The Dodgers and Brooklyn's Ethnic Isolation
The Dodgers and Brooklyn's Ethnic Isolation
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter describes the cultural segregation before the bridges and subways connected Brooklyn to Manhattan. For its ethnic residents, Brooklyn was a borough of marbleized ghettoes. The isolation was reflected in attitudes outside the borough. A remarkably diverse and equally tense cultural mix was in a geographically contained area, and the Dodger ball club provided the major unifying focus amid this Joseph's Coat of a population.
Isolation was no stranger to the borough of Brooklyn. In the era before bridges and subways connected Brooklyn to Manhattan, geography imposed a quarantine on what was first a village and eventually a city. After those physical links were in place, cultural segregation persisted, extending Brooklyn's inward-looking tradition. From the late nineteenth century on, immigrants and their children generally stayed with their own. For its ethnic residents, Brooklyn was a borough of marbleized ghettoes. The isolation was reflected in attitudes outside the borough. Brooklyn was not really thought to be part of New York City by “genuine” New Yorkers. There were the New York Yankees, and the New York Giants after all, but the Bums were the Brooklyn Dodgers. A corollary to this was the frequently confrontational nature of ethnic relationships in the borough, a hostility within that matched the sense of isolation without. The Dodgers formed an ameliorating force for unity in Brooklyn, but the team's local mystique did not miraculously bring all the people to love each other. Still, the Dodger presence helped. (This was especially true of Brooklyn's boys, the subject of Chapter 8.)
(p.103) As new neighborhoods rolled east from Brooklyn Heights, they reflected the realities of a ghettoization common generally to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American cities. While the fashionable Heights, in the shadow of Brooklyn Bridge, remained generally bedrock elite, native, and Protestant, the rest of Brooklyn was solidly ethnic: mainly Irish, Italian, and Jewish, with smaller groups of Scandinavians, Greeks, and Poles in the mix. By the end of the Second World War, a growing African American influx into what became Bedford-Stuyvesant augmented a small black community of long standing.
This was a remarkably diverse and equally tense cultural mix in a geographically contained area, and the Dodger ball club provided the major unifying focus amid this Joseph's Coat of a population. The degree to which this was true may be measured by the Dodgers' central place in the distinct language of Brooklyn. Overt class consciousness seemed to run higher in Brooklyn than elsewhere in the city, and the Dodgers' presence helped maintain an uneasy truce among ethnic groups. The comforting melting-pot notion of the American immigrant experience, with its emphasis on shared American values and a growing commonality of interests, has largely gone by the boards among American historians. The realities of immigrant differences dominated everyday life, as the Brooklyn experience yet again demonstrated. The Dodgers, in this tense setting, formed a social force for acculturation, perhaps an example of the larger role baseball has played in shaping American commonality in the twentieth century.
The borough's cultural isolation was accentuated, literally, by “Brooklynese,” a dialect a shade deeper than common New York accents. It was closely identified in New York and the nation with “dem Bums.” In fact the cartoon symbol of the Dodger Bum bespoke not only a scrappy and idiosyncratic baseball team but, in broader terms, the lower-middle-class origins of its ethnic fans. Because of Brooklyn's cultural isolation, both within the borough itself and as a distinct part of greater New York, the sense of class inferiority common to most first-and second-generation immigrants could only have been enhanced.
(p.104) While the Dodger Bum was a visual symbol of some weight, through radio and movies in the 1930s and '40s, Brooklyn's harsh accents became even more nationally known as a signifier of the borough's apartness. That déclassé symbol was fixed deeply in the public mind during the Second World War. Because of William Bendix's starring role in Wake Island, a 1942 propaganda movie that hit home emotionally for many Americans after that island's capture by the Japanese, Americans related the “Brooklyn accent” to the Dodger team, and not incorrectly. After Bendix, the tough-talking Brooklyn fan became a stock character of war films.
