TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW : Pete O’Malley Ran Dodgers Well, but He Lacked the Passion of His Father and Branch Rickey

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Roger Kahn is the author of "The Boys of Summer," which chronicled the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers' drive to the World Series championship. Kahn's next book, "Memories of Summer: When Baseball Was an Art and Writing About it a Game," will be out in April

Peter O’Malley’s decision to hang a “For sale” sign outside Dodger Stadium calls to mind a story from the annals of classical music. Johannes Brahms did not complete his first symphony until he had passed his 40th birthday and someone hearing this towering work asked what had taken so long. In a gracious nod to the genius of Beethoven, Brahms said simply, “I was walking in the footsteps of a giant.”

As it was Peter O’Malley’s grand luck to inherit the Dodger baseball empire, so it was Peter’s misfortune to follow not one giant but two.

Branch Rickey, who ran the Dodgers from 1942 to 1950, was the heroic figure who signed Jackie Robinson and ended more than a half-century of baseball apartheid. The old man was smart and shrewd and eloquent to a point where he drew comparisons to Winston Churchill.


Walter O’Malley, Peter’s father, ran the Dodgers from 1950 almost until his death of cancer in 1979. Walter brought major league baseball to California, built the grand ballpark at Chavez Ravine and became the not-so-gray eminence who--behind the scenes--ran big-league ball for many years.

As Red Smith, the late master sportswriter, put it, “When Walter O’Malley wants a cup of coffee it is [Commissioner] Bowie Kuhn who says, ‘One lump or two?’ ”

Walter was a teller of tall tales, a master manipulator, a businessman of amazing flair and, although this is not appreciated on the streets of Flatbush, he was a visionary.

Beyond these matters, Rickey and Walter O’Malley were winners. They produced triumphant and thrilling teams.

With Robinson and Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider and Roy Campanella, Rickey’s Dodgers dominated the National League for years. Walter moved west after the 1957 season and after an orientation year, his Dodgers brought the World Series championship to Los Angeles in 1959.

Walter’s own California Dodger teams--Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and the rest--dominated another era. And the O’Malley Dodgers were the first team to consistently draw 3 million fans.


The recent news dispatch on Peter O’Malley’s decision points out that the Dodgers have finished either first or second 19 times in Peter’s 27 presidential seasons. This suggests that he too is a triumphant owner. Unfortunately, that suggestion is more spin-doctoring than truth.

During some of those years, Peter worked for his father, who had awarded himself a new title, chairman of the board. Chairman Walter continued to run the organization. And for years after Walter’s death, the Dodgers won on Walter’s momentum.

The team last won a pennant in 1988 and today we are two-thirds of the way through the 1990s. This decade may well be the first since the 1930s when the Dodgers won no pennant at all.

My own judgment is that Peter has been a caretaker president. He has not approached Rickey’s eloquence nor does he possess his father’s style or combative cunning. Such varied people as Sandy Koufax and Rachel Robinson speak of Peter with great affection, but I never felt he had what these other Dodger presidents possessed: a passion for baseball that made bubbles in the blood.

My encounter with the California family O’Malley traces to a Brooklyn prep school that stood at the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Prospect Place long ago. Without fee my father, an old City College third baseman, served as athletic director. Also without fee, Walter O’Malley served as a trustee.

Peter was a few grades behind me and I remember him as tall, thin, not athletic, wearing spectacles and a serious mien. Froebel Academy was a small school, but we fielded varsity teams in baseball and six-man football.


In a torrent of happiness, I recall, after a bad day in math class, hurrying to the locker room to rip off my chapel clothing, strap on shoulder pads, tan football pants, pull on my blue and gold Froebel jersey and clamp on my brown leather helmet. Goodbye, math klutz. Hello, running back. That is as much of paradise as I have known.

Peter O’Malley didn’t make varsity. Neither did he hang out, as other youngsters did, to watch practice. All of us who wore Froebel varsity blue and gold felt contempt for boys who did not. I suspect I may have been cruel or dismissive to Peter 45 or 50 years ago. Whatever, we have never been as close as our common background and somewhat parallel careers might suggest.

