HBO Hits Home-Run

Disappointed by Tuesday’s overhyped baseball All-Star game? Not feelin’ ESPN’s The Bronx Is Burning dramatization of the ’77 Yankees season?

If you are a true fan of the nation’s pastime, the best baseball-related show on television in my opinion this week has to be HBO’s two-part series Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush, which debuted Wednesday.

HBO Sports has won countless awards for its sports documentaries, but this magnificent trip through arguably the greatest decade of New York pro sports history is in a class by itself.

The documentary is based on the Brooklyn Dodgers and “Da Bums’” great 11-year run between 1947 and 1957 when the team won six National League pennants and Brooklyn’s only World Series in ‘55. But the special doesn’t just deal with runs, hits and errors – in fact at times baseball serves more as a backdrop to the social-economic and racial changes that defined America after World War II.

The program’s documenting of the social ramifications revolving around Jackie Robinson’s Dodger debut in 1947 (Brooklyn-raised actor Lou Gossett poignantly recounts that as a youngster he looked up to white superheroes until Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier) and the toll that beset Brooklyn from the flight of affluent Brooklyn-ites to the suburbs is at times more fascinating than what the Dodgers did or didn’t accomplish on the field.  

But ultimately it’s the story of baseball and the Dodgers – backed by great historical footage from a simpler, bygone era where baseball was the truly ingrained in the fabric of America and where its players literally lived and socialized among the fans – that makes this documentary worth watching. I doubt if a Bronx catholic priest would ask parishioners to say a prayer for a slumping, multi-millionaire A-Rod the way the documentary points out one such Brooklyn priest did for local hero Gil Hodges after the popular Dodger first baseman went 0-21 during the 1952 World Series. 

You don’t have to be a Dodgers fan or even a baseball fan to appreciate what the Dodgers meant to Brooklyn from 1947 to 1957 and how devastated the borough was when Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley moved the team to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. The documentary even finds a way to make O’Malley – arguably the most hated man in Brooklyn – somewhat less of a devil, chronicling in fascinating detail his losing battle with then New York City buildings commissioner Robert Moses over securing land to build a new stadium for the Dodgers in Brooklyn.   

To borrow an overused cliché, HBO’s Ghosts Of Flatbush hits a home run for die-hard and casual baseball fans alike.