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Before the McCourts, there was another divorce

The Ebbets' split in 1921 set in motion the forces that brought the Dodgers to Los Angeles.

May 17, 2011|By Burt Solomon

If the McCourts' ugly divorce has plucked the Dodgers from Angelenos' control, consider this: It was a divorce that brought the ballclub to Los Angeles in the first place.

Last time, the culprit was Charles Ebbets. The headstrong owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers had separated amicably from his wife, Minnie, and taken up quarters with a lovely neighbor, Grace, who was a year older than his son. Minnie didn't squawk until she glimpsed Grace in a fancy automobile, reveling in luxury, after Minnie's own allowance had been cut. She filed for divorce.

In 1921, a divorce was granted and Minnie received a comfortable house on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn and a monthly income of $625 for life. As collateral, Charles deposited half of the ballclub's stock in a local bank. And there it sat.

After Ebbets died in 1925, his son-in-law announced that "no reasonable offer will be refused" for the ballclub. But as the heirs fought over the estate for more than two decades, the ballclub was losing money. To make ends meet, the ballclub needed to borrow money, so the sequestered stock became encumbered by debt (including the mortgage on Ebbets Field). Early on, suitor after suitor approached the bank, saw the debt on the books and fled in terror.

Enter Walter O'Malley. In 1942, as a lawyer for the Brooklyn Trust Co. and a protege of its president, he became the in-house counsel for the ballclub. This made him privy to the Ebbets divorce agreement — and specifically, the provision providing for the use of the ballclub's stock to guarantee Minnie's alimony — and also to the fact that after the Dodgers had a string of profitable years, the debt had been repaid. And so O'Malley figured out a way to remove the stock as collateral for Minnie's settlement, thereby freeing it up to be purchased. Simply establishing a $250,000 trust that yielded 3% interest spun off enough income to pay Minnie's monthly alimony. In 1945, O'Malley and two partners — notably, Branch Rickey — acquired a majority of the ballclub's stock. By 1950, O'Malley had outmaneuvered the others and taken full control of the team.

It required an unsentimental man to untangle the Ebbets divorce. O'Malley saw baseball as a business, hang the sentiment. The Dodgers were making more money than any ballclub in the National League. But they could make a lot more. It was only a matter of time before O'Malley saw greener pastures in the West:

Seven years.

Flash forward to 2011. Ninety years after the Ebbets divorce first endangered the Dodgers franchise, divorce has struck again. As Frank McCourt and his ex-wife, Jamie, continue to wrestle over control of the ballclub they bought in 2004, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has jumped in and placed the Dodgers' financial affairs in the hands of a Texan.

Such ignominy. Again.

And this time, with a moral: What goes around comes around. In baseball as in life.

Burt Solomon, an editor at the Atlantic and National Journal, is the author of "Where They Ain't: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball."

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