If you were asked to name the four men who have done the most for baseball, you would have to start with the names Col. Tilinghast Huston, Harry Frazee, Arnold Rothstein - and, of course, Walter O'Malley.
Col. Huston was the guy who brought Jacob Ruppert into the game, and without Ruppert there would be no Yankee Stadium, and without Yankee Stadium there would be a big hole in the lore of the grand old game.
Harry Frazee was the theatrical magnate who owned the Boston Red Sox, who owned a pitcher named Babe Ruth, and Harry needed money to finance a Broadway show: "No, No, Nanette," and Harry Frazee thought Broadway shows were more important than baseball. After all, baseball had no love interest, no music, and it was all finale. Consequently, impressario Frazee sold Babe Ruth to Col. Ruppert and the New York Yankees for $125,000. You can imagine what this did for baseball. Had he stayed in Boston, Babe Ruth might have played out his career as a better-than-average left-handed pitcher. There would be no "called shot," no home-run record, and there would have been no reason for people to go through life saluting excellence in other professions by saying that "He was the Babe Ruth of his profession."
Had Arnold Rothstein not tried to fix the 1919 World Series, baseball might have continued its existence as a semi-larcenous activity much like professional boxing. You see, it was not at all uncommon for individual games, or even individual series, to be fixed in those days. Some players got more money from bookmakers than they did from management. But Rothstein's fix was so big, so shocking, so contemptuous of all that was right and good, that baseball cleaned up its act once and for all. The little boy, sobbing outside the courthouse, "Say it ain't so, Joe." said it for all of us. Baseball never tampered with little kids again.
You might have to add Louis Perini, the steam-shovel millionaire from Boston, to that group. Perini was the first to show there was nothing sacred or written in stone about baseball's places of business. Tired of drawing 200,000 to 400,000 fans a season in Boston, while the crosstown Red Sox drew in the millions, Perini shocked the establishment by packing the franchie onto a train and shipping it west to Milwaukee. The trouble was, Perini's trek didn't stop. The Braves became the first revolving franchise in the grand old game. However, Perini's action was like the spring breakup on the Yukon, and soon franchises were leaving towns on the next bus.
But even then, baseball considered the Mississippi River and its tributaries to be about as far West as they dared go, without hiring Kit Carson, at any rate.
Besides, only ailing franchises were being shifted.The St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore, the Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City and everyone thought they had gone about as far as they could go.
But what Walter O'Malley did shocked not only front offices but also board rooms. As two-thirds owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Walter O'Malley had just presided over the most fabulous 10-year period of success in National League history. His team won six pennants, made two playoffs, drew more than a million customers every year, and had shown the greatest net profit in baseball for the five-year period 1952 to 1956. The Dodgers were considered as indigenous to Brooklyn as the Gowanus Canal. But they did all this in a ramshackle old firetrap of a ballpark hard by Prospect Park. Ebbets Field seated few fans, and those uncomfortably. O'Malley offered to build a new ballpark. All he wanted from the city was the land. The politicians huffed and puffed and beat their breasts, but as usual, all they came up with was a lot of committees. O'Malley couldn't build his ballpark on hot air, he needed earth. When it was clear it would not be forthcoming, he threatened to move to California. Everyone laughed.
O'Malley not only moved to California, he took the New York Giants with him, a cataclysmic upheaval in baseball of the dimensions of the volcano at Krakator. It was as if he had moved the Vatican to China.
O'Malley had ready explanations: There had been no new office building or theater built in Brooklyn since 1925. Financial institutions did not lend money for building in Brooklyn. Where once there had been four daily newspapers, now there were none. O'Malley pointed out that anyone who thought baseball could operate without a daily newspaper didn't know much about newspapers, and nothing about baseball.
Originally, O'Malley wanted to move no farther than the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues in Brooklyn. He ended up 3,000 miles to the west, where, inconceivably, there were 400 acres of near-downtown real estate, unencumbered, almost in the center of Los Angeles. The reasons for this were complicated, but had most to do with a hard-line political attitude against public housing for the site. O'Malley coveted it. One day, on an inspection trip with family and friends, in the fall of 1957, O'Malley sidled up to an automobile club office on Wilshire Boulevard and asked, innocently enough, "Do you have a map of Chavez Ravine?" In the little world of baseball, this was as historic an occasion as though Lincoln called downstairs at the White House and asked Mrs. Lincoln if she knew how to spell "Emancipation." Baseball shook off the shackles of the East, and, 110 years after the covered wagons, the "National" game became truly national.
O'Malley became an object of vilification in the Eastern press, which could not countenance the defection of two major league franchieses at once. Most of the noise came from baseball writers thus put out of work.
