The Wrong Man
On a cool, gray October morning in 1957, a twin-prop Convair 440 hummed down the runway at New York's LaGuardia Airport and lifted off the ground. Travelers glancing at the plane through the terminal windows might have noticed that a sign painter had written LOS ANGELES on the fuselage where, only days before, the markings had read BROOKLYN beside the nickname of the team that owned the aircraft, the world-famous Dodgers.
As it rose and pierced the low-hanging clouds, the Convair carried team owner Walter O'Malley and about 30 other people (Dodgers executives, broadcasters, secretaries) who were moving west with him. O'Malley, 54, was leaving behind his lifelong hometown and more than 70 years of Brooklyn baseball history. He took with him high hopes of building a Dodgers dynasty in Los Angeles -- and a few regrets.
O'Malley's main disappointment was having lost his battle to build a new stadium in Brooklyn. During his lifetime the whole truth about this failure, and about the Dodgers' move west, would never be told. Thanks in large measure to New York City newspaper writers such as Pete Hamill, Jack Newfield and Dick Young, O'Malley would be perceived as a greedy traitor who had yanked the very soul out of New York's most populous borough.
For more than half a century the Dodgers' move would linger in the public mind as an outrage almost without equal in sport. Whenever and wherever an owner let down fans, O'Malley's name would be invoked. (It didn't help that the cigar-chomping New Yorker looked and sounded like a slippery old pol.) But as much as this stung him, O'Malley never told his side of the story in any detail. To do so would have violated his personal code: A real man didn't explain himself. And so O'Malley took to his grave exculpating details about the most significant and traumatic franchise shift in baseball history.
Those details were secreted in private files stored away after O'Malley died, in 1979. Recently opened by his heirs, this archive sheds new light on what only a small group of people understood at the time of the team's transfer: As he sought help to secure land for a new stadium, O'Malley had been drawn into a political game that was rigged against him. He had wanted to build the iconic ballpark in Brooklyn. Instead, he was maneuvered into the role of baseball's Benedict Arnold. How this occurred is a case study in the power of the most imperious bureaucrat in the history of urban America: Robert Moses.
Walter O'Malley began his pursuit of a new stadium the moment he became a part owner of the Dodgers, in 1944. The team's home park, Ebbets Field, was a quirky, ornate little ballyard that seated a mere 32,000 fans and was in a state of elegant decay. Fans entered through a rotunda where they bought tickets at gilded booths lighted by a chandelier with globes shaped like baseballs hanging from 12 arms fashioned to look like bats. In the grandstand the aisles were narrow and the battered seats were tight. On the field the wall in right deflected hits at crazy angles, turning singles into doubles. In left a balcony that overhung the field grabbed dying line drives.
Ebbets was where outfielder Hack Wilson was hit in the head by a fly ball as he argued with a heckler and slugger Babe Herman set his own pants on fire by tucking a lit cigar in his pocket. The eccentricity wasn't limited to the players. In the stands Hilda Chester banged her frying pan, members of the Dodgers Sym-Phony Band tweaked the umps with their sour rendition of
All of them helped make Ebbets a garden of peculiar delights. But the place had an ugly side, too. On hot summer days the restrooms became unbearably pungent, and beer-soaked fans could turn violent, starting fistfights, throwing objects at players and even assaulting an umpire. Just as bad were the moments when the Dodgers themselves went too far. In June 1945 Leo Durocher allegedly lured a loudmouth from the stands into a private room under the seats and broke his jaw. Thanks to the twin mystiques of baseball and Brooklyn, the manager had nothing to fear from the law. At the Lip's trial for second-degree assault 10 months later, 200 spectators erupted in cheers when jury foreman Hyman Shapiro uttered the words, "Not guilty."
