Early Brooklyn history
The City of Brooklyn had a history of outstanding baseball clubs dating back to the mid-1850s, notably the Brooklyn Atlantics, the Brooklyn Eckfords and the Brooklyn Excelsiors, who combined to dominate play through the late 1860s as part of the National Association of Base Ball Players. The first baseball game requiring paid admission was an all star contest between New York and Brooklyn in 1858. Brooklyn also featured the first two enclosed baseball grounds, the Union Grounds and the Capitoline Grounds, which accelerated the evolution of the game from amateurism to professionalism. Despite the success of Brooklyn clubs in amateur play, however, no strong Brooklyn-based club emerged after the first professional league, the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, was formed in 1871.
The Brooklyn baseball club that would become the Dodgers was first formed in 1883, and joined the American Association the following year. The “Bridegrooms” won the AA pennant in 1889. Upon switching to the National League in 1890, the franchise became the only one in MLB history to win pennants in different leagues in consecutive years. Eight years passed before any more success followed. Several Hall of Fame players were sold to Brooklyn by the soon-to-be-defunct Baltimore Orioles, along with their manager, Ned Hanlon. This catapulted Brooklyn to instant contention, and “Hanlon's Superbas” lived up to their name, winning pennants in 1899 and 1900.
Teams of this era played in two principal ballparks, Washington Park and Eastern Park. They first earned the nickname “Trolley Dodgers,” later shortened to Dodgers, while at Eastern Park during the 1890s because of the difficulty fans had in reaching the ballpark due to the number of trolley lines in the area. The club also engaged in a series of mergers during this period, acquiring the New York Metropolitans in 1888 for territorial protection and star contracts, merging with the Brooklyn Wonders in 1891 as part of the Players League settlement, and merging with the Baltimore Orioles (NL) in 1900 as part of the National League's consolidation of clubs.
In 1902, Hanlon expressed his desire to buy a controlling interest in the team and move it (back, effectively) to Baltimore. His plan was blocked by a lifelong club employee, Charles Ebbets, who put himself heavily in debt to buy the team and keep it in the borough. Ebbets’ ambition did not stop at owning the team. He desired to replace the dilapidated Washington Park with a new ballpark, and again invested heavily to finance the construction of Ebbets Field, which would become the Dodgers' home in 1913.
“Uncle Robbie” and the “Daffiness Boys”
Manager Wilbert Robinson, another former Oriole, popularly known as “Uncle Robbie,” restored the Brooklyn team to respectability, with the “Robins” winning pennants in the 1916 and 1920 World Series and contending perennially for several seasons. Upon assuming the title of president, however, Robinson’s ability to focus on the field declined, and the teams of the late 1920s became known as the “Daffiness Boys” for their distracted, error-ridden style of play. Outfielder Babe Herman was the leader both in hitting and in zaniness. After his removal as club president, Robinson returned to managing, and the club’s performance rebounded somewhat.
It was during this era that Willard Mullin, a noted sports cartoonist, fixed the Brooklyn team with the lovable nickname of “Dem Bums.” After hearing his cab driver ask "So how did those bums do today?" Mullin decided to sketch an exaggerated version of famed circus clown Emmett Kelly to represent the Dodgers in his much-praised cartoons in the New York World-Telegram. Both the image and the nickname caught on, so much so that many a Dodger yearbook cover featured a Willard Mullin illustration with the Brooklyn Bum.
Perhaps the highlight of the Daffiness Boys era came after Wilbert Robinson had left the dugout. In 1934, New York Giants manager Bill Terry was asked about the Dodgers’ chances in the coming pennant race and cracked infamously, “Is Brooklyn still in the league?” Managed now by Casey Stengel (who played for the Dodgers in the 1910s and would go on to greatness managing another team), the 1934 Dodgers were determined to make their presence felt. As it happened, the season ended with the Giants tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the pennant, with the Giants’ remaining games against the Dodgers. Stengel led his Bums to the Polo Grounds for the showdown and beat the Giants twice to knock them out of the pennant race. The “Gas House Gang” Cardinals nailed the pennant by beating the Reds those same two days.
