Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O'Malley, Baseball's Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles

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9781594484414: Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O'Malley, Baseball's Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles

Read Michael D'Antonio's posts on the Penguin Blog

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist comes a revealing biography of "one of the most polarizing figures in baseball history" (The New York Times).

If ever there was a figure who changed the game of baseball, it was Walter O'Malley, owner of the Dodgers. O'Malley was one of the most controversial owners in the history of American sports, altering the course of history when he uprooted the Dodgers and transplanted them from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. While many critics attacked him, O'Malley looked to the future, declining to defend his stance. As a result, fans across the nation have never been able to stop arguing about him and his strategy–until now. Michael D'Antonio's Forever Blue is a uniquely intimate portrait of a man who changed America's pastime forever, a fascinating story fundamental to the history of sports, business, and the American West.

Michael D'Antonio's newest book, A Full Cup: Sir Thomas Lipton's Extraordinary Life and His Quest for America's Cup, is now available from Riverhead Books.

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About the Author:

Michael D'Antonio is the author of many acclaimed books, including Atomic Harvest, Tin Cup Dreams, Mosquito, The State Boys Rebellion, Hershey, and Forever Blue. His work has appeared in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Discover, and other publications. Among his many awards is the Pulitzer Prize, which he shared with a team of reporters for Newsday.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Preface

 

One - TWO O’MALLEYS

Two - A MAN ABOUT NEW YORK

Three - THE DODGER BUSINESS

Four - RICKEY, O’MALLEY, AND SMITH

Five - O’MALLEY’S DODGERS

Six - O’MALLEY RULES

Seven - CALIFORNIA CALLS

Eight - WOW! WOW! WOW!

Nine - LAST-DITCH STAND

Ten - O’MALLEY’S CHOICE

Eleven - THE BATTLE OF CHAVEZ RAVINE

Twelve - EL DORADO

 

Postscript

Acknowledgements

Selected Sources

Index

About the Author

ALSO BY MICHAEL D’ANTONIO

A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey: 1957—The Space Race Begins

 

Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life
of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams

 

The State Boys Rebellion
Tour ’72: Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Trevino—The Story of One Great Season
Mosquito: The Story of Man’s Deadliest Foe (with Andrew Spielman)
Tin Cup Dreams: A Long Shot Makes It on the PGA Tour
Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America’s Nuclear Arsenal
Heaven on Earth: Dispatches from America’s Spiritual Frontier
Fall from Grace: The Failed Crusade of the Christian Right

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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

 

Copyright © 2009 by Michael D’Antonio

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any
printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy
of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Published simultaneously in Canada

 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

D’Antonio, Michael.
Forever blue : the true story of Walter O’Malley, baseball’s most controversial owner, and
the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles / Michael D’Antonio.
p. cm.

eISBN : 978-1-101-02451-5

1. O’Malley, Walter F. (Walter Frank), 1903-1979. 2. Baseball team owners—United States—Biography.
3. Brooklyn Dodgers (Baseball team). 4. Los Angeles Dodgers (Baseball team). I. Title.
GV865.O63D
796.357’64092—dc22
[B]

 

 

While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

For Dodgers of every era,
and their fans, forever blue.

Preface

On the night when major-league baseball died in Brooklyn, fewer than seven thousand fans went to the old ballpark in Flatbush to pay their respects. Most sat in the lower level, behind home plate, and along the baselines. In the big empty sections of the grandstand a light autumn breeze blew paper cups and empty peanut bags down concrete aisles and against rows of old slatted chairs. On the field, players moved with the extra weight of knowing that this time there would be no “next year.” After many seasons of joy—in the face of Jackie Robinson, in the bellowing voice of Hilda Chester, and in the roar of standing-room-only crowds—Ebbets Field had become a desolate and unhappy place.

The Dodgers beat the Pirates 2-0. Organist Gladys Goodding played “Auld Lang Syne” as the grounds crew raked the infield and, out of habit, spread a tarp over the pitcher’s mound. Emmett Kelly, the sad-faced clown who had performed his act before Dodgers games throughout the season, would recall seeing many women—and a few men—crying as they left Ebbets Field for good.

