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Still No Joy in Flatbush : 30 Years Later, Diehard Brooklyn Dodger Fans Keep Mourning the Team That Broke Their Hearts

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Times Staff Writer

Those Dodger fans in L . A . , they stole our team. And they didn’t know a bagel from a baseball.

--Irving Rudd, former publicist

for the Brooklyn Dodgers

In Brooklyn, they don’t forget so fast.

It’s been 30 years since the Dodgers stopped playing baseball in Ebbets Field and the lights went out in Flatbush. Thirty years since Walter O'Malley shocked the sports world and moved his beloved bums to the cash-green pastures of Southern California.

Thirty long years. Time enough for the most diehard Brooklyn fan to forget. Time to get on with life and bury the past, right?

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“Like hell,” says Vinnie Faretra, a 57-year-old truck driver from Brooklyn. “I mean, these guys, they broke my heart. They tore the guts out of this town when they left. I should forget that? What’s the hurry?”

The Move Still ‘Hoits’

Vinnie doesn’t want to insult anyone, see, but the idea that his team is playing ball out in “La-La Land” still hoits. And he can’t shake the notion that a great crime has gone unpunished.

“It don’t seem right,” he says, speaking for Brooklynites past and present. “We wuz robbed. Treated like dirt. This is a long, sad story. You got a minute?”

Before Vinnie gets rolling, a few facts are in order: The Brooklyn Dodgers no longer exist. Ebbets Field was torn down in 1960. And if you think the team is ever coming back, there are a couple of guys on Flatbush Avenue who would love to sell you a bridge.

But who needs reality?

Vinnie--and thousands of fans like him--simply cannot let go. They are in mourning for a vanished team and a golden sports era when baseball was more than just a business. They still grieve that a club that had stars like Jackie Robinson, Pee-Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Duke Snider has deserted them forever.

A Gentler, Kinder Time

And their nostalgia goes beyond baseball: In the Brooklyn of the 1950s, America was at peace. Working-class people from a hodge-podge of ethnic neighborhoods put aside their differences and rooted as one for the Dodgers. Radios on kitchen tables filled their homes and tenement apartments with the team’s latest exploits. It was a gentler and kinder time.

“If the words on the Statue of Liberty meant anything at all, they applied to Brooklyn in the old days,” says Red Barber, who was the Dodgers’ radio announcer from 1939 to 1953. “You had blacks, Jews, Italians, Irish, Polish and others working hard to make a living, and they all cared passionately about their ball club.

“I’ve never seen a community that was so attached to a team, or grieved so much when it left. And the grieving goes on today.”

Meet the walking wounded of Brooklyn: An army of lost souls from coast to coast who still have not forgiven “The O'Malley,” as he is known in Flatbush bars today. Fiercely loyal to their old neighborhoods and steeped in a baseball folklore second to none, they live in a world where time officially stopped on Oct. 23, 1957, the day the Dodgers left town.

Some, like Vinnie, keep their feelings to themselves and mutter about the past only when provoked. Others lose themselves in a world of Brooklyn Dodger fan clubs, Brooklyn Dodger newsletters and Brooklyn Dodger memorabilia auctions. Thousands of them gather each year to honor members of the old team at a Hall of Fame ceremony. Some even cry.

Crazy? Perhaps. But these people do not need pity. What they need is a sympathetic ear.

“You got a minute?” Vinnie asks. “I could tell you about the beefs we used to have in bars about the Dodgers and the Giants. Talk, talk, talk. Boy, I could go on for hours.”

He probably could. So forget the condolences, pal. Leave your helpful advice at the door and hoist a couple for the team. This is one wake that never ends.

The first signs of Dodgeritis, a most mysterious disease, appeared in 1958 on opening day. Thousands of Brooklyn Dodger fans woke up, rubbed their eyes and realized that Pee-Wee, Campy, the Newk and the Duke were gone.

In other cities, fans were welcoming their teams back from spring training. But there was no joy in Flatbush. Ebbets Field, the historic bandbox that had been home to the Dodgers since 1913, was strangely silent.

“It’s a funny thing, but I felt listless, really kind of down, and I didn’t know why,” says Irving Rudd, 70, the Brooklyn Dodgers publicist who did not move with the club to Los Angeles and is now a boxing press agent in New York.

“I went to my doctor and he told me there were lots of cases just like mine in the neighborhood. People wandering around in a funk. He called it Dodgeritis, and said there was no known cure.”

It got worse.

When the Los Angeles Dodgers played their first games that year in Philadelphia, busloads of Brooklynites traveled down to Shibe Park. They carried huge, handmade signs reading: “It’s the Brooklyn, not the Los Angeles Dodgers.” Some fans cheered the old team as if it had never left. But others were disturbed by the “L.A.” emblem on the blue baseball caps and left feeling depressed.

“Who could blame them?” Rudd says. “It’s like you’ve lost a parent or a lover. People grieve. These things take time.”

Radio Broadcasts

Soon, Brooklyn fans began to hear radio broadcasts of the team’s first games in the Los Angeles Coliseum. They weren’t impresssed.