Brooklyn became the butt of aggressive satire. When borough president John Cashmore was asked why the very name of Brooklyn would make people smile (or sometimes snicker), Cashmore replied, “It may be the whole world is pleased there is such a fine place as this.” Cashmore's deft answer notwithstanding, he and many other Brooklyn denizens felt the sting of the intended ridicule. “Everyone was laughing at us,” one said. “If you listened to a radio quiz program and a contestant said he came from Brooklyn, you next heard a clamor of laughter from the studio audience.” And you expected the contestant to lose, he added. Yankee manager Casey Stengel said on the eve of his only World Series loss to the Dodgers, “Trouble with Brooklyn, it's been insulted too long.”
“The Society for the Prevention of Disparaging Remarks Against Brooklyn” was founded during the war, to respond wherever and whenever it came upon offensive slights of the borough. This was not some tongue-in-cheek invention, but an organization driven by an educational mission. By 1946, it claimed, with a good deal of exaggeration, 40,000 members. They culled 3000 slanders in the media that year alone. If this appears to be an excessive claim, note that H. L. Mencken saw it happening. In his 1948 edition of The American Language, he concluded that “the vulgar speech of New York City, once known as Boweryese, [is] now generally called Brooklynese.” A good part of parodied English fixed on the Dodgers, and much of that reflected outsiders' perceptions of what they took to be semi-literate lower-class (p.105) Brooklyn street talk. The language of “baseballese” (for example, Casey Stengel's popularized version), which in the borough cross-fertilized “Brooklynese,” salted the latter with large doses of baseball lingo, as we shall see.
This satirical language, so widely ridiculed, coincided with the 1940s popularization of cartoonist Willard Mullins's Dodger Bum, the pictorial incarnation of the Dodgers' scrappy reputation. It was also an affirmation for many of the lower-class reputation of the borough. Leo OʼMealia, commemorating the Dodgers' 1955 World Championship, built his famous “Whose a Bum!” cartoon around Mullins's drawing. The “Bum” was never meant to denigrate the lowly. It represented at heart a lingering Depression mentality that exalted the virtue that it wasn't what you had that mattered, but how you looked at things. In this way, it was a Dodger-focused, widely understood symbol of working-class pride; the emphasis is on class here, for one of the Bum's roles was to mock perceived “upper class” pretensions.
Stephen King, a Brooklyn native, grew up a Dodger fan. In a youthful poem he remarked on “the faceless fans who cry down juicy vowels.” Juicy they were. Recalling his first taste of Ebbets Field, Carl Erskine told of being spotted as he arrived at the Ebbets Field rotunda carrying his Fort Worth Cats duffel. “Hey, there's Oiskine. From Fort Woith. Hi, Oisk.” “Oisk” he was forevermore, orally and all too often in print.
New York Post columnist Jimmy Cannon wrote ironically of Red Barber in 1952: “You notice they want someone to speak English on the radio they don't get no guy from Brooklyn. They get a guy from down South. It goes to prove they don't even like to hear themselves talk, don't it, when you got to get a yamer to speak for you.” Was a “yamer” someone who ate yams? Someone who “yammers” for a living? Take your pick. Barber, columnist Steve Jacobson said years later, gave Brooklynites “tone and flavor and (new) expressions to mangle.”
Establishment types habitually and, some might say, comically reinforced the propriety of the distinctive rules of grammar that touched Dodger-freighted Brooklynese. “The speechways of Dodger fans enriched the language,” John Lardner wrote. “It was (p.106) from this that philologists learned that the plural of ‘ya bum, ya!’ is ‘yez bums, yez!’” The New York City Board of Education was asked to comment on the grammatical correctness of Charley Dressen's infamous 1953 comment that “the Giants is dead.” A Brooklyn board member responded, thinking naturally of the impressionable young: “Of course,” the educator explained, “if one member of the Giants were alive, like Maglie, you could not say the Giants is dead. But if every member of this entity is dead, hence the Giants is too.”
