Walter O’Malley, a visionair or a fraud?

I wrote the following piece for my monthly colum in the Cuban baseball magazine Universo Beisbol.

In this piece I want to share my point of view on the move of the Dodgers to Los Angeles.
Over the years, the LA press and especially the O’Malley family have re-written history in favour of Walter O’Malley. In their eyes O’Malley was a visionair and a pioneer. I have a slight different opinion on this.

Real estate businessman Walter O’Malley had acquired majority ownership of the Dodgers in 1950, when he bought the shares of his co-owners, Branch Rickey and the estate of the late John L. Smith. Before long he was working to buy new land in Brooklyn to build a more accessible and better arrayed ballpark than Ebbets Field. Beloved as it was, Ebbets Field had grown old and was not well served by infrastructure, to the point where the Dodgers could not sell the park out even in the heat of a pennant race (despite largely dominating the league from 1946 to 1957), though it has been rumoured by Brooklyn fans that O’Malley ordered his call center to tell fans that called to make a reservation for a ticket, the games were sold out, thus keeping the seats empty on purpose.
New York City Construction Coordinator Robert Moses, however, sought to force O’Malley into using a site in Flushing Meadows, Queens – the site for what eventually became Shea Stadium. Moses’s vision involved a city-built, city-owned park, which was greatly at odds with O’Malley’s real-estate savvy. When it became clear to O’Malley that he was not going to be allowed to buy any suitable land in Brooklyn, he began thinking elsewhere.

O’Malley was free to purchase land of his own choosing but needed Robert Moses to condemn land along the Atlantic Railroad Yards (O’Malley’s preferred choice) in downtown Brooklyn under Title I authority. Title I gave the city municipality power to condemn land for the purpose of building what it calls “public purpose” projects. Moses’s interpretation of “public purpose” was to build public parks, public housing and public highways/bridges. What O’Malley wanted was for Moses to use this authority rather than pay market value for the land. With Title I, the city, aka Robert Moses, could have sold the land to O’Malley at a below market price. Robert Moses refused to honor O’Malley’s request and responded by saying, “If you want the land so bad, why don’t you purchase it with your own money?”

When Los Angeles officials attended the 1956 World Series looking to entice a team to move to the City of Angels, they were not even thinking of the Dodgers. Their original target had been the Washington Senators (who would in fact move to Bloomington, Minnesota to become the Minnesota Twins in 1961). At the same time, O’Malley was looking for a contingency in case Moses and other New York politicians refused to let him build the Brooklyn stadium he wanted, and sent word to the Los Angeles officials that he was interested in talking. Los Angeles offered him what New York would not: a chance to buy land suitable for building a ballpark, and own that ballpark, giving him complete control over all its revenue streams.
To keep a long story short, this is a summary of the O’Malley version of the move to Los Angeles. In the following part, you can read my opinion on this.

Walter O’Malley was an attorney who specialized in foreclosures. He was doing foreclosure work for the Brooklyn Trust Company, which held the mortgage on the Dodgers home, Ebbets Field plus loans to keep the team afloat. Walter O’Malley bought a 25% share of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950, giving him a 50% share. Pretty soon, Branch Rickey would leave the club because of all kind of limitations O’Malley imposed on him. Rickey decided to accept an offer by O’Malley and sold his 25% of shares too. When Rickey was bought out O’Malley and Mrs. Smith (who inherited the Ebbets family shares (50%) after her husband’s death) each bought 12.5 %. What gave O’Malley his power was that Mrs. Smith allowed O’Malley to vote her shares.

In Rickey’s days, Ebbets Field was maintained rather well. All chairs and wood got a paint job every year. After O’Malley got the control of the club, maintenance of Ebbets Field was more and more neglected. As a result, the stadium got in a state of despair. O’Malley was shrewd enough to use this as an argument to force the city to sell him land to build his own (domed) stadium. All Ebbets Field really needed was a good cleaning and a few upgrades. All the time the revisionists of the history of the Dodgers’ move have been claiming that although the team was doing very well, by the 1950s, Ebbets Field was deteriorating. The plumbing was horrible, and the walkways sometimes smelled like urine. So if O’Malley was rich enough to buy land and build a privately funded ballpark, why couldn’t he invest money into Ebbets Field?
Unfortunately, O’Malley had to deal with Robert Moses. According to the re-written history books, Moses, New York City’s Construction Coordinator, wanted to grant O’Malley a piece of land in Queens. According to O’Malley the Dodgers wouldn’t be the Brooklyn Dodgers anymore if they would move to Flushing. I see some similarities here with Jeffrey Loria: Whining for a new stadium (in O’Malley’s case, ground to build a stadium on) and threatening to move. In the eyes of the O’Malleys, Moses was the bad guy, as stated in Neil Sullivan’s book The Dodgers Move West. But what should Moses have done? Just give in to O’Malley and sell him the land he wanted for a cheap price to make O’Malley rich? What was in it for New York then? No, Moses served the city of New York and he had to serve his boss as good as possible. All I can say is that Moses could have done a bit more in trying to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn or even in Flatbush. Unfortunately he didn’t. Robert Moses told O’Malley if he stayed in Ebbets Field, the city would change some of the traffic patterns and allow him to expand a little. Sounds a lot different than what you read in the history books huh?

