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Bill Plaschke

Walter O'Malley made 'little' go a long way

July 27, 2008|Bill Plaschke

He is an older man now, weary after traveling from Dodger Stadium to a Best Western motel in upstate New York.

But ask Billy DeLury to describe an important day in his life, and he brightly remembers why he made this trip.

Ask him to describe a precious moment in his career, and he quickly explains why, today, for the first time in his 74 years, he will be sitting in a folding chair on a Cooperstown lawn for a Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Ask him to describe indelible, and he describes Walter O'Malley.

"It was 1955, I was just an errand boy, an office boy, the lowest of the lows," DeLury remembers.

Yet one day that winter, a club official approached the kid and asked for his size.

Size? Shirt size? Shoe size?

"They said they wanted my ring size," DeLury remembers. "And I said, 'Holy mackerel.' "

Holy O'Malley. The Brooklyn Dodgers owner was buying the most menial Dodgers employee a World Series ring commemorating the Dodgers' first world championship.

"I was a nobody, and Walter made me feel like a somebody," DeLury says. "It was the treasure of my life."

So, too, for many Angelenos, was Walter O'Malley himself, the giant, cigar-chomping man who gently bent down and touched us all.

Today's speeches will proclaim how O'Malley was voted into the Hall of Fame on the basis of that grand gesture that moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles and led baseball to the West Coast.

But he is there because of the little things.

He was not about giant sweeping moves, but tiny bits of stability.

His 29 years of Dodgers ownership, including 19 years as team president, were built not only on the Drysdales, but on the DeLurys.

That office boy has now been a Dodgers employee for 56 years and counting.

DeLury was hired as a kid out of a Brooklyn tenement, the son of a vegetable truck driver, with no experience, no pull, and only a high school education.

A half-century later, after doing everything from washing towels to selling tickets to making team travel arrangements, he works as an assistant to the Dodgers' broadcasters.

With the exception of a two-year military interruption, he has never worked anywhere else.

"Walter O'Malley made it so you never wanted to work anywhere else," DeLury says.

Today, the former tenement dweller owns outright a million-dollar home that, many years ago, he purchased on O'Malley's advice.

He raised two children on O'Malley's regular pay increases. He survived the loss of his wife and one child with the O'Malley family's embrace.

"Walter was very warm, very caring, like a grandfather," DeLury remembers. "Nobody was too small. Nothing was too insignificant."

The only people O'Malley treated with more care than his employees were his team's fans.

Today, when an owner moves to a new city and eventually builds a new ballpark, ticket prices routinely rise yearly.

Under O'Malley, do you know how many times Dodgers ticket prices increased from 1958 to 1975?

Zero.

Today, when a fan brings obnoxious noisemakers into the stands, that fan is usually asked to leave.

O'Malley once sent flowers to Brooklyn's infamous cowbell-clanging Hilda Chester. In the stands. During the middle of a game. On Mother's Day.

Today, fans' letters to owners often go unanswered or receive a form-letter reply.

Many years ago, when a young fan sent O'Malley a letter asking what he should do about a dime he found in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, the owner wrote back:

"Finders keepers."

Walter O'Malley not only helped rake the dirt at a brand-new Dodgertown when nobody was looking, he insisted on building Holman Stadium with no dugouts so the fans could better see their heroes.

He was so close to his players, he arranged for an honorary exhibition game at the Coliseum for a paralyzed former star who never even played in Los Angeles.

The fans were so close to O'Malley, 93,103 turned out that night to honor this stranger, Roy Campanella.

Once they moved to Dodger Stadium -- O'Malley's other great sweeping gesture -- the team broke all sorts of baseball attendance records even though, in seven of his 19 years of ownership, they finished third or worse.

"It was about more than winning or losing," DeLury says. "It was about family."

Fans came to see the forever-tenured managers Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda. Fans came to see the forever-tenured infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey.

Nuns came because, well, O'Malley would host 2,500 of them once a year for free.

You can see O'Malley's legacy today in those same seats.

The Dodgers have won one playoff game in 20 years, yet the place is still routinely packed.

Through two owners and many changes, Dodgers fans still come not so much for the wins, but for the experience.

Walter O'Malley's legacy was carried on by his son Peter, then handed to Fox, then to Frank McCourt, who is working hard to bring back the tradition that the O'Malleys held so sacred.

But nowhere is that legacy more secure than in a local Bank of America safe deposit box. That is where Billy DeLury keeps his 1955 World Series ring.

"It's the most important thing I have," DeLury says. "To lose it would just demolish me."

Many will say that finally, with a plaque in Cooperstown, Walter O'Malley's baseball legacy will live forever.

His giant of an office boy will tell you it already does.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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