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'Dodgers' documentary on HBO is a winner

HBO Sports has another winner in its latest nostalgic documentary, "Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush." The two-hour film, which premieres on the pay-cable channel at 8 tonight, is produced in association with major league baseball.
I was predisposed to love it since the "Bums" -- as the Dodgers were called -- were my favorite team in my very early childhood years back on Long Island.

Those were the days before free agency, million-dollar salaries and evening World Series games, when the players seemed more like their fans and stayed with the same team for years.
Former Dodger greats Duke Snider and Carl Erskine, Fox Sports president Ed Goren, sportscaster Charley Steiner, actor Louis Gossett Jr., comedian Pat Cooper, Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, talk host Larry King, journalist Thomas Oliphant and former Dodger executives are among those taking a nostalgic trip back to the days the Dodgers dominated the National League in a film narrated by Liev Schreiber.
Dealing with the decade from 1947 to 1957 -- when the Dodgers were making history by signing the first African-American player, Jackie Robinson, and struggling to beat the damn, glamorous Yankees from Manhattan to capture just one World Series -- "Ghosts" works as a sports highlight film, a look at American culture, politics and racial relations. The music is pretty good, too, thanks to some mournful tunes sung by Frank Sinatra.
As an old Dodgers fan, I knew many of the best stories in the series about the heartbreak and pride of Dodger fans: Branch Rickey's decision to integrate baseball with Robinson; the verbal abuse that Robinson took from bigots; Southern teammate Pee Wee Reese's symbolic hug of his black teammate, even if the timing of it was unclear; Sandy Amoros' amazing catch in left field to save the 1955 World Series in a game seven win -- pitched by Johnny Podres -- over the Yankees.
Of course, Bobby Thomson's heartbreaking, ninth-inning playoff home run for the New York Giants off the Dodgers' Ralph Branca -- commonly referred as "the shot heard 'round the world" -- is repeated several times.
Now that I've been a long-time Western New Yorker, I was struck by how much in common long-suffering Dodger fans had with Buffalo sports fans.
Even an old Dodgers fan like me, who still can imitate the swing of the Duke (Snider) and Junior Gilliam in his sleep, learned a few things. I never knew -- or forgot -- that the team was nicknamed after the so-called Trolley dodgers who tried to avoid on-coming street vehicles.
And I may have blamed one of the early heartbreaks of my life -- the Dodgers move from Brooklyn in 1957 to Los Angeles -- on the wrong guy. I've always accepted the commonly held belief that Dodger Owner Walter O'Malley was the only villain. But the film makes it clear that the most powerful man in New York, stubborn highway king Robert Moses, practically drove O'Malley and the Dodgers to Los Angeles by refusing to allow the Dodger owner to get the land in Brooklyn he wanted to build a domed stadium. Instead, Moses wanted O'Malley to move the team to the Queens site where the expansion New York Mets eventually played.
Of course, it was still O'Malley's decision to leave Brooklyn for a fortune out West, and he remains a villain in my eyes. But as a member of one of the families who fled New York City for home ownership in suburban Long Island, it is easier to understand why O'Malley fought so hard to build a stadium in Brooklyn that would have been easily accessible to suburban train passengers who were Dodger fans.
It was just so much easier to blame O'Malley back when I was a naive 9 years old and didn't realize how much politics, power and demographics influenced everything.
Steiner pretty much summarized my feelings late in the film about what appeared to be essentially a reluctant business decision by O'Malley back in 1957.
"You are 8 years old," said Steiner. "You don't give a damn about business. You give a damn about Duke Snider, Carl Erskine, Carl Furillo, Clem Labine. Where's Gil Hodges? Los Angeles might have been Saturn, it was so far away."
Sadly, I'm not sure if many 9-years-olds of today care more about Saturn than baseball and its history. But I suspect many older baseball fans will cheer this documentary loudly.
After tonight, it repeats several times this month and will be available On HBO Demand through Aug. 12. "Rescue Me" returns... A week after the shocking suicide of chief Jerry Reilly (Jack McGee), "Rescue Me" returns to FX at 10 tonight with a routine episode that is memorable for one reason -- the reaction of a couples counselor to the summary supplied by Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) and his wife Janet (Andrea Roth) of their extremely complicated relationship over four seasons. The reaction is hysterical and perfectly understandable.



>Television Review

"Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush."

Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)

8 tonight on HBO Sports

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