The New York Islanders of Brooklyn; A Brief History of Sports in the Borough

New York Islanders fans have been experiencing a period of grief over the relocation of their team. After 43 years on Long Island, 4 Stanley Cups and countless memories the team will no longer call the Nassau Coliseum it’s home. Those feelings are bound to remain for the foreseeable future, especially come the start of the season in October. For the first time in their history, all of those cheers, the tears, the laughs, the yells, will be 26 miles westward. The team that represented Long Island has officially left the building.

Paul Martinka/NY Post
Paul Martinka/NY Post

That being said, when the puck drops at center ice on October 9, it will mark a new chapter in the history of one of New York’s most famous boroughs; that of Brooklyn. Far be it from a writer from Wisconsin to expound upon the history of New York  in great detail, but it may not be clear to everyone just how much change Brooklyn has experienced over the course of the 20th (and subsequently 21st) Century. An ever growing metropolitan landscape, constant shifting economic demands and an increasingly varied influx of immigrants have resulted in probably one of the best examples of the “melting pot” that America could offer up in the present day. Brooklyn has made a major impact on the culture of the country: in many ways it is what your average American pictures when they hear “New York.”

The sports history of Brooklyn is decidedly not as qualitatively successful as that of their counterparts in the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens and for a considerable portion of the last century, there was literally no history to speak of at all. That long gap led way to the idealistic portrayal of sports in the “old days” when the games were pure, and the athletes were gods (whether or not it was actually true); a philosophy espoused by Roger Kahn in his seminal book, “The Boys of Summer.” Kahn’s book was a recounting of his time covering the team that any discussion of Brooklyn sports begins and ends with: the Dodgers.

One can trace the roots of professional sports in Brooklyn back to Oct. 21st, 1845. It was on that date the New York Base Ball Club and the “Brooklyn Players” squared off against each other under. Baseball had officially come to Brooklyn, and would remain there until 1957 in some form or another. Now, early baseball history is marked by the formation and subsequent dissolution of countless leagues, yet there was one that came along in 1876 that has persevered to this day; the National League. It was the National League that saw a Brooklyn team named the Grays join its ranks in 1890. The locals would come to affectionally call the franchise by a variety of names including the Robins, Superbas, and Trolley Dodgers; the latter eventually being shortened in the 1930s to just simply the Dodgers.

The “lovable losers” nickname that has come to define the Chicago Cubs over the century they have gone without a World Series title would have been an apt nickname for the Dodgers throughout their lifespan in Brooklyn. The refrain of “Wait Til’ Next Year” was a common one for Dodgers fans for decades, with a few brief periods of respectability scattered throughout. Brooklyn did see itself become the center of not only the baseball world, but the social landscape of the United States in April of 1947, when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Dodgers, shattering baseball’s color barrier in the process.

NY Daily News
NY Daily News

The historic impact of the first African-American in the nation’s pastime has been thoroughly discussed and dissected over the years; there is nothing I can add to the story save to say it remains a hugely important social milestone. Robinson somehow managed to shoulder the incredibly burden his status had laid upon him, and he went on to flourish in Brooklyn. The rest of the team soon followed, and throughout the 40s and 50s the Dodgers were legitimate contenders for the World Championship every single year. However, despite their talent, It wasn’t until 1955 when the team finally brought home a World Series victory to the borough, a mere two years before the unthinkable would happen.

As with so many of the great disappointments in sports, the end of the Dodgers tenure in Brooklyn came down to those two quintessential roadblocks; money and land. Disagreements over the location of a new ballpark  and the manner in which the land for said ballpark would be made available created an untenable situation in the eyes of Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley. Additionally, technological advancements in transportation allowed for an environment in which long-distance travel concerns had lessened. And so it was that the Dodgers packed up shop, and left for the West Coast in 1957 (Note: their cross town rivals the Giants also bolted for California, leaving New York with just one baseball team; the Yankees).

Devastated Brooklynites were left with essentially two choices: support their hated rivals in the Bronx, or just allow their baseball fandom to slowly subside. Many would rather have taken a Don Newcombe fastball to the head than to don the Yankee pinstripes and while the arrival of the Mets in 1962 provided a salve of sorts, they still weren’t the Dodgers, and more importantly, the Mets didn’t play in Brooklyn.

