Saturday, 1 December 2018

A MUSEUM THAT'S FAR FROM BORING

(The CWHM entrance, photo by the author)

If you like museums and aviation (especially its rich history related to World War II) then the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum located at Mt. Hope Airport outside Hamilton, Ontario is a must-see for you. You’ll have a blast.

The CWHM website states it well: “The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum was founded in 1972 and is a non-profit organization whose mandate is to acquire, document, preserve and maintain a complete collection of aircraft that were flown by Canadians and the Canadian military from the beginning of World War II to the present. Our role is to preserve the artifacts, books, periodicals, and manuals relating to this mandate. The Museum now houses almost fifty aircraft, an extensive aviation Gift Shop, and Exhibit Gallery.”

The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum began with four friends--Dennis Bradley, Alan Ness, Peter Matthews, and John Weis. Their first purchase was a British-built Fairey Firefly, a two-seat naval fighter with folding elliptical wings for use on aircraft carriers. First manufactured during World War II, Firefly variations continued into the 1950s. When refurbished, the Firefly became the showpiece for the museum and remains that way to this day, exhibited on CWHM letterheads, memorabilia, and such.

(The CWHM gift shop, photo by the author)

Five years later, in 1977, the CWHM went all out by acquiring a decaying four-engine Avro Lancaster bomber that had been previously displayed in front of a Royal Canadian Legion branch in Goderich, Ontario. The bomber was flown by helicopter to Mt. Hope in 1979. There, the restoration commenced. Nine years later, she flew for the first time over the airport and surrounding area: 20,000 spectators saw it all. And it’s been flying ever since.
The CWHM suffered a setback on February 15, 1993, when a large portion of Hangar #3 at the Mt. Hope Airport caught fire, burning five vintage aircraft, including two Battle of Britain fighters, a Spitfire and a Hurricane. The Lancaster escaped destruction. What resulted was the brand new 108,000-square-foot building that is used today to house the entire CWHM operation under one roof instead of being scattered inside a few aging hangars as had been the case before.

I’ve seen the Lancaster in the air dozens of times myself over the last few years from my house or when I was in transit somewhere. Several times, from a distance, I’ve heard those four guttural Merlin engines before I could even see the impressive machine.  It leaves you breathless. I could just visualize hundreds of those things in the air at the same time when leaving or returning to England on those World War II bombing raids to Germany. The ground must have shook.

Considered the “Queen of the Fleet,” the Lancaster was dedicated to Andrew Mynarski, VC. In 2014, a CWHM crew flew the bomber to Great Britain for a two-month tour along with a British-refurbished Lancaster. These two Lancasters--the only two in flying condition in the world out of the 7,000 built--astounded millions throughout the British Isles. But there’s more than just the Mynarski Lanc at the Canadian Warplane Heritage. A lot more.

To begin with, there’s all the piston-engine and early jet aircraft in the hangar and outside. Nearly 50, in total, as stated earlier. Some piston-engine ones have been refurbished to fly, while the others are on static display. The twin-engine Dakota is one of those that take to the air almost as often as the Lancaster. And it’s about as noisy as the Lancaster during the flyovers around Southern Ontario.

Born on the Douglas Aircraft drawing boards in the early 1930s and first flown as the DC-3 passenger airplane, the Dakota became mainly a troop carrier during World War II, and a reliable one at that saw duty on every battlefront. Like the military version, the Canadians and Brits called it the Dakota, and the Americans referred to it as a C-47. Same thing, different name. Manufactured well into the middle-1950s, over 16,000 of the DC-3 and different variants had come down the assembly lines in the United States and abroad. By 2013, over 2,000 were still said to be found flying around the world of this aircraft that had revolutionized air transport.

Another aircraft at CWHM that still climbs into the wild blue yonder is the maneuverable, multi-purpose, mid-range, twin-engine North American B-25 Mitchell. Almost 10,000 were built in the States and served on every front by every Allied air force during World War II. This was the same type of aircraft used by Lt-Col Jimmy Doolittle in early 1942 for his morale-boosting surprise raid when 16 such machines left the carrier deck of the USS Hornet and bombed Tokyo. The remarkable thing is that the Mitchell was never originally designed to take-off from a Navy carrier.

