Which Way to Chavez Ravine? The Portly Wizard of Baseball, Walter O’Malley Made the Pastime Truly National When He Brought the Dodgers West
The time is January 1957, the place Wilshire Boulevard, on a warm winter day with the sun shining through the windows of the Automobile Club of Southern California as the man pauses at the counter.
This is a pleasant man with a full belly flopping over his out-of-fashion double-breasted suit. He is holding a cigar, which is stuck in a filterless white plastic holder, and an ash flops off onto his carelessly buttoned suit.
He is wearing a hat, which stamps him as an outlander in this land of perpetual sunshine. His eyes twinkle behind old-fashioned rimless glasses, without which he would resemble a benign, smiling Buddha.
His voice sounds like a rusty file being drawn across a corroded iron pipe, and several chins bobble when he opens his tiny, quizzical mouth to speak. “Pardon me, young man,” rasps Walter O’Malley politely, “but can you tell me where Chavez Ravine is?”
In the little world of baseball, that question has to rank in historical importance with, say, George Washington sidling up to a Hessian guard and innocently inquiring how wide the Delaware was at Trenton — or Abraham Lincoln calling downstairs to ask Mary how to spell emancipation. I have often wondered if the clerk who unraveled the auto club map that day knew he was disclosing the future capital of baseball.
Walter O’Malley was the only 240-pound leprechaun I have ever known. He was as devious as they come. He always managed to look as if he had his own marked deck. He was half-Irish and half-German or, as someone once said, “half-oaf, half-elf.”
He changed the face of baseball. He might have saved the game. He infused new energy, created new rivalries, brought a new audience, a new dynamism at a time when baseball was the Sick Man of Sport and losing its audiences in droves to pro football.
They have never forgiven O’Malley in New York. A lot of people who moved out of Brooklyn themselves were outraged when O’Malley followed suit in 1958. He occupied the same place in the hearts of New York writers as Benedict Arnold. “The Wizard of Ooze,” he was called.
He had done what Americans always do when they get prosperous — moved to the suburbs. In his case, the suburbs were 3,000 miles away.
He was just following a trend. The population of California was about 8 million when I arrived in 1944. It was 32 million 45 years later. That is one of the great migrations in the history of mankind. O’Malley simply joined it. He followed his customers.
He was not forgiven because he had just presided over the most fabulously successful 10-year period any National League team had ever enjoyed. His Brooklyn Dodgers had won six pennants, been in the playoffs two other years. They had drawn more than a million customers a year. They had led the major leagues in net profit after taxes, $1,860,740 for the five-year period of 1952 to 1956.
The Dodgers were kind of America’s Team. The romance of baseball being what it is, the entire nation took up the nickname “The Bums” and took the Dodgers to its heart, reserving for them the parental indulgence one has for foolish but harmless offspring. The fact that the Dodgers had brought up the first black player in the modern history of the major leagues added the vocal political liberals to the mix even though most of them didn’t know a squeeze play from a pop fly.
But Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ president and general manager in Brooklyn, had done all of these things. Walter O’Malley was not a baseball man. He was a bottom-line man. He never went into a locker room in his life. He had come to the Dodgers as a caretaker for the company that held the mortgage on the club at the time when the club didn’t even meet the interest.
O’Malley had actually tried to get New York to keep the club. The locale and character of Ebbets Field, the cracker-box firetrap that had been home to the Dodgers since 1913, had made going to a ballgame on a social level with going to a cockfight.
O’Malley invited the city to condemn the downtown land for him. He would build the ballpark. O’Malley even proposed a domed stadium. He was years ahead of his time.
He only wanted to move a few city blocks. The city and state dragged their feet. They argued over the propriety of condemning land for a purely private enterprise. O’Malley got disgusted. He was a proud man, a stubborn man. When he threatened to move, they smirked. Move the Dodgers! He had to be kidding! He wasn’t. He also took the Giants with him.
O’Malley didn’t need the permission of the commissioner of baseball. O’Malley was the commissioner of baseball. In all but name. Come to think of it, he did more for the game than any commissioner who ever ran it.