With such heartfelt support, the Dodgers could have bumped along at scruffy Ebbets for decades to come, but O'Malley had greater ambitions. He wanted a championship team to match New York's perennial World Series contenders, the Yankees. To get it, he needed to increase revenues, and he was certain this would require a new, larger stadium with plenty of parking to accommodate families that were fleeing Brooklyn for the suburbs. Once O'Malley assumed full control of the team, in 1950, the new ballpark became his El Dorado, if not his white whale.
The owner planned a graceful 50,000-seat stadium that would take its place among the city's most famous landmarks. Before
Politics came naturally to O'Malley. His father, Edwin, a member of the Tammany Hall Democratic machine, had been commissioner of public markets for Mayor John (Red Mike) Hylan in the early 1920s. Edwin had been briefly famous for tying up a state inquiry into graft in his department with a filibuster that drove one exasperated prosecutor to ask, "Are you electrically wound up?" Despite ample evidence against him and his associates, the elder O'Malley kept his job and stayed out of jail.
Walter O'Malley studied law at Columbia and Fordham, and later, as a public works contractor and Dodgers team lawyer, he connected with Brooklyn's political elite and became a constant presence at the clubs and social events that brought powerful men together. With his slicked-back hair, ever-present cigar and gravelly Noo Yawk voice, he was a Damon Runyon character come to life. No one was better company, especially at an old-fashioned "beefsteak," where hundreds of otherwise civilized men sat at long tables and devoured platters of buttered sirloin with their bare hands. He was a masculine force of nature whom people came to call simply The O'Malley.
If Brooklyn had held on to its autonomy instead of becoming part of New York City in 1898, The O'Malley's connections would have guaranteed him his dream ballpark. Instead, his friendships brought him only to the door of Robert Moses, the most powerful unelected official ever to serve in a U.S. city. Educated at Yale, Oxford and Columbia, Moses began his government career in the 1910s as a reformer trying to rid the city of patronage politics. After failing to do so, he transformed himself into the ultimate power broker. Through patrons such as New York governor Al Smith and New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Moses was appointed to numerous state and municipal positions -- he once held 12 simultaneously -- including New York City parks commissioner, head of the State Parks Council, head of the State Power Commission and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. With endless ambition and more self-regard than Caesar, he gained control over vast sums of money for building everything from highways to high-rises. Over five decades mayors and governors came and went, but Moses endured, and through favors, contracts and patronage he grew ever more powerful. By mid-century if he wanted something built in New York City, it got built. If he didn't want it, he stopped it.
When it came to Brooklyn, Moses spoke condescendingly of its working-class residents, once declaring that their "disposition depends on the standing of a [baseball] team." But he was sensitive enough to public opinion to pretend to care about the fate of the Dodgers. He read O'Malley's letters and listened to his arguments for putting a new ballpark in a forlorn section of the Fort Greene district where Flatbush and Atlantic avenues meet.
The area was dominated by a municipally run meat market, a sprawling, rat-infested abattoir where blood ran in the gutters. Moses had already declared the area blighted and eligible for a federal program that would clear the land. But he had quietly promised the territory to friendly developers, including the apartment king Fred Trump. Moses had also picked his own spot for a new municipal baseball park, and it was not in Brooklyn but in Flushing Meadows in Queens. A stadium there was part of Moses's grand vision for the development of Greater New York, and he wasn't going to let O'Malley preempt him. As early as April 1954 Moses privately directed his aides to give O'Malley the brush-off. Two years later he would remind them of his stand against the Brooklyn stadium but remain publicly noncommittal because, as he said in a memo to his staff, "it is necessary to show that our opposition is based on something other than prejudice."
Unaware that Moses would never budge, O'Malley pressed his case with politicians, business leaders and the press. He also pushed for performance on the field that would bind the Dodgers even more tightly to Brooklyn. The team continued its color-blind policy, begun by Branch Rickey with Jackie Robinson in 1947, of bringing the best players to the roster. In 1955, as the Dodgers often fielded a lineup with a black majority, the impossible happened: The team won its first World Series, defeating the hated Yankees. After winning Game 7 in the Bronx, Dodgers lefthander Johnny Podres was so overwhelmed that he couldn't say much more than, "Wow! Wow! Wow!" In Brooklyn people took to the streets waving pennants and banging pots and pans.
