The Dodgers approach their 50th anniversary in L.A.
This October marks the 50th anniversary of Walter O'Malley's momentous announcement that he was relocating the Brooklyn Dodgers to L.A. The juxtaposition of Brooklyn's angst and Los Angeles' joy continues to make for good theater: Just in time to mark the 50th is a two-part HBO Sports documentary entitled "The Ghosts of Flatbush" that focuses on the team's glory years of 1947-1957. (The first segment premieres July 11.)
Here in L.A., Brent Shyer and his crew at the thoroughly engrossing website walteromalley.com have released a cache of letters and documents that chronicle O'Malley's decision to move to the West Coast. Included are an early letter, dated Sept. 1, 1955, sent by City Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman to O'Malley regarding L.A.'s interest in obtaining a Major League team; photographs of O'Malley's fateful helicopter ride over Chavez Ravine that convinced him of the site's viability for a stadium; and the memo notifying the National League of the Dodgers' intent to play in L.A. in 1958.
In a sense, the documents are an attempt to rehabilitate O'Malley's enduring image as the cold-hearted ogre who uprooted Brooklyn's prized franchise for mere lucre. These papers offer a more nuanced view: that O'Malley tried for years to get a stadium deal in the New York area, but was rebuffed by (among others) Robert Moses, and that he was wooed for years by L.A.'s politicos. In the end, these papers suggest that O'Malley did what every good businessman does: he took the best available deal –- in this case, L.A.'s give-away-the-store offer of 300-plus acres of prime real estate. In so doing, he helped to revolutionize the sport. (See Michael Shapiro's book, The Last Good Season, for more on this topic.)
Finally, Triumph Books has recently published Through a Blue Lens, a coffee-table book of black-and-white photographs taken by New York Post staff photographer Barney Stein. From 1937-1957, Stein also served as the Brooklyn Dodgers' team photographer, and this book lovingly captures nearly every aspect of the Dodgers' experience during this era, including the entire cast of the Boys of Summer; the ascendancy of Jackie Robinson; the heartbreak of 1951 and the joy of 1955; the brief coaching career of Babe Ruth; and the Ebbets Field faithful. (Stein died in 1993.)
The book is co-authored by Bonnie Crosby, one of Stein's daughters, and Dennis D'Agostino, a former A.P. reporter and p.r. whiz. (He is also married to L.A. Times columnist Helene Elliott.) Born and raised in Brooklyn, D'Agostino now lives in Orange County. I spoke with D'Agostino by phone about Barney Stein and the Dodgers.
LA Observed: What did the Dodgers mean to Brooklyn?
Dennis D'Agostino: I was born in Brooklyn midway through the last season , so I missed out on seeing the Dodgers play at Ebbets Field. But if you were born in Brooklyn -- even if you were like me, who came along a little too late for it -- you heard all the stories. You had that institutionalized knowledge of the team and the players that was bred into you. You couldn't escape it.
LAO: You now live in Southern California: have you forgiven Walter O'Malley for moving the franchise west?
DD: [Laughs] Well, I'll turn it around. Growing up, I became a huge Mets fan and went on to work for them. So, I look at it the other way: if the Dodgers and the Giants hadn't moved, there would have been no New York Mets.
LAO: Does Walter O'Malley deserve to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame?
DD: It may be blasphemous for somebody from Brooklyn to say this, but absolutely Walter deserves to be in the Hall of Fame as an executive. If you look at the body of work – if you look at the fact that he was the one who stretched the borders of the game from coast to coast – he deserves it.
By the way, how ironic is it that, in a couple of years, the New Jersey Nets are going to have a new arena in Brooklyn. And, where's the location of that arena? Virtually the same location where Walter O'Malley wanted to put his baseball stadium.
LAO: In the introduction of the book, you wrote that you were inspired to do Through a Blue Lens because of a book entitled The Rhubarb Patch, an old book about the Dodgers that included many of Barney Stein's photographs. What was it about that book that resonated so much?
DD: I bought that book in maybe 1980 or 1981 at an early baseball card show. I saw this wonderful little green paperback with these wonderful pictures of the Brooklyn Dodgers. You saw what a marvelous photographer Barney Stein was and the incredible access he had with the Dodgers, both on and off the field. The book always just stuck in the back of my head. I thought, "Boy, if we could bring this stuff back to life, it could tell the story of the Dodgers in a way that had never been told before."
That's what we tried to do: tell the story of the Brooklyn Dodgers in a new way. When we showed these photos to a Carl Erskine or a Don Newcombe or a Vin Scully, we weren't asking them, "What happened in the '55 World Series?" We know that story. It was, "Tell me about this picture?"What were you thinking at this moment?"
The funny thing is, I bought the [Rhubarb] book for, like, $5. A few months ago, I went to a card show at Hollywood Park and saw it. I asked the guy how much he wanted for it, and he said, "$75."
LAO: When you first decided to track down Bonnie Crosby -– Barney Stein's daughter -– did you know what had happened to her father's photographs?
DD: Yes and no. Before I moved out here in 1999, I had been in New York with the Mets and the Knicks, and I had started to ask around about Barney among my photo contacts in New York. There were some photos circulating around and that were in other books: Bums No More [by Stewart Wolpin] –- about the '55 team –- had a few Barney Stein photos in it, and Roger Kahn's Boys of Summer has a couple of Barney's photos. I learned through those books that Bonnie Crosby had become the caretaker of Barney's photos upon his death in 1993, and then I discovered that Bonnie had started a website as a tribute to her father's photography. So, I finally was able to make contact with Bonnie about three years ago.
