Thursday April 2nd, 2009

The Misunderstood Bum

Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O’Malley, Baseball’s Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles by Michael D’Antonio
Riverhead, 368 pp., $25.95

This month, New York opens two baseball stadiums — Citi Field for the Mets and a new Yankee Stadium. It’s the first time that two big-league parks have debuted in the same city at the same time. Compare this summer of the city’s baseball plenitude to 1957, when two-thirds of its baseball franchises departed for California to play pioneers in the sport’s version of Manifest Destiny. Though it was both the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants who skipped town, it’s the Dodgers who inspired a legendary mourning that continues today.

In trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Walter O’Malley, the owner who moved the Dodgers, Michael D’Antonio has chosen for himself the most thankless task in literary history. One recent morning, D’Antonio was on WFAN, New York’s sports talk station, to promote Forever Blue. More than one caller greeted him with some version of, “I haven’t read your book, and I don’t plan to. If you don’t think Walter O’Malley is a bum, you didn’t do enough research.” One even suggested, “I have sources you might not have had access to.” Because they proudly haven’t read the book, these callers haven’t seen the 19 pages of sources listed in the back, but I doubt it would change their minds.

Over the decades, average fans haven’t been alone in their hatred for O’Malley. A New York court even declared that the removal of the franchise from its historic home was “one of the most infamous abandonments in the history of sport.” D’Antonio convincingly argues that it was less an abandonment than the final sign of exasperation at unrequited love.

In 1952, the Dodgers drew 200,000 less fans than the previous season, and when they hosted Game Six of that year’s World Series, with a chance to clinch a title, 5,000 seats were empty. D’Antonio writes, “It was hard to explain such a thing,” but explain it he does. The post-war drive to the suburbs of New Jersey and Long Island had begun in earnest, not to mention the televising of baseball, and without much room for parking around Ebbets Field many fans stayed home.

O’Malley, observing these trends, knew that the Dodgers needed a new stadium, one that would include plenty of parking. He embarked on a seven-year effort to relocate the Dodgers within Brooklyn. For much of that time, he was being courted by baseball supporters on the west coast, most specifically the tireless Los Angeles journalist Vincent X. Flaherty, an “old-school, fedora-wearing newspaperman” who contacted every major league club about moving to California.

After the Dodgers lost to the Yankees in the 1953 World Series (for the fourth time in seven years), Flaherty called O’Malley to check his temperature, and

…O’Malley resisted. He turned down the request for secret meetings and declined to consider offers to buy his franchise. For O’Malley, who loved a good scrap, the Dodgers were still a work in progress. He wasn’t eager to run away from the Yankees; he was committed to staying in Brooklyn, facing the damn Yankees directly, and beating them.

Two years later, after the Dodgers finally vanquished the Yankees for their first title, “O’Malley was confident in his future in Brooklyn.” He refused to meet with boosters from L.A. when they came to the East coast on an annual trip to entice owners.

Even as late as 1956, as the Dodgers and Yankees clashed again, O’Malley rejected a meeting with L.A.’s mayor. He wrote him a brief note: “Not interested, as our Brooklyn Stadium matter is progressing satisfactorily.” In this way, O’Malley could be accused of wishful thinking more than underhanded scheming. Wishful because he was up against Robert Moses. In an October 1954 letter to the Dodgers owner, Moses had “practically sneered as he charged that O’Malley wrongly assumed ‘we can some how go out and condemn property for a new Dodgers field just where you want it . . .’ ” Yes, how silly of O’Malley to assume that Robert Moses could do whatever he liked, just because that was the defining characteristic of Robert Moses. D’Antonio writes that, “compared with Moses [O’Malley] was a political amateur.” But so was Machiavelli.

O’Malley didn’t ask for public money to build a new stadium, but Moses kept insisting this wasn’t the case. D’Antonio writes that O’Malley “sought help but not a handout. He wanted to invest millions of dollars in a borough that others had begun to abandon.”

To see how little attention this struggle received while O’Malley and Moses were alive, it’s instructive to look at The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s massive, prize-winning account of Moses’ drastic influence on the shape and policies of New York City. The book runs to more than 1,300 pages, but the lone mention of Moses’ interactions with O’Malley comes on page 1,018, and it only merits one-third of a long sentence peppered with semicolons. That third:

. . . [Moses] killed, over the efforts of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, plans for a City Sports Authority that might have kept the Dodgers and Giants in New York, and began happily to plan the housing projects that he had wanted on the sites of the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field all along . . .

That’s the primary revisionist argument of Forever Blue in 52 words, but D’Antonio goes further afield, conjuring a vivid image of baseball in its golden age and providing a detailed account of what happened after the Dodgers landed in L.A., a fascinating bit of history often drowned out by the sorrows of New York.

The book is occasionally hamstrung by the fact that its narrative is pegged to O’Malley, who seems to have been something of a bore. He was “quick with a joke, a story, and an arm around the shoulder,” and he “made friends easily.” But this kind of glad-handing, which helped him become a great success in business, doesn’t translate into a riveting protagonist. Branch Rickey, the Dodgers president who had the closer relationship with Jackie Robinson and once said that minor league players will “ripen into money,” was the more lively, quotable character.

What he lacked in flair, O’Malley made up for in foresight. He not only hastened the game’s integration and transplanted baseball to the Pacific coast, he was a forefather of the game’s current labor conditions. In 2009, some of baseball’s deepest problems (like the handling of the steroid controversy) can be laid partly at the feet of the players’ union, which is the most stubborn and powerful in sports. But fifty years ago, owners were blatantly tricking players into smaller salaries, not offering multiyear contracts, and pressuring O’Malley “to make sure that agents stayed out of the game.” The Dodgers owner, whose grandfather had helped organize postal clerks, had sympathy for players’ demands, and his joint negotiation with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale was a harbinger of a dramatic shift in power.

O’Malley’s concrete accomplishments aren’t much discussed now — the Hall of Fame begrudgingly opened its doors for him in 2008. His memory is most often reflected in efforts to recapture past glory, like at the Mets’ new Citi Field, where architects have “wrapped an imitation of the façade of the much mourned Ebbets Field around the southern corner of the new structure.” Cold comfort for former Dodgers fans. Fifty-two years later, the heartbreak continues. But perhaps half a century is long enough to misunderstand the reasons for your grieving.

John Williams is the editor of The Second Pass.

Books mentioned in this review:
Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O’Malley, Baseball’s Most Controversial Owner,and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York