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Dodgers: END OF AN ERA / THE O'MALLEY YEARS: 1950-1998

O'Malley Moved--Rest Is History

March 20, 1998|JIM MURRAY

When Walter O'Malley moved the Dodgers out of Brooklyn, a lot of people there wanted to hang him in effigy. Others wanted to hang him in person.

But what he had done just might have saved baseball.

You don't think so? Think that might be a little hyperbolic?

Well, just ask any .248 hitter earning $3.1 million. He would have been lucky to get 35 grand back in the days when God was in Heaven and the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn.

O'Malley moved the game to a new level. TV was a catalyst, but there was TV in 1958 too.

The trouble was, baseball wasn't national till O'Malley came along. It was a pretty exclusive club, largely confined to the northeast section of the country.

The Boston Braves didn't upset the status quo much when they moved to Milwaukee in 1953. And in 1955, the Philadelphia Athletics moved only to the perimeter, Kansas City.

Baseball was so intermarrying, you're surprised it didn't get hemophilia. Thirteen times since 1921, the game's shining crown, the "World" Series, had been an all-New York affair, a so-called "Subway Series." The game was like a key club. Bring references. Wipe your feet. Anything west of the Hudson was Hicksville. West of the Mississippi, Indians.

When the Braves broke the mold and moved to Milwaukee, no one much cared. The Braves were the stepchild of Boston. The game there belonged to the Red Sox. The Braves used to play before crowds so small you could count them. And they had won only two pennants in their long history, both before World War I.

In Philadelphia, the A's had a long history of dismantling championship teams for money. This time, they sold everything--players, franchise, license to play, even home plate. They moved out of economic necessity.

But the world wasn't ready for O'Malley's shock. He not only moved the Dodgers, he took the Giants with him.

New Yorkers couldn't have been more outraged if he had jacked up the Empire State Building and moved it to Peoria. It was the biggest heist in sports history.

Actually, Giant owner Horace Stoneham wasn't much of a hard sell. He was going to move to Minneapolis anyway.

And the Dodgers in Brooklyn weren't really paupers in baseball terms. They were the most successful franchise in National League history. They had won six pennants in the 10 years before the move, had been in pennant playoffs twice. They had finished no worse than second over those years, drew a million customers a year, led the big leagues in net profit after taxes--$1,860,744--for the five-year period 1952-1956.

They were the darlings of every political activist in the country because they had integrated the sport a decade before.

O'Malley had acquired the club for an initial outlay of $720,000, after he had been sent by the Brooklyn Trust Co., executor for the estate that owned the club, to oversee its operation.

He oversaw it, but he didn't overlook it. He could see the club's value. It was a one-of-a-kind among only 16 in the world, rarer than diamonds, and he chafed under its penny-ante operation.

He wanted to build his own ballpark in downtown Brooklyn. He was playing in a rundown, cracker-box firetrap built in the early 1910s.

He wanted to move no farther than the intersection of Flatbush Avenue at Atlantic, but, even though the governor himself, Averell Harriman, came down to sign the enabling legislation, O'Malley got the runaround. The Sports Center Authority there, so to speak, died on third.

So, O'Malley sang, "California, Here I Come" and took his team to the airport.

Bill Veeck and his St. Louis Browns had tried to make this move a few years earlier, but Veeck was persona non grata with the execs of the game, notably Yankee owner Del Webb. O'Malley, on the other hand, was so powerful, it was said when Commissioner Ford Frick spoke, you could see O'Malley's lips move.

When O'Malley moved, he built his own ballpark in L.A., the last baseball executive to so do, but only after the city had deeded him 184.5 acres in Chavez Ravine and spent $4 million more grading and asphalting the property. O'Malley traded them the minor league ballpark, Wrigley Field, for the Chavez Ravine site, which was kind of laughable, since Wrigley Field was headed for the wreckers' ball anyway and, at 41st and Avalon, was hardly prime real estate. (In San Francisco, Stoneham got his city-built ballpark for a paltry $125,000 a year!)

The O'Malleys profited hugely from the transfer from Flatbush to Chavez Ravine. But how about the city of Los Angeles? How has it fared?

Well, compared to the blandishments other cities hold out to major league franchises from football to basketball, it may seem to some that the Dodgers came cheap.

How do you put a price on the benefit to the community of five World Series titles, nine National League pennants and nine division titles, plus other close title races?

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