(The North American B-25 Mitchell, photo by the author)

Another aircraft in flying condition is the North American Aviation (same company as the B-25 Mitchell) T-6 Texan, a single-engine advanced trainer used in the USA and Canada, where it was designated as the Harvard. In Canada, it was used in conjunction with the massive World War II British Commonwealth Air Training Plan on its 150 airbases coast-to-coast. My father, Jack Wyatt, was a mechanic during the war and was stationed at three different bases in Ontario and had worked on the Harvard.
The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum also has dozens of interesting displays: pictures, uniforms, flight simulators, mannequins in flight suits, and replicas of such things as a full-sized model of one of the bombs (similar in size to a 45-gallon drum) used by the 1943 Dam Busters RAF raid on three hydro dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley. Other material relating to the Dam Buster operation can be found on site, including a list of the planes with the crews that saw action, and a beautiful model of Moehne Dam that the RAF had successfully breached during the historic raid. And don’t forget the type of aircraft that was used--the still-flying CWHM Lancaster bomber. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Inside the hangar, you can see a multi-photo display to the CF-105 Avro Arrow jet fighter from the 1950s, along with an actual piece of the aircraft’s Plexiglas canopy. The Arrow and its destruction in 1959 is a story in itself that forever blots Canadian aviation history. Around the corner from there, you will see a couple of machine shops and many aircraft in the midst of being refurbished. It’s a long process, as you can well imagine.

(The Avro Lancaster bomber, photo by the author)

The gift shop is huge, containing numerous new and used aviation and military books, T-shirts, jackets, posters, model aircraft, you name it. Right beside the shop is where every so often an aviation author drops by for a book signing such as Ted Barris had done in early September 2018 for his new creation, Dam Busters, the story behind the Canadians who flew on the raid.  I showed up to represent my family (my mother’s cousin, Stefan Oancia, was a Dam Buster bomb aimer) for Ted’s standing-room-only, one-hour talk on the highly skilled bombing attack.
In addition, the CWHM is home to air shows and the occasional visit from a vintage aircraft. In early September, FiFi, the mighty B-29 Superfortress flew in while on a Canadian tour. For two days, it took enthusiasts aboard for a half-hour flight, for a hefty price, of course. This was the same aircraft that had dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, to end the Second World War. Enormous for its day, the B-29 wingspan was nearly 50 feet longer than the Lancaster.

Check out the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum at www.warplane.com, and go see it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed. Allow a couple hours, for sure.

Friday, 2 November 2018

THE BRONX BOMBERS MYTH

1933 Goudey Gum card of Babe Ruth (US Public Domain)

Apparently, the New York Yankees have been known as the “Bronx Bombers” since the arrival of slugger Babe Ruth in the “Big Apple” in 1920. Yes, for nearly a hundred years now the Yankees have killed the ball: singles, doubles, triples, and high batting averages. And, they’ve showcased the mighty home run hitters such as the Babe, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson and more recently Aaron Judge. From 1921-1964, otherwise known as the Golden Era of the National Pastime, the Yankees became the toast of baseball by winning 29 pennants and 20 World Series. Of course, hitting played a major role in them reaching the top.

Historically and technically, the term “Bronx Bombers” didn’t really come about until July 1936 (well into their winning ways) when sportswriter Dan Daniels of the New York World-Telegram gave the team the powerful name in one of his well-read newspaper columns. So, is the Bronx Bomber tag true or is it merely an overrated myth?

OK, in Babe Ruth’s 15 years in New York from 1920-1934, the Yankees won seven pennants and four World Series. During the regular season he hit 50-plus homers on four occasions, and another 15 in World Series play. All told, Ruth batted .342 lifetime, with 714 homers in 22 regular seasons, with 15 more homers in World Series play. In his 17 New York years (1923-1939), teammate Lou Gehrig followed up with a .340 average, 493 career homers: 10 blasts in the World Series, plus a Triple Crown in 1934 smashing 49 homers, 165 RBIs, and .363 average.

