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The 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers were one of baseball’s most storied teams, featuring such immortals as Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, and Roy Campanella. The love between team and borough was equally storied, an iron ...
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The 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers were one of baseball’s most storied teams, featuring such immortals as Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, and Roy Campanella. The love between team and borough was equally storied, an iron bond of loyalty forged through years of adversity and sometimes legendary ineptitude. Coming off their first World Series triumph ever in 1955, against the hated Yankees, the Dodgers would defend their crown against the Milwaukee Braves and the Cincinnati Reds in a six-month neck-and-neck contest until the last day of the playoffs, one of the most thrilling pennant races in history.
But as The Last Good Season so richly relates, all was not well under the surface. The Dodgers were an aging team at the tail end of its greatness, and Brooklyn was a place caught up in rapid and profound urban change. From a cradle of white ethnicity, it was being transformed into a racial patchwork, including Puerto Ricans and blacks from the South who flocked to Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers’ black stars. The institutions that defined the borough – the Brooklyn Eagle, the Brooklyn Navy Yard – had vanished, and only the Dodgers remained. And when their shrewd, dollar-squeezing owner, Walter O’Malley, began casting his eyes elsewhere in the absence of any viable plan to replace the aging Ebbets Field and any support from the all-powerful urban czar Robert Moses, the days of the Dodgers in Brooklyn were clearly numbered.
Michael Shapiro, a Brooklyn native, has interviewed many of the surviving participants and observers of the 1956 season, and undertaken immense archival research to bring its public and hidden drama to life. Like David Halberstam’s The Summer of ’49, The Last Good Season combines an exciting baseball story, a genuine sense of nostalgia, and hard-nosed reporting and social thinking to reveal, in a new light, a time and place we only thought we understood.
The first time Billy Kleinsasser saw Walter O'Malley was in November of 1955, at Princeton, when O'Malley had come looking for a new ballpark. Billy Kleinsasser was twenty-six years old, a graduate student in architecture, and that fall he enrolled in a graduate seminar taught by the great architect, R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller had devised the geodesic dome, the great igloo that arched across the sky without benefit of intrusive struts and beams. Domes were the subject of the semester, specifically, the feasibility of creating a dome of the grandest scale, one that would, if done correctly, fit over a baseball stadium. This dome, however, was not Buckminster Fuller's idea. It was Walter O'Malley who had suggested to him just this sort of stadium for his Dodgers, in Brooklyn. Fuller, intrigued, enlisted his students who set about building a model for O'Malley. They worked through the fall and by Thanksgiving it was ready.
O'Malley came to Princeton with an entourage, which was to be expected; he was not a man who traveled alone. He brought an engineering friend, Emil Praeger, with whom he had been talking about a new stadium for years, and his public relations man, Red Patterson. And because O'Malley had been speaking of this stadium as a matter of great importance not only to the Dodgers and to Brooklyn but to the entire city of New York, he invited the press, who followed knowing that Walter O'Malley had a keen understanding of the nature of a good story.
It was snowing in Princeton, an early storm that O'Malley commented upon as he walked into the architecture school's laboratory. The storm, he said, was further evidence of the wisdom of the plan: bad weather would never again wash out a Dodger game, which was good for the fans and for him, too. He had calculated that he lost $200,000 for every rained out game. The savings from the dome, however, did not stop there. He explained to Fuller and his students that he stood to save an additional $21,000 for a tarpaulin large enough to cover an infield, the pro-rated salaries of twenty-one groundskeepers who pulled the tarp out and then, when the skies cleared, rolled it back up, and fifty cents to repaint every weatherworn seat in his ballpark each spring. This final savings represented one of the incidentals that especially pleased him: he told admirers of his spring training stadium at Vero Beach, Florida, that he had purposely sunk the park into the ground and surrounded it with a berm to eliminate the need for an annual paint job.
Billy Kleinsasser had never before helped design a project for a real client and was excited to be moving from the theoretical stage of his budding career to the practical. Now he watched as O'Malley approached the model stadium. It was round, and as wide as a loveseat. Fuller explained the design of the dome. The top came off and the two men peered inside. There was no grandstand; there were no seats at all, only a ball field with pegs to show where the players would stand.
"This is great. I'm just thrilled with it," O'Malley said. "I'm absolutely delighted. Let's slip off our coats."
Fuller told him that there would be no shadows, that the sun would shine through the translucent roof but would not burn the patrons. "The grass would grow greener, too," he said. "That has been proved."
"That's an important point, Bucky," O'Malley replied. "That's extremely important psychologically because baseball is traditionally an outdoor game. Bucky, what seating capacity does your model suggest?"
"Walter, we thought 100,000."
"I think 52,000 would be more practical, Bucky."
"It could be 52,000 just as easily," said Fuller.
