“Rickey, O’Malley, And Smith” pgs. 72-74
Copyright © 2009 Michael D’Antonio and Riverhead Books
After World War I, gate receipts had bounced back smartly, but more importantly, except for the worst years of the Great Depression, attendance had grown more rapidly than the population. In 1920, 106 million Americans bought 96 million tickets. In 1940, 132 million people purchased 135 million tickets. It didn’t take much foresight to imagine that when the GI’s came home, married, and had children, the robust growth in population and baseball would resume. And since they weren’t making any more major league teams – the same sixteen had held a monopoly since the year O’Malley was born – fans would have no choice but to go to the same old ballparks and support the same old teams.
Sitting in the cat bird seat (one of Brooklyn broadcaster Red Barber’s favorite expressions), O’Malley saw that the team’s operation was becoming more rational and its finances more stable. He also understood baseball’s long-term potential. Still relatively young at age forty-one, he could anticipate being part of future glories. Others were not so sanguine. By early 1944, Edward McKeever’s heirs had endured nearly twenty years of boardroom squabbles, financial perils, and uneven play on the field. The big-league team had finished the previous year with just a small profit and on the first road trip of this new season lost ten out of fourteen games. Soon the Dodger’s goal became avoiding a last-place finish. No longer interested in waiting for what could be, Edward McKeever’s descendants notified team lawyer O’Malley that they wanted to sell their quarter interest in the team as soon as they could get a decent price.
The other owners had claims on stock as it became available and so O’Malley first consulted James Mulvey, whose wife, Marie, was the other McKeever daughter and thus controlled 25 percent of the club. The Mulveys weren’t interested in upping their stake. The fractious Ebbets heirs, who numbered more than twenty and owned half the club, were even less inclined toward buying. They wanted out of baseball entirely, but were still too mired in their own conflicts to make a deal. The most prominent among them, Charlie Ebbets Jr., had recently changed the complex family dynamic by dying in a Brooklyn boardinghouse and leaving two-thirds of his estate to a former housekeeper and one-third to his actual wife.
With the way clear of other bidders, and all the inside information he needed, O’Malley began to work on the deal that would set the course for the rest of his life. At a price of about $250,000, the McKeever block was too expensive for him to handle alone. But if he broke it into smaller pieces, then he could keep one for himself and get a seat on the board of directors. From this position it was possible that he could then buy out the Ebbets family, should they ever settle their differences.
Before he could carry out his big plan, O’Malley needed to find partners. He turned first to Andrew Schmitz, a longtime Dodgers fan who was Everett McCooey’s partner in an insurance firm. Schmitz agreed to participate in buying the 25 percent of the stock owned by the McKeever estate. O’Malley then approached Branch Rickey with the offer he had waited a lifetime to hear.
With only sixteen teams in the entire country, the fraternity of major league owners was small, and despite his efforts to join, Rickey had been excluded for forty years This time he was invited into an owners group eager for his baseball credentials. Rickey didn’t have any money to put into the deal. In fact, he was $300,000 in debt and so short on assets that he had borrowed on his life insurance. No problem, said O’Malley: he could arrange financing. It would have to be nearly total, said Rickey. “We’re prepared to carry you,” answered O’Malley.
The “we” O’Malley mentioned included the Brooklyn Trust Company, which would supply much if not all of the actual cash paid to the McKeever group. George V. McLaughlin’s (Brooklyn Trust) bank was having a record year and had recently raised its dividend by 15 percent. He could expect that the Dodger loans would be repaid through postwar revenues, and with the McKeevers out, McLaughlin would expect to see a friendlier face – Walter O’Malley’s – on the board of directors.
The stock sale was completed six weeks after the end of the season. It was announced with just the slightest bit of fanfare – a brief press conference where O’Malley and Schmitz presented themselves as “Brooklyn boys” who were determined to keep ownership “in Brooklyn, where it belongs,” said Schmitz.
This assurance was genuine. Rickey enjoyed unqualified support from Schmitz and O’Malley. Rickey got further backing a few months later when Schmitz was replaced by a new owner, John L. Smith, the president of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, a Brooklyn company.
By the summer of 1945 those who followed the team closely understood that the O’Malley ownership group had their eyes on the Ebbets shares, too. Now on the board of directors, where he acted as secretary, O’Malley began negotiations to purchase them. The other side was represented by George V. McLaughlin and two of the Ebbets heirs, Joseph A. Gilleaudeau and Grace Slade Ebbets. Their goal was a price that would allow everyone with a claim to the original estate enough cash to end disputes that had raged in the courts since 1925.
Although George the Fifth had been O’Malley’s mentor and ally he didn’t make it easy. He and the other negotiators turned down offers staked at the price paid for the McKeever shares, holding out for a premium. At one point, six months passed without much progress. The two men saw each other often, and even went to see some boxing matches in early March, but the negotiations remained deadlocked.
McLaughlin had no reason to rush. Charles Ebbets had been dead twenty years. What were a few months more? McLaughlin also had plenty of other work to occupy his time. The bank was growing, and as a commissioner of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which was headed by Robert Moses, he was deeply involved in a massive program of bridge, tunnel, and parkway construction. McLaughlin could wait for O’Malley and company to meet his terms for the Dodgers stock.