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April 29, 2008

Blazing the O'Malley Trail

50 Years Later, Part Two

by Gary Gillette

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Another problem with evaluating O'Malley's legacy is that many revisionists, consciously or unconsciously, make a big deal out of the Dodgers' Brooklyn attendance, then and now. Disparage the Dodgers' support in the 1950s as a way of rationalizing O'Malley's gambit, they write phrases like "the Dodgers barely drew a million fans" in Brooklyn in the 1950s, as if that were some kind of crime. The fact is that both major leagues in the 1950s were in deep trouble, with overall attendance declining for a multitude of reasons. It is neither fair nor instructive to compare today's attendance, when the US population is double what it was in 1950, with five decades ago unless one also puts those numbers in context. Furthermore, the Los Angeles market of the twenty-first century is more than four times the size of Brooklyn's market in 1950.

The myth of weak attendance in Brooklyn undergirds the popular understanding of O'Malley's inspiration to go west. Despite the misconceptions that have obscured the facts since the move, the Dodgers had drawn better than the NL average (excluding Brooklyn) in every season from 1938 through 1956. Only in 1957, the Dodgers' last year in Brooklyn-and a season throughout which rumors swirled that the team was headed west-did O'Malley's team fall a few thousand fans short of the league mean in attendance.

Dodgers Attendance

A glance at the attendance graph shows that Brooklyn attendance was far from embarrassing. The Dodgers' attendance in LA when they were playing in Memorial Coliseum in 1958-60 is only a tiny bit better than it was in Brooklyn's from 1950-52, even while the Dodgers were enjoying a honeymoon period in their new market. Attendance spiked upward once Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, but one can't reasonably compare the crowds at a brand-new ballpark in virgin territory to a 45-year-old park in a city with three big league teams (and two in the same league). Within four years of Dodger Stadium's opening, normalized attendance there was indistinguishable from the early 1950s in Brooklyn. Taking a longer-term view, Dodgers attendance from 1967-72 varied from 125-150 percent of the NL average, which was not really different from attendance in Brooklyn between 1945-53, which varied from 116-151 percent of league average.

All of this occurred in two very different backdrops, Brooklyn and LA. In Brooklyn, O'Malley chose very early-in 1948-to broadcast every Dodgers home game, reaping a huge profit from his big media market while depressing attendance at Ebbets Field. In California, O'Malley made the opposite choice, refusing to televise home games for decades as a way of pumping up the gate, the LA Dodgers would eventually perennially lead the league in attendance, and set single-season attendance records not broken until the 1990s. This critical factor is never mentioned when deprecating the loyalty of Brooklyn fans in the 1950s.

Comparisons between TV broadcast policies in Brooklyn, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles reveal the key to the whole attendance puzzle even though O'Malley observed his liberal broadcast policy in Brooklyn through 1957. From 1945-52, the Dodgers led the NL in attendance in six of eight seasons. In the late 1940s, few American households had TV sets. In mid-1948, only 350,000 TV sets were in use in the US, and half of them in the New York metropolitan area. But by 1953, half of all American homes had electronic hearths, and by the end of the decade, penetration was approaching 90 percent.

Even with this disincentive, Brooklyn still drew better than any other NL club except Milwaukee in 1953, 1955, and 1956. Attendance wasn't great, and having the games on free TV hurt, but the oft-repeated idea that Brooklyn fans didn't support their team is simply not true. In 12 post-war seasons-excluding 1957, when thousands of fans that expected "Dem Bums" to leave were staying away from Ebbets-the Dodgers failed to finish in the top two in the league at the gate only in 1948 and 1954.

Once he moved west to LA, however, O'Malley didn't broadcast his first home game until 1962-the inaugural game at Dodger Stadium. From 1958-68, the only time the Dodgers were seen on TV in Southern California was when they played in San Francisco. In 1969, they started broadcasting road games from Sand Diego plus selected other road games, mostly on Sundays. Aside from a brief foray into pay TV in 1964, the Dodgers didn't broadcast another home game until the last game of the 1971 season. It wasn't until the 1980s that Dodgers fans could watch home games on TV on a regular basis, and that was only if they paid for the privilege. Only in 1994 did the Dodgers start broadcasting limited numbers of home games on free TV. The Milwaukee Braves were even more invisible to their fans; they didn't broadcast any games-home or road-in Milwaukee until 1962. They did their first home broadcasts in 1963, but that was only for five games.

