City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles

City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles

by Jerald Podair


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691125039
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/04/2017
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 513,450
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jerald Podair is professor of history and the Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He is the author of The Strike That Changed New York and Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer.

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City of Dreams

Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles

By Jerald Podair


Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8470-4



The road west to Dodger Stadium began with Walter O'Malley's birth in New York City on October 9, 1903. The son of a Democratic politician who served as the city's commissioner of public markets in the 1920s, O'Malley attended the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia and Fordham Law Schools, graduating from Fordham in 1930. Entering the world of law, business, and politics at the height of the Great Depression, the young O'Malley was forced to live by his wits.

He soon established connections in the Tammany Hall Democratic Party organization in which his father had served. Despite the ascendancy of reform mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a staunch foe of Tammany Hall, a potent machine culture with a distinct Catholic influence still existed in 1930s-era New York. The astute, gregarious, and Irish Catholic O'Malley thrived in it, building a successful law practice around corporate reorganizations and bankruptcy, two of the few growth areas in commercial law during those economically difficult times. But O'Malley wanted more than a career spent working for others as a respected and well-compensated attorney. Only business and entrepreneurship could offer the independence and control over his own destiny that he sought. O'Malley invested in the New York Subways Advertising Company, in which he became the largest single stockholder, and produced a popular legal guide and register for building projects.

O'Malley would have remained a prosperous commercial lawyer with a midsized law firm and a happy family life in Brooklyn and Amityville, Long Island, if not for a beleaguered and debt-ridden National League baseball team named the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1913, the team's half owner and chief operating officer, Charles Ebbets, opened his eponymously named ballpark in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Ebbets Field was the state of the art for its time, featuring steel grandstands and an upper deck. But the cost of constructing the ballpark forced Ebbets to sell a half interest in the Dodgers to two building contractors, Edward and Steven McKeever.

The team enjoyed success in Ebbets Field's early years, winning National League pennants in 1916 and 1920, but declined thereafter. By the 1930s, with Ebbets and Edward McKeever dead, debts accumulating, and Ebbets Field itself deteriorating, the Dodgers had become the laughingstock of baseball. Known as the "Daffiness Boys," the team's consistent second-division finishes were punctuated with farcical occurrences such as three men on a base simultaneously and an outfielder hit on the head by a fly ball. Attendance shrank and the virtually bankrupt team was taken over by its major creditor, the Brooklyn Trust Company, which held the shares belonging to the Ebbets and Edward McKeever estates as collateral for its unpaid loans.

Brooklyn Trust was a client of O'Malley's law firm, and bank president George McLaughlin asked him to organize the team's debt structure and corporate management. In 1943, O'Malley began serving as the Dodgers' general counsel. From there, it was a short step to buying part of the team, which he did in 1944 in partnership with Dodger president and general manager Branch Rickey. By the next year O'Malley, along with Rickey and pharmaceutical magnate John L. Smith, owned 75 percent of the Dodgers, in equal shares, with an option for a partner to match any outside bid for the purchase of a share. O'Malley was now in the baseball business.

For O'Malley, who lacked the independent wealth of John L. Smith, baseball was truly a business. Unlike with other major league team owners, the team was his primary source of income. This view of baseball as a business venture and not an avocation, hobby, or public service would govern O'Malley's conduct as a team owner for the rest of his career.

The idea of the national pastime as a bottom-line affair ran counter to every received myth about it. According to this nostalgic and sentimental tale, players played for the love of the game and its American spirit of competition and fair play. Owners operated teams to bring the sport to the fans; profits, if they came, were only an incidental consideration. But O'Malley was a businessman, not a dilettante sportsman. Although he had loved the game from his childhood days — ironically, as a New York Giants fan — he understood that it was governed by the classic rules of capitalism: overhead, investment, payroll, profit, and loss. Every other baseball team owner understood this as well, of course, but given their independent wealth, they could pretend otherwise or at least avoid the subject. O'Malley, by necessity, confronted it head-on. This did not help him with New York's sports media, who were perhaps the most active abettors of the for-the-love-of-the-game myth.

It also hurt his public image in comparison to that of his partner, Branch Rickey, who, despite his prowess as a nickel-squeezer, had successfully sold himself as a true baseball man, with goals loftier than merely improving his team's balance sheet. Rickey was a devout Methodist from Ohio. He had spent two decades running the St. Louis Cardinals organization, where he developed the game's first farm system as a source of major league talent, before joining the Dodgers as general manager in 1942. The avuncular Rickey viewed himself as something of a moral philosopher as well as a talent evaluator and deal maker, expounding on baseball's role in instilling American values of hard work and team play and advising young players that marriage would help their careers by stabilizing their personal lives. Rickey was also of course a civil rights pioneer, bringing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers in 1947 with the approval of O'Malley and Smith.

