Part journalism, part social history, and part straight sportswriting, Dodgerland is told through the lives of four men, each representing different aspects of this L.A. story. Tom Lasorda, the vocal manager of the Dodgers, gives an up-close view of the team’s struggles and triumphs; Tom Fallon, a suburban small-business owner, witnesses the Dodgers’ season and the changes to California's landscape—physical, social, political, and economic; Tom Wolfe, a chronicler of California’s ever-changing culture, views the events of 1977–78 from his Manhattan writer’s loft; and Tom Bradley, Los Angeles’s mayor and the region’s most dominant political figure of the time, gives a glimpse of the wider political, demographic, and economic forces that affected the state at the time.
The boys in blue drew baseball’s focus in those two seasons, but the intertwining narratives tell a larger story about California, late 1970s America, and great promise unrealized.
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Decadent Los Angeles and the 1977â"78 Dodgers
By Michael Fallon
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Michael Fallon
All rights reserved.
The Days of Bad Baseball
[I would] change policy, bring back natural grass and nickel beer. Baseball is the bellybutton of our society. Straighten out baseball, and you straighten out the rest of the world.
— Bill Lee, Los Angeles Times, February 3, 1977
If people in the early 1970s were unaware that America was becoming something different from what it had been a generation earlier, then June 4, 1974, opened a lot of eyes. That evening in Cleveland, the hometown Indians baseball team held a special promotional event at Cleveland Municipal Stadium for its game against the Texas Rangers. Called 10 Cent Beer Night, the idea was this: sell beer so cheaply that young fans would return in droves to support the team. While many baseball fans have a general sense of the events of that notorious night, a deeper look at the Beer Night riot reveals the forces behind the drastic changes occurring in baseball and American society at the time.
There was no big mystery why the Cleveland team had failed to draw fans over the previous decade. In six of the previous seven years, the Indians had been a miserable franchise, finishing at or near the bottom of its division each year. Its lineups were a rogues' gallery of middling talent (Duke Sims, John Lowenstein, Steve Mingori, Frank Duffy, Tom Timmerman, Jack Brohamer, Bill Gogolewski). And its managers were either uninspiring organization men (Johnny Lipon, Ken Aspromonte) or bitter former stars who had fallen from grace (like Al Dark, late of the San Francisco Giants). For the desperate Indians, the Beer Night promotion worked like a charm, at least at first. At game time the stands of Municipal Stadium held more than twenty-five thousand fans, twice the season average. The fans were young and mostly male. They were in high spirits, and the beer flowed freely on a warm night. By one estimate the stadium moved more than sixty-five thousand units of beer. The trouble started almost immediately.
In the middle of the first inning several young male fans ran onto the field, drawing cheers from the crowd. As the Rangers ran up a 5–1 lead in the early innings, fireworks cracked and popped in the stands. More young men, including a streaker (or several, including possibly a woman, according to varying accounts), dashed onto the field. When the Indians narrowed the Rangers' lead in the sixth inning, fans began throwing bottles and other missiles into the visitors' bullpen in right field. The Rangers' manager, Billy Martin, who was both a throwback to these kids' fathers' era of baseball and a famously pugnacious player prone to arguing with umpires, fighting on and off field, and drinking large amounts of alcohol, removed his players from the pen. In response fans threw firecrackers into the Rangers' dugout. In the ninth inning, after the Indians fought back to tie the game, the levee finally broke. After one fan ran on the field and was rebuffed while trying to grab the cap of Rangers right fielder Jeff Burroughs, hundreds of young men flowed out of the stands. They surrounded Burroughs. "I tried to call time," Burroughs said the next day, "but nobody heard me. I was getting scared because I felt the riot psychology." When fiery Martin saw what was happening, he led his players into right field to save Burroughs. Many of them grabbed bats at Martin's urging. "Jeff was out there all by himself," Martin said. "I saw knives and chairs and other things. We just couldn't let our teammate get beat up." The Indians players also got into the act, and skirmishes between ballplayers and fans broke out all over the field. "It's the closest I've ever seen anybody come to getting killed in my more than twenty-five years in baseball," Martin added.
Police, when they arrived on the scene, arrested eight persons and sent one other to the hospital. Nestor Chylak, the chief umpire on the field, had been hit with a chair and had his hand cut. Chylak waited until the field was cleared and all the players were safe before he declared the game forfeited — the victory going to the Rangers by the traditional fictitious score of 9–0.