I first came into O’Malley’s world the spring he moved to Los Angeles. I did a cover story on him for Time magazine. I spent weeks hanging out with him in Vero Beach, San Francisco and, finally, L.A. He wasn’t always pleased with what I wrote, but O’Malley had as high a regard for the freedom of the press as Thomas Jefferson. For a different reason. O’Malley always said one of the reasons he abandoned Brooklyn was that “once there were four newspapers in Brooklyn, now there are none. And if you don’t think a newspaper isn’t important to baseball, you don’t know baseball.”
The O’Malley I knew was the convivial sort who liked to play cards with the boys, drink with cronies. He built two golf courses in Florida and playing with him was a trip because it was understood that he could kick the ball out of the rough any time it was ankle high, any tree was a staked tree (even a 100-year-old sycamore) and any putt was in the leather so long as it was on the green. When O’Malley hit the green, he put the ball in his pocket.
He fancied himself a horticulturist. He spent hours in a greenhouse trying to breed metasequoia trees to grow in Florida. Luther Burbank he was not. They never made it out of the pot. O’Malley didn’t have much of a green thumb.
But he did in the counting house. The Dodgers became the most successful franchise in the history of the game. They were the first in the league to draw 2 million, the first in the game to draw 3 million.
O’Malley never had much congress with his ballplayers. I always thought he regarded them as obstreperous children, fiscally irresponsible, functionally illiterate and as ineducable and temperamental as horses. He trusted his underlings — Fresco Thompson and Emil (Buzzie) Bavasi — to keep them in line. Bavasi was a smart, tough negotiator whose ace in the hole was that he knew most players would play for nothing rather than get a day job.
I don’t know how O’Malley would have handled the day of the agents. But in 1966, two of the greatest pitchers in the annals of the game, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, linked up to hold out for more money.
They didn’t get much. Koufax got $120,000, which is laughable in today’s terms. Drysdale got somewhat less. When you think what an agent might get for them today — probably Rhode Island — you marvel at those more innocent times.
O’Malley never made the mistake of degrading his players in public. He always knew he would shortly be selling them to the public as the second coming of Walter Johnson. Or Ty Cobb. He kept the infighting in.
But O’Malley always kept the image of the proper Dodger player in his mind. A Dodger player, in the O’Malley view, always came out looking like a Republican candidate for the Senate. He wore a tie, took his hat off in elevators and, if possible, went to Mass on Sundays. Other teams put up with rowdies, sociopaths, renegades and scofflaws if they had talent enough. O’Malley’s Dodgers never did. O’Malley’s Dodgers got rid of players like that. No matter how high they batted, if they missed team buses, scuffled with the law or disobeyed the manager, they were gone. Not our sort. Not Dodgers.
The Dodgers had a few dipsos in their ranks over the years. O’Malley seemed to have more tolerance for that. Perhaps because he liked a glass or two himself on occasion. The late maverick baseball owner Bill Veeck once said that whenever you smelled a good cigar and a glass of Irish in the air, O’Malley couldn’t be far behind. I saw O’Malley tipsy at a few St. Patrick’s parties but never saw him what you might call drunk. Walter O’Malley was always in control of Walter O’Malley. And everything else.
He even had exactly the kind of son he wanted. Peter O’Malley did everything Dad wanted him to do — prep schools, Wharton School of Finance, a move into the family business. Peter O’Malley is the son everyone would want, a pillar of respectability, one of the most controlled individuals we will ever see. It has been said he is a clone of the old man but that the father had more of the pixie in him. Peter has made the society pages more than the sports pages. Like his father, he is a moral man with a high respect for respectability. He never played poker with the sportswriters. But you never wrote that Peter was a living extension of his father that you didn’t get a letter from him saying that was the best compliment you could pay him. Peter is still trying to live up to his father’s high expectations. He runs the Dodgers as capably as his father ever did. The rumors that he will sell the club and opt for a life of polo and bridge at the California Club meet with polite denials.