Brooklyn had already entered an era of loss. The daily paper, the Eagle, had died in 1955, and the trolley cars had stopped running in 1956. Several big retail stores and theaters had closed, and young families were moving to the suburbs of Long Island. Now the great Dodgers baseball team was leaving and there was nothing anyone could do about it. For some the wound was so deep and ragged that the pain would never quite disappear. Almost fifty years later, in one of the last interviews he gave before his death, Dodger pitcher Clem Labine’s voice trembled as he recalled the day and asked, “Why did he do it?”

“He” was Walter O’Malley, the team’s owner, and what he did would go down in history as a betrayal equal, in some minds, to Benedict Arnold’s treason at West Point. At a time when people in Brooklyn were fighting to hold on to their optimism and identity, O’Malley uprooted the most important symbol of their plucky spirit and moved it to Los Angeles.

In the years since they moved west, the old Brooklyn Dodgers became the subject of more intense worship and hagiography than any ball club in history. The Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig were more worthy of awe and the Cubs have certainly earned the underdog love they enjoy every season. But Frank Sinatra sang of a ballpark in Brooklyn, not Chicago, and only the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s could inspire Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, which became one of the biggest-selling baseball books of all time.

Kahn’s elegy, published in 1972 and maintained in print ever since, was followed by an entire genre of Brooklyn Dodgers literature in the form of books, articles, and even academic papers. In many of these works, and more casual remembrances, O’Malley is portrayed as a villain. New York writer Jack Newfield famously called O’Malley one of the three worst human beings who ever lived. His colleague Pete Hamill, who has published at least twenty books, is known as much for his hatred of O’Malley as for anything else. When, in 2007, O’Malley was finally voted into the Hall of Fame, Hamill wrote “Never forgive, never forget” and declared that with his election the hall took all morality out of the honor of getting a plaque at Cooperstown.

But as much as Hamill might disagree, O’Malley actually deserved a spot in the hall. With his fateful decision to leave Brooklyn, he did more than anyone to make baseball a truly national game. And during his reign, the Dodgers became one of the greatest franchises in all of sport. From the day he moved to Los Angeles until he died in 1979, O’Malley’s team would be the best in the National League, winning three world championships and seven pennants and finishing second seven times. (In all of baseball, only the Yankees had a better record.) O’Malley also built the first truly modern stadium in America, a gracefully designed ballpark that remains, after nearly fifty years, one of the best places in the world to watch a game of any sort.

Although a few hard cases in Brooklyn would never forgive him, millions of fans in the Los Angeles area came to regard O’Malley, who didn’t need padding to play the role, as some kind of Santa Claus. They felt this way because he had given them the gift of elite-level baseball and affirmed their city’s status as “major league.” O’Malley became so popular in Los Angeles that on the fiftieth anniversary of the team’s arrival in the city, a five-foot-high bronze frieze of his image was installed at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Court of Honor. There he joined other sports figures—including Knute Rockne, Jackie Robinson, and Jesse Owens—deemed to have contributed to the “growth and glory” of the city.

 

 

 

THE ANIMUS And the affection heaped on O’Malley long after his death raises an obvious question: How could a sportsman be so hated in one place and so beloved in another? The Brooklyn/Los Angeles divide suggests part of the answer, but parochialism does not explain it all. It’s important to recall, too, that O’Malley was an imposing figure who wielded power over a popular institution and supervised many ambitious and headstrong individuals. Few people ever enjoyed more direct authority than the owner of a ball team in the days before free agency and the players’ union. This power allowed him to accomplish great things, but it also aroused suspicion, envy, and animosity.

Any attempt to explain O’Malley must also consider the gaps in the record of his life. He was not the type who would reflect aloud on his motivations or reveal his innermost thoughts. From the outside anyone could see that O’Malley was devoted to his family and that he thoroughly enjoyed his wealth, status, and the trappings of success. But while he lived, he avoided close analysis. This was especially true when it came to events surrounding his acquisition of the team and the move west. Once these struggles ended, he rarely spoke of them in public. He insisted on calling old rivals his friends and usually declined to defend himself against his critics.

