On a broiling Sunday in the summer of 1953, Father Herbert Redmond of Brooklyn's St. Francis Roman Catholic Church took his place at the pulpit. Before his schvitzing congregation, he spoke a few deliberate words. There was no air conditioning today, he said, and there would be no sermon. Go home, keep your 10 commandments, and pray for Gil Hodges.
Hodges was one of the Boys of Summer, as the Brooklyn Dodgers of those days would come to be known (though most preferred to call them "da bums"). A svelte first baseman with a powerful bat, he lived on Bedford Avenue, in Flatbush. The year before, Hodges, a hero to millions in Brooklyn, had gone an unbelievable 0-for-21 in the 1952 World Series against the hated Yankees, setting a record so heinous that the slump followed him into the following season.
But eight months after his World Series nightmare, Hodges still had the people of Brooklyn on his side. They had grown accustomed to losing to those high-priced, low-class golden boys in the Bronx, and, like most chronically unfulfilled sports fans, they had transformed their futility into an ethos of courageous perseverance in the face of uncontrollable destiny. But, as a HBO's new two-part documentary, "Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush," makes clear, Brooklynites had no idea just how bad it was going to get.
Trust HBO to whip one of the most bittersweet periods in the lives of so many of its viewers into Ken Burnsian theater, setting its trove of archival clips and interviews to an oh-so heartrending score and wistful shots of downtown Brooklyn. And why not? The story of the Dodgers between 1947 and 1957 would be nothing short of an Elizabethan tragedy were it not for the events of the very first day of the decade in question — the day Jackie Robinson stepped onto the grass in Ebbets Field and altered the course of American History. In fact, the Dodgers' constant losing to the Yankees and their eventual departure to Los Angeles in 1958 only proved that fighting the good fight — not to mention winning an incredible 1,029 games in 11 seasons — didn't guarantee any of life's rewards. As the Crown Heights native Herb Ross puts it succinctly: "Being a Brooklyn Dodgers fan meant suffering."
Brooklyn played 36 major league seasons prior to 1947, but it's no surprise that HBO has opted to begin its story here. Those 11 years were the kinds of years that people wish they could relive, just to go back to Ebbets Field one more time and watch Duke Snider track down a fly ball in center field, Roy Campanella stroke a ball into the left field gap, and Pee Wee Reese stab a ball in the hole and fire a strike to Hodges at first base.
Sadly, though, those who watch "The Ghosts of Flatbush," which makes its premiere tomorrow night at 8 p.m., won't get to see much of the magic, either. Because the story of the Dodgers is so tangled up in Brooklyn's social and political history, more time is devoted to tracing the club's path from hero to outcast than to appreciating the very thing that made it all possible: the Bums on field.
What little footage there is of the Dodgers actually playing baseball is dominated by Robinson, and rightly so. Forget that he kick-started the civil rights movement and single-handedly made baseball into a model for postwar America; Robinson, a four-sport letter winner at UCLA, was a revolutionary on the baseball diamond. When team owner Branch Rickey brought Robinson to Brooklyn from the Negro Leagues in 1947 — despite the objections of Major League Baseball and some of his own Dodgers — he wasn't just giving millions of fans their first glimpse of a black ballplayer; he was giving them the most exciting player anyone had ever seen.
Robinson's swing was low and sweeping — unorthodox then and now — and once the ball caromed off his bat, he charged around the bases like an unleashed cougar. In the terrifying face of abusive crowds and hostile players, Robinson hit .297 in 1947, winning Rookie of the Year honors and leading the Dodgers to their first National League title in six years. "[Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers] proved that segregation was an oppressive system," the author Timothy Oliphant says, "because the minute you got rid of it, talent flowed."
The writers of "The Ghosts of Flatbush" are right to imply that no sports franchise before or since has so faithfully embodied a city (or a borough) as did Robinson and the Dodgers of the 1950s. At the time, Brooklyn was the nearest thing the nation had to the melting pot Americans spoke so proudly about. It was a borough of immigrants ("Even the blacks were immigrants," Brooklynite Andy Mele says, "because they were from the South."), many still licking the wounds of past lives and wary of those across the borders of their close-knit neighborhoods. But the Dodgers belonged to everyone, and each time they took the field, the stands looked like a summit at the United Nations. As any Dodger would tell you, the scene was surely not the same up at palatial Yankee Stadium, where there were few minorities in the seats and none on the field.
Depending on which witnesses in "The Ghosts of Flatbush" you decide to trust, team president Walter O'Malley, who had forced out the popular Rickey in 1954, may or may not have cared about any of that. What he knew as early as 1955, the year the team tasted its one and only World Series triumph after falling to Yankees in 1947, '49, '52, and '53, was that the Dodger franchise couldn't survive in the outmoded Ebbets Field for much longer. The booming economy had lured many of his core fans out to the green pastures of Long Island, and the many minorities that filled their homes in Brooklyn weren't coming out to the Stadium. Worse, those fans who now had to drive to Ebbets Field found themselves fighting for one of the park's 700 parking spaces.
"The Ghosts of Flatbush" spends almost its entire second act detailing the forces that eventually ripped the Dodgers from the bosom of Brooklyn: O'Malley's insistence that a new stadium be built at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues; Robert Moses's refusal to allow O'Malley to tell him where a stadium should or shouldn't go; an offer from the city of Los Angeles of 350 acres, free of charge; and the waning life force of the Dodger faithful, who could sense, even in the elation that arrived with the 1955 world championship, that the ultimate loss was on the horizon.
In part because the Brooklyn Dodgers exist today only in the memories of those who saw them play, it is fitting that "The Ghosts of Flatbush" is ultimately more a story of a borough than of its baseball team. Viewers won't find much to learn about the players or the game as it was played at the time. Baseball fans, unfortunately, won't learn much of anything, because the documentary mostly finds eloquent ways of describing what lovers of the game already know. Original Dodger fans will no doubt want to tune in just to feast on the images of their icons at their most glorious, but if it's been too long, they should be forewarned: The Bums are only going to lose in the end.
"Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush" airs tomorrow at 8 p.m.