The Horsehide Ambassador

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Peter O’Malley and his father, the late Walter O’Malley, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966.

Class of ’60 | When Peter O’Malley W’60 took a year off from Penn to travel to Japan with his father—the late Walter O’Malley C’26—and the Brooklyn Dodgers, he knew he’d be embarking on an adventure. But he had no way of foreseeing the impact that 1956 trip would have on the globalization of baseball.

Though O’Malley—a longtime executive and owner of the Dodgers (his father famously moved the team to Los Angeles two years after that trip)—sold the franchise in 1998, his impact on Japanese baseball has not been forgotten. This past April the 77-year-old received the prestigious honor of “The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon” from the government of Japan.

“It’s a major honor and I’m humbled and I’m grateful,” O’Malley says. “I’m not sure that I deserve it. I enjoyed it. It wasn’t work or anything. It was fun helping and supporting baseball in Japan—for a lifetime.”

O’Malley certainly had fun on that first trip to Japan, which followed his freshman year at Penn. (Afterwards he spent six months fulfilling his military obligation with basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey.) The 30-day journey—organized by his father and Matsutaro Shoriki, known as “the father of Japanese professional baseball”—was designed as a goodwill tour, one that pitted the Dodgers against a slew of Japanese teams. But for the younger O’Malley, the most important part was seeing such Dodger legends as Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider interact with the wildly enthusiastic Japanese baseball fans who greeted them with parades throughout the country.

“The warmth, the hospitality, the appreciation is what I remember,” says O’Malley. “They knew baseball, they knew about the team, and they appreciated the fact that the team went all the way to Japan. It took days to get there and days to get back. It was a journey for the players. It was a big deal.”

Fresh off two straight trips to the World Series, including their first championship in 1955, the Dodgers certainly didn’t need to spend a month in Japan; their success and popularity were already secure. But the O’Malleys recognized the potential benefits of fostering relations with another baseball-smitten country. Following that 1956 trip, the Dodgers invited a few Japanese coaches to their spring training facility in Vero Beach, Florida. Thus began a series of exchanges in which the club also sent trainers and instructors to work with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, who won nine straight Japan Series championships starting in 1965.

After beginning his career in the Dodgers organization in 1962 as the director of Dodgertown (as the Vero Beach facility was called), the younger O’Malley made approximately 85 trips to Japan.

“If you really think about it, he did build such a big bridge between Japan and the US, from 1956 all the way to when the Tokyo Giants started coming in the 1960s,” says Acey Kohrogi, the Dodgers’ former director of Asian operations who served as O’Malley’s assistant for many years. “The manager of the Tokyo Giants credited the ‘Dodger Way’ of baseball for those nine championships. This is documented in Japanese baseball. So I would say that Peter O’Malley significantly helped develop baseball in Japan.”

While helping the Tokyo Giants become a dynasty in Japanese baseball was a nice feather in the Dodgers’ cap, O’Malley knew it wasn’t a “one-way street.” That became clear decades later, when Hideo Nomo became the first Japanese player in 30 years to play in the Major Leagues by signing with the Dodgers in 1995. (The first was Masanori Murakami, who pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1965.) By then Peter—who became president of the team in 1970 and its owner following his father’s death in 1979—had cultivated numerous relationships in Japan. And according to Kohrogi, Nomo chose the Dodgers because of Peter.

“He came to Los Angeles and met with Peter O’Malley and never ended up going anywhere else,” Kohrogi recalls. “He just stopped right there. In the interviews, the Japanese reporters asked him, ‘How come you didn’t go to Atlanta or New York or anywhere else?’ He said, ‘One [thing]: because Peter O’Malley is here.’ You can just kind of see how he can grab people.”

Being a pioneer came with a lot of pressure, as Japanese media swarmed Nomo everywhere he went. But in a recent interview on the Dodgers’ MLB blog, Nomo said that O’Malley “would sit down with me and ask how things were going and if everything was OK,” adding: “Without his kindness, I would have emotionally struggled through spring training.”

Nomo was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1995, and went on to have a successful Major League career. He also ushered in a new era, as a small wave of Japanese ballplayers followed him to America. (Chan Ho Park, who signed with the Dodgers in 1994 as the first South Korean-born player in Major League history, opened some doors as well.)

O’Malley sold the franchise to Fox Entertainment Group in 1998. But he says he has no regrets over the sale and is satisfied by what he accomplished, presiding over a team that won five National League pennants and two world championships. And while his father is probably best known (and, in certain boroughs of New York, reviled) for moving the team to Los Angeles and extending baseball’s reach to the West Coast, Kohrogi says that Peter “took it to another level—he took it to the world.”

In addition to signings of important international players like Nomo, Park, and Fernando Valenzuela (Mexico), O’Malley also created a state-of-the-art baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, as well as Dodger-sponsored fields in China, Nicaragua, and Ireland. (Closer to home, he was a major contributor to Penn’s Meiklejohn Stadium, which includes a picnic area known as O’Malley Family Park.) It’s fair to say that he understood the importance of international outreach long before most of his fellow owners did.

“They really didn’t get it,” says O’Malley. “I don’t mean to be critical. But we were so far up that curve in international baseball.”

As the sport continues to expand globally, O’Malley, currently the chair of Historic Dodgertown (as the Vero Beach complex is now called, though the Dodgers now train in Arizona), would like to see more conversations with baseball leaders in other countries to “discuss challenges, issues, and opportunities.” If nothing else, he knows the value of those kinds of exchanges—both professionally and personally—as he makes clear when reflecting on why he devoted so much of his career to Japanese baseball.

“I think friendships are the reason,” he says. “I’ve been there for all kinds of events. I have more friends in Japan than any other country in the world. We receive more Christmas cards and send more cards to Japan than probably all the other countries combined. It’s just a lifetime of relationships.”

—Dave Zeitlin C’03
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