April 22, 2011
The BP Broadside
It's Dodgers Deja Vu All Over Again
For all the success the franchise has had over its 127 seasons, Dodgers ownership has been largely miserable. Even Charles Ebbets, who scrimped his way to a majority share of the club despite being, in his words, “the only club owner in the major leagues who cannot afford his own automobile,” was an obstacle to be overcome. As much as Brooklyn loyalists have cursed his name, Walter O’Malley and his son Peter provided the only sane, stable ownership that the franchise has ever had. Symptomatic of this is the fact that this week’s takeover of the franchise by the commissioner’s office is not the first such coup in team history, but the second.
The commissioner first intervened in the Dodgers’ affairs in December 1929. It was necessary because Ebbets had had the bad taste to die and leave the club in perpetual limbo, torn between two warring factions. In 1912 he was struggling to get his eponymous ballpark completed on time and on budget. In ragtime New York he hadn’t a prayer. Contractors disappeared. Workers staged strikes. Paid-for materials weren’t delivered. Since he couldn’t afford to build the park in the first place, there was a real chance he would go bust before getting the building done.
In desperation, Ebbets took on new partners with deep pockets and experience in the construction business. Brothers Steve and Ed McKeever had been in the plumbing, paving, and building business long enough to have supplied the gas lines for the Brooklyn Bridge. With the brothers supervising the project and covering overruns, Ebbets could breathe easy again. It only cost him half his ballclub and half his ballpark.
Ebbets and the McKeevers hit upon a novel way of becoming co-owners. They formed two companies. Ebbets retained half of each. The brothers split their half between themselves. One company owned the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ebbets was president, younger brother Ed McKeever vice president. The other ran Ebbets Field, with the executive roles reversed: Ed as president, Ebbets as vice president. In both cases, Steve McKeever would act as a genial, baseball-loving silent partner.
The bifurcated ownership structure worked for several years, many of them successful on the field. Then, in 1925, Ebbets died of heart disease. His funeral took place on a cold, wet, April day. This would not in itself have been a problem had the internment been concluded in a timely fashion, but Ebbets was to be buried in a large, ornate coffin. The hole dug at Greenwood Cemetery would not accommodate the grandiose box, and the mourners stood 90 minutes in a driving rain while gravediggers enlarged the space. Ed McKeever, 66, who had been running the club since Ebbets began his decline the previous winter, suffered a chill, became ill that night, and died of pulmonary edema brought on by influenza just over a week later.
The near-simultaneous demise of both presidents left the club split evenly between two factions, on one side Ebbets’ heirs (there were 15), represented by his son-in-law, Joe Gilleaudeau, the other McKeever’s heirs (of which there were 18), represented by brother Steve. From the outset, the two sides could agree on little. McKeever, suddenly not so genial with a baseball team in the balance, coveted the team presidency, but the Ebbets heirs would not accept him. When no compromise could be brokered, goofy, profane manager Wilbert Robinson was named president. While Robinson was a good manager in many ways, he was utterly unqualified to be a business operator or general manager.
McKeever was permanently disgruntled by Robinson’s promotion, and ownership devolved into opposing camps, with each side vetoing the other’s moves. Robinson couldn’t even use the president’s office—to get there, Robinson had to cross in front of McKeever’s desk, which meant risking being caned or cursed off or being smacked with McKeever’s colostomy bag.
As the team drifted on through a series of mostly mediocre seasons (1930, in which the club had a late hold on first place before dropping off badly over the final two weeks, was the great exception), the park fell into decay, team discipline eroded, and the roster became crowded with over-aged veterans—even more so than the current Yankees or Phillies, the Dodgers were, year after year, impossibly old. This took place at the same time the Great Depression came calling, and revenues were falling off. Worse, after the near-pennant in ’30 provoked a momentary swell in attendance, ownership was able to agree on one small matter—an expansion of Ebbets Field, already too small just 18 years into its existence. This was disastrous on two levels: It required the club to borrow $600,000 from the Brooklyn Trust Company, and somehow the expansion was so poorly designed and supervised that the new bleachers actually failed to enlarge the park’s seating capacity. In addition, individual heirs had borrowed against their shares.
Suddenly there were bankers at the door, bills not being paid. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ first attempt to resolve the impasse in the winter of 1929 failed, and with the club on the verge of bankruptcy, it fell to National League president John Heydler to try to fix things, giving the various parties no choice but to accept a rearrangement of the front office. Frank York, McKeever's lawyer, became president; the NL would get a board member to break ties between the factions. Robbie was given a two-year contract to manage the team, after which it was taken for granted that he would be let go.
The various board configurations the club went through in those years only served to make things worse. Consider York, who was supposed to run the club but was described by Dodgers employees as “a soft wind blowing through the office.” One day, after years on the board, he left the office for lunch and never came back. McKeever finally got his wish and became club president, a position he held until his own death six years later. York was, at least, less of a hindrance to team operations than the Brooklyn Trust Company banker who, told that the team needed to acquire help for the farm system, said, “We want ballplayers and not farmers.”
The situation was not fully resolved for years. Even when the club began winning again under Larry MacPhail the financial crunch did not immediately ease. It would take until the early 1940s for the club to get back into the black, though it was still paying off that ill-considered mortgage from 1930 and major portions of the Ebbets and Ed McKeever shares of the club remained in the hands of the bankers. It was only in the middle of the decade that a group including Branch Rickey and Walter O’Malley was able to get that portion of the club out of hock, and it wasn’t until October 1950 that O’Malley bought out Rickey and achieved 50 percent ownership. Though he was in control of the club, he did not become sole owner for another 25 years—it was only then that he was finally able to buy out Steve McKeever’s shares, 37 years after McKeever himself had gone to his reward.
The parallel to today is in a club that, for reasons not too well thought out, leveraged itself to the hilt, risking being taken over by gangs of bankers and other debt-holders, or worse, Fox. Again. Perhaps Commissioner Selig’s intervention will thwart that particular destiny, but will he be able to get the club’s finances back on a solid footing faster than his predecessor did? It was 30 years from Ebbets’ death to the next (and first) Dodgers championship, and 16 years until their next pennant, or roughly 11 years from Heydler’s decisive intervention. The Dodgers have already waited 22 years since their last World Series appearance, so in some senses they are overdue, but if the clock only starts now, with MLB’s takeover, it could be a long wait. Of course, nothing says that history has to repeat exactly—Selig’s minion will force a sale and straighten things out far faster than that… Won’t they?
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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