Because he was so reticent, anyone depending on the public record would be challenged to understand O’Malley, or the moves he made, with any real certainty. Fortunately he left behind a vast archive of personal and business files that help fill in the picture. Made available by his surviving children, these papers became the documentary foundation for this book. They reveal the inside story of O’Malley’s rise from the son of a Tammany Hall pol to the boss of baseball and place certain historic events in a new light.

The O’Malley archive offers a new and more realistic perspective on the game’s great sage, Branch Rickey, and on the long, torturous political fight that preceded the team’s flight from Brooklyn. Beyond these issues, the O’Malley papers show how much he risked in building Dodger Stadium and that delays and rising costs brought him close to bankruptcy.

Short of having access to the man himself, the thoughts O’Malley expresses in his notes and letters, the diaries that chart his travels and contacts, and all the rest of the material in the archive make it possible to see the man more clearly than he has even been seen before. Add interviews with those who knew him, countless contemporary articles, and dozens of relevant books, and the portrait becomes even more reliable and distinct.

In the end, it’s up to anyone who would judge O’Malley to consider the evidence and to attempt to see the man in full. If, ultimately, you reach more than one conclusion, you’ll have something in common with many who knew him back when. He was not a simple person who would fit easily into a single category or simple definition. But then, what man or woman worthy of history’s consideration ever was?

One

TWO O’MALLEYS

On the last day of August 1921, a short and stocky man with wavy dark hair walked alone to a witness chair set behind a small wooden table in the ornate council chamber at New York City Hall. Despite the ninety-degree heat, thirty-nine-year-old Edwin O’Malley wore a formal suit and tie. To his right, Washington and Lafayette peered down from gilt-framed paintings. To his left, huge windows that flanked a plaster statue of Thomas Jefferson let bright cathedral light into the room. Behind him, the gallery was filled with a legion of friends and political allies.

O’Malley, who clenched a soggy unlit cigar between his teeth, paused for a moment to take some papers out of his briefcase and spread them on the table. He then sat down, and stared defiantly through pince-nez glasses—the kind that Teddy Roosevelt wore—at the latest in a long line of investigators and legislators who had tried to destroy the city’s legendary Tammany Hall political machine. O’Malley had spent weeks dodging the so-called Meyer Committee and charges that he and his department were guilty of graft and corruption. In this moment he seemed outnumbered and besieged. But if history was a reliable guide, he had nothing to fear.

Do-gooders had been trying to reform New York City since before Edwin O’Malley was born. The previous campaign had been conducted by an insider, Mayor John Purroy Mitchel. Aided by an ambitious political newcomer named Robert Moses, Mitchel had crusaded for a merit-based civil service. But like all the others before them, they had failed. John F. “Red Mike” Hylan, whom Moses called “the Bozo of Bushwick,” drove them out in the election of 1917 and Tammany roared back to life.

As Red Mike’s commissioner of public markets, O’Malley had come under scrutiny when the Meyer Committee focused on a city-run network of food warehouses. Noisy, dangerous, and infested with rats, these public markets housed dealers who were licensed to receive and distribute virtually everything anyone in New York ate or drank. The space controlled by the department’s men was precious, and according to a butcher who testified before the investigators, $450 paid to an inspector named George A. Winter was the going rate if you wanted to transfer permits when a business was sold. Another market man had said that O’Malley had pressured him to sell his building on Vesey Street to the New York Telephone Company, which planned a massive skyscraper for the spot. A fishmonger’s widow testified that she was threatened with eviction from the market if she didn’t pay $1,000.

For the butcher and the fishmonger’s widow, the hearings brought a moment of fame, but only the naïve would be shocked by their testimony. Generations of rule by political operators like G. W. Plunkitt—most famous for saying, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em”—had affirmed that the city ran on graft. Politicians retained power by doling out jobs to the working class and big favors to those with money or influence. Everyone knew how the game worked, and many admired the ingenuity of those who played it well.

During the Meyer investigation, O’Malley had maneuvered so well that the committee had agreed to let him appear on his own terms. This included allowing him to make an uninterrupted opening statement that would address every issue raised by his accusers. On the day he testified, O’Malley pressed for another advantage: immunity from prosecution for anything he might tell the committee. Here the men from Albany drew a line. O’Malley, who insisted that his accusers were backed by powerful men in the food industry, was duly outraged.

“Is that the last instruction from the...

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