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O'Malley's long road to the Hall of Fame

December 04, 2007|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

NASHVILLE — The Baseball Hall of Fame will no doubt recognize Walter O'Malley as the owner who brought the major leagues to the West Coast and made America's pastime truly national. Yet, after O'Malley was elected to the Hall of Fame on Monday, his son described him as a man whose fondest wish would have been to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn.

O'Malley delivered the Dodgers to Los Angeles 50 years ago, and the town has embraced the team from Day One. He built a state-of-the-art stadium at his own expense, attracted record crowds, kept ticket prices affordable and delivered a consistent winner, including three World Series championships in his first eight years in town.

The late O'Malley joined former commissioner Bowie Kuhn, former managers Dick Williams and Billy Southworth and inaugural Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss in the class of executives and managers elected by the veterans committee Monday. Williams is the only living member of that class, which will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in July.

The players in next year's Hall of Fame class will be announced in January.

O'Malley, a powerful voice among his peers and a pioneer in efforts to expand baseball beyond the United States, got the minimum nine votes from a 12-member panel. He got less than half the votes from larger panels on two previous ballots, one in 2003 and the other earlier this year.

In explaining why one of the most influential owners in baseball history was not elected until 28 years after his death, his son alluded to the lingering resentment over his departure from Brooklyn.

"Over the years, more and more people have realized the effort my father put into building a stadium in Brooklyn," said Peter O'Malley, who succeeded his father as the Dodgers' owner before selling the club in 1997.

"It took him 10 years to decide to move. I don't think anyone worked harder to keep his franchise in the original city than he did."

Hall of Famer Tom Lasorda, who played for the Dodgers in Brooklyn and managed the team in Los Angeles, called the election long overdue.

"He linked the entire nation with major league baseball," Lasorda said.

In a statement, current Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said O'Malley "changed the face of baseball forever."

O'Malley's legacy is not defined solely by the transcontinental move and the Dodgers' pennants. He was a kingmaker, working behind the scenes to oust commissioner Happy Chandler and shepherd successors Ford Frick, William Eckert and Kuhn into power.

In 1962, he opened Dodger Stadium, the first privately financed major league ballpark since Yankee Stadium in 1923 and now a Los Angeles landmark.

"That opened a lot of eyes, that a modern stadium could be as attractive as it is," Peter O'Malley said. "It looks good to this day."

He led efforts to popularize the sport internationally, sending the Dodgers on exhibition tours abroad and inaugurating exchange programs for foreign teams and coaches. He turned an abandoned military facility in Vero Beach, Fla., into Dodgertown, one of the most storied spring training complexes.

And his strong support of integration -- well beyond Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier with the Dodgers in 1947 -- was in evidence even in his little touches.

Blacks could not play on the golf course in Vero Beach, Lasorda said, so O'Malley built another course at Dodgertown.

O'Malley did his fair share of deal-making just to get into ownership. He joined the Brooklyn Dodgers as general counsel in 1941, at age 37. He bought a minority share in the franchise three years later and gained controlling interest in 1950, buying out legendary executive Branch Rickey in the process.

In 30 years under O'Malley's control, the Dodgers finished first or second 20 times, including 11 National League pennants and four World Series championships.

Even as the Dodgers prospered on the field, O'Malley explored options for a new ballpark. In 1946, he asked architect Emil Praeger for "some ideas about enlarging or replacing our present stadium." O'Malley ultimately would retain Praeger to design Dodger Stadium.

O'Malley eventually proposed replacing Ebbets Field with a domed ballpark, a decade before Houston's Astrodome opened as the world's first domed stadium. As he negotiated with the Brooklyn officials who ultimately rejected his plan, he learned that New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham planned to move his team to Minneapolis in 1958.

O'Malley persuaded Stoneham to move to San Francisco instead, transplanting the Dodgers' National League rival to California. After the 1957 season, O'Malley announced the Dodgers would move to Los Angeles, at a time baseball called Chicago and St. Louis western outposts.

"The West Coast was so far away in those days," said Lasorda, who played for the Los Angeles Angels, the minor league franchise displaced by the arrival of the Dodgers. "It was like the other end of the world to me."

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