Baseball Books Reviewed: Mover & Shaker: Walter O'Malley

MOVER & SHAKER: Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers, & Baseball’s Westward Expansion By Andy McCue. University of Nebraska Press, 2014. HB, 468 pp., $34.95. Any baseball bibliophile worth his weight in dust jackets is familiar with the rich history of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and in particular the wonderful anecdote in Peter Golenbock’s Casey winning evocation, BUMS, in which Walter O’Malley is lumped by a pair of Brooklynite literary stars named Jack Newfield and Pete Hamill with Stalin and Hitler as one of the three worst human beings in history.

Now, it should be noted that O’Malley finished third on both independently produced lists, but still, if there was ever a figure in baseball in need of a comprehensively objective treatment, it was the Big Oom. (Michael D’Antonio’s fine 2009 effort, True Blue, is a solid but perhaps overtly laudatory treatment). And for the better part of the last two decades (!), former SABR President Andy McCue had been dedicated to the task of ferretting out the truth from the vitriol, to present a picture of the man who changed the landscape of professional sports in America and almost singlehandedly dragged the business of baseball into the 20th century.

In MOVER & SHAKER, we are treated to McCue’s meticulous research (nearly 300 separate sources are listed, and the 76 pages of endnotes include a page guide to the text being annotated, an extremely useful addition) that begins with O’Malley’s Irish ancestry, winds its way quickly through the New York City Tammany Hall political connections of his grandfather Thomas and father Edwin, and digs deeply into his childhood and college years.

The book details O’Malley’s rise to power within the Dodgers’ muddled hierarchy, his battles with Branch Rickey for control of the franchise, and completely fleshes out the case that the cross-country move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles was far less Machiavellian than the popular sentiment asserted by the Boys of Summer crowd.

O’Malley was, first, foremost, and always, a practical, pragmatic, and unemotional businessman, as opposed to the romantic, privileged sportsmen that had dominated the ownership ranks of baseball. And upon entering the fray, he immediately recognized the inherent dangers of crumbling Ebbets Field and the changing face of Brooklyn, and tried to work with the city for years to find an equitable solution. Meeting resistance at every turn, McCue makes a strong argument that O’Malley had little choice but to move his franchise.

The fact that his landing point became California was obvious from the fabulous offers presented, but McCue also delves into Los Angeles politics to show just how many promises weren’t honored, and how the Chavez Ravine site that Dodger Stadium was eventually built upon was filled with unforeseen issues and problems that took years to overcome. Yet through it all, O’Malley simply persevered, staying true to his vision and his business principles, and eventually built the ideal model of all baseball franchises.

One established in LA, O’Malley becomes the most influential and visionary owner in the game, ushering the era of big television contracts and free agency, all the while campaigning for the end of self-destructive League bipartisanship that had been holding the game back for generations. In the end, it’s abundantly clear that O’Malley more than deserved his 2008 Hall of Fame election.

What seems lost to history, as McCue freely admits, is a real sense of O’Malley’s authentic personality. Just as his Dodger legacy is split upon coastal attitudes and memories, so is the polarity of his personal interactions. He could be generous to a fault, yet stiffly penurious. He was a glad-handing life of the party when being so was beneficial, yet he was difficult to know personally. He feuded with many of the major figures in his professional career – Rickey and Jackie Robinson, among many others, yet was fiercely loyal, especially to his family, and McCue concludes that his main mission was to establish the Dodgers franchise as a continuing legacy for the benefit of his family.

MOVER & SHAKER, McCue’s magnum opus, will soon assume its rightful place among the best in the annals of baseball’s biographical literature, and has set the record straight about O’Malley, perhaps the best pure businessman baseball has ever seen.

-Mark Schraf