Authors: Molly Knight
O’Malley’s Los Angeles gamble paid off as well.
Some seventy-eight thousand fans attended the Dodgers’ first game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, shattering all-time Major League Baseball attendance records.
For his efforts, O’Malley was put on the cover of
magazine and christened the unofficial commissioner of baseball. His enormous success further perpetuated the fairy tale that the West was full of endless promise and possibility. The Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles mirrored the flight of millions of displaced Americans who set out for California in search of better lives—or at least better weather.
In 1950 the state’s population was just over ten million. By 1990 that number tripled to thirty million. Even the Dodgers’ traditional uniform colors now seemed to suggest the idea of the sky being the limit.
Jaime Jarrin, the club’s legendary Spanish broadcaster, once paraphrased the poet Pablo Neruda when describing what a jubilant home game celebration looked like after a Dodger victory. “Blue is the most beautiful color,” he said. “It is the color of the infinite.”
Angelenos were ready. They had tasted quality baseball with the
Pacific Coast League, and had been teased by the Cubs holding their annual spring-training camp on nearby Catalina Island, which was owned by William Wrigley Jr. himself. In 1958, Dodger games became a social event, with movie stars mixing with legendary athletes. Southern Californians no longer had to wait to read about yesterday’s games in the newspaper. For the first time, they got to breathe the same air as Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, and Stan Musial. It was heaven.
The O’Malley family ran the Dodgers for more than fifty years until Walter O’Malley’s children sold the team to Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Entertainment Group in 1998. At that time,
O’Malley’s son Peter was quoted as saying they had little choice but to unload the Dodgers because they felt that with player salaries skyrocketing, they would not be able to compete with the deep pockets of corporate ownership as the twenty-first century dawned. In Peter O’Malley’s mind, nine-figure contracts marked the end of the golden era of family-run ball clubs. (A heartbroken O’Malley wound up regretting letting the Dodgers go, however. Fourteen years later he gathered some investors in an unsuccessful attempt to buy the team back. When his efforts failed, he bought the San Diego Padres instead.)
The truth was
Fox never wanted to own a baseball team. Its main reason for buying the Dodgers was so its local cable television network, Fox Sports West, could continue to show the club’s games. At that time, ESPN was rumored to be gearing up to build its own regional TV networks around the country. Compounding matters even more, Disney, ESPN’s parent company, had just purchased the California Angels, some thirty miles down Interstate 5. If ESPN did launch those regional TV networks, then Fox would lose the Angels, making the rights to broadcast Dodger games even more critical. After all, they had to fill their airwaves somehow.
But the idea of entering a bidding war with the sports programming giant for the ability to show Dodger games terrified Fox. So in a move that foreshadowed the thinking that would come to define the franchise and stun the rest of the league
fifteen years later, Fox bought the Dodgers not so much for the team itself but for its media rights.
But when ESPN’s regional television channels never materialized, Fox no longer cared about owning the Dodgers—not least because it had no idea how to run a baseball team, and
the club was hemorrhaging tens of millions of dollars a year. When Fox sold the Dodgers to Frank McCourt in 2004, the team had been on the market for almost as long as Fox had owned it. Desperate to cut its losses, Fox created a bargain-basement clearance sale that allowed McCourt to buy the Dodgers without contributing one penny of his own money. In what would wind up becoming one of the most lucrative sports business deals of all time,
McCourt financed his $430 million purchase of the Dodgers with nothing but borrowed cash. In fact,
Fox wanted to get rid of the team so badly it lent McCourt a big chunk of the money.
Frank McCourt had also bought into the myth that to make his fame and fortune he needed to go west. A real estate developer from Boston, McCourt had tried, and failed, to buy his hometown Red Sox two years before he purchased the Dodgers.
His local claim to fame was that he owned a large waterfront parking lot in South Boston, and his plan to buy the Red Sox hinged on tearing down hallowed Fenway Park and building a new stadium on his site. But he didn’t appear to have the money to buy a ball club, much less run one. The same year he bid on the Red Sox, his company’s chief operating officer, Jeff Ingram, sent an email to McCourt and his wife saying that they were in danger of running out of money in six to eight months.
