For me, a person who loves and reveres the memory of the late, lamented Brooklyn Dodgers, this year of 2017 marks a bittersweet 60th anniversary.
Sixty years ago, in 1957, the Dodgers played their last season in Brooklyn. And it was the last year of a two season stint in which the Dodgers played a total of 15 home games in Jersey City, a signal to New York City of the willingness of the Dodgers to depart if their plans for a new stadium in Brooklyn were not approved.
The years 1956 and 1957 were the only two years in which regular season Major League Baseball was played in the State of New Jersey. And let there be no mistake about it – politics was a major cause of the 1958 exodus of the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and consequently, the relocation of the aforesaid 1956-1957 Dodger home games to Jersey City.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Brooklyn Dodgers had the most loyal and devoted fans in the history of baseball. They consistently were the most profitable team in the National League. After they began to televise all their home games on WOR -Channel 9 in the early 1950s, Dodger attendance declined, but not profitability. The television contract was highly lucrative.
Team owner Walter O’Malley was concerned, however, about future profitability of the Dodgers after the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953 and began setting National League attendance records. O’Malley’s proposed solution was the construction of a new domed stadium for the Dodgers at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn, the location of the major train station of the outer boroughs. This station was the site of the intersection of nine New York City subway lines and the terminus of the Long Island Railroad.
O’Malley actually owned at that time a substantial interest in the Long Island Railroad, so he would have been receiving income both from baseball and rail ticket sales. He was willing to pay the entire cost of the land and construction.
O’Malley needed governmental assistance to assemble and condemn the land at the site. And this is where he encountered the fatal opposition of Robert Moses, the most powerful political figure in New York City during the 20th Century.
I have recommended to all university classes I have taught the book, The Power Broker, by Robert Caro. It is by far the most interesting and informative book I have read on urban politics in the 20th century.
By virtue of his chairmanship of the Triborough Bridge Authority and other state and municipal development agencies, Moses had virtual sole and exclusive eminent domain powers in New York City. Virtually no substantial development could take place in New York City without his consent.
Moses was opposed to O’Malley’s Atlantic-Flatbush proposal. Instead, he offered to build a stadium and lease it to O’Malley at the site in Flushing, Queens where Shea Stadium was later built.
O’Malley said no. As he put it, “If I move to Queens, they will no longer be the Brooklyn Dodgers.” He persisted in his Atlantic-Flatbush proposal, but by the end of 1956, he realized that he was never going to get his way and accepted from the City of Los Angeles an invitation to negotiate a move. The basics of the deal were finalized by October, 1957, when the Dodgers announced their move to Los Angeles for the 1958 season.
Before he finalized his move to Los Angeles, however, O’Malley wanted to utilize every possible lever to get his way in Brooklyn. Accordingly, prior to the end of the Dodgers World Championship season of 1955, in order to signal his willingness to depart Brooklyn, O’Malley announced that he would play seven home games in 1956 and eight home games in 1957 at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City.
Roosevelt Stadium opened in 1937 and was demolished in 1985. Today, it is the site of Society Hill in Jersey City, where many prominent city political figures reside.
My good friend, former Democratic State Senator Bernie Kenny, grew up in Jersey City and attended a number of those 1956-1957 Dodgers games at Roosevelt Stadium. He also vividly remembers seeing the stars of visiting teams, including St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Wally Moon and Cincinnati Reds first baseman Ted Kluszewski.
Roosevelt Stadium was the home field of various minor league baseball teams, most significantly, the Jersey City Giants from 1937 to 1950. American history was made at Roosevelt Stadium in April, 1946 when Jackie Robinson, as a starting player of the visiting Montreal Royals integrated Organized Baseball and hit a home run in his first game. Today, there is a statue of Jackie at the PATH Terminal in Jersey City commemorating that event. I am proud to say that the statue project was financed by funds raised privately by my good friend, Lew Eisenberg, the former chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Unlike Robert Moses, who loved humanity and hated people, Lew has been a most honorable and effective public servant, without a private agenda and disdainful of the trappings of power.
Baseball played a vital role in Jersey City. Mayor Frank Hague every year declared Opening Day of the Jersey City Giants as a day off from school. But baseball was not the only sport that made history at Roosevelt Stadium. There were many exciting boxing matches at Roosevelt Stadium, most notably the 1948 middleweight title bout in which the French boxer Marcel Cerdan, the lover of Edith Piaf, won the title by a technical knockout over Tony Zale in Round 12. Edith sat at ringside and after the bout sang in concerts her signature song, “La Vie en Rose,” to commemorate the victory.
And Bernie Kenny notes how popular Roosevelt Stadium was for other sports and entertainment events, like high school football, ice skating, rock concerts, and even driving tests!
Today, Roosevelt Stadium is gone. Yet the memory of those two Major League Baseball seasons in Jersey City will always be a source of pride to the entire state. In the words of the Dearly Departed Lord of Montclair, New Jersey, Lorenzo Pietro “Yogi” Berra, it never happened before, and it hasn’t happened since!!
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman
- Alan Joel Steinberg
- Bernie Kenny
- Brooklyn Dodgers
- Frank Hague
- Jersey City
- Lew Eisenberg
- Major League Baseball
- Port Authority
- Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
- Robert Moses
- Roosevelt Stadium
- Triborough Bridge Authority
- Walter O'Malley
- Yogi Berra
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