Joe DiMaggio played in 10 World Series (1936-1951), nine of those on winners as a 13-year New York Yankee. Seven times he hit at least 30 homers, and he won back-to-back batting championships. Then in his last season, someone named Mickey Mantle came along. Mantle went on to win three MVP awards, a triple crown in 1956, and hit 536 homers, plus another 18 in 12 World Series of which his team won seven. In 1961, he and teammate Roger Maris chased Babe Ruth’s single-season 60-homer record, in which Maris won out.

Then there was Reggie Jackson more than a decade later. Anyway, enough of the sluggers. There’s another factor missing, the real reason why the New York Yankees had won so many pennants and championships was…get this…their “pitching.” Yes, pitching.  In fact, to make things more clear, pitching wins ballgames. Yes, the Yankees had the hitters, but they also had the superior pitching, especially clutch pitching, a department that NEVER would have sent them to any of their World Series had it not been clicking when it was needed most.
1953 Bowman Gum card of 
Casey Stengel (US Public Domain)

In New York’s first three pennants (1921-1923), led by manager Miller Huggins, they had recorded the lowest American League ERA twice and were .001 behind the leader in the third season. The 1927 Yankees, considered by many as the best major league in history, won 110 games and lost only 44. This was the year Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit 60 homers and 47 homers, respectively. As a team, they led the AL with a .307 batting average, plus most runs scored and fewest runs against.

But, what so many people do not consider was that the 1927 Yankee pitching staff ERA, a major league best 3.20, was a full one run better than the American League average. They also had one of baseball’s first bullpen artists--Wilcy Moore. He started 12 games and relieved 38. With 19 wins total, he was 13-3, 13 saves in relief for starters Waite Hoyt (22 wins), Herb Pennock (19), Urban Shocker (18), Dutch Reuther (13), and George Pipgras (10). Then, to prove a point, in the World Series that fall, the Yankees smoked the National League champs Pittsburgh Pirates in four straight games. Ruth hit two homers, the only ones in the series. The Yankee pitchers dominated…2.00 ERA to the Pirates 5.19, 23 runs to 10.

Again, pitching wins ballgames

From 1936-1939, the Yankees won four straight championships by leading the league in runs, home runs, slugging average, and ERA every year. Manager Joe McCarthy also had a great stopper coming out of the bullpen in Johnny Murphy who saved 5, 10, 11, and 19 games respectively. Murphy’s outstanding relief work was still a positive factor during the Yankees 1941, 1942, and 1943 pennants.

Jump ahead to 1949…Casey Stengel entered the scene as Yankees manager in 1949, the first of five straight championships for him. He changed everything. He used infield and outfield platooning, and relief pitching as ultimate weapons. Three of those five post-seasons, the Yankees faced the Brooklyn Dodgers and dominated them all three times (along with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies) with three clutch starting pitchers: fastballers Allie Reynolds and Vic Raschi, and junkballer Eddie Lopat. From 1949-1953, “The Big Three” won 255 games and lost only 117 for a .685 won-loss percentage.

In the bullpen, Stengel had Joe Page, Reynolds (between starts), and Johnny Sain, also between starts. While the Dodgers crushed their National League opposition in that same time span, they couldn’t touch the Yankee pitchers in the big games.  Basically, they choked.

It took the Dodgers till 1955 to finally win their first championship and beat the Yankees after losses to them in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953. Pitching did it for Brooklyn, with southpaw Johnny Podres throwing a 2-0 shutout in Game Seven. In the mid-to-late-1950’s, Casey, while counting on sluggers Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and Moose Skowron for key hits, including the long ball, he had quality starters in Whitey Ford, Bob  Turley, and Bobby Shantz, who also subbed in the bullpen before becoming the chief closer in 1960. In 1958 and 1959, the main guy Casey used in relief was the flame-throwing Ryne Duren.

Taking over from Casey beginning 1961, Ralph Houk enforced a set lineup, ridding the team of platooning and spot starters/relievers. That spring, Houk approached Whitey Ford and asked him, “Can you start every four days?”
Whitey replied, “You’re damn right I can!”

