The Crackle Wonders: Michael D’Antonio

Justin March 2, 2010 0

New York Nostalgia continues on SportsCracklePop.  A couple of weeks ago, we spoke to the author of a new biography of Willie Mays.  Today, it’s that other team that left for the coast. Michael D’Antonio has written “Forever Blue,” a biography of former Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley. You may not know who he is, but your grandfather hates him.

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SCP: You can argue that the two most important moments in the history of baseball’s development were Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and the Dodgers moving out west. Walter O’Malley was responsible for both. Branch Rickey gets the majority of the credit for Robinson, even though Mr. O’Malley was, arguably, just as courageous in ok’ing the move. Meanwhile, Mr. O’Malley takes the lion’s share of the blame for the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, even though it now appears that was mostly because of Robert Moses. Is this unfair or has history painted these events correctly?

MD: Several dozen prominent figures in politics and baseball participated the battle over the future of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a struggle that lasted more than a decade. The most powerful one was NY development czar Robert Moses who had planned all along to build a municipal stadium in Flushing. O’Malley tried every way possible to get support for the construction of a new private ballpark in Brooklyn to replace crumbling Ebbets. In the end, Moses thwarted him and city officials were so inept that they lost two teams (the Dodgers and the Giants) at the same time. Moses succeeded in painting o’Malley as the primary villain and I guess you have to say he was the one who was responsible for the move, however, it’s clear to me that if he had gotten just a little cooperation he would have stayed. Moses was the key to it all, and he would not give O’Malley an inch.

SCP: Before he decided to leave for LA, O’Malley tried to get approval for a new stadium, with a roof, in Brooklyn. That was years before the Astrodome opened. Are there other examples of Walter O’Malley as something of a sports visionary?

MD: Many. he was the most assertive when it came to recruiting the best players of any race, and fielded the first black-majority team in the big leagues. He pioneered professionalism in the front office, hiring college educated executives with sports management degrees, and he was probably the first to get a single sponsor – Union Oil – to sponsor a stadium. Finally, I’d point to the development of Dodgertown at Vero beach, Florida as a major innovation. He turned it into the first comprehensive camp to serve an entire organization and a baseball tourist destination.

SCP: The move to LA wasn’t easy on the team either. Can you talk about that a bit?

MD: No it wasn’t easy. They had to play in the LA Coliseum, which was built for track and field and made for a lousy ballpark. Married players with families also found it difficult to figure-out the various options for settling into suburban life. They were accustomed to Brooklyn’s friendly neighborhoods and missed being able to walk to one another’s homes for visits. For the single guys, LA presented a little too much nightlife – clubs, movies stars, etc. and more than a few got into trouble with both the cops and the team.

SCP: The O’Malley family owned the Dodgers for decades after the move, before finally selling to Fox, who in turn, sold to the McCourts. The current owners are dealing with their own controversy, stemming from the McCourt’s divorce. What is it about Dodger ownership that seems to court controversy?

MD: I’m not sure the ownership invited any more controversy than others. The current situation is a matter of martial conflict, with the team as a contested asset, and I think that could happen with any team or business. In the case of Fox, I think they suffered by comparison with the O’Malleys who had a much greater personal investment in the Dodgers. I don’t think there is any way a corporation can match the passion of family owners.

SCP: How did you land on Walter O’Malley as a subject? And how did you go about collecting the information?

MD: I’ve thought about O’Malley for many years. He was perhaps the most important team executive of his era and yet he was little understood. When I heard the family maintained an archive of his papers – 35,000 pages – I approached them about having a look. I turned out to be the right guy at the right time. I didn’t have a dog in the LA-NY feud (I’m a Red Sox fan) and the O’Malleys were ready to let someone tell the tale

SCP: You’re the first Pulitzer Winner to ever sit down for a SportsCracklePop interview. Obviously, that’s almost as big an honor as winning the prize in the first place. What story earned you the award, and how did it change your career?

MD: I was a member of a team of reporters at Newsday who covered the Baby Jane Doe case. It revolved around a severely disable infant born on Long Island. Medical officials counseled the parents to withhold care and let the baby die. The controversy that arose touched on legal, ethical medical and religious issues. In sharing the award I received the kind of recognition that helped me win a fellowship to spend a year researching my first book. I’ve been writing and publishing books ever since.

SCP: The Dodgers traded Brooklyn for Los Angeles. We’ll pose a similar choice to you: Would you rather have a knish and an egg cream or fish tacos and mineral water? (clearly, I am a New Yorker and have very little knowledge of what people eat in LA)

MD: I love both cities and the best rye bread I ever had was served at a deli in LA. That said, I’d have to go with the energy and bustle of New York. I mean, given a choice who picks a freeway over the subway?

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