“Rickey, O’Malley, And Smith” pgs. 90-93
Copyright © 2009 Michael D’Antonio and Riverhead Books
The future was on O’Malley’s mind as he tried to plot the Dodgers’ fortunes. He negotiated higher payments from advertisers who wanted space on the walls at Ebbets Field and time on the Dodger radio broadcasts. O’Malley also got involved with the nuts and bolts of putting on the games, including contracts with vendors and maintenance at Ebbets Field. When he reviewed the condition of the ballpark, he discovered that many important repairs and renovation projects had been delayed as, from one year to a next, crews chose to get by with a little scrubbing and a coat of fresh paint.
Not that paint came cheap. It cost a minimum of $30,000 each year to pay for the labor and paint required to spruce up the interior of the park. Fixing public walkways, worn and cracked by millions of footsteps, would cost nearly as much. And these figures paled when compared with fixing the toilets. In 1946 the estimate for this job, which was a matter of public health as well as convenience, was $100,000.
Conditions at Ebbets had been bad for years. Periodically, visits by various city inspectors had required the team to make emergency fixes to avoid losing the occupancy permit for the stadium. The electrical system, taxed by the addition of lights for night games, was especially troublesome…Many other parks built in the same period, including Tiger Stadium, Braves Field, and Wrigley Field, were kept alive in the same way. But nothing could be done about the biggest problem at Ebbets: the lack of space.
The stadium in Brooklyn was constrained by its small lot, which was wedged into a congested neighborhood. Other older parks had been expanded to seat as many as forty-six thousand (Comiskey Park in Chicago), but Ebbets remained stuck at thirty-two thousand, the smallest capacity in the National League. In both major leagues only Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., host of the American League Senators, was smaller. A full house in Washington was twenty-nine thousand, but with the Senators finishing no higher than sixth for eight straight seasons, demand for those seats was not great. Even in 1946, when they climbed to fourth, attendance fell below the league average.
In Brooklyn, where big games now drew more people than the stadium could hold, every fan who walked away represented lost revenue. This loss was made more evident by the fact that the Yankees could seat sixty-seven thousand and the Giants could get more than more than fifty-four thousand into the Polo Grounds. Often the Giants’ biggest gates in a season came on the days when the Dodgers visited. The execs on Montague Street could only dream of welcoming so many paying fans and selling them beer and pop and hot dogs and peanuts along with a game. Not one to abandon his dreams, in the summer of ’46 Walter O’Malley brought the now-famous engineer Emil Praeger to look at the house that Ebbets and the McKeevers built. A favorite of the regional development czar Robert Moses, Praeger was an expert in structural engineering who had also worked on parks and highways. He was known to the general public for designing New York parks and wartime engineering exploits, including the rapid construction of a protected harbor at Normandy during the D-Day invasion. At Ebbets, Praeger found a problem that defied an easy long-term fix. A big investment in renovations might make all the toilets flush and the wiring safe, but given the structure and the location, a significant expansion to create more seating was out of the question.
Even if a way could be found to add thousands of seats, the Dodgers would still face a second big problem: no parking. Designed and built long before the car culture took hold, Ebbets was served by just a few small lots that could handle six or seven hundred cars. With the war just months in the past, it was already obvious that America’s future was coming on four wheels. Auto production rose from about seventeen thousand cars in February 1946 to more than eight-five thousand in September. And with William J. Levitt and others building thousands of new homes on Long Island, it was also clear that many of those cars would be kept in the suburbs by young war veterans – Dodgers fans – who were moving out to start families. If Ebbets was cramped and run-down, or it was impossible to park, why would they come to Brooklyn for a game?
The answer – they wouldn’t – was obvious to Walter O’Malley, and so was the solution. On October 14, 1946, he wrote Emil Praeger to suggest he apply his “fertile imagination” to the matter of “enlarging or replacing our present stadium.” A week later he made a report to the board of directors, raising for the first time the possibility of a modern new play space for the team and its fans. The issue was set aside, but O’Malley wasn’t going to let go of it.
At age forty-three, O’Malley could be expected to look further into the future than Rickey, who was sixty-five, and Smith, who was fifty-seven. He could imagine being active in the game for decades more, and would not accept second-class performance. However, a shabby ballpark with inadequate parking would hurt ticket sales and revenues. Without revenues the team couldn’t pay star players and risked succumbing to a cycle of losing on the field and at the box office.
As a young man, O’Malley was also more sensitive to the change promised by the new mass medium of television. In 1945 the chief engineer at General Electric foresaw a billion-dollar industry. However, as of 1946 the pioneers of TV had not yet figured out how to make it pay. At the time, almost every broadcast minute was being produced as original content by individual stations. This made the cost of programming extremely high. At the same time, advertisers who couldn’t be sure about the size of their audience were reluctant to pay much for commercials.
One obvious exception to this problem of high production costs and unreliable audiences was baseball. Every big-league team in America was already producing seventy-seven home games per year. Add cameras and a bit of narration and these games became television dramas, complete with heroes and villains and endlessly varying stories. Given the relatively low cost of production and baseball’s great appeal, it seemed a perfect fit for the medium, the teams, and sponsors.
Although O’Malley saw the opportunity, the Yankees seized it first, selling the rights to broadcast every Bronx home game in 1947 for $75,000 to the Dumont Television Network. After meeting with the other networks in New York, O’Malley zeroed in on CBS, meeting frequently with executives and sportscaster Bob Edge.
For O’Malley, this duty was not a hardship. It brought him into the exciting world of a new medium at a time when it was controlled by a handful of people. (Thanks to a demonstration put on by CBS, O’Malley and his co-owner Smith were among the first in New York to see color television.) In the end, O’Malley came up with a three-year arrangement for somewhat less than the Yankees received but nevertheless got the Dodgers onto the airwaves in 1947. At the same time the Giants went with NBC.
No one knew the effect TV might have on pro teams. Despite the money they got for broadcasting rights, many owners had worried when radio arrived because they thought people who could hear the games for free would stop coming to the ballpark. But no loss of attendance was ever noted, and it was quite possible that broadcasts of the games, especially reports that were as vivid and warm as Red Barber’s, actually expanded the team’s audience and enticed more people to come to games from greater distances. Optimists believed that television might also lure more people to the ballpark. Pessimists feared that since it provided a live picture of events, it might actually make people feel as though they didn’t have to see the game in person to experience it fully.
If television suppressed attendance, owners would have to find some way – advertising, higher rights fees, or special subscription-only broadcasts – to wring money of this new machine. In the meantime they would go ahead with the experiment. The timing of baseball’s arrival on TV was perfect for the fans in New York, because the game was about to begin the most exciting decade it would ever know.