Until Monday, baseball had been admirably reluctant to admit former Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley — the man who amputated part of Brooklyn’s soul by taking Dem Bums to Los Angeles in 1957 — into its Hall of Fame.
O’Malley, of course, was once an immensely hated figure in these parts. According to the well-known anecdote, during the 1960s New York journalists Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield decided to make separate lists of the 10 worst human beings in history. When the lists were compared, the top three were the same: Hitler, Stalin and Walter O’Malley.
Today, some of the hard feelings have softened. Some of us even entertain revisionist theories that assign responsibility for the Dodgers’ loss to Mayor Wagner or Robert Moses.
Before we decide if having to look at a bronze version of O’Malley’s jowly face every time we drive the kids up to Cooperstown is an unforgivable insult to Brooklyn or no big deal, let’s look at the case made by his supporters:
• O’Malley is the owner who brought the major leagues to the West Coast and made America’s pastime truly national.
• He had something to do with the Dodgers’ integrating baseball by signing Jackie Robinson.
• He made a lot of money in Los Angeles and the Dodgers won a lot of pennants there.
• He did not want to move the Dodgers out of Brooklyn. He had to, because rascally politicians would not help him build a new park to replace Ebbets Field.
And now, the facts: The second point is easily dismissed. O’Malley was a powerless minority owner when Dodgers president Branch Rickey — his archenemy — signed Robinson and broke the National League’s color line in 1947.
Ditto the third point; the Brooks were also a very good team that won a lot of pennants and made a lot of money before O’Malley took them to La La land.
As to the first and last points, you must remember that in the 1950s the owners, as they do now, enjoyed a legal monopoly that allowed them to divvy up the nation’s baseball markets amongst themselves. This has almost guaranteed their profitability, as it would for any company with a popular product that faced virtually no competition.
Dipping into their own deep pockets, an earlier generation of baseball magnates had built most of the existing major league baseball parks, including Tiger Stadium, Forbes Field, Fenway Park and Ebbets Field. From the 1950s through the 1970s, these parks became too small, run-down, obsolete.
At the same time, America’s population center was moving toward the south and west, away from the northeastern quadrant, where all of baseball’s major league teams were located. The wily owners hit upon the idea of extorting local governments to build them brand-new ballparks by threatening to relocate to a neglected market such as L.A., Atlanta, or San Francisco.
Some, like the Braves, did in fact move, and there were enough cities left, including all those sunny, tantalizing Pacific Coast League towns, that lots of other owners could get into the act.
The result was that local taxpayers handed rich baseball owners free new ballparks in Baltimore, Milwaukee, New York, Kansas City, Philadelphia and almost everywhere else. The “give me a free park or I’ll move” game was played until a decade or so ago, when baseball finally used up its supply of unexploited markets. The result? Presto, change-o, major league clubs from the Brewers to the Mets to the Yankees are once again building ballparks with their own money.
The reason O’Malley lost the game and moved to California was simply this: because Brooklyn was not an independent city and had no control over its own purse strings, it could not be blackmailed into building, or subsidizing the land for, a new ballpark for the Dodgers. As much as the people of Brooklyn might have wanted their tax dollars to go for such a purpose, the city’s all-powerful Board of Estimate felt no particular pressure to help pay for a facility that would be used almost exclusively by one of the five boroughs.
Look for Part II of Tom Gilbert’s story next week and find out whether O’Malley could have actually stayed in Brooklyn and whether his admission to Cooperstown is an insult to Brooklyn.
Gilbert is a writer and baseball historian who lives in Greenpoint.