To Flatbush To Hollywood:
How The Pittsburgh Imperials Became The Los Angeles Dodgers
By Chris Oakley
based on "Batter Up" by the same author
When J.P. Morgan founded the American League in 1882, he had intended that Pittsburgh should be home to one of the new league’s charter franchises, but unfortunately the necessary backing couldn’t be put together in time. Still, Morgan left the door open for the city to be given an expansion club in the future; his instincts told him that sooner or later there would be a demand for the American League in the Steel City. Morgan’s gambit finally paid off in 1894 when a Pennsylvania banker and two of his friends applied for an American League franchise; the new team, named the Imperials because their founders wanted to instill them with a sense of grandeur, played their first home game on April 7th, 1895 against the Baltimore Colts.
The Imperials lost that contest by a whopping score of 10-3...and things wouldn’t get much better for them over the next four years they called the Steel City home. Up until the even more hapless Washington Capitals were founded in 1900, Pittsburgh would consistently post the worst annual regular season record in the American League. It would take a new name, and a relocation to Brooklyn’s Flatbush district, for them to finally snap out of their funk...
When the Spanish-American War began in the spring of 1898 with the sinking of the USS Maine, one of the war’s first casualties was the Imperials’ moniker. Few people in America wanted to be associated with anything having to do with empires at that point, and accordingly the Pittsburgh team’s senior executives unanimously approved a name change. For the 1898 American League baseball season, the erstwhile Imperials became the Pittsburgh Hawks. But that wouldn’t last long either; for their fourth and final season before pulling up stakes to Brooklyn, they were known as the Pittsburgh Cyclones.
In 1900, the Cyclones officially took up residence in their new home stadium in Brooklyn’s Flatbush district; that season, the team finished above .500 for the first time in its history. In the next ten years, the club would steadily improve its record, though it would be a while before they could gain the American League pennant. The main obstacle to reaching that plateau was the Philadelphia Atlantics, who had dominated the league for most of its early history. That obstacle would be overcome late in the 1911 baseball season, when the Cyclones went on a tear that would carry them past the Atlantics and into first place in the American League.
The Cyclones officially clinched the 1911 AL championship with a sweep of the New York Highlanders at Hilltop Park on the final weekend of the regular season. Hopes were high as they went into the World’s Series to face the National League champion New York Giants...
....but John McGraw’s men dashed those hopes with a five-run blowout of the Brooklyn club in the first game of the Series and a 6-1 thrashing in the second game. The Cyclones never recovered from these twin setbacks, ultimately losing the Series to the Giants in five games. But an important precedent had been established, and in the years ahead there would be many more Series clashes between the Brooklyn team and the Giants.
In August of 1912 the Cyclones, having outgrown their existing home field, opened a new stadium in Flatbush on the site of what had previously been a trash dump; the new park was christened Ebbets Field in honor of then-team president Charles Hercules Ebbets, who’d been instrumental first in arranging the team’s relocation from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn and then securing the land on which Ebbets Field. Ebbets, who was personally involved in the stadium’s construction to a degree baseball hadn’t seen before and has seldom seen since, had grand hopes of decking the stadium flagpoles with throngs of American League and World’s Series championship pennants in the years to come.
Alas for Cyclones fans, reality didn’t always exactly quite match Ebbets’ majestic visions; at the time Ebbets Field hosted its first major league game, Brooklyn was trapped in a seven-game losing streak and battling the Baltimore Colts for third place in the AL standings. The Cyclones would finish the year in fourth place-- a finish which, much as their fans grumbled about it at the time, would seem like the good old days in comparison with what awaited the club.
1913, the Cyclones’ second year and first full season at Ebbets Field, saw the team repeat its fourth place finish; in 1914 and 1915 Brooklyn recorded back-to-back sixth place seasons; 1916 saw the team suffer through a dismal fifth place campaign; and in 1917, with most of its best players either having subpar years or fighting in Europe as part of General Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force, the club limped to a seventh place finale, its worst finish since they left Pittsburgh at the end of the 1899 season. During these grim four years the Cyclones changed managers at least a dozen times, with three of those changes coming in August of 1917 alone.
