From the Archives: Walter O’Malley, Owner of Dodgers, Dies at 75
Walter Francis O’Malley, the man who brought the Dodgers to Los Angeles, died Thursday, of congestive heart failure. He was 75.
Considered one of the most powerful men in baseball, O’Malley had been hospitalized since June 28 at the Methodist Hospital of Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
O’Malley had enjoyed good health up until 1970, when he underwent abdominal surgery at the Mayo Clinic. He returned there several times, including a stay in June, 1977, for lung surgery, another in February, 1978, for open heart surgery, and a week last February.
O’Malley, born in 1903 in New York of an affluent father who went broke, worked his way through law school holding down three jobs before becoming a successful businessman and attorney in his own right.
His association with the Dodgers began in 1943, when he became their counsel. By 1950 he had abandoned his other ventures and become the Dodgers’ president and majority owner. He moved the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958.
Those close to baseball acknowledged his power in the game, and it was perhaps best exemplified by his place on baseball’s five-man Executive Council, a seat he held for 28 years, longer than any other owner.
His is credited with making the “national pastime” truly national; there are now eight major league baseball teams in the West, where before him there were none. Ex-Dodgers serve as field managers today on 11 of the 26 major league clubs.
Not everyone in Los Angeles, however, was ready to welcome the Dodgers.
O’Malley’s choice of Chavez Ravine as the site for his $20 million stadium drew cries of “giveaway.” (The city had taken over the 315-acre ravine when plans for a government housing project fell through.)
What O’Malley was offering the city was nine-acre Wrigley Field in South-Central Los Angeles which he had acquired in a trade with the Chicago Cubs.
The deal so incensed many in the community that a referendum was qualified for the June 3, 1958, ballot.
“I never anticipated a referendum,” O’Malley said later. “Very few places have it. Very peculiar . . . no boss . . .”
But proponents of the stadium won by 25,785 votes and the bulldozers went in after the last tenants moved out . . . not all willingly.
Part of the furor didn’t abate with the stadium’s opening.
After hundreds of complaints, O’Malley agreed to install 13 drinking fountains for his new customers.
According to then-City Councilman Edward R. Roybal, the Dodger owner had constructed his ballpark with only two fountains — one in each team dugout.
There was conjecture that this was no oversight but was designed to spur beer sales. O’Malley never commented.
Reaction to his death came from both baseball and community leaders. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who, in 1956, was the first Los Angeles official to meet with O’Malley about moving the Dodgers here, ordered county flags lowered and the Olympic torch in the Coliseum lighted in his memory.
“His warm Irish humor with his sound business judgment combined for the best in professional baseball,” Hahn said Thursday. “He is one in a million and can’t be replaced.”
“We shall miss the man, but we are grateful for his legacy,” said Mayor Bradley in a statement. “He and the Dodgers represented the epitome of class in professional athletics.”
Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said O’Malley was " as great an executive talent as I have seen or think I am apt to see . . . His skills would have flourished in any walk of life. He was a powerful ally for the good of the game.”
National League President Charles Feeney said: “Baseball has lost a great man and I have lost a great friend. Walter O’Malley over a period of years did more good for professional baseball than any one man.”
The death of O’Malley, said Detroit Tigers owner John E. Fetzer, “in many way leaves the ship without a rudder.”
O’Malley’s leadership, Fetzer added, “constantly led to important decision making that gave baseball a true sense of direction.”
California Angels President Gene Autry noted Thursday, “I think Walter was a very smart man. He developed a lot of fine ball players and a lot of fine fans. I think he has left his mark on baseball.”
Horace Stoneham, the former owner of the San Francisco Giants who took his team out to New York at O’Malley’s urging, said, “I’m very sorry he’s gone. We go back a long time. He had been a good personal friend as well as business associate. All baseball is going to miss him.”
Dodger team captain Maury Wills recalled what many players referred to as the “class” organization O’Malley created.
“On the Dodger plane you got fed, but still got your meal money,” Wills said Thursday. “Other clubs would deduct the plane food from your meal allowance. In spring training Mr. O’Malley would have your clothes cleaned and still give you a cleaning allowance.”
“He built a golf course at Vero Beach, Fla. (the team’s spring training camp) so black players who couldn’t play on local courses could play there. Blacks and whites always roomed together on the Dodgers when other clubs weren’t yet doing this.”
O’Malley had traded Wills, an 11-year veteran, after Wills defied management and jumped the team during a Dodger tour in Japan in 1966.
“I never felt vindictive,” Wills said. “He was the boss and even though he was kind and generous he taught me you just don’t cross him.”
There was also reaction from those involved in the Dodgers move to Los Angeles in 1958.
Robert Wagner, who was mayor of New York city when the move was announced, recalled he was often O’Malley’s guest at ball games and said: “even while we were battling to keep the Dodgers here, it did not interfere with our deep personal friendship.”
Norris Poulson, the mayor of Los Angeles at the time the Dodgers moved here, remembered the contract O’Malley worked out with the city for Chavez Ravine.
“O’Malley was a great horse trader,” Poulson said. Some businessmen in the city, he added, “advised me to get some hard men to negotiate with him. I appointed Chad McClellan; the city administrative officer was Sam Leask and Roger Arnebergh was city attorney. I was not one of the negotiators.”
While critics complained that O’Malley got by far the best of the deal with the city, supporters noted that the stadium he built has paid millions of dollars in taxes.
Despite the controversy at the time, Poulson said, “Walter O’Malley helped to bring Los Angeles from minor league to the top of the big league in every way. Other teams tried to come here but we weren’t interested. We always wanted the tops and the Dodgers fulfilled that. They proved a great benefit for the city financially and spiritually.”
O’Malley leaves a daughter, Terry Seidler, who was with him when he died; a son, Peter, president of the Dodgers, and 12 grandchildren.
His wife of 47 years, Kay, died July 12 at the family home in Hancock Park.
A spokesman for the Dodgers said a private funeral Mass will be held at an as yet unspecified time for family members only.
In lieu of flowers, a Dodger spokesman said, the O’Malley family has asked that contributions be sent to the Mayo Foundation, Rochester, Minn. 55901, or to another charity.
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