Wednesday’s Book Review: “Forever Blue”

forever-blue-high-resForever Blue: The True Story of Walter O’Malley, Baseball’s Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles. By Michael D’Antonio. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

There is no doubt but that Walter O’Malley (1903-1979), known to nemeses and fans alike as “The O’Malley,” was one of the most significant forces in major league baseball (MLB) between the 1940s and the 1970s. He gained partial control of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the early 1940s, pushed out the two other members of the Dodger troika—including Branch Rickey—and then assumed sole ownership for the rest of his life. He supported the integration of MLB—although he did not instigate it—fought repeatedly with Jackie Robinson and never really made up, sought a new baseball stadium in Brooklyn but ran afoul of New York public works guru Robert Moses, engineered the movement of the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958, built a great baseball park with a lot of political help in Chavez Ravine after ousting Hispanic squatters, and oversaw a terrific baseball team that dominated the National League in the early 1960s.

In the process O’Malley earned the ire of the whole of Brooklyn, at least partially inappropriately, gained the admiration of movie stars and others who wanted to bask in the glory of the Dodgers as they arrived in luxury in the third inning and left before the end of the seventh, and held the fierce loyalty of such true believers as manager Walter Alston and Buzzie Bavasi. Through all of this, O’Malley created a superb organization that ensured success on the field and generally positive relations outside the lines.

But O’Malley was neither universally liked nor respected; some even considered him evil. I don’t mean the Brooklynites who still condemn him to a special place in hell for spiriting the Dodgers to the West Coast. That story is much more complex than most people appreciate. I am speaking of those inside the MLB power structure. Longtime Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber, for example, characterized O’Malley as “the most devious man I ever met” (p. 335). I tend to believe Barber, in part because of how O’Malley entered the story of Charlie Finley that I researched a few years ago. The characterization of Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley, who also had his share of troubles with MLB’s most powerful owner, was extremely negative. Finley believed, quite rightly, that for decades O’Malley had manipulated baseball and its commissioners in manners that suited the Dodgers and himself. He believed Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, for example, served as a mere puppet to the powerful Dodger owner. And there is no doubt but that he was right.

Michael D’Antonio’s Forever Blue is a passable biography of Walter O’Malley. It is mostly, but not exclusively, about baseball and the Dodgers. D’Antonio gained access to O’Malley papers held by the family and therefore could bring to bear insights not available in any other account of his life. Unfortunately, while he uses these materials I’m not convinced that a real historian rather than a journalist, could not have employed them to write a much more satisfying biography. Until someone does so, this will probably have to suffice. It’s not a bad book, although I think overly apologetic toward an MLB stalwart that has a lot of warts on his face; I just believe the subject is so rich and the opportunity so great that there is much more to be done.

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