The language of the Brooklyn streets brought an irresistible urge to parody even fellow Brooklynites. William Poster, in “'Twas a Dark Night in Brownsville,” recounts how a suddenly self-conscious Brooklyn boy responded to an outsider's query on his turf: “Where ya from? … Ahah! Dat's in Brahnsvil, hah, hah, Brahnsvil. Noo? Howz Peetkin Avenue?”
Brooklynites' sensitivity to these seemingly endless satires ran deep, and language was only part of the problem. They were often defensive. Dodger fans knew they had a winner in the great team Branch Rickey put together after World War II. But continuing heart-wrenching losses to “New York” ball clubs hurt. The Yankees won the World Series with sodden regularity, and the Giants' “miracle” in 1951 was devastating, reinforcing the starcrossed feeling in Brooklyn that “we never win it all.”
It was as much a class thing as it was cultural isolation. “It ties up with a sort of social neurosis,” sportswriter Joe Williams said, “an elegant, smug New York versus a plain, provincial Brooklyn.” Compared with mainland baseball fans, “Dodger fans are vulgar,” one Manhattanite characteristically commented. Arthur Daley of the New York Times put the stereotype succinctly in 1949: the Dodgers had become a great team, he concluded, but the Brooklyn fan “has the brashness and ostentation of the nouveau riche while the Yankee fan has the conservatism and slightly disdainful superiority of the born aristocrat.” This cultural isolation and its accompanying defiance of the world had another side: Brooklyn's “specialness” was also a source of pride. Both sides of that lower-class archetype that passed for a Brooklyn fan in the public prints were equally present in a patronizing poem Grantland Rice, an elder statesman among sports columnists, wrote in lieu (p.107) of his usual New York Sun column. It was meant to be complimentary; it wasn't:
- He's a neolithic throwback to the past.…
- As he concentrates upon the vocal blast.…
- But he's hooked up with an outfit
- that can feed him daily thrills,
- Which is something millionaires can never buy.
The Times's sportswriters in particular repeatedly exploited the perception of class gulf that separated Brooklyn from Manhattan. They rarely visited Ebbets Field, as if they felt uncomfortable there. But a descriptive, class-based column deliberately blurring the line between the borough and the team was apparently accepted as insightful. For example, Arthur Daley wrote in 1953 that “because of Brooklyn's raffish past a Yankee fan automatically assumes an air of aristocratic superiority on the eve of any World Series.” On another occasion he cited nameless “baseball people” for this quote: “Dodger fans were insufferable enough when they had nothing. They'll be completely unbearable now that they have everything.” In another anonymous “it's been said” representation, John Lardner described the Dodger appeal as “brash, low, even buffoonish.” This comment came late, in 1956, when the Dodgers were the reigning world champions. Lardner added there is a “school of thought (again anonymous) that has always associated the Brooks with déclassé phenomena like El lines, cobblestones and walk-up rooming houses.” Throwaway remarks like these were bald allusions to perceived class differences that distanced Brooklyn from “New York.”
Peter Golenbock, with great insight, catches this class consciousness, revealing that “The Bums” and the borough alike were interchangeable within the web of lower-middle-class outsiders' perceptions. His oral histories are laced with examples of outside-imposed class consciousness, whether referring to the team or the town. The 1955 World Series win over the Yankees meant to one representative Brooklyn native that “a whole city … now can raise its head, look across the river … and say, ‘We're number one.’” The price of class ran very high, psychologically and otherwise, as it turned out.
