My friend Lou at Baseball and the Law tweeted today that, on this day in 1957, the National League gave the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers the OK to talk to West Coast cities about a possible move from New York to California.
That’s fairly well-trod ground in baseball history so we won’t go over in too much gory detail, but here’s the short version for those who aren’t well-versed.
The Dodgers and Giants each had successful clubs with large, loyal fan bases, but by the mid-1950s both teams found themselves playing in outdated ballparks. Ebbets Field had a pretty small capacity. The Polo Grounds was gigantic but was getting run down. The biggest issue, though, was the suburbanization of the country.
People were moving out of the city like crazy. If they wanted to come back and see a ballgame they mostly drove in and there wasn’t much in the way of parking at Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds. Not that there was a great desire on the part of those who fled the city for the burbs to drive in anyway. Many of them had moved out in the first place because they perceived New York an increasingly dangerous and declining city and didn’t want to risk coming in for games, especially at night. The Yankees could still draw because they were the class of baseball, but the Bums and the Giants were having trouble. It’s a pattern that would replicate itself all across the country, really, and which wold not reverse itself until a new batch of downtown ballparks began to be built in the early 1990s.
Dodgers Owner Walter O’Malley had been thinking about this stuff for several years and, as an initial gambit, proposed a domed stadium in Brooklyn. New York City Park Commissioner Robert Moses opposed the idea and advised O’Malley to build a stadium in Flushing Meadows, Queens, where the Mets currently play. O’Malley didn’t want any part of that. Meanwhile, O’Malley had, for several years, been talking to people in Los Angeles about the possibility of relocating the team out there. Those talks ebbed and flowed. The important takeaway is that, while people tend to cast either O’Malley or Moses or someone else as a villain in the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, there were a lot of moving parts to all of this and a lot of people and historical currents responsible for the move.
Here’s one fun moving part that you tend not to hear too much about: while he was trying to figure out if he could make more money staying in Brooklyn or moving to Los Angeles, O’Malley had an idea that he’d make a lot of money via putting games on pay TV. Yes, pay TV, decades before cable became common. What’s more, his fascination with it had a big role in getting the Giants to agree to move to California, in fact.
O’Malley had it in his head that, if he couldn’t get people who moved to the suburbs to come back to Brooklyn to see Dodgers games, maybe he could get them to pay to watch Dodgers games on TV, and he had a business associate, a man named Matty Fox, who was going to help him do it. Here’s how the plan was described in John Helyar’s essential book on the history of the business of baseball, “Lords of the Realm”:
O’Malley was also intrigued by pay TV. He’d met a fellow named Matty Fox, who was trying to make that embryonic technology a commercial reality. He and O’Malley hatched a plan in which Fox’s company, called Skiatron, would put Dodgers games on pay TV at a cost of one dollar a game for viewers. Skiatron would get two thirds of the gross, the Dodgers one third, and in this way the huge base of fans who couldn’t squeeze into Ebbets Field would be harvested.
This would turn out to not be workable in New York, however, because the Yankees and Giants each broadcast half their games for free and it was determined that the market just wouldn’t be there. But the idea still intrigued O’Malley. Later, when O’Malley began to consider Los Angeles more seriously, one of the many enticements was that there was no other televised baseball in southern California and that he, Fox, and Skiatron could put Dodgers games on pay TV in that “lush, virgin territory,” to use Heylar’s phrase.
Flash forward to early 1957. O’Malley had obtained the territorial rights to Los Angeles but had not yet been given approval by the National League to move. Before he could get the approval, the NL told him, he’d need to find another owner who also wanted to move to the west coast so that there wouldn’t be just one team way the heck out there, thereby creating some pretty annoying road trips. If the other NL teams could make a two-city west coast swing on the road, it’d be much easier.
O’Malley called up Giants owner Horace Stoneham who, as noted, was having issues of his own playing in the decrepit Polo Grounds. Stoneham was wanting to move to Minneapolis, actually. That’s where his successful Triple-A team, the Millers, had been playing, and he thought it’d be a good market for his Giants. O’Malley began to give Stoneham the treatment, however, and used the promise of pay TV to lure him and the Giants to San Francisco. Again, Helyar:
O’Malley clinched it by bringing along Matty Fox for a meeting with Stoneham. Fox talked about Skiatron’s big plans in San Francisco, and Stoneham heard the sweet sounds of money. Ka-ching.
Stoneham agreed that California was the place he oughta be, so they got themselves a meeting with a man named Warren G. Giles, that is. President. National League. That led to the this-day-in-history approval mentioned here:
Go West Young Man!
— #BaseballandtheLaw 🏛 ⚾️ (@baseballandthe2) May 28, 2020
That approval didn’t make the moves official. For much of the 1957 season the other NL owners tried to keep the teams in New York while the Dodgers and Giants haggled with Los Angeles and San Francisco about the details, but you know how that all turned out. The two teams moved after the 1957 season. Some people have still never forgiven them.
The pay TV part of it, though, wouldn’t come to pass. Skiatron went belly-up after movie theater operators saw the threat to their business and lobbied lawmakers to deny approval for pay TV in California. Eventually a statewide referendum put the final nail in that coffin. Later, Skiatron ran into SEC troubles as a result of promising more to investors than it could deliver. Cable TV was thus, effectively, put off a couple of decades.
Now, of course, the Dodgers are only available on pay TV and, until a month ago, most of L.A. couldn’t even see them as a result. I wonder how many people who got mad about that had any idea that, if Walter O’Malley had his way, pay TV would’ve been the only way to see the Dodgers from the moment they got to town?