From the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist comes a revealing biography of "one of the most polarizing figures in baseball history" (The New York Times).
If ever there was a figure who changed the game of baseball, it was Walter O'Malley, owner of the Dodgers. O'Malley was one of the most controversial owners in the history of American sports, altering the course of history when he uprooted the Dodgers and transplanted them from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. While many critics attacked him, O'Malley looked to the future, declining to defend his stance. As a result, fans across the nation have never been able to stop arguing about him and his strategy–until now. Michael D'Antonio's Forever Blue is a uniquely intimate portrait of a man who changed America's pastime forever, a fascinating story fundamental to the history of sports, business, and the American West.
Michael D'Antonio's newest book, A Full Cup: Sir Thomas Lipton's Extraordinary Life and His Quest for America's Cup, is now available from Riverhead Books.
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About the Author
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Table of Contents
One - TWO O’MALLEYS
Two - A MAN ABOUT NEW YORK
Three - THE DODGER BUSINESS
Four - RICKEY, O’MALLEY, AND SMITH
Five - O’MALLEY’S DODGERS
Six - O’MALLEY RULES
Seven - CALIFORNIA CALLS
Eight - WOW! WOW! WOW!
Nine - LAST-DITCH STAND
Ten - O’MALLEY’S CHOICE
Eleven - THE BATTLE OF CHAVEZ RAVINE
Twelve - EL DORADO
About the Author
ALSO BY MICHAEL D’ANTONIO
A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey: 1957—The Space Race Begins
Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life
of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams
The State Boys Rebellion
Tour ’72: Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Trevino—The Story of One Great Season
Mosquito: The Story of Man’s Deadliest Foe (with Andrew Spielman)
Tin Cup Dreams: A Long Shot Makes It on the PGA Tour
Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America’s Nuclear Arsenal
Heaven on Earth: Dispatches from America’s Spiritual Frontier
Fall from Grace: The Failed Crusade of the Christian Right
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Forever blue : the true story of Walter O’Malley, baseball’s most controversial owner, and
the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles / Michael D’Antonio.
eISBN : 978-1-101-02451-5
1. O’Malley, Walter F. (Walter Frank), 1903-1979. 2. Baseball team owners—United States—Biography.
3. Brooklyn Dodgers (Baseball team). 4. Los Angeles Dodgers (Baseball team). I. Title.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
For Dodgers of every era,
and their fans, forever blue.
On the night when major-league baseball died in Brooklyn, fewer than seven thousand fans went to the old ballpark in Flatbush to pay their respects. Most sat in the lower level, behind home plate, and along the baselines. In the big empty sections of the grandstand a light autumn breeze blew paper cups and empty peanut bags down concrete aisles and against rows of old slatted chairs. On the field, players moved with the extra weight of knowing that this time there would be no “next year.” After many seasons of joy—in the face of Jackie Robinson, in the bellowing voice of Hilda Chester, and in the roar of standing-room-only crowds—Ebbets Field had become a desolate and unhappy place.
The Dodgers beat the Pirates 2-0. Organist Gladys Goodding played “Auld Lang Syne” as the grounds crew raked the infield and, out of habit, spread a tarp over the pitcher’s mound. Emmett Kelly, the sad-faced clown who had performed his act before Dodgers games throughout the season, would recall seeing many women—and a few men—crying as they left Ebbets Field for good.
Brooklyn had already entered an era of loss. The daily paper, the Eagle, had died in 1955, and the trolley cars had stopped running in 1956. Several big retail stores and theaters had closed, and young families were moving to the suburbs of Long Island. Now the great Dodgers baseball team was leaving and there was nothing anyone could do about it. For some the wound was so deep and ragged that the pain would never quite disappear. Almost fifty years later, in one of the last interviews he gave before his death, Dodger pitcher Clem Labine’s voice trembled as he recalled the day and asked, “Why did he do it?”
“He” was Walter O’Malley, the team’s owner, and what he did would go down in history as a betrayal equal, in some minds, to Benedict Arnold’s treason at West Point. At a time when people in Brooklyn were fighting to hold on to their optimism and identity, O’Malley uprooted the most important symbol of their plucky spirit and moved it to Los Angeles.
In the years since they moved west, the old Brooklyn Dodgers became the subject of more intense worship and hagiography than any ball club in history. The Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig were more worthy of awe and the Cubs have certainly earned the underdog love they enjoy every season. But Frank Sinatra sang of a ballpark in Brooklyn, not Chicago, and only the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s could inspire Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, which became one of the biggest-selling baseball books of all time.
Kahn’s elegy, published in 1972 and maintained in print ever since, was followed by an entire genre of Brooklyn Dodgers literature in the form of books, articles, and even academic papers. In many of these works, and more casual remembrances, O’Malley is portrayed as a villain. New York writer Jack Newfield famously called O’Malley one of the three worst human beings who ever lived. His colleague Pete Hamill, who has published at least twenty books, is known as much for his hatred of O’Malley as for anything else. When, in 2007, O’Malley was finally voted into the Hall of Fame, Hamill wrote “Never forgive, never forget” and declared that with his election the hall took all morality out of the honor of getting a plaque at Cooperstown.
But as much as Hamill might disagree, O’Malley actually deserved a spot in the hall. With his fateful decision to leave Brooklyn, he did more than anyone to make baseball a truly national game. And during his reign, the Dodgers became one of the greatest franchises in all of sport. From the day he moved to Los Angeles until he died in 1979, O’Malley’s team would be the best in the National League, winning three world championships and seven pennants and finishing second seven times. (In all of baseball, only the Yankees had a better record.) O’Malley also built the first truly modern stadium in America, a gracefully designed ballpark that remains, after nearly fifty years, one of the best places in the world to watch a game of any sort.