(p.108) Author Robert Caro blamed Robert Moses (the 1950s czar of New York redevelopment) more than Walter OʼMalley for the Dodgers' desertion to Los Angeles. Although Moses was billed in his heyday as the classic liberal who wanted to improve the lot of the masses via vast new expanses of concrete buildings and expressways, he was in fact an elitist who seemed to dismiss Brooklyn and its residents as important priorities in his “renewal” of New York. Moses, who did not find baseball all that edifying, was the ruthless overseer of New York's physical environment for a generation, so maybe Caro is right that Moses shares the blame for the disappearance of the Dodgers. Revealingly, in 1957 Moses wrote in his own defense that it was hard to think about spending all that money on a new Brooklyn stadium for “oafs … hecklers and bottle-throwers, buoyed up on home cushions, chewing chocolate nuts … or lapping up somebody's dry beer.” Although history mainly remembers only The OʼMalley, there do seem to be two villains behind the Dodger move, not one.
The déclassé image of Dodger fans was deeply ingrained in the larger New York culture. Even Psychology Today, a later icon of the educated upper middle class, unconsciously picked up the existing stereotype of Brooklyn fans in a 1978 article on why people root for certain teams. The author noted in passing that a six-year-old became a Yankee fan because his mother bought him a Yankee cap from a street display featuring three New York teams. The mother, the author said, picked the Yankee hat because “Dodger blue was too bold.” It was in fact a stylish navy blue, so memory seems quirky here, psychologist's credentials notwithstanding. But the point is his conclusion: “My mother was a woman of taste and class,” so the Dodger cap was out.
Class differences were not the same as ethnic differences in Brooklyn. Ethnics in Brooklyn were largely lower-middle-class, but their sameness stopped there, as academics have recently discovered. There have been several recent studies of baseball that include general examination of fans' social roots, and two deep studies of Brooklyn's neighborhoods (Canarsie and Brownsville). These collectively make clear, as George Will affirms, that baseball in part crystallizes Americans' “yearning for community.”
(p.109) Gerald Sorin's study of Brownsville youth confirms locally that widely held belief. A significant part of Jewish street culture in Brownsville revolved around the Dodgers, and the team figured largely in the consciousness of the Brownsville Boys Club. In fact, its founder and patron saint, Abe Stark, made a political career out of his combined identification with the Dodgers and the Boys Club.
Ball clubs, Ray Robinson has written, “invariably duplicate the temperament of the cities in which they play,” and he characterized Dodger fans as “underdog, recidivist … from a land of people with hard-to-pronounce names.” That Brooklyn was ethnic was a fact widely perceived in the nation as one of the sources of its strangeness. No team “had more fans with foreign accents” than the Brooklyn Dodgers, said Wilfred Sheed, a Dodger fan who had one himself. Inasmuch as foreign origin and lower-class assignment by the majority native culture usually went hand-in-hand, Brooklyn was an especially obvious example of this American social judgment.
Brooklyn's experience with the Dodgers was not unique. Chicago and its Cubs and Boston and its Red Sox offer up analogous examples. The ballclubs, in these instances, seemed often to take on the character of their communities even as they provided deep unifying forces within those cities. Is it possible to see this phenomenon as sport-related social symbiosis at work? If so, then Brooklyn was one city that needed any unifying force a baseball team could provide.
The borough was ethnically atomized. Almost all its neighborhoods were ghettoes, immigrant and racial enclaves of largely homogeneous groups. The neighborhood was as much the base point of residents' loyalty as the borough. Where local identity was concerned, greater New York City was not even in the contest. Yet in an isolated environment, Brooklynites shared common bonds: Brooklyn's children and their first-and second-generation parents spoke a common and unique street language; all felt detached from the greater city of which they were a political part; most felt ill-judged by outsiders who looked down on them (a pretty good defining component of class awareness, if (p.110) not of class difference, all by itself); and locals were defensive about the misconceptions the rest of the world seemed to hold about them.