O'Malley looked at his cigar, a prop he was never without. He smoked big Antonio y Cleopatras. He lit each fresh one from the smoldering butt of its predecessor. Wherever he went ash and smoke trailed behind him.
"Oh," he said, "the advantages are endless." He noted the absence of posts and pillars, and the unobstructed view from every seat. He proceeded with a recitation delivered at length and with such grammatical and syntactical precision that it not only strained the note-taking skills of the assembled hacks, but sounded, in print at least, as if he knew precisely what he was going to say before he ever started talking. He did this effortlessly, without benefit of notes. He was a marvelous talker.
"Well, where do we go from here?" he asked, rhetorically. The moment had come for his pitch. He had his audience, pens at the ready. "Can we purchase the land we need for a stadium? Well, the City of New York has appropriated $100,000 for the study of the Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue area in Brooklyn. Perhaps, in the solving of many problems that must be solved in that area, perhaps as an incident in the rehabilitation of that area, some land will be made available for purchase by the Brooklyn Dodgers."
But that was getting ahead of things. In the meantime, he said, he was very pleased by the work, so much so that perhaps if he were ever allowed to buy the land where he might build his stadium, it would indeed be a domed stadium, which, he added, was both "practical and economical."
As if on cue, the publicist Red Patterson returned to the morning's refrain. "This stadium would be tremendous from the air," he said. "It would be a landmark of New York."
O'Malley tossed away his cigar. "It would be big enough to enclose St. Peter's in Rome," he said, his deep baritone rising for emphasis. "It would be one of the wonders of the world."
He returned in January of 1956 to see the finished model, not R. Buckminster Fuller's, but the work of Billy Kleinsasser. While his classmates moved on to other assignments, Kleinsasser decided to make the domed stadium the final project for his degree. He took Fuller's model and added 55,000 seats, 2,000 of them in hanging boxes. He shrunk the dome: Fuller wanted it 300 feet high and 750 feet in diameter. Kleinsasser made his 550 feet in diameter and 250 feet high, which, he reasoned, was still too tall for any fly ball to reach. He added a parking garage large enough for 5,000 cars. And, as a lark, he added a tramway that would run across the top of the dome. He thought it might be fun for children.
O'Malley was pleased, so pleased that he wanted to put Billy Kleinsasser's model on display. He took it back to Brooklyn, and soon had it placed in the lobbies of banks so people could pause and see what he had in mind for the Dodgers and for Brooklyn. He did not bother asking Billy Kleinsasser's permission to do this. Kleinsasser objected. O'Malley wrote to advise him that things might be made difficult for him if he made a fuss. Kleinsasser relented and was rewarded with an invitation to a dinner at which he was seated next to Sandy Koufax, a pitcher of vast but thus far unfulfilled potential.
Billy Kleinsasser, of course, was happy that Walter O'Malley liked his stadium. Yet there was something about O'Malley and the way he talked about the ballpark that perplexed him. "He seemed a little too nice, a little too enthusiastic," Kleinsasser recalled many years later. "He didn't ask the right kinds of questions. He talked about the idea. But he didn't push." In time, Billy Kleinsasser would learn a good deal about clients, about the way they asked questions and the sorts of questions they asked. The interested ones probed.
But that day in Princeton, Walter O'Malley did not probe. And this left Kleinsasser to wonder whether the whole exercise with Fuller and the class project and his own refinements of the dome had less to do with building a stadium than with building a model that Walter O'Malley could show as evidence of his desire to build a stadium. Billy Kleinsasser recognized, however, that he was only guessing. But then Walter O'Malley, a gregarious man, a talker, an infinitely accessible sort, nonetheless often left people who believed they knew him well wondering what, precisely, he was thinking.
Walter Francis O'Malley was then fifty-two years old and in his manner and bearing cultivated the air of prosperity. He was thick in the middle and in the face; his jowls were so heavy they swallowed his chin. His onetime manager, the vulgar and trenchant Leo Durocher, called him "whale belly." His appearance had changed little over the years, other than in the thickening. His hair was dark and oiled, parted in the middle and combed straight back. He wore frameless glasses and double-breasted suits, the better to conceal his gut. He smoked too much and exercised too little; he golfed occasionally at Vero Beach, but mostly he gardened.
He and his wife, Kay, were approaching their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. They had two children, a twenty-one-year-old daughter, Terry, and Peter, an eighteen-year-old son. They lived in the Long Island town of Amityville. The house had been his parents' summer home. O'Malley had remodeled it and relocated his family there from Brooklyn in 1944. The house stood next door to the house where Kay O'Malley had grown up and where her parents still lived. There was no fence between their yards, and the O'Malley children had had a wide field in which to run. He commuted to his office on Montague Street in Brooklyn in a big black Buick chauffeured by his driver, Tony DeMeo. Like so many of the people who used to come to his ballpark, he had moved his family from Brooklyn to the Island and went to work in a car.