Although a few hard cases in Brooklyn would never forgive him, millions of fans in the Los Angeles area came to regard O’Malley, who didn’t need padding to play the role, as some kind of Santa Claus. They felt this way because he had given them the gift of elite-level baseball and affirmed their city’s status as “major league.” O’Malley became so popular in Los Angeles that on the fiftieth anniversary of the team’s arrival in the city, a five-foot-high bronze frieze of his image was installed at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Court of Honor. There he joined other sports figures—including Knute Rockne, Jackie Robinson, and Jesse Owens—deemed to have contributed to the “growth and glory” of the city.
THE ANIMUS And the affection heaped on O’Malley long after his death raises an obvious question: How could a sportsman be so hated in one place and so beloved in another? The Brooklyn/Los Angeles divide suggests part of the answer, but parochialism does not explain it all. It’s important to recall, too, that O’Malley was an imposing figure who wielded power over a popular institution and supervised many ambitious and headstrong individuals. Few people ever enjoyed more direct authority than the owner of a ball team in the days before free agency and the players’ union. This power allowed him to accomplish great things, but it also aroused suspicion, envy, and animosity.
Any attempt to explain O’Malley must also consider the gaps in the record of his life. He was not the type who would reflect aloud on his motivations or reveal his innermost thoughts. From the outside anyone could see that O’Malley was devoted to his family and that he thoroughly enjoyed his wealth, status, and the trappings of success. But while he lived, he avoided close analysis. This was especially true when it came to events surrounding his acquisition of the team and the move west. Once these struggles ended, he rarely spoke of them in public. He insisted on calling old rivals his friends and usually declined to defend himself against his critics.
Because he was so reticent, anyone depending on the public record would be challenged to understand O’Malley, or the moves he made, with any real certainty. Fortunately he left behind a vast archive of personal and business files that help fill in the picture. Made available by his surviving children, these papers became the documentary foundation for this book. They reveal the inside story of O’Malley’s rise from the son of a Tammany Hall pol to the boss of baseball and place certain historic events in a new light.
The O’Malley archive offers a new and more realistic perspective on the game’s great sage, Branch Rickey, and on the long, torturous political fight that preceded the team’s flight from Brooklyn. Beyond these issues, the O’Malley papers show how much he risked in building Dodger Stadium and that delays and rising costs brought him close to bankruptcy.
Short of having access to the man himself, the thoughts O’Malley expresses in his notes and letters, the diaries that chart his travels and contacts, and all the rest of the material in the archive make it possible to see the man more clearly than he has even been seen before. Add interviews with those who knew him, countless contemporary articles, and dozens of relevant books, and the portrait becomes even more reliable and distinct.
In the end, it’s up to anyone who would judge O’Malley to consider the evidence and to attempt to see the man in full. If, ultimately, you reach more than one conclusion, you’ll have something in common with many who knew him back when. He was not a simple person who would fit easily into a single category or simple definition. But then, what man or woman worthy of history’s consideration ever was?
On the last day of August 1921, a short and stocky man with wavy dark hair walked alone to a witness chair set behind a small wooden table in the ornate council chamber at New York City Hall. Despite the ninety-degree heat, thirty-nine-year-old Edwin O’Malley wore a formal suit and tie. To his right, Washington and Lafayette peered down from gilt-framed paintings. To his left, huge windows that flanked a plaster statue of Thomas Jefferson let bright cathedral light into the room. Behind him, the gallery was filled with a legion of friends and political allies.
O’Malley, who clenched a soggy unlit cigar between his teeth, paused for a moment to take some papers out of his briefcase and spread them on the table. He then sat down, and stared defiantly through pince-nez glasses—the kind that Teddy Roosevelt wore—at the latest in a long line of investigators and legislators who had tried to destroy the city’s legendary Tammany Hall political machine. O’Malley had spent weeks dodging the so-called Meyer Committee and charges that he and his department were guilty of graft and corruption. In this moment he seemed outnumbered and besieged. But if history was a reliable guide, he had nothing to fear.
Do-gooders had been trying to reform New York City since before Edwin O’Malley was born. The previous campaign had been conducted by an insider, Mayor John Purroy Mitchel. Aided by an ambitious political newcomer named Robert Moses, Mitchel had crusaded for a merit-based civil service. But like all the others before them, they had failed. John F. “Red Mike” Hylan, whom Moses called “the Bozo of Bushwick,” drove them out in the election of 1917 and Tammany roared back to life.
As Red Mike’s commissioner of public markets, O’Malley had come under scrutiny when the Meyer Committee focused on a city-run network of food warehouses. Noisy, dangerous, and infested with rats, these public markets housed dealers who were licensed to receive and distribute virtually everything anyone in New York ate or drank. The space controlled by the department’s men was precious, and according to a butcher who testified before the investigators, $450 paid to an inspector named George A. Winter was the going rate if you wanted to transfer permits when a business was sold. Another market man had said that O’Malley had pressured him to sell his building on Vesey Street to the New York Telephone Company, which planned a massive skyscraper for the spot. A fishmonger’s widow testified that she was threatened with eviction from the market if she didn’t pay $1,000.
For the butcher and the fishmonger’s widow, the hearings brought a moment of fame, but only the naïve would be shocked by their testimony. Generations of rule by political operators like G. W. Plunkitt—most famous for saying, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em”—had affirmed that the city ran on graft. Politicians retained power by doling out jobs to the working class and big favors to those with money or influence. Everyone knew how the game worked, and many admired the ingenuity of those who played it well.
During the Meyer investigation, O’Malley had maneuvered so well that the committee had agreed to let him appear on his own terms. This included allowing him to make an uninterrupted opening statement that would address every issue raised by his accusers. On the day he testified, O’Malley pressed for another advantage: immunity from prosecution for anything he might tell the committee. Here the men from Albany drew a line. O’Malley, who insisted that his accusers were backed by powerful men in the food industry, was duly outraged.
