The Wrong Man (cont.)
Politics came naturally to O'Malley. His father, Edwin, a member of the Tammany Hall Democratic machine, had been commissioner of public markets for Mayor John (Red Mike) Hylan in the early 1920s. Edwin had been briefly famous for tying up a state inquiry into graft in his department with a filibuster that drove one exasperated prosecutor to ask, "Are you electrically wound up?" Despite ample evidence against him and his associates, the elder O'Malley kept his job and stayed out of jail.
Walter O'Malley studied law at Columbia and Fordham, and later, as a public works contractor and Dodgers team lawyer, he connected with Brooklyn's political elite and became a constant presence at the clubs and social events that brought powerful men together. With his slicked-back hair, ever-present cigar and gravelly Noo Yawk voice, he was a Damon Runyon character come to life. No one was better company, especially at an old-fashioned "beefsteak," where hundreds of otherwise civilized men sat at long tables and devoured platters of buttered sirloin with their bare hands. He was a masculine force of nature whom people came to call simply The O'Malley.
If Brooklyn had held on to its autonomy instead of becoming part of New York City in 1898, The O'Malley's connections would have guaranteed him his dream ballpark. Instead, his friendships brought him only to the door of Robert Moses, the most powerful unelected official ever to serve in a U.S. city. Educated at Yale, Oxford and Columbia, Moses began his government career in the 1910s as a reformer trying to rid the city of patronage politics. After failing to do so, he transformed himself into the ultimate power broker. Through patrons such as New York governor Al Smith and New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Moses was appointed to numerous state and municipal positions -- he once held 12 simultaneously -- including New York City parks commissioner, head of the State Parks Council, head of the State Power Commission and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. With endless ambition and more self-regard than Caesar, he gained control over vast sums of money for building everything from highways to high-rises. Over five decades mayors and governors came and went, but Moses endured, and through favors, contracts and patronage he grew ever more powerful. By mid-century if he wanted something built in New York City, it got built. If he didn't want it, he stopped it.
When it came to Brooklyn, Moses spoke condescendingly of its working-class residents, once declaring that their "disposition depends on the standing of a [baseball] team." But he was sensitive enough to public opinion to pretend to care about the fate of the Dodgers. He read O'Malley's letters and listened to his arguments for putting a new ballpark in a forlorn section of the Fort Greene district where Flatbush and Atlantic avenues meet.
The area was dominated by a municipally run meat market, a sprawling, rat-infested abattoir where blood ran in the gutters. Moses had already declared the area blighted and eligible for a federal program that would clear the land. But he had quietly promised the territory to friendly developers, including the apartment king Fred Trump. Moses had also picked his own spot for a new municipal baseball park, and it was not in Brooklyn but in Flushing Meadows in Queens. A stadium there was part of Moses's grand vision for the development of Greater New York, and he wasn't going to let O'Malley preempt him. As early as April 1954 Moses privately directed his aides to give O'Malley the brush-off. Two years later he would remind them of his stand against the Brooklyn stadium but remain publicly noncommittal because, as he said in a memo to his staff, "it is necessary to show that our opposition is based on something other than prejudice."
Unaware that Moses would never budge, O'Malley pressed his case with politicians, business leaders and the press. He also pushed for performance on the field that would bind the Dodgers even more tightly to Brooklyn. The team continued its color-blind policy, begun by Branch Rickey with Jackie Robinson in 1947, of bringing the best players to the roster. In 1955, as the Dodgers often fielded a lineup with a black majority, the impossible happened: The team won its first World Series, defeating the hated Yankees. After winning Game 7 in the Bronx, Dodgers lefthander Johnny Podres was so overwhelmed that he couldn't say much more than, "Wow! Wow! Wow!" In Brooklyn people took to the streets waving pennants and banging pots and pans.
Flush with victory, O'Malley made an even bigger push for a stadium. He sent a box of autographed baseballs to Governor W. Averell Harriman (who handed them out as gifts) and arranged to have a model of the new ballpark displayed for people to inspect at the Williamsburg Savings Bank, on Flatbush Avenue near the proposed stadium site. City officials responded by creating the Brooklyn Sports Center Authority, a commission charged with studying and possibly leading the redevelopment of the 500-acre area with new housing, parking garages and O'Malley's ball field. Moses acted as if he supported the idea, and O'Malley, going all-in with his bet, sold Ebbets Field to a developer.
The sale, which helped O'Malley build a construction war chest, allowed the team to lease Ebbets for five more years while the new park was built. It also created a hard deadline that would force an end to the political game. If Moses and other officials were serious about keeping the Dodgers, they had to settle the stadium issue.
They weren't serious.
Months passed, and Mayor Robert Wagner failed to appoint anyone to serve on the Brooklyn Sports Center Authority. According to the press, several candidates declined because they suspected Moses was secretly maneuvering against the stadium. Wagner eventually found three men willing to serve, but without funds, office space and staff they made no progress. As the summer of 1956 turned to fall, the Dodgers again won the pennant. The World Series rematch with the Yankees would be remembered for Don Larsen's perfect game and an only-in-Brooklyn event that occurred off the field.
It happened in the middle of Game 2, when the Dodgers' big righthander, Don Newcombe, departed Ebbets Field after getting shelled in the second inning. A parking-lot attendant named Michael Brown spied the pitcher, who should have been back in the stadium with his teammates. "What's the matter, Newk?" Brown called out. "A little competition too much?"