“The games you can’t finish, we got Arroyo in the pen,” Houk concluded, meaning Luis Arroyo who recorded 7 saves in 1960.

Prior to that, Casey started Ford usually against the better teams. As a result, Ford had yet to win 20 games in any season under Stengel’s managing. Also, that spring, Houk hired ex-20 game winner Johnny Sain as his pitching coach. Sain taught his boys the slider as their “out” pitch and they excelled: Ford, along with Jim Bouton, Ralph Terry, Al Downing, and others.

1954 Bowman Gum card of Whitey Ford
(US Public Domain)
The Yankees went on to have one of their best seasons in MLB history in 1961, winning 109 games, eight games up on the second-place Detroit Tigers. New York led the American League in fielding average (.980) with one of the best infields ever in Moose Skowron at first base, Bobby Richardson at second, Clete Boyer at third and Tony Kubek at short. They also hit a record-setting 240 homers: Roger Maris smashing 61, Mickey Mantle 54, and four others at least 20. The Yankees finished second in team ERA and led the league with 39 saves. Whitey Ford started 39 games, won 25 of them to only 4 losses, enough to take his first Cy Young Award. Relieving 65 times for 119 innings, official American League “Fireman of the Year” Arroyo finished 15-5 with a major-best 29 saves, and a stingy 2.19 ERA.

In the World Series that autumn, the Yankees took care of the Cincinnati Reds in five games. The Bronx Bombers hit seven homers and Ford won twice, including an opening-game 2-0 shutout.

For the next three pennants (1962-1964) that finished their 1921-1964 Bronx Bombers run, the Yankees continued slugging and they also had one of the best pitching staffs. But…as I had said before…

Pitching wins ballgames
.

The New York Yankees never would’ve won 29 pennants and 20 championships during those iconic 44 years without solid, clutch pitching. Period. The same idea still applies since that 1921-1964 and well into today’s game. Pitching still wins it.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

THE BIGGEST AND THE DEADLIEST OF THEM ALL

In the midst of World War II, it was tagged the global bomber. It was contemplated as far back as spring 1938, before the war even began. Then, once the conflict did commence, and if England had fallen to the Nazis, this rugged, long-range machine was projected to bomb Hitler’s Europe with high-altitude accuracy from bases across the Atlantic in Newfoundland. But England held and American strategy changed. First test-flown September 1942, the Billion Dollar Bomber, as some American politicians in Congress who were providing the money for it had called it, was being considered for the Pacific Theatre of Operations.

It also had the distinction of being the aircraft that put an abrupt end to the Second World War by dropping two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. By then, the bomber had cost American taxpayers over $3 billion (nearly $44 billion in 2018 dollars). This only 14 months after the aircraft’s first bombing mission on June 5, 1944.

What airplane am I referring to? The one, the only…Boeing B-29 Superfortress.

The B-29 was light years ahead of its time. It had five .50-calibre, computer-operated gun turrets controlled by two gunners who could transfer power from one to the other. The tail gunner, one of 11 crew members, had a 20mm cannon at his disposal, besides his two .50-calibres. While other long-range, four-engine bomber aircraft--most notably the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator, and British Avro Lancaster--were forced to provide oxygen masks and fur-lined flight suits for their aircrews, the B-29 sported comfortable, pressurized cabins for their men who flew over enemy territory.

For the pilots, visibility was second to none through the wide Plexiglas nose. One operational pilot said it best: “Flying the B-29 was like flying a three-bedroom house from the front porch.” With a tricycle landing gear and wingspan of 141 feet and length of 99 feet, the Superfortress dwarfed all three other bombers mentioned dimensions by another third. In short, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress was massive. The engines were four 2,200 horsepower Wright Duplex Cyclone 18-cylinder radials with 16-and-a-half-foot propellers, with each engine containing two exhaust-driven turbochargers. Empty, she tipped the scales at 71,000 pounds: at maximum military load, double that.