LAO: How would you describe Barney Stein's work as a photographer for the Dodgers?
DD: Incredibly evocative. One thing that I keep coming back to with Barney was the access that he had. As the official photographer for the team -– as the photographer who shot for the yearbooks, the game programs, and for publicity purposes –- he had access to the Dodgers that no other photographer had. On the field, off the field, in the lockerroom. So many players told me that Barney would come to their houses and shoot the birthday parties of their kids.
I'm not sure if a Barney Stein could exist today in having that close, close relationship with the players. He was completely trusted. He was a low-key individual, always respectful of the players and what we would now call "their space."
The most famous photo that Barney took was the one of Ralph Branca slumped on the clubhouse steps after giving up the Bobby Thomson homer. Well, 17 days later, when Ralph Branca got married, the photographer on duty was Barney Stein.
LAO: What was Branca's reaction to the post-homer photograph?
DD: I asked Ralph about the Thomson photo, and he said, "I knew Barney was in the clubhouse, I knew he was taking the picture, and I knew the picture was going to be on the back page of The Post. I never held it against him because it was Barney and he was just doing his job."
It's an amazing shot because it showed the despair not only of a team, but of an entire borough. There were plenty of photographers at the game, but they were all in the Giants' lockerroom. From what I've read, Barney was the first and, for a while, the only photographer allowed in the Dodger clubhouse right after that happened.
LAO: Did Barney also shoot Thomson's homer?
DD: No. He was in the bleachers [at the Polo Grounds]. He had gone out there in the 8th or 9th inning, when it became apparent that the Dodgers were going to win the game. Or, so everybody thought.
LAO: The most famous action image in the book is of Jackie Robinson stealing home during the 1955 World Series. Did Barney shoot a lot of action?
DD: Yes, he did. Barney's action photos can be divided into two categories: the early stuff, when he was actually allowed on the field. For instance, we had the one photo of Dolph Camilli sliding into Walker Cooper in 1941. Sometime in the early 1940s, there was a play at third base, and the throw hit one of the photographers behind the third base bag. Larry MacPhail, the president of the Dodgers, ordered all the photographers off the field and built two overhanging boxes over first and third. That's where Barney took the majority of his action shots -- from high first or high third.
LAO: Did Stein shoot any of the amazing moments involving the Dodgers playing the World Series at Yankee Stadium: the Don Larsen no-hitter or the famous catches made by Al Gionfriddo and Sandy Amoros?
DD: Not that I'm aware of. If he did, we don’t have it.
LAO: Were there images of players or people that you couldn't find?
DD: We wanted to have as good a representation of the key people as we could, but we did miss out on some stuff. For instance, we have a picture in the book of General Douglas MacArthur paying a visit to Ebbets Field in 1951 and being introduced to Red Barber. One of the reasons that photo is in the book is that it's the only photo that Bonnie had catalogued of Red Barber. Which is amazing when you think about Red's legacy.
I think it played into who Barney's favorites were. I learned early on that Barney's favorite player was Jackie Robinson. There's so many images of Jackie –- and so many images of Barney with Jackie. You could tell that Gil Hodges was a favorite. I mean, Barney documented the growth of the Hodges family. Carl Erskine, who was a magnificent help to us on this book, was also a favorite.
On the other hand, there wasn't as much Billy Cox as we'd hoped and there wasn't as much Roy Campanella or Carl Furillo. With Sandy Koufax, you have to understand that he was only there at the tail end.
LAO: Is it possible to estimate how many images remain from the total number that Stein shot?
DD: Just speaking of the Dodger images, I would estimate Bonnie saved close to 1,000. In the book, we have about 185-190 images. The fact is, that number is a mere fraction of what Barney took.
LAO: Who else possesses his images –- and did they lend any of them for the book?
DD: What's in the private collections of some of the Dodgers and their families is way beyond what we have in the book and way beyond what Bonnie had saved. Everybody was helpful. When I called Ralph Branca, he said, "I have a drawer full of Barney's photographs that I've never done anything with." Buzzie Bavasi had a photo album that Barney had made for him -– and all the Dodger executives -– after the '55 World Series win. Buzzy told me, "It originally had about 100 prints in it. Now it's down to 60 because I kept lending them to people and no one ever gave them back to me."
Also, Peter O'Malley and Brent Shyer were gracious enough to provide about a half dozen photos that Bonnie did not have.
LAO: Stein stayed in Brooklyn after the Dodgers moved West. Why didn't he come to L.A.?
DD: Barney had his fulltime gig at the Post, he had a wife and two daughters, and he was not in position to leave New York. But the relationship between the Steins and the O'Malleys remained very close and very cordial for decades after the Dodgers left.
LAO: Did Stein shoot other sports after 1957?
DD: I'm sure he did, but I haven't seen much evidence of it. The sports images that Bonnie preserved are almost exclusively Dodgers. I think there's some New York Mets and some wrestling.
Actually, some of the most evocative photos that Bonnie saved were some color shots that Barney took in the early 1970s. One of the things that he started documenting was the building of the World Trade Center. It's incredibly haunting stuff.