Red Barber called 1947 the year “When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball.” The team Barber broadcast for, the Brooklyn Dodgers, was at the center of that year’s headlines. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Leo Durocher was banned from the game.
Behind the headlines, in the quiet of the boardroom at the team’s 215 Montague Street headquarters, issues that would profoundly affect the Dodgers, and indeed all of baseball, were being shaped by three men. Two of the triumvirate would leave large marks on the history of baseball, and the third would choose which of those two would finally control the team.
The issues on the table often seemed routine. Should they add additional seats in center field? Should they agree to pay their accountants more? Who should sponsor radio broadcasts? But each of these issues wound itself around larger ones. How much should it spend on its scouting and farm systems? What should be done about Ebbets Field?
To understand the arguments playing out in the minutes of these board meetings, it is necessary to understand how the ownership of the Dodgers was structured—and how that structure set the pattern for how the partnership would come apart.
The story begins in 1912, as Charles Ebbets struggled to finish the stadium that would bear his name. He ran short of cash and sold half his franchise to Stephen and Edward McKeever, brothers who brought both money and construction experience to the project. Things ran smoothly through pennants in 1916 and 1920. By 1925 the New York Times would describe the Dodgers as “one of the soundest organizations financially in professional baseball.”
That began to change with the death of Charles Ebbets in April of that year, followed by that of Ed McKeever eleven days later. Both men had multiple heirs with multiple interests. The board soon settled into a thirteen-year stalemate, with the feuding McKeever and Ebbets interests each holding exactly 50 percent. The team descended into serious debt, a situation exacerbated by the Great Depression. Even when the National League stepped in to name a president to act as arbitrator, matters did not improve. By the end of the 1937 season, phone service had been cut off to the team’s offices because the bills had not been paid.
Effectively, the team was controlled by the Brooklyn Trust Company and its chairman, George V. McLaughlin. The team owed the bank over $700,000, and it had also loaned money to both the Ebbets and McKeever heirs, with their shares in the team as collateral. McLaughlin and the league pressured the two factions to find an executive they both could accept, and who could bring the team out of its financial troubles. James Mulvey, husband of Stephen McKeever’s daughter Dearie, went to St. Louis to lure Branch Rickey. Rickey demurred, but he recommended that the team hire Larry MacPhail, who most recently had run the Cincinnati Reds.
MacPhail arrived for the 1938 season and turned the franchise around. By the end of 1942, the Dodgers had won a pennant and barely missed another. Despite borrowing another $200,000, MacPhail had reduced the franchise’s debt to