Sunday, May 24, 2009

Baseball Book Review: Forever Blue by Michael D'Antonio

If any baseball figure represents pure evil in the hearts of longtime fans, it isn't Barry Bonds. Nor Alex Rodriguez, Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, or even the Chicago Black Sox. No, for many people, especially traditionalists, the most evil figure in baseball history is Walter O'Malley, who owned and operated the Dodgers for more than thirty years. What possible transgression could the owner of a baseball team commit that would surpass the damage done by the players listed above?
Simple. He moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.
It is this one act that has defined him -- and damned him -- for many, many years. But O'Malley's true impact on the game of baseball was quite vast and covered many different aspects of the game. In Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O'Malley, Michael D'Antonio gets to the bottom of this familiar myth and tries to reveal the truth behind it. Yes, O'Malley did, as owner of the Dodgers, make the decision to move the team to Los Angeles. However, the characterization of him as an evil manipulator who broke the hearts of a neighborhood and ripped a civic institution away from a passionate community is the utter fiction. That the myth has survived so long proves the persistence of true hatred, especially when it comes to baseball.
For the most part, Michael D'Antonio does a fine job with his biography of O'Malley. He offers a concise view of the years leading up to his involvement with the Dodgers, astutely noting the most relevant stories and putting them together to create a realistic image of this now-mythical man. Granted, the end leaves much to be desired, but I'll get to that later.

Walter O'Malley came to own the Dodgers in a very roundabout way. As part of his job with the Brooklyn Trust Company, O'Malley was assigned to keep close tabs on one of the bank's biggest debtors: the Brooklyn Dodgers. The "Daffiness Boys" of the 1930's were rarely winners, but they always entertained the fans and soon became a part of the Brooklyn cultural identity. Unfortunately, the Dodger "daffiness" also applied to the team's business dealings off the field. The team's financial affairs were a mess. Not only that, but decision-making at the executive levels was thwarted by squabbling among the heirs of the team's previous owners. It's hard to imagine a more hopeless situation for a young, inexperienced lawyer such as Walter O'Malley.

But the situation was not hopeless, and that is thanks chiefly to two men. One is Branch Rickey, baseball's "Mahatma," hired away from the Cardinals to recreate the formula of small-budget success that had worked so well in St. Louis.
The work of Branch Rickey in rejuvenating the Dodgers has been well-documented. He is noted not only for signing Jackie Robinson and breaking baseball's color barrier, but for creating a true dynasty out of the Dodgers, which would win four pennants with him as the team's General Manager.
But the role of Walter O'Malley in the Dodgers' turn-around has gone virtually unnoticed. If Rickey's greatest accomplishments came with putting talent on the field and building up a farm system, O'Malley (who finally bought out the squabbling heirs) managed to turn the once-laughable franchise into a profit-making enterprise. He was helped not just by the club's on-field success, but by the nationwide baseball boom that came after World War II.
The relationship between Rickey and O'Malley was thorny, undoubtedly. But despite rumors of a deep hatred, the two men managed to work with each other remarkably well. What ultimately brought about Rickey's departure from Brooklyn was not personal animus, but the Mahatma's princely salary. Rickey left to run the Pirates while O'Malley became the unquestioned leader of the Dodgers.
In Rickey's absence, the team managed to do the unthinkable: win a World Series. Having lost the fall classic to the Yankees in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953, the baseball world was understandably shocked when the 1955 Dodgers defeated the hated Yanks in an exciting, seven-game thriller.
The success of 1955 was undercut, however, by persistent reports that O'Malley was considering moving the team to Los Angeles. O'Malley asserted that he was committed to keeping the Dodgers in Brooklyn. But the Dodger faithful's worst fear was realized after the 1957 season, when the team confirmed the rumors that it would be moving to Los Angeles for 1958.

