Fifty years after Walter O’Malley pulled the Dodgers out of Brooklyn, baseball honored him with election to the Hall of Fame.
Reaction to the Dec. 3 announcement is mixed, though it tends to become more positive as one moves west. After all, O’Malley built his reputation on moving the Dodgers; it is the primary accomplishment cited by the Hall in its press release on the new inductees, and the lead sentence of his Times obituary.
That record has led to O’Malley being reviled by all manner of Brooklyn fans and assorted baseball traditionalists. A famous story has a pair of New York journalists trading their lists of the three greatest villains of the twentieth century; both men included Hitler, Stalin and Walter O’Malley.
“I’m flabbergasted, is my response,” Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz said in a telephone interview following the announcement. “A couple of weeks ago, I read that they were even considering honoring Walter O’Malley. I told them if they insisted on doing this, it would break the hearts of Brooklynites all over again.” Markowitz suggested that the Hall make it up to Brooklyn with the enshrinement of former Dodger Gil Hodges.
But longtime Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda, not surprisingly, had a different take at the press conference to announce the honor. “He deserves it,” Lasorda said. “He’s a pioneer. He made a tremendous change in the game, opening up the West Coast to Major League Baseball.”
Brooklyn-born Michael Shapiro, whose book, “The Last Good Season,” catalogues the many difficulties O’Malley had as he tried to keep the team in town, explained his opinion that, on balance, O’Malley deserved to get in the Hall.
“I say yes,” Shapiro said in a telephone interview. “Look, Walter O’Malley changed baseball–though you could argue not for the better from the Brooklyn perspective. Until he moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles, and by extension persuaded [Giants owner] Horace Stoneham to move to San Francisco, baseball’s map ended in Kansas City. That move allowed more people in more cities to experience the game.”
But as Shapiro acknowledged, O’Malley wasn’t the first to think of moving to California; indeed, just four years later, the American League reached the Los Angeles through expansion, and not at the expense of a fan base that drew as well as nearly any in baseball. Doesn’t the removal of two teams from New York mitigate the accomplishment?
“Sure it does,” Shapiro said. “And you have to remember, O’Malley didn’t do this to make baseball better—he wanted to be richer. He made baseball his business, rather than making his money elsewhere. He was a guy who saw baseball as a way to make his own success. Los Angeles presented itself as an opportunity, and he wanted to be the richest man in baseball.”
So O’Malley profited, but the move appears to be, at best, a wash for baseball fans. Consider that had O’Malley taken the offer of land in Queens (where Shea Stadium now sits), the Dodgers could have merely been as profitable as the Mets—that is to say, obscenely profitable.
What else contributes to his argument for enshrinement? Those who argue that he fought hard to stay in Brooklyn mitigate the vision he apparently showed by moving to Los Angeles. And the stadium he envisioned in Brooklyn, according to longtime Dodger Carl Erskine, was a domed stadium like the Astrodome—exactly the type of stadium baseball has come to abhor. Indeed, it is hard to argue that Astroturf would have made O’Malley Hall-worthy, either.
Other O’Malley moves included forcing Branch Rickey, driving force behind the integration of baseball, out of the Dodger organization, and trading Jackie Robinson to the Giants, not for baseball reasons, but because, according to Erskine, Robinson’s newspaper column had become “too controversial.”
Shapiro pointed out that O’Malley’s dedication to the economic viability of the Dodgers did lead to the creation of a stadium in Los Angeles that is considered to be one of baseball’s finest, even 45 years later.
“What Walter O’Malley did was say, ‘I’m the agent of change.’ You ask people in Los Angeles, they’ll tell you he’s a saint,” Shapiro said.
But it is Ebbets Field that the Mets’ new stadium is modeled after, and other new parks in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia share far more with the Brooklyn field than the Los Angeles one. Wrigley Field (opened 1914) and Fenway Park (opened 1912), both contemporaries of Ebbets (opened 1912), show that tradition needn’t be sacrificed for profit.
O’Malley’s other major selling point, his dominance over baseball’s decisions from 1960-1970, came at a time when the game was passed in popularity by football– hardly a selling point.
The one thing that can be said for O’Malley, in the end, is that he knew his business.
“Look, I grew up in Dodger-less Brooklyn,” said Shapiro, who was born in 1952, making him 5 when the Dodgers moved. “I have nothing but regret and residual anger at Walter O’Malley for denying me the Dodgers. But I also have come to a grudging respect. You know what? He’s a smart son of a bitch.”
Follow Howard Megdal via RSS.