Rickey's public pose as a teacher, sage, and social visionary almost inevitably brought him into conflict with the more practically minded O'Malley. There were arguments over spending, as when Rickey's plan to invest in a Brooklyn Dodgers professional football team went awry and cost the partnership hundreds of thousands of dollars. There were also clashes of a more personal nature, involving culture, religion, and outlook. Rickey was a midwestern Protestant, O'Malley an urban Catholic. Rickey wore his religious values on his sleeve, to the point of refusing to attend games on Sundays. O'Malley's faith was expressed in less public ways, and he was discomfited by what he considered Rickey's sanctimony. Rickey, in turn, was discomfited by O'Malley's apparent ease in the milieu of Democratic Party machine politics, where contacts and friends in high places could open doors in ways that merely being in the right could not. But what may have doomed their working relationship was not their differences but their similarities. Each desired to be his own boss. Rickey had worked for many years under Cardinals ownership, not always comfortably, and had come to Brooklyn largely for the opportunity to run the entire organization. Moving up the ladder to partial team ownership, he believed, would solidify his management position.

But O'Malley had even less experience working for others than did Rickey, and he was just as determined to place his own stamp on the Dodgers. He had not come up in the game, as Rickey had, but O'Malley had built a legal and business career largely on his own and believed he had the ability to shape the direction of the franchise. He had in particular decided on the necessity of replacing Ebbets Field, a project in which Rickey was less interested.

By the late 1940s, the park was deteriorating physically. It featured dirty bathrooms, narrow aisles, rusting pillars, and a general down-at-the-heels raffishness that charmed only those who did not patronize it regularly. Since it had been constructed to fit the contours of an already existing city block, the stadium lacked symmetry, with a deep left field topped by double-decked grandstands and a shorter right field with a thirty-eight-foot fence that played havoc with fly balls. Ticket sellers and ushers were notoriously surly, often behaving like panhandlers. Seats did not always face home plate, creating less-than-optimal sightlines. Poles also blocked many views. The park was built from ground level up, forcing upper-deck fans to walk up ramps to their seats.

Ebbets Field was also geographically inconvenient. No highway ran near it. Automobile parking was challenging, with only 700-odd spaces available. Even subway service was not as accessible as it could be, with the nearest line stopping four blocks from the ballpark. Ebbets Field held only 32,000 spectators, making it one of the smallest parks in the major leagues and particularly size-challenged in comparison with the homes of the Dodgers' New York City rivals, the Giants (Polo Grounds, capacity 55,000) and Yankees (Yankee Stadium, capacity 67,000). Almost from the moment he bought an interest in the Dodgers, it was clear to O'Malley that Ebbets Field had to be replaced. As early as 1946, he was writing to architect-engineer Emil Praeger — who would later design Dodger Stadium — requesting advice about "enlarging or replacing our present stadium." In 1948, O'Malley began what would become a ten-year campaign for a new facility in Brooklyn, one that would lead circuitously and controversially to Los Angeles and Chavez Ravine.

The atmosphere was tense between O'Malley and Rickey by 1950, when the latter's contract as Dodger general manager came up for renewal. After John L. Smith's death from cancer that year, his widow inherited his partnership share and aligned herself with O'Malley. When it became clear to Rickey that he would be reduced to a partnership without power, he decided to make the best deal possible. Taking advantage of O'Malley's desire to control the club, Rickey solicited wealthy real estate man William Zeckendorf to bid on his share of the team, knowing O'Malley would be forced to match it. Zeckendorf's bid, never intended to be a serious one, was $1 million, almost three times what Rickey had originally paid for his share. O'Malley would not forgive Rickey for this maneuver. But if he wanted the Dodgers, he would have to come up with the money. Liquidating some of his outside business investments to raise capital, he did so. At an October 26, 1950, press conference, Walter O'Malley was introduced as the new president of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey, about to join the Pittsburgh Pirates as their general manager, may have had O'Malley's money, but O'Malley had his team.

O'Malley never pretended to know the intricacies of scouting, trades, the minor leagues, and the everyday work of assembling a winning on-field product. So, unlike Rickey, he delegated these functions to others. Veteran baseball man Emil "Buzzie" Bavasi was made responsible for major league operations as the Dodgers' general manager. Another astute talent evaluator, Fresco Thompson, was placed in charge of scouting and minor league development. Both men spent more than a quarter century in the Dodger organization. Their long tenures exemplified O'Malley's management style, which emphasized identifying talented personnel and giving them the independence to do their jobs over the long term, riding out ups and downs in the interest of stability and loyalty. During the almost thirty years he controlled the Dodgers, O'Malley employed only three general managers and three field managers. One of the managers, Walter Alston, served for twenty-three years on a series of one-year contracts. Vin Scully, the Dodgers' lead radio announcer, worked for the team all but one year of O'Malley's tenure as controlling owner.

Organizational continuity translated into on-field success. During the first seven years of O'Malley's controlling ownership, all in Brooklyn, the Dodgers won four National League pennants (losing another in a playoff), as well as the franchise's only New York World Series. The Dodger players, later immortalized as "the Boys of Summer" by the author Roger Kahn, were some of the most beloved athletes in New York City sports history, replete with affectionate nicknames — Pee Wee (shortstop Harold Reese), Campy (catcher Roy Campanella), Duke (center fielder Edwin Snider), and Oisk (pitcher Carl Erskine). The presence of Jackie Robinson gave the team an air of historic gravitas. Many baseball fans considered the Dodgers more compelling as losers than the all-conquering Yankees were as perennial winners.

