Sixty years ago today the Giants and Dodgers wrapped up their final seasons in New York. There are still some around who remember when the Giants called the Polo Grounds home and Brooklyn’s Dodgers toiled in Ebbets Field. For most, though, the two clubs are as much a part of California as the San Andreas Fault.
In reality, the transition to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, was anything but smooth. There were considerable machinations, particularly by Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, in the year or so leading up to the move, along with no shortage of hardheadedness by New York City officials.
And while the rivalry between the two clubs continued, almost none of the stars on either club enjoyed anywhere close to the same level of success once the teams relocated.
The Dodgers’ Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo, Don Newcombe and Carl Erskine were at the end of their careers and would never realize the same levels of accomplishment they had in Brooklyn. In addition, Jackie Robinson had retired after the 1956 season, Roy Campanella had been paralyzed in an auto accident in January 1958 and others such as Sandy Koufax hadn’t yet become stars.
For the Giants, who by 1957 had a lineup with considerably fewer standouts than the Dodgers, Bobby Thomson, Hank Sauer and Johnny Antonelli were nearing the end of the line and future greats such as Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda had yet to make it to the big league club.
The only star from either club whose fame transcended the shift from East Coast to the West Coast was Willie Mays, who would go on to play for 15 seasons in San Francisco.
Today, it seems difficult to fathom major league baseball without operations on the West Coast. There are not only the Dodgers and Giants, but three other teams in California, along with a club in Seattle. Yes, expansion west was inevitable, but did it have to cost the fans of baseball’s biggest market two its most storied franchises?
What if, instead of the Giants and Dodgers heading west, the teams had remained in New York and Major League baseball instead had placed expansion franchises in the two cities? The National League did expand in 1962, adding the New York Mets and what was originally known as the Houston Colt .45s, now the Houston Astros. (The American League had expanded a year earlier, also adding two clubs.)
The Mets have won two World Championships and the Astros none since inception, but, at least in the Giants’ case, until recently the results between established franchise and expansion franchise were about the same. The Dodgers have won five titles since moving West, but none since 1988, while the Giants have won three, but didn’t get their first until 2010.
West Coast baseball fans would have been grateful for any big league club in 1958, although in fairness they had enjoyed high-caliber minor league ball through the Pacific Coast League for many decades. In other words, it didn’t have to play out like it did.
Sports and entertainment probably play a larger role in American society than they should. But for many, the diversion of sports can, on occasion, give families a shared interest, bring cities together and provide a common cultural bond.
It wasn’t for nothing that Japanese soldiers used the insult “To hell with Babe Ruth” when attacking US troops during World War II.
The loss of the two clubs left a void in New York, particularly Brooklyn, that has never fully been filled.
The names of O’Malley and then-Giants owner Horace Stoneham still conjure less-than fond memories among old-time New Yorkers, particularly since both seemed opportunistic and unscrupulous schemers who sold out their city and left fans, at least initially, with only the New York Yankees.
Of course, the league’s official stand at the time glossed over any pain on the part of the fans. Then-National League President Warren Giles officially commented on the move of the two clubs in 1957 thusly:
The National League again has demonstrated that it is a progressive organization. The transfer of the Giants and Dodgers means that two more great American municipalities are to have major league baseball without deny another city of the privilege. The National League, and I personally, will miss New York. But it is only human nature to want to reach new horizons.
It was, wrote Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune, “a paragraph or so of singularly rancid prose.”
Today, the Dodgers continue to play in one of baseball’s best parks, Dodger Stadium, while the Giants, after finally discarding the dismal confines of Candlestick Park, now call inviting AT&T Park home.
Except for a few retired numbers – such as those of former Giants Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, Bill Terry, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell and Monte Irvin, and ex-Dodgers Reese, Campanella, Snider and Robinson – there are few reminders of New York within either organization.
(Top: Fans outside the Polo Grounds Sept. 29, 1957, during the New York Giants’ final game.)