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Sport: Walter in Wonderland

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The man with the ample jowls swiveled happily in his seat. Cigar ash dribbled over his shirt front, and his several chins bobbled as his tight little mouth widened into a smile. Everywhere he looked he saw money. There in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum were 78,672 paying customers for the first home game of the Los Angeles Dodgers; no larger crowd had ever watched a single regular-season baseball game anywhere. So far as the Dodgers’ President Walter Francis O’Malley was concerned, his team had already conquered Southern California.

In a city where wide-eyed crowds can be conned into celebrating the dedication of a drugstore, it was no surprise that big-league baseball had packed the house. It hardly mattered that the Dodgers had already dropped two of their first three games with the San Francisco Giants, the hand-picked playmates who had gone to the Coast from New York City. It was almost irrelevant that the Dodgers were now in the process of winning 6-5 to spice up their first game at home. The marvel was that it was Walter O’Malley who had brought the show to town.

Even in that warm wonderland of swamis, fly-by-night faith healers and hard-eyed Hollywood flesh peddlers, O’Malley was obviously something special. Half Irish and all gall, he is a sucker for other people’s promises and a happily shameless manipulator of his own. His gravel-voiced oratory beats at the unwary with the brass of a top sergeant and the blarney of a sideshow barker. To doubt his most outrageous argument is to deal him a mortal affront. But doubters there are. For Walter is a complicated soul. When there are two ways to do a thing, he chooses the oblique. Part leprechaun and part literal-minded lawyer, he disconcerts friends with a Groucho Marxist air of insincerity. Yet he walks among foes with the grave and wary eyes of an honest man lost among a legion of pickpockets.

Neither background nor training suggests the single-minded operator who led the money-hungry major leagues westward to the California gold fields. Nothing betrays the brash architect of baseball’s biggest revolution since a Brooklyn pitcher named “Candy” Cummings fired the first curve and separated the men from the bushers. A Bronx-born Giant fan who seldom bothered to go to a ballpark, Walter O’Malley went to work for the Dodgers as an attorney. “Why, I don’t think he even knows what Duke Snider makes,” snorts the Dodgers’ Vice President and General Manager Emil (“Buzzy”) Bavasi. “He leaves all that to me.” But tomorrow he may well be the boss of the league. What will come of that eminence no man can say.

All Walter has done so far is reorganize the national pastime. He has separated two of the most colorful clubs in the majors from two of the gaudiest congregations of fans anywhere in the land. As a result, wherever people recognize the name, no one is neutral about O’Malley. But last week, as O’Malley counted the house, he could conclude that he was ahead of the game: complaints about his actions might still be pouring in, but so was the California cash.

Why Move? Walter considers success his due. His tenure as the Dodgers’ principal stockholder, he reminds anyone who will listen, coincided with the most fabulous decade (1947-56) ever enjoyed by any National League team.* The Dodgers won six pennants, lost out in two pennant playoffs, finished as low as third only once, and drew more than 1,000,000 customers every year. Neither John McGraw’s Giants nor the Gashouse Cardinals ever did any better over a ten-year span.

With business so good, why move? Brooklyn had taken the team to its heart. The romance of baseball being what it is, the entire nation was caught up in the sportswriters’ fond nickname, “The Bums.” There was also a sociological footnote: the Dodgers had brought up the first Negro player in the modern history of the major leagues. This made them the darlings of the vocal politico-liberals who did not know a squeeze play from a loud foul, but who knew a member of a persecuted minority when they saw one—even when he was as skilled, educated and fiercely proud as Jackie Robinson proved to be. Finally, the team was filled with fine players, a heritage from the high old days under Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey. O’Malley’s answer: All this was wonderful, but all this was changing.

What has been happening to Brooklyn itself is funny only to TV comedians. To O’Malley it is tragic. He sings his threnody at the faintest sign of sympathy. “There has been no new office building or theater built in Brooklyn since 1925.* Institutions don’t lend money for building in Brooklyn. I can remember when there were four newspapers in Brooklyn; now there are none worth mentioning. And if you don’t think a newspaper is important to baseball, you don’t know baseball.”