The Brooklyn Dodgers, indeed, were the people's team of New York. The roots of its fan base were proudly and consciously in the city's working class. The Dodgers' tumbledown ballpark in an off-the-beaten-path section of an off-the-beaten-path borough stood in contrast to monumental Yankee Stadium, home of champions, and even to the Giants' Polo Grounds, which was located in Manhattan, the center of the American sports universe.

The Yankees were a patrician team, drawing fans from the city's professional and business classes and the wealthy suburbs. Yankee fans viewed their team as a proprietary trust, expecting to win the World Series each and every year. When they did — one out of every two years between 1923 and 1962 — they were greeted not with rapture but smug satisfaction. "Rooting for the Yankees," quipped an observer in the 1950s, "is like rooting for U.S. Steel."

The Giants and their fans also harbored lordly attitudes, especially toward their hometown National League rivals. They viewed the Dodgers as akin to country cousins desperately seeking to climb the social ladder. In the early decades of the twentieth century, before the rise of the Yankees, the Giants had dominated the New York sporting scene; the Yankees, in fact, had been their tenants at the Polo Grounds before opening their own stadium in 1923. Managed by the legendary John McGraw, the Giants were the toast of Manhattan's "smart set," a Broadway team that in the 1920s attracted the likes of New York's dapper mayor, "Gentleman Jimmy" Walker.

Even after McGraw's retirement in 1932, the Giants' mystique continued, with future Hall of Famers Bill Terry, Mel Ott, and Carl Hubbell leading the team to three National League pennants and one world championship in the 1930s. During this time, the Dodgers were largely irrelevant on the field and in the city's sports culture. When asked about the Dodgers' chances before the 1934 season, Terry replied sardonically, "Are they still in the National League?" Although the Dodgers improved in the 1940s, the Giants continued to view them as upstarts who never could win the big one. The Dodgers' record of late-season futility appeared to bear this out. Between 1946 and 1954, the Dodgers featured four future Hall of Famers and their players earned ten All Star team selections. Yet during that period, they lost the National League pennant to the St. Louis Cardinals in a playoff in 1946; lost to the Yankees in the seventh and deciding game of the World Series in 1947; lost to the Yankees in five games in the World Series of 1949; lost the pennant to the Philadelphia Phillies on the last day of the 1950 season; lost the 1952 and 1953 World Series to the Yankees in seven and six games, respectively; and lost a pennant race to the Giants in 1954.

Worst of all was 1951. That year, the Dodgers led the Giants by a seemingly insurmountable thirteen games in mid-August, only to see the Giants win thirty-seven of their forty-four remaining games to overtake them. The teams were tied on the last day of the regular season; a two-out-of-three-game playoff would decide the pennant. The Giants took game one and the Dodgers game two. The champion would be crowned on October 3, 1951, at the Polo Grounds.

The Dodgers took a 4–1 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Three outs from the pennant, the unimaginable occurred. A leadoff single for the Giants and, after an out, another single and a double made the score 4–2 with runners on second and third. A pitching change brought in Ralph Branca — number 13 — for the Dodgers. Giant third baseman Bobby Thomson hit Branca's second pitch on a low line drive into the left field seats for a pennant-clinching three-run homer, a blow that traveled into history as "the shot heard round the world." It was somehow fitting that the Brooklyn Dodgers would be on the losing end of what is generally considered to be the most dramatic moment in baseball history. It was especially humiliating to fall to the team's bitter interleague competitors.

Neither the Dodger players nor their fans knew at the time that the Giants had been surreptitiously using a telescope mounted in their center-field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds to steal signs from opposing catchers, passing them along to Giant batters through a series of buzzers and signals. The advance knowledge afforded by this subterfuge gave the Giants a huge advantage when playing at home, and their 24–6 record at the Polo Grounds after the telescope began to be used testifies to its value. For the Brooklyn Dodgers, the perpetual team of the underdog and of working-class New York, it seemed always to end this way — with a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of one of the other two local teams. As the 1955 season began, the Dodgers' recent history included five World Series defeats at the hands of the Yankees and two losses to the Giants for the National League pennant.


Excerpted from City of Dreams by Jerald Podair. Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface: Opening Day In Los Angeles xi

1 Roads West 1

2 Walter O’Malley’s Los Angeles 25

3 Fighting the Dodger Deal 51

4 The Referendum 91

5 In the Courts 127

6 Whose Land? 153

7 The Arechiga Dispossessions 181

8 Private Gain, Public Good? The Business of Baseball in Los Angeles 201

9 Building the Dodger Stadium Experience 233

10 The Rise of Sam Yorty 263

11 The Modern Stadium 279

Epilogue: Dodger Stadium And Modern Los Angeles 307

Notes 313

Bibliography 345

Index 353

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