January 30, 2007

So long Brooklyn Dodgers; it’s been good to know you!

We are watching the Brooklyn Dodgers fade from active memory.

My grandmother tells me that as a child in the 1920s, Civil War veterans came to her school for assemblies and they marched, slowly, in Veterans Day parades. I recall seeing veterans of World War I marching in similar parades in the 1980s. This past December, survivors of the attack of on Pearl Harbor gathered in Hawaii for their 65th reunion. It is 2007 and we are informed by and contextualize the present with the past. But every year the past recedes on itself and we know that soon the generation of the Depression and the War will pass. So too in baseball.

For my generation, born in the 1970s, who passed through elementary school in the Pete Rose 1980s, we were oriented by the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. My grandfather, like so many of ours, served in World War II. I was taught to understand my grandmother’s pantry, stocked with cans of food, to be a legacy of the Depression. My grandfather told me of going to Negro League games in Philadelphia and in Atlantic City. My mother’s favorite players were Richie Ashburn and Willie Mays. Baseball in the 1950s was the dominance of the New York Yankees and the social progress, eventual triumph, and heart-breaking departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

We compare current ball players to their predecessors but to those who we knew or saw ourselves. We compare Roger Clemens and Barry Zito to Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, and Don Drysdale. It has been been many years since we referenced Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard let alone Grover Cleveland Alexander or Dizzy Dean who pitched in the 1920s and 1930s. Christy Mathewson may have been better than Clemens and Gibson but Mathewson does not live as even Bob Feller continues to today – Matty is now a plaque in Cooperstown, entry in the Giants’ media guide, statistic in the hands of Bill James.

This is quickly becoming the fate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In different eras, different clubs have captured our imaginations and Brooklyn has been a beacon of reference for baseball fans for sixty years now. But times are changing and fewer and fewer Americans know the club from Brooklyn. I was reminded of this fate on January 4 in Paris, at Charles de Gaulle airport. I was wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers cap – the classic all Dodgers-blue cap with the white B that the Dodgers wore from the late 1930s through their final season in Flatbush in 1957. This is the hat worn by the 1955 World Champions of Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, and Gil Hodges.

Another American traveler, also on his way to the same flight to Philadelphia, turned to me and said, “Go Red Sox!” I nodded because he was looking at me and it is easier to nod than to question how he chose me and the Red Sox and put us all together. “Are you from Boston?” he asks. “No” I reply. “But you’re wearing a Sox hat” he says. I receive this often enough now when wearing this cap that I understand his logic.

The Boston Red Sox B is almost identical to the Brooklyn B and we are in a merchandising era where we are divorcing the trademark from the color. We no longer define a Red Sox cap by the Red Sox colors, navy, scarlet, and white. Spike Lee was the first to popularize official caps in alternate colors when he wore a red fitted Yankees cap to Knicks games in the early 1990s. We now see ‘official’ caps in all colors including pink and camouflage.

We have liberalized our identification of the logo, the B in this case, with the colors, and assimilated into the mainstream a trend that started with Lee and was embraced by Hip Hop America. At the same time, the Red Sox have achieved tremendous success under the current ownership of John Henry by marketing itself as a national franchise, through their onfiield success, beyond New England and the reach of cable station NESN, the New England Sports Network. (My sister, who now lives in Burlington, Vermont, and maintains dual Phillies-Red Sox loyalties, reminds me that it is pronounced “ness’en”).

This coincides with the recession of the awareness of the Brooklyn Dodgers in American culture.

World War II was a catalyst of the nation’s struggle with race and civil rights in the 1950s and into the 1960s. American servicemen of color were welcomed as conquering and liberating heroes in Europe in 1945. They were young men of color treated as heroes let alone equals. Europe in 1945 and 1946 celebrated the American servicemen white and black alike. These men of color returned to a segregated America where it had become unreasonable deny these veterans the rights at home for which they had fought abroad.

WWII was over for two years when Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947. The Dodgers were a fantastic club with future Hall of Fame players Reese, Snider, Roy Campenella, and Robinson. More so, they reflected the increasingly changing – slowly – but increasing face of integrated America. On a certain level, the Dodgers 1955 World Series championship represented the possibility for the success of the nation’s integration project. Remember, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka in May 1954! America saw the possibility for success in Brooklyn.

The Dodgers left New York City for Los Angeles after the ’57 season. Disney World had opened in Orange County in July 1955, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road, which talked of the great journey West, in 1951 and it was published in 1957, and McDonald’s, a legacy of the car-centric society of the West Coast dates its start to April 1955. America was moving west and the Dodgers’ (and New York Giants’) move to California reflected the nation’s shift from east to west and from cities to suburbia. Recall that Brooklyn’s full nickname was originally “Trolley Dodgers” because the team’s fans used to dodge the trolleys around the ballpark on their way to games. The name is anachronistic in LA where the city’s trolley tracks were paved over in the 1920s and where Dodger Stadium rises amid a sea of parking lots.

So strong was the pull of the Dodgers and Giants – Robinson was the first player of color and Willie Mays was the first superstar of color – in New York City and the loss at their departure was so great that within five years, the National League had a team back in the city who adopted the two teams’ colors – blue and orange.

How much time has passed? Dodger Stadium is now the second oldest ballpark in the National League and the Mets turned 45-years old this past season. They have reached middle-age and there are fewer and fewer fans – and Americans – who watched the Dodgers at Ebbets Field.

The era of the Brooklyn Dodgers is leaving us. My generation’s grandchildren will ask us about concrete Astroturf multipurpose stadiums, the players’ strikes of 1981 and 1994, and of the time when pitchers threw more than 100-pitches in a game. We forget and we create monuments to jog our memory. MLB retired Robinson’s uniform #42 across baseball in 1997. The Mets wear blue and orange and will someday come to their senses and drop the black. The team will incorporate design elements from Ebbets in their new ballpark in 2009. The LA Dodgers marked the 50th anniversary of the 1955 club by wearing the ‘B’ hats but this is only a memory where B now stands for Boston.


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