When the New York Herald Tribune assigned me to cover the Dodgers in 1952, old Froebel Trustee Walter O’Malley made a great show of welcoming me to the ballclub and spoke of how proud he was that a “Froebel boy” had gotten this very fine position with this very fine newspaper.

He said the door was always open to a Froebel boy and he invariably asked me to join him in the “Royal Box” at Ebbets Field when he entertained a celebrity. That was how I met Earl Warren and Douglas MacArthur.

When Walter came to realize with some pain that I would not be a flak for the Dodgers, and that the ordeal of Jackie Robinson was something I intended to record, he took to inviting me into his office and saying, “I’m surprised a Froebel boy would be so easily taken in by such a shameless publicity seeker as this fellow Robinson.”

I defended my reporting and my viewpoint and at length O’Malley said, “What Robinson hears on the field, those nasty wisecracks, are meaningless. Why, if you were around the Brooklyn courthouse, you know what you would hear? ‘Another Jew judge.’ Means nothing.”


“Walter, I said, “Another Jew judge is as offensive as the word nigger.”

We vied, but however hotly that went, Walter never ducked a phone call or a confrontation. Sometimes we exchanged hard looks; always we were men together.

With the team established in Dodger Stadium in 1976, I got a call from the New York Times, which was suddenly discovering sports. I was told--the New York Times seldom asks--that I would write the lead column in a new section, SportsMonday, and I would find, please, something that would grab appropriate attention. I called Walter to see if we could lunch and I could ask if he regretted leaving Brooklyn.

“Who pays for lunch?”

“You or Sulzberger [who owned the Times]. Expense account.”

“I mean, who will pick up the check at the table?”

“All right. I will.”

“Perrino’s. Wednesday. 12:30.”

He had a thing or two to tell me. First there was that domed stadium he wanted to build in Brooklyn. He had gotten the idea from researches into the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum in ancient Rome where a retractable cloth roof called the valerium protected those of “equestrian rank or higher.”

The roof operated with winches, somewhat similar to the sail hoists on a Roman navy vessel. A hole in the center of the valerium let warm air escape, which it did so quickly that no raindrops fell through. My son, Gordon J. Kahn, an architect, confirmed Walter’s research a few years ago. Roman nobles did indeed sit dry and comfortable, even on rainy days, as they watched lions chew Christians.

You could not spend much time with Walter O’Malley without becoming wiser than you had been.

Municipal officials and Robert Moses dismissed Walter’s ideas. No dome. No downtown Brooklyn ballpark. You’ll have to put your park in Queens.


In a defining moment, Walter said, “But if I do that, Mr. Moses, they will no longer be the Brooklyn Dodgers.”

This hypnotic monologue went on for a very long time. We drank and ate at length and the check came. Walter’s sudden glare defined the term “black Irishman.” I let him wait but I finally produced a credit card.

Walter relaxed.

“Counting Froebel Academy,” he said, “I’ve know you for more than 30 years. This is the first time you’ve ever picked up a check for me.”

“Get the restaurant photographer,” I said. “I want a picture for Cooperstown.”

Back came the black Irish glare. “You’ll have to settle for an affidavit.”

We laughed and had another drink and then the chairman of the board of the Los Angeles Dodgers drove me to the airport. That story made everyone, myself, the New York Times, SportsMonday, seem somewhat better than we were.

Peter really took over in 1980, after Walter’s death, and the next year the Dodgers of Pedro Guerrero, Steve Yeager and Cey lost the first two World Series games, then swept the Yankees. But trouble was coming. It broke about Peter’s brow when the baseball season opened in 1987.

This would be the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s Dodger debut and Ted Koppel asked me and Dodger General Manager Al Campanis to appear on “Nightline.” The program is not scripted but that afternoon some TV types called and said what questions would I like to be asked. Simple answer. What would Robinson think of the state of blacks in baseball today?


