SABR

Walter O'Malley

This article was written by Andy McCue.

Walter Francis O'Malley, the owner who dragged baseball franchises across the country and baseball management into the twentieth century, was born in New York City on October 9, 1903.

A boy who barely played the game, O'Malley wound up drawing comparisons to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mephistopheles after moving his successful Brooklyn Dodgers franchise to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. He was called the most powerful man in baseball and the real commissioner during the 1960s, but his team wound up producing the free agent identified most closely with breaking the reserve clause and revolutionizing the economics of major-league baseball.

Walter was the only child of Edwin and Alma Feltner O'Malley. Edwin was a clerk in the dry-goods business who subsequently moved to the distant reaches of Queens and migrated to real estate and Democratic politics. He spent a stormy seven years as city commissioner of public markets. The increasingly affluent Edwin shipped Walter off to Culver Academy, an exclusive and expensive prep school in northern Indiana.

From Culver, Walter moved to the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1926. His main claim to fame at Penn was as a student organizer and politician. He was the first Penn man ever elected class president in both his junior and senior years, and was selected as "Spoon Man" by his classmates, one of Penn's high honors each year.

Walter moved to another Ivy League school, Columbia University, for law school. However, after one year, he dropped out of Columbia and moved his law studies to night school at Fordham University. He was out of the Ivy League and back with the Catholic strivers. O'Malley later said his father had lost all his money.

Edwin apparently hadn't lost all his influence in the city, however, for Walter immediately landed a job that paid the night-school bills. It was in the city’s engineering department, and O'Malley would subsequently claim he had studied engineering at Penn. His transcript, however, reveals no engineering courses and some early difficulties with mathematics. Nevertheless, he subsequently moved to an engineering firm that did business with the city, and then opened Walter F. O'Malley Engineering Co. while completing Fordham Law in 1930.

The Depression was not a good time to enter the legal field, but O'Malley's opportunistic eye soon found a niche to suit the times. It started, he said, when a priest who needed a will picked him out of the phone directory because O’Malley was a good County Mayo name. Among the dying man's assets were mortgage bonds on properties that were going bankrupt because tenants didn't have the money to pay the rent.

O'Malley conceived of a scheme that reorganized these real-estate investments to allow the debts to be paid off. He brought his idea to George V. McLaughlin, head of the Brooklyn Trust Co., which had made the loans that funded many of these real-estate ventures. McLaughlin bought the idea and, more importantly, he took on O'Malley as a protégé.

One of McLaughlin's biggest headaches was the Brooklyn Dodgers, a small business in financial terms, but one with a high profile that could bring the bank much adverse publicity. The death of Charles Ebbets and Edward McKeever in 1925 had left the team's board split evenly between Ebbets' heirs and those of the McKeever family.

In 1938 McLaughlin pushed the heirs into providing better management. On a recommendation from St. Louis Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey, their first choice, the board hired Larry MacPhail to run the team. MacPhail made a great deal of progress both on and off the field before resigning to serve in World War II. Late in 1942 the board turned again to Rickey, and this time he accepted. Rickey wanted a new lawyer for the team, as the team's current firm also handled matters for the National League and Rickey thought conflicts might arise. McLaughlin recommended O'Malley, who joined the team in the winter of 1942-1943.

In late 1944 he, Rickey, John L. Smith of Pfizer Chemical, and Andrew Schmitz, a Brooklyn insurance man with ties to McLaughlin, were announced as buyers of the 25 percent of the team owned by the heirs of Edward McKeever. Schmitz soon dropped out. In mid-1945, the Rickey-O'Malley-Smith triumvirate bought the 50 percent of the team that had been owned by the Ebbets estate. At McLaughlin’s insistence, the 75 percent owned by the triumvirate had to be voted as a block, to prevent the kind of 50-50 splits that had plagued the team during the 1930s.

O’Malley’s role on the team was to deal with legal and business affairs, leaving Rickey to concentrate on identifying and nurturing on-field talent. O’Malley worked with the radio and television contracts and sponsorships. He dealt with the maintenance of Ebbets Field. He served as liaison to the Catholic hierarchy when Leo Durocher’s marriage to Laraine Day led to a threatened withdrawal of Catholic youth groups from the Knothole Gang program.

Within a couple of years, the internal politics of the team had settled down to a duel between Rickey and O'Malley, two strong-willed, highly intelligent men with a desire to run the team. The prize was the vote of John Smith, an experienced and thoughtful business executive who approached his ownership with the eyes of a prudent fan. Within the partnership agreement, whoever got Smith’s vote controlled the 75 percent of the stock.

