Dodgers sale approved, ending family ownership Baseball fears allayed over conflict for Fox

March 20, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Baseball owners overwhelmingly approved the sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers to media giant Rupert Murdoch yesterday, bringing the era of family ownership in Major League Baseball to an end.

The owners voted 27-2 with one abstention to approve the $350 million deal, which transfers ownership of one of the most storied franchises in baseball history from the O'Malley family to the Fox Group, a division of Murdoch's huge News Corp. conglomerate.

"While baseball will sorely miss the O'Malley family, Major League Baseball looks forward to working with Fox," said interim Commissioner Bud Selig. "We already have a long-standing relationship with them."

It was that wide-ranging broadcasting relationship that raised some initial resistance to Murdoch's bid to buy the Dodgers. The Fox Group recently signed a $575 million national television contract and has local broadcasting contracts with 22 major-league clubs, which some owners viewed as a tremendous conflict of interest.

Apparently, those concerns were allayed during the weeks leading up to the quarterly owners meeting that took place at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort the past three days, but Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner made a special trip to St. Petersburg to argue against the deal.

Turner and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf were the only owners who voted against the sale. The New York Mets abstained.

The San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants, who had given indications that they might vote to block the deal, instead voted with the majority.

"My position consistently was that we wanted to get answers to the questions we raised," said Giants owner Peter McGowan. "We had a chance to talk to [Fox chairman] Chase Carey and Bud Selig, and they did a good job of answering our questions.

"We felt that there might be a conflict of interest because they have television interests in 22 of 30 clubs. Would they operate the Dodgers in a way that could hurt the financial interests of the other clubs? They answered that they would operate independently."

Never in doubt

Ratification of the sales agreement never was in serious doubt. The deal had to be approved by 75 percent of National League clubs and a simple majority of American League teams. It would have required five NL clubs to withhold approval, and there were never more than three NL clubs expressing serious opposition.

Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos spoke during the joint ownership meeting, delivering a glowing testimonial to outgoing owner Peter O'Malley.

"I just said that I hated to see him go," Angelos said, "and I am confident that his decision was not made without taking into consideration what was in the best interests of baseball. If he has confidence [in Fox], I have confidence."

O'Malley, who owned the club jointly with his sister, Terry Seidler, has agreed to remain with the Dodgers as chairman of the board, but said during yesterday's news conference that he will be "off to the side."

The Fox Group has appointed longtime Dodgers executive Bob Graziano as club president. He'll be responsible for day-to-day operation of the team, but will report to Carey and News Corp. President Peter Chernin.

"This is an extremely happy day for all of us at Fox," said Chernin. "We began a process a year ago to acquire what we think is one of the crown jewels of American sports. We take the ownership of the Dodgers very seriously. In some ways, the Dodgers are a great unifying force in the L.A. area. It is a place that is very diverse culturally and politically, but everyone roots for the Dodgers."

No dramatic changes

Chernin tried to reassure baseball traditionalists that Fox would do nothing dramatic to change the image or operation of the club.

"Our goal is to maintain and continue the great things the O'Malley family has done for this franchise," Chernin said. "In general, our plan -- especially in the early years -- is to establish continuity. We'd like to make this transition as seamless as possible."

The O'Malleys were the last family to own a baseball team as its primary business interest. The late Walter O'Malley assumed control of the club in 1950 and moved the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. Peter O'Malley became president of the club in 1970 and assumed full control of the team when his father died in 1979.

O'Malley shied away from questions about his ownership legacy, but said that his father considered privately financed Dodger Stadium to be his proudest achievement.

In the era of public stadium financing and corporate ownership, however, he seemed to concede that the Dodgers' ownership model had become obsolete.

"Times change," O'Malley said. "I don't think anyone can do it alone today."

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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