Two out of Three Ain't Bad: Branch Rickey, Walter O'Malley, and the Man in the Middle of the Dodger Owners' Partnership

Article excerpt

Walter F. O'Malley, 47-year-old Brooklyn lawyer, and Mrs. John L. Smith, widow of the partner of O'Malley and Branch Rickey, will become joint owners of seventy-five per cent of the Brooklyn Baseball Club stock through the purchase of Rickey's twenty-five percent.

Roscoe McGowen in the New York Times, October 25, 1950

"Walter O'Malley, Brooklyn attorney, and Mrs. John L. Smith, widow of former penicillin manufacturer and treasurer of the Brooklyn Baseball Club, announced jointly yesterday that they will "exercise their prior rights" and will purchase Branch Rickey's 25 percent holdings in the Dodgers.

Harold Rosenthal in the New York Herald-Tribune, October 25, 1950

The Lady has bought more stock in the Dodgers. President Branch Rickey has two strikes against him with the purchase of the Mahatma's 25 percent holdings in the ball club yesterday by the widow of John L. Smith and Walter F. O'Malley.

Harold Burr in the Brooklyn Eagle, October 25, 1950

When the transfer of Rickey's stock is completed ... the Dodger stock setup will be as follows: 37.5 percent held by O'Malley, 37.5 percent held by Mrs. Smith and 25 percent held by Mrs. Jim Mulvey, daughter of the late Steve McKeever.

Gus Steiger in the New York Daily Mirror, October 25, 1950

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Although you'd never know it from these news stories, Walter O'Malley had taken over the Dodgers, beginning fifty years of family ownership of one of baseball's most financially successful franchises. Today only the most die-hard Dodger fans have heard of Mary Louise Smith. Her appearance in the ownership ranks would be fleeting.

But misunderstandings based on the reporting of the day would continue to becloud the historians who tried to write the second rough draft of history. There would be stories that O'Malley had outfoxed Branch Rickey, or vice versa. It would be neither the first time nor the last that Walter O'Malley's careful use of words--as well as contemporary sports reporters' lack of familiarity with contracts and business issues--would leave a misleading impression. At the time, none of these reporters had access to a partnership agreement that Rickey, John L. Smith, and O'Malley had signed five years earlier, a contract that defined the terms of the chess match played out in the summer and fall of 1950. The reporters, and therefore the public, saw only the end game of that match, for the contract set the parameters that ordained the moves of both players. (1) To understand that contract some context is necessary.

By 1912 Charles H. Ebbets had gained full ownership of the Brooklyn Dodgers, having risen from bookkeeper to magnate over thirty years. Ebbets had also embarked on the construction of the stadium that would be named after him. During the summer of that year, it became apparent that Ebbets didn't have the financial wherewithal to complete construction. Thus he traded half his ownership to two brothers, Edwin and Steve McKeever, Brooklyn natives who had prospered in, among other things, the construction business. The brothers provided the cash and the construction expertise to finish the job. Each brother took 25 percent of the stock. (2)

All went well until Ebbets died in 1925. An elaborate funeral was held on a cold, rainy afternoon in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery, and Ebbets's casket proved too large for the hole. The crowd stood in the weather for over an hour while gravediggers were summoned and the hole was widened. Ed McKeever caught pneumonia and died eleven days later, leaving 75 percent of the team's stock in the control of his and Ebbets's estates.

Ebbets's heirs were numerous and clamorous. The McKeever heirs were merely numerous. They were also naturally allied with Steve McKeever. Front office relations quickly deteriorated into two head-butting factions, each controlling 50 percent of the stock. Manager Wilbert Robinson and other team presidents of the era found the split impossible to mend. …