The Brooklyn Dodgers' Move to Los Angeles: Was Walter O'Malley Solely Responsible?

Article excerpt

O'Malley was not just my villain. He was Brooklyn's. He was the man whom Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield famously placed in their triumvirate of evil, along with Hitler and Stalin. But as I began to learn more about O'Malley and about the circumstances of the Dodgers' departure, I began to discover that perhaps--forgive me, Jack and Pete--Brooklyn's hatred was misapplied. Could we have been hating the wrong man all these years?

Michael Shapiro, "Forgiving the Demon of the Dodgers" (1)

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No sooner had Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley announced that he was selling the Dodgers in January 1997 than the New York tabloids began speculating that the Dodgers might be returned to Brooklyn. New York governor George Pataki launched "an all-out effort" to reclaim the Dodgers, but his efforts were in vain. (2) Known as "Dem Bums" for their feeble record during much of the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, the Brooklyn Dodgers nonetheless inspired undying loyalty. In 1947 the team helped break down racism in professional sports when Jackie Robinson became the first black player in Major League baseball; in 1955 the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series. (3) That is why it came as such a shock to the residents of Brooklyn when it was announced on October 7, 1957, that the Brooklyn Dodgers were moving to Los Angeles. Without fanfare or ceremony Brooklyn lost the team that for sixty-seven years as a National League franchise had figured so prominently in the community.

Passions of this kind tend to cohere around a villain, and discussions of the Brooklyn Dodgers' relocation have focused on their president, Walter Francis O'Malley, the man who ultimately decided to relocate the team to Los Angeles. An engineer, a lawyer, and a self-described Tory, O'Malley is almost universally perceived as a Machiavelli who made all decisions concerning the Dodgers with a ruthlessly dispassionate analysis of how it would affect his profits. Months before the Dodgers' departure was announced, Arthur Daley of the New York Times denounced O'Malley as a "Gaelic Machiavelli, a cold schemer who would cast aside any loyalties in order to make a dollar." (4) Years later, in a list compiled by New York newspaper columnists Jack Newfield and Pete Hamill, O'Malley ranked behind Hitler and Stalin as one of the ten worst men who ever lived. (5) Following his death in 1979, effigies of the Dodgers owner were burned in the streets of Brooklyn. Even in 1994 a fan envisioned "Walter O'Malley, amid the sulphurous fumes of the pit." (6)

However, was Walter O'Malley actually to blame for the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles? Did he leave a prosperous situation in Brooklyn because he was driven by greed and believed he could turn a greater profit in Los Angeles? O'Malley as villain may offer emotional satisfaction to the disgruntled residents of Brooklyn, but it is poor history. O'Malley was but one actor in a political game that played out in New York. Greed was not the motivation behind the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles. O'Malley had demonstrated that he was dedicated to building a stadium in Brooklyn. However, he faced persistent opposition from Robert Moses, New York Parks commissioner and head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, Construction Commission, and Slum Clearance Committee, as well as from officials who comprised the Board of Estimate. Facing this opposition, O'Malley was offered land in Chavez Ravine, and he chose to move the Dodgers to Los Angeles.

EBBETS FIELD

Ebbets Field, the Brooklyn Dodgers' home stadium, was designed by Charles Von Buskirk, was constructed in 1913, and cost Brooklyn Dodgers owner Charles Ebbets $750,000. (7) The day following the stadium's opening, the lead story in the Brooklyn Eagle exulted it as the most modern and spacious ball-park in professional baseball: "Twenty-five thousand hearts thumped with joy, twenty-five thousand pairs of feet pounded on the concrete floor, and twenty-five thousand voices roared with delight--the day of days had at last arrived. …