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“The Brooklyn Dodgers as the world knows them will soon cease to be,” LIFE warned in 1957, as the borough’s chances of keeping “Dem Bums” in town grew slim. The team’s home, Ebbets Field, was a few thousand seats too cozy and lacked adequate parking, with the surrounding neighborhood offering no possibility for expansion. Building Commissioner Robert Moses suggested that club owner Walter O’Malley address these issues by moving to Queens—an idea the latter promptly deemed preposterous, sealing the team’s fate as a west coast franchise.
But long before its troubles began, Ebbets Field was as beloved as the players who dug their cleats into its sloping green. And when LIFE dispatched a photographer to capture the spirit of the place in 1940, that spirit was found in droves in the fans that filled its seats. Their faces registered triumph and heartbreak alike, foreshadowing the disappointment that would rule the borough when, six pennants and a World Series title later, its baseball days would be no more.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.