“Gimme a break,” Rudd says. “They would scream their heads off when somebody hit a foul pop-up. They had Frank Sinatra and other celebrities at the games, and everybody knows these aren’t real people. What the hell was going on?”

After a few years, the inevitable comparisons were being made with Ebbets Field. Noisy, scruffy and wonderfully intimate, the old park was a place where anything could happen.

Two guys dressed up as women were once arrested for trying to get in free on Ladies’ Day. A rich clothier hung a sign on the rightfield wall that read, “Hit Sign, Win Suit.” Fans were like family. You could know the life story of the guy sitting next to you by the bottom of the third.

And did people holler.

They stamped their feet for the Dodger Sym-Phony, a group of musicians dressed as bums who played horribly off-key and tortured opposing players. When an enemy batter struck out, the Sym-Phony would follow the poor guy with a drumroll as he moped back to the dugout. When he parked himself on the bench, they’d crash their cymbals. The crowd would go nuts. It was Brooklyn at its best.

There was also Hilda Chester, described by one historian as a “wild, screeching woman” and a fixture in the left-field bleachers. A plump, middle-aged woman, Hilda rang a cowbell, led the fans in cheers and wore huge buttons that said “Tell the World I’m From Brooklyn.”

And then there was Eddie Bettan, a husky man who raced through the stands tooting a police whistle to rev up the faithful. When the Dodgers won the pennant in 1941, Bettan met the returning team at Grand Central Station and made a remarkable statement to all of Brooklyn, according to Barber, who was broadcasting from the tumultuous scene.

“Eddie grabbed the microphone and said he was a landlord,” Barber recalls. “He said that for years, he’d been fighting with his tenants, refusing to give them new toilet seats. But now, he was so happy, he promised them all new toilet seats.”

By contrast, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles seemed beautiful but boring, a gorgeous dame with nothing upstairs. Sure, you could see palm trees from the cheap seats and the sunsets were something else. But where was the passion? “Where,” as Rudd complained, “was the schmaltz?”

Unforgettable Noise

Ira Shepnick, a Brooklyn fan who spent his boyhood at Ebbets Field and now lives with his family in Santa Monica, agrees that Los Angeles suffered by comparison.

“When I take my boys to Dodger Stadium, they think it’s just great,” he says. “But what do they know? These fans are so boring, you could nap at Chavez Ravine, even with the bases loaded. You might as well be going to the Mark Taper Forum.”

The sheer noise of a game at Ebbets Field was unforgettable. Pop singer Carly Simon, who was an honorary Dodger batgirl in the summer of 1954, remembers the sound of fans hooting at enemy ballplayers and bickering in the bleachers over baseball strategy.

“It was very emotional, like a big Italian opera house,” she says. “People arguing, singing, cheering, booing. You couldn’t help but fall in love with the place.”

The tickets were cheap, so you didn’t have to be a bigshot to get good seats. That was important to Brooklyn fans, who lived forever in the shadow of Manhattan and suffered from what Barber called a collective inferiority complex. Many of them spent their lives in the same neighborhoods, never crossing the river to see the other sights of New York.

It was easy for them to love the talented Dodgers, who snared one pennant after another, but somehow, always, managed to blow the World Series to the hated New York Yankees. The fans’ cry of “Wait till next year” echoed across Brooklyn at the end of each season. Losing, as any diehard knew, had a dignity all its own.

Most fans, for example, can still tell you where they were in 1951 when Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard round the world, a dramatic, ninth-inning home run for the New York Giants to beat the Dodgers for the pennant. Was there ever a worse day in Brooklyn? Pearl Harbor comes close, but you’d get arguments.

“Still a terrible, terrible thing,” says Joey Laurice, whose brother, Shorty, may he rest in peace, led the Dodger Sym-Phony.

“I’m sitting in front of the television, and Thompson hits the home run. So I’m mad. I throw the chair through the television. The wife comes running in. ‘What’s wrong?’ she says. Says I, ‘The Dodgers just lost, is what.’ And the wife begins to cry.”

After years of frustration, Brooklyn finally broke the jinx in 1955 by beating the Yankees in the World Series. People honked car horns, danced with strangers, blew whistles or simply watched the celebration with tears in their eyes. Next year had finally arrived.

But the celebration was short-lived. That winter, rumors that the Dodgers might be packing their bags began to pick up steam, according to Neil Sullivan, a Baruch College professor of political science who has written a book about the Dodgers’ move west.

O'Malley was anxious to build a larger stadium in Brooklyn, because Ebbets Field held only 32,000 people and had only 750 parking spots, Sullivan says. He offered several plans to build a spacious new park if New York officials would give him the land free of charge.

Some of the proposals were visionary: In one case, O'Malley pledged to construct the nation’s first domed stadium. But city politicians could not agree on any of these proposals, saying New York should not make a gift of valuable public land to the Dodgers.

Years later, cities would bid frantically against each other in an effort to win major league franchises, offering teams land, tax benefits and other inducements. But this was 1955 and O'Malley could read the writing on the wall. He began negotiations with Los Angeles officials to move the team, and two years later the deal was done.

