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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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"We had already decided to buy a Convair 440," O'Malley says. "Going out to Los Angeles to see it just gave us an excuse to look at the property. But we couldn't find the damned place, and we couldn't ask anybody because you know what would have happened."

(Something like what happened later, in September 1957, when Nelson Rockefeller, not yet Governor of New York, came tardily and ostentatiously to the rescue with an offer to help the Dodgers finance purchase of the downtown Brooklyn property. The prices skyrocketed. The matter might have been handled more discreetly and the Dodgers might have stayed in Brooklyn had O'Malley not been stalking elk near Rawlins, Wyo., thereafter known as The Crossroads of the World. In Rawlins he just happened to bump into Harold C. McClellan, the former Assistant Secretary of Commerce, who was negotiating Los Angeles' end of the deal, and that's the sort of thing Walter O'Malley expects you to believe.)

With the help of a map from a gas station, O'Malley finally found Chavez Ravine. While Captain Praeger was estimating that seven million tons of earth would have to be shoved around, O'Malley stood like Balboa surveying the Pacific Ocean and beheld an island paradise: a body of parking spaces completely surrounded by freeways. That was the beginning of the end of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

But it was only the beginning of the end. O'Malley had scorned Flushing Meadow, the Shea Stadium site ("I was wrong as hell about that," he says now), but he would have stayed if they'd given him the property he wanted in Brooklyn. Norris Poulson, mayor of Los Angeles at the time, so deposes, and Norrie is too uncomplicated to fabricate such a tale. In a silly ceremony in San Francisco before the first big-league game ever played on the West Coast, Poulson hit San Francisco Mayor George Christopher's pitch about four feet and ran to third base. When they reversed roles for the opener in Los Angeles, Christopher hit Poulson's delivery about as far. But he ran to first, proving again that San Franciscans are sophisticated.

"Sophisticated" is O'Malley's favorite positive word; for the negative he likes "naughty." In the 1930s, doing well by mopping up after busted mortgage companies, he ran a "pretty sophisticated" law firm. To Bronx Borough President James Lyons, in whose purlieu the Yankees play, it would have been "naughty" for the city to help the Dodgers build a new stadium. It was also naughty for O'Malley's grandfather to help organize the first mailmen's union, and for this he was exiled to San Francisco. But you can't take the Brooklyn out of the boy; he returned.

O'Malley has one particularly naughty habit. Whether he is inviting you to play nine holes or asking 50 guests to hop on the Dodgers' Electra for an afternoon of frolic in Nassau, he wants people to come out and play with him. But the elfin spirit is never completely divorced from the steel-trap mind, and he wants to win when he plays. To make sure he wins, he always has a little edge going for him. Al Campanis, the Dodgers' superscout, is one of O'Malley's favorite pigeons.

On the way to Japan, O'Malley told Campanis about the cormorants, the birds Orientals use to do their fishing. They put a ring around their necks, see, but when they've caught 10 fish you have to take the ring off and let them eat one or they'll go on strike. Not only that, but the cormorants go into the water in a sort of batting order, and if anyone goes out of turn they go on strike. No, I'm telling you the truth. Campanis put his money where his doubt was and it cost him 10,000 yen ($28 at the time).

Then there was the way the Japanese tenderize beef: before the slaughter. They massage the steers, sometimes beat them with bamboo sticks, for several days before they kill them. "Darnedest thing you ever saw," Scully recalls. "On the train to Sendai, or someplace, I looked out the window and there were these two women, massaging a cow." And across the aisle there was Campanis, digging for another 10,000 yen.

But when Campanis got back to L.A. he still had one bet going for him. There sure as hell wasn't any such thing as square bamboo, and O'Malley hadn't been able to show him any in Japan. That's one I win, Campanis thought as he attacked his dinner in a Polynesian restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard. Then a strange awareness came over Campanis. He was dining in the midst of a veritable jungle of square bamboo. Yes, sir, the waiter said. When the bamboo shoot is tiny they put this square metal tube over it, so when it grows—10,000 more yen.

"He has all these obscure facts in his head," Campanis says, "and he tells you he'll bet either way. But if you guess the right way the bet is off. He also comes up with some phony ones, so you can never be sure.

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