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The Bums Already Sold Out

Let's hope Daffy Duck buys the Los Angeles Dodgers. Or Boris Yeltsin. If the Bosnian government puts together an ownership group, writes a check for 300 million bucks and moves the team to burned-out Sarajevo, that will be fine. Maybe Madonna is interested. For all that it matters, she can turn Hideo Nomo and Raul Mondesi into personal sex slaves and send Mike Piazza on a beer run to her native Argentina.

At least no one named O'Malley will be running the show.
Real Dodgers fans--in other words, Brooklyn Dodgers fans--never bought sushi at a concession stand. They never walked out of a game in the fifth inning. More important, real Dodgers fans (what's left of them) have never forgiven Walter O'Malley for tearing their hearts out of their chests forty years ago. Now Judas's kid has decided to unload the club, and the only thing real Dodgers fans can say is this: Good riddance, and may the brakes on your Mercedes fail.

The game's long bout of labor trouble is probably a factor, but Peter O'Malley and his sister, Terry Seidler, say the main reason they are getting out is the "estate-planning needs" of their thirteen children. In any event, they stand to make a fortune through the sale of one of the most successful franchises in professional sports. Last year, Financial World magazine reckoned the team's worth at $147 million, but observers of what is now called "the baseball industry" believe the Dodgers will fetch a price much, much higher than the $173 million Peter Angelos and company paid for the Baltimore Orioles in 1993, or the $150 million August Busch III got for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1995. The L.A. Dodgers have, after all, drawn more than 2 million fans in 24 consecutive seasons, and 3 million have passed the Chavez Ravine gates eleven times.

Small change by Coors Field's nouveau standards, perhaps. But the Dodgers also have six World Series trophies in the case.

Meanwhile, every dime the O'Malleys get will be ill-gotten.
Before going all sentimental and gooey over the further erosion of family ownership in sports--O'Malley the Younger claims it's no longer feasible--baseball fans might do well to recall how his daddy seized control of the Dodgers in 1950, the way he later stuck it to the people of Brooklyn, and his treatment of colleagues and players, including a man named Jackie Robinson, who began his major-league career exactly half a century ago. To New Yorkers, Walter O'Malley wasn't just the Art Modell of his day--he was also the Devil. In some shot-and-a-beer joints, he still is.

The purpose here is not to stain a son with the sins of his father. But when the new Dodgers owners, whoever they turn out to be, hand over the cash to the O'Malleys, it will have on it the distinct odor of blood.

Particulars of the indictment:
1942: When brilliant but boozy Larry MacPhail is ousted as Dodgers president, the visionary baseball executive Branch Rickey, Brooklyn chemical manufacturer John L. Smith and a lawyer working for the Brooklyn Trust Company, Walter O'Malley, each buy 25 percent of the struggling club--for a total cost of $1,046,000. O'Malley, whose specialties include foreclosing mortgages on failing businesses, handling Dodgers legal matters and acting as valet and bodyguard to the bank president, is something of a mystery figure. He begins feuding with Rickey.

1947: Branch Rickey brings Jackie Robinson up to Brooklyn, breaking baseball's color line, transforming the Dodgers into a box-office draw in every National League city and catapulting them to their first pennant in six seasons. In the process, Rickey changes the course of American history. Years later, O'Malley tells sportswriter Red Smith it was his idea to sign Robinson.

1949: The Dodgers win another pennant. Before players can get their World Series rings, O'Malley orders them to turn in the rings they earned two years earlier.

1950: After major stockholder John Smith dies of cancer, Walter O'Malley puts the arm on his widow, convincing her to yield the administration of her shares to a bank. The Brooklyn Trust Company. O'Malley's bank. Having gained control of the team, he then goes after Rickey, who is financially strapped. O'Malley offers Rickey $346,667 for his stock--exactly what he paid for it eight years earlier--even though the Dodgers now have rolled up a $2.6 million surplus. Rickey manages to outflank his old nemesis on a technicality and gets $1 million for his share. But O'Malley now rules the Dodgers unchallenged.

1951: O'Malley fires "Rickey's" manager, Burt Shotton, elevates Chuck Dressen and imposes a $1 fine on any Dodgers employee who mentions Branch Rickey's name. He starts making noises about the inadequacy of Ebbets Field, the Dodgers' cozy, 33,000-seat home and the spiritual center of all Brooklyn. When Jackie Robinson gets hurt and is unable to play in exhibition games, his boss bitterly complains. When Robinson speaks up about still being assigned to a blacks-only hotel, O'Malley answers: "A separate hotel was good enough for you in 1947, wasn't it?"  

1955: Brooklyn wins its only world championship--beating the imperial Yankees at long last.

