Mondays With Murray: End of an Era/The O’Malley Years — 1950-1998





   When Walter O’Malley moved the Dodgers out of Brooklyn, a lot of people there wanted to hang him in effigy. Others wanted to hang him in person.

   But what he had done just might have saved baseball.

   You don’t think so? Think that might be a little hyperbolic?

   Well, just ask any .248 hitter earning $3.1 million. He would have been lucky to get 35 mondaysmurray2grand back in the days when God was in Heaven and the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn.

   O’Malley moved the game to a new level. TV was a catalyst, but there was TV in 1958, too.

   The trouble was, baseball wasn’t national till O’Malley came along. It was a pretty exclusive club, largely confined to the northeast section of the country.

   The Boston Braves didn’t upset the status quo much when they moved to Milwaukee in 1953. And in 1955, the Philadelphia Athletics moved only to the perimeter, Kansas City.

   Baseball was so intermarrying, you’re surprised it didn’t get hemophilia.  Thirteen times since 1921, the game’s shining crown, the ‘World’ Series, had been an all-New York affair, a so-called ‘Subway Series.’ The game was like a key club. Bring references. Wipe your feet. Anything west of the Hudson was Hicksville. West of the Mississippi, Indians.

   When the Braves broke the mold and moved to Milwaukee, no one much cared. The Braves were the stepchild of Boston. The game there belonged to the Red Sox. The Braves used to play before crowds so small you could count them. And they had won only two pennants in their long history, both before the First World War.

   In Philadelphia, the A’s had a long history of dismantling championship teams for money. This time, they sold everything — players, franchise, license to play, even home plate. They moved out of economic necessity.

   But the world wasn’t ready for O’Malley’s shock. He not only moved the Dodgers, he took the Giants with him.

   New Yorkers couldn’t have been more outraged if he had jacked up the Empire State Building and moved it to Peoria. It was the biggest heist in sport history.

   Actually, Giant owner Horace Stoneham wasn’t much of a hard sell. He was going to move to Minneapolis anyway.

   And the Dodgers in Brooklyn weren’t really paupers in baseball terms. They were the most successful franchises in National League history. They had won six pennants in the 10 years before the move, had been in pennant playoffs twice. They had finished no worse than second over those years, drew a million customers a year, led the big leagues in net profit after taxes — $1,860,744 — for the five-year period 1952-1956.

   They were the darlings of every political activist in the country because they had integrated the sport a decade before.

   O’Malley had acquired the club for an initial outlay of $720,000, after he had been sent by the Brooklyn Trust Co., executor for the estate that owned the club, to oversee its operation.

   He oversaw it, but he didn’t overlook it. He could see the club’s value. It was a one-of-a-kind among only 16 in the world, rarer than diamonds, and he chafed under its penny-ante operation.

   He wanted to build his own ballpark in downtown Brooklyn. He was playing in a rundown, cracker-box firetrap built in the early 1910s.

   He wanted to move no farther than the intersection of Flatbush Avenue at Atlantic, but, even though the governor himself, Averell Harriman, came down to sign the enabling legislation, O’Malley got the runaround. The Sports Center Authority there, so to speak, died on third.

   So, O’Malley sang, “California, Here I Come” and took his team to the airport.

   Bill Veeck and his St. Louis Browns had tried to make this move a few years earlier, but Veeck was persona non grata with the execs of the game, notably Yankee owner Del Webb. O’Malley, on the other hand, was so powerful, it was said when Commissioner Ford Frick spoke, you could see O’Malley’s lips move.

   When O’Malley moved, he built his own ballpark in L.A., the last baseball executive to do so, but only after the city had deeded him 184.5 acres in Chavez Ravine and spent $4 million more grading and asphalting the property. O’Malley traded them the minor league ballpark, Wrigley Field, for the Chavez Ravine site, which was kind of laughable, since Wrigley Field was headed for the wreckers’ ball anyway and, at 41st and Avalon, was hardly prime real estate. (In San Francisco, Stoneham got his city-built ballpark for a paltry $125,000 a year!)

