Not Suitable for Families
In the last circle of Dante's Inferno, three humans dangle from Satan's jaws: Judas Iscariot, Brutus and Cassius. If it were up to Brooklynites, another would be added--Walter O'Malley. In 1947, O'Malley, albeit reluctantly and at the urging of Branch Rickey, helped break baseball's color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson to his Brooklyn Dodgers team. But O'Malley later committed one of the most reviled acts of betrayal in sports history when he moved the beloved Dodgers 3,000 miles to Los Angeles. In certain Brooklyn bars, postpartum depression is still palpable.
Last week, O'Malley's son, Peter, put a for-sale sign outside Dodger Stadium. The sale may not spell the end of baseball in Los Angeles (Brooklynites' wishful thinking aside, the team is more likely to remain in Los Angeles than move back east). But it is one more sign of the disappearance of family ownership in baseball--which may not be such a bad thing.
O'Malley's professed motive is family estate planning. But skepticism is in order. When he sells the team and its properties this year for $350 million to $400 million, O'Malley will be liable for a 28 percent capital-gains tax on the increase in the team's value since he inherited it in 1979 (at least $250 million). But if O'Malley, like his father, held on to the property until his death, the capital-gains tax on this increase would be eliminated.
More likely, O'Malley and his heirs have simply lost interest in the game. Peter O'Malley, unlike Walter, exercises little power in baseball's hierarchy and has tense relations with Acting Commissioner Bud Selig. With National League powerhouse clubs in Atlanta and Florida, prospects for an imminent Dodger pennant are dim. Owning the Dodgers is just not as much fun as it used to be.
Nor is it as affordable. As franchise prices have skyrocketed from less than $5 million in the 1950s, to $10 million-to-$20 million in the 1970s and to more than $100 million today, fewer families can afford to be sole proprietors. Instead, there has been a gradual shift, beginning with CBS's purchase of the Yankees in 1964 for $14 million, toward ownership by corporate partnerships and joint stock companies.
Corporate benevolence. This sounds deplorable, but fans have nothing to fear. Corporate owners have been no more footloose than family owners. Indeed, in the NFL, where corporate ownership is still prohibited, more franchises are abandoning their host cities than in any other sport. Moreover, corporate ownership is more likely to be professional and competent, less likely to be quirky and bumbling. Corporate executives are at least responsible to their board and indirectly to the stockholders. They cannot divert funds to aid their other businesses, pay themselves multimillion-dollar consulting fees or issue public approval of Hitler without risk of losing their jobs. Family owners generally answer only to themselves and with thinner pockets are just as, if not more, likely to respond to the short-run allures of a beckoning city.
If the trend that pushes Peter O'Malley from baseball also eventually pushes the few remaining family owners like Marge Schott, George Steinbrenner and Bud Selig, then baseball will be the better for it.
This story appears in the January 20, 1997 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.