The B-29 could fly for well over 3,000 miles return, making it the perfect military weapon for the long and grueling missions over open water to Japan from their 8,500-foot-runway Pacific bases in the Mariana Islands (Tinian, Guam and Saipan) where 15-hour trips were the norm. Top speed was 350 miles per hour, cruise speed was 225 miles per hour, and engines could take her to 31,000 feet with ease.

The B-29 had the highly secretive Norden bombsight, nothing new to American bombers. Due to its alleged pin-point accuracy, the Norden was advertised as able to “drop a bomb in a pickle barrel” as far back as the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator and others took to the European skies earlier in the war.

The B-29 was not without problems in her early days of production and first few missions. Fitting for such a project of such advanced design, even the technical flaws were massive, with experimental, still-new aluminum and magnesium engine parts being the culprits.

In the mid-1980’s, I interviewed two Americans who were part of the 40th Bomb Group. This group was well acquainted with the B-29, especially the problems before the crews were stationed on Tinian Island, the same piece of hot real estate eventually used by the 509th Composite for the two A-bomb missions on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Mechanic Red Carmichael was totally frustrated in those initial years. “When we first received it in 1943 for the China-Burma-India Theatre,” he said, “the B-29 was a very poor aircraft. While in India, the Wright engine rep told me that Boeing had made 1800-plus modifications in the engine alone. The allowable engine head temperature on the early B-29s was supposed to be 265 degrees on takeoff. I never saw a temperature under 300 degrees. As a result we were losing engines and aircraft on takeoff. We also had trouble with exhaust stacks and collector rings. These would blow out and you either feathered the engine or risked the danger of a fire in the engine or nacelle.”

“We had a nickname for the engines: ‘Flamethrowers.’ Oftentimes, they catch fire or conk out in the air,” added pilot Ivan Potts. “They’d overheat constantly, cylinder heads blew off and they had frequent oil leaks. But by November 1944, the B-29’s that came to India were of better quality than previous ones.

“No airplane the USAAF made was more challenging or exciting to fly,” Potts continued. “We hated it on occasion, but loved it most of the time. It was completely efficient with no wasted space anywhere. As time progressed, we had more and more respect for the Superfortress. It’s only shortcoming was that it was needed before it was really ready.”

In the last 12 months of the war, most of the more serious problems had been ironed out and Boeing factories in Kansas, Georgia, Nebraska and Washington states were pushing these monsters out and ready for service at an alarming rate.

By early 1945, high-altitude bombing was not working out due to the Jet Stream sending bombs to-and-fro before hitting the ground. So much for the Norden bombsight “dropping a bomb into a pickle barrel.” Twentieth Air Force commander, General Curtis LeMay, had a bold idea by the time his B-29 groups were re-located to the Mariana Islands. He ordered all the B-29’s stripped down to the bare minimum. They would go in low over the targets at night, in a series of single files, between 5,000-9,000 feet and without gunners in order to carry more bombs and incendiaries. Hopefully, the B-29’s would be too low for Japanese anti-aircraft guns to bare down on them.

The strategy worked. One by one, cities like Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya quickly met the B-29’s wrath. The epitome was the nighttime March 9-10, 1945 raid on Tokyo where 16 square miles of the Japanese capital was wiped, 84,000 were killed and another 100,000 injured. It was the single most devastating bombing mission of the entire war, more destructive than either atomic operation.

Two B-29s of the almost 4,000 that had been manufactured during the war are still flying. One is “Doc,” headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, in the air since 2016. The other is “Fifi,” which has been around since 1971, belonging to the Commemorative Air Force in Ft. Worth, Texas, and flying every year since then, except for a span between 2006-2010, when it was given a $3 million refurbishing, including four new radial engines.

I had the extreme pleasure of seeing “Fifi” at the Canadian Warplane Heritage on a warm, humid September I, 2018 afternoon in Hamilton, Ontario. After witnessing two impressive startups, takeoffs and landings, I got a chance to go aboard, along with a few hundred other World War II aircraft enthusiasts.

I loved every minute of it, of course. I experienced a piece of World War II history without having to pick up a book.