In 1950 soon after Smith died, O’Malley bought out Rickey’s 25 percent. Because the partnership agreement was still in place, this effectively gave him control of the team. Smith’s widow was content to be a silent partner and eventually sold out to O’Malley at the time the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles.

O'Malley moved to make changes. He put his baseball people, notably Emil J. "Buzzie" Bavasi, in charge of the farm system and the major-league team while he concentrated on business operations and a new stadium.

He began an extensive promotion of group sales and city promotions. Group sales extended the team's contacts with youth, religious, corporate, and service groups. City promotions brought fans to the ballpark from the suburbs that were springing up on Long Island, draining people from Brooklyn. O’Malley negotiated the broadcasting contracts and worked on the development of the Dodgers’ Vero Beach property, a former Navy base in Florida that Rickey had acquired after World War II for use as a spring training complex.

O’Malley turned marketing into a year-round function for the front office at a time when some teams still closed their offices for several months during the winter. He began to expand the number of promotions and jumped on opportunities for publicity. But all of O'Malley's promotions weren't enough to stem the steady attendance decline that affected all of baseball in the decade after World War II. Television and suburbanization were the big trends and O'Malley came to regret his earlier decision to maximize television revenue by putting as many games on television as possible.

Strong performance on the field helped keep the team performing well and drawing better than others. But that couldn't slow an overall attendance decline. When the Dodgers won their first World Series, in 1955, attendance that year was less than 60 percent of what it had been eight years earlier.

By 1955 Ebbets Field was forty-three years old and showing its age. In addition, O'Malley's customers now came from their suburban homes in cars rather than on foot, subway, or bus. And there were barely 500 parking spaces to accommodate them.

O'Malley floated plans for a modern stadium in Collier's magazine. He began talking up the team's need, and possible locations. He was willing to pay for the stadium; he sought the city's assistance in putting together the acreage he would need for both the structure and adequate parking. The city was not responsive.

The key figure in city government was Robert Moses, and O'Malley's relationship with Moses was complex. Moses was willing to bargain only if O'Malley would fit into Moses' plans, one of which was the redevelopment of some swampy land near LaGuardia Airport in the borough of Queens into a World’s Fair site and large park. He was willing to build the Dodgers a stadium there. O'Malley pointed out that the site wasn't in Brooklyn and he wouldn't be able to own it. Moses said too bad.

O'Malley tried to raise the pressure on the city in a number of ways. In 1955 he announced that the team would play seven 1956 home games at Roosevelt Field in Jersey City. In late 1956 he sold Ebbets Field and its land to a housing developer. In 1957 he ostentatiously entertained Los Angeles officials at spring training in Vero Beach. Los Angeles badly wanted a major-league team and its mayor was only too happy to crow that talks had been very positive.

Somewhere during this period, as Moses' intransigence persisted, Los Angeles' offer shifted from bargaining chip to real possibility in O’Malley’s eyes. Some thought O'Malley had made his decision to move early. Los Angeles officials were sure he didn't make it final until after the 1957 season, when the National League finally gave O'Malley and New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham permission to move.

Led by newspaper reporters and columnists who were losing two-thirds of the biggest sports franchises in town, New York reacted with vitriol. O'Malley had always suffered a tenuous relationship with the press. When he took over from Rickey, the initial reaction was positive, since Rickey had a reputation as sanctimonious and cheap. But that soon soured. O’Malley was, said Red Barber after leaving the team's radio booth, "a devious man, about the most devious man I know."

It would take decades for all the factors in O’Malley’s decision to become both clear and accepted. Faced with declining sales, flat costs, and no hope of the stadium he felt would revive his position, O’Malley had done what many other businessmen were doing in the 1950s. He left New York.

Los Angeles was so hungry for major-league baseball that people flocked to the Los Angeles Coliseum. They set records for an Opening Day crowd and a day-game crowd. They doubled the Brooklyn single-game record. A million people had come out by early July, when they also passed the 1957 attendance in Brooklyn. Despite a putrid team on the field and steadily declining crowds through the season, they broke the Dodgers’ annual attendance record by September.

The 1959 team drew over 2 million people, plus over 90,000 for each of three World Series games, each day setting a fresh record. The Dodgers won the Series in six games over the Chicago White Sox.

After a series of court battles, Dodger Stadium opened in April 1962, two years after O'Malley's planned debut. Both the stadium and the team that played there were an immediate success. From dugout seats to in-stadium restaurants, to a message board to terraced parking lots removing the need for people to climb stairs or ramps to their seats, Dodger Stadium was full of new ideas. It was the first large baseball stadium built without pillars that blocked the view from some seats.