Linguists in particular in the generation after World War II seemed mesmerized by the hidden meanings of Brooklyn's language and culture, especially the latter's relationship to the Dodgers. “To the world,” philologist B. A. Botkin concluded in 1954, “‘Dem Bums’ spells out not only the Dodgers but much-maligned Brooklyn.” Francis Griffiths, in a 1972 essay, said that “these linguistic confusions in Brooklyn were the reflections of deeper confusions. They mirrored the inverted psychology of natives who called their heroes ‘Bums.’” Borough dwellers in general, Griffiths concluded, possessed a very poor self-image. Academic insights like these, linguist Geoffrey Needier concluded, together formed “fearful evidehce of Brooklyn's dark, sidereal pathology.” As if to bear all this theory out, the borough never seemed more starcrossed than it did when it responded so explosively to sportswriter Jimmy Cannon's infamous New York Post column satirizing its Dodger-centered provincialism. Led by their cheerleaders at the Brooklyn Eagle, many Brooklynites responded in much the same way as hornets do when their hive is threatened.
Writing a tongue-in-cheek column in pseudo-Brooklynese describing the implications of recent Dodger success, Cannon deftly pushed all of Brooklyn's buttons. “The way they holler about the Dodgers,” Cannon wrote in the summer of 1952, “you think they had a choice.… Over in Brooklyn you got to root for the Dodgers or root for the Bushwicks.” This essay mauled the borough by parading the stereotypes by which it was known. “All they got in Brooklyn is to go to a ball game or stay at home and get loaded. If you don't, you got to come to New York any time you want to have a little fun.” And still, Cannon continued, Dodger fans have delusions of grandeur. “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Brooklyn, I'm sick of hearing it. The way they talk you think it was a whole country with an army and a king or something. All they got is a ball club.”
The “borough of churches” took a pasting, and the word “bum” was sprinkled liberally through the narrative: “Lots of (p.111) Brooklyn bums I know would never go inside a church unless they could rob the poor box. But churches, churches, churches is all you hear from them. Let's face it, Brooklyn is out of town.” The cemeteries also came in for a few caresses: “It groums me because I got to get buried in that lousy place,” Cannon wrote, but what choice did he have? If you lived in Manhattan, you either got buried in the boroughs or, God forbid, Jersey.
The Brooklyn Eagle was furious. An editorial called Cannon's satire “coarse, even obscene,” a “filthy attack upon [our] hometown … upon its churches … upon its cemeteries where our loved ones are buried.” The Eagle deliberately fanned the embers of local outrage into a red-hot blaze. Columnist Robert Grannis, calling Cannon “Mr. Screwball,” used the event to lash out at Manhattan's perpetual seizure of the lion's share of the city's resources, long a Brooklyn complaint. “The only mistake we ever made, sweetheart, was when we merged with the other boroughs.”
It was, all in all, a vituperative and very defensive response, one that put an exclamation point to an almost institutionalized self-consciousness that personified Brooklyn's frustration with its inferior political and social station in greater New York City. Judging from the popular response, the borough felt itself almost pathologically isolated from the world around it.
Predictably, the Eagle's aggressive retort uncorked a ton of letters. A few pointed out that Cannon's essay was genuinely funny, in both dialect and content, and no big deal. But the vast majority were pained outpourings of individuals who gave voice to long pent-up chagrin over the perceived disrespect accorded Brooklyn. Cannon touched a nerve. Residents by the hundreds expressed outrage at yet again suffering disrespect. The Post sportswriter's reference to “a bum from Brooklyn” who never “said a prayer in his life” in particular drew angry responses. James Kelly, Deputy County Clerk for Brooklyn and a well-connected local pol, in one of the more pompous rejoinders reminded Cannon that if he “had taken time out to see the thousands of God-fearing, God-loving people turning out to attend divine services … his filthy pen might have been stayed.”
(p.112) A gold-star mother, on the other hand, wrote poignantly that her son was “a bum from Brooklyn who now lies in a Brooklyn cemetery, a ‘bum’ who dared to die for the likes of James Cannon.”