“Is that the last instruction from the governor,” said O’Malley, slamming his fist on the table, “to get me by hook or crook, or break both my legs, because I have been fighting the food interests?”
The crowd at City Hall applauded and O’Malley, not waiting for an answer, then launched a free-form monologue intended to take full advantage of the committee’s assurance that he could speak without interruption. After offering brief denials of the graft and extortion charges, he commenced a detailed, rambling address on the value of a public markets system that began with a description of their founding and continued to include character sketches of the men who made it work. One, August Silz, “made the guinea hen famous,” said O’Malley. “Unfortunately poor August is dead. He was a splendid character.”
In his second hour O’Malley attacked his accusers. One had stolen chickens, said the commissioner. Another was complaining, even though her permits had actually been granted. A third must have been confused about payments made for the fixtures in a market stall. Everyone knew that city permits could not be bought or sold, he said.
O’Malley’s testimony was a spectacular display of bluster and filibuster, so energetic that at one point an irritated deputy attorney general asked, “Are you electrically wound up?”
“Well, I don’t know what you mean,” answered O’Malley.
“You don’t seem to run down.”
“I am telling you what happened, about this thing.”
And so it went for more than two full hours. At several points those hearing the testimony grew impatient with this grand display of talking without communicating, a practice the British called “talking Irish.” A committee lawyer named Leonard Wallenstein actually rose out of his chair to demand that O’Malley provide direct answers to specific questions. To the delight of the crowd, O’Malley said he wouldn’t let the lawyer “pin me down.”
Wallenstein rose to his feet and shook a fist. “Now, Mr. Witness, you remember—”
“Aw, sit down, don’t get excited!”
Behind O’Malley, the crowd erupted with prizefight cheers.
“You don’t want me to tell you what I think of you!” shouted Wallenstein.
“I don’t care! I wouldn’t believe what you say anyway. Sit down. Keep your hands to yourself too.”
“Is this a beer garden?” asked Wallenstein, straining to be heard.
Suddenly, from somewhere in the crowd, a man called out, “Get off of the stand, O’Malley!” It was John J. Halpin, a politically connected lawyer, who had cried out. “I appear as his counsel,” he said. “I advise him to leave the stand.”
“Throw him out!” commanded one of the Republicans on the panel.
Having told his story of the public markets and created a drama to please the crowd, O’Malley rose and swept the papers on the table into his briefcase. When Wallenstein asked if he refused to answer more questions, O’Malley answered, “I do!”
The Tammany men in the hall applauded loudly as O’Malley picked up his hat. They stood and kept clapping as he turned to walk out of the hearing with Halpin at his side. A large contingent followed, continuing to cheer as the embattled commissioner and his lawyer passed Washington and Jefferson and Lafayette, left the hearing room, and descended the marble steps of City Hall. The only thing they failed to do, as they showed their support for their man O’Malley, was hoist him on their shoulders.
The next morning the lead headline in the New York Times read “O’Malley, in Rage, Quits as Witness” and the paper predicted that the commissioner would have to resign. However, weeks and then months passed and O’Malley remained. The Meyer Committee would issue a report describing the public markets as a “vehicle for the collection of graft.” Further evidence of the department’s problems emerged in a trial related to a racket that targeted pushcart vendors, who were also under the department’s purview. As he ruled on the pushcart case, Justice James Cropsey described a level of “lawlessness” in the markets unequaled since the days of the breathtakingly corrupt Boss Tweed.
Ultimately, Inspector Winter and nearly a hundred other “market men” were fired. The pushcart scheme was ended. And a lavish peddler’s ball, which was planned to honor Edwin O’Malley on his fortieth birthday, was cancelled when it appeared that city workers had threatened to revoke the licenses of those vendors who refused to buy tickets. Some of the peddlers, who mostly spoke Yiddish, Polish, and Italian, said they were relieved by the cancellation, since few of them appreciated modern music or knew how to dance.
But though he wouldn’t get his testimonial, Commissioner O’Malley kept his job and would serve until the end of 1925, when his patron’s term ended. In that time O’Malley never shrank from the spotlight. When the Port Authority moved to take over food distribution, he began construction of a new $10 million public market in the Bronx. When the New York Housewives Sugar Committee marched around City Hall to protest high prices, he joined the mayor to cheer their complaints against “big food.” And when a delegation from Japan came to visit, O’Malley served as eager host, tour guide, and publicist. S. Honda, the Japanese secretary of agriculture, liked what he saw but said he’d prefer to cut out the middlemen who rented the stalls and let the government sell directly to the public.
Before O’Malley left office, the leaders of Tammany Hall, who occupied a clubhouse called The Wigwam, would mourn the death of G. W. Plunkitt, who expired in 1924 at the age of eighty-two. (A memorial in the Times noted that Plunkitt, who died a millionaire, had begun his career in the public market.) As he settled into his new precinct at Calvary Cemetery, Plunkitt would have been fascinated to know that Robert Moses, the eggheaded reformer once defeated by Hylan, had learned to play the rough game he once abhorred and was gathering old-fashioned power and influence in both New York and Albany.
WHILE EDWIN O’MALLEY spent much of 1921 and 1922 in conflict with state investigators, his son Walter waged his own struggles a thousand miles away, at the Culver Military Academy in rural Indiana. An isolated and expensive haven for the elite—his class included Procter & Gamble heir Louis Nippert—Culver might seem, at first, a strange place to find the son of a Tammany pol. It had once seemed like a strange choice to Walter Francis O’Malley. The very idea of an exclusive, all-male, private military academy nestled behind cornstalks in Indiana offended his sixteen-year-old’s political sensibilities. He was a man of the people, like his father.
“Me for the democratic principles!” Walter wrote to his “Pa” in the summer of 1920. “Public school, grammar and high school; then a city college.”
