- Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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With the news that former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley and former Dodger executive vice president and general manager Fred Claire are a part of groups looking to buy the Dodgers, we thought it would be timely to revisit the story of why O’Malley sold the Dodgers in the first place. In all likelihood he would still be the owner of the Dodgers and an NFL team would be playing at a football stadium in Chavez Ravine if it hadn’t been for, you guessed it, politics. The following is an excerpt from our story in February on the NFL’s 16-year rocky relationship with Los Angeles.
The NFL has returned to every city it has vacated in the modern era (Oakland, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland and Houston) except Los Angeles, which has been without an NFL team longer than any of its predecessors. For all the fans the Raiders accumulated during their 13-year stint in Los Angeles, it has been over 16 years since they moved back home to Oakland.
The last city to lose an NFL team and never get one again was Brooklyn, when the Brooklyn Tigers (previously known as the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1930 to 1943) folded in 1945. The team played its home games at Ebbets Field and on Oct. 22, 1939, made NFL history when the Brooklyn Dodgers played the Philadelphia Eagles at Ebbets Field in the first NFL game shown on television. The Dodgers beat the Eagles that day 23-14.
Coincidentally, one of Los Angeles' best chances to attract a team back to the city would have included the Dodgers making a return to the NFL. Less than a month after the Raiders joined the Rams as former Los Angeles residents in 1995, leaving the city without professional football for the first time since 1946, Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley agreed to build an NFL stadium and operate the expansion team at the request of Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan.
Chavez Ravine was the perfect site, O'Malley was the perfect owner and the project, most importantly, had the backing of the city and the league, which was hoping to put a team back in Los Angeles by 1998 if everything went according to plan. The timing for the city in retrospect was also perfect, as Cleveland still had the old Browns and Houston still had the Oilers when these talks began. Los Angeles would have been essentially alone in its expansion bid.
A year later, after O'Malley had already spent $1 million on the project and accumulated partners and allies, Riordan pulled the plug. It was simply a political decision. Staples Center was nowhere near a reality in 1996 and in order to win over certain politicians with ties to the Coliseum, most notably Councilmen Mark Ridley-Thomas and the late John Ferraro, Riordan promised to rally the city's support behind the Coliseum as the only viable site for an NFL team in Los Angeles even though the league had already said it wasn't an option when the Raiders left. USC graduates Ridley-Thomas and Ferraro recruited Warehouse magnate Ed Roski, a fellow Trojan who was developing Staples Center, to help them develop the new Coliseum after they worked together to make Staples Center a reality. It was the ultimate quid pro quo.
"Mark said during the negotiations, 'We're going to get this done, but you guys have to come down and help us out at the Coliseum when we're done,'" said John Semcken, Roski's partner who would become the vice president of the New Coliseum Partners. "They made it clear, if we helped them, they would help us, and Ed shook his hand and that's all the agreement he needed. It was obviously much, much harder than we thought it was going to be."
Staples Center was eventually built but the political battles waged to make it happen possibly cost Los Angeles an NFL team and the Dodgers their beloved owner. Four months after O'Malley was told to drop his NFL plans and support the Coliseum, he announced he was selling the team and Dodger Stadium, eventually agreeing to a deal with Rupert Murdoch's Fox Entertainment Group. (Fox, coincidentally enough, briefly had plans of building a new Dodger Stadium in downtown next to the new Coliseum.) The NFL and the new football stadium were going to help O'Malley diversify his revenue stream and allow him and the Dodgers to keep up with the likes of the New York Yankees. Once that dream was taken away, he did what he thought was best for himself and the team and sold to the highest bidder.
"If Peter had continued to receive the backing of the mayor [Riordan] and city officials to pursue his dream of an NFL franchise, it's very likely Los Angeles would have an NFL team today and the O'Malleys would still own the Dodgers," said Fred Claire, the former executive vice president and general manager of the Dodgers, who wrote about the turn of events that forever changed the sports scene in Los Angeles in his book, "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue."
"It was politics that changed the destiny of the sports structure in Los Angeles," he said. "Peter wanted to help bring an NFL team to Los Angeles and if that would have happened I believe he would have maintained ownership of the Dodgers. The NFL liked and respected everything about Peter and Dodger Stadium, and rightfully so."
Sixteen years later, the Dodgers are left with the Frank and Jamie McCourt divorce mess, Los Angeles is still without an NFL team, and, well, at least Staples Center looks nice.
With the news that former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley and former Dodger executive vice president and general manager Fred Claire are a part of groups looking to buy the Dodgers, we thought it would be timely to revisit the story of why O’Malley sold the Dodgers in the first place.