The team lost a heartbreaking playoff series in 1962 (Attendance 2.75 million), won the World Series in 1963 (Attendance 2.5 million) and 1965 (2.5 million again). Walter O'Malley paid off the $18 million it had taken to build the stadium. Now in his sixties, O'Malley was being hailed or condemned as "the real commissioner of baseball." In 1962 Bill Veeck tabbed O'Malley "Boss of Baseball." He probably was the most powerful figure in the game, but that didn't mean O’Malley always got what he wanted.

In late 1960, while he was still worried about building and financing his stadium, an American League expansion team was thrust into his territory as a tradeoff for the National League's return to New York City. O'Malley made lemonade, requiring that the new team, to be owned by Gene Autry and called the Angels, be a tenant in his new stadium. Their rent would give O'Malley more cash to pay off the stadium's building costs.

O'Malley unsuccessfully opposed such measures as the amateur draft, which began in 1965, and further expansion in 1969. Still, when owners stalled over selecting a new commissioner in 1969, it was O'Malley's proposal of Bowie Kuhn that carried the day.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, had been creating the business model other franchises were following. There was a beautiful stadium and a successful baseball operation, but there was also a strong front office emphasizing marketing and promotion. Significantly, O'Malley was also the first owner to pay extensive attention to the Hispanic market, broadcasting Dodgers games in Spanish from the team's first year in Los Angeles.

By 1970 Walter O'Malley was sixty-seven and ready to hand over the reins to his son Peter. Peter had been groomed running minor-league operations and then Dodger Stadium. In early 1970 he became president of the team, running it on a day-to-day basis and putting an even stronger emphasis on marketing.

Walter became chairman of the board, and continued to represent the team in baseball-wide discussions. As the 1970s progressed, it became clear that baseball's biggest issue was its relationship with the Major League Baseball Players' Association, surging under the leadership of Marvin Miller.

With O’Malley’s perceived role as both éminence grise and labor moderate, it was ironic that the case that broke the back of the owners’ economic position arose from the Dodgers. In 1975, Andy Messersmith, a pitcher who had won twenty games for the Dodgers the year before, asked the Dodgers to give him a no-trade clause. The Dodgers, citing long-standing policy, refused. After acrimonious exchanges with general manager Al Campanis, the issue was bucked up to Peter O'Malley. By the time Peter passed the negotiations on to Walter, Messersmith already was strongly committed to testing free agency. Miller also had persuaded Dave McNally, a longtime Baltimore Orioles and Montreal Expos pitcher, to join the fight. Messersmith and McNally eventually took the case to arbitration, and the arbitrator ruled as everyone expected, opening the free agency era.

By the end of the Messersmith crisis in early 1976, O'Malley was in declining health. He retired even further from management of the team, although he still attended spring training. Kay (Hanson) O'Malley, whom Walter married in 1931, died on July 12, 1979. Walter died the next month, on August 9. They had two children, Teresa, born in 1933, and Peter, born in 1937.

The O’Malley image over the years has focused on the morality of his moving the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. What has been lost in the focus on greed and morality is a recognition of the other effects, good and bad, that O’Malley had on the game. His management practices turned the Dodgers into the unchallenged model other sports franchises would follow. His emphasis on customer service, promotions, and relentless marketing radically changed the way not just baseball teams, but all sports franchises, did business.

Author Roger Kahn, who probably observed O'Malley more than any other writer, summed him up: "An earth force lightly filtered through a personality."

 

Sources

D'Antonio, Michael. Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O'Malley, Baseball's Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles. New York: Riverhead Books. 2009.

Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Knopf, 1974.

 Drysdale, Don. Once a Bum, Always a Dodger. New York; St. Martin's Press, 1990.

McGee, Robert. The Greatest Ballpark Ever: Ebbets Field and the Story of the Brooklyn Dodgers. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rivergate Books, 2005.

Miller, Marvin. A Whole Different Ball Game: The Sport and Business of Baseball. Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing Group, 1991.

Rader, Benjamin G. O'Malley, Walter Francis, in "American National Biography" v 16, p 716-717. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 

Sullivan, Neil J. The Dodgers Move West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Moses, Robert, in "Current Biography" 1954, p. 479-481

O'Malley, Walter F(rancis)," in "Current Biography" 1954, p 494-495

The Branch Rickey and Arthur Mann papers at the Library of Congress.

The Allan Roth papers at Case Western Reserve University and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

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