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Eric Miller

The Republic of Baseball

Just a business?

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Along with granting a widespread perplexity, Murphy even finds evidence of good faith on the part of both the teams' owners and the city officials who fought to keep them in New York. What he doesn't find is enough good faith, at least not enough to justify the decisions of the owners to take the teams and run. Both teams were making money, the Dodgers loads of it—a model franchise, it seemed, the envy of the league. New York's civic leaders scrambled, often dysfunctionally, to find ways to meet O'Malley's insistent demands for a new stadium, one that could lure people beyond the borough back into town. It was not enough.

For his part, O'Malley, who had gained control of the Dodgers by 1950, claimed a profound commitment to Brooklyn. Others aren't so sure, Murphy among them. "Whether or not he actually loved Brooklyn," Murphy concludes, "he didn't care as much about improving the borough as he did about having his own ballpark, built and located to his own specifications." O'Malley's new stadium in Los Angeles would be his lasting treasure. All the treasure left in Brooklyn was memory. In his famous "obituary" of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Dick Young of the New York Daily News pronounced judgment with mordant disdain: "The cause of death was acute greed, followed by severe political complications." The Dodgers had died "the healthiest corpse in sports history."

But in those bewildering cold war days, with the nation poised, as Robert Wuthnow has put it, between promise and peril, did all of this contention about baseball, all of this upset, truly matter? It wasn't just the ordinary fans who felt deeply that it did. Perhaps the single most illuminating facet of Murphy's book is his recapturing of the language and arguments New York's leaders used as they faced what was, to them, a truly momentous situation, charged with civic import. Brooklyn congressman Emmanuel Celler forcefully contended that team owners should not see themselves as businessmen but rather as "sportsmen who were satisfied just to make a living while serving the interests of their fans." New York City Council President (and Brooklynite) Abe Stark, in a statement before the Congress, stated his view just as sharply. "It is my belief," he declared, "that a baseball franchise morally belongs to the people of a community. It is not the personal property of any individual, to be removed at the slightest whim." George V. McLaughlin—onetime New York City police commissioner, part-owner of the Dodgers, president of the Brooklyn Trust Company, and friend of O'Malley—spoke in the same way as he led a last-ditch effort to purchase the Giants from Stoneham. His not-for-profit group, he explained in a letter to Stoneham, was comprised of "public-spirited citizens."

If neither education nor government nor church nor the family nor health nor the sky nor even finance itself is safe in the market's hands, why should we give baseball over to it?

Read Benjamin Franklin's autobiography and you'll find this very phrase, and phrases like it, used repeatedly. It's the old republican tongue, insisting with a conviction born of bitter experience that purely private interests were finally corrupting of the ends that humans might—must—achieve, including, above all, a significant sense of solidarity and commonwealth, a prosperity born of mutuality. Citizen Franklin started a fire company, published a newspaper, and launched a debating club. Among McLaughlin's concerns was baseball. Both men knew that such distinct yet interconnected activity was wonderfully and mysteriously necessary for the prospering of the whole. More ominously, they sensed that if these institutions, and a hundred like them, were absent, a dark expansive vacuum would emerge, to be inevitably filled by forces boasting an authority born of might, that could only degrade a citizenry into a warping dependency.

"Why was not one owner willing to stand up and say 'no' to the abandonment of New York fans?" wonders Murphy, wandering around in that void decades later. Why indeed? "It was now clear where baseball owners stood: for themselves and economic opportunity, rather than for devoted fans and a game's traditions."

This was the disturbing reality the departure of the Dodgers and Giants made clear. In its aftermath, some began to fight, in the words of Senator Estes Kefauver—another concerned citizen—to "return baseball to the American people." None fought harder than Branch Rickey; probably none cared more. Rickey, the most historically significant baseball man of the century, was the executive with the brightest mind and sharpest vision for all facets of the game, including its social context. Born in 1881, Rickey had been part-owner of the Dodgers in the 1940s while also directing its day-to-day operations (including the operation to integrate black players into the majors)—until O'Malley, who detested him, forced him out. In an appearance before Congress in the spring of 1960, Rickey starkly opined that "the major league owners need to be saved from themselves." He himself was in the midst of just such a salvation effort, the attempt to launch a new major league, the "Continental League," which would, among other things, feature the kind of revenue-sharing among its eight teams that would later make the National Football League not only rich but also admirably competitive, keeping even small-market franchises in the game. Baseball owners resoundingly resisted (and still do).

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