That is what Koppel asked about 11:33. I answered that Jack would be dismayed that no blacks were managing in the major leagues.

Koppel: “Is Mr. Kahn’s statement true and, if it is, to what do you attribute it?”

Campanis: “Blacks lack the necessities to manage.”

What a yahoo crack. He says blacks are dumb and in so saying misuses a simple word, necessities.

About 10 minutes later, I said with sarcasm, “I get it, Al. Are blacks smart enough to work in the field, the cotton fields, the ball fields? Sure. But are they smart enough to manage? No, of course not.”

That year Peter cut me from his Christmas card list. At some expense, I traveled to Vero Beach in the spring, intending to explain the media business to him. You don’t let your people go on Koppel unprepared. Koppel is not Virginia Graham.

Peter refused to meet me in Dodgertown but dispatched Fred Claire, who said, “Well, since you are an old friend we thought you’d rescue Campanis. You’d say, ‘Hey, Al, it’s me. You don’t really mean what you’re saying, right?’ ”

“Fred, tell Peter what Campanis said was not defensible, and anyway, why don’t you guys have a black manager, or even a black third-base coach?”


Plodding Peter O’Malley doesn’t get it. Never did. How much happier he might have been with a less demanding father and a full-time job, talking investments to WASP widows at Merrill Lynch.

Peter leaves with a whimper, issuing a statement that baseball is now a high risk-business.

Not really, kid.

Look at George M. Steinbrenner. He’s got the New York cable companies and local TV channels bidding for TV and radio rights. The Yankees pull in more than $50 million a year, up front--not counting parking, hot dog sales, beer receipts, let alone ticket sales.

What’s the worst-case risk? A negative Esquire piece by Mike Lupica. Adults have to be able to stand such pressure.

Consider Ted Turner. The Atlanta Braves will bloom in the black for the foreseeable future, unless Lady Jane wakes up and starts picking shortstops.

Cleveland? Baltimore? Texas? Serious teams. Pure platinum.

In the chaos of baseball today, the president of the Dodgers has to go out and compete in free agency, arbitration--all the boring rest of money stuff--and compete against Turner, Steinbrenner and the gang.


Branch Rickey would have salivated at the chance. Walter O’Malley would have taken Steinbrenner and Turner to lunch, perhaps separately, and devoured both. He would have gotten Lupica, who is very short, a shorter, very pretty girl.

That’s baseball, man.

Peter O’Malley would rather talk goodness, civic responsibility and “bringing the game to all those millions of normal-sized people in China.”

Up there, in that big ballpark in the sky, Branch Rickey and Walter O’Malley are finally speaking.

“Your boy is a nice person,” Rickey says, “but have you not taught him about Christ Militant? Onward Christian Soldiers?”

Walter is saying, “Fine stuff, Branch, but who gets the tab for this ambrosia?”

The Dodgers were too much for Peter, who was not a bad fellow, if left alone. Big-time sports doesn’t do that. You are not going to inherit millions from big-time sport, presume to run a tough team and be left alone.

Now what? Peter is through.

Say Trump and Disney buy his package. Peter reinvests and purchases Romania. Subsequently, he apologizes to Sandy Koufax for the anti-Semitism of Walt Alston. After therapy he becomes existentially aware of the ordeal of Jackie Robinson. He rehires Campanis as a houseboy.


In 1999, Dodger Stadium, still not repainted, appears as the center of fresh enterprise. DODGERWORLD. Car wash. Motel. Livery. Travel. Theme park.

Come ride the Garvey-Coaster. Take the kiddies for a spin in Drysdale-Mobiles. Work out your arm at the brand new Koufax-a-matic. Pick all the flowers you want, a buck a petal.

Peter is a decent man, probably one hell of a lot better than what will follow.

I wish I had been nicer to him when I wore a leather football helmet and the blue and gold colors of Froebel Academy.


DEVELOPMENTS: Bidders Begin Expressing Interest in Buying Dodgers. A1

COLUMNISTS: Robert A. Jones, B2; James Flanigan, D1