Flush with victory, O'Malley made an even bigger push for a stadium. He sent a box of autographed baseballs to Governor W. Averell Harriman (who handed them out as gifts) and arranged to have a model of the new ballpark displayed for people to inspect at the Williamsburg Savings Bank, on Flatbush Avenue near the proposed stadium site. City officials responded by creating the Brooklyn Sports Center Authority, a commission charged with studying and possibly leading the redevelopment of the 500-acre area with new housing, parking garages and O'Malley's ball field. Moses acted as if he supported the idea, and O'Malley, going all-in with his bet, sold Ebbets Field to a developer.
The sale, which helped O'Malley build a construction war chest, allowed the team to lease Ebbets for five more years while the new park was built. It also created a hard deadline that would force an end to the political game. If Moses and other officials were serious about keeping the Dodgers, they had to settle the stadium issue.
They weren't serious.
Months passed, and Mayor Robert Wagner failed to appoint anyone to serve on the Brooklyn Sports Center Authority. According to the press, several candidates declined because they suspected Moses was secretly maneuvering against the stadium. Wagner eventually found three men willing to serve, but without funds, office space and staff they made no progress. As the summer of 1956 turned to fall, the Dodgers again won the pennant. The World Series rematch with the Yankees would be remembered for Don Larsen's perfect game and an only-in-Brooklyn event that occurred off the field.
It happened in the middle of Game 2, when the Dodgers' big righthander, Don Newcombe, departed Ebbets Field after getting shelled in the second inning. A parking-lot attendant named Michael Brown spied the pitcher, who should have been back in the stadium with his teammates. "What's the matter, Newk?" Brown called out. "A little competition too much?"
What came next would remain in dispute, but Brown claimed that Newcombe punched him in the stomach. Thanks to an alert police officer, the incident didn't escalate, yet it made the papers. Newcombe started Game 7 only to be knocked out in the fourth, and the Dodgers lost 9-0. The unhappy pitcher disappeared for 24 hours but made it to the airport for a team flight to Los Angeles, from where the Dodgers would go on to Hawaii and then to an exhibition tour of Japan.
During the overnight layover in L.A., O'Malley went to a morning meeting at the coffee shop of the Statler Hotel. The Dodgers were scheduled to depart for Japan at 12:30 p.m., and as the hour approached, their road secretary, Dick Walsh, went to check on his boss. He found him with Kenneth Hahn, a Los Angeles County supervisor. "Kenny Hahn was very, very aggressively selling the prospect of the Dodgers moving to Los Angeles," Walsh would recall decades later. O'Malley listened as Hahn said that a stadium could be built in a place called Chavez Ravine. As Walsh waited anxiously for his boss to wrap up the meeting, he got the impression that O'Malley, born and bred on the East Coast, wasn't enthusiastic about a move west. At the end of the meeting Hahn told local reporters that the Dodgers owner considered Los Angeles his second choice, behind moving to a new ballpark in Brooklyn.
The O'Malley returned home from Japan to discover that the stadium authority remained stalled. On Dec. 6, 1956, he went to his office and found a package that had been mailed from Japan. Inside was a set of plans for a new 70,000-seat multipurpose stadium in Tokyo that could host baseball games. (The park would open 18 months later.) O'Malley thought about his own decadelong effort to replace Ebbets Field and, in a letter found among the documents recently disclosed by the O'Malley family, wrote to New York City's chief lawyer, Peter Campbell Brown:
As O'Malley looked for some way to advance his stadium proposal, Moses was moving decisively against him. On Dec. 7 Moses wrote to the mayor to suggest that the Brooklyn commission's responsibilities be cut. The diminished organization would not need even "a bit of staff," Moses advised. Nor would it need the $278,000 that had been requested to pay for engineers, surveys and other expenses. Instead Moses suggested just $25,000 for a consultant. The mayor went along with him.