The city of L.A. gave the O’Malleys 400 acres of downtown real estate, displacing hundreds of Latino families from the site in a contentious eviction battle. In the end, the O’Malleys have proven reliable caretakers. Amid rumors he would build a paper-mache ballpark and tear it down within a few years to construct lucrative high-rises, O’Malley remained true to his pledges. Chavez Ravine is still a ballpark 36 years after that auto club clerk rolled out the map. The lights from a night game dominate the cityscape and provide a reassuring sight to succeeding generations. The floors gleam, the walls are not coated with grime. Dodger Stadium is as neat and clean today as the day it opened.
O’Malley had a choice of Wrigley Field or the Coliseum to showcase his team when it arrived. That was no contest. Wrigley Field at 42nd and Avalon, which he had purchased along with the franchise rights to L.A. from Phil Wrigley, was a 24,000-seat replica of Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The Coliseum had 92,000 seats — from about 28,000 of which you could actually see the game.
O’Malley, who never had any trouble adding, had no trouble opting for the 92,000 seats. The baseball establishment was aghast. I remember the commissioner of baseball, Ford Frick himself, taking to the airways to deplore what would happen to the grand old game in this monstrosity of a ballpark. Frick, who had been his biographer, always worried what would happen to Babe Ruth’s home-run records.
To be sure, the Coliseum configuration was a little startling. To squeeze a ballpark in, the left-field wall had to be a bare 250 feet from home plate. So they put up a 40-foot wire-mesh fence. “There goes Babe Ruth’s record! Also Roger Maris’!” harrumphed Red Smith. “Willie Mays’ll bunt them over that thing.”
It was a Pittsburgh pitcher, Bob Friend, who first tipped me to the essential characteristic of The Wall. “You’ll get a lot of lazy high flies that will go over. But you’ll get a lot of line-drive hits that Willie Mays’ll hit that would go out for homers anywhere else in the world — but they’ll crash into that fence for a single. It’ll even out.”
He proved prophetic. The most home runs any Dodger ever hit in a year in the four seasons they played in the Coliseum was 25 — Gil Hodges, 1959.
When the Dodgers came west, O’Malley’s manager was a bucolic, unflappable hayseed named Walter Alston. Walt Alston just reeked decency. What you might call a mensch. Walt Alston came from the kind of people who won our wars, plowed our fields, fed our children. He didn’t understand what people went into nightclubs for. “You mean you just sit there and drink?!” His idea of a big night was a pool game in the basement and a malted milk at bedtime.
He was almost the most unexcitable man I’ve ever known. If he had a flaw it was that he couldn’t really understand pressure. He would think nothing of putting a rookie in right field in the late innings of a pennant game, as he did repeatedly. If you made the big leagues, you were a big leaguer, was Walt’s uncomplicated view.
He sometimes seemed to be a preacher running a wild animal act. He took defeat better than any manager I ever saw. In 1962, the year his team lost the pennant game they thought they had won (they were leading the Giants, 4-2, going into the ninth inning), Alston’s team locked the clubhouse door and proceeded to get roaring drunk and maudlin. Alston just showered — and went over to the Giants’ clubhouse to congratulate the winners.
O’Malley didn’t hate Alston. That wouldn’t have been possible. He was just bored with him. He never gave him more than a one-year contract. He often seemed almost anxious to have Alston refuse.
Walter hankered for a manager who would make headlines — any headlines. O’Malley wanted baseball on Page One, not just the Sports page. So O’Malley hired Leo Durocher as “coach.” Bavasi didn’t want him, Thompson didn’t want him, Alston didn’t need him. Only O’Malley wanted him. O’Malley wanted his bombast, his flair for the histrionics, his troublemaking.
Leo didn’t disappoint. He made Page One kicking dirt on umpire Jocko Conlan, he feuded with his own players, with the press. Finally, Durocher did what Durocher always did. He self-destructed. The night after the Dodgers blew the playoff game to the Giants, Leo went on record as saying he would have had Don Drysdale in the game. “I came in the clubhouse in the ninth inning and saw Big D walking around in his long johns, and I said, ‘What are you doing here? Why aren’t you out in the bullpen? What’s he saving you for — spring training?’ “
That kind of insubordination couldn’t go unchallenged. Leo was gone. Leo’s problem was, as Damon Runyon said of someone else, that he always saw life as 8-to-5 against.
