In today’s social media age of Facebook, Twitter, Instant Messaging, Skype, Instagram and of course texting, flying from coast to coast in less than five hours is something that most people give very little thought to anymore. I mean let’s face it; the worst part about flying today is being told by some perky flight attendant to turn off your smartphones. Fact is, air travel today is as second nature to us as a Sunday drive to grandma’s house used to be.
Baseball fans today give little thought (if any) when their favorite team is on the road flying from city to city every three or four days every other week; and why should they when they can simply flip on their TVs or fire up their computers or even their smartphones and watch their team play every single day or night like clockwork. But the luxury and convenience of air travel that we pretty much take for granted these days didn’t always exist – especially for MLB teams.
Prior to the 1950s, trains were the primary means of transportation from city to city for MLB teams; but all of that changed in 1948 when the Dodgers became the first franchise in baseball history to use their own airplane to travel from city to city.
The first airplane owned by the Dodgers was a 5-seat twin-engine Beechcraft used almost exclusively by Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey in 1948 and 1949 to travel between New York and Vero Beach, Florida for business dealings with Vero Beach businessman Bud Holman. Holman was trying desperately to convince the Dodgers to take over the abandoned World War II U.S. Naval Air base adjacent to the Vero Beach Airport to use as their spring training facility. Needless to say, the Dodgers did exactly that and Dodgertown was born (and its historic stadium later named in Bud Holman’s honor).
Dodger owner Walter O’Malley quickly realized the convenience and time-efficiency of flying rather than taking a train (or bus), and began exploring the idea of buying an airplane to transport the Dodgers from city to city. When O’Malley mentioned his idea to Holman, who also happened to be a representative for Eastern Airlines, Bud told him to hold off buying an airplane because he might have a better (and cheaper) way to acquire one.
A few days later, Holman gave O’Malley a used but well maintained DC-3 which he told the Dodger executive he had won in a crap game. The only catch was that O’Malley had to purchase a couple of spare engines at a rather significant cost. O’Malley couldn’t write that check fast enough; thus the Dodgers became the first team in MLB history to have their very own airplane for team travel. The Dodgers used the 20-seat DC-3 from 1949 through 1957.
Although the Dodgers initially used several different former Eastern Airlines pilots to fly the DC-3, Holman’s son Harry R. “Bump” Holman became the exclusive pilot in 1953 at the age of 21, after having co-piloted the plane since 1949 shortly after his 18th birthday. Although he didn’t know it at the time, young Bump would remain the Dodgers captain for the next 11 years.
Because the DC-3 only seated 20 passengers, it required Bump to make two trips every time the team traveled. As a result of this and because of the improvements in aviation technology, O’Malley decided that they needed a newer and larger airplane; so, in 1957, he purchased a Convair 440, thus making the Dodgers the first MLB team to actually purchase their own airplane (remember that crap game thing).
The Convair had a much longer range and could seat 44 passengers. To save money, O’Malley purchased the Convair as an “add-on” to a 20-plane order placed by his good friend and Eastern Airlines president of Eddie Rickenbacker, the famous World War I ace and Medal of Honor recipient. Rickenbacker agreed to do so and the new plane cost O’Malley $700,000, which was substantially less that it would have cost had O’Malley bought it separately on his own.
On October 23, 1957, Bump Holman had what was perhaps his most memorable flight as the Dodgers pilot when he flew O’Malley and several other Dodger officials and select players from New York to Los Angeles.
“I flew them out to L.A. and I kind of surprised them,” said Holman. “The day before, I got a sign painter to come out and we painted out ‘Brooklyn’ and put ‘Los Angeles’ on the Convair. I wasn’t supposed to know (that the Dodgers) were moving (to Los Angeles), but I did. We had terrible head winds and we stopped in Oklahoma City for fuel. We were about two hours late. Several thousand cheering fans and officials were still on hand, despite the delay, to greet the arrival of the Dodger airplane,” Holman added.