1918 got off to a promising start as the Cyclones won nine of their first eleven games; by June 1st Brooklyn was tied with the Boston Red Socks for first place in the American League standings. But when the Cyclones came to Philadelphia for a four-game set with the Atlantics, their fortunes abruptly soured; the Atlantics took three of the four games in that series, knocking Brooklyn down to second and beginning a slump that would effectively knock them out of pennant contention by mid-July. The Cyclones finished in fourth place that year.
Then came 1919, the year of the notorious "Gambler’s Series" in which the heavily favored Chicago Furies deliberately threw several games-- including the deciding game of the series --to the National League champion Cincinnati Reds in exchange for huge payoffs from a New York City gambling kingpin. 1919 started off badly for Brooklyn and ended much worse; the Cyclones dropped eight of their first nine games that season and ten of their final twelve, and in between those long stretches of misery there were a host of three-game and four-game losing streaks that kept them mired in the American League’s cellar for weeks. Cyclones skipper Mickey Welch(a former Brooklyn starting pitcher back in the AL’s first decade) earned the unique and dubious distinction of being the only manager in MLB history to be fired twice in the same season: he was first sacked in late May, then brought back in the second week of June when his successor proved to be even worse, then fired a second time-- this time for good-- at the end of the 1919 season.
In 1920 the Brooklyn club adopted another new nickname: the Trolley Dodgers. This moniker was inspired by the fact that the team’s fans had to dodge trolley cars in order to reach Ebbets Field; eventually it was shortened to just plain Dodgers, a name destined to follow them to southern California in the late 1950s and define much of their team identity right up to the present day.
For most of the next two-plus decades, however, the rest of America would know the team better by the less flattering handle "Dem Bums". During that era the Dodgers would effectively serve as doormats for the rest of the American League, particularly the Babe Ruth-led New York Rangers, who regularly fattened up on the hapless Brooklynites like lions on gazelles. 1927 was a particularly bad year for Brooklyn where the Rangers were concerned: in eighteen games between the Bronx Bombers and the Dodgers, nine at Ebbets Field and nine over at Ranger Stadium, Brooklyn only won once-- a rain-shortened early September game that was called after six and a half innings and saw Brooklyn’s infield make half a dozen errors.
By 1932 the Dodgers were chronic underachievers, saved only from the American League’s cellar by the even more dreadful Washington Capitals, and teetering on the verge of financial collapse. Only the appointment of Leland Stanford "Larry" MacPhail as general manager in 1937 kept the franchise from going the way of the dinosaurs. Larry MacPhail directed a comprehensive makeover of Ebbets Field, brought night baseball to Flatbush, and recruited onetime Cincinnati Reds radio commentator Walter "Red" Barber to Brooklyn to usher in the era of Dodger radio broadcasts.
One of Barber’s first broadcasts for the Dodgers captured a unique moment in baseball history when Brooklyn starter Johnny Van Der Meer became the only pitcher ever to throw back-to-back no-hitters, pulling off the feat in a nighttime doubleheader at Ebbets Field against the Philadelphia Atlantics. That double no-hit was one of the few bright spots for Brooklyn fans in a largely disappointing season which ended with them tying for fifth place with the Baltimore Colts.
In 1938, the Bums finished in third place, a mark which, while still short of the American League pennant, was a considerable improvement on some of their previous seasons. They recorded back-to- back second-place finishes in 1939 and 1940...
...and then came 1941, when they overcame a 3-12 start and a season-ending injury to pitcher "Fat" Freddy Fitzsimmons to win their first American League championship in 30 years. It was one of the closest and most thrilling pennant races in AL history, coming down to the final weekend of the 1941 baseball season and a three-game series at Ebbets Field against the New York Rangers. The Rangers took the series opener in a three-run shutout; Brooklyn responded the next day with a 5-4 extra innings victory that climaxed with shortstop Pee Wee Reese driving in the winning run courtesy of a bases-loaded double with two outs in the 11th inning. As a result of that win, Brooklyn and the Rangers went into the series finale tied for first place; a Dodger win would send them into the World Series, while a Rangers win would mean Brooklyn fans would be once more repeating to themselves the mantra with which they’d finished each season since 1912: "Wait till next year."
