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Which Way to Chavez Ravine? : The Portly Wizard of Baseball, Walter O'Malley Made the Pastime Truly National When He Brought the Dodgers West

June 27, 1993|JIM MURRAY | This article was adapted from "Jim Murray: An Autobiography," the Times sports columnist's latest book, to be published by Macmillan next month.

THE TIME IS JANUARY, 1957, THE PLACE, WILSHIRE BOULEVARD, ON A WARM WINTER DAY with the sun shining through the windows of the Automobile Club of Southern California as the man pauses at the counter.

This is a pleasant man with a full belly flopping over his out-of-fashion double-breasted suit. He is holding a cigar, which is stuck in a filterless white plastic holder, and an ash flops off onto his carelessly buttoned suit.

He is wearing a hat, which stamps him as an outlander in this land of perpetual sunshine. His eyes twinkle behind old-fashioned rimless glasses, without which he would resemble a benign, smiling Buddha.

His voice sounds like a rusty file being drawn across a corroded iron pipe, and several chins bobble when he opens his tiny, quizzical mouth to speak. "Pardon me, young man," rasps Walter O'Malley politely, "but can you tell me where Chavez Ravine is?"

In the little world of baseball, that question has to rank in historical importance with, say, George Washington sidling up to a Hessian guard and innocently inquiring how wide the Delaware was at Trenton--or Abraham Lincoln calling downstairs to ask Mary how to spell emancipation. I have often wondered if the clerk who unraveled the auto club map that day knew he was disclosing the future capital of baseball.

Walter O'Malley was the only 240-pound leprechaun I have ever known. He was as devious as they come. He always managed to look as if he had his own marked deck. He was half-Irish and half-German or, as someone once said, "half-oaf, half-elf."

He changed the face of baseball. He might have saved the game. He infused new energy, created new rivalries, brought a new audience, a new dynamism at a time when baseball was the Sick Man of Sport and losing its audiences in droves to pro football.

They have never forgiven O'Malley in New York. A lot of people who moved out of Brooklyn themselves were outraged when O'Malley followed suit in 1958. He occupied the same place in the hearts of New York writers as Benedict Arnold. "The Wizard of Ooze," he was called.

He had done what Americans always do when they get prosperous--moved to the suburbs. In his case, the suburbs were 3,000 miles away.

He was just following a trend. The population of California was about 8 million when I arrived in 1944. It was 32 million 45 years later. That is one of the great migrations in the history of mankind. O'Malley simply joined it. He followed his customers.

He was not forgiven because he had just presided over the most fabulously successful 10- year period any National League team had ever enjoyed. His Brooklyn Dodgers had won six pennants, been in the playoffs two other years. They had drawn more than a million customers a year. They had led the major leagues in net profit after taxes, $1,860,740 for the five-year period of 1952 to 1956.

The Dodgers were kind of America's Team. The romance of baseball being what it is, the entire nation took up the nickname "The Bums" and took the Dodgers to its heart, reserving for them the parental indulgence one has for foolish but harmless offspring. The fact that the Dodgers had brought up the first black player in the modern history of the major leagues added the vocal political liberals to the mix even though most of them didn't know a squeeze play from a pop fly.

But Branch Rickey, the Dodgers' president and general manager in Brooklyn, had done all of these things. Walter O'Malley was not a baseball man. He was a bottom-line man. He never went into a locker room in his life. He had come to the Dodgers as a caretaker for the company that held the mortgage on the club at the time when the club didn't even meet the interest.

O'Malley had actually tried to get New York to keep the club. The locale and character of Ebbets Field, the cracker-box firetrap that had been home of the Dodgers since 1913, had made going to a ballgame on a social level with going to a cockfight. O'Malley invited the city to condemn the downtown land for him. He would build the ballpark. O'Malley even proposed a domed stadium. He was years ahead of his time.

He only wanted to move a few city blocks. The city and state dragged their feet. They argued over the propriety of condemning land for a purely private enterprise. O'Malley got disgusted. He was a proud man, a stubborn man. When he threatened to move, they smirked. Move the Dodgers! He had to be kidding! He wasn't. He also took the Giants with him.

O'Malley didn't need the permission of the commissioner of baseball. O'Malley was the commissioner of baseball. In all but name. Come to think of it, he did more for the game than any commissioner who ever ran it.

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