The allusions to Cannon's references to “bum” rang the bell in Brooklyn. Many tied their responses to perceptions of elitist Giants fans from Manhattan and the suburbs. Mary Nockowitz and others wrote that they wished the response to the Eagle could have been printed in the New York Post, “where those Giant fans could have read it and hang their heads in shame.” Still smarting from the 1951 Giant “miracle” and its associated history of a long, deeply personalized rivalry, one large group of responses to Cannon was linked to newly reopened wounds caused by the eternal Giant-Dodger enmity. Cannon only wrote the column, one Dodger partisan said, “because the Giants' fans must rationalize the fact” that the Dodgers were leading the league. The Bum, many said, would triumph in the end.
In essence, the Dodger Bum, the sense of inferiority many Brooklynites felt within the context of the greater city, and the longstanding rivalry with the Giants were all wrapped up in the widespread overreaction. “Don't worry,” Grace Ward reminded her townspeople, “it's the slams that made Brooklyn famous.”
So if any place needed the face a winning major league team could provide, it was Brooklyn. The Dodgers were really part of the soul of the community, and the team's eventual departure must be understood in that light. Not until just before its move to Los Angeles, when the team became world champions at last, one writer has said, “would Brooklyn expunge its image as Sad Sack of the Globe.” Roger Kahn caught well the nearly spiritual role the Dodgers played in Brooklyn in the face of this siege mentality. In a short retrospective piece he quoted this poetic excerpt: “Lives rooted in weary brownstones … / were lit up by the gods at play nearby.”
Meat-handed humor was inescapable. Brooklyn was a distant place, a different place, Brooklynites a species apart. “It was rumored,” P.M. reported, that “Professor Ernest A. Hooton, head of Howard [University's] Department of Anthropology, was in the stands for the purpose of studying the Brooklyn rooters, but (p.113) this couldn't be verified.” The Dodgers provided a singular and critical source of positive, even aggressive, response, a validation of the class-grittiness that white natives embraced in the borough. The ball club's newly reinforced image, though, despite the presence of black ballplayers, did not build a bridge to African Americans in Brooklyn.
A 1954 Brooklyn Eagle serialized survey of neighborhoods identified the changing character of what was for the first time being “loosely” called Bedford-Stuyvesant. It was an emerging ghetto increasingly inhabited by Hispanic and African Americans. Irish, Italians, and Jews were often hostile to them. Jackie Robinson's visibility mattered at one level of consciousness; but at another level, an increasing black presence in the population sent out shock waves, a reaction seemingly divorced from the example of Brooklyn's almost uniquely integrated ball club.
Jews, feeling the pain of discrimination themselves, were nevertheless often fearfully anti-black. Their exodus to New Jersey and, in particular, Westchester and Long Island, began in earnest in the early 1950s. “Ninety-five percent of them have been mugged and moved away.” Then, as now, that was code for race prejudice. “With blacks moving in came great fear,” one Jewish observer noted. “There was blockbusting. There was panic selling … parasites and vultures [real estate agents] who circle any changing or transitional neighborhood.” One African American angrily told Jonathan Rieder that “people forget one thing: I didn't destroy their Brownsville.”
Another uncomfortable truth was that Irish and Italians fully shared Jewish attitudes toward blacks and felt aggrieved in general at the threat to neighborhood seemingly posed by African American and Hispanic encroachment. “Blacks moved in and whites fled” was a common Italian perception, as they followed Jews to Long Island, according to Jonathan Rieder. “Respect” is a freighted word among Italian Americans, embracing a sociological concept involving definable conscious feelings of honor and deference due. As African Americans moved in, one Italian worker said, “Respect, it's been lost.”
White groups were no better with each other. Alan Lelchuk, a novelist, indulged a common stereotype applied by Jews to (p.114) Italians by characterizing Carl Furillo's “patrolling the right field pasture” as the rightful work of “an Italian gardener.” Peter Golenbock reported that as Thomson's home run carried into the left-field stands at the Polo Grounds in 1951, an Irish grandfather “bent over, called Branca a ‘dago bastard,’ spit at the screen, and keeled over dead.”