The letter was sent from a Boy Scout camp in upstate New York where Walter worked as a counselor. The Scouts were formed in 1910 in response to widespread concern that American boys were becoming effeminate and dissolute. Walter had joined after moving with his family from the Bronx to Hollis, Queens, which was on the almost-rural edge of the borough. He loved the outdoorsy, quasi-military organization and was a superior Scout. Since Culver was like an extreme, round-the-clock form of scouting, his father had reason to believe Walter would thrive there too. Culver could also be a shelter from New York politics and a step up the social ladder.
Edwin O’Malley had great expectations for Walter. Father and son looked alike, with the same pursed-lip smile and twinkling eyes. While he spoiled the boy, Edwin also taught his son to be tough. “Chin up,” he said. “Keep slugging. Never let anyone walk over you.”
Walter’s future was so important to Edwin that even as his political enemies circled, he had gathered his son’s records from Jamaica High School in Queens and solicited recommendations from military men in New York. On August 12, 1920, Walter was accepted by Culver. And while his son was already developing a stubborn streak—“I don’t like being told where to go,” he said—Edwin O’Malley overruled his objections. Soon enough he was on a train headed west.
In early September this skinny boy with pale skin, slicked-back hair, and big black-rimmed glasses was settled on a campus that looked more like an army fort than a school. The mess hall and riding center were built with watchtowers. Crenellated parapets topped the dormitories. When Walter O’Malley looked out the window from his room, all he could see, including cadets dressed in the academy’s high-collared gray uniform, would remind him of West Point in miniature.
It was no accident that Culver’s uniforms, program, and architecture echoed the U.S. Military Academy. Founded in 1894, the school had been built and staffed by West Point alumni. They promised to make good boys into great men and to prevent rascals from becoming real troublemakers. Wendell Willkie, for example, had spent the summer of 1906 at Culver to atone for his sins at public school, which had included stealing a skeleton from a science lab. The hazing at the academy made him miserable, but he returned to his family so thoroughly cured of rebellion and prepared for a sober life that he would win the Republican nomination for president in 1940.
When O’Malley attended, Culver was dominated by a charismatic officer named Leigh Gignilliat—he pronounced it “Jin-eh-let”—who was responsible for the school’s fame. He had formed the Black Horse Troop, which performed at Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1913. He also led the cadets to rescue townspeople stranded by flooding in nearby Logansport. By 1916, Gignilliat was Culver superintendent and, through his book Arms and the Boy, had become a national advocate for “straight bodies, straight minds and straight morals.” Indeed, his boys were so strong and disciplined that they endured tonsillectomies and other surgery with only local anesthetic.
Daily life at the academy was governed by the official Routine of Duty and the “Culver Way,” which stressed efficiency and cohesion. This included mundane activities like bathing. No ordinary showers or tubs for the Culver men. Instead they marched through a maze of pipes and automatic sprayers that resembled a modern car wash. This contraption could clean a battalion in minutes.
Even the special events scheduled to break the routine tended to promote the Culver way of doing things and to prepare the cadets to play swashbuckling roles on important stages. During Walter O’Malley’s first year at the academy, he heard from more than a dozen prominent men—adventurers, leaders, and achievers—who addressed world affairs, military matters, and, more than once, the qualities that make for a moral, upright American male.
Although the moral condition of the young is a perennial American obsession, in the years immediately following World War I this worry had intensified. As four million young men returned from that horrific war, many brought a more realistic if not cynical view of human nature, authority, politics, and even fate. Soon Sinclair Lewis issued an indictment of repressive American mores called Main Street. He was joined on the best-seller lists by Theodore Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, H. L. Mencken, and others who assaulted American convention.
In this period of questioning, certain events fueled doubts about public institutions and the basic fairness of American society. Race riots shook major cities and strikes idled steel mills and docks. Even the sports page carried bad news as eight White Sox players were charged with fixing the World Series. After the truth came out, once-innocent fans could no longer assume that the game—long promoted as a bastion of goodness and virtue—represented America at its best.
Together, scandal, crisis, and social criticism challenged the idea that the United States was an exceptional country. In response, guardians of the mainstream did what they could to honor and reinforce traditional sources of strength and stability. At the extreme the Ku Klux Klan, which young Walter noticed was particularly powerful in Indiana, used the so-called Red Menace to justify attacks on immigrants, Jews, and Catholics. Moderates were content with standing up for the virtues of faith, strength, ingenuity, and capitalism, often through fraternal organizations, schools, and the press. Baseball installed as “commissioner” a federal judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis and gave him extraordinary powers. Landis immediately barred the Black Sox conspirators for life.
While Landis sought to restore the mythic virtue of the great game, social commentators who saw nothing wrong on Main Street rose to defend its inhabitants. In The Return of the Middle Class, John Corbis acknowledged that the faith and well-being of the average American had been shaken but would soon be restored. In its effort to promote models of sober superiority the New York Times asked twenty different experts to name the most important American men. Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Edison appeared on nearly every one of the lists, which were heavy with businessmen and military leaders such as John J. Pershing and Leonard Wood.
Appearing at Culver, Major General Wood issued an address called “A Warning Against the Red Immigrant.” In Wood, Walter O’Malley’s cadre saw a man so close to ideal that he was a young Douglas MacArthur’s role model. An Indian fighter and Rough Rider, Wood was almost the Republican nominee for president in 1920. He had been a major force behind the Palmer raids that had swept thousands of supposedly dangerous radicals into jail on little or no reliable evidence. (At the height of the Red Scare, fears were so high that an Indiana jury acquitted a man who had killed a foreigner who had shouted, “To hell with the United States.”)