The rubber match of the Dodgers-Rangers trifecta started with a solo home run by New York outfielder Joe DiMaggio, who had already enshrined himself in baseball history thanks to his phenomenal 55-game hitting streak earlier in the season. Brooklyn tied the game in the third inning on a bases-loaded single by first baseman Dolph Camilli, but the Rangers quickly regained the lead thanks to a steal of second base by infielder Johnny Sturm and a Pee Wee Reese error that allowed Sturm to score with two outs in the fifth inning.
Determined to redeem himself after the error, Reese belted a one-out triple into center field in the eighth inning and brought Brooklyn catcher Dixie Walker to the plate with a chance to tie the game again or even give the Dodgers the lead. Walker fell behind in the count 0-2 and the sizable, highly vocal contingent of Rangers fans who’d come to Ebbets Field that day gleefully jeered the Southerner, convinced that the Dodgers were running out of gas. But Walker got the last laugh; on a 1-2 fastball, he lined a two-run homer into the upper deck that gave Brooklyn a 3-2 lead going into the top of the ninth.
From there, reliever Hugh Casey closed the book on the game-- and the Rangers’ 1941 season --by striking out the side to clinch a 3-2 victory and the pennant for the Dodgers. Brooklyn’s borough president declared a civic holiday the next day to celebrate the Dodgers’ AL championship, and a massive rally whose attendees included a number of alumni from Brooklyn’s 1911 World Series team was held to give the Bums a rousing sendoff as they headed west to face the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the 1941 World Series.
In a perfect world or a Hollywood melodrama, the Dodgers would have followed their end-of-season triumph over the Rangers with a victorious Series campaign against the Cards. But life in general, and baseball life in particular, doesn’t always play out like a movie-- a lesson Brooklyn learned the hard way when St. Louis crushed them in five games. The turning point in the Bums’ 1941 World Series collapse may have come late in the eighth inning of Game 2, when a passed ball by Brooklyn catcher Mickey Owen allowed Cardinals first baseman Johnny Mize to steal home and break a scoreless tie; from there on out, luck seemed to desert the Dodgers at every turn, with the nadir coming when Cards right fielder Enos "Country" Slaughter belted a grand slam out to center in the first inning of Game 4 at Ebbets Field.
As painful as their Series defeat might have been, however, it would pale in comparison to what happened on a Sunday morning in early December at the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the Second World War; all of a sudden, baseball didn’t seem all that important-- not even in Brooklyn.
No major league team was left untouched by the US military’s wartime draft, but few were hit harder by it than the Dodgers. In the blink of an eye, many of the team’s best players and prospects were called to active duty and sent to fight overseas, leaving only second-rate and third-rate players to fill the gaps in Brooklyn’s lineup. From 1942 to 1945, the Dodgers never finished above sixth in the American League standings; in fact, in 1944 the St. Louis Browns, normally one of the worst teams in the majors, won six games in a row against the Bums en route to the Browns’ only American League pennant before they moved to Baltimore in the mid-1950s to become the Orioles.
The clouds started to lift in 1946, when the Dodgers’ star players began returning to the majors and the team did well enough to finish in fourth place-- the first time they’d had a record above .500 since 1941. What may have been the most important moment of the 1946 season for Brooklyn actually took place up in Canada in late April of that year when Jackie Robinson, a Georgia sharecropper’s son who’d been a three-sport star out at UCLA, debuted in center field for the Dodgers’ Triple A minor league affiliate in Montreal; that debut paved the way for Robinson’s entry into the majors’ the following year....and a sea change in racial attitudes among major league players and fans.
To say that Jackie Robinson’s first game at Ebbets Field on April 15th, 1947 stirred up controversy would be a gross understatement. It took NYPD riot cops to keep bigots in the stands from throwing things at the Dodgers’ newest player; as if that wasn’t enough for Robinson to contend with, he also had to endure the stress of beginning his MLB career at a position he’d never played before, first base. Robinson, however, quickly silenced the doubters by making two crucial putouts in the fourth inning and driving in two runs with a bases-loaded double in the seventh to help power Brooklyn to a 7-5 win over the Philadelphia Atlantics. That win sparked the Dodgers to go on a tear in their next fifteen games, and by mid-May Brooklyn was tied with the New York Rangers for first place in the American League standings.