There have been books, songs, poems, all dedicated to the Dodgers; such heartfelt and beautiful words have not been said about the National Football League’s Brooklyn Tigers. In fact, before reading this paragraph, you the reader most likely have never even heard of the Tigers, or the name they utilized for 13 priors to assuming the mantle of the Tigers; the Dodgers (original right?). If you thought that the history of early baseball was complicated, well professional football has you beat. Football was the domain of college campuses for quite some time early in the 20th Century, and the professional leagues took a decidedly long time to gain a foothold in the American sports landscape. Unlike the National League of MLB, only two franchises from the NFL’s founding season remain; the Bears and Cardinals (and only one of those hasn’t moved). Note how there is no mention of the Dodgers/Tigers. Brooklyn’s football team was a textbook example of mediocrity; never finishing in first place and earning the noble distinction of having completed a winless season in 1944. The team itself was actually merged with another New York franchise in an entirely different football league (The AAFC for those interested), and disappeared into the ether.

brooklyn-american-hockey

For all intents and purposes, hockey in Brooklyn begins with the 2015/16 season about to be played at the Barclays Center. Yet the history of the National Hockey League in the borough reaches back to 1941 with the Brooklyn Americans. That team would go on to exactly play zero games in Brooklyn, a confusing footnote that requires a little further explanation…

The New York Americans came into the NHL during the 1925/26 season as the second American expansion team for the league (following the Boston Bruins who had begun the previous season). Their games were played at the Madison Square Garden, and yes as you have probably surmised, the Americans ended up being co-tenants of the building with a franchise you may have heard of; the New York Rangers. The financial struggles of the Americans were contributed primarily due to the end of Prohibition, which provided a major issue for Bill Dwyer, the owner of the team. His monetary success had come directly from his role as a bootlegger, and when Prohibition officially was repealed in the 30s, well let’s just say the market for his services had decidedly been altered.

Between Dwyer’s financial ruin, and the impending specter of American involvement in World War II, the Americans appeared doomed to collapse. Even with the league taking full ownership over the Americans, and installing Red Dutton to run the team, things remained bleak by the 1941. Dutton purchased the team himself, and intended to move the Americans to Brooklyn; the only major impediment being that there was no rink capable of supporting a professional hockey franchise. The team would be called the Brooklyn Americans for what turned out to be it’s final season; they halted operations for the remainder of the war. When the war had concluded in 1945, the NHL said “No thank you” to their requests to resume operations, and declared the franchise to have folded. And thus the Brooklyn Americans faded into obscurity as yet another example of failed expansion efforts.

(Photo by Ron Koch/NBAE via Getty Images)
(Photo by Ron Koch/NBAE via Getty Images)

While it may not interest the casual sports fan outside of the New York-area, the fortunes of how the Islanders have come to once again share their arena with the Nets (formerly of New Jersey, New York, New Jersey, and now Brooklyn) is something that in 1976 would have been hard to imagine. That year, the New York Nets closed down the ABA, defeating the Utah Stars at the Nassau Coliseum in the final series the league would ever play. Four teams were chosen from the ABA’s roster to merge with the NBA, and the Nets were one of them.

After a relocation back to New Jersey, the Nets set upon, oh about a quarter century of disappointment before briefly becoming relevant in the early 00’s with back to back trips to the Finals. Even with the Jason-Kidd led squads doing something that had not been done since the poor attendance led to a general atmosphere of apathy surrounding the team, and before long the writing was on the wall for the Nets in New Jersey. Talks over a new arena in Newark would stall and eventually fail, leaving the team available to the highest bidder. Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov would purchase the team in 2010; and stated his intentions to move the team a brand new arena in Brooklyn; the Barclays Center. For the first time, New York was a two-team basketball town.

(Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
(Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The initial excitement over the relocation of the Nets into the city has been tempered in recent years with the schizophrenic nature of the organization; between pushing for a veteran-heavy team that would fail to make much of impact in the playoffs, to a power struggle between ownership, the GM and coaching staffs, and declining attendance, the Nets currently stand as an example of the worst situation an NBA franchise can be in: qualifying for the playoffs yet standing very little chance of winning a championship.

So this is the sports landscape that the New York Islanders now find themselves heading into next season. A 50 year drought has now been shattered rather quickly, with two teams finding themselves in the former home of the Dodgers. Granted, the cultural and social makeup of Long Island and Brooklyn could not be more different, but there is a certain degree of shared history that hopefully will contribute to long-standing success in the borough. If there is a place that can appreciate the hurt and emotional toll that relocation can inflict on a region, it would be Brooklyn. For now, the Islanders can look to the future, and forge a fanbase that takes 43 years of one tradition, and create something entirely new.

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