James Wexler is a brilliant Massachusetts State Trial Court judge, who grew up in Brooklyn.
As happens among friends we frequently exchange emails. Recently the judge wrote about the signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers -- a signing that changed baseball and changed our country.
His email caused me to reflect on that epic moment and all that would unfold when Jackie began his major league career -- 15 April 1947 -- and how, 11-years later the Dodgers, whose identity then was more firmly fixed in the popular mind of America with the borough whose name they bore than that of any other sports team, would depart for Los Angeles and the west -- leaving Brooklyn behind with a broken heart and a never-ending rage against Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers' owner.
The remembrance of things past would lead me to muse about Kings County, New York -- otherwise known as Brooklyn:
When the Dodgers left Brooklyn, Brooklyn ceased to exist in the mind of America. The Dodgers were Brooklyn. We know the world is weird, but it's weirder still when a sport teams leaves and the place left behind is forgotten, but that's what happened -- and the place abandoned was hardly Podunk USA, but a borough of 1.7 million people.
The Dodgers were gone but Brooklyn still had Prospect Park, Coney Island, and a wonderful museum, but who knew? It was a largely a middle class borough and it could not compete with Manhattan, the Bronx (with its famous zoo and the Yankees), Staten Island, or even Queens (locale of the 1939/49 World's Fair).
It was not by accident the Dodgers were known as "Da Bums", or that the greatest sports cartoonist ever, Willard Mullin of the New York World Telegram & Sun, immortalized that image in countless drawings over the years. You wouldn't do that to the Yankees or even the Giants, and Mullin didn't. But the borough of Brooklyn seemed okay with his representation.
We knew of Betty Smith's book and Elia Kazan's film of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, of the borough's newspaper, The Brooklyn Eagle, but in the popular mind of America that was the beginning and end of "culture" in Brooklyn, except for the Dodgers -- who began as the Bridegrooms in 1890, became the Superbas, Trolley Dodgers, and Robins. Finally, in '31, they became the team known to history as - The Brooklyn Dodgers.
But that would all change in '58 when the Dodgers left the Empire State for California gold. That move, and the Giants from New York to San Francisco, would usher in seismic changes for the game of baseball -- and not a few for America.
But the most stirring memories of the time before '58, is found in Roger Kahn's book, The Boys of Summer about the Dodgers in Brooklyn, the best book ever written about sports. Sports Illustrated (SI) said it was the second best, after A.J. Liebling's "The Sweet Science", but SI was wrong.
(But the fact that SI said otherwise is impressive, because writing about boxing is an infinitely greater challenge than writing about baseball. The one "sport" is brutal and the other poetic; one appeals to man's baser instincts, the other, to his higher, more noble self. But whether it's Liebling/Kahn or Kahn/Liebling, as the best or second best, both are high in the literary stratosphere.)
When I read the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last chapter of Kahn's great work, I was depressed. Why? I loved the book, but there were no more chapters to read, the joy of its reading was over -- and it was if I had lost my best friend.
I always rooted for the Dodgers against the Yankees, because I have never liked the Yankees. Individual players, yes, they have had so many great ones, including the greatest ever, the Babe himself, but never the team or its owners. That includes the guy who stole Ruth from the Red Sox, which goes down as the second best deal ever for the five boroughs. The first, when the Dutch in 1626 bought Manhattan from the Lenape Indians, and the third, most trades by Goldman-Sachs (or maybe Goldman should head the list).
Brooklyn has had a comeback. Writers, artists, playwrights, and young Wall Street lawyers and investment bankers found Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights (you could buy cheaper and the Heights came with a great view of Manhattan across the East River). The restaurants are upscale, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy is working hard to bring it back, and the NBA's Nets are leaving NJ for a new arena in the borough the Dodgers left.
Sometimes cities, unlike some Broadway plays, have a second act. Great.
So Brooklyn is back -- but the Dodgers are gone and Ebbets Field, save for a plaque on an apartment building off Bedford Avenue, fell to a wrecking ball. It's okay to save historic places where no one goes, but not ballparks, whose joys have been experienced by millions and millions of Americans -- so Ebbets Field is gone, so too the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Comiskey Park in Chicago, Braves Field in Boston, and more recently, Tiger Stadium in Detroit. (Shame on the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)
So it goes in the big world of commerce and sports.
George Mitrovich, a San Diego civic leader, chairs for the Boston Red Sox The Great fenway Park Writers Series