What the boys at Culver knew about politics depended almost entirely on what they heard from the likes of General Wood and the academy staff. Even mainstream news was hard to come by at the academy. Big-city papers didn’t circulate there, and commercial radio—the first broadcasts were in the fall of 1920—was not yet available in rural Indiana. Chicago, the nearest big city, wouldn’t get its first major station until 1924.
Although they would surely be excited by radio, the cadets were kept so busy marching, learning, and training that no one had much time or energy for the music or news it beamed from distant cities. This was especially true of parochial matters like investigations of municipal affairs. As Walter explained in a letter home, even the faculty was unaware of the public markets and Edwin O’Malley’s struggles. Freed from the cloud that hovered over the family name back in New York, Walter would have been able to pass as an ordinary plebe. However, he was hardly ordinary.
Within months of his arrival at the academy Walter O’Malley was pegged as a leader by his teachers, who reported as much to his mother and father. Of course, Walter was hardly a perfect cadet. In one two-month period he committed twenty-three infractions—most involved tardiness or failing to report—that were serious enough to make it into his record. But he also earned promotion to corporal faster than most and became well known by writing for the academy paper. And a reader doesn’t have to check between the lines of his letters to his father and mother to see that he brought a bit of Tammany style to the barracks.
In one letter Walter notes that he defeated a host of senior officers to win election to an artillery battalion post. “I didn’t even attend the election, so perfect was MY political machine,” he writes, and then adds, “That is some awful egotism, hey?” In another letter Walter playfully reports that his new roommate is the nephew of Eugene V. Debs, the great socialist, but “he is a mighty fine fellow and not very radical—in fact he will be a strong Wigwam man when I get thru with him.”
Walter O’Malley was mastering the system at Culver, distinguishing himself among cadets who had been at the school much longer and winning the admiration of the faculty. He dabbled in baseball and soccer but excelled on the school paper. Even when he got into real trouble, Walter’s character and personality served him well. During his second and last year at the academy he interviewed government inspectors before he wrote an article about their visit. The trouble arose when he discovered that his notes were not quite complete and “I had to use my imagination and fill in the vacant places.” The result was a piece that included misquotes and misinformation that outraged General Gignilliat, who destroyed the press run and demanded, “Who in blazes wrote that asinine article?” O’Malley confessed, apologized, and was forgiven. Unshaken, he sent a copy of his formal apology note to his parents and playfully requested they preserve it for his scrapbook.
Aided by reports from school authorities, Edwin and Alma O’Malley followed their boy’s progress at Culver closely. In 1922, as graduation approached, his grades fell and Culver administrators took his name off the list for exams that might have gotten him admitted to Princeton. Alma traveled to see him for Easter and to talk to academy officials about her boy attending West Point. Walter had already opposed this idea, in a long and well-considered letter that included an objection to medical school—“I’d never be a success with the iodine and the knife”—and raised the idea that he might follow his father into public service. When Alma arrived, three senior faculty members argued against a military career for young O’Malley and suggested, instead, journalism or politics. She and Edwin agreed, and two years after Walter was overruled and sent to Indiana, he took a bit more control of his own destiny.
With West Point set aside and his dream school, Princeton, out of reach academically, Walter visited Cornell and found it too big. And, like Princeton, Cornell required a better academic record than he could show. O’Malley was beginning to see how his spring slump hurt his chances, and he confessed this much in a letter to a colonel at Culver, writing, “I wish that I had all the languages and everything else in the academic curriculum so that I could go anywhere!!”
The letter, written just weeks after he left Culver, was the first of a long correspondence he would maintain with academy officials for years to come. This habit of keeping in touch with an ever-increasing number of friends, teachers, colleagues, and acquaintances became an O’Malley hallmark. It also reflected the values of a time when proper etiquette—from the French word for ticket—was considered essential for those who wanted to gain entry to the upper class. Emily Post’s Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home debuted in 1922 and was one of five similar guides published that year for anxious strivers. Whether coached by his elders or one of these books, Walter O’Malley became a master of social grace. Eventually he would accumulate hundreds if not thousands of correspondents. In a time long before the term was used, he was “networking” his way to people who would help him throughout his life.
When he was accepted and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, O’Malley could count several Culver alumni as fellow classmen and more still among the older students. (Later in life he would say that nearly forty classmates went from Culver to Penn.) Few freshmen could have had more support, and fewer still would have been as well prepared for the idiosyncratic, ritualistic, and intensely male environment of the Ivy League in the Roaring Twenties. It’s hard to imagine a place or a time when camaraderie, revelry, and bonhomie would have been more important to success.
ROPES AND STAKES MARKED a battleground inside the famous Penn Quadrangle, where brick dormitories formed the four sides of a sheltered patch of green crisscrossed by walkways. The space, which was secluded from the nearby city streets, resembled the inner ward of a castle. At about five p.m. on a Wednesday at the start of the fall semester, Walter O’Malley joined hundreds of his fellow freshmen—the class of 1926—who poured into the quad. At five fifteen about three hundred sophomores, many dressed in their worst clothes, entered amid taunts and jeering.
O’Malley, and all the others who would fight, climbed over the ropes and into the ring, leaving their less aggressive classmates to join a crowd of onlookers that included members of the faculty who had witnessed this ritual before. The sophomores massed in the middle, forming circles of protection around twenty classmates, each of whom carried a small sack of flour.
The gates to the quad were swung shut. Someone outside the ring fired a pistol. (Presumably the cartridge was blank.) With cheers filling the air, O’Malley and his brothers stripped off their shirts. Each one had the number 26 dabbed in iodine on his chest and his back. Shouting and growling, they charged at the sophomores, breaking into the rings of defense and attacking the men at the center.
While the sophomores fought to protect the flour sacks, the freshmen swarmed and tore at them. Following custom, the assault included yanking at the sophomores’ clothes until many of them were naked or nearly so. Flour flew through the air, coating faces and bodies. Breathless, sweating, and dirty, the students struggled until three sophomores, stripped but still clutching their flour sacks, were able to wriggle out of the scrum and flee. Another shot was fired signaling the end of the fight and a win for the “sophs.”