   The O’Malleys profited hugely from the transfer from Flatbush to Chavez Ravine. But how about the city of Los Angeles? How has it fared?

   Well, compared to the blandishments other cities hold out to major league franchises from football to basketball, it may seem to some that the Dodgers came cheap.

   How do you put a price on the community of five World Series titles, nine National League pennants and nine division titles, plus other close title races?

   How much business does that attract to a town? How much does the fact the city has a major league franchise in the first place play in attracting tourists, conventions, new businesses? The facts are, any city bids high for a Super Bowl, which comes with a high price tag affixed. Even a World Cup with an alien sport commands spirited bidding.

   The good to the game of baseball is incalculable. How much vitality does it attach to a sport to have out-of-town cadres hanging up “Beat L.A.!” signs? To have a franchise playing the bad guy in the melodramas of baseball? To move into an area where the rest of the country had already beaten them? The state is 32.6 million now. It was probably half that when the Dodgers came.

   The Dodgers were the first team to attract more than three million fans in a single season, 3,347,845 in 1978, and they have done it 12 times. Before the Los Angeles Dodgers, not only had no team ever drawn three million, only one, the Cleveland Indians in 1948, had ever drawn two million.

   There used to be a boast in Los Angeles — “No matter how hot it gets in the daytime, it’s still cool at night.”  The puckish movie producer Bob Goldstein amended that once, observing wryly, “No matter how hot it gets in L.A. in the daytime, there’s still nothing to do at night!”

   The Dodgers gave L.A. something to do at night.

   O’Malley had to survive a battle with J.A. (Black Jack) Smith, brother of San Diego’s C. Arnholt Smith, who owned the minor league franchise, the Padres. Black Jack got a referendum put on the ballot that would have nullified the O’Malley’s deal with the city, and it failed to pass by only a few hundred votes.

   One of Smith’s charges was that O’Malley would build a papier-mâché ballpark in Chavez Ravine and, after a few perfunctory years, tear it down and put the land to more lucrative use.

   Instead, O’Malley built the Taj Mahal of ballparks. It is as pristine today as it was 36 years ago, when it was built. It looks years younger than Eastern ballparks that were built years afterward. Part of that is climate. But part of it is Dodger care and maintenance. You can almost eat off the floors of Dodger Stadium. The O’Malleys treated their fans as guests, not intruders (try a Shea Stadium usher if you don’t think the opposite can be true}.

   So, who got the better of the deal? I would say it’s a wash. The Dodgers have been good for L.A. And, of course, L.A. has been good for the Dodgers.

   It’s a different game today. I doubt if any Brooklyn Dodger ever got more than $100,000 a year. I doubt if any got that much. I know none got a million a year.

   Today, you stay in contention extending multimillion-dollar contracts to 12-13 pitchers, .245 hitters, backup infielders. Baseball grew incrementally after the Dodgers’ move. In real estate, the watchword is ‘Location! Location! Location!’ O’Malley was far ahead of his fellow moguls in spotting that.

   O’Malley and the Dodgers have been good neighbors. They maintained a franchise and an image remarkably free of controversy and scandal. They perpetuated a profile of a Dodgers player who was a cross between Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson, if not a model citizen at least a reasonable facsimile. Dodgers players didn’t hit night court. If they did, they were shortly no longer Dodgers players. Not our kind, you see. Not Raiders, thank you.

   They didn’t exactly run the business like a mom-and-pop store. But it was a family business, catering to moms and pops. And grandpops. I don’t know of any sport you can bring a granddaughter to more comfortably and confidently than to Dodgers baseball.

   I would hope that doesn’t change. Before the Dodgers, L.A.’s hometown heroes were Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, John Wayne, Clark Gable, James Stewart and Bob Hope, to name a few.

   The Dodgers added Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Jim Gilliam, Maury Wills, Fernando Valenzuela, Steve Garvey, Tommy Lasorda, Vin Scully and Mike Piazza, to name a few.

   That’s not a bad trade.

Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times

Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, P.O. Box 60753, Pasadena, CA 91116


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