As the Los Angeles Coliseum and later Dodger Stadium swelled with capacity crowds, the gruff, cigar-smoking owner clearly had the last laugh. Before O'Malley died in 1979, his team was steadily breaking all baseball attendance records.

“O'Malley’s decision broke Brooklyn’s heart, but it may have been inevitable,” Sullivan says. “New York wasn’t prepared to make him a decent offer, and Los Angeles was. They wanted the team more, and they made the right offer. The rest is history.”

In later years, large sections of Brooklyn went downhill. Even before the Dodgers announced plans to leave, there had been an exodus of middle-class residents to Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut. Eventually, the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper folded and the old Navy Shipyard, which had employed so many Dodger fans, was closed. Ebbets Field was torn down and replaced by large brick apartment buildings. Time, it seemed, had passed Brooklyn by.

But the Brooklyn Dodgers lived on.

“We weren’t going to let the memory die,” says Fred Silverman, who grew up at Ebbets Field and is now a Wall Street stockbroker. “The Dodgers meant too much to us.”

Like many other Brooklyn fans, Silverman, 57, recalls an idyllic childhood focused almost entirely on the Dodgers. It didn’t matter that he and his buddies spent their summers trapped in the hot, muggy city: There were stickball games in the street and frequent outings to Ebbets Field. Afterward, they’d gather on stoops or hang out at the neighborhood candy store to shoot the breeze and relive that day’s game.

“It would have been criminal to let this rich cultural history disappear,” Silverman says. “So we, the guys and I, haven’t allowed that to happen.”

“The guys” are Silverman’s childhood friends who grew up in Crown Heights, near Ebbets Field, and have remained close. At an age when most men are preoccupied with families and careers, they have kept their Dodger memories alive with get-togethers, letters and phone calls. Some of them go out for dinner at least once a month to talk about the team and schmooze about the old neighborhood.

“We’re quite serious about this,” Silverman says. “And I’ve got to believe there are guys just like us all over New York, out in Los Angeles and other places too.”

Besides Silverman, still known as Freddie to his pals, there’s Stevie, also known as Steve Miller, a successful New York printer. Miller happily sends enlarged photos of Brooklyn Dodger players to friends all over the country and is a confessed trivia freak. He will often telephone friends during the work day and interrupt business meetings, demanding to know the name of an obscure catcher on a Brooklyn team that had a terrible year.

“They can’t believe it when I know the answer,” Miller says. “They wonder, how in the hell do I know? Well, I know.”

And then there’s Shelly Schwab, a kid who lived over a candy store and is now the president of MCA Television Enterprises in Universal City.

A Special Niche

Schwab occupies a special niche in the pantheon of Brooklyn fans: Living in the land of the enemy, he avoids Dodger Stadium and surrounds himself with memorabilia to keep the home flames burning.

“Listen, this L.A. team is O'Malley’s team; they’re not my team,” Schwab says. “When the Dodgers announced they were moving to Los Angeles, I was on a Navy ship near Rabat, Morocco. I heard the news on the radio, turned over in my bunk and cried. I literally cried.”

Schwab loves to talk about the Brooklyn Dodgers. He says he gets a “tingling” feeling whenever the subject comes up. It takes very little for him to start talking about the old neighborhood, the guys and the wild celebration over the Dodgers’ World Series win in 1955.

“If you took foreigners and put them in the middle of Brooklyn that night, they’d think a major war had ended,” he says. “Brothers who hadn’t spoken to each other for 10 years made up then and there. It was unforgettable.”

By his own admission, Schwab is a busy man. No one would blame him if the demands of his job began to crowd out some of these memories. But there is little chance of that.

“I have a nice house in the hills, nice art on the walls, all that,” he says. “But in my master bathroom, I have some beautiful photos of the Brooklyn Dodgers. You might say that I start the day with them.

“And it’s important, because the temptation is to take yourself too seriously in this town. I don’t have to get caught up in all this Hollywood silliness. I look at those pictures and I remember who I am, where I came from. These are the important things in life.”

The important things in life. It’s almost a mantra for Brooklyn diehards, who will stop at nothing to celebrate the faith. Or stick it to O'Malley, regardless of the facts.

“Look, these fans are having a lifelong wake, and I’m the guy who comes in and does the autopsy,” says Sullivan, who finds that most diehards could care less about the defense of O'Malley in his book, “The Dodgers Move West.”

“People still need the villain; they want red meat,” he says. “In Brooklyn, nobody cares that O'Malley took a big business gamble by moving the team to an untested baseball market, and that he wasn’t such a Machiavellian figure. In retrospect, he looks like a genius.”

A genius? Don’t tell that to Max Stark, 82, a Brooklyn fan who hasn’t been to a ballgame in 30 years.

As he sat on a stoop in his undershirt and fanned himself with a fly swatter, Stark could listen to such an argument for only so long. Then he waved if off, like an obnoxious bug.

“Don’t tell me. I know why they left,” the old man groused. “Everybody knows why. It was money. Money, money, money. And this place has never been the same.”


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