But, can anyone deny that what Walter O'Malley did served baseball - if not, indeed, saved baseball? There are now - count 'em - six major league franchises on the West Coast, and two in Texas, where there were none before. O'Malley built a Taj Mahal of a ballpark, setting the tone for subsequent edifices. He brought the game kicking and screaming into the 20th century. It is ironic to note that the city and state governments in New York, which said they were unable to meet O'Malley's demands for land for a ballpark, rushed to build a new one for a new franchise out on Flushing Meadow once O'Malley left, and the city then forked over $100 million in the midst of the worst municipal financial crisis in history to refurbish Yankee Stadium for a private owner.
Walter O'Malley, who died yesterday, was, in person, a convival man, a family man, and not at all the hard-hearted rogue he has been protrayed. He was, however, also a stubborn man, and, as Commissioner Moses Averell Harriman and others found out in New York, a man very apt to do what he threatened. He was Irish enough to enjoy a good drink, a good plate of food, a good song, but German enough to take them all in moderation.
He never lost his temper. His eyes would glitter heartily, and he was largely of the John Kennedy persuasion, "Don't get mad, get even." He led a simple life. Not for him the trappings of riches. O'Malley never arrived anywhere by chauffeured Rolls-Royce. He lived in houses, not mansions. His beloved wife did her own housework and O'Malley would rather sit in on a good poker game than grand opera.
He never went near a locker room. He hired people to run the baseball team, because O'Malley, a lawyer and engineer, never pretended to know anything about baseball. Yet, in his own way, he maintained a powerful voice in the council of the game. One time, when the game was shopping around for a new commissioner, Bill Veeck, of the White Sox, asked rhetorically, "Why? We already have one, Walter O'Malley." The ultimate selectee, Bowie Kuhn, was generally accepted as O'Malley's hand-picked commissioner. O'Malley knew how to keep his hand on the power throttle. He let others think they were running the ship.
Born in the Bronx in 1903, O'Malley always had a high sense of adventure. He once bid on a contract to build the American consulate in Lima, Peru, once made plans to take off for the Klondike to do some placer mining for gold in the glaciers, and he organized an artesian-well business on Long Island in the pit of the Depression.
He was a romantic who believed in the old values. He married the girl next door, Kay Hansen. When she was stricken with cancer of the larynx and lost her voice through an operation, O'Malley's family, particularly his father, Edwin O'Malley, objected strenuously to the marriage. Walter was stubborn. "She's the same girl I fell in love with," he told his embittered parents. They skipped the wedding, and O'Malley and his father didn't speak for years. But the marriage was a 45-year love affair. It was blessed with a houseful of grandchildren, and no couple ever was more devoted. No breath of scandal ever touched Walter O'Malley. "I never went to those upholstered sewers they called nightclubs," he once said. "The gossip boys never got a shot at me."
O'Malley chain-smoked cigars, which he put in a filterless holder. He would confide in an unguarded moment, after a sip or two of Scotch, that he liked to take a contemplative puff or two before answering any serious question, particularly one that might call for the answer "yes."
He stumbled into the ownership of the Dodgers, after arriving on the scene as a specialist in distressed real estate for the Brooklyn Trust Co., to which the Dodgers were heavily in debt. O'Malley gradually acquired ownership of the team, incurring the bitter enmity of his partner, Branch Rickey. Rickey ended up with 25 percent of the club, which he attempted to deal off to William Zeckendorf, in 1950. O'Malley, loath to have partners he could not control, raised the million dollars to buy out Rickey. But O'Malley always protested against the image of the devious, crafty, freebooting businessman he projected.
"How devious, how much of a charlatan, how much of a robber baron can you be when you put up all your money, the security of your family, and everything you have, and stake it on the future of baseball?" he once asked. He particularly objected to the oft-repeated allusion that he was a guy who duped the rubes of Los Angeles out of 400 acres of downtown real estate with a marked deck.
"I like to think we paid our way," O'Malley used to say. "We were the first people in 25 years to build a ballpark with private funds. We could have simply drafted the territory and not indemnified the Pacific Coast League at all. But we paid $900,000 for the rights. They only paid $50,000 in Milwaukee and Kansas City."
O'Malley changed more than the map of baseball. He changed the philosophy. The game will be poorer without him. Baseball is again at a crossroads, and now there's no O'Malley to maintain a steady hand across the shoals ahead. The talent is about to swallow the game whole, just as it did Hollywood years ago. Aesop would have nodded wisely. The golden goose may not be long for this world. But as ex-carwash attendants stuffed their pockets with million-dollar contracts, and turn their limousines over to others to clean, they might pause and doff their caps today to the man who did the most since Tilinghas Huston, Col. Ruppert and Harry Frazee to make and keep the game the multimillion-dollar industry it never was before him.O'Malley belongs in Cooperstown as surely as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and certainly Judge Landis. He made more people rich, quicker, than the gold strike of the '49ers who beat him west by only a century. Ted Williams might have had the vision to see a ball curving 60 feet ahead. But Walter O'Malley had the vision to see three decades ahead.