“Stock smelling salts in the office,” wrote Ingram. “At this rate, I’m going to need them.”
When McCourt announced his intention to purchase the famous franchise with no money down in 2001, he was laughed out of the city. Instead, financier John Henry bought the Sox. That transaction worked out well for Boston. Three years later under Henry’s direction, the Red Sox reversed the famous curse of the Bambino and won their first World Series title in eighty-six years. After enduring one of the
most inglorious championship droughts in the history of sports, the resurgent Red Sox would go on to hoist three World Series banners in Henry’s first twelve seasons as owner.
McCourt’s parking lot was more than just a piece of vacant land, though: it was his biggest asset, seemingly the crux of his empire. When he strode into Los Angeles as the new owner of the Dodgers, he touted himself as a developer who knew how to build from the ground up. But in divorce filings five years later,
his estranged wife described him as someone who sued people for a living. Despite countless assurances about plans to construct waterfront complexes with shops and condominiums, his parking lot sat vacant for the entire time he owned it. Before buying the Dodgers with other people’s money, McCourt’s previous business highlights included nearly being thrown out of a high-rise window by a rival developer who claimed he stole that parking lot out from under him. While the idea of standing in front of a judge in court might make the average person squirm, McCourt seemed to thrive in litigation when his livelihood hung in the balance.
“He was more stubborn than an army of cockroaches,” said one Dodger executive who worked under him. But McCourt was as smart as he was obstinate. He put up his parking lot as collateral against the $145 million loan he got from Fox to complete the sale of the Dodgers. And when McCourt defaulted on that loan, Fox foreclosed on the lot and sold it to be done with him. In the end, McCourt traded a parking lot for one of Major League Baseball’s flagship franchises.
It took him eight years to bankrupt it.
• • •
Frank McCourt looked harmless enough. When he stepped up to the podium on the day he took over the Dodgers, he bore all the markings of a man who was thrilled with his lot in life. Clutching a custom-made Dodgers jersey with his name on the back, flanked by a wife who seemed proud to be standing next to him, McCourt told the crowd of assembled reporters and well-wishers that after the impersonal Fox
era, the Dodgers were returning to their roots of family ownership. Trim in the waist for a man approaching middle age, McCourt wore his Irish heritage in his curly gray hair and rosy cheeks. He showed up in Los Angeles in a suit and tie, with a softness in his gait and a huge smile on his face. But the years in Hollywood hardened him, and by the end of his time as owner he hid behind aviator shades and pink collared shirts as stiff as he was. His reed-thin lips were usually pursed into a frown, and when he spoke, the vowels that left his tongue were stretched haaaaaahd by a lingering Boston accent that hung on like a nagging cough. His Dodgers were the Daahjuhs.
A few years into his reign he installed his lawyer wife, Jamie, as CEO of the team. In a lengthy profile written on the nuclear dissolution of their marriage,
magazine likened the diminutive Jamie to a tense, skinny chihuahua. College sweethearts since they met during their freshman year at Georgetown University when Jamie was seventeen and Frank was eighteen, they eloped and married in her New York apartment in 1979. Her parents were so unhappy with her choice that they
boycotted the wedding. But Frank and Jamie seemed to be a good match—at least on the surface. By many accounts, the McCourts had been happy for most of their marriage, buoyed by their shared Clintonesque relentless professional ambition. But after they moved to Los Angeles their aspirations morphed into an insatiable obsession with status and material possessions. By 2009 the couple turned on each other, with Frank testing the limits of the amount of money he could borrow, and Jamie instructing a Dodger executive to draw up a battle plan for her eventual ascendance to the office of president of the United States.
“They were equally delusional but Jamie was better at parties,” said another Dodger executive.