Eagle columnist Tommy Holmes ran a story in 1951 featuring the complaints that fans had sent to him about perceived changes at Ebbets Field. The perpetual presence of “drunks” in the park figured prominently among the laments and was an encoded reference to the Irish regulars who attended many games. Allen Guttmann, an academic, fell into the same trap, unconsciously stereotyping Irish fans in talking about baseball as the sport of choice for “blue collar” Irish, and relating it to the saloons around ball parks generally run by “Irish political bosses.” Even the liberal daily P.M. unthinkingly bought into the characterization of Irish fans as universally hard-drinking. The “majority” of Irish Dodger partisans, P.M. reported in 1947, “listen to a Dodger broadcast within the cozy confines of a bar and grill.”
The Irish were no better in the aggregate than Jews and Italians in firing off prejudicial broadsides. One Irish correspondent wrote Tommy Holmes denouncing “the increasing presence of foreign-language speaking families” (Puerto Ricanos) in Ebbets Field as the 1950s dawned. Roger Kahn reminded readers that in Brooklyn, “on Sundays the Irish of St. Theresa's Parish worshipped a gentle Christ. Other days some of them distributed the fascist newspaper Social Justice,” a product of the anti-Semite priest Charles Coughlin, which “warned of a revolution being organized by Jews.”
Although Brooklyn was a metropolis, with three million people, it lacked even the limited political autonomy of a city, and thus any real political control over its own destiny. Large as it was, it was only a minority component of an even more mammoth urban entity. The problem was compounded because by far the largest part of the population felt itself marginalized for ethnic, racial, or economic reasons. The difficulty was magnified in the 1950s, as many of those with the means moved out. The white immigrant minorities, especially, felt a deepening sense of (p.115) ethnic and racial embattlement. Each Brooklyn immigrant group had always stereotyped the others as it competed for space, political access, and work. After World War II the social transition that took place took the form of the suburbanization of American life, and that only magnified Brooklyn's urban problems.
Few escaped the sting of a prejudice newly reinvigorated by the departures. The decamping of the Dodger franchise in its turn needs to be understood in the context of these other 1950s exoduses from Brooklyn. African Americans and Puerto Ricanos who replaced the departing whites were routinely made invisible when they were not otherwise disparaged. Jews felt the pressures imposed by a widespread feeling that they were largely left-liberal in a politically conservative borough; had they not spawned Judith Coplon (convicted of espionage) and buried the Rosenbergs in their midst? Italians, both Jonathan Rieder and Jerry Delia Femina made clear, felt a generalized lack of respect from outsiders who lived alongside them. When newspapers wrote engagingly about colorful Brooklyn watering holes devoted to their Bums, the subtext was that they were Irish bars where some serious drinking took place.
Peter Levine suggests that this harsh view of ethnic division may be exaggerated. In From Ellis Island to Ebbets Field he makes the point that sports played such a large part in Brooklyn's Jewish life that it softened the rough edges of immigrant confrontation.* This was especially true in the development of a fellow feeling between Irish and Jews in Brooklyn and elsewhere, particularly when boxing was the sport. Deborah Dash Moore, on the other hand, suggests in At Home in America a New York tapestry of separation of Jewish ethnics from other immigrant groups. A strong inner sense of Jewish community prevented much bonding with other immigrant groups who shared Jewish outsider status.
The other side of this story, then, deserves mention. The study of history is in part the study of social paradox, and Brooklyn (p.116) formed no exception in embodying historic inconsistency. People got along in Brooklyn's insular environment because there were things that brought them together as well as things that divided them. It wasn't only the Dodgers. There was as well a shared sense of embattlement, a common and much-maligned language, a pervasive male youth culture (discussed in the next chapter), and a shared role as outsiders.
