On its way to delivering an engrossing docu about the effects of postwar suburban flight on New York City, HBO gets sidetracked a bit by baseball’s finest hour. What makes “The Ghosts of Flatbush” compelling is underdog Brooklyn itself and the March of Time-like events, including the loss of its beloved ballclub, that stripped the borough of its uniqueness; but the story of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier seems too tempting — if often told — for the filmmakers to truncate. Docu premieres Wednesday, giving baseball junkies a quick fix, with no games skedded the day after the All-Star tilt.
The docu’s first hour covers well-worn ground, from the origins of the team’s name (Trolley Dodgers) to the Robinson saga, from the feud between co-owners Branch Rickey and Walter O’Malley to the team’s gut-wrenching 1951 playoff loss to the rival New York Giants. It includes recent revelations, first made elsewhere, that Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese, celebrated for casually putting a friendly arm around Robinson to silence racist fans, didn’t make the gesture until after Robin-son’s tumultuous first season.
Still, the filmmakers do get one nugget — a photo of aptly named Dodger favorite Dixie Walker looking away from the camera during the team picture in 1947, Robinson’s rookie year, as a silent protest against integration. Walker would be traded from the team in the off-season.
Multicultural voices of those who grew up in the borough tie Robinson’s and the Dodgers’ groundbreaking accomplishment to Brooklyn, a place of immigrants, who the docu contrasts socioeconomically with the era’s comparatively well-heeled Yankee fans. Those interviewed include Larry King, Louis Gossett Jr., Herb Ross, comedian Pat Cooper (brassy), NYU president John Sexton, author Bette Bao Lord and Fox Sports topper Ed Goren, as well as Rachel Robinson and former Dodger players Carl Erskine, Ralph Branca, Clem Labine, Duke Snider and a still-feisty Johnny Podres, winning pitcher of the deciding game of the 1955 World Series — the Dodgers’ only championship in Brooklyn.Cooper says proudly, “To break a barrier and bring a black man on — remember, that happened in Brooklyn, (not in ) Yankee Stadium.”
Still, the outsized use of the Robinson saga, which dominates roughly half the docu’s first hour, is somewhat understandable given that this is the story of the rela-tionship between a city and a team that ended in 1958; no fresh history can be made.
What makes “Flatbush” more than just the paean to a baseball team HBO has already given the Red Sox (“Curse of the Bambino”), Cubs (“Wait ‘Til Next Year”) and the 2001 Yankees (“Nine Innings From Ground Zero”) comes in the docu’s second hour, which focuses on events that led to the team heart-wrenchingly aban-doning Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1957.
There are echoes of David Halberstam’s “The ‘50s” in documenting the suburban flight from Brooklyn to Long Island, where Levittown was offering the postwar generation affordable homes, and visionaries like New York City’s nevertheless intransigent planning commissioner Robert Moses were building the roads that enabled the migration. By the late ‘50s, Brooklyn had already begun to slip. The trolley cars for which the Dodgers were indirectly named went belly up in 1956; Coney Island was already in decline; the original Brooklyn Eagle newspaper had folded.
It is Moses, not O’Malley, who the docu portrays as most responsible for the Dodgers leaving town, with his refusal to condemn property at the Brooklyn termi-nus to the Long Island Railroad on which the Dodger owner wanted to build a new ballpark to replace the antiquated Ebbets Field.
The site Moses offered O’Malley was the land on which the Mets now play: Flushing Meadows — in Queens.
Former Dodger g.m. Buzzie Bavasi quotes O’Malley as the latter considered his options in L.A. or Gotham: “ ‘We are not going to Flushing Meadows,’ he said. ‘We’re the Brooklyn Dodgers. Whether we move 3,000 miles or 30 miles, we will not be the Brooklyn Dodgers.’ ” Talking to Dodger fans of the era about the plans to move to Flushing, it’s clear the still-hated O’Malley is right. Either move would rip the heart out of Brooklyn.
Perhaps the docu’s most compelling achievement is unearthing footage of the packed meeting, put together at Gracie Mansion by Mayor Robert Wagner, between O’Malley and Moses at which the Dodger owner, in heavily accented working-class Brooklynese, restates his demand for the new ballpark, and a disgusted Moses, with upper-class diction, accuses O’Malley of holding the city hostage to his plans.
Other part-two highlights include the recounting of a fateful note written by O’Malley on a napkin at the 1956 World Series, and Dodger fans’ memories of their individual celebrations after the team won the ‘55 Series — most amusingly a tooth accidentally broken by a crucifix. Those interviewed in part two include former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley and former Los Angeles mayor James Hahn. (Click here to read Army Archerd’s interview with Vin Scully, a notable absentee.)
In painting its most recent images of Brooklyn as a crumbling, jilted neighborhood, however, the docu seems to ignore gentrification in the borough, now grown over more with Starbucks than vacant lots, and less a wasteland symbolized by the image of Coney Island’s rotting Cyclone roller coaster (since refurbished) than the hopeful home to the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones.
Archivists are often the stars here, digging up memorable black-and-white stills of Brooklynites celebrating the Dodgers’ World Series victory as well as the Oct. 8, 1957, memo from O’Malley officially declaring the team’s decision to leave town.
Tech credits are generally exemplary. However, the playing, over opening and closing images, of the overused “There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here” (which purportedly was written about Ebbets Field) feels cliched, made more jarring by the fact that the song is sung by Frank Sinatra, more associated with another New York team; his version of “New York, New York” is played in Yankee Stadium whenever the home team wins.