This decision has been the central factor of the O'Malley biography ever since. In the standard version of the story, O'Malley is evil, scheming owner, with the slicked-back hair and the big cigar. He became the symbol for all power-hungry business owners who would sacrifice anything for money.
D'Antonio devotes the bulk of Forever Blue to debunking this myth, with great success. It would be impossible to list here all the evidence offered in the book to counter the prevailing sentiment, but suffice to say that O'Malley was not the evil man of myth. On the contrary, he went to great extremes to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn, including: sounding out prominent architects (including Buckminster Fuller) to design a new, domed stadium; offering to pay for the stadium entirely with private money; and even considering a compromise location in Queens (where Shea Stadium would eventually be built). We can never know exactly how devoted he was to staying in Brooklyn, but O'Malley was absolutely right when he said that he had tried everything to keep the team in Brooklyn.
O'Malley's sticking point was that he needed a new stadium, and to get a new stadium he obviously needed a place to put it. And there he ran into an insurmountable obstacle: Robert Moses, head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. Far from a lowly bureaucrat, Moses was quite simply the most powerful figure in city government. His rise to power (and his abuse of such) is chronicled in the tome The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro. O'Malley needed Moses to condemn a sizable area so that the Dodgers could construct their new, domed stadium. Moses refused.
In this, perhaps, we have found the true villain in this affair. Moses sabotaged the city committee to develop a plan for a new stadium and often set outrageous conditions which he knew full well O'Malley couldn't accept. After the Dodgers left, it was Moses (with the help of poison-pen baseball writers Dick Young and Arthur Daley) who cast O'Malley in the role of the evil businessman.
This is the account that has survived, more or less, to the present day. But it is simply not supported by the facts. Despite the league-wide boom in baseball attendance, the Dodgers actually saw their attendance decrease steadily from its peak in the late 40's. In 1955, the year they won the World Series, the team barely drew one million fans (The 1948 club drew nearly 1.4 million, despite finishing 3rd). If Brooklyn fans were hopelessly devoted to the team, they weren't too eager to watch them play.
O'Malley keenly recognized the trend and feared that it would only get worse. Ebbetts Field was falling apart. The "white flight" was on, as Dodger fans fled to the suburbs were replaced by lower-income fans, often immigrants, with less disposable income. This change in the racial and social climate of the neighborhood also made whites reluctant to attend games there, especially since there were laughably few parking spots around the ballpark.
On the other coast, gangs of public figures and civic groups were positively clamoring to bring baseball to California. They painted idyllic pictures of baseball in the sunshine and promised numerous economic and practical benefits in order to entice a major league team. Most importantly, though, is that the California boosters weren't committed to the Dodgers. If O'Malley didn't move to L.A., someone else would -- and soon. If O'Malley was beaten to the punch by Cal Griffith (who was desperate to move his Senators), then he'd have lost a chance at great glory and even greater profit.
Put in this light, it's hard to imagine what else O'Malley could have done to keep the team in Brooklyn. Was he self-interested? Sure. Was he hungry for profits? Absolutely. But Brooklyn's devotion to the Dodgers has been exaggerated with time. Time has also revealed that O'Malley wasn't alone; all business owners are profit-seekers, even baseball owners. People like Dick Young did not want to see baseball as a business, but that didn't change the fact that it was a business. Walter O'Malley was the first to publicly embrace the idea, and his image has suffered for it ever since. So Michael D'Antonio has attempted to set the record straight.

I have only two complaints with the book. The first is its strong tendency to interpret events in a light most favorable to O'Malley. It's troubling to read a biography detailing a number of disputes and disagreements where the subject is almost never at fault. I'm not arguing with the author's facts, per se, but rather his disarming tendency to take O'Malley at his word and ignore any interpretation that might suggest that he was either lying or telling the truth for selfish ends. O'Malley is depicted as an ambitious businessman with a keen ability for politics, but one with honest intentions and a devotion to do what was right by his employees. But there are many cases where that depiction of O'Malley rings quite false.
This brings me to my second problem: O'Malley's later years, after the team's move to Los Angeles, are given short shrift. Walter O'Malley is an important baseball figure for many reasons. It's not just the Dodgers' move to California that makes biography important to our understanding of baseball.
D'Antonio account of this period is troubling, mainly because it's confined to the last 20 pages of a 321-page book. Forever Blue devotes almost 95% of the book to O'Malley's life from birth to the construction of Dodger Stadium in 1962. The years 1963-1979 occupy about 6% of the text, and even then they're sharing space with the author's final thoughts and conclusions, not to mention a full-page anecdote about going on safaris.. O'Malley's role as the most powerful man in baseball during the development of the player's union and the arrival of free agency is discussed only in passing. That's a terrible shame.
And even then, D'Antonio makes O'Malley sound like a hero. D'Antonio admits to O'Malley's power over the other owners, but in an utterly harmless manner that suggests that O'Malley was king simply because he was the best and the brightest in baseball, not because of any backroom manipulation. He goes so far as to depict O'Malley as a genuine friend of the labor union and its leader, Marvin Miller. At no time does he suggest that O'Malley's attitude was paternalistic or calculated, despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

So we're left with a book that only partly succeeds in its mission. As "The True Story of Walter O'Malley," Forever Blue does an admirable job of talking about O'Malley's rise to power and his experience moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles. This puts O'Malley in a much more favorable light than is generally accepted, but D'Antonio does so with sound reasoning that effectively illuminates O'Malley's decision-making.
As to the rest of O'Malley's life, we're left unfulfilled. While the facts and quotes D'Antonio cites may be the true story, they are in no way the whole story. His decision to consign O'Malley's later career to the final chapter of footnotes and anecdotes is puzzling and leaves a very pivotal period of his life - and baseball history - unexplored.
I have to say that Forever Blue is a book worth reading, but only to a certain point. If you're looking for the inside story on Walter O'Malley and the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles, then this is the best account I've come across. But if you really want the whole story about Walter O'Malley, I'm afraid this book does not suffice.

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