Walter O’Malley

Under the ownership of Walter O’Malley, who became the National League‘s most influential owner, the Los Angeles Dodgers became the most prosperous and most stable franchise in major-league baseball.

He took control of the team in the midst of its Boys of Summer era in Brooklyn, inheriting a group of regulars who played together for about 10 years. O’Malley installed a new manager, Walter Alston, who served consecutive one-year contracts, through good years and bad, until retirement in gracious seniority. Alston passed the reins to Tommy Lasorda, a pitcher not quite good enough to crack the Brooklyn-era staff who had served the organization as a coach and minor league manager. First Alston and then Lasorda managed the longest-running intact infield in ML history. And throughout the O’Malley years, which were extended beyond Walter’s death by the leadership of his son Peter, the Dodgers have had a continuous broadcast voice, Vin Scully. The Dodgers promote from within, take care of alumni when they need help, and play in a clean, commodious ballpark. They were the first franchise to draw three million fans in a season, and through the end of the 1980s did it more times than every other major-league team combined.

People who grew up with the Brooklyn Dodgers see a different Walter O’Malley. In a famous incident, writers Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield wrote their own list of the three worst villains of the 20th century on a piece of paper to settle a discussion they were having over lunch. They each wrote the same three names in the same order: Hitler, Stalin, Walter O’Malley.

O’Malley, born into a wealthy family, graduated from Fordham Law School in 1920. During the Depression he built a practice by representing bankrupt companies. He joined the Dodger management as the lawyer protecting the interests of the Brooklyn Trust Company in 1933. As the McKeever family stock was sold, O’Malley took a personal position as a minority owner and was a substantial shareholder by the time Branch Rickey took control in 1942. Rickey built the Boys of Summer team, in no small part because he also broke the color line, but O’Malley outmaneuvered him for majority control of the team in 1950. Rickey left an enduring on-field legacy, but under O’Malley the sometimes casual Dodger franchise was carefully managed for profit.

The move of the Braves from Boston to Milwaukee for the 1953 season was the first major-league franchise shift in 50 years. Suddenly drawing a nearly-unprecedented two million fans each year, the previously moribund Braves were suddenly an economic threat to compete with any NL team, even one as prosperous as the Brooklyn Dodgers. And the franchise shift, and the others that quickly followed (St. Louis Browns to Baltimore, Philadelphia A’s to Kansas City), made the previously sacrosanct ML map considerably less binding.

O’Malley saw real limits to the Dodger situation in Brooklyn. Ebbets Field was small, seating under 35,000 (three-million-attendance requires an average game attendance of nearly 37,000), without adequate parking, and in a deteriorating neighborhood. O’Malley lobbied local politicians for a new stadium in downtown Brooklyn. In the meantime, he started serious discussions with the city of Los Angeles. When he was able to strike a deal for a valuable parcel of real estate tucked in the hills above downtown called Chavez Ravine, he agreed to build his own stadium and move the team to the West Coast. In the meantime, he brokered the marriage of his rivals, the New York Giants, with the city of San Francisco. In a brilliant business stroke, O’Malley had moved baseball’s greatest rivalry from New York to California. The presence of both teams made it easier for the other NL owners to support the move because the then long and novel West Coast flight would cover two road series each time. The Giants’ move was officially announced first — they were in a truly weak financial condition where economic motivation was compelling. But O’Malley had orchestrated the move.

The Dodgers played their first four Los Angeles seasons in the Memorial Coliseum, a football stadium that converted to baseball only with considerable difficulty. O’Malley refused to share the Los Angeles Coliseum with the expansion Angels because the city, not O’Malley, would get the money. In 1962 O’Malley’s own Dodger Stadium opened, with novel dugout-level seats and vast acres of terraced parking, O’Malley cheerfully rented it to the Angels. The team won frequent championships: a cluster in the 1960s on the backs of a dominating pitching staff, a pair in the late 1970s with ubiquitous home run power. Meanwhile, O’Malley designed the golf courses surrounding the Dodgertown spring training facility at Vero Beach, Florida, and supervised the installation of profitable orange groves on part of the adjoining land.

O’Malley’s success and vision put him in a kingmaker position among NL owners. He didn’t throw his weight around very often, but his influence was nonetheless apparent; Bowie Kuhn was his choice as Commissioner, and O’Malley kept Kuhn in his office as long as he lived. His influence also came through the imitation of successful Dodger policies by other teams; the Dodgers’ use of a five-man pitching rotation was almost universally adopted.

O’Malley made himself richer time after time; when the Dodgers moved west, he got a great land deal out of it. But the organization benefited greatly, and the institutional memory of the Dodgers had made them one of the most benevolent franchises toward its retired players.