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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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Using the time-tested Tammany techniques so well known to any New York lawyer who paid attention, O'Malley prevailed at length over his Los Angeles opposition, got his ravine and built his monument. No sports edifice in memory has shown such correspondence between the architect's visionary rendering and the fait accompli of the aerial photographs, which is perhaps an evidence of O'Malley's perception as "a half-caste engineer." But when he stepped back to admire his work it became, alas, another extension of his image—it was O'Malley's gold mine, O'Malley's "steal." It was precisely the wrong kind of image for a man who likes, almost desperately, to be liked. Being liked and making big money in the jungle of free enterprise, baseball style, are almost mutually exclusive, but O'Malley wanted both. He needs both. But the image is as monolithic as the monument.

There he sits, behind his desk, the long cigar in the plastic holder poised like a dart. The tailored suit minimizes the considerable paunch. A gilded 1903 silver dollar clasps the string tie just below his third chin. The thick brown hair, gray only near the ears, is combed straight back. Smooth, sleek. The eyes narrow only slightly behind the glasses, and the mouth makes a thin smile. He has aces wired and you have no pair showing. He purrs in a low register, like the last lion he shot in Bechuanaland. He'd like to do business with you, really, but he doesn't see how he could. Those damned taxes may make a Republican of him yet. But maybe we can work something out.

When the King of the Jungle stands up to show you the door, he is a real Walter O'Malley—the one the New York press embellished if it did not invent. To anyone who grew up as a Dodger or Giant fan in New York, the exodus hit with the cement-in-the-stomach impact of the day when the first-grade teacher decided it was time to put an end to that Santa Claus nonsense. For such villainy there had to be a villain. Horace Stoneham had moved his Giants, who had had great dignity years before the Dodgers even became funny, but would you believe Horace Stoneham as a villain? O'Malley was from Central Casting. The Dodgers haven't bothered retiring uniform numbers like 39 ( Roy Campanella) and 1 ( Pee Wee Reese) and 42 ( Jackie Robinson), because Angelenos think Zack Wheat is a cereal. But Angelenos dig Central Casting, and they bought the image, despite its made-in-New York label. New York Cartoonist Willard Mullin put a beret and dark glasses on the image, and now he's our villain, baby. We stole that from New York, too.

Transplanted 3,000 miles, the image has grown in direct proportion to O'Malley's success. He can never have it both ways. Yet, undeniably, there is substance to the image, and O'Malley has helped to build it. If he does not keep a tight control on players' salaries as Rickey did—perhaps because Rickey did?—his rewards to auxiliary personnel are not lavish. "I am conservative only about money," O'Malley says, and that is supposed to be a bon mot. "I put it this way," said General Manager E. J. (Buzzie) Bavasi when asked if he considered O'Malley generous. "He wants value received for his dollar." And value received does not necessarily mean another dollar. There was the time in Brooklyn when a staff member, feeling his job had been well done, anticipated a raise from his modest stipend. "How old are you?" O'Malley asked, his arm around the man's shoulder as they looked out the window into Montague Street. "Forty-six," the staff member said. "There are a lot of 46-year-old men down there," O'Malley said, pointing to the street, "who would like to have your job." End of interview.

O'Malley indisputably connives, manipulates and tampers with truth—sometimes for pragmatic reasons and sometimes, it seems, just for the hell of it. Late on the night of Sunday, Oct. 6, 1957, he sat at a table in the Schroeder Hotel in Milwaukee, having an informal, off-the-record discussion with newspapermen he had known in New York. O'Malley kept saying "if" about the move to Los Angeles until one reporter said: "Let's face it, Walter. You are going to move."

"Don't bet on it, boys," O'Malley said solemnly. "Don't bet on it." On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 8, an off day for travel during the World Series, when the newspapers were hurting for material, it was announced officially that the Dodgers were moving. The boys were left to believe that O'Malley's multimillion-dollar decision to change the baseball map had been made in less than 36 hours. They knew him better than that, but they're still trying to figure out why he gratuitously misled them.

"I think he's like my father," said Vin Scully, the world's best left-handed baseball announcer. Scully, who has the same New York-Irish background as O'Malley and who has been with the team since Walter took charge in 1950, reads people pretty well, so maybe by now he has a clue to the compulsive deviousness. "I think he'd be very happy if you'd give him a long piece of string, all tangled up in knots, so he could have fun untangling it. There are some people who have to have a problem to solve, even when there isn't one."

"Yes, there are still problems," O'Malley said happily. He was sitting in his Vero Beach office, under a framed montage of L.A. newspaper stories celebrating the opening of Dodger Stadium in 1962. One of them, by Columnist George T. Davis, carried this headline: O'MALLEY SURVIVED BRICKBATS, NOW PLAUDITS ARE IN ORDER. There is a similar verdict, by Columnist Jim Murray, on the wall of his suite, and O'Malley says he hasn't read them, which is the kind of thing he says. It is quite possible they were matted and framed by staff members, since flattery has gotten some people somewhere in O'Malley's organization. But he hasn't read them? Don't bet on it, boys.

"We have one big problem in Los Angeles," O'Malley said. "The taxes are $800,000. You know what they were in Brooklyn? They were $18,000. We have to find something to keep the stadium busy outside baseball season. We've been thinking of making it an ice-skating rink."

All right. Obviously there aren't enough rodeos to go around. And the Dodgers are losing their prime tenant this year when Gene Autry's Angels move to Anaheim. How about pro football? "We don't want it," O'Malley said. "First of all, it would be a new franchise, and that means a bad team. Besides, you have to be careful about who gets into the management around here. I've already spent five years trying to teach baseball to a singing cowboy. I'm damned if I want to spend five more teaching football to some comedian."

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