Note: the four pictures show two shots of “Fifi” from the outside, one from inside the bomb bay looking up into the cockpit, and the last one from the cockpit looking through the Plexiglas nose.









































Friday, 31 August 2018

THE DOME THAT DIDN’T GET BUILT…Part II

1987 Mother's Cookies Dodger Stadium trading card (US Public Domain)

In early 1957, O’Malley--his back to the wall--decided to play both ends against the middle by cleverly switching minor league franchises with Cubs owner Phil Wrigley. It cost O’Malley $3 million. For that, he received the Los Angeles Angels of the Triple A Pacific Coast League and their stadium, in exchange for the Fort Worth Panthers of the Double A Texas League. O’Malley’s transaction then gave him exclusive rights to any future major league move to Los Angeles. The reason: O’Malley knew that Los Angeles officials were still intent on bringing the Dodgers west and he didn’t want to miss out if the opportunity presented itself.

Back in New York, at a private meeting where two powerful figures locked horns, Robert Moses informed O’Malley that a better stadium spot loomed in Flushing Meadows, Queens, the site of the 1939 World’s Fair and where Shea Stadium was eventually built a decade later. Moses’ vision saw all three New York major league teams using the facility. O’Malley wasn’t the least bit interested in Queens or sharing any new park with the Giants and Yankees.

“Dodger fans won’t go for it,” he told Moses, bluntly. “It’s not Brooklyn.”

Moses wouldn’t budge. Faced with the “take it or leave it” Flushing Meadows ploy, O’Malley made preliminary plans, should the California relocation scheme become reality. He also knew that he needed another team to head west with him. The most obvious was his crosstown National League rival New York Giants, owned by Horace Stoneham, whose club had been plagued with dismal attendance figures at the 55,000-seat Polo Grounds, a park equally dilapidated as Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.

Since his 1954 World Series championship year, Stoneham had considered moving the Giants to Minneapolis where he owned a Triple A club in the American Association. O’Malley convinced Stoneham to relocate to San Francisco instead, where the Dodger-Giant rivalry would continue unabated. The customary train travel for the six opposing teams was now out of the question. It would be beneficial for them to fly in and play both the Giants and Dodgers on any western swing, thus cutting costs for the other teams around the league. Stoneham agreed with O’Malley and the two made the moves with the right people in the respective California cities.

Then it happened: And it was a news shocker, to say the least. League owners approved the move of both New York teams in August 1957, with a few weeks still to go in the season, leaving National League fans in both New York and Brooklyn in a state of depression that lasted for years. From then on, O’Malley was loved in Los Angeles and loathed in Brooklyn.

While playing their home games at the massive, unfit-for-baseball Los Angeles Coliseum beginning in 1958, the offensive-minded Dodgers with their over-the-hill roster finished a distant seventh. Changes had to be made. For 1959, they turned to speed and defense with younger players and won their first pennant and World Series in Los Angeles. And there were more championships to come in the early- to mid-1960s.

In 1962, O’Malley moved his club to his new 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium, a $23 million open-air facility tucked inside the hills of Chavez Ravine, the first privately-financed park since Yankee Stadium had opened in 1923. At the junction of Hollywood and Pasadena Freeways, it had 16,000 parking spaces. That first year, 2.75 million fans filed through the Dodger Stadium turnstiles to set a major league attendance record. No dome, but O’Malley got a beautiful stadium built for his Dodgers and he would fill the place for years.

* * *


Dodger owner Walter O'Malley (US Public Domain)
In 1965, the all-purpose, air-conditioned Houston Astrodome opened amid much fanfare. The Harris County Domed Stadium, as it was initially called, took on the title of “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” At a cost of $35 million ($275 million in 2018 dollars), it soared 18 stories high and spanned 710 feet in diameter. Inside, the 208-foot ceiling structure rose above a playing field that had been dug 25 feet below ground level. Seating capacity for baseball was 42,000, another 8,000 more for football.

After all the pizazz and glamor died down, serious glitches quickly emerged. The translucent roof (installed to allow sunlight in) was causing a significant glare for the defense on most popups. Uncaught balls were dropping at will. For fear of getting knocked out or worse, some safety minded players even resorted to wearing batting helmets in the field.

