Few teams have as rich of a history as the Dodgers, whether in Brooklyn or in Los Angeles. From 1947 through 1966, the Dodgers won 10 pennants and four World Series and they did both on the east coast and the west coast. The Dodgers are the team that finally broke the color barrier when Jackie Robinson made his debut in 1947, and the Dodgers joined the San Francisco Giants to introduce major league baseball to the state of California. All of these things, and more, happened on Walter O’Malley’s watch and are documented in Forever Blue, by Michael D’Antonio. O’Malley is also a very polarizing figure because on the one hand, he’s credited with bringing baseball to the west coast, and on the other hand, he uprooted a beloved team from the borough of Brooklyn.
An established author, D’Antonio’s work prior to Forever Blue includes a biography of Milton S. Hershey (think chocolate) as well as the State Boys Rebellion, a documentary on a 1957 incident that took place at a state institution for mentally handicapped children. This is his first foray into baseball, but he has a Pulitzer Prize on his resume and that’s where D’Antonio stands out. While he may have had to do his homework in researching O’Malley, his writing style is excellent. In order to write the book, he talked to a number of people affiliated with the Dodgers, including former Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi, who he said always wore a suit to their interviews, and former Dodger pitcher Johnny Podres. He was also given access to the family archives by Walter O’Malley’s children, Peter O’Malley and Terry Seidler.
The book is basically three parts. You have O’Malley’s early years growing up and becoming an attorney and his eventual mentorship by George V. McLaughlin, the head of the Brooklyn Trust Company. Then you have his time with the Dodgers in Brooklyn, and things wrap up with his reign with the Dodgers in Los Angeles. His relationship with McLaughlin eventually led to his involvement with the Dodgers because the bank held an increasing amount of debt on the team stemming from conflict on the team’s board, split between the heirs of the former owners, Charles Ebbets and Edward McKeever. Better management was recommended in 1938 and after Branch Rickey turned down the job, the team hired Larry MacPhail to take over team. MacPhail pushed them in the right direction for four years before he left in 1942 to fight in the war. This led to another offer to Rickey and this time, he took the job. He recommended the team bring in an attorney to help handle the business affairs—that lawyer was O’Malley. A few years later, O’Malley, Rickey, and Pfizer executive John Smith bought the team. Eventually O’Malley bought out enough of his partners to gain sole control of the team.
This then led to his standoff with Robert Moses, the man who basically had a stranglehold on real estate development in New York City, and the Dodgers’ eventual move to Los Angeles (which also wasn’t a clean move). While O’Malley was largely blamed at the time for moving the team to California, D’Antonio sheds quite a bit of light on the fact that Robert Moses never really seemed interesting in helping keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn. At the same time, Los Angeles was doing about all it could to bring the Dodgers to their city. D’Antonio does a great job of defending O’Malley while not sounding like an apologist. He presents the facts clearly and without bias.
You also get all of the Dodgers’ history. One of the undercurrents of the book, and O’Malley’s life, was that he lived in Branch Rickey’s shadow. The Dodgers finally won their first World Series in 1955 with a team consisted of several holdovers from the days when Rickey built the team. It wasn’t until 1959, when the Dodgers won their first championship in Los Angeles with a new slate of players, that O’Malley was finally able to deflect the critics who thought he rode on Rickey’s coattails.
If there’s one complaint with the book, it’s that some of the issues of the 1970s weren’t covered as much as I would have liked. The two-man union between Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax was touched on, but the free agency battles (including Andy Messersmith’s testing of the system) that took place during that decade were mentioned but not covered in depth. I know O’Malley wasn’t managing the day-to-day duties of the team at that point because he had handed that job over to his son Peter, but he was still involved. Still, this doesn’t detract anything from my overall opinion of the book.
Overall, I highly recommend this book. If you’re a Dodgers fan or a student of the business of baseball, it should be a part of your library. If you’re not either of those, then the book might only have a passing interest to you, but it’s worth a look because you get a lot of rich baseball history written by an exceptional writer.