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O'Malley vs. Moses, a Half-Century Later

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When I suggested to my agent a book about the Dodgers and Giants leaving New York in the 1950s, he was not keen on the idea. The story was too old, he said. Then in 2005 a fellow who seemed one of the least likely men in America to write a book about the Brooklyn Dodgers, the political columnist Tom Oliphant, published a memoir about him and his parents rooting them through the 1955 World Series that briefly broke into the New York Times bestseller list. And my agent sent me a note: let's think again about that idea of yours. So we did, and After Many a Summer was published last month.

The end of the Brooklyn Dodgers is a lasting, almost mythic story because it is unique: of all professional teams, the one most closely associated with the place it represented, the most financially successful baseball team, a perennial winner in its league, historic beyond sports and nationally followed because it was the game's first integrated team, was uprooted by its ambitious owner and replanted on the other side of the country. The words "Brooklyn" and "Dodgers" were so firmly bonded that their separation had not been imaginable, but in 1957 Walter O'Malley managed to separate them. "It took a certain type of individual to pull a stunt like that," the Brooklyn baseball historian Tom Knight once remarked, "and Walter was it."

And the story endures because O'Malley was, physically and otherwise, an oversize figure, a character so vivid, with his slicked-back hair, constant cigar and prepossessing paunch below his chin and at his waist -- ever blabbing, ever scheming, ever smiling, whatever his intent. His image doesn't fade, and so, half a century after he pulled that most memorable stunt, the long debate about his culpability is still going on. In fact, it is being renewed. The current debate faces him off against another enormous and indelible personage, the longtime New York parks commissioner and public-works czar Robert Moses, whom O'Malley had to involve in his cherished plan to erect the finest baseball stadium in the world at a choice location in Brooklyn.

A main reason for Robert Moses' enduring prominence is the Robert Caro massive biography of him, The Power Broker, published in 1974 and still in print. Deeply researched, compellingly written, it is the most influential book ever written about an American city. The man it depicts, across a very broad canvas, is a onetime reformer who was corrupted by power absolutely, an impossibly vane, imperious, intransigent autocrat. For all its length, however, it is oddly reticent about its subject's involvement with Walter O'Malley and the fate of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a gap that was filled in 1987 by the academic writer Neil Sullivan in his book The Dodgers Move West. Sullivan, a Los Angelan who had moved to New York, made a rather convincing case that Caro's Power Broker was the man principally responsible for the Dodgers' abandonment of Brooklyn.

Old Dodgers fans like me, who lost them at the age of eight and accepted as an article of faith that O'Malley was a grasping old sinner whose avarice had obliterated my team, now had a choice of villains. Or we could attach villainy to both men in the proportion that suited us. It was that way for more than a decade, until Michael Shapiro showed up with a book about the Brooklyn Dodgers in which, though he did not credit Sullivan, he came to the same conclusion, and stated it more definitely: "Walter O'Malley is not the villain of this story. . . . Robert Moses is the bad guy in this story." His book was nicely written in a popular narrative style, and it weighed the scale of opinion more heavily against Moses. That was in 2003. In the summer of 2007, Home Box Office aired a 50th-anniversary memoir of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and there beneath the lights was Shapiro, and -- what's this?-- Caro himself, with something to say about Moses and the Dodgers, after all. I had begun by then to write my own book, and from that point on, nearly everyone to whom I mentioned my project -- even in Brooklyn -- would remark, "It was all Robert Moses' fault, wasn't it?"

Well, no, it wasn't. Moses might have done more, but he was not about to do exactly what Walter O'Malley wanted so that O'Malley could become rich. The blame-Moses revisionists had claimed the historical high ground, but there was another book published in 2003, Taking on the Yankees, in which Henry D. Fetter, a Harvard-trained lawyer, raised an objection, stating, with felicitous precision: "If Moses can be held responsible for 'the fall of New York' [in Caro's subtitle], how much easier to pin the primary responsibility on him for the far simpler task of driving the Dodgers out of town." He had placed his finger exactly where I have found the problem with the blame-Moses thesis to be: it is simplistic. The story of the Dodgers (and Giants) leaving their native city is a complicated one, and many characters can be blamed, the chief of which will always be Walter O'Malley.

Henry Fetter has read my book and embraced me as an ally in the O'Malley-Moses debate. He is especially glad to find me, I think, in a year when there has also been published an official, family-approved biography of Walter O'Malley, in which Michael D'Antonio concludes, atop other absurdities, "Only the most hardheaded [Brooklynites] would refuse to forgive him for making the most out of the Dodgers." Mouthing such views, the pro-O'Malleyans move further ahead, for D'Antonio's book has an original printing five times greater than mine.

Fetter and I, however, are not alone; other writers are having no part of the Moses devil theory. New York Times columnist Dave Anderson, who covered the Dodgers for long-lost Brooklyn Eagle, has said as much. So has Joe Gergen of Newsday, Bob McGee, the author of a thoroughgoing history of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field, and Curt Smith, chronicler of baseball broadcasters, most recently in a biography of Vin Scully, voice of the Dodgers both east and west..

While writing this I've received an e-mail message from Henry Fetter. His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O'Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" has just been awarded the Kerr History Prize by the New York State Historical Association. Seems like we non-O'Malleyans are doing what the Dodgers never will. We're coming back.