The Wrong Man (cont.)
What came next would remain in dispute, but Brown claimed that Newcombe punched him in the stomach. Thanks to an alert police officer, the incident didn't escalate, yet it made the papers. Newcombe started Game 7 only to be knocked out in the fourth, and the Dodgers lost 9-0. The unhappy pitcher disappeared for 24 hours but made it to the airport for a team flight to Los Angeles, from where the Dodgers would go on to Hawaii and then to an exhibition tour of Japan.
During the overnight layover in L.A., O'Malley went to a morning meeting at the coffee shop of the Statler Hotel. The Dodgers were scheduled to depart for Japan at 12:30 p.m., and as the hour approached, their road secretary, Dick Walsh, went to check on his boss. He found him with Kenneth Hahn, a Los Angeles County supervisor. "Kenny Hahn was very, very aggressively selling the prospect of the Dodgers moving to Los Angeles," Walsh would recall decades later. O'Malley listened as Hahn said that a stadium could be built in a place called Chavez Ravine. As Walsh waited anxiously for his boss to wrap up the meeting, he got the impression that O'Malley, born and bred on the East Coast, wasn't enthusiastic about a move west. At the end of the meeting Hahn told local reporters that the Dodgers owner considered Los Angeles his second choice, behind moving to a new ballpark in Brooklyn.
The O'Malley returned home from Japan to discover that the stadium authority remained stalled. On Dec. 6, 1956, he went to his office and found a package that had been mailed from Japan. Inside was a set of plans for a new 70,000-seat multipurpose stadium in Tokyo that could host baseball games. (The park would open 18 months later.) O'Malley thought about his own decadelong effort to replace Ebbets Field and, in a letter found among the documents recently disclosed by the O'Malley family, wrote to New York City's chief lawyer, Peter Campbell Brown:
On my return I was sorry to find that little or no substantial progress has been made of the redevelopment of the area.... If there is anything I can do without muddying the waters and adding to the confusion, let me know.
As O'Malley looked for some way to advance his stadium proposal, Moses was moving decisively against him. On Dec. 7 Moses wrote to the mayor to suggest that the Brooklyn commission's responsibilities be cut. The diminished organization would not need even "a bit of staff," Moses advised. Nor would it need the $278,000 that had been requested to pay for engineers, surveys and other expenses. Instead Moses suggested just $25,000 for a consultant. The mayor went along with him.
Informed of this by a member of the authority, O'Malley turned toward his Plan B. Around New Year's he quietly departed for the West Coast. There he would be met by a local newspaperman who was such an avid booster of his fair city and of the national pastime that he could have stepped right out of Sinclair Lewis's Main Street.
Vincent X. Flaherty, a columnist for the Los Angeles Examiner, wore double-breasted suits with gaudy ties and wrote with his fedora perched on his head. Not content to merely report the news, he wanted to make it -- by helping to bring big league baseball to Los Angeles. He began this effort in the late 1940s, working as an unpaid staff member for the self-appointed Los Angeles Citizens' Committee for Major League Baseball, which included billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes, hotelier Conrad Hilton and MGM boss Louis B. Mayer.
Year after year Flaherty had written long letters to O'Malley and trekked to New York to pitch him on the riches that awaited him in Los Angeles, and year after year O'Malley had said no. Then, in January 1957, O'Malley showed up in Los Angeles and Flaherty became his chauffeur, tour guide and cultural interpreter. Flaherty arranged for an inspection of Chavez Ravine, a plot of a few hundred acres near downtown L.A. Save for a few dozen remaining residents in small wood-frame buildings, the land was vacant. O'Malley found it easy to imagine a stadium with thousands of parking spots on the site, which was accessible from four freeways that could bring fans from every direction. Here was the perfect place to build a ballpark for a city that hungered for the game and had never heard of Robert Moses.
If the Dodgers decamped, The New York Times Magazine had asked in a headline a year earlier, WOULD IT STILL BE BROOKLYN? In the text the great sportswriter John Lardner noted that some New Yorkers didn't consider the team a civic asset worth saving, but he argued that the Dodgers represented the spirit of the borough, and "we will do well to give them the home they need. In lean years and rich they will honor it, and us."
The choice was clear, and yet the city and Moses stalled. When O'Malley returned from California, he told City Councilman Joseph Sharkey that the Brooklyn stadium was "dying a slow death." Nevertheless he promised to raise between $4 million and $5 million to invest in sports center authority bonds and to find other investors to buy up the remaining $25 million of the issue. O'Malley also agreed to pay rent of $500,000 per season -- more than any other major league team was paying at the time -- if the new stadium were government-owned. In exchange he asked to see "definitive positive progress by July 1."
The authority's engineering consultant, Jack Madigan, who was allied with Moses, responded by asking if O'Malley would pay $1.5 million more to cover the cost of issuing additional bonds for the stadium and other parts of the redevelopment scheme. Having sold most of the team's assets to raise cash, O'Malley would have been hard-pressed to come up with another $1.5 million. But even if he could, the signals sent by Moses, Madigan and Wagner -- none of whom responded when O'Malley called them -- were clear. The stadium, O'Malley wrote to a friend, was receiving "the kiss of death."
So what did O'Malley do? He hired a clown.
To "ease tension at Ebbets Field," he said, the owner signed Emmett Kelly to perform before and after games during the 1957 season. Kelly's character, Weary Willie, looked very much like the famous Brooklyn Bum drawn by cartoonist Willard Mullin. The difference was that Kelly's character never smiled. "I'm a misfit, a reject," he explained. He made people laugh at their predicaments, which was perfect for Brooklyn.
Kelly made his debut at the Dodgers' spring training camp in Vero Beach, Fla. Except for the clown's presence, life at the camp seemed to follow its usual routine. The O'Malley presided over poker games and put on his annual St. Patrick's Day bash. Beat writers reported on the team's condition, noting the progress of the creaky old-timers and the promise of young pitchers such as Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax.
But as the writers followed the team's preparations for the season, they also covered the drama surrounding the Dodgers' search for a new home. The first big development involved O'Malley and Chicago Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley, who swapped two minor league clubs. Wrigley got the Dodgers' Texas League franchise in Fort Worth; O'Malley got the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League and their little stadium, Wrigley Field. The next big news was the arrival of a platoon of officials from Los Angeles who said they were on a mission called Operation O'Malley. Flaherty told the Dodgers owner, "You can call your shots, and Los Angeles will give you damn near anything."
The L.A. entourage was led by a gangly fellow with a big-toothed smile and thick black-frame glasses. Mayor Norris Poulson was, in Flaherty's estimation, "a self-glorified boob," yet he had risen steadily from the state assembly to the U.S. Congress and finally to the mayor's office. In his pursuit of major league baseball Poulson had joined with Hahn and the young city councilwoman Rosalind Wyman to make a deal with officials in San Francisco, who also wanted a big league team: San Francisco could go after the New York Giants, whose owner, Horace Stoneham, was secretly planning to leave Manhattan, and Los Angeles would court O'Malley. As San Francisco mayor George Christopher told Poulson, "We consider this practically a joint venture and know that if you are successful, San Francisco also will eventually receive major league baseball."