The Dodgers, however, proved to be much-needed catalysts, so the team's presence was central to the sense of community. While the Dodgers did not make tensions go away, the team's universality in the borough, both real and psychic, helped ease social stress. It provided the single largest common center of local identification in a complex urban society, and rounded off the roughest edges of social pressure by periodically bringing Brooklyn together. As I said before, this is not a unique baseball phenomenon. It happened the same way, I suspect, in other immigrant-laden communities, Boston and Chicago providing possibly the most visible examples.
“The city's soul” is the phrase that Alan Lelchuk used in Brooklyn Boy to describe the depths of loss the Dodgers' departure inflicted on Brooklyn. “Forget the sweatshops,” Lelchuk wrote, “forget the class wars, forget the family squabbles, forget the racial antagonisms … forget the anger and quiet despair.” The Dodgers offered many inhabitants a national face and more: “All the subtle art of baseball was put on display by the Dodgers.” And that came with real life off-the-field “nuance and drama.” Such was the stuff of Gil Hodges's 1952–53 slump. It provides a good case study in how the Dodger presence would periodically unite the “soul” of the city.
Hodges grew up in Indiana, but when he married Brooklyn native Joan Lombardi in 1948, he settled in Flatbush and never left. Brooklyn, he told reporters, “is my home town. I'm proud to say so.” His troubles at bat started in the 1952 World Series, when he set a new major league record by going 0 for 21. His difficulties continued into the following spring. His mechanics broke down, his confidence went. Hodges couldn't buy a hit, and, finally, in May 1953 Charley Dressen benched him. Dodger (p.117) fans generally could be pitiless and cruel, even to their own. At points in their careers, sometimes for extended stretches, Robinson, Reese, Snider, Furillo, and, of course, Newcombe were all booed at Ebbets Field. But in overt acknowledgment of shared community, by 1953 Brooklyn's citizens had come to see Gil Hodges as one of their own. He lived in town and went to mass every Sunday during the off-season and when the Dodgers were home during the summer. Hodges was, said Tom Meany, “obligingly available during the winter for athletic dinners of all faiths.”
Both during the 1952 World Series and the tough spring of 1953, Dodger fans were unusually reluctant to get on Hodges. That uncharacteristic absence of negative reaction was transformed into borough-wide support, started in this instance by divine intervention. A local priest ended a mass with a throwaway line: “Go home, keep the commandments, and say a prayer for Gil Hodges.” The sermonette made the papers. Hodges was of course inundated with the usual letters of advice; but this time there was more. Talismans arrived by the score; crucifixes, rosary beads, rabbits' feet, miniature horseshoes (and a few of the real thing), and mezuzahs all deluged the Dodger mail room on Montague Street as a part of a “save Hodges crusade.”
As happened periodically when the Dodgers were concerned, the borough was brought together. When they ate out, Joan Hodges recalled later, “people stopped by our table … to sympathize.” This went on for weeks, through June 1953. Neighbors and store clerks stopped her to wish them both well. Later Hodges would say that “the way Brooklyn fans backed me when I couldn't buy a hit is my biggest baseball thrill. Their support helped me recover as much as anything else.” The first baseman went on to have one of his best seasons, batting over.300 and hitting 31 home runs.
Public relations exaggeration aside, what is clear from the incident is that the Dodger presence was very close to the spiritual core of the community in an otherwise racially, religiously, and ethnically divided city. Neil Sullivan, in The Dodgers Move West, has amplified the immediate meaning of the loss of the Dodgers to (p.118) the borough. He wrote of the anguish, pain, and loss of focus for the retired, the working-class parents and their kids. The erosion of community in Brooklyn in the years following 1957 cannot fully be laid at the door of the Dodgers, for that erosion was part of a larger urban malaise present in most American cities. But the Dodgers' departure contributed. The degree to which that was true can be gauged in part by the impact the team had on Brooklyn's boys.