The rest of the 1947 American League season was dominated by Robinson’s battle to win acceptance in the majors and by the Dodgers’ race with their chief AL rival for the pennant. As had been the case six years earlier, the Rangers constituted the final and most crucial obstacle to clinching the league championship; this time, however, it would be New York who prevailed when the smoke cleared. In the final meeting of the season between the Rangers and the Dodgers, a four-game set at Ranger Stadium, New York won three out of the four, clinching the pennant in the final game of the quartet when the Rangers bullpen struck out the Brooklyn side in the top of the ninth to end a five-run shutout of the Bums.
Although the 1947 season ended in disappointing fashion for the Dodgers, Robinson’s virtuoso defensive play and almost mythic hitting ability won over his teammates and the Dodger fans; Jackie would go on to become one of the top outfielders in the American League and stay with the Dodgers right up until the team announced its relocation to Los Angeles after the 1956 season. And before long, the heartbreak of 1947 would give way to the ecstasy of 1948...
...when Brooklyn started with a torrid 17 wins in its first 20 games, assumed a commanding lead in the AL standings by the All-Star break, and held off late surges by the Cleveland Browns and the Boston Red Socks to claim the AL championship in the second week of September that year. Robinson himself was one of the biggest factors in that remarkable season; another was one of Robinson’s former Kansas City Monarchs teammates, Leroy "Satchel" Paige, who despite being in his late 30s(or early 40s, depending on which version of his biography one subscribed to) pitched with the speed and vigor of a twentysomething rookie.
In the World Series that October, the Dodgers faced Boston’s National League club, the Braves; Boston baseball fans upset that the Red Socks had been deprived of the American League pennant and their city had been cheated out of a long-awaited Red Socks-Braves "subway Series" rooted for the National Leaguers to wipe the turf with the Bums. But Brooklyn had other ideas, blowing Boston out in the first two games by a combined score of 17-3 and rising from the ashes of a 4-2 extra innings loss in Game 3 at Ebbets Field to post a one-run shutout of the Braves in Game 4.
In Game 5 "Satchel" Paige did something no major league pitcher had ever done before and only one other pitcher has done since-- he threw a World Series no-hitter. Paige got considerable run support from Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and outfielder "Reading Rifle" Carl Furillo, whose sixth inning three-run homer would be fondly recalled by Dodger fans years later and voted in a 2003 MLB.com poll as one of the fifty greatest home runs in World Series history. When Paige got Braves slugger Eddie Matthews to ground out to third base to end the game, and the Series, the Ebbets Field crowd erupted in a standing ovation. At long last, the Dodgers were World Series champions.
Brooklyn’s 1948 World Series triumph marked the end of some eras and the start of others. One chapter of baseball history emphatically closed in the 1948 Series was the age of African-American exclusion from MLB; after seeing the first-class performances of Jackie Robinson at the plate and Satchel Paige on the mound during the Dodgers’ five- game dismantling of the Boston Braves, white team owners and managers no longer had any excuse to deny a black ballplayer his fair chance at competing in the American or National Leagues. By the time the Dodgers left Brooklyn for good in 1956, there would be 20 African-Americans playing in the majors full-time with dozens of others getting tryouts with MLB clubs or being scouted in the minors. While it would take another quarter-century before blacks would have the opportunity to manage an MLB team, there was little doubt that Robinson and Paige had set an important precedent.
Brooklyn’s Series defeat of the Braves also erased the last traces of the old-time popular perception of the Dodgers as "Dem Bums". After Paige’s no-hitter in the fifth and deciding game, it was clear then- Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey had transformed his team into a perennial pennant contender; even their cross-town archrivals the New York Rangers had to concede Rickey had made them into an outstanding ballclub.