Informed of this by a member of the authority, O'Malley turned toward his Plan B. Around New Year's he quietly departed for the West Coast. There he would be met by a local newspaperman who was such an avid booster of his fair city and of the national pastime that he could have stepped right out of Sinclair Lewis's
Vincent X. Flaherty, a columnist for the
Year after year Flaherty had written long letters to O'Malley and trekked to New York to pitch him on the riches that awaited him in Los Angeles, and year after year O'Malley had said no. Then, in January 1957, O'Malley showed up in Los Angeles and Flaherty became his chauffeur, tour guide and cultural interpreter. Flaherty arranged for an inspection of Chavez Ravine, a plot of a few hundred acres near downtown L.A. Save for a few dozen remaining residents in small wood-frame buildings, the land was vacant. O'Malley found it easy to imagine a stadium with thousands of parking spots on the site, which was accessible from four freeways that could bring fans from every direction. Here was the perfect place to build a ballpark for a city that hungered for the game and had never heard of Robert Moses.
If the Dodgers decamped,
The choice was clear, and yet the city and Moses stalled. When O'Malley returned from California, he told City Councilman Joseph Sharkey that the Brooklyn stadium was "dying a slow death." Nevertheless he promised to raise between $4 million and $5 million to invest in sports center authority bonds and to find other investors to buy up the remaining $25 million of the issue. O'Malley also agreed to pay rent of $500,000 per season -- more than any other major league team was paying at the time -- if the new stadium were government-owned. In exchange he asked to see "definitive positive progress by July 1."
The authority's engineering consultant, Jack Madigan, who was allied with Moses, responded by asking if O'Malley would pay $1.5 million
So what did O'Malley do? He hired a clown.
To "ease tension at Ebbets Field," he said, the owner signed Emmett Kelly to perform before and after games during the 1957 season. Kelly's character, Weary Willie, looked very much like the famous Brooklyn Bum drawn by cartoonist Willard Mullin. The difference was that Kelly's character never smiled. "I'm a misfit, a reject," he explained. He made people laugh at their predicaments, which was perfect for Brooklyn.
Kelly made his debut at the Dodgers' spring training camp in Vero Beach, Fla. Except for the clown's presence, life at the camp seemed to follow its usual routine. The O'Malley presided over poker games and put on his annual St. Patrick's Day bash. Beat writers reported on the team's condition, noting the progress of the creaky old-timers and the promise of young pitchers such as Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax.
But as the writers followed the team's preparations for the season, they also covered the drama surrounding the Dodgers' search for a new home. The first big development involved O'Malley and Chicago Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley, who swapped two minor league clubs. Wrigley got the Dodgers' Texas League franchise in Fort Worth; O'Malley got the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League and their little stadium, Wrigley Field. The next big news was the arrival of a platoon of officials from Los Angeles who said they were on a mission called Operation O'Malley. Flaherty told the Dodgers owner, "You can call your shots, and Los Angeles will give you damn near anything."
The L.A. entourage was led by a gangly fellow with a big-toothed smile and thick black-frame glasses. Mayor Norris Poulson was, in Flaherty's estimation, "a self-glorified boob," yet he had risen steadily from the state assembly to the U.S. Congress and finally to the mayor's office. In his pursuit of major league baseball Poulson had joined with Hahn and the young city councilwoman Rosalind Wyman to make a deal with officials in San Francisco, who also wanted a big league team: San Francisco could go after the New York Giants, whose owner, Horace Stoneham, was secretly planning to leave Manhattan, and Los Angeles would court O'Malley. As San Francisco mayor George Christopher told Poulson, "We consider this practically a joint venture and know that if you are successful, San Francisco also will eventually receive major league baseball."
