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THE KING OF THE JUNGLE
Jack Mann
April 18, 1966
Walter O'Malley, owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, would like to make friends despite influencing people, but his elfin spirit is a prisoner of the steel-trap mind that makes him major league baseball's most successful owner. The Master of Chavez Ravine has his monument but can't escape his image
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April 18, 1966

The King Of The Jungle

Walter O'Malley, owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, would like to make friends despite influencing people, but his elfin spirit is a prisoner of the steel-trap mind that makes him major league baseball's most successful owner. The Master of Chavez Ravine has his monument but can't escape his image

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Strangely, Rickey's metamorphosis from avaricious old man to elder statesman began shortly after he applied a squeeze play to O'Malley when both were in the Brooklyn organization in the fall of 1950. There wasn't anything illegal about it or, from one point of view, anything unethical. It was exactly the sort of cute play that devious O'Malley might pull: bounded on the north by piracy and on the south by dirty pool, but in itself perfectly kosher. According to O'Malley, Rickey wanted to sell his 25% of the Dodgers because he had a nice offer to go to Pittsburgh and help John Galbreath with the reorganization of his pitiful Pirates. (The late Billy Meyer, then Pittsburgh manager, is reputed to have told his troops: "You guys could go on What's My Line? with your uniforms on and stump the panel.") Rickey said he did not want to go to Pittsburgh, but that was the kind of fib an O'Malley would tell. And Rickey wanted $1 million for his interest in the Dodgers.

"So he made a market," O'Malley said recently in his Vero Beach suite, with pictures on the walls of almost all the Dodgers' dignitaries, past and present, except Rickey. "It was the way he sold ballplayers. He'd have Branch Jr. go to the people and say, 'I think he'd give you Furillo, but you can't touch Walker.' "

In such a way was Outfielder Dixie Walker peddled to the eager Pirates in December 1947. Not only was "The People's Cherce" 37 years old, but he had that year announced his Alabaman option not to play on a team with Jackie Robinson. A number of Dodgers had shared this sentiment, but Walker was 37. So the market was made. Walker went to Pittsburgh, along with Pitchers Hal Gregg and Vic Lombardi, who had 18 big-league victories left in them. To the Dodgers came Preacher Roe, Billy Cox and Gene Mauch. To the Dodgers also came three (very nearly five) of the next six National League pennants. And to Rickey came Horseman Galbreath's undying admiration for his trading acumen.

" Rickey made a market," O'Malley said. "He got William Zeckendorf to bid $1,050,000 for his stock. He knew we didn't want Zeckendorf in the management, and he knew Mrs. Smith [widow of John Smith, president of Pfizer and. Cox, with whom O'Malley had bought his first piece of the nearly bankrupt Dodgers in 1943] and I had an option to meet whatever price he could get. It annoyed the hell out of me, because I'd gone on Rickey's note when he bought in."

There was, O'Malley said, only $200,000 in the bank, "not enough for spring training. The club had turned the corner under Larry MacPhail, and Rickey had improved it, but it wasn't the kind of property he said it was."

Divesting himself of his New York Subways Advertising Co. and his interests in J. P. Duffy and Co., building materials, and the Long Island Rail Road, O'Malley met the Zeckendorf bid. With Rickey's 25% now added to his own 25%, and with an option to buy 1% of Mrs. Smith's stock, O'Malley assumed control of the Brooklyn club and became president in a smiling ceremony that failed to mask the acrimonious maneuvering.

"I wrote two checks," O'Malley said. "One for a million, and one for $50,000. The $50,000 check came back endorsed by Rickey to Zeckendorf. I lost the money, but I had the satisfaction of showing it to Rickey. And I still have a photostatic copy."

The memory rankles, and part of O'Malley's often outspoken resentment of Rickey was jealousy of the latter's exalted place in baseball. "Funny thing," O'Malley said. "After that deal all the writers who had been knocking Rickey turned against me." A Celticly sensitive man with a firm belief that newspapers "make" public opinion, O'Malley yearns quietly for recognition of the fact that he isn't all bad. By 1957-58, when a towering majority of the press in the East was excoriating O'Malley for the betrayal of Brooklyn and a vociferous minority in the West was heaping maledictions on him for the attempted rape of Chavez Ravine, son Peter was a student at Penn and could read the papers even better than he could when he was 10.

"It made us sore as hell," Peter said recently, "because Dad had told us the real story. I kept after him to get somebody to write something to set the record straight. But he said no. He said the new stadium would be built eventually and that it would be a monument that would speak for itself."

( O'Malley weakened in this resolve at least once. During the 1957 season, the last in Brooklyn, The Saturday Evening Post decided it wanted a definitive story on the Dodger situation and asked for one from the late Tom Meany, who had begun covering the Dodgers in the early 1920s when O'Malley was living in his native Bronx and rooting for a young Giant named Bill Terry. "I opened all the correspondence files and gave him all the records," O'Malley says. "He wrote it and he got paid. But they didn't publish it. I guess it wasn't sexy.")

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