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The end of an era: Dodgers and Giants leave Yankees as the only game in town

Every Friday I’ve been releasing ‘A Brief History’ podcast about the Yankees. It started as a way to stay sane during quarantine, but evolved into something that I look forward to researching each week.

This week’s episode is Part II of The Subway Series, highlighting the great New York City baseball rivalries between the Yankees, Giants, Dodgers and Mets. (You can also check out Part I here.)

One aspect I was most looking forward to researching was the Dodgers and Giants moves West because it was hard to fathom two deeply-rooted franchise abandoning the biggest market in the country. Their moves left the Yankees as the only ballgame in town until the Mets were established in 1962. But why did the teams leave in the middle of the greatest era of New York baseball?

New York centric

For ten straight years the World Series was played in New York City. Starting in 1949, the Yankees won a record five straight titles and then another two through ’58. In 1954 — the year the Yankees lost the pennant, which was so significant a novel, Broadway musical and movie were made about it — the Giants carried the city torch.

Of those ten World Series, six were Subway Series. It’s hard to put into context how good this era of baseball in New York was because we have not seen anything like it since, but just imagine how crazed fans get when the Yankees and Mets are good at the same time — now extend that over a decade and add a third team to the mix.

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Although all the teams were good, the Yankees were a step above. In 1941, ‘47 and ‘49 they beat the Dodgers. In ‘51 they beat the Giants. And in ‘52 and ‘53 they beat the Dodgers again. They owned the city.

The Dodgers were on a great run in the National League and “next year” finally arrived when they defeated the Yankees in 1955 for their first and only championship while the franchise was in Brooklyn.

The Giants hadn’t beat the Yankees since 1922, but they did win a title in ’54 (that year the Yankees lost the pennant).

The end of an era

After the Giants won the series in ’54 and the Dodgers finally got their championship in ’55, there is no way fans could have imagined both teams leaving town within the decade.

Each left for a different, but really the same reason: Money.

National League owners voted unanimously to allow the moves to Los Angeles and San Francisco, but the condition was that both or neither had to move. (I’m speculating that this was because if one left, the other would benefit disproportionately in terms of market share.)

The teams had until the end of the ‘57 season to decide.

Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley wanted a new stadium, but more importantly he wanted an entire city to himself which is why he was in favor of the move. Los Angeles offered him both.

While the Dodgers were profitable, the Giants were up-and-down. Owner Horace Stoneman thought a move to San Fran would revitalize the team.

At their last home game, Giants PR man Garry Schumacher said:

If all the people who will claim in the future that they were here today had actually turned out, we wouldn’t have to be moving in the first place.

It was even more devastating for Brooklyn fans, who just two seasons prior were at the top of the baseball world.

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Years later, Michael Shapiro, author of The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together, called the Dodgers the most local team in baseball.

All those teams represented a city. The Dodgers represented a fifth of the city, a borough. Rather than all of New York, like the New York Mets — the New York Mets are not the Queens Mets, they are the New York Mets –the Brooklyn Dodgers were Brooklyn’s team and I think that in itself set them apart, in good times and in bad.

Many of the Dodgers stars lived in Brooklyn and the neighborhood had a connection to them that was unlike any other. Shapiro added:

The Dodgers somehow became the repository of all these highly romanticized, and in some ways justified, notions of what baseball was supposed to be. … After the Dodgers left, Brooklyn sank. And really, the Brooklyn of today – the Brooklyn that is hot – stands in great contrast to the Brooklyn that I knew growing up in the ‘60s and the ‘70s.

With the Dodgers in LA and the Giants in SF, the Yankees were the only game in town until the Mets showed up in ‘62 and it took them nearly 40-years to establish a rivalry.

Alternate Reality

Had the teams stayed, the Dodgers would have got their new stadium in Brooklyn (where the Barclays Center is today) and the Giants would have got a new stadium in Flushing where Shea Stadium was eventually built to coincide with the World’s Fair. The Mets franchise would obviously be in another city — perhaps LA or San Fran.

I wonder if the appetite for three baseball teams in one city would be there today like it was in the ’50s.

We saw the Yankees struggle at the gate in the late ’60s befoe Steinbrenner revitalized them, and again in the late-’80s before their ’90s renaissance. The Yankees have been a consistent contender ever since and it’s outlandish to think they’ll ever go back to being mediocre, but you never know.

The Mets have won championships, largely been competitive, and built two new stadiums, but have gone through periods of struggle

Three NYC teams in a declining — not dying — sport might be too much.

Post-New York rivalry

The Yankees would play the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants in the World Series five total times between 1962 and 1981, going 3-2 overall. In ‘62 and ‘63 they played the Giants and Dodgers back-to-back, rekindling that feel of the Yankees vs. either Dodgers or Giants from the NL seemingly every year.

But it wasn’t the same. They were no longer cross-town rivals. The players were the same. The uniforms said the same thing. But, like everything in sports, what made those years so great was the fans, and that just wasn’t the same.

Podcast – A Brief History: The Subway Series, Part II