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April 24, 2008

Blazing the O'Malley Trail

50 Years Later, Part One

by Gary Gillette

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If a recent immigrant listened casually to accounts of the Dodgers' move west in the 1950s, they might think that Walter O'Malley was an old-fashioned pioneer-a man who literally blazed a trail across prairie, plains, mountains, and desert. In their imagination, "The O'Malley Trail" might be a latter-day entrepreneurial version of the nineteenth-century Oregon Trail, enabling enterprising baseball executives to seek a better life on the baseball frontier.

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the first big league games on the Left Coast. A half-century ago, the two sets of refugees from Gotham opened the 1957 season with home-and-home series in LA and San Francisco. The first three-game set was played at Seals Stadium; the three-game return match was played at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Neither was a first-rate venue for major league baseball.

Few could predict then that the futures of the two powerful franchises from New York were about to diverge dramatically. Though many of the iconic "Boys of Summer" were already gone, and others were reduced to supporting roles, the Dodgers were rebuilding by the time they reached the West Coast. They would luck out in 1959 with one of the worst teams ever to win the World Series before more fully returning to dynastic status in the early 1960s. Concomitant with their on-field success, the Dodgers have been a perennial gold mine financially in the Golden State.

The Giants, in stark contrast, are still searching for their first world championship since they left the Big Apple after being one of two dominant teams in the NL for the first half of the twentieth century (the other being the Cardinals). From 1901-57, New York won five World Series and 15 NL pennants. However, in the past 50 years, the Giants have won only three pennants, six division titles, and one wild card. Even allowing for the NL's expansion from eight to 16 teams, that is an incredible disappointment. Off the field, the club struggled financially until the 1990s, when new ownership righted the foundering ship. The great leap didn't work out so well for the Giants, obviously.

The man given universal credit for this watershed event is Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, who will be inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame on July 27. As one of the most powerful and dynamic executives in baseball history, like so many other aspects of Hall of Fame voting over the years O'Malley's recognition in Cooperstown is so long overdue that it defies explanation. It's not at all clear whether O'Malley would have ever been elected under the old rules, so the keepers of Cooperstown rearranged the Veterans Committee in 2007 to make O'Malley's election-along with ex-commissioner Bowie Kuhn's-a done deal.

O'Malley's deserved enshrinement calls for his legacy to be properly and soberly evaluated. A part-owner of the Brooklyn club in the 1940s, O'Malley took control in 1950 and ruled the franchise as president or chair-and many say, effectively ruled the National League as well-until his death in 1979. When his son Peter O'Malley sold the Dodgers in 1998 to Rupert Murdoch, it truly marked the end of an era.

There was another way in which O'Malley was a trailblazer, a way that is too little appreciated even today. The Dodgers and Giants remain the only successful and wealthy clubs to abandon their cities, and the Dodgers are the only club ever to leave town while its fan base was still robust.

As part of that process, the Dodgers were the first club to pioneer the now time-honored technique of extortion-playing the municipal burghers of one's current home off against the politicians of one or more distant provinces. O'Malley blazed that trail as well, though his reputation hasn't really been sullied by it. The enduring controversy surrounding O'Malley is mostly related to the fact that he actually left Brooklyn, not so much how he went about it. Unlike the previous franchise relocations in the 1950s, O'Malley actively negotiated with his current home while preparing to leave town. In contrast, the Braves fled Boston for Milwaukee without a second thought; their new hometown was building a new stadium without first having a major league tenant. Ditto the Browns relocation to Baltimore. The Athletics skulked out of Philadelphia to Kansas City, where a substandard minor league park was renovated for them. The Giants leapt to San Francisco without knowing anything about what their windswept new home would be like, and wound up playing in an inadequate minor league park for two years.

In direct contrast, O'Malley's trail to Southern California was well-planned and well-orchestrated. Exactly when O'Malley made the decision to leave Brooklyn has been a matter of great debate over the ensuing years, as if the 'when' of the saga is more important than the what or the why. The facts are these: Los Angeles was openly seeking to lure a big league team in the 1950s, and it had contacted O'Malley about the Dodgers as early as 1954. O'Malley contacted a member of the LA County Board of Supervisors during the 1956 World Series(as O'Malley's Dodgers were battling the hated Yankees, no less), proposing to talk about moving to LA. O'Malley met with that supervisor in LA later that month when his club was headed to Tokyo for a post-season tour of Japan.

On October 30, 1956, O'Malley sold Ebbets Field to a Brooklyn developer, leasing it back for three years (with an option to extend the lease for two more years). By doing so, O'Malley manufactured the threat he wanted: You have to give me what I want because soon the Dodgers will have nowhere to play. In February 1957, O'Malley swapped his Fort Worth franchise in the Texas League for the Cubs' Los Angeles franchise in the PCL. That gave O'Malley the territorial rights to Los Angeles so that he didn't need to negotiate with anyone who might try block his move. In spring training 1957, O'Malley publicly entertained the mayor of Los Angeles as well as other politicians from LA in Vero Beach.

When the Braves moved in 1953, attendance in Boston had been below the NL norm for 18 of the last 19 seasons, the exception being the pennant-winning year of 1948. The increasingly pathetic Athletics of Connie Mack and his sons hadn't drawn as well as the typical AL club in 22 years pathetic. The futile Browns hadn't enjoyed decent attendance in any of their last 25 years in the Mound City; their surprise pennant in 1944 and close third-place finish the following season were the only years that the Browns even drew half as well as the rest of the AL.

The Giants and Dodgers were very different from those outfits. New York had historically drawn well above average; only after World War II did crowds at the Polo Grounds tail off, and attendance at Giants games really didn't nosedive till the 1950s. Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who has rarely been saddled with positive labels like "visionary," was anxious to get out of town and had already considered relocating to Minneapolis and Houston. Given that willingness, Stoneham was easily manipulated by O'Malley, and was a crucial pawn in making the Dodgers' plan possible. If he hadn't acceded to O'Malley's scheme, Stoneham certainly would have packed the Giants up for another city within a few years, leaving the Dodgers as the only NL club in New York and giving them a financial boost in the long term. Few people think about that when evaluating whether O'Malley's decision was inevitable. The Giants' perennial problems in San Francisco from the 1960s through the early 1990s are part of the equation; as such, O'Malley must shoulder some of the blame for that, since he was the author of the Giants' move to the Bay Area.

Next up: Digging deeper into the attendance data.

Gary Gillette is the Editor of the ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, as well as a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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