and quite possibly the most powerful man in New York, to condemn the plot as blighted under Title I of the Federal Housing Act, thereby making it much cheaper to acquire.
But Moses wasn’t having it. He saw driving as the future of New York transportation, and he wanted to move the Dodgers to Queens, near the site that became Shea Stadium — publicly owned land that would create far fewer traffic jams than downtown Brooklyn. Despite nearly a decade of back and forth, the two simply couldn’t see eye-to-eye … and so O’Malley began to look elsewhere.
Specifically to Los Angeles, a booming city without any preexisting baseball allegiances — and willing to offer hundreds of acres of downtown land. O’Malley bought the Minor League L.A. Stars in 1956, and despite a last-ditch effort from Nelson Rockefeller himself, the move seemed all but done. The relationship between the Dodgers and Brooklyn had deteriorated to the point that, when the team scheduled a few regular-season games in Jersey City, N.J., the Daily News described the team as “inching their way westward …”
O’Malley convinced Stoneham to look at San Francisco instead, and on May 28, 1957, NL owners voted to make it official: The Dodgers and Giants could move to California, provided that they did so together. While O’Malley waited until after the season, Stoneham made his announcement in late September, turning New York’s final game of the season — a 2-0 win over the Pirates — into a de facto farewell tour.
Both teams have seen plenty of success out west, from perfect games to record-setters to postseason dramatics. Dodger Stadium and Oracle Park are two of the most beautiful places in baseball, and it’s hard to regret how things shook out. Still, it’s hard to look at all the twists and turns, all the little inflection points, and wonder, “What if?”