1956: O'Malley's complaints about Ebbets Field grow louder. Before the 1952 Series, O'Malley had gone so far as to suggest that all the Dodger-Yank games be played across town in 75,000-seat Yankee Stadium. Now he wants a 45,000-seat, domed stadium in Brooklyn--or else. After Don Larsen's perfect game underscores another World Series loss to the Yanks, a longtime Dodgers board director, Harry Hickey, tells his old pal O'Malley that he'd like nothing better than to accompany the team on its annual post-season tour of Japan. But O'Malley discovers that Hickey is ailing and turns him down. The boss's words to an underling: "Did you ever stop to consider what it would cost to ship a body back from Tokyo?"

1957: O'Malley drops the guillotine on Flatbush. In a radical move that presages a frenzy of franchise shifts in the decades to come, the Dodgers chieftain announces the transplantation, to Los Angeles, of the team that accounts for 40 percent of all National League revenues. L.A. mayor Norris Poulson has literally given O'Malley the farm--315 acres of prime real estate (complete with oil rights), plans for a new ballpark and, as one wisenheimer added, "the go-ahead to sleep with his wife twice a week." Thus does Brooklyn's major institution--the force that unites 2 million people--suddenly vanish. Shockingly, so do Willie Mays and the New York Giants. In a second ploy as slick as the first, O'Malley dupes Giants owner Horace Stoneham--who has been looking at Minneapolis--into a move to San Francisco, creating an instant West Coast rivalry. Stoneham takes the bait and winds up in dank, inhospitable Candlestick Park, losing games. O'Malley lands in the palm-shaded comforts of Dodger Stadium and in time becomes baseball's most powerful executive--the game's de facto commissioner--serving his own interests first, followed by those of other owners. In 1959 he tries to block the path of American League baseball in Southern California, but singing cowboy Gene Autry prevails, and the California Angels are born two years later. In 1970 O'Malley appoints son Peter president of the Dodgers.

1979: Walter O'Malley dies. Champagne corks pop all over Brooklyn.
Last week, it seemed that the apple had not fallen far from the tree. Of baseball, once a game of sheer joy played with a stick and a ball but turned by his father into a financial transaction, O'Malley the Younger said this to the Wall Street Journal: "It's a high-risk business. It's as high-risk as the oil business, and I think you need a broader base than an individual family to guide you through the storms."

Indeed.
In Bums, Peter Golenbock's splendid oral history of the Brooklyn Dodgers, almost every page reverberates with the old New York animus for Peter O'Malley's father. But one story stands out. Jack Newfield, the writer, recalls joining fellow reporter Pete Hamill for dinner one night, when they began joking about collaborating on an article called "The Ten Worst Human Beings Who Ever Lived." For laughs, each man compiled his private list of the three worst humans. Then they compared notes.

That's right. The lists were identical. To wit:
1. Adolf Hitler
2. Joseph Stalin
3. Walter O'Malley

In any event, Bob Dole was right. No matter who owns 'em, now or ever, they will always be the Brooklyn Dodgers. Duke Snider's and Gil Hodges's and Roy Campanella's team. Above all, Jackie's team and Branch Rickey's team. With nary a fleck of sushi within 10,000 miles of the joint and every O'Malley held at arm's length.

In New Orleans last weekend, the big deal over at the Superdome was something called Monster Jam World--sixteen huge trucks sporting tires as big as nightclubs and ugly faces painted on their fronts, leaping over long rows of crushed parked cars.

"The white-trash event of the year," one world-weary Big Easy taxi driver opined. "Tell ya," said a bartender up to his elbows in the bourbon spilled by his well-oiled patrons. "Can't believe they throwin' all that dirt roun' in thay two weeks 'fore the big game. Downright sacrilegious."

The "big game" is, of course, the Super Bowl, and one of the teams that looked like a sure thing to be playing in it will instead be spending the day in a clinic for badly bruised psyches.

All because that team got hit on January 4 by a couple of monster trucks named Natrone Means and Mark Brunell.  

The question now is, does everything hurt even more in Broncoland this week because the Jacksonville Jaguars also got blown out of the playoffs Sunday afternoon? Probably. If Cinderella had gotten to the big game, and--even better--if she had won the big game, maybe assorted Broncos and Broncos fans could have consoled themselves with the fact that they'd been knocked flat by the real thing.

As it is, Jaxville managed a measly six points against a New England team that got on a roll late in the season while the Broncos lounged around admiring their laurel wreaths. Enough is enough, said Pats coach Bill Parcells.

Enough was enough, and so it is now for the boys from Boston. As long as Brett Favre looks both ways before crossing the Interstate, it will be Green Bay 38, New England 10.


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