For more than 40 years, I have placed Walter O'Malley, the man who moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, in my pantheon of minor villains, somewhere between Laurence Tisch, who ruined CBS News, and Bill Parcells, who deserted the New York Giants. Now, according to Michael Shapiro, he is not a villain at all. An opinion cherished for nearly half a century must be discarded, however reluctantly.
True, as Shapiro describes him in his informative and highly readable "The Last Good Season," O'Malley was not a very nice man. He was kind to his family, but that was about all. He was generally not to be trusted, "his stock in trade ... the wink, the nod and the empty smile." As a businessman, O'Malley was loyal only to his pocketbook. Still, as Shapiro tells us, O'Malley did try to keep the aging Dodger team safe at home in Brooklyn. That in itself, speaking as one reared in the shadow of Ebbets Field, gives him a pass out of villainy.
Before O'Malley came around, baseball had been played in Brooklyn for 100 years. The first team ever to pay a player was in Brooklyn. The first recorded curve ball was thrown in the late 19th century by a Brooklyn pitcher. An Englishman, Henry Chadwick, created the profession of baseball writer, but he did it for the Brooklyn Eagle, helped on occasion by his colleague Walt Whitman. One can speculate that baseball as we know it would not have existed without Brooklyn. It is a borough that has always produced wonders; think only of Mae West and Barbra Streisand.
Shapiro is excellent on Brooklyn, its history and its relationship to the Dodgers. Initially, the team was called the "Trolley Dodgers," a taunt from Manhattanites who thought Brooklynites were always dodging their numerous trolley cars. Until the 1940s, it was never a great and rarely a good team. The Dodgers did get to the World Series in 1916 and 1920, losing both, but those years were giddy exceptions. They were usually a very bad team. I still retain a child's memory of a fielder named Babe Herman (fielder is a euphemism for what he did), retreating under a fly ball and confidently holding up his glove as the ball landed 20 feet in front of him.
However, Shapiro feels that if the Dodgers had been a team that won more than it lost, they would not have inspired the loyalty of their fans. "Great teams are like beautiful people," he writes, "the focus of the imagination though not necessarily the heart.... A losing team has fewer admirers, but their allegiance endures, year after year. It is a relationship built upon hope and disappointment." You can extend that beyond baseball. Winning produces records and memorials. Losing produces art.
O'Malley bought the Dodgers through the Brooklyn Trust Co., whose president was a friend of his father's. The bank had found itself stuck with a flock of mortgages. Among them was the estate of Charles Ebbets, who owned the Dodgers and their stadium. O'Malley was a bankruptcy lawyer who had become wealthy during the Depression, what was called "a grave dancer." There were the usual battles among claimants to the Ebbets estate, and the bank threw O'Malley into the mix. When the smoke cleared, he was one of the owners.
For a while, he had to share ownership with Branch Rickey, the man who had brought the first black player, Jackie Robinson, to the major leagues. Shapiro feels this was not something O'Malley would have even contemplated. Rickey had won pennants with the Dodgers in 1947 and 1949. O'Malley despised him. He thought Rickey "a sanctimonious prig" who neither swore nor drank. Rickey was also a baseball man, which O'Malley was not, and a visionary. O'Malley had no use for visions that did not include dollar signs. His vice president, Buzzie Bavasi, thought he might have been "a wonderful guy except he loved money too ... much." Bavasi would have known. He had endeared himself to O'Malley while running the minor league Montreal franchise by pointing out the money he had made on peanut sales by cutting the number of peanuts in a bag from 35 to 34. "It had saved the team the cost of 4,000 peanuts a night."
O'Malley finally bought Rickey out but still hated him. Anyone who mentioned Rickey's name around the office was fined a quarter. Now, O'Malley found himself with a good ballclub but a bad stadium. He set out to find another site on which to build a new one. He even consulted Buckminster Fuller on what kind to build, and one of Fuller's students came up with a dazzling model that even had a dome. There was no thought of leaving Brooklyn. There was no feeling that a choice new site could not be found. Unfortunately, someone was in his way, a man Shapiro calls the real villain of the piece. His name was Robert Moses.
Moses was the head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. He was also parks commissioner, construction commissioner and chairman of the Slum Clearance Committee. No one had ever elected him; he was appointed. "As an appointee, he had built seven great bridges, sixteen expressways and highways, over a thousand housing projects and over six hundred playgrounds. He built parks and dams." He built pretty much what he pleased. He changed the face of the city and the suburbs. No one successfully challenged him; you did so at your peril. If it meant displacing a few thousand families to build a bridge across the Hudson, it was too bad for the families. Robert Moses was a law to himself, eulogized by newspapers and politicians. Shapiro calls him "arrogant, imperious and cruel." He was another man with a vision, although this one did not include any concern for the poor, the black or the Latino. He was building his idea of a great city and would allow nothing, especially people, to get in his way.
Moses always claimed he supported O'Malley's idea for a stadium. It was just that the choice spots O'Malley found never quite coincided with what Moses thought was suitable. They always seemed to lack the necessary public purpose. What existed on those spots had first to be condemned in order for a stadium to rise. Washington had given Moses that power. What he wanted to condemn got flattened, and his idea of what to put in its place was usually a highway or high-rise housing or, if he could find appropriate water, a bridge. Not a ballpark.
O'Malley went to important people for help with Moses. They got nowhere. He went to the borough president of Brooklyn, John Cashmore, a genial political hack whose main interest was preventing Pete Seeger from performing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Keeping the Dodgers in Brooklyn was important, but not as important as saving the country from communists. By then, according to Shapiro, Moses was not acting out of any kind of principle. He didn't like O'Malley and he didn't like being pressured. He worried, though, that others might think his rejections were personal. He offered O'Malley other sites, none of them suitable. One was in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section, an area increasingly black. O'Malley, who had no idea of what Brooklyn was becoming or who his Dodgers' fan base now comprised, felt that his kind of Brooklyn would never come there.
Meanwhile, he was losing money at Ebbets Field. Attendance was down and the stadium was fast deteriorating. So he listened to an offer from Los Angeles, a city eager to enter the major leagues in any activity it could. Already, its representatives had contacted Calvin Griffith, who owned the Washington Senators, in the hope of luring that woeful team west. Griffith was interested, but so was O'Malley. He flew to L.A., where they promised him a deal beyond even his dreams of avarice. On the afternoon of Oct. 8, 1957, his press representative stood before reporters in Manhattan and told them the news. The Dodgers were leaving.
Shapiro tells this complicated story well and clearly, with feeling, a fine knowledge of baseball and the fallible men who play it, and without sentimentality. To balance the politicians and money men, he adds vignettes of average Dodger fans and also a running account of the Dodger's pennant-winning season in 1956. Shapiro is especially good on the meaning of what was done to Brooklyn in the name of progress. He believes that O'Malley should never have owned a baseball team "because he could not see that baseball is more than a business.... This did not make him unique among team owners. He was just the first to be so obvious about it.... [It is] the one thing that he and Robert Moses had in common. Neither man truly appreciated cities. They understood the things they could build in cities ... but they did not understand people who lived in the cities."
Brooklyn went into a decline after the Dodgers left, but it is thriving today. Once again, it has a healthy mix of races and nationalities. There is a farm team for the Mets playing in Coney Island and selling out its games. And there is now a very good book about what happened when two men, one in pursuit of money and the other of power, failed to understand what cities are really about.