The Dodgers further cemented their new reputation as an AL power by repeating as World Series champions in 1949; in a comeback for the ages, they recovered from a 3 games-to-2 deficit against the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 1949 Series in seven games. On this occasion, it was defense that won the day for Brooklyn; a leaping catch by Dodger center fielder Duke Snider in the seventh inning of Game 6 robbed St. Louis second baseman Red Schoendienst of what otherwise would have been a Series-ending RBI triple. That catch took the wind out of the Cards’ sails and paved the way for a four-run shutout Brooklyn victory in Game 7. Pee Wee Reese put the crowning touch on the win in the top of the ninth by retiring Enos Slaughter and St. Louis catcher Del Rice on a Jackie Robinson-assisted double play.
But what may have been the Robinson-era Dodgers’ most dominant performance in the World Series came in 1950, when Brooklyn swept the hapless Philadelphia Phillies in four straight. To put that into its proper perspective, consider this: the entire Philadelphia starting lineup put together could only eke out two home runs throughout the Series, while by contrast Brooklyn utility infielder Billy Cox racked up three homers in Game 1 alone and would finish the Series with six HRs. Game 4 saw Satchel Paige, in his final major league appearance, strike out 14 Phillies batters in a row and 17 altogether. When asked in a post-game interview what he thought about his team’s execution, the Phillies manager memorably quipped: "I’m all for it."
With three consecutive World Series championships to his credit, Dodgers manager Burt Shotton seemed untouchable, and at the start of the 1951 baseball season there was every reason to expect he would add a fourth to his resumé. Such expectations only grew after the Dodgers swept the Red Socks in Boston and the Atlantics in Philadelphia during their second road trip of the year; by the first week of June Brooklyn was leading the American League by twelve games. The AL pennant race was effectively over by the end of the third week of August-- not to mention the tenure of New York Rangers manager Casey Stengel, who was fired on August 30th after the Rangers were mathematically eliminated from pennant contention.
So sure were Brooklynites of the inevitability of a fourth straight Dodgers World Series championship that the Brooklyn borough president had already started planning the victory parade before September was half over. But as soon as the Series began, the Dodgers’ irresistible force ran into the immovable object of Leo Durocher’s National League champion New York Giants; Durocher, a former Cardinals and Dodgers shortstop who’d succeeded the venerable Mel Ott as Giants skipper in late May, had shepherded his club through a grueling National League pennant race during the regular season and instilled in them his firm belief that Brooklyn could be stopped.
After winning the first two games of the 1951 World Series at Ebbets Field, the Dodgers were shell-shocked in Game 3 at the Polo Grounds when rookie Giants center fielder Willie Mays took away a potential home run from Duke Snider by making a seemingly impossible over-the-shoulder catch near the right field wall.1 The Giants then tied the Series with an extra innings 4-3 victory and took a 3 games- to-2 lead with a 10-1 blowout of Brooklyn in Game 5. Only a miracle, and a pair of RBI singles by Brooklyn catcher Roy Campanella, kept the Dodgers from being eliminated in the sixth game of the series-- and even after the 7-5 Game 6 win at Ebbets Field, some Dodger fans had a familiar grim premonition of impending disaster.
In Game 7 of the 1951 World Series Brooklyn preserved a 3-0 lead well into the seventh inning and was ahead 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth when it all started to unravel. Giants shortstop Alvin Dark hit an RBI double to cut Brooklyn’s lead to 4-2; Dodgers starting pitcher Don Newcombe then gave up a one-out walk that put runners at the corners for Giant third baseman Bobby Thomson, who was looking for a measure of redemption after going 0 for 5 at the plate in Game 6 and 1 for 8 in Games 4 and 5.
He got that redemption and then some; on an 0-1 pitch from Dodgers reliever Ralph Branca, Thomson slammed a three-run homer up into the Ebbets Field grandstands that gave the Giants a 5-4 win and the World Series championship. Everyone who saw the game on TV that day would forever remember the majestic way the home run soared through the air and Giants announcer Russ Hodges’ dramatic call "THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!" With that one swing Thomson went from Series goat to Series hero, and in the process reduced Dodgers fans to consoling themselves with the old and worn promise "Wait till next year."
But there wouldn’t be many more "next years" at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers’ principal owner at the time, Walter O’Malley, was becoming increasingly frustrated with New York city planner Robert Moses’ iron- hard refusal to co-operate with him in his efforts to get a new larger stadium built for the team and had started giving serious thought to relocating his franchise to another city.