Why did O'Malley do a 180 in his attitude toward television when he moved to LA? It's quite logical: Dodger Stadium had a much larger capacity than Ebbets did, so he could reap a huge amount of extra revenue by putting 20,000 extra fannies in Dodger Stadium's colorful seats. Plus Los Angeles, large and growing rapidly as it was, wasn't anywhere near the size of the New York market, so the marginal gain in media revenue wouldn't be as great. O'Malley was no fool; he certainly understood his markets on both coasts, and recognized what had happened in Milwaukee and Brooklyn. The facts of the different situations changed O'Malley's attitude as well as the club's relative attendance levels. These facts didn't make Brooklyn fans disloyal then, and they don't now.

Another historically durable red herring is the supposedly invidious comparison between Milwaukee and Brooklyn attendance, which by all accounts weighed heavily on O'Malley's mind. This argument rests upon selectively quoting attendance figures for the mid-1950s when the newly arrived Braves were setting NL attendance records in Milwaukee. Only a few years later in 1961, however, the Braves drew only 1.1 million fans, less than the Dodgers drew in 1956; in 1962, the Braves gate dipped below one million, and never recovered. In light of that development, the idea that O'Malley's club couldn't compete with the Beer Town juggernaut seems a bit silly in retrospect.

While O'Malley was behind in attendance in the Braves' honeymoon years, he had a large advantage that almost no one mentions: media revenue. From 1953-56, Brooklyn averaged five times as much local radio and TV revenue as Milwaukee, an absolutely huge gulf that the Braves had no hope of ever eliminating.

When the complete history of the blazing of the O'Malley Trail is considered, O'Malley can be seen as neither the visionary that his supporters have fashioned into a legend, nor the one-dimensional devil that his detractors have tried to pin horns and a pointy tail on. He was a brilliant and ruthless businessman out to maximize his family fortune, plain and simple The positive changes O'Malley wrought in the game would have come anyway, and the damage that his move west caused affects the game to this day.

No one would argue that baseball shouldn't have rearranged its landscape after World War II. The downside of the game's geographical stasis from 1903-52 was a huge amount of dry rot, as iron-fisted monopolists enabled incompetent and cynical owners to generate healthy profits by simply keeping payroll down and putting a team on the field. When these bottom-feeders in Philadelphia, Washington, and elsewhere got lucky and managed to contend with their ragtag nines, they were rewarded with a windfall they didn't deserve.

There were several other ways for Organized Baseball to have planned for the second half of the century as baseball's post-war boom fizzled out in the 1950s. Expansion in a burgeoning national economy was a no-brainer, and it could have easily satisfied the needs of the rapidly growing West (and, later, the South) for big league baseball. Another viable way was creating or recognizing a third major league. The Pacific Coast League tried to work within Organized Baseball, and was perfectly capable of growing into a stable third league. However, AL and NL owners, willing to do anything to prevent competition from upsetting their cartels, co-opted the PCL's plans and made sure it couldn't develop into serious competition. If the cartels didn't want the PCL to graduate, they could have instead reached a working arrangement with Branch Rickey's nascent Continental League later in the 1950s.

A third way to have honorably gone about reorganizing the baseball universe would have been to force existing owners who wanted to leave town to sell out first, preventing them from realizing huge and undeserved profits in virgin territories. For other reasons than that, this is what the American League forced Bill Veeck to do when he tried to relocate his sinking Browns. It's true that existing owners would have profited from the eagerness of businessmen in other cities to acquire their teams but, if everyone knew the current owners couldn't get permission to relocate, it would have driven down the prices paid. That would have made the new owners more stable by leaving them more money to build their new clubs into contenders, instead of resulting in the embarrassment that the Kansas City A's became.

Boiling it down to the essentials, the story of how the Dodgers left Brooklyn remains an exercise in power politics, where Walter O'Malley more than met his match in Robert Moses in a combat between titanic egos. O'Malley was a master of playing that kind of game inside the National League and inside Organized Baseball, so he wasn't some neophyte. Nevertheless, O'Malley lost the test of will and political clout to Moses, and the Dodgers' owner wasn't accustomed to losing-nor was he a good loser. Losing that battle didn't have to mean the end of the Brooklyn Dodgers; when it became clear that he wouldn't realize his dreams of a grand new stadium in Flatbush, O'Malley could have chosen to move to the Long Island suburbs if that's where his fan base was going to be living in the future. Unlike Brooklyn, there was open land available for development in the suburbs, so O'Malley could have made good on his public promises to build a new park for Brooklyn fans at his own expense.

As we know now, he did no such thing. The O'Malley Trail to the West Coast has left baseball fans with a legacy of decades of shabby deal-making, with teams lying to their fans about how much they want to stay-not to mention a legacy of desperate or corrupt politicians lying to the citizenry about how much a new ballpark will drain the public treasury. The byzantine way in which Major League Baseball went about relocating the Montreal Expos is but one recent example of this legacy.

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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