Former Dodgers' boss O'Malley gets sympathetic bio

March 16, 2009 11:52:51 AM PDT
"Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O'Malley, Baseball's Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles" by Michael D'Antonio BC-Book Review-Forever Blue,0609 AP Photo NYET220 By MICHAEL HILL Associated Press Writer

Crowds cheered along the streets of Brooklyn on Oct. 4, 1955. Children leaned out windows to clang on pots and men took turns whacking an effigy hanging from a lamppost labeled "Yankees."

The Brooklyn Dodgers had finally won the World Series - against their dreaded Bronx rivals, no less.

By 1958, the Dodgers had left Ebbets Field for Los Angeles. How did that happen? To left-behind fans and sportswriters, it was clear who the villain was: team owner Walter O'Malley.

O'Malley was a winner, a baseball pioneer and a visionary. His team broke the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson and he is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But his stock remains at junk-bond status in Brooklyn. Writing in his defense is biographer and former journalist Michael D'Antonio.

D'Antonio offers a nuanced antidote to the O'Malley-is-Judas story line. His O'Malley is a doting family man and a friendly guy who cared about his players and the borough. And that whole leaving-Brooklyn thing? Like other researchers before him, D'Antonio blames the loss more on the late Robert Moses, New York's all-powerful and Machiavellian master builder.

O'Malley did indeed want to leave cramped, creaky Ebbets Field for a new stadium with lots of parking for suburban fans. And he was willing to spend his own money to build a stadium in Brooklyn's Fort Greene. But he wanted the city to condemn the land. Moses balked. O'Malley kept pushing and Moses kept foot dragging, finally proposing a site in neighboring Queens (the future home of the Mets). O'Malley opted for Los Angeles, where city officials desperate for a baseball team gave him a sweetheart deal on prime land.

D'Antonio makes the case that O'Malley - mindful of declining attendance figures and demographic trends - made the decision he had to for the future of the team. It's hard to argue with O'Malley's business sense; the Los Angeles Dodgers went on to tremendous success on and off the field.

But D'Antonio shows O'Malley was no passive victim. His team was still making tons of money in Brooklyn and he strung along baseball-hungry officials in Los Angeles even as Moses was doing much the same to him. Maybe O'Malley was pushed west, but it's unclear how tightly he held on.

D'Antonio's writing is good and his research is excellent. But he seems to always find the most charitable explanation for O'Malley's actions, including the fallings out with other legendary Dodger men such as Robinson, executive Branch Rickey and broadcaster Red Barber (who called O'Malley "about the most devious man I ever met"). This trio of strong-willed men deserve a share of blame. But the pattern indicates O'Malley could favor his business over individuals.

O'Malley was at his core a businessman, for better or worse. This is a guy who explored pay-per-view when fans were watching games on black-and-white TVs. And when the indispensable pitching duo of Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax banded together to hold out for more money in 1966, the old operator could appreciate a smart move even if it cost him money. As he told Sports Illustrated, "I admire the boys' strategy."