In the meantime, Burt Shotton’s dynasty was beginning to crumble; a year after the Dodgers’ reign as World Series champions came to its heartbreaking end, ex-Brooklyn first base coach Charlie Dressen led the New York Rangers past the Bums to earn the Rangers’ first American League championship since 1943. 1953 saw Brooklyn notch an impressive first half record only to collapse just after the All-Star break and be eliminated from pennant contention by September 14th; in 1954, they were among the victims of the Cleveland Browns juggernaut that won an American League-record 112 games in the regular season before falling to the Giants in six games in the 1954 World Series.
But 1955 may have been the worst season of the Dodgers’ final years at Ebbets Field. Roy Campanella, perhaps the most popular black player on the team other than Jackie Robinson, was permanently paralyzed in a car crash in early June, forcing his backup Rube Walker to pick up the slack at that position; Robinson himself missed much of the season due to serious and increasingly frequent pain in both his knees; Billy Cox and Dodgers starting pitcher Elwin Charles "Preacher" Roe were both traded to the Baltimore Colts for a relatively inexperienced newcomer named Sandy Koufax; and Carl Furillo was let go in mid-September after hitting an anemic .197 for most of the year. The Dodgers would end the 1955 season in sixth place, their worst finish in over a decade.
August 20th, 1956 would forever be known among Brooklyn baseball fans as "Black Monday"; that afternoon Walter O’Malley, his patience with Robert Moses at an end once and for all, held a press conference to make the official announcement that he would accept an offer from the Los Angeles City Council to move his club to Los Angeles Coliseum for the 1957 season while a new 80,000-seat ballpark was being built for the Dodgers in Los Angeles’ Chavez Ravine district. After over a half-century in Flatbush, the Dodgers were moving to greener pastures out west...and breaking Brooklynites’ hearts in the process.
Just over a month later, in their last-ever game at Ebbets Field, the Dodgers dropped a close 4-2 game against the Detroit Excelsiors; by February of 1958 Ebbets Field would be gone altogether, crushed by the wrecker’s ball. Meanwhile, the newly re-christened Los Angeles Dodgers were beginning to re-assert themselves as an American League power. It had taken the Dodgers over four and a half decades to bring a World Series championship to Brooklyn, and they had never won any in their previous incarnations as the Pittsburgh Imperials or Pittsburgh Hawks; by sharp contrast, they’d chalked up four World Series pennants within just nine years after they took up residence in Los Angeles.
Sandy Koufax, the pitcher acquired by the Dodgers in the trade that sent Preacher Roe and Billy Cox to Baltimore, was a major ingredient in the Dodgers’ resurgence of the ‘60s. Although he’d started out with little control, he quickly overcame that problem and turned into one of the most dominant pitchers in the American League, registering a no-hitter every year between 1962 and 1965; what some fans consider the finest single-game performance of his career came in Game 4 of the 1963 World Series, when he struck out 19 Cardinals hitters to clinch a Los Angeles sweep of the National League champions.
Following Koufax’s retirement after the 1966 World Series, the Dodgers once again went into a period of decline; they would not make the playoffs again until 1977, when they lost the ALCS to the New York Rangers in five games. Just four years after that ALCS defeat, though, the Dodgers would get even with New York, trouncing them in the ALCS in five games before dispatching the National League champion Montreal Expos in six games in the 1981 World Series.
The Dodgers haven’t won a World Series championship since 1988, when a miracle homer by reserve DH Kirk Gibson in the first game paved the way for a five-game crushing of the San Francisco Giants. But it would be a mistake to write them off forever; as the slightest glance at baseball history demonstrates, the boys in blue have perfected the art of fashioning new pennant-winning teams from the fragments of old ones.
 Sal Maglie, the Giants’ starting pitcher that day, would later recall a joke made by one of the Giants’ relief pitchers after the catch. The reliever in question had been brought on specifically to strike out Snider and was then supposed to make way for another relief pitcher; after Mays had made the catch, the first reliever handed the ball over to the second and dryly told him: “Well, I got my man.”