There is another problem that O’Malley is too shrewd a politician to complain about and too sharp an observer to miss: Brooklyn’s slums have spread alarmingly. There is a burgeoning population of Negroes and Puerto Ricans. A private academy for which O’Malley served as chairman of the board had to shut its doors because its neighborhood became too menacing for mothers to bring their children. Wits cracked that ball games at Ebbets Field, the cramped (capacity: 32,111), musty cracker box that had been the home of the Dodgers since 1913, had been reduced to the social level of cockfights. A familiar complaint was that some customers were urinating in the aisles.

Agreed Diagnosis. Even more important than these esthetic considerations, the team that won the fancy of the public and the pennants of the league, is getting old and tired. Jackie Robinson, the pioneer, has fattened up and pushed on to the green fields of business. Captain Pee Wee Reese is a full step slower at shortstop than he was in his prime. Hypnotism helped Don Newcombe to lose his fear of flying machines, but no one yet has shown the lantern-jawed pitcher where to find the hop that has gone from his high hard one. Slugger Duke Snider swings away with dwindling authority and diminishing faith in his trick left knee. Roy Campanella, the great catcher, languishes in a Long Island hospital, paralyzed by a broken neck. From day to day the infield assignments are as uncertain as the tenure of a French Premier. And there are no replacements at hand.

O’Malley agrees with the diagnosis. But rebuilding the team, he argues, was impossible so long as his base of operations was the stained and gloomy pile of masonry hard by Prospect Park. “Look at it this way,” says he. “Brooklyn draws a million people. Milwaukee draws two and a quarter million. Results: 1) they can pay their players more; 2) they can absorb more farm club losses; 3) they can have more front-office talent; 4) they can buy more bonus players. The momentum is Milwaukee’s. Obviously, we have deteriorated into a noncontending ball club. I decided that the thing to do was get my new stadium and get in a competitive position—get the customers who could give me the money to compete again.”

Dodger Fan. The very thought of the cribbed, cabined and confined spaces of Ebbets Field has long filled O’Malley with horror. As far back as 1947, when he was still only a minority stockholder, he ordered an engineering firm to design a new stadium with a revolutionary dome that would end the losing phenomenon of the rained-out game. “It was treated facetiously by the press,” recalls O’Malley ruefully. “But why should we treat baseball fans like cattle? I came to the conclusion years ago that we in baseball were losing our audience and weren’t doing a damn thing about it. Why should you leave your nice, comfortable, air-conditioned home to go out and sweat in a drafty, dirty, dingy baseball park? Ballparks are almost all old. They are built in the poorer sections of the city. The toilets at most ballparks are a germ hazard that would turn a bacteriologist grey. Why, when I came to the Dodgers, I spent a quarter of a million dollars just to change the urinals, and Branch Rickey, who was the general manager, nearly had a stroke. He couldn’t comprehend spending that much money on the customers when we could spend it on ballplayers.”

At that point O’Malley had no thought of building his new pleasure dome anywhere but in Brooklyn. He would be satisfied, he said, with the land around the Long Island Rail Road station at the west end of Brooklyn. That ancient terminal, he figured, would soon have to be rebuilt anyway; it would do no harm to tear down the adjacent slums, and the nearby Fort Greene meat market was long overdue for relocation. All O’Malley asked was land, condemned and handed over to him cheap. So in March of 1955 Democrat O’Malley rounded up his own political pals, buttered up the proper Republicans, and helped push through a bill setting up the Brooklyn Sports Center Authority. Governor Harriman, sometime 8-goal polo player, hustled down to Brooklyn, signed the measure at Borough Hall with the gallant announcement, “I am a Dodger fan.” Walter sat back to savor the glorious future. The truth was that he was starting the longest fall downstairs in the history of American comedy.

Anchor to Windward. Before the Sports Center Authority undertook the tedious business of condemnation, O’Malley got up $5,000,000 as his share of the venture. He sold Ebbets Field to a real-estate operator named Marvin Kratter for $3,000,000, and signed a lease for the Dodgers to play there for three more years. He sold his Montreal farm club’s park for $1,000,000, disposed of his Fort Worth park for another $1,000,000.

