For 50 years, Walter O’Malley has been known as baseball’s Benedict Arnold, a traitor for selling-out Brooklyn’s beloved Dodgers to the left coast. His team broke the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson and he is in the Hall of Fame, but for many fans the bombastic owner will always be remembered for moving his team west.
He didn’t sneak his team out of town in the middle of the night the way Robert Irsay took the Colts out of Baltimore. Instead, he conducted protracted negotiations with the power brokers of Brooklyn while at the same time courting the politicians of Los Angeles. Fans in Brooklyn be damned, the City of Angels won out and baseball as we know it can trace its expansion roots to October 23, 1957, when O’Malley and about 30 team employees took off on a twin-prop plane that had “Los Angeles” painted over the windows where previously “Brooklyn” was written above the word “Dodgers.”
Conventional wisdom had O’Malley at the center of this perfect storm of two cities, but in “Forever Blue” former journalist Michael D’Antonio offers a co-villain in Robert Moses, New York City’s czar of housing, construction and development in the post-World War II years.
D’Antonio gained access to a vast archive of personal and business files, made available by O’Malley’s children, and he used these as a foundation for his research and to tell the story of how O’Malley viewed Robinson, general manager Branch Rickey, broadcaster Red Barber and the long torturous fight with Moses over where he believed a new stadium should be erected in Brooklyn.
This book is strictly about O’Malley. It is true he wanted to leave cramped and dingy Ebbets Field for a new ballpark with expansive parking and better sightlines. His desire was to build a stadium in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene section with his own money, but he wanted the city to condemn the land. Moses had other plans for the property and demanded a site in Queens. O’Malley balked and opted instead for a piece of land called Chavez Ravine, where Los Angeles city officials gave him a sweetheart deal.
“O’Malley left behind his lifelong home and more than 60 years of Brooklyn baseball history,” writes D’Antonio in a sympathetic tone. “He took with him a few regrets and enormous hope. The regrets included his failed attempt to build a stadium in Brooklyn. He also regretted how he had handled his communications with the press and public. ‘Our public relations have been very bad and probably I am the one to blame,’ revealed O’Malley in a correspondence.”
That’s probably little solace for a city that still feels betrayed.