An Associated Press writer was quick to notice Holman’s handiwork as the next morning’s headline story read: “A smiling O’Malley stepped out of the door first. He was immediately recognized by the crowd and a great roar greeted him. The plane bore in giant letters: “Los Angeles Dodgers.”
Much to his surprise, Holman did not receive the praise that he anticipated from O’Malley or his father for his little stunt. “My Dad and Walter were a little bit mad at me about putting that ‘Los Angeles’ on the side,” said Holman. “I think they hadn’t really signed any contracts at that time.” But Holman was quick to add that everyone on the flight was jovial and that “…it was a fun flight.”
After the Dodgers moved to L.A., their air travel miles increased significantly. As such, O’Malley wanted a larger and more efficient aircraft so he sold the Convair for (get this) $700,000. O’Malley initially wanted to purchase a Lockheed Electra II (L-188A) which seated 66 passengers but was told by Lockheed that they would not sell him one because it was a very complex aircraft that required a skilled maintenance crew. O’Malley tried to convince them that they were partners with Eastern Airlines (who owned sixty of them), but Lockheed wouldn’t budge. O’Malley asked Holman what the next best airplane would be, to which Bump told him that a DC-6B was the next best thing.
“Get out of here and go buy the best DC-6B in the world. You have it delivered to Vero Beach and the crew trained by February 15 (1961) for Spring Training,” O’Malley told Holman. “I want four bunks in it and six card tables and anything else you want in the cockpit. Now go get it.”
No sooner had Bump Holman acquired a used DC-6B from Western Airlines for (get this) $300,000 when he learned that General Motors owned a Lockheed Electra II. (I neglected to mention that Bud Holman also owned a GM car dealership in Vero Beach for 44 years). As it turned out, Lockheed Electras were equipped with Allison engines which were made by General Motors. (I’m not making this stuff up). After some wheeling and dealing, O’Malley bought General Motors’ Electra II for $1.8 million, but it would not be ready until the fall. In the meantime, the team used the DC-6B.
As the Electra was being readied, O’Malley again told Holman that he wanted it to have four bunks and six card tables in it. When the plane was delivered in November of 1961, it not only had O’Malley’s four bunks and six card tables in it, but its interior had been designed by a professional interior decorator who had installed special custom carpet that was Dodger Blue with baseballs and bats in its pattern. O’Malley’s wife Kay was so impressed with the new Dodger airplane that Walter named it “Kay-O” in her honor. (By the way, it was rumored that O’Malley sold the DC-6B for $300,000, but you probably already guessed that).
When Bump Holman retired as the Dodgers pilot in 1964 to take over his late father’s citrus business in Vero Beach, he was replaced in the cockpit by veteran Eastern Airlines pilot Lew Carlisle, who continued flying the Electra until it was replaced in 1970 with a Boeing 720B, thus making the Dodgers the first MLB team to own their own jet which, of course, was named the “Kay-O II.” This would be the last aircraft that Walter O’Malley would purchase, as he died on August 9, 1979.
Because Carlisle lived in Idaho, the jet was kept at Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport so that he would be (relatively) close to it. Sadly, Carlisle was killed in an accident while vacationing in France in 1982.
With both Walter O’Malley and Lew Carlisle now gone and with soaring maintenance costs, new Dodger owner Peter O’Malley sold the Kay-O II to the Air Force on April 1, 1983 to be used for scrap parts; thus bringing an end to the 35-year flight of the Dodgers. The Kay-O II’s final resting place was Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona – better known as the “DM Boneyard.”
The Dodgers currently have a contractual agreement with United Airlines from whom they charter their own plane when traveling. While I do not know the he details of that agreement, it must be rather significant for the Dodgers to name their luxury suites the “United Club Suites.”
Author’s note: There is an excellent article about Bump Holman by Brent Shyer on the Walter O’Malley website.