The first major-league baseball game to be televised was Brooklyn’s 6-1 victory over Cincinnati at Ebbets Field on August 26, 1939. Batting helmets were introduced to Major League Baseball by the Dodgers in 1941
Breaking the color line
For the first half of the 20th century, not a single African-American played on a Major League Baseball team. A parallel system of Negro Leagues developed, but many of the era’s most talented players never got a chance to prove their skill before a national audience. The first step in ending this injustice was taken by Jackie Robinson, when he played his first major-league game on April 15, 1947, as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. This event was the harbinger of the integration of sports in the United States, the concomitant demise of the Negro Leagues, and is regarded as a key moment in the history of the American Civil Rights movement. Robinson was an exceptional player, a speedy runner who sparked the whole team with his intensity, and was the given the inaugural Rookie of the Year award.
“Wait ’til next year!”
After the wilderness years of the 1920s and 1930s, the Dodgers were rebuilt into a contending club first by general manager Larry MacPhail and then the legendary Branch Rickey. Led by Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges in the infield, Duke Snider in center field, Roy Campanella behind the plate, and Don Newcombe on the pitcher's mound, the Dodgers won pennants in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953. In all five of those World Series, however, they were defeated by the New York Yankees. The annual ritual of building excitement, followed in the end by disappointment, became old hat to the long suffering fans, and “Wait ’til next year!” became an unofficial Dodger slogan.
In 1955, by which time the core of the team was beginning to age, “next year” finally came. The fabled “Boys of Summer” shot down the Bronx Bombers in seven games, led by the first-class pitching of young left hander Johnny Podres, whose key pitch was a changeup known as “pulling down the lampshade” because of the arm motion used right when the ball was released. Podres won two Series games including the deciding seventh. The turning point of Game 7 was a spectacular double play that began with left fielder Sandy Amoros running down Yogi Berra’s long fly, then throwing perfectly to shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who doubled up a surprised Gil McDougald at first base to preserve the Dodger lead.
Although the Dodgers again lost the World Series to the Yankees in 1956 (in which they became the victims of history’s only postseason perfect game), it hardly seemed to matter. Brooklyn fans had their memory of triumph, and soon that would be all they were left with.
The move to California
Real estate businessman Walter O'Malley had acquired majority ownership of the team in 1950, when he bought the shares of his co-owner Branch Rickey. Before long he was working to buy new land in Brooklyn to build a more accessible and better arrayed ballpark than Ebbets Field. Beloved as it was, Ebbets Field had grown old and was not well-served by infrastructure, to the point where the most pennant-competitive team in the National League couldn't sell the park out even in the heat of a pennant race.
New York City building czar Robert Moses, however, sought to force O'Malley into using a site in Flushing Meadows, Queens (the future site for Shea Stadium, where today's New York Mets play). Moses' vision involved a city-built, city-owned park, which was greatly at odds with O'Malley's real-estate savvy. When it became clear to O'Malley that he wasn't going to be allowed to buy any suitable land in Brooklyn, he began thinking elsewhere.
When the Los Angeles city fathers attended the 1955 World Series looking to entice a team to move to the City of Angels, they weren't even thinking of the Dodgers. Their original target was the Washington Senators (who would in fact move to Minnesota in 1961). At the same time, O'Malley was looking for a contingency in case Moses and other New York politicians refused to let him build the Brooklyn stadium he wanted. O'Malley sent word to the Los Angeles officials at the Series that he was interested in talking. Los Angeles offered him what New York would not: a chance to buy land suitable for building a new ballpark.
Meanwhile, New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham was having similar difficulty finding a replacement for his antiquated home stadium, and the two archrival teams moved out to the West Coast together. On April 18, 1958, the Dodgers played their first game in Los Angeles, defeating the San Francisco Giants, 6-5, before 78,672 fans at the Coliseum.
There has been much controversy over the move of the Dodgers to California, perhaps more than over any other franchise move of that era. Walter O'Malley, in particular, is described as villainous by some and admirable by others. Certainly he demonstrated some measure of selfishness and greed, but the same is also true of the New York City politicians who opposed him. Both sides were quite stubborn, and fatally misjudged each other. It should also be noted that Brooklyn had declined in many ways, under various social pressures, and was a much less desirable location for a baseball team than it had been. In fact, both sides in the stadium dispute proposed to remove the Dodgers from Brooklyn (Moses' plan for a team in Flushing Meadows was realized several years later, with little alteration, in the New York Mets). O'Malley also deserves credit as a visionary. Until 1958, St. Louis had generally been the westernmost outpost of Major League Baseball, whereas 12 of baseball's 30 teams now have their homes farther west. O'Malley was primarily concerned with making himself very rich (which he did), and certainly he broke the heart of many a New Yorker, but his move also helped lead the game of baseball to greater prominence and prosperity.