But while O’Malley rounded up cash, the Sports Authority died on second. The Authority was not given enough money to do more than study its problems. As the Long Island Rail Road site faded into improbability, politicians began suggesting other places, but none of them were pleasing. “One,” says O’Malley, “was between a cemetery and a large body of water. I pointed out that we weren’t likely to get many customers from either place.” With $5,000,000 in his pocket and no place to spend it, with only a short-term lease on Ebbets Field and no place else to go, O’Malley began an unabashed scramble for a new playground.

The very suggestion that he might leave town touched off sentimental blasts on the front pages of every New York newspaper. Sportswriters bled by the column that Walter was betraying the Borough of Brooklyn. Brooklyn, Walter answered, was betraying him. Fans were staying away from Ebbets Field in droves.

At the winter baseball meetings of 1956, O’Malley cornered his old friend Phil Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, and poured out his troubles. He wanted to buy the Cubs’ minor-league franchise in Los Angeles. “I wanted to bring the New York situation to a head,” says he blandly. “I wanted an anchor to windward.” A couple of months later, O’Malley announced that Wrigley had agreed to sell, touching off the fanciest baseball guessing game since the Black Sox scandal.

Farewell to Brooklyn. Were the Dodgers really going to the West Coast? O’Malley’s critics were convinced by then that he would go anywhere he could make a rapid dollar—provided, of course, that he was handed the necessary real estate for next to nothing, and the Dodgers were handled like benefactors of the body politic. Still O’Malley played coy. He insisted that he would stay in Brooklyn if he could. But between the time he spoke to Wrigley and the time he announced the deal, he had visited Los Angeles. He scarcely wasted a glance on the small (23,000), antiquated Wrigley Field, where his newly acquired Los Angeles Angels played their games. There was a place called Chavez Ravine that he wanted to see. Walter took one look at the slumbering goat pasture just north of the heart of the city, saw four lovely freeways funneling cars in every direction around the vast acreage, and said his private farewell to Brooklyn.

Los Angeles’ Mayor Norris Poulson promptly set about converting Walter’s anchor to windward into a permanent mooring. Gathering up half his city government, Poulson trailed the Dodger president to the Dodgers’ spring training camp at Vero Beach, Fla. A loud, impulsive man who manages to give the impression of enjoying himself hugely without quite understanding what is going on, Norris Poulson began to wave his arms wildly and spout promises the moment he met O’Malley. With all the sentimentality of a process server, Walter stopped the harangue by handing the mayor a paper. Somehow, Walter had already found time to spell out in detail just what he wanted.

He wanted Los Angeles to grade and improve the land in Chavez Ravine and build access roads, and, what is more, he wanted the work done promptly. The Dodgers, then, would build a stadium. They would expect a couple of consecutive 99-year leases on the land at $1 a year, and they intended to pay no taxes. There were numerous other demands. But if the O’Malley ultimatum dismayed Mayor Poulson, he gave no sign. He simply took the paper back home and turned it over to the bright young men he has hired to mind the store.

“Anarchy.” When O’Malley went West again a few months later, he was met by a motorcade of baseball-happy loons. The town was decked with Dodger flags; he felt like a conquering hero. He figured he had it made.

Then he met with Mayor Poulson’s brain trust. Los Angeles, he learned to his dismay, was not about to give away Chavez Ravine on O’Malley’s terms. “The thing got more and more confusing,” he admits. “I finally asked, ‘Well, who’s the big guy out here? Who do I have to deal with?’ ”

The answer was: no one. As Hoodlum Mickey Cohen once wailed, when asked who got the political payoff for a gangster’s operations in Southern California: “There’s no politics in Southern California you can deal with. It’s anarchy!”

It seemed anarchy to Walter, too. Not only were the mayor’s boys telling him to tone down his demands, there was some active and growing opposition to letting him into Chavez Ravine at all.

Picked for a Patsy. To bolster his case, O’Malley retreated to New York and started looking for a traveling companion. The National League’s train and plane fares for a summer schedule would shoot up as much as $35,000 per team if two teams went West. The cost of accommodating only one California club would have been prohibitive. O’Malley had already picked out his patsy. Horace Stoneham’s New York Giants were going broke up in the Polo Grounds. O’Malley simply called San Francisco’s Mayor George Christopher, invited him to New York and introduced him to Horace.