As Walter would write to his parents, the Flour Fight was “a sweet little scrap,” which was really the point. The fight was the thing, not victory or defeat. The annual battle, which sometimes produced concussions and broken bones, was part of a freshman initiation process based on long-standing traditions that governed life at Penn and other colleges. It was a variation on Penn’s original sophomore-freshman contest, which involved a fight over a symbolic bowl that was so ferocious it had to be banned in 1916 after a freshman named William Lifson died of suffocation under a pile of wrestlers.
After Lifson’s death, faculty, administrators, and community leaders tried to end the ritual battles. A substitute called the Penniman Bowl, named for the school’s provost, promised glory to the class that won a series of more civilized games. But the peace was short-lived. By 1922 the Flour Fight was embedded in UPenn’s local culture and a second traditional fight had also been started—the Pants Fight, an end-of-the-year brawl that involved, as anyone might imagine, ferocious attacks and counterattacks that ended with the losers stripped.
Extreme as they may seem today, during the era of hip flasks, raccoon coats, and ukuleles, initiation rituals were, like fraternities and eating clubs, the true focus of life at many universities. As one study of UPenn traditions noted, students regarded their college years as the last boisterous hurrah of immaturity, and the faculty encouraged this view. In this way, rather than promote or extend youthful rebellion, the college let young men blow off steam while preparing them to lead conservative lives and preserve bedrock institutions, including political parties, businesses, investment houses, and white-shoe law firms.
The emphasis was on men because the few women at Penn and most other Ivy League schools were not fully part of the life of the school. And, to be more precise, one should note that these institutions generally promoted white Christian men. Penn was a bit of an exception, more open to Catholics and recent immigrants. Jews were admitted to study, even if they weren’t welcomed at fraternities. This policy was in part responsible for the school’s ranking, which, in the minds of the American elite, fell somewhere behind the more discriminating institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
As might be expected, some young men were better prepared than others to rise to the top at a place like Penn. Toughened by the physical and social training at Culver, Walter O’Malley reveled in college life, writing home excitedly when, for example, the provost cancelled classes so that a victory by the football team, which was coached by John Heisman, could be properly celebrated. Students did a snake dance down Broad Street in downtown Philadelphia, and the night brought a bonfire and a rampage called a Rowbottom (after a student who helped start the tradition) that involved hurling almost everything that wasn’t too big to be lifted out of residence hall windows.
Aside from an oblique reference to stomach problems and concerns about his mother’s health—he reminds Alma that she was “very sick” in 1923—Walter was obviously happy at college. By his second year he was doing his best to take newly arrived boys from Culver under his wing and reporting on their progress to a colonel at the academy. (In that same year he paid $45 for lifetime membership in the Culver Legion for alumni.) He was a fraternity man, a reserve Army officer, a member of an honorary military group called Scabbard and Blade, and part of the Vigilance Committee, which hazed freshmen who failed to comply with certain rules like keeping their hands out of their pockets. And in an early sign of his future interest in sports, he served on the committee that put on the Penniman Games.
In the classroom O’Malley did adequate if not superior work. Some of his best grades came in courses in the new and burgeoning discipline of psychology, in which he earned top marks in abnormal psych, qualitative analysis, and orthogenics. The last was a popular but eventually discredited “science” that focused on perfecting humankind through selective breeding. Penn, which opened the first psychological clinic in the United States, was a national leader in the field. Officials at Harvard, in comparison, would not open a clinic until 1928 and waited until 1934 to create a separate department of psychology.
Ever outgoing, personable, and precocious, O’Malley quickly developed a close relationship with one of his professors, Edwin Twitmyer, who wore glasses just like Edwin O’Malley’s and shared the market commissioner’s gift for understanding human nature. But where the politician worked from gut instinct, Twitmyer relied on science to support his theories on everything from child rearing (they are “just machines” until puberty) to poker, which he found to be the only game that rewarded superior intelligence and character. He established his own “laws of learning” based on work with fish, turtles, cats, porcupines, and a chimpanzee named Mimi. Twitmyer was so famous and fascinating that when Culver’s General Gignilliat visited Philadelphia, the socially attuned O’Malley brought him to the professor’s house.
O’Malley’s good grades in psychology were a reflection of a student playing to his own strengths. An heir to both the Wigwam political tradition and the Irish-American practice of blarney and charm, young Walter O’Malley grew into a truly big man on campus. As a sophomore he became the first underclassman ever made president of his fraternity. In the fall of 1924 he relied on dozens of fellow Culver alums as well as his fraternity brothers to win election as president of the junior class. In a letter to a major at Culver he noted that his old school might be “a hot bed of politicians.” The following year O’Malley won election again. It was only the third time in history that a class president was returned to office.
This was a confident and capable young man. He took to carrying a cane, which was a fad among college men, and often wore a striped jacket in the Penn colors of red and blue. Gone were the black-rimmed glasses, replaced by stylish silver frames, which went perfectly with his silk ties. He still combed his thick brown hair, dressed with grooming oil, straight back off his high forehead. But traces of boyish softness in his face were replaced by a strong chin and a sly-looking smile with lips pressed together that rarely showed any teeth. Walter started smoking pipes and cigars and joined his classmates at a speakeasy called Pop McKenna’s. When he had enough cash he went to a downtown joint called the French Club and to the more upscale Normandie Hotel. He arranged for an annual student ball to be held at the Rittenhouse Hotel, and when a stomach ailment kept him from the party, he set himself in style in a room upstairs.
