Brooklyn’s side of the O’Malley saga
One in a series of stories marking the Dodgers’ 50th anniversary in L.A.
About midway through his blundering reign as president of the Dodgers, Peter O’Malley assigned his publicity chief, Tommy Hawkins, to a Mission: Impossible. Hawkins, bright, personable and a former Notre Dame basketball star, was to discover why the O’Malley clan was hated so venomously in Brooklyn.
Peter’s father, Walter O’Malley, is mostly famous for moving the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, although the Brooklyn Dodgers were the most profitable of all big-league ball clubs in the decade after Jackie Robinson joined them in 1947. To a lesser extent O’Malley is renowned for coldly trying to dump the iconic Robinson onto the New York Giants after age diminished Robinson’s skills.
“What I’d like to do,” Peter O’Malley said in effect to Hawkins, “is walk down Flatbush Avenue on a pleasant summer afternoon without getting strung up from a lamppost.”
Hawkins produced an interesting report. The Borough of Brooklyn, Tommy said, was most proud of three institutions:
1. The Navy Yard, which at its peak during World War II, employed 70,000 people working three shifts, 24 hours a day. As a boy I sometimes walked halfway across Brooklyn Bridge to behold “the shield of the Republic,” aircraft carriers and dreadnoughts at anchor.
2. Coney Island. A mix of roller coasters, hot dogs, Ferris Wheels and amusement parks where clowns lured pretty girls on to a stage. Jets of air then blew the girls’ skirts skyward. I sometimes watched with my 11-year-old teammates from the Froebel Academy baseball team. That is where we first learned about what we thought was Original Sin.
3. The Brooklyn Dodgers. Pee Wee Reese. Roy Campanella. Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges. The team won six pennants in the 10 years Robinson played for them. I believe they were the most exciting and important major league team ever. The Brooklyn Dodgers integrated baseball and through baseball, the country. I used to say, “No Jackie Robinson, no Martin Luther King.” Lately I’ve been saying, “No Jackie, no Barack Obama.”
“Now,” Tommy Hawkins was remarking, quoting from his report, “the Navy Yard has been closed. Tough, nasty teenagers have made Coney Island unsafe and the Dodgers have become the pride of Chavez Ravine. That adds up to a lot of loss and the people of Brooklyn unfairly focus all their disappointment on the O’Malley family.”
Here, on little cat’s feet, enters ambivalence. Hawkins is sincere and dead wrong. Walter O’Malley schemed and hustled and, frankly, lied his way out of Brooklyn. He earned his loathing. But at the same time I personally found “The Big Oom” to be one of the most enjoyable companions on earth. He joined the board of trustees of Froebel Academy at about the same time my father became athletic director there. (Neither job paid a wage.) But Walter saw me play baseball and football in Froebel blue and gold. After “The Boys of Summer” won renown, Walter took to saying, “Don’t forget that I handed you your Froebel diploma at St. Bartholomew’s Church.” He did not, but he was sitting on the dais.
When I visited Buzzie Bavasi, the great former Dodgers general manager, in La Jolla a few weeks ago, Buzzie said, “Walter did not like writers getting close to him. You were the only exception.” For that I credit Froebel blue and gold.
After I started covering the Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune in 1952, I wangled a Sunday magazine assignment to profile Walter. (At $250, more than triple my weekly pay.) Walter was wonderfully genial as he sketched out a long career as a Dodgers fan and as an attorney in the prestigious field of admiralty law. I was young then and trusting. When I later learned that O’Malley’s legal specialty was running collections for a bank, I confronted him. In no way embarrassed, he said, “Well, now you’ve learned that only half the lies the Irish tell are true.”
Lately revisionists have faulted politicians and urban planners for the Dodgers’ exit from Brooklyn. But it was O’Malley alone who lusted for California gold. Actually there was no reason, no reason on earth, to demolish Ebbets Field. Do some remodeling, perhaps. Put in new roads. But the ballpark itself was just about the same size as Wrigley Field or Fenway, both of which are now described as gems.
Losing the Dodgers hurt Brooklyn deeply, but much worthwhile remains. The Cranford Rose Garden and the Shakespeare Garden in the Botanic Gardens. The Academy of Music. The Brooklyn Museum. Revitalized and gentrified neighborhoods. The hauntingly beautiful Green-Wood Cemetery, where rests the remains of Leonard Bernstein.
This year, after a long campaign, the O’Malley family finally got the old man, Walter, accepted for induction into the Hall of Fame. (“Another fixed election,” says Bob McGee, who wrote a book about Ebbets Field called “The Greatest Ballpark Ever.”) This means that Peter O’Malley probably will be safe in Cooperstown. But as for that summertime stroll he’d like along Flatbush Avenue, I’d say Peter would be safe only if surrounded by the 82nd Airborne.
Roger Kahn is the author of “The Boys of Summer” and many other books on baseball.
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