The Wrong Man
From the moment their beloved Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, Brooklyn's jilted fans never forgave the team's owner, Walter O'Malley. Problem is: O'Malley didn't want to go. The culprit was someone else
This article is adapted from Forever Blue by Michael D'Antonio, to be published by Riverhead Books. © 2009 by Michael D'Antonio.
On a cool, gray October morning in 1957, a twin-prop Convair 440 hummed down the runway at New York's LaGuardia Airport and lifted off the ground. Travelers glancing at the plane through the terminal windows might have noticed that a sign painter had written LOS ANGELES on the fuselage where, only days before, the markings had read BROOKLYN beside the nickname of the team that owned the aircraft, the world-famous Dodgers.
As it rose and pierced the low-hanging clouds, the Convair carried team owner Walter O'Malley and about 30 other people (Dodgers executives, broadcasters, secretaries) who were moving west with him. O'Malley, 54, was leaving behind his lifelong hometown and more than 70 years of Brooklyn baseball history. He took with him high hopes of building a Dodgers dynasty in Los Angeles -- and a few regrets.
O'Malley's main disappointment was having lost his battle to build a new stadium in Brooklyn. During his lifetime the whole truth about this failure, and about the Dodgers' move west, would never be told. Thanks in large measure to New York City newspaper writers such as Pete Hamill, Jack Newfield and Dick Young, O'Malley would be perceived as a greedy traitor who had yanked the very soul out of New York's most populous borough.
For more than half a century the Dodgers' move would linger in the public mind as an outrage almost without equal in sport. Whenever and wherever an owner let down fans, O'Malley's name would be invoked. (It didn't help that the cigar-chomping New Yorker looked and sounded like a slippery old pol.) But as much as this stung him, O'Malley never told his side of the story in any detail. To do so would have violated his personal code: A real man didn't explain himself. And so O'Malley took to his grave exculpating details about the most significant and traumatic franchise shift in baseball history.
Those details were secreted in private files stored away after O'Malley died, in 1979. Recently opened by his heirs, this archive sheds new light on what only a small group of people understood at the time of the team's transfer: As he sought help to secure land for a new stadium, O'Malley had been drawn into a political game that was rigged against him. He had wanted to build the iconic ballpark in Brooklyn. Instead, he was maneuvered into the role of baseball's Benedict Arnold. How this occurred is a case study in the power of the most imperious bureaucrat in the history of urban America: Robert Moses.
Walter O'Malley began his pursuit of a new stadium the moment he became a part owner of the Dodgers, in 1944. The team's home park, Ebbets Field, was a quirky, ornate little ballyard that seated a mere 32,000 fans and was in a state of elegant decay. Fans entered through a rotunda where they bought tickets at gilded booths lighted by a chandelier with globes shaped like baseballs hanging from 12 arms fashioned to look like bats. In the grandstand the aisles were narrow and the battered seats were tight. On the field the wall in right deflected hits at crazy angles, turning singles into doubles. In left a balcony that overhung the field grabbed dying line drives.
Ebbets was where outfielder Hack Wilson was hit in the head by a fly ball as he argued with a heckler and slugger Babe Herman set his own pants on fire by tucking a lit cigar in his pocket. The eccentricity wasn't limited to the players. In the stands Hilda Chester banged her frying pan, members of the Dodgers Sym-Phony Band tweaked the umps with their sour rendition of Three Blind Mice, and Mrs. Izaak Walton Killam, one of the richest women in the world, took her picnic lunch in a field box with the aid of her white-gloved butler.
All of them helped make Ebbets a garden of peculiar delights. But the place had an ugly side, too. On hot summer days the restrooms became unbearably pungent, and beer-soaked fans could turn violent, starting fistfights, throwing objects at players and even assaulting an umpire. Just as bad were the moments when the Dodgers themselves went too far. In June 1945 Leo Durocher allegedly lured a loudmouth from the stands into a private room under the seats and broke his jaw. Thanks to the twin mystiques of baseball and Brooklyn, the manager had nothing to fear from the law. At the Lip's trial for second-degree assault 10 months later, 200 spectators erupted in cheers when jury foreman Hyman Shapiro uttered the words, "Not guilty."
With such heartfelt support, the Dodgers could have bumped along at scruffy Ebbets for decades to come, but O'Malley had greater ambitions. He wanted a championship team to match New York's perennial World Series contenders, the Yankees. To get it, he needed to increase revenues, and he was certain this would require a new, larger stadium with plenty of parking to accommodate families that were fleeing Brooklyn for the suburbs. Once O'Malley assumed full control of the team, in 1950, the new ballpark became his El Dorado, if not his white whale.
The owner planned a graceful 50,000-seat stadium that would take its place among the city's most famous landmarks. Before family-friendly became a cliché of sports venues, O'Malley envisioned spotless grandstands with perfect sight lines and abundant amenities, including more restrooms and food options. A mass-transit hub would serve city residents, and the parking lot would have room for every suburbanite's car. With this plan in hand the owner waged a public-relations campaign that yielded big, favorable stories in New York-area papers and a spread in Collier's magazine. He then turned to powerful friends in politics for leverage with the municipal government. No one could assemble the land for such a big project without the city's aid.