The motto for O’Malley’s class was “Hard as nails, full of tricks. Pennsylvania ’26.” O’Malley had plenty of playful school spirit. On a trip to Harvard with the football team he was assigned to the group who handled the yard-marking chains and discovered it could be shortened with a little twist of the pole. In one of his election campaigns he made a show of obeying administration orders to destroy 2,000 cards that violated some rule—he set them on fire—and then quietly distributed replacements already ordered because of a misprint in the first batch.
Members of the Penn class of ’26 began their final year on a tragic note, with news that an editor of the school paper had died over the summer from injuries sustained during a pants fight the previous semester. (Five surgeries, including one performed by a specialist brought to Pennsylvania from Buffalo, couldn’t save him.) But after it was announced, Edwin Smyth Hall’s death didn’t seem to cause much concern. Initiation rituals continued, and no follow-up story appeared in the Daily Pennsylvanian. Instead the paper offered blanket coverage of the university football team, which was a major power in a sport that was booming in popularity. In the 1920s, college football drew the largest crowds of any sport and its stars were famous across the country.
Penn football games were so popular that tickets were sometimes difficult to obtain. In October 1926, Walter wrote to Katharina “Kay” Hanson at the College of New Rochelle to say he would use his pull to get her tickets for the undefeated team’s big game with the University of Illinois. Kay was a slender, pretty young woman with wavy auburn hair and a shy smile. An avid sports fan who often attended Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field with her uncle, she had known Walter for years. Her family owned a cottage in Amityville, Long Island, next to a summer place owned by Edwin O’Malley. Walter was taken with Kay and her younger sister, Helen. He taught her to ride a bicycle, and together the sisters baked cookies that they sent him every month. But it was Kay who captured Walter’s heart. In the note he referred to a recent illness by asking, “How’s the throat?” He signed it, “Faithfully, Walter,” and playfully wrote “Retlaw”—Walter spelled backwards—on the envelope.
As a judge’s daughter, Kay Hanson was prominent enough that a local paper in Brooklyn reported on a bridge party she hosted during a break from college. Kay pasted this notice onto a wedding shower invitation. On the other side of the card she glued a two-column piece on Walter O’Malley’s victory in the campaign for president of the junior class at Penn. The bright-looking young man who stared out from the photo that accompanied the article dominated student politics and became chairman of the university-wide council. In his senior year came admission to the exclusive Friars Senior Society and at graduation he was declared Spoon Man, an honor reserved for the most respected fellow in class. Given his standing, it is hard to imagine that anyone else was even considered.
Walter collected his award at an end-of-year celebration called Hey Day. Like all the other traditions at Penn, this day of ceremony connected the young men at the school to one another and linked them with generations who had gone before. For seniors, four years of classes, male bonding, and social challenges were ended and they anticipated the opportunities reserved for the 10 percent of Americans who got any education at all after high school. Of course, Ivy League graduates made up a tiny percentage of those who earned college degrees, making them an elite among the elite. Add these advantages to the economic, social, and cultural excitement that came to be called the Roaring Twenties and it was a wonderful time to be a Penn grad.
Going into the world with his Ivy League degree, Walter O’Malley was prepared to achieve at a level closed to men like his father, whose political connections could take them only so far. In one of his last letters from college, written to Edwin, he mentions an impromptu chat with Provost Josiah Penniman, an official few students would know casually, and a private dinner with the U.S. attorney for the district of Philadelphia, who offered advice on law school. The note was written on office stationery for the Undergraduate Council, Walter F. O’Malley, Chairman.
A MAN ABOUT NEW YORK
In his six years away at school, Walter O’Malley had changed from an earnest Boy Scout into a tough, competent, and ambitious young man. In that time New York City had been transformed too. Mayor “Red Mike” Hylan had been defeated by the flamboyant Jimmy Walker, who named a new commissioner of public markets. Bernard Patten was Edwin J. O’Malley’s opposite: a nearly invisible functionary. His low profile wasn’t unusual for the new administration. Except for the dashing police commissioner George V. McLaughlin, who once dove into the sea near Coney Island to help in a rescue, few of Walker’s men ever got a chance to share the spotlight with the flamboyant mayor.
An irregular at City Hall but a fixture at nightclubs and speakeasies, Walker was a married man whose affair with a Broadway starlet half his age was the worst-kept secret in America. He represented a hedonistic New York that dressed well, drank heavily, and was up all night. His popularity proved the predictable effects of Prohibition. Instead of drying up the nation, it drove millions of social drinkers to discover that they rather enjoyed breaking the law. As they found common cause with Walker and other sophisticates, ordinary Americans became a little less restrained, repressed, and conformist.
The change was most visible in fashion, where the nineteen yards of cotton and wool once required to cover an American woman were replaced by seven yards of silks and synthetics. Out went the rubber girdle. In came rouge and lipstick and a thousand new creams and potions. Men began wearing two-toned shoes, fedoras, and, thanks to gangsters, pin-striped suits.
Rebellion was made easier by the era’s great economic growth. New consumer-driven industries and a bull market on Wall Street made many Americans feel rich and optimistic. (To get an idea of this prosperity, consider that the number of cars on the road nearly tripled during the decade, to twenty-three million.) The wealth, new technologies, and styles had the effect of turning everyday life in a city like New York from a silent black-and-white movie into a bright Technicolor (another invention of the time) production with full sound.
Much of the color of the mid-1920s was supplied by automobile manufacturers who, thanks to a new chemical called pyroxylin, could challenge Henry Ford’s all-black offerings with models decorated in Florentine cream, Versailles violet, and other exotic hues. The sound of the twenties came from the radio, which allowed the entire country to share the same music, dramas, news, and sports. Graham McNamee’s live reports from the 1924 Democratic Convention, where 103 separate ballots were required to nominate John W. Davis, marked the moment when party politics became a glamorous media attraction. McNamee also gave America major-league baseball over the air, helping to turn the game into a national narrative with characters, plotlines, and morals. The story that baseball told the public in this period featured a hero—Babe Ruth—and a team—the Yankees—who performed so well, they made people forget about the Black Sox.