When Walter Alston came down with a failing heart, Walter O’Malley, who was dying himself by then, finally got the kind of manager he’d hankered for.
Tommy Lasorda was a baseball manager right out of central casting. From his bandy legs to his prominent gut to his habit of giving orations, he was perfect for the role. You couldn’t have built yourself a more typical baseball manager.
Tommy never talked, he shouted. He always managed to sound as if the building were on fire. He revelled in baseball. There were two men in my journalistic career I could always count on when I ran dry and needed a column. One was Casey Stengel, the other was Lasorda.
Tommy was as American as a carburetor, but he liked to give you the “Only in America” spiel so favored by professional immigrant sons. The truth of the matter was, Tommy didn’t even look Italian. But he was the son of Sabbatino and Carmella Lasorda, the pride of Abruzzi, a province in the calf of the boot of Italy.
Sabbatino drove a cement truck for a living in Norristown, Pa. Tommy had a chance to go down in the quarry, too, except that he had this tricky curveball. It never was good enough to get major-league hitters out but it got Tommy a career in the big leagues beyond his wildest dreams.
I first met Tommy Lasorda in a bar in San Diego 25 years ago and we’ve been friends ever since. Ordinarily, it’s not a good idea to become friends with someone you may have to sit in judgment on, as journalists sometimes find out the hard way. But I have always found Lasorda to have a better appreciation of the symbiotic relationship between press and sportsmen than almost anyone I know of.
He was only a scout for the Dodgers when I first met him but you always knew he was destined for better things.
His seemingly sophomoric enthusiasm for the game played well with the kids, and the organization soon put him to work developing young talent in the outer reaches of the farm system — places such as Pocatello and Ogden. Lasorda was in his element. “I used to tell them all they’d be playing in Dodger Stadium someday, even the .200 hitters,” Lasorda reminisced. “I never let a negative thought in. I told them I liked the attitude of the old-time fighter, Jake LaMotta. Jake used to say he fought Sugar Ray Robinson six times and won all but five of them.”
It worked with the eager young kids in Pocatello. But would it play on Broadway?
It played. Lasorda and the Dodgers were perfect for each other.
Tommy not only revelled in his baseball eminence, he became a show-biz personality. Alston probably didn’t even know who some of these actors were — if they didn’t play a cowboy, Walt didn’t see them — but Tommy’s office before a game would likely have a Danny Kaye, a Don Rickles, a Milton Berle or reigning director or producer hanging about, sampling the ever-present lasagna, luxuriating in the company of the marquee names of sport. Frank Sinatra’s picture was all over the walls and Frank, on occasion, showed up to sing the opening-day anthem as a favor to his paisan.
The drug trials in Pittsburgh where authorities found dealers infiltrating the Pirates’ locker room put a wet blanket on Lasorda’s fraternizing with his Hollywood cronies. By edict of the commissioner, only accredited journalists, ballplayers and club personnel were thenceforth permitted in big-league locker rooms. The celebrity flow dried up, but Lasorda remained just as noisy. His audience was just less distinguished.
In a sense, he brought his own team with him when he became Dodger manager in 1977, kids he had been assigned when he became manager at Spokane in 1969. He had the complete infield — Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey. It was a lineup that would win him his first three pennants and, finally, his first World Championship.
In all, Lasorda’s teams have won four pennants and two World Championships. Smart, tough, energetic, Lasorda very likely lusted for the general manager’s job, where he would have been a natural. But when the GM, Al Campanis, tripped over his tongue on national TV one night, the job went to Peter O’Malley’s longtime confidant and personal ally, Fred Claire, an ex-newspaperman. Lasorda, ever the good soldier, swallowed his disappointment. He was actually too valuable where he was.
The unfrocking of Al Campanis was probably the nadir of the Dodger organization. Here was the spokesman for the organization that had broken the color line in baseball going on “Nightline” to tell the world that black people lacked the “necessities” for leadership positions in what is, after all, a child’s game. He also said, in one of the great non sequiturs of all time, that black people “lacked the buoyancy” to be able to swim. The show, believe it or not, was meant to honor the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entry into baseball.
