I never saw Walter O'Malley in a locker room. I played poker with him, drank Irish whiskey with him on St. Patrick's Day, but never saw him on the field or in a dugout. He never fancied himself an expert on the grand old game. He hired people who were.
He himself provided the environment--and the money. The skeptics said when he built Dodger Stadium, it would just be a flimsy facade that would soon come down and be replaced with the skyscrapers of commerce, hotels, maybe even casinos.
Dodger Stadium is a ballpark. Period. It is as clean and wholesome today as it was on opening day in '62. I know. I was there.
In a funny way, it was the day when L.A. was certified as a major player in the complex of American cities--no longer just the place where Charlie Chaplin waved his cane, Pauline had her perils, and the cowboys and Indians chased each other down Gower Gulch while a director shouted "Action!" No longer just Flicker City. Goodbye Tinseltown.
The stands were powder-blue and filled. The sun was high and hot. The Cincinnati Reds were the opposition and we had Koufax and Drysdale and Maury Wills. Pennants waved, Wally Post hit a mammoth home run and Vin Scully explained it all to us.
O'Malley had brought it off. The Dodgers had found a real home. We were big league.
When the O'Malley family patriarch, Walter, bought into the Dodgers in the early 1940s, he was hardly a baseball man and the Dodgers were hardly the icons of baseball they were to become.
In fact, they were at times the laughingstock of the game, identified by an irreverent press as the "Flatbush Follies" and "Dem Bums," a team so eccentric on the field that once when a fan called down to an associate outside the park, "The Dodgers have three men on base," the cynical retort was, "Which base?"
O'Malley at the time was general counsel to the Brooklyn Trust Co., which was the repository of 50% of the team stock. O'Malley's job was to try to improve its value. The Dodgers had a ratty, rundown relic of a ballpark with 32,000 seats, no major local newspaper and the sad happenstance of trying to sell tickets in a town that also had the New York Yankees and New York Giants.
"The trust company had a sick dog on its hands with that ballclub," O'Malley was to say.
In those days, Walter was a bottom-line man and no fan of the dotty Dodgers. But, when 25% of the stock came on the market, he invited two associates--John Smith and Branch Rickey--to go in with him, and they bought the 25% for $200,000.
The next year, the Brooklyn Trust Co.'s 50% came on the market and O'Malley, Smith and Rickey bought that for $720,000. Jim Mulvey, president of Samuel Goldwyn Movie Productions, owned the other 25%.
O'Malley and Branch Rickey detested each other. Walter was a festive man, Rickey a preacher-type who didn't drink or smoke. And disapproved of people who did. So, when Rickey sold out, he demanded $1 million, and if he couldn't get it from O'Malley, he threatened to sell out to William Zeckendorf. O'Malley screamed blackmail but had to pay it because the last thing he wanted in the world was the acquisitive Zeckendorf as a partner.
Whatever their personal relationships, there was no doubt Branch Rickey, knowledgeable and single-minded, was good for their business. Rickey brought off one of the masterstrokes of baseball history when he signed Jackie Robinson. He integrated the game, raided the Negro leagues generally and made the Dodgers America's Team overnight. It's possible that he undersold at a million dollars.
O'Malley had to raise the money to buy him out and rival owners were only too happy to oblige. They would advance O'Malley the money--if they could have Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Duke Snider for it.
"I can't play bags of money," O'Malley sniffed--and raised the money elsewhere.
Walter O'Malley left the running of the team to baseball men. But he chafed at the conditions under which the Dodgers had to compete.
He is reviled to this day by New Yorkers for absconding with a community treasure, but it is, in some ways, a bad rap. O'Malley, at first, wanted to move no farther west than the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. He proposed to build his own ballpark there and it would have been the first stadium privately built in a quarter-century. It would also have had a dome, another first.
Before condemning property for the new ballpark, the Brooklyn Sports Center Authority required that O'Malley put up $4 million, a gulping sum in those days. But he promptly sold Ebbets Field for $3 million and his Montreal and Fort Worth minor league parks for $2 million and posted his money in escrow to await the land clearance.
It never came. The Sports Center Authority, as it were, died on third. The project withered and left O'Malley sitting there with his $5 million, short-term leases and no domed ballpark of his dreams. He began a slow burn.