At the peak of twenties prosperity, it seemed like everyone had enough money to visit the ballpark or buy a radio to hear the games. Workers whose productivity gains were rewarded with higher wages were prodded to join the rich in the stock market through mutual funds. Stories of the windfalls made by professional moneymen and eavesdropping chauffeurs stoked dreams of wealth in every class. At the peak, when Walter O’Malley came home to New York, an unprecedented 20 percent of American households belonged to the investing class and John J. Raskob of General Motors declared, “Everybody ought to be rich.”
SUDDENLY PLANTED IN Greenwich Village, Walter O’Malley found himself at the center of a new bohemia. He sampled all that the brightly lit city had to offer, from prizefights, to Al Jolson, to avant-garde productions at the Province-town Playhouse. Kay Hanson, the girl-next-door in Amityville, accompanied him on some of his excursions to shows and restaurants, but he also went out on the town with male friends, including other Penn alumni who had flocked to the big city after graduation.
After considering his options, O’Malley decided to become a lawyer. Attorneys met the kinds of people—judges, politicians, business leaders—who could offer a young man opportunities. And the gossip that flows through law firms and courthouses could make a person rich. Backed by his father, who had gone from the public markets into real estate, O’Malley was accepted at Columbia University’s law school and in his first year commuted from an apartment on Waverly Place to classes in Morningside Heights. The faculty at Columbia was pioneering an esoteric new branch of legal thought called “realism” that made the school a prestigious center for theoretical research. O’Malley did well enough, but for the first time the realities of life interrupted his progress along a carefully plotted course.
In 1927 Kay, who had complained of a sore throat the previous fall, was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. Specialists recommended a combination of surgery and X-ray therapy. They said that the radiation would likely leave Kay infertile, and the surgery would render her unable to speak above a faint whisper. That was if she survived the operation and the cancer didn’t recur.
When Kay began treatment, she and Walter were, in their own words, “engaged to be engaged” but had not told their parents that their steady relationship was so serious. Imagining Walter without children, easy conversation, and perhaps prematurely widowed, Kay tried to break it off. When he learned of it, Edwin O’Malley also raised objections to their romance. Walter wouldn’t listen to either of them. Telling Kay “I’ll love you forever,” he saw her through the pain and exhaustion, and the devoted pair adopted Irving Berlin’s new hit “Always” as their song. Berlin had composed it just prior to marrying heiress Ellin Mackay—a marriage opposed by her family—and taking her to Europe on a widely publicized honeymoon.
I’ll be loving you always
With a love that’s true always.
Romantic as their struggle was, the songwriter and the heiress had it easier than Kay Hanson and Walter O’Malley. Though cured, Kay would never recover her voice and for the rest of her life would rely on a faint whisper, notes, and gestures to communicate. It helped that she had very expressive eyes and an engaging smile. She went back to the College of New Rochelle to finish course work on the degree she had been granted in absentia. After graduation she worked as a transcriber for the Braille Institute in New York and then enrolled at St. John’s University’s law school, intent on becoming what was a rather rare creature at that time: a woman lawyer.
In the meantime Walter left Columbia and transferred to night classes at Fordham’s law school, which was on the twenty-eighth floor of the famous Woolworth Building. Eventually the O’Malley legend would hold that he transferred because Edwin lost his fortune in the Crash of ’29 and could no longer support him. But the big stock market plunge was still two years away and Edwin was doing well enough to maintain a home in the city and hold on to his summer place on Long Island. It’s more likely that Walter, having chosen love over his father’s objections, preferred night school because it allowed him time to work, and he could pay his own way. The switch to Fordham also brought him in contact with a more practical approach to the law and a more varied group of fellow students. Fordham left it to the Columbia scholars to develop new theories of law and prepare recruits for old, established firms. Instead it served many sons of immigrants and workingmen, who trained to do the gritty work of contracts, litigation, criminal cases, and politics.
While he was at night law school, O’Malley took a job as an assistant engineer and surveyor for the city Board of Transportation, which was in the midst of building the Eighth Avenue subway line. He worked at this job for about six months, then partnered with a contractor named Thomas F. Riley in a drilling and survey business. The job often required O’Malley to labor all night long on a barge in the East River. The work saw him through the terrible economic turmoil that followed the stock market disaster of 1929, but it was physically grueling. In a December 1930 letter to his sweetheart, Kay, he explained that this duty was especially hard when a cold rain was followed by freezing temperatures and he came down with a cold: “Now I must go out on the East River in a gov’t boat & survey some broken casings—sneeze—sneeze—sneeze—and it is cold.”
Ever ambitious, O’Malley soon left Riley and entered the same line of work on his own with a firm he called O’Malley Engineering. Although the economy was grinding toward the Great Depression, public works projects continued and O’Malley won contracts to perform test borings for the Midtown Tunnel. He made so much money that he was able to maintain his Greenwich Village apartment and use the Mayflower Hotel as an occasional crash pad. O’Malley also worked with a relative who published an annual construction trade directory called the Contractor’s Registry. With all this, he did well enough in his studies that when he took the New York bar exam he ranked among the 30 percent who actually passed. (He also got some help preparing for the test from a Fordham law professor and future federal judge named Harold Medina.)
O’Malley’s schedule, filled with study, work, and social escapades, was hectic even for a young man. In between ball games and boxing matches he saw coloratura soprano Lily Pons make her American debut and Walter Hampden in his defining performance as Cyrano. But he was always careful to assure Kay that he was faithful and true. In one letter he wrote that instead of joining a party at the Carlyle Hotel, where his friend caroused with the women of Norman Bel Geddes’s production of Lysistrata, he chose to be a “good little boy” and went home “to snore.”