Hard Ball: Why the Dodgers Left Brooklyn and Came to L.A.

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The slow departure of Toyota from the company's Torrance headquarters should be a reminder that once Los Angeles was a dream destination. At least, it was Walter O'Malley's.

"Mover and Shaker: Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers, and Baseball's Westward Expansion", a new biography by Andy McCue (former president of the Society for American Baseball Research) sorts out the mutually reinforcing dreams that led the Dodgers out of Brooklyn and led political Los Angeles to promise more than L.A. politicians could at first deliver.

The result was not one West Coast move for major league baseball but two. O'Malley's dream of new markets (including pay TV) captured Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who had already made plans to move his franchise to Minneapolis. A traditional baseball rivalry that had been a 15-cent subway ride away could be recreated long distance in California, O'Malley argued, for the good of both team owners. (In the late 1940s, games against the Dodgers accounted for 30 percent of Giants' ticket sales.)

O'Malley's dream didn't look much like the typical California vision of health and happiness in the sunshine. O'Malley was a dealmaker, not a fan, driven to organizational development at a time when professional baseball was still crudely paternalistic at best and exploitive otherwise. Marvin Miller, who built the major league players union, called O'Malley "the most rational businessman I know."

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Rational for O'Malley meant accommodation to the changes in player/owner relationships that Miller helped bring about. It meant racial integration, although with reservations. It meant conforming baseball to the demands of TV networks. It meant maximizing revenue streams where ever they might be found. And it meant O'Malley's own distance from the ferocity of fan engagement.

But O'Malley was not so rational that he didn't maintain a deep animosity toward former co-owner of the Dodgers Brach Rickey and those in the Dodger organization whom O'Malley considered to have been Rickey's favorites.

O'Malley didn't come to Los Angeles to reinvent himself or the Dodgers. He came to make the deals to make his business bigger, to make it independent of New York politics, and to make the Dodger organization a more perfect mirror of O'Malley.

Ultimately, he grew the Dodgers into one of the most lucrative of major league franchises. He stamped his imprint on what the Dodgers still wish to be (as narrated by Dodger announcer Vin Scully). But when O'Malley dispassionately slapped the backs of Los Angeles politicians, he discovered that he was too much a product of the New York politics he fled to understand what Los Angeles politics were all about.

The Man Who Moved

Local officials greet Walter O'Malley (center, with hat and glasses) upon his arrival in Los Angeles after the 1957 season on October 14. County supervisor Kenneth Hahn (far left) and L.A. City Council Member Rosalind Wyman (at top) were two of the politicians most responsible for making the Dodger deal happen. | Photo: Courtesy LAPL/Herald-Examiner Collection

Still, he got Chavez Ravine from the city, built Dodger Stadium, and made the risky move to Los Angeles pay off. According to the Orange County Register, "the Dodgers' debut in Los Angeles against the Giants on April 18, 1958 drew 78,672 at the Coliseum. The Dodgers drew 1.85 million fans that first season, more than 800,000 better than the club attracted the year before in Brooklyn. Two years later the Dodgers drew 2.2 million, 600,000 more than the New York Yankees. The first season in Dodger Stadium, 1962, attracted 2.7 million fans, 500,000 more than any other team in major league history."

That success continues to rankle in so many dimensions -- from Brooklynites of a certain age to Latino activists to baseball lovers who saw a game turned into an industry with only a simulated heart. It took a while for baseball to recognize what O'Malley had done for and to that industry. He died in 1979; he got a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.

As McCue's biography makes clear, O'Malley wasn't an ogre, a cruel breaker of Brooklyn hearts, or even fully aware of what he was getting into. O'Malley left New York because he thought the move would deliver a windfall from pay TV. He thought his plans for the Dodgers were cramped by the powerful arbitrators of New York development -- principally Robert Moses. He wanted what politicians were willing to give because of their enthusiasm.

O'Malley was a smart guy who called most of the shots, although not all of them. Kind of reminds me of Toyota.

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