When Walter O'Malley died in August 1979, flags flew at half-staff at Dodger Stadium and at Los Angeles' City Hall, but not in Brooklyn, which hadn't forgiven him for moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles 21 seasons before.
You may remember that the L.A. Dodgers won the pennant the very next year, 1959. And thereby hangs this tale, which has to do with one of the noblest capers in the annals of American skulduggery—the valiant effort of an aggrieved press to avenge O'Malley's dastardly act of depriving Brooklyn of its beloved Bums.
It wasn't a happy time for the New York press. We had to report on the joy of the multitudes out West, a bitter blow for all right-thinking Easterners who felt that the borough of Brooklyn would never be the same without the Dodgers. (Sure enough, it hasn't been.)
For the middle games of the '59 World Series, press headquarters were at the Sheraton West Hotel in Los Angeles. Playing the White Sox, the Dodgers were en route to the second world championship in the club's history. Proof that they had won before was flaunted before us (I was covering the Series for Newsday) in a prominent spot at press headquarters. The Dodgers had chosen to decorate the banquet room with the 1955 Series flag itself, a huge banner that was all too graphic a reminder of the glory Brooklyn once knew.
September 21, 1980
The flag that had streamed so gallantly for the entire 1956 season over the ramparts of Ebbets Field—the right-center field flagpole atop the scoreboard—read in royal blue letters on a white background with a blue border:
That sacred cloth pinned to the drapes high above a row of buffet tables held a particular fascination for at least four of us at press headquarters following the fifth game of the '59 Series, the last one in Los Angeles. We were: Jack Mann, of News-day, Steve Weller, a columnist with the Buffalo Evening News; myself; and my friend Charles Sutton, a cityside reporter for the Long Beach (Calif.) Independent Telegram who had no great interest in baseball but who liked to come along on freeloads and certainly had no lack of feeling for Brooklyn, having lived there once.
The more we looked at the flag, the more we were angered by its presence in this outpost so far from the mother borough where it belonged.
Finally, and inevitably, one of us—I must confess it was I—said, "That pennant should be back home where it belongs."
Somebody else said, "Why don't we take it then?"
I think it important to emphasize here that the heat that burned within us was born of devotion to justice and was not the fire of too much liquor. It would cheapen the glory with which we were about to cover ourselves to say we acted with anything but high-minded sobriety.
We were now confronted with a technical problem. There appeared to be no way of getting at the pennant. There wasn't—until Sutton summoned the headwaiter and announced, "I'm Charles Sutton from the Herald Tribune and we must have that pennant right away." You might ask what the then extant Herald Tribune had to do with it, or why it merited the banner, but there was an unmistakable ring of authority in Sutton's voice—probably no less so than in O'Malley's when he told Commissioner Ford Frick he had to move to Los Angeles—and the headwaiter didn't question him.
He scurried to help, apologizing for not having a ladder. He commissioned some assistants to stack rickety tables to the ceiling so that one of us could unpin the pennant. I volunteered to go up, and the headwaiter was even nice enough to steady one of the tables as I unhooked the flag.
A few late carousers looked up in puzzlement, but nobody seemed suspicious of our actions. We folded the flag into quarters and, giggling all the way, pranced out onto Wilshire Boulevard, fondling our prize.
With visions of O'Malley calling out the Los Angeles storm troopers to foil our getaway, we decided to leave the pennant with Sutton—a man unknown to the Dodger management, or, for that matter, to the Herald Tribune. Sutton agreed to hide the goods for the night and then have his brother, who, as luck would have it, was a dry-goods merchant, wrap it up and mail it to me on Long Island.
Mann and I flew out of Los Angeles later that morning, looking over our shoulders continuously from hotel to cab to airport to plane. We saw O'Malley and the L.A.P.D. lurking behind every pillar.
Finally we were aloft, home free. "Let them find out about it now," Mann said. "No judge within 100 miles of Brooklyn would convict us." We toasted the flag, we toasted Brooklyn, we toasted Sutton and Weller, whose constant prodding, "Go ahead, you can do it," had helped fuel the caper.
When Mann and I got home, we decided that our first reaction to complaints by the Dodgers about the theft would be to raise high the standard over the News-day lawn. We looked forward to the day we could do just that. But the Dodgers didn't react at all. There were no outraged stories from Los Angeles. The wires didn't even send a short on the missing flag. Nor did Sutton, our man out West, report any murmurs of anger or dismay.
A few days later the pennant arrived in the mail, and we stashed it in my cellar. The idea was to break it out with a flourish, perhaps with the trumpets of the Dodger Sym-phony, a strolling five-piece band that had played in the stands at Ebbets Field during ball games, on an appropriate occasion.
Somehow, no worthy occasion arose. Nor did there seem to be a proper depository for the flag, all glorious 18 feet of it. There was no way to raise it over the Newsday lawn. We considered and rejected Brooklyn's Borough Hall, the Brooklyn Museum, the flagpole atop the monument at Grand Army Plaza. There was, of course, no longer any Ebbets Field scoreboard from which to wave it on high. A plea to the public in News-day to find a proper resting-place produced no acceptable nomination, either, so the flag languished ignominiously in my cellar.
Several years later I donated it to the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame's Ken Smith accepted the flag and the proviso that he would never return it to O'Malley. Smith vowed that the flag would be part of a display dedicated to Ebbets Field, but he has since left the Hall, and when I went to Cooperstown last summer I was chagrined to see that the gaudy exhibit on old ball parks didn't include the purloined pennant.
An official said, "It's so large, it's difficult to fit it into the display." When I said politely that I would like to see the flag anyway, just for old times' sake, he took me down to the basement. There it was, wrapped in plastic. The flag that flew over Ebbets Field, that was pinned to the drapes of the hotel banquet room in Los Angeles, that lay in my cellar for a few years. It looked none the worse for wear.
I had wondered why the Dodgers never made a fuss about the theft of their flag. Hadn't they noticed it was gone?
"Oh yes," said Buzzie Bavasi recently. Bavasi, now the general manager of the California Angels, was the general manager of the Dodgers in Brooklyn and in Los Angeles at the time of the theft. He said, "To tell you the truth, I thought it did belong in New York. After finding out that it had been taken, we thought it probably was just as well. Rather than make a big fuss, we decided to ignore the whole thing."
Sure, fellas, sure. And a few years later, when the Dodgers won their next pennant, in 1963, they again decorated their World Series press headquarters with past championship flags. They had their 1959 flag and a 1955 world championship flag emblematic of the only championship in Brooklyn.
"We just had another flag made," said Bavasi.