He always tried to be home for dinner. The family gathered at one end of the long dining room table built from a thick, varnished piece of wood that sat on two tree stumps. Papers were piled on the other end, and that is where he worked after dinner. In the longer evenings of spring and summer, he retired with his wife to the small greenhouse on the side of the house and tended the orchids they kept.
His first act upon rising was to light a cigarette. Then, a devout Catholic, he dropped to his knees and said his morning prayers. He made breakfast for his wife and children before leaving for work. He attended Mass every Sunday with his family. Sometimes, after Mass, they went to eat at a diner in Massapequa. He liked to cook and he liked to eat and he swore to his family that even though he could not abide the taste of fish he would one day come up with a recipe that would satisfy both him and the church's prohibition against eating meat on Fridays. He tended toward lecturing when disciplining his children, especially when they fought--an only child, he did not understand how siblings could fight--and he launched into a refrain about how children fighting led to neighbors fighting, led to cities fighting, led to nations fighting which, during the war years, left his children thinking, guiltily, that they were somehow to blame for the battles in Europe and the Pacific. He made a practice of attending his son Peter's football games at LaSalle Academy. He and his wife chaperoned their daughter's dances, once prevailing upon one of his pitchers, Rex Barney, to join them at a high school party. His daughter was thrilled, but not nearly as much as she was when she was sixteen and received her driver's license. That day her father told her to pack her pajamas, her toothbrush, and a hairbrush because now that she had a license it was time for her to drive. He gave her the wheel and that day they drove for hours. They stopped at his uncle's farm and the next day they drove to Cooperstown, to see the Baseball Hall of Fame. On summer weekends he took his children sailing on his boat, Dodger.
If there was trouble at work he might talk about it at the dinner table but did not display rage or frustration. Sometimes he told stories that his storytelling catcher, Roy Campanella, had told him. When his wife, Kay, spoke, he and the children turned to face her so that they could read her lips. She spoke only in a whisper. Shortly before they were to be married, Kay O'Malley was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. To save her life, doctors advised the new technique of removing her voice box and then treating her with x-rays. She would be rendered mute, and her doctors warned her that the x-rays could make her infertile. Walter O'Malley's father advised him to break off the engagement. He refused. She would be, he told his father, the same girl he loved, whether or not she could speak. When Kay told him that she might never be able to have children, he replied that if God intended them to have children they would have children and if he did not he would be married to her just the same. His parents did not attend the wedding.
He looked just like his father, Edwin, who had been a middle-level functionary in the New York City Democratic Party--commissioner of markets, a ward heeler's plum--and who made his money in the dry goods business. His father was the son of Irish immigrants; his mother's parents were German. Walter O'Malley let the world think of him as Irish.
He grew up in the Bronx. He rooted for the Giants as a boy, or so he said years later, establishing his bona fides as a baseball fan. He would talk of his devotion to the game as "a virus"--"It's in my Irish bloodstream, and I revel in it"--and of how his uncle Clarence would take him to the Polo Grounds. He would tell, impishly, of sneaking into the Polo Grounds--"There were ways, ho, ho, there were ways." He insisted that he once traded ten Dodger pictures that came with packs of Sweet Caporal cigarettes for a single picture of the great Giant pitcher, Christy Mathewson.
He also liked to hint at a rough-and-tumble childhood, growing up "with the rock-throwing gangs of Crotona Park." Still, he did become a Boy Scout, rising to the rank of Star, two grades below Eagle. He also organized a unit of scouts, the Pine Tree Patrol, an early foray into politics--his father's world--that foreshadowed the sort of life he would fashion for himself. His father sent him to the Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana. He did not want to go; "my parents," he later said, "made me." He arrived at Culver a husky boy with a penchant for joining and organizing: corporal of "the Battery," his military unit; manager of the company baseball and tennis teams; member of the executive staff of the Vedette, the student newspaper; member of the Hospital Visitation Committee, the Debating Team, the Bible Discipline Committee, and the YMCA. The comment about him in the 1922 Roll Call student yearbook read: "A pleasing personality is perhaps his greatest asset, and with it he has won himself many friends." His teachers regarded him as "a very promising student" with "an excellent attitude." Friends thought he might one day become a newspaperman. He played baseball but stopped when a ground ball bounced badly, struck him in the face, and broke his nose. He graduated in 1922 and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania.
|Prologue: Opening Day||1|
|Pt. 1||Winter 1956||15|
|Pt. 2||At Dodgertown||47|
|Pt. 9||The Last Week||263|
|Notes on Sources||333|
Posted July 9, 2004
If you are any die hard baseball fan you had better read this book. It is so greatly defined by people who lived around Brooklyn and their story is just as important as the Dodgers they cheered for. The game facts is beautifully told and keeps the story from getting boring. I didn't know very much about the Dodgers until I was finished with this book. They were an American Icon, I would cheer for them against the Yankees anyday. Go Irish!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.