Although he shares O’Malley’s girth, Stoneham shows none of O’Malley’s guile. He wanted to move, and he said so. He and Mayor Christopher came to terms quickly. Despite the almost certain knowledge that it was settling for a second-rate club, San Francisco welcomed its Giants.

It all seemed so easy and so pleasant that last week’s opening day with the Dodgers lulled some San Francisco fans into thinking they had actually imported a winner. The weather was balmier than any Bay City afternoon is supposed to be in spring. Centerfielder Willie Mays, who may wind up the season as the team’s only visible means of support, hit two for five. The vaunted rookies, First Baseman Orlando Cepeda, Third Baseman Jim Davenport and Outfielder Willie Kirkland, outperformed their promise. For the moment, life was wonderful.

A Chance to Vote. With Stoneham safely stashed in his hip pocket, O’Malley easily got the league’s permission to move. But now that the Dodgers had gone through their last season at Ebbets Field, Los Angeles really began to bear down. Every time O’Malley sat in a conference with city officials, the promised acreage shrank. He gave up the oil rights in Chavez Ravine; he reluctantly surrendered the oil that might be under Wrigley Field. And when the city council finally passed an ordinance agreeing to a contract for Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers’ opposition picked up their bats. They wanted to save the ravine for more worthy enterprises, they argued—a zoo or a cemetery. But they got their biggest financial backing from a chunky oil tycoon named John A. (“Black Jack”) Smith, who was shouting “Dodgers go home” for more personal reasons. Black Jack and his brother own the San Diego Padres, and they would understandably prefer to see the West Coast saved for minor-league ball.

The opposition had just 30 days to collect 52,000 signatures on a petition to force a referendum on the Chavez Ravine ordinance. In any other state in the country, the task might have been too rough. In California, where professional signature solicitors will get all the signatures anybody needs—for a fee—it was easy. For an outlay of about $19,000, O’Malley’s enemies guaranteed Los Angeles voters a chance to throw O’Malley right out of Chavez Ravine.

Chinese Theater. For O’Malley, that was a future headache. The referendum will be held in June. His immediate problem was where the Dodgers were going to play in April. Wrigley Field was clearly too small. Walter wanted to break attendance records right off the bat, he announced grandly, and the only stadium that seemed big enough was the Coliseum. As usual, Walter acted as if he ought to be paid to let his boys play there, finally signed a lease that left him only a little better off than the Coliseum’s other tenants, e.g., U.C.L.A., the Los Angeles Rams.

Sportswriters took one look at the short foul lines (250 ft. in left field, 300 in right) and shuddered. The 42-ft.-high screen erected across the left-field bleachers impressed them not at all. It would protect the sun bathers, but heaven alone could help the pitchers. Oriental home runs, wailed the critics, would sail out of the park like pigeons; Walter O’Malley’s Chinese Theater would make a mockery of every hitting record in the book.

Right on the Nose. To the Dodger team, the echoing, concrete-enclosed cow pasture is just another place to play. To the Dodger president, it is the brightest achievement of a vagrant, varicolored career. For Walter O’Malley, the tortuous trail to California began in The Bronx, where he was born on Oct. 9, 1903. He was the only son of Manhattan Politico Edwin J. O’Malley, a man who could trace his ancestry back to County Mayo, and Alma Feltner O’Malley, a woman whose family background was stolidly German. At Culver Military Academy young O’Malley had his first and last brush with baseball as a player. He caught a ball on his nose, and quit. At the University of Pennsylvania he shunned athletics to become the complete politician. “I believe he was the first man ever to become president of both his junior and senior class,” says a fraternity brother (Theta Delta Chi). “It was typical of him that although he didn’t dance, he ran the class dances—and made money out of them.”

Walter continued his studies at Fordham Law School, graduated in 1930, and got himself engaged to Kay Hanson; his childhood sweetheart. A shy, pretty girl, Kay developed a cancer of the larynx. In one of the first such operations ever performed successfully, her larynx was removed, and Kay was never able to talk again. Walter saw no reason to change any of their plans. But his father stormily forbade the marriage. “She’s the same girl I fell in love with,” insisted Walter. And so they were married, and have raised a close-knit family of two children—Terry, 23, an attractive, sad-eyed daughter, and Peter, 20, a husky, quiet son.

