The patroons of baseball, a few billion dollars' worth of business pour le sport acumen, milled around the lobby of the Dearborn ( Mich.) Inn on a morning last July. Within moments they would assemble in plenary, secret session in a back room to consider the election of a commissioner who would commission wisely but not too well.
"We'd better get in there," one captain of the industry said. "I think the meeting's begun already."
"Not yet it hasn't," said another owner, who might be ranked lieutenant colonel. " O'Malley's still out here."
The colonel was not making a joke, and nobody laughed. It is not only American folklore but an article of faith among brother owners well-heeled enough to buy him out that Walter Francis O'Malley, president and two-thirds owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, runs baseball.
"If I run baseball," O'Malley said in his tiny office in the old Navy barracks at Vero Beach, Fla. one day last month, after informing the switchboard operator that Mr. Donald Grant, chairman of the board of the New York Mets, would have to call back later, "how come so many things have been passed in the past few years that I've been violently opposed to? Expansion, for one. The free-agent draft, for another. And I didn't even nominate anybody to be commissioner."
Like almost all of the ponderous legends built up around O'Malley in the 15 years since he took up the Dodger reins in Brooklyn, it is only partly true that he "runs" the game. It was also only partly true that Sherman Adams "ran" the government for a few years. Sherm didn't get everything he wanted either, but it was generally regarded as prudent to ask what he thought about things. It is a law of political physics that a take-charge guy will always move into a vacuum at the top, and O'Malley receives many more phone calls from baseball owners than General Eckert does.
Certainly, no single owner has ever enjoyed—and O'Malley enjoys it, make no mistake—a more prestigious and influential position. His organization makes more money than any of his lodge brothers (or O'Malley, for that matter) thought feasible a decade ago. He owns the most attractive, efficient establishment ever dedicated to the playing of baseball, the parking of cars and the vending of hot dogs, beer and tin horns, and the benevolent southern California sky is his dome. (Even if the Angelenos keep storming his gates at the rate of 31,000 per game, O'Malley won't actually own the place until about 1977, but it's a nice kind of hock to be in. "Money is one of the cheapest things you can buy," he points out. "The interest is tax-deductible.") Dodger Stadium was the first baseball park built with private capital since Yankee Stadium in 1922, if you can forget the controversial beneficence of several levels of government that got it off the drawing board. ( O'Malley can forget it. "They keep calling it a giveaway," he says. "That property cost $3 million.")
Above all, it was O'Malley who tapped the Eldorado of the West at a time when baseball needed a transfusion of interest. After the game had had a brief, predictable flush of prosperity in the immediate postwar years, baseball fans were beginning to discover more rewarding forms of recreation than sitting through a double-header on Edwardian wooden seats in a dingy, outmoded stadium—almost invariably in the "wrong" part of town—and after the game walking to a car parked 15 blocks away. While O'Malley's radical exodus from Brooklyn to Los Angeles was motivated by self-interest, it enlightened public spirits—if not yet private capital—to the fact that baseball, like the cornflakes industry, was going to have to package its product. Caught in a pincers movement between football on one flank and the winter sports on the other, and with racing "seasons" being stretched from snow to snow, the National Pastime would have to discard its arrogant presumptions and compete, undignified as that might seem. The owners were going to have to make it easier for the fan to get to a baseball game and more comfortable for him to watch after he got there, or he wasn't going to show up. He, the fan, had warned them. (Dreary little Ebbets Field had bad seats only behind the poles, but there were barely 700 parking spaces for 32,111 seats; attendance had slipped from 1,633,747 in the pennant year of 1949 to 1,213,562 in the pennant year of 1956.)
Beyond the new ball parks built for "new" franchises, it must be noted that modern stadiums have risen in Washington and tradition-steeped St. Louis, that plans are in the works in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and Cincinnati and that even the unmanageables of Boston politics may yet pour concrete. And—oh, irony!—an optimist who had lived his life in New York might have assumed there would have been a Shea Stadium without the unthinkable trauma of the departure of the Dodgers and Giants. A realist—an O'Malley, for instance—would not have.
These changes, for whatever venal reasons and by however indirect an effect, O'Malley hath wrought. He has re-woven the texture of baseball and the attitudes of its entrepreneurs as much in 15 years as the late Branch Rickey, his predecessor as head of the Dodgers, did in 50. Yet it is highly unlikely O'Malley will ever enjoy the reverence accorded Rickey in his last 10 years by journalists who had chronicled his penuriousness for 20 years before that. Walter O'Malley's only son, Peter, is 27 now and general manager of the Spokane farm team. When he was 10 he was startled and puzzled by the audacity of New York sportswriters in calling Dad's boss "El Cheapo." Peter is too young to remember the calumny of the 1930s, when Rickey was running the Cardinals' "Chain Gang."