The history of the "Trolley Dodgers" reminds us city streets once belonged to people.
It's a great day for baseball fans, with pitchers and catchers reporting to camp for a number of MLB teams, including the Los Angeles Dodgers. But since not much happens other than the players "literally showing up," as Eric Stephens of SB Nation's True Blue LA blog puts it, we thought we'd fill the down time with a little history lesson. In the case of the Dodgers, it's a terrifying one.
You probably know the Dodgers used to play in Brooklyn, even if you weren't around when the team moved in 1958. But what you might not know is that the team's full name was once "Trolley Dodgers," or that dodging trolleys was a matter or life and death for 19th-century Brooklynites. Here's Joseph P. Sullivan writing about the "terror of the trolley" in the Journal of Urban Technology:
Today, the electric trolley is an object of nostalgic affection. Many people delight to see the old machines rolling down the street. It was not always so. In the 1890s, the electric trolley terrified many New Yorkers. The electric streetcar was much faster than a horse streetcar and caused many accidents. In Brooklyn especially, the trolley frequently killed or maimed young children. As a result, the electric trolley became a symbol of the chaotic nature of modern, urban life.
There's a bit of uncertainty surrounding just when the Brooklyn baseball team became the Trolley Dodgers. (Before that it was the Bridegrooms because seven players got married in 1888, according to the official team page.) A delightful history at the Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog dates the name's appearance to May 1895.
That timeline fits with the rise of trolley deaths as tracked by Sullivan. He writes that Brooklyn residents "often failed to look up before crossing a street" when streetcars were pulled by horses, since the animals would move out of the way. But when the mode went electric, people found themselves dodging trolleys at every turn, and too often "the result was slaughter": 8 people killed in Brooklyn in 1892, then 51 in 1893, then 34 in 1894.
"By April 1895," writes Sullivan, "the trolley had killed 107 people and injured about 450." He concludes:
The Brooklyn trolley, in particular, became an exemplar of random death. The explorer R.E. Peary said he thought the Brooklyn trolley as dangerous as an Arctic expedition. A restaurant keeper in Yellowstone Park told his guests that he had left Brooklyn and fled to the West only after the trolley had killed his family. … The team, like the Yellowstone restaurant keeper, eventually deserted Brooklyn but kept its history in its new name—the Los Angeles Dodgers.
If nothing else, this history serves as a reminder that city streets belonged to pedestrians (back then they were just called people) long before they were given over to new transport technologies like trolleys and ultimately, with far more deadly consequences, automobiles. For the record, Los Angeles does hope to get a new downtown streetcar of its own soon. The reported cost is roughly $270 million—or only slightly more than the $262.6 million 2015 Dodger payroll.