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The Dome That Didn't Get Built (Part 1)

Ebbets Field
Early 1950s postcard of Ebbets Field (US Public Domain)

The great American pastime of baseball has evolved over the years in many respects. One example is the venues where they play. Although most parks still feature the open air, sunshine, and the smell of fresh grass, several indoor domes have emerged since the first one appeared on the scene in 1965. But, unbeknownst to many, had certain details been worked out a decade prior, Brooklyn, New York was set to introduce the original indoor baseball complex and their team--the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers--would not have considered moving to Los Angeles in 1958.

How close was all that to actually happening?

As soon as he assumed majority control of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951, owner Walter O’Malley wanted a modern stadium for his power-hitting, pennant-winning team. His 40-year-old bandbox, Ebbets Field, with its meager 33,000 seats and limited parking for only 750 cars, was badly in need of repair and unable to lure fans anymore through the turnstiles. Stairs were steep, seats and aisles were narrow, washrooms stunk to high heaven, and the rusted-out steel girders obstructed views of the playing field. O’Malley’s GM at the time, Buzzy Bavasi, admitted years later: “Ebbets Field was a great place to watch a game if you were sitting in the first 12 rows between the bases.” 

The surrounding neighborhood saw noticeable changes by the time the “Fabulous Fifties” rolled around. Houses were not being properly maintained, crime was on the rise, and the fans with money that had previously purchased the more-expensive box seats were shuffling off to the Long Island suburbs and avoiding trips into town to catch games, especially the night contests.  It was far easier and much safer to listen to the Dodgers on the radio or to watch them on the new phenomenon called television. 

A born and bred Brooklyn man, a lawyer by trade, Walter Francis O’Malley was a shrewd businessman with no ordinary ideas. He was a mover and a shaker, a true visionary. He didn’t want just any new ballpark for his Dodger boys, one of the best teams in baseball. Far from it. Thinking big, he foresaw a domed stadium on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues in the west end of downtown Brooklyn, adjacent to the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) terminal. 

It would be the first domed stadium in the world. In O’Malley’s mind’s eye, this all-weather, year-round multipurpose translucent dome would seat at least 50,000 fans and house a retractable roof, restaurants, retail shops, a supermarket, a movie theatre, a convention center, underground parking, and escalators taking fans to their seats, all on a 500-acre prime piece of property.

The indoor stadium would be the showcase for the majors and put baseball on the international map. Directly opposite the Long Island Railroad terminal was an ideal location. The LIRR had hundreds of miles of rail connections across Long Island and could bring in fans by the thousands from the suburbs, many of those the same ones who had been fleeing the Ebbets Field neighborhoods earlier in favor of the Long Island burbs. 

Artist depiction of Walter O'Malley's "Dodger Dome,"
Artist depiction of Walter O'Malley's "Dodger Dome," courtesy Collier's Magazine, 1952 (US Public Domain)

Initial estimates and various sketches from people whom O’Malley contacted released their specifics. It would take $6 million to build (later changed to $12 million). A 300-foot-high enclosure, it would be 750 feet in diameter, and have a uniform distance to the fences in fair territory from home plate--380 feet. Many of these niceties were confirmed in a 1952 Collier’s Magazine issue and four years later in a 1956 Mechanix Illustrated piece, both magazines depicting an artist’s drawing accompanied by an article on this futuristic edifice dubbed the “Dodger Dome.” Also in 1956, Street and Smith Baseball Yearbook had published photos of a grand, tabletop model, with one of the pictures flaunting the smiling faces of Walter O’Malley, architect Buckminster Fuller of Princeton University, and Professor Robert McLaughlin, Director of Princeton’s School of Architecture.

O’Malley based his covered stadium idea on the two-thousand-year-old Roman Coliseum, which, according to his research, had a retractable canvas roof that covered two-thirds of the area high above the inside. Operated by a series of winches attached to long canvas strips, the mechanisms fanned the spectators, kept the hot sun off them, and at the same time forced warm air to be released through the large, open hole in the middle. It was an early form air conditioning.

When Dodger beat reporter Roger Kahn heard the dome proposal straight from O’Malley himself in the spring of 1953 (the incident verified in Kahn’s 1993 book, The Era), he typed up a draft on the subject for his newspaper, the New York Herald Tribune.  But his editor, Bob Cooke, talked Kahn out of publishing the article by informing the impressionable, 25-year-old Kahn: “You’re supposed to be writing baseball, not Walter’s fantasies.” 

When the press--at least the majority of them--got wind of O’Malley’s progressive plan, they thought the owner was joking. Some referred to the concept as “O’Malley’s Pleasure Dome.” By this time, not enough people were taking O’Malley seriously on two counts: building the Dodger Dome, and his subtle hints at relocating the Brooklyn Dodgers if a new stadium deal wasn’t worked out.

Days after the Dodgers won their first and only World Series in Brooklyn in 1955, O’Malley called a press conference to announce that well-respected architect Buckminster Fuller of Princeton had been hired to design the team’s new home as a geodesic dome. Instead of asking specific questions about the proposed stadium, the reporters preferred to talk baseball, specifically the plans for different players in 1956. One reporter in particular asked if pitcher Johnny Podres, the Game Seven winner of the World Series that fall, would receive a sizeable raise. 

Frustrated, O’Malley carried on. Meanwhile, regarding the Dodgers’ struggles in securing a proper venue, Los Angeles officials--spearheaded by Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman--contacted O’Malley and his staff that winter of 1955-1956 about a possible move for the Dodgers to sunny California. O’Malley gave it consideration, but not whole heartedly at first. He still wished to keep the team in his hometown Brooklyn and work out a deal there. 

Whether staying or leaving, O’Malley put a potential scare into Brooklyn city officials by selling Ebbets Field to real estate developer Marvin Kratter for $3 million on October 30, 1956, then agreed to a three-year lease, with the option of another three. A year earlier, O’Malley had sold minor league parks in Fort Worth, Texas and Montreal, Quebec for $1 million each, with the intention that the money from the parks be put towards the construction of the new Dodger Dome. O’Malley also cut a deal to play seven home games in New Jersey, at Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium for 1956, with another eight games in 1957. Although the 24,000 seating capacity was smaller than Ebbets Field, Roosevelt Stadium was twenty years newer and had 10,000 parking spaces available.

To make the covered stadium a reality, O’Malley needed the support of New York parks commissioner Robert Moses, the “urban planner guru” of the New York City area, a powerful non-elected government official. O’Malley let it be known that he’d pay for the stadium’s construction and the parking facilities, while the taxpayers subsidized the land. But Moses didn’t care for O’Malley’s idea because he had the Atlantic-Flatbush area earmarked for a giant parking garage. Furthermore, once he heard that O’Malley showed interest in the land, Moses blocked any sale of it. 

Part II to come September 1…


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