Other arguments that O’Malley used was the lack of parking space (true) and the deteriorating neighborhood. A couple of Brooklynites that I know has told me that the neighborhood around Ebbets Field wasn’t as bad as O’Malley wanted the people to believe. Other tricks that O’Malley had on his sleeve were telling that no tickets were available anymore when people called to make a reservation. Because of that the stands were only half full or even worse. I heard this from a few Brooklynites. You may wonder if this is true, but since O’Malley did everything to make Ebbets Field look bad, I think it is plausible.

Another argument was accessibility. While Yankee Stadium was near a subway station and a highway, Ebbets Field wasn’t easy to be reached by public transport…… How did the Dodgers get their nickname? They were called Trolley Dodgers first. And that name was nickname for the people who lived in Flatbush. They had to Dodge the trolleys when they wanted to cross the streets. There are plenty of photos made in the 1950s showing Ebbets Field with trolleys on the fore- or background.

So in 1952, O’Malley decided that it was time for a new stadium. He was approached by the city of Los Angeles several times since 1953.
Notable detail in the soap opera of the move to Los Angeles was an agreement between O’Malley and Governor W. Averell Harriman. Harriman (the governor of New York) and the Brooklyn Dodgers’ president shook hands on April the 21st 1956, after the governor signed the bill authorizing construction of a sports center in Brooklyn – a center that would include a new home for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Governor W. Averell Harriman of New York shakes hands with Walter O'Malley, the Brooklyn Dodgers' president, after the governor today signed the bill authorizing construction of a sports center in Brooklyn - a center that would include a new home for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mr. O'Malley; Joseph Sharkey, vice chairman of the City Council; John Cashmore, Brooklyn borough president in whose office the signing ceremony took place; Robert Moses, New York City Park Commissioner, and Governor Harriman.
O’Malley and Harriman shaking hands after both had signed the afore mentioned bill

So O’Malley had a promise by the state of New York, but still he wanted to move to Los Angeles.
In 1956, after a delegation of the city of Los Angeles visited the East Coast to lure a MLB team to LA, O’Malley let the city of Los Angeles know that he was interested in a move. First talks made clear that Los Angeles was willing to give O’Malley everything that Robert Moses wasn’t to give O’Malley. Is it a coincidence that O’Malley sold Ebbets Field to real estate developer Marvin Kratter . Kratter leased Ebbets Field back to O’Malley until the team left for Los Angeles after the 1957 season. Before the start of the 1957 season, O’Malley met with Stoneham to discuss relocation. Stoneham had his sights set on Minnesota, but O’Malley convinced him to move to San Francisco.

On May 2nd 1957, the city of Los Angeles took O’Malley on a helicopter flight over Chavez Ravine, to show him the area that they had in mind for him. So all this time, O’Malley had his mind set on LA already, but he kept playing the Brooklyn faithful owner that wanted to keep the team in Flatbush.
Another proof that O’Malley was hatching out on something, was the acquisition of the PCL team the Los Angeles Angels in early 1957. With that acquisition, O’Malley bought the right to put a baseball team in LA.

The worst thing in this soap opera is the lying O’Malley did to the Brooklyn fans. There is a photo showing O’Malley coming back from Los Angeles, after he signed a deal with that city to move the Dodgers, wearing a button saying “Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn”…. O’Malley and Horace Stoneham (owner of the New York Giants) reached agreements with the mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco to build state of the art stadiums. On May 28 1957, the MLB owners allowed both to move their team from New York to California. From that day on, O’Malley kept saying that he wanted to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn.
In the end, the Dodgers announced their move to Los Angeles on October 8 1957 after countless meetings with the city of New York even though the contract with the city of Los Angeles was signed already.

O’Malley died in 1979. In all those years after his death he wasn’t elected to the HOF in Cooperstown. But all of a sudden in 2008 his family made a donation to the HOF and guess what? O’Malley was inducted. Sounds like bribery to me. The reason for his election was that “He brought MLB baseball to the West.” If the Dodgers would not have been moved, the West would have gotten a team with the 1961-1962 expansion anyway. And if O’Malley was elected because he brought baseball to the West, why isn’t Horace Stoneham?

I understand that a baseball owner wants to earn as much as money as he can. I can even understand that, to reach that goal, he will move the team. But he should play it fair. From day one that he had a dream of a stadium in Los Angeles, he should have been honest about that. He could have told the city of New York that Los Angeles was interested in the Dodgers. Instead of this he did everything to hide it. He took the heart and soul out of the Brooklyn community and he waited to announce this until the season for Brooklyn was over, so he could get some more money out of the Brooklynite’s pockets.

To me O’Malley is no visionair but a liar and a fraud. One example to proof this statement: When the Angels were allowed to play in the American League, they played their inaugural season in Wrigley Field, the former home of the former Los Angeles Angels of the PCL. Soon it became evident that Wrigley Field was too small for Major League Baseball, so the Angels’ owner, Gene Autry, asked permission for the Angels to play their home games in Dodger Stadium until their new Angel Stadium would be ready. O’Malley always said that Autry was his friend. Really? What friend would let his friend pay for water use and toilet paper use on game days that the Angels were not playing at Dodger Stadium?

Another proof of that is the left letter. It is an answer by O’Malley to a Brooklyn Dodger fan. In this letter O’Malley claims that the Dodgers have to move if they don’t have a new stadium when the current lease expires. This lease of Ebbets Field would expire in 1959… Do the math.

It is up to you what to think, but in my eyes O’Malley was a crook and a liar.

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