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This Day in Dodgers History: Walter O’Malley Passes Away

Baseball lost a true pioneer on this day in 1979.

UNSPECIFIED - 1953: Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley and manager Walter Alston photographed in November 1953. (Photo by Greene Photography/Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images)

In recent decades, the subject of Dodgers ownership has been a rather checkered one. For a long stretch, the negligence of Fox and more egregiously Frank McCourt resulted in mediocrity on the field and eventual backlash from the fans. From 2012 to the present, the Guggenheim Group has brought the Dodgers back to perennial relevance and popularity with fans. (Albeit not without some detractors.)

For many decades, the quality of Dodger ownership was hardly (if at all) in doubt under Walter O’Malley. Born to an Irish-American family in the Bronx in 1903, O’Malley’s long tenure with the Dodgers started when he became a minority owner in 1944. Six years later, he became the primary owner at a time when the Brooklyn franchise was beginning to win, but still lagged behind their intra-city rivals the Yankees and the Giants. 

O’Malley proceeded to modernize the Dodgers franchise and turn “Dem Bums” into a perennial winner, after decades of mediocrity. They won pennants in 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956, finally claiming their first World Series title in 1955. However, a confluence of factors (chiefly the flight of much of Brooklyn’s population to newly created suburbs) led him to move the Dodgers out west to Los Angeles in 1958, while the Giants went to San Francisco to complete MLB’s de facto “manifest destiny.” 

While many in Brooklyn were devastated to lose the franchise that shaped its cultural identity, Los Angeles was just as eager to welcome their first major league team. O’Malley continued to ensure the team continued its consistently great play on the West Coast, which they did resoundingly for the next two decades. They won seven pennants and three championships, with a seemingly endless parade of elite talent. O’Malley also ensured stability was the key to the team’s success, keeping stalwarts like manager Walter Alston, general manager Buzzie Bavasi and announcer Vin Scully year after year. 

Sadly, O’Malley’s time came to an end on Thursday, August 9, 1979 from congestive heart failure at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. It was a culmination of failing health for him throughout the decade, starting with abdominal surgery in 1970 and multiple visits for lung and and open heart surgery in 1977 and 1978. His passing came just a month after his wife Kay died on July 12. The franchise was thus handed down to his children Peter and Therese

His death prompted an outpouring of remembrance from major names across baseball. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Detroit Tigers owner John E. Fetzer, former New York City Mayor Robert Wagner, Giants owner Horace Stoneham, and Angels owner Gene Autry praised his outsized role in shaping baseball. Flags across Los Angeles County were lowered at half-mast, and the Olympic torch at the L.A. Coliseum was lighted in his memory. 

O’Malley’s legacy in Los Angeles remains a largely uncontested one. In Brooklyn…not so much. For many years, Brooklynites frequently compared him to Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, and some still resent him for the move today. There are also detractors who believe he was hardly a visionary of California baseball, as MLB expansion in the west had been talked about for decades. They saw him as only capitalizing on the inevitable in order to make money. 

Nonetheless, O’Malley was rightfully inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously in 2008. Before that, he was ranked highly in ABC Sports and The Sporting News in their respective lists of the most influential sports figures of the 20th century. Such recognition is warranted, as he definitively transformed the Dodgers from an also-ran into one of the most prestigious franchises in the history of sports. 

Today, as the Dodgers barrel to their unprecedented seventh straight postseason appearance (and hopefully much more), it’s safe to say the franchise is in its steadiest ownership hands in a long time under the Guggenheim Group. But there wouldn’t be a proud legacy for them to reclaim had that legacy not been forged first by Walter O’Malley. He may be four decades gone, but the royalty and tradition of the Los Angeles Dodgers brand he perfected lives on.

Written by Marshall Garvey

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  1. The Dodgers were so slow to join the new era of baseball after 1988. It wasn’t until 2012 that they finally got a legitimate ownership to fit the times we’re living in in sports. So many wasted years and what ifs before that

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