In the Depression years, Walter tried a little bit of everything. He dug artesian wells, he worked for the subway system, but nothing paid off. Even an O’Malley-written builders’ guide was a financial flop. But after he decided to concentrate on the law, Walter progressed rapidly from wills and deeds to more complicated jobs—the resuscitation of hard-hit bond and mortgage companies. Soon he was senior partner in a firm of 20 lawyers, and he took on the habit of chain-smoking his cigars. He learned to take two solemn puffs before he ever answered a question, particularly questions he was tempted to answer “Yes.”

Taut Ship. It was as lawyer that O’Malley first went to the Dodgers. In 1942, when Larry MacPhail resigned as general manager and went into the Army as a lieutenant colonel, O’Malley was hired as the Dodgers’ attorney. He succeeded no less a personage than Wendell Willkie, and he obviously saw more opportunity in baseball than Willkie ever dreamed of. Within a short time, O’Malley was loading up heavily with Dodger stock.

If there was anything at all that Walter found unpleasant about baseball, it was his association with Branch Rickey, who became MacPhail’s replacement as general manager. O’Malley and his pals in the front office were fun-loving types; the teetotaling, profanity-hating Rickey (who confined his cussing to an occasional “Judas Priest”) ran a taut ship. The two never got along. “I’m no psalm-singing Methodist,” explains Roman Catholic O’Malley, “but I don’t know as I ever did anybody any real harm. I’m not knocking Branch for his beliefs; in fact, I’ve known plenty of daily communicants in my religion who spent the rest of the day thieving. But we never felt we had to apologize to Branch for anything that took place.”

Few people were surprised when the showdown came. In 1950 O’Malley bought Rickey out and let him go as general manager; the man who had built the Dodgers into champions (and the St. Louis Cardinals before them) took his talents to Pittsburgh.

Bad Business. Walter O’Malley took over a robust, well-functioning baseball organization. The athletic problems of baseball are left to General Manager Bavasi, a tough-minded product of New York City who can think and talk in the poolroom language of most ballplayers. The farm clubs are handled by witty Fresco Thompson, an oldtime infielder who is a shrewd judge of talent on the hoof. But their combined skills have yet to uncover the raw material of another pennant winner.

The business side of baseball is more than enough to occupy O’Malley. And even now, in his moment of triumph, there are signs that the business side has its flaws. Not since Harry Truman has any man ever been so devoted as O’Malley to the proposition that the shop can be run by cronies—and the front-office cronies O’Malley brought West with him are begging for trouble.

Press passes that O’Malley’s minions passed out turned out to be tickets to unreserved general-admission seats. And each time they are used, the passes will require a 50¢ service charge. Just as accustomed to freeloading as people in other big-league cities, Los Angeles newsmen and politicians are understandably indignant. And their help will be needed if the Dodgers are to win the referendum in June. If they don’t, they may still be playing in the Coliseum 20 years hence.

There Was Walter. Through all the excitement, there was O’Malley, cigar in hand, eyes twinkling as he took in that first wonderful crowd. His whole confused entourage swarmed around him, his rusty voice rasped like a hacksaw slicing through pipe, but try as he would, he could not conceal his pride. Every third person, including California’s Governor Goodwin Knight, was wearing a Dodger cap.

Batsmen may be thrown out at second on balls hit off the left-field fence; there may be more home runs hit up “O’Malley’s Alley” in a single inning than entire teams hit in a season back at the turn of the century; box-seat holders may find themselves farther from the field than bleacherites were in Brooklyn; the Dodgers may never play in Chavez Ravine. But at long last, big-league baseball is in California—and Walter O’Malley is the man who brought it there.

* Though it is topped in the American League by the 1947-56 record of Casey Stengel’s New York Yankees: eight pennants, seven world championships, only one season in second, one in third.

* Walter was playing fast and loose with his facts. There have been 117 office buildings built in Brooklyn since 1941. And one of them, the Brooklyn Eagle building, went up just a few blocks from the Dodger office.

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