Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dat bum! Meet the Walter O'Malley you only thought you knew in 'Forever Blue'

A recently released book by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Michael D’Antonio takes aim at an article of faith among many old-time Brooklyn baseball fans: That Walter O’Malley, the former Dodgers owner enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame in 2008, was primarily to blame for moving the Dodgers out of Brooklyn after the 1957 season.

Instead, the book – entitled Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O’Malley – posits that O’Malley made an earnest effort to keep “Dem Bums” in Brooklyn, on the condition that the city let him build a new stadium at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. He believed such a stadium was necessary to raise sufficient revenues for his team to compete with the cross-town Yankees, a cash-infused perennial power then as today.

But O’Malley’s efforts were thwarted by Robert Moses, the powerful bureaucrat, who wanted instead to build a stadium in Queens on the site of what became Shea Stadium and then Citi Field. After years of trying to make it work in Brooklyn, the frustrated O’Malley succumbed to the overtures of Los Angeles officials and boosters, who offered him Chavez Ravine, a plot of a few hundred acres near downtown, to build his dream stadium.

“O’Malley’s main disappointment was having lost his battle to build a new stadium in Brooklyn,” D’Antonio writes.

“During his lifetime, the whole truth about his failure, and about the Dodgers move west, would never be told…. O’Malley would be perceived as a greedy traitor who had yanked the very soul out of New York’s most populous borough.”

D’Antonio writes that O’Malley had been trying to replace Ebbets Field he assumed part-ownership of the Dodgers in 1944. Since the Dodgers’ departure, Ebbets has become fondly remembered in nostalgia, but D’Antonio described it as being “in a state of elegant decay” at the time, with attendance flagging despite the team’s stellar play. The 1913-built stadium seated a mere 32,000 fans, and perhaps more damningly, did not have sufficient parking to accommodate the many former Brooklynites who were leaving for the suburbs in droves.

To ensure the Dodgers’ long-term solvency, O’Malley wanted to build a 50,000-seat stadium at Flatbush and Atlantic, an area described by D’Antonio as being “dominated by a municipally run meat market, a sprawling, rat-infested abattoir where blood ran in the gutters.” A new stadium, O’Malley felt, would metamorphosize the area. It would also be conveniently located near the Atlantic Avenue transit hub, and have ample parking.

“Once O’Malley assumed full control of the team, in 1950, the new ballpark became his El Dorado, if not his white whale,” D’Antonio writes.

But Moses opposed to this plan. In an interview with the New York Times, D’Antonio summed up the reasons:

“I think that an inner-city stadium served mainly by mass transit conflicted with the Moses vision for the future of New York City. He was, for lack of a better word, a ‘car guy,’ and as early as the 1930 he had identified Flushing Meadows, Queens,” he said.

“Also, Moses said he was reluctant to use his power to help O’Malley acquire land under a slum redevelopment program, because he thought the law didn’t allow him to aide commercial project.”

He concluded: “Finally, if you dig deeply enough you discover that when Moses was a young good-government crusader, his efforts to fight Tammany Hall were defeated by a political machine that included O’Malley’s father Edwin. He was commissioner of the notoriously corrupt public markets. I think Moses associated the O’Malley name with his defeat and old-style pols.”
In the book, D’Antonio succinctly describes Moses’ power: “By mid-century, if he wanted something built in New York City, it got built. If he didn’t, he stopped it.”

The resistance of New York City officials starkly contrasted with the enthusiasm of the L.A. contingent, which had been soliciting O’Malley since 1950. O’Malley was initially resistant, D’Antonio writes, but his mind began to change as it became clear to him that New York was not serious about giving him the land to build his new stadium.

So O’Malley decamped to L.A., becoming a villain to Brooklynites but a hero and visionary to Angelinos.

Summing up his thesis, D’Antonio writes: “O’Malley had been drawn into a political game that was rigged against him. He had wanted to build the iconic ballpark in Brooklyn. Instead, he was maneuvered into the role of baseball’s Benedict Arnold. How this occurred is a case study in the power of the most imperious bureacrat in the history of urban America: Robert Moses.”

Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O’Malley, published by Riverhead, is available through

--Greg Hanlon
(Published in the 5.21.09 issue of 24/Seven)


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