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Sports Movie Review: Ghosts of Flatbush

Dave NemetzSenior Analyst IJanuary 17, 2017

I recently had the chance to watch an excellent HBO Sports documentary about the Brooklyn Dodgers called Ghosts of Flatbush.

As a Giants fan, I don't usually go out of my way to spend two hours watching a paean to my hated rivals. Nonetheless, it was enjoyable to see clips of the Bums' old (and sadly retired) hobo mascot...and to watch the team lose several World Series to the Yankees.

More to the point, the documentary captures the pre-expansion era with lots of great archival footage, and deftly highlights two revolutions spurred by the Dodgers.

The first, as we all know, centered on Branch Rickey's move to sign Jackie Robinson and integrate baseball. This watershed moment in sports & society has garnered plenty of ink and celluloid, as well it should have.

While the narrative doesn't dwell on the familiar story, it does make an interesting point about Rickey's business motivations.

Branch Rickey idolized Abe Lincoln, but he was also a frugal man. Rickey recognized that African-American players—untested in the big leagues and underpaid in the Negro Leagues—could be had for much cheaper than comparable white players.

The second—and less recognized—revolution sparked by the Dodgers grew out of owner Walter O'Malley's decision to relocate the team to Los Angeles...at a time when St. Louis was the westernmost franchise in Major League Baseball. 

This daring move completely restructured the national sports landscape, and helped usher in the era of modern professional sports.

It's worth noting that, at least at the outset, the move to L.A. wasn't a pure business calculation. O'Malley (a native New Yorker) tried desperately to get the Dodgers' new stadium built at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush in Brooklyn, but was continually shut down by New York urban planning czar Robert Moses.

After initially using L.A.'s entreaties as a negotiating ploy, O'Malley made the shrewd and audacious decision to bolt for Southern California after realizing that the new stadium in Brooklyn would never happen.

An interesting sidenote: Moses insisted that the Dodgers build their stadium in Flushing Meadows, Queens. O'Malley, taking a "Brooklyn or Bust" hardline, categorically refused.  Moses eventually got his Queens stadium built—for the Mets.

The documentary makes a convincing case that the L.A. move was more than a last resort for O'Malley—it was a the product of a methodically-researched plan to seize a truly monumental opportunity.  

The clearest proof is O'Malley's foresight in convincing the New York Giants' owner to move his team to San Francisco rather than Minneapolis. The simultaneous relocation of these two popular teams and bitter rivals helped Major League Baseball make the transition from regional fixture to coast-to-coast powerhouse.

The Dodgers' move west, coupled with their ability to convince the Giants to come with them, foreshadowed the expansion of baseball to cities around the country. With his bold vision, Walter O'Malley set professional sports leagues on a path towards national—and international—hegemony.

I highly recommend Ghosts of Flatbush to anyone with an interest in baseball history, the evolution of the sports industry, or documentary filmmaking.  It is playing on HBO in regular rotation, and I believe you can also get it On Demand. 

Hope you watch it and enjoy it as much as I did.

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