Then, during a May 23, 1965 afternoon game, with two out and two runners on base in the top of the first inning, Houston Astros center fielder Jimmy Wynn lined himself up to catch an arching fly off the bat of Jim Ray Hart of the San Francisco Giants. The scene was a fiasco waiting to happen. Wynn lost the ball against the bright glimmer above. A few seconds later, the dying missile plunged to earth between him and the fence. Three runs scored, compliments of a Hart inside-the-park home run. The Giants went on to win the game 5-2.

As a result of this incident and many others before it, technicians were forced to climb the Astrodome roof and spray-paint the individual, clear panels. But by doing that, the natural grass below eventually turned yellow and died from lack of sunlight. This led to the installation of fake grass: what we now know as the iconic AstroTurf.

In the midst of these misadventures, the Astrodome drew 2.1 million baseball fans in its inaugural year, more than half a million better than any American League club and second overall to O’Malley’s Los Angeles Dodgers, even though the Astros finished ninth in the National League standings with a 65-97 record. Since 1965, many other domes have sprung up such as the Superdome, AT & T Stadium, the Rogers Centre in Canada, and NRG Stadium in Houston that replaced the obsolete Astrodome in 1999. In 2014, the Astrodome was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

* * *


The Houston Astrodome (US Public Domain)

Walter O’Malley’s Dodger Dome could have been the first of its kind and receive all the glory, instead of the Astrodome. Yet, some historians have conjectured that the idea of a dome in the 1950s was so outrageous that by O’Malley demanding such a huge, seemingly unworkable project for Brooklyn led to 
the perfect excuse for him to vacate Ebbets Field and the borough itself, which he had possibly wanted to do as early as 1951. Was the dome his way of getting what he wanted? Ultimately, Los Angeles gave O’Malley everything--the land and the park. Or, was he really serious about the dome and wished to stay? Was he a visionary or a con-artist? A hero or villain? Both sides have substance.

One thing’s for certain, O’Malley and his technicians would have been the first ones dealing with the clear panels and the grass problems had the translucent structure been built. Was the 1950s ready for artificial grass? Who knows? But, I’m sure American ingenuity would have risen to the occasion as it always does.
Many people believe that Robert Moses should’ve shouldered at least half, if not most or all the blame for the Dodgers departing Brooklyn. Then again, maybe, neither he nor the local fans and politicians ever expected O’Malley to actually leave. Soon after the exodus, O’Malley jokes spread throughout the proud borough of Brooklyn. One was…“Who were the three most-hated persons of the twentieth century?” Answer…Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and…Walter O’Malley. Another was…“If a Brooklyn man was in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and O’Malley, but had only two bullets in his gun, what would he do?” Answer…shoot O’Malley, twice.

We will never know Walter O’Malley’s true intent. Although, to his dying day in 1979, two months shy of his 76th birthday, he always maintained that he had preferred to stay in Brooklyn and build his majestic dome on his home turf. Instead, what he did accomplish by heading west--maybe without realizing it at first--was take major league baseball kicking and screaming into the modern age of jet travel, thus changing the game forever from a regional eastern sport to that of a national one.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

THE DOME THAT DIDN’T GET BUILT…Part One

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 playAlthough 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 1965But, unbeknownst to many, had certain details been worked out a decade priorBrooklyn, 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?  

A
s soon as he assumed majority control of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951owner Walter O’Malley wanted a modern stadium for his power-hitting, pennant-winning teamHis 40-year-old bandboxEbbets Field, with its meager 33,000 seats and limited parking for only 750 carswas badly in need of repair and unable to lure fans anymore through the turnstilesStairs were steep, seats and aisles were narrow, washrooms stunk to high heavenand 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.”  

T
he surrounding neighborhood saw noticeable changes by the time the “Fabulous Fifties” rolled aroundHouses 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 mana 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, hforesaw 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," 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 modelwith 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 stripsthe 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 stadiumthe 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 CaliforniaO’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, 1956then 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 garageFurthermore, once he heard that O’Malley showed interest in the land, Moses blocked any sale of it.  

Part II to come September 
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