In Florida, Poulson & Co. waved brightly colored LOS ANGELES pennants and posed for photos with O'Malley and Dodgers slugger Duke Snider. "Mr. O'Malley has a problem," said Poulson. "We believe we can solve it, and quick." At dusk the day of the Californians' arrival they retired with O'Malley to a nearby hunting camp called Blue Cypress Ranch, which was owned by a member of the Dodgers' board. There, in rustic isolation -- the ranch didn't even have a phone -- Poulson confirmed that, as Flaherty had promised, O'Malley could get whatever he wanted, including Chavez Ravine in exchange for the Angels' Wrigley Field. A few days later O'Malley wrote to a friend, in another letter recently disclosed by the O'Malley family, "The Los Angeles matter is much further [along] than the newspaper accounts indicate."
At the close of spring training O'Malley met with Stoneham, who said he had decided to move his team to Minneapolis. O'Malley didn't try to persuade him to stay in New York, but he did suggest that the Giants owner consider San Francisco. If he moved there and the Dodgers went to Los Angeles, O'Malley said, they could re-create the fierce Giants-Dodgers rivalry on the West Coast.
With California threatening to grab both of New York's National League clubs, Mayor Wagner called everyone to another meeting. This time, however, it was O'Malley who said no. In O'Malley's eyes, Wagner lacked the power and the will to act in the Dodgers' favor. A petulant mayor told the press, "If the owners were set on leaving, we'll just have to pick up our marbles and go home."
Moses heaped blame on O'Malley in a long essay he wrote for the July 22 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED titled,
The Dodgers' departure was now an open secret, but the next move was made by Stoneham, who announced that the Giants were going to San Francisco. Suddenly the biggest baseball town in the country, the only one with three major league teams, was in danger of becoming a one-franchise city. In a futile attempt to play the white knight, Nelson Rockefeller, a prominent businessman and philanthropist soon to be elected governor of New York, offered to contribute a few million dollars toward a Brooklyn stadium. Wagner summoned O'Malley and Rockefeller to discuss the idea, but that gave them only false hope. After the meeting Moses sent a letter to the mayor's secretary saying that "Nelson has been badly advised" and the city had "nothing to gain" from his proposal. "This Dodger business," the letter concluded, "reminds me of the jitterbug jive."
The Dodgers played their last game at Ebbets Field on Sept. 24, 1957, a Tuesday night, five days after being eliminated from the pennant race. Attendance was 6,702. No announcement was made about the team's departure. No ceremony was conducted. But as the innings passed, the sad-faced Emmett Kelly pretended to wipe tears with his sleeve. Once the Pittsburgh Pirates had been defeated 2-0, organist Gladys Goodding played
In early October the Los Angeles city council approved the swap of Chavez Ravine for Wrigley Field. Dodgers publicity man Arthur (Red) Patterson walked into a press room set up at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan for reporters covering the World Series between the Yankees and the Milwaukee Braves. He handed out a one-page press release that tersely declared the end of major league baseball in Brooklyn.
So much had been said and written in advance of this formality that it didn't generate a big outcry. "There were no pickets, no mass protests, no suicides," Roger Kahn wrote 18 months later in
An editorial in
Other writers, including
Was it true? Had O'Malley crushed Brooklyn's spirit? The answer is no. In 1963, after the Dodgers vanquished the Yankees in the World Series, a
But then, in 1972, Kahn published one of the most romantic and moving baseball books ever written.
The owner could have devoted his sunset years to fighting for his name in Brooklyn; instead he built his dream stadium in Chavez Ravine, and with the cash from record-setting ticket sales he put together a premier franchise. The Dodgers won a championship in just their second year on the West Coast, and they topped the National League in winning percentage for 25 years. As much as he was reviled in New York, O'Malley was loved in Southern California, and in the end he viewed his success there as a gift from Robert Moses. He revealed this once, in a note to an old friend. It was the only document among his papers that expressed this view of his nemesis. O'Malley wrote:
It's plain to see that O'Malley was right. And the sons and daughters of Brooklyn have reason to let go of their old grudge. Truth is good for the soul. Forgive, and forget.