The interlocutor, Ted Koppel, raised in England, had only a superficial understanding of baseball but he knew bigotry when he heard it. So did the rest of the country.
Those of us who knew Campanis thought he must have been goaded into an unworthy and controversial position. There had never been a whisper of prejudice in the conversation of this man. He had been a buddy of Jackie Robinson, a scout on the sandlots of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, the discoverer of Roberto Clemente.
For whatever reason, he said what he said. He might as well have burned a cross to the memory of Robinson.
Lasorda managed to distance himself from the swirls of controversy around l’affaire Campanis. He became the one constant in the new setup of the Dodger organization. The economics of baseball being what they became, Tommy no longer had a dugout full of pupils he had nursed through the farm system. In fact, he had no graduates of the farm system to speak of. The new franchise players had been sucked up on the free agent market. In large part, they were grizzled, cynical veterans that the old Dodger Blue and Big Dodger in the Sky routines should have had no effect on.
But Lasorda had an act to fit every occasion. He knew something the public didn’t: Ballplayers are kids at heart. As Roy Campanella said, “To play baseball well, you have to be a man. But you have to have a lot of little boy in you, too.” Lasorda preyed on the little boy in every man.
When hard-hitting outfielder Joe Ferguson balked at being turned into a catcher, Lasorda switched tactics. “Joe, you ever heard of Gabby Hartnett? Well, he became one of the great catchers in baseball history. But he was an outfielder. He didn’t wanna be a catcher! He’s in the Hall of Fame as a catcher. He even became a great manager because of the great knowledge he acquired in the game as a catcher!”
Impressed, Ferguson agreed to become a catcher. After he left the room, Campanis, who had heard the pitch, objected, “Tommy, Gabby Hartnett was never an outfielder!” Lasorda sighed. “Chief,” he said, “you know that and I know that. But Fergie doesn’t know that. Now do you want a catcher or not?”
For all his image as a guy whose nose lights up, whose pants are baggy, whose shoes are a size 20 and whose hat has a hole in it, Lasorda is never a man to trifle with. He has a monumental temper and was always quick to use his fists early in his career. He has a strong sense of what is right. He has worked with players I know he detests. Eddie Murray comes to mind.
But he cannot be moved from a strongly felt position. When he went up to the drug and alcoholic rehabilitation center in Wickenberg, Ariz., for the counselling sessions of his pitcher Bob Welch, who had been enrolled there, the staffers went to work on Lasorda. Part of the “therapy” is lateral blame — on your father, your boss, your pressures. Lasorda wasn’t having any. He quarrelled with the counsellors. Lasorda could not conceive of criticizing a father.
When his son, Spunky, died of AIDS, Lasorda stubbornly refused to go public. The fund-raisers were upset. Lasorda might have been a powerful spokesman for their cause. Lasorda wasn’t having any of that, either. His son was going to rest in peace. It might not be an enlightened view. But it was the Lasorda view.
The Dodgers were an economic and artistic success in L.A. They became part of the warp and woof of the city. If another city might have been embarrassed at having a team whose traditions, lore and very personality seemed to belong to another town, L.A. wasn’t. L.A. was full of people whose family traditions lay elsewhere. This was a city already settled by new arrivals. The Dodgers fit right in with all the rest.
In a way, the Dodgers were really L.A.’s team. In the beginning, it was the Rams. But the Rams jilted L.A. and left the Dodgers supreme. Not even the Lakers, when they came, nor the Raiders, when they did, could shake the Dodgers’ hold.
O’Malley’s vision had been 20/20. He not only helped O’Malley, he helped baseball. The game has never been known for its far-seeing approach but, in spite of the fact that he was driven to it by a pack of vacillating politicians in New York, O’Malley made the right historical choice. He followed the rest of the population west.
It was so right, it was surprising no one had ever done it before. It was so right, it was surprising baseball thought of it at all. Baseball was always loath to enter the 20th Century. Baseball will always be three or more decades behind the rest of society. That’s part of its charm.
(Adapted from Jim Murray: An Autobiography, published by Macmillan, June 1993)