I just finished reading Michael D’Antonio’s love letter to Walter O’Malley called “Forever Blue.” He all but nominates O’Malley for sainthood while claiming that the former Dodgers owner really, really wanted to keep the team in Brooklyn but he was thwarted at every step by the evil Robert Moses, who was the true villain in the devastating move.
This is the same Walter O’Malley whom writers Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield called one of the three most evil people of the 20th century, along with Hitler and Stalin.
But no, everybody has been wrong all these years, according to D’Antonio. O’Malley was a great guy, the salt of the earth. He never did anything wrong. Maybe he had a bit of a temper, but that’s it. No, Moses is the bad man.
Now let me say I have always been a big fan of Moses — his works, not the man. Moses was an arrogant racist, but he was also a genius. I admire the way he got things done in a city where it is nearly impossible to get anything done. He shaped New York City through the sheer force of his will. Many critics say the city is still suffering from his decisions, but I say while some of his actions turned out to be wrong, the city is better off for him having existed.
For the uninitiated, Moses held a dozen or so appointed city and state jobs simultaneously from the 1930s-1960s. He was known mostly as the Parks Commissioner, but he also built most of the bridges, tunnels and highways in the city and Long Island. He amassed so much power that virtually everything that was built in the city went through him.
It was in Moses’s role as the chief of building housing projects that O’Malley paid a call on Moses. Moses was empowered by a federal program called Title I that allowed the city to buy vast tracts of land, level them, and build public housing or other projects that would serve the public good (Lincoln Center was a prime example). The city used eminent domain laws to force people from their homes and take whatever the city offered them in return.
O’Malley wanted to build a new stadium for the Dodgers at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues (ironically, where the Nets arena is being built today). O’Malley asked Moses to use Title I to get him the land, which the city would either give to him or he would buy back from the city, at cost, of course. O’Malley would pay to build the ballpark himself.
Moses correctly declined, saying acquiring land for a millionaire so he can build a stadium to make even more money does not qualify as public good. Not so, said O’Malley — the public could use the parking garages on non-game days. That was his idea of “public good.”
Moses told O’Malley that he was free to buy the land himself and build his stadium (which D’Antonio conveniently neglects to mention in his book). But O’Malley didn’t want to do that because it would have cost him many, many millions more for the land than what the city would have paid.
Here is the letter to O’Malley from Moses that spells out the city’s position, courtesy of the Walter O’Malley official website:
You see, O’Malley cared about one thing. No, it wasn’t baseball. It wasn’t Brooklyn. It was money — the accumulation of it, specifically. And that’s what it boiled down to. He was going wherever he got the best deal. And the best deal was in Los Angeles.
D’Antonio claims O’Malley would have stayed in Brooklyn had the city “helped” him (D’Antonio used the vague word “help” a lot). But O’Malley saw that Brooklyn was on the decline and knew it was time to get out.
The conventional wisdom was that Brooklyn’s fall began when the Dodgers left town after the 1957 season. No, it began years earlier.
Men returning from World War II were moving with their families to cheap housing on Long Island in search of the American Dream, being replaced with “less desirable” folks. The Brooklyn Eagle, the last of the borough’s newspapers, closed in 1955. Attendance and revenue at Ebbets Field, while still among the highest in the game, were falling. O’Malley knew it was time to go.
Really, you can’t blame him. He had a business, and he knew he could make more money with that business if he moved to Los Angeles. But a baseball team is more than just a business. It is a public treasure. I honestly think O’Malley knew that, but he just didn’t care. It was all about the money.
The reason he is so despised in New York is in part because of the charade he put on during his “negotiations” to stay. O’Malley had one foot out the door the entire time but kept denying it. He even lied to Congress about it.
In June, 1957, only months before the move was officially announced, Congress held hearings to discuss sports monopolies. O’Malley was called to testify. First he said he did not known whether the Dodgers would play in Los Angeles in 1958. Then he was asked, “What preparations have you made for moving to Los Angeles?” His response: “None whatsoever.”
That was just a bald faced lie. Even D’Antonio admits that his sainted O’Malley had made preparations. However D’Antonio basically forgives this felony (and that’s what lying to Congress is) by writing:
There may be some legalistic definition of the word “preparations” that would make this answer accurate.
This is an example of the great lengths D’Antonio went to defend O’Malley and prove his point that O’Malley was blameless in the team’s move. Yes, had he been given his sweetheart deal early in the process, maybe he might have stayed in Brooklyn. But once Los Angeles made its initial overture, it was a done deal, despite what D’Antonio claims.
Or maybe he was never going to stay. Check out what longtime Dodger VP Fresco Thompson wrote in his 1964 book “Every Diamond Doesn’t Sparkle”:
We needed a new ballpark. Badly. But was it a prudent investment to build one in Brooklyn?
The last thing Walter O’Malley wanted to do was to leave Brooklyn. But a fear haunted him — fear that Brooklyn was becoming a decadent borough…
The loyal and substantial fan, the family man, had moved away…
He was replaced with the undesirables.
I brand no race, color or creed as objectionable. They all have their scum. But, unfortunately, the scum was now thick in Brooklyn.
Perhaps O’Malley could have disavowed these words, but that would have been difficult considering he wrote the forward to the book. They are Thompson’s words, but they reflect O’Malley’s thoughts. Does this sound like a man who was open to staying in Brooklyn?
Robert Moses was not the villain here. He was a difficult man with whom to deal and certainly he could have been more supportive of O’Malley’s alleged quest to remain in the borough (apparently he really didn’t care either way). But ultimately the decision was made by Walter O’Malley and no one else. He took the money and ran. And that is the fact, regardless of how this book tries to distort it.
But hey, without O’Malley’s defection we wouldn’t have the Mets. So it worked out for us, in any case!