During the eight years McCourt owned the Dodgers, the club won the National League West division three times and advanced to the NLCS twice. McCourt clung to those statistics as he was thrown out for bankrupting the team, and even sent club employees a crystal clock with a list of his accomplishments as a holiday gift just months
after the commissioner of baseball kicked him out for gross negligence. (“The best part is it arrived the day after Christmas,” said the executive. “Frank obviously got a cheaper rate from UPS for December twenty-sixth delivery.”) Though he liked to take credit, the Dodgers’ success during McCourt’s tenure was due to the strength of the club’s drafts before he owned the team, and taking the malcontented superstar left fielder Manny Ramirez off Boston’s hands for free during their 2008 playoff run. While the Dodgers’ homegrown, cheap young players like Matt Kemp, James Loney, and Russell Martin stabilized the team’s everyday lineup, McCourt cut funding for scouting in Latin America, choking off an international player development pipeline that had long been one of baseball’s strongest. It was especially puzzling because the Dodgers had been pioneers in looking beyond American borders for talented ballplayers, from Mexico’s Fernando Valenzuela to Japan’s Hideo Nomo to South Korea’s Chan Ho Park. In 1987 the club established the first American baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, the country that has since produced the most baseball stars in the world outside the United States despite being roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Even though the academy had nurtured future stars like Pedro Martinez, Raul Mondesi, and Adrián Beltré, McCourt decided it wasn’t worth the investment.
During McCourt’s time as owner, the Dodgers twice came to within three wins of making the World Series. But when the club’s general manager, Ned Colletti, had agreements in place to add ace starting pitchers Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia to the Dodgers’ rotation to push them over the top, McCourt cried poverty and nixed both deals. The organization’s front office had built a team just one or two arms away from a potential dynasty, but with their young players approaching free agency all at once, their championship window was closing fast. McCourt’s refusal to pay for the final pieces necessary to win it all dealt the franchise and its fans a devastating blow.
It wasn’t as if the Dodgers weren’t raking in the cash, either. The team played in the second-biggest media market in the country and
led the National League in attendance during five of McCourt’s first six years as owner. During the season before the McCourts filed for divorce, the club sold the most tickets in all of baseball. When McCourt bought the Dodgers, the club was fourth in MLB in player payroll at $105 million.
Despite promising fans that he would keep the team’s payroll in the top 25 percent of the league’s, he slashed the Dodgers’ dole to $92 million. He cut it even further the following year, to $83 million. Baseball, first and foremost, is a business. No one expected McCourt to put every last cent from ticket sales and advertising revenue back into the Dodgers and take nothing for himself. But when McCourt took the stand during his divorce trial, he admitted that the linchpin of his business plan as owner of the team was to significantly reduce player compensation. During the trial, a document submitted into evidence
revealed McCourt’s plan to cut the team’s baseball operations budget by 21 percent by the third year of his regime. On McCourt’s last opening day as owner, the Dodgers ranked an embarrassing twelfth out of thirty teams in player payroll, lagging behind such small-market clubs as the Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers.
Frustrated fans wondered where all the money went. As divorce filings later revealed, while the Dodgers were slashing spending, McCourt and his family spent extravagantly on nine multimillion-dollar homes, a private jet on permanent standby,
daily home salon sessions, and a
Russian psychic back in Boston whom they paid six-figure bonuses to “think blue.” When the McCourts moved to L.A., they paid $21.25 million for
a home on Charing Cross Road across the street from the Playboy Mansion—a move that must have been popular with the couple’s four sons, who were between ages thirteen and twenty-two at the time. They spent an additional $14 million renovating it, including hauling their old kitchen across the country from their family home in Brookline, Massachusetts. According to divorce court filings, they purchased the house next door after deciding their main spread wasn’t big enough for hosting guests or doing laundry. The McCourts also bought a Malibu mansion on Pacific Coast Highway from the
actress Courteney Cox for $27.5 million. Then, when the family realized its beachfront backyard wasn’t large enough to accommodate the Olympic-size swimming pool Jamie required for her morning lap swims, they snapped up the home next door for $19 million as well. The cash continued to roll in. As the Dodgers’ chief executive officer, Jamie was the highest-ranking female in baseball. The McCourts were living the American dream, amassing their own personal real estate empire. It would have continued, if in the end the only thing they hadn’t loved more than money was hurting each other.