Afterward, the Indians' director of stadium operations, Don Zerby, blamed the problem on the beer giveaway. "You had college students, teenagers, high school graduates and older folks drunk," said Zerby. "I don't think they even checked identifications when they sold the beer for 10 cents. They just put their money up on the counter and got their beer. It was just as simple as that." Commentators around the country railed against the rowdiness of the Cleveland fans. One columnist said that the Indian faithful had "overwhelmingly passed the New York Mets' fans as the worst in baseball," and he suggested the city did not deserve a ball team. Bud Harrelson, a player for the New York Mets, suggested the problem was the era's "permissive age." "If the cops belted a few [rowdy fans] on the head," he said, "they wouldn't do it." Nestor Chylak also had little sympathy for the fans. Chylak, a decorated World War II veteran who had become a Major League umpire in 1954, was widely admired around the league for his sense of fairness. After the game Chylak railed against the rioters, calling them "uncontrollable beasts" and saying, "Have I ever seen anything like this before? Yes, in the zoo."
A small number of commentators defended Cleveland's fans, pointing out they might have been provoked by a brawl between the two teams a week prior in Texas. The brawl had been precipitated by Martin's penchant for having his pitchers throw at opposing players. Others pointed out that Martin may have further provoked the home fans during the Beer Night game. "Martin threw gravel at the fans and thumbed his nose at them near the Texas dugout," said Indians vice president Ted Bonda the next day. "Then it just mushroomed and snowballed and you know what happened after that."
Whatever the truth, American League (AL) president Lee MacPhail confirmed the forfeit despite protests by the Indians' general manager, Phil Seghi. MacPhail also declared that the three other 10 Cent Beer Nights that Cleveland had planned were to be canceled.
Though a singular event, the 10 Cent Beer Night riot demonstrated something important about baseball and the times. The nation's pastime, which had captivated the average American sports fan as recently as the 1950s and '60s, seemed by 1975 to be in fast decline. Part of the issue was a generational shift. On that summer night in 1974 many of the fans who spilled onto the field in Cleveland were baby boomers anxiously approaching full adulthood. These were unruly, unsettled young people clinging to their waning days of youthful rebellion. To the seventy million baby boomers, society was defined not by shared sacrifice, C rations, victory gardens, breadlines, and soup kitchens. Boomers defined themselves in opposition to the rules and strictures of their parents' generation. And this opposition often manifested itself in ways that were inexplicable to their elders.
Beyond the 10 Cent Beer Night riot, signs of great boomer unrest were everywhere in the early years of the 1970s — at Altamont, in the burning streets of many American cities, at war-protest rallies, on campus at American universities, even around dinner tables. Writer Tom Wolfe, who chronicled new social trends and transformative events that emerged out of America's postwar prosperity for magazines such as Esquire, New York, and Rolling Stone, famously labeled the 1970s "the Me Decade." In an article that originally appeared in the magazine New York in August 1976, Wolfe described the self-centeredness and atomization of the era's young people. Even amid the excess of luxury goods, conveniences, and abundance of 1970s America, Wolfe saw a drove of hucksters and shills selling self-involvement to a generation of naïfs. According to the writer, everywhere ordinary housewives were leaving regular society to fall in with self-help gurus, sex-hungry hippies were going off the grid to find themselves, and lost souls were experimenting with fads like encounter sessions and primal-scream therapies. The author saved his sharpest vitriol for the new religions of the era: the Moonies, followers of Carlos Castaneda and Werner Erhard, the worshippers of the acid trip and the occult and the paranormal. Wolfe fretted that, hidden behind the recurring message of self-focus and self-improvement, the new religions of the 1970s were actually built on a spirit of schism and isolation. "The various movements of the current religious wave," he wrote, "begin with the most delicious look inward; with considerable narcissism, in short. When the believers bind together in religion [now], it is always with a sense of splitting off from the rest of society."
If the country's young people were psychologically and spiritually off track during the Me Decade, they came to their confusion somewhat honestly. Between 1972 and 1975 Americans struggled with several vast and seemingly insoluble crises that shattered their belief in the country's way of life: the slow unraveling of the country's government in the wake of the Watergate crisis, the resignation of Richard Nixon, the country's final capitulation in the long Vietnam War, the energy crisis of 1973, and a long, slow period of economic malaise, weakened productivity, and diminishing quality of life among the country's middle and lower classes.
By 1974 most Americans were certain the country was going in the wrong direction. One could hardly fault the cynics, as the country's economic and political stresses had accelerated a number of problematic social trends. Researchers noted alarming rises in divorce rates, crime rates, and the number of single-parent families as well as declines in the birthrate and overall standard of living. "I keep hearing the 1970s described as a lull, a rest period, following the uproars of the 1960s," Wolfe wrote in his 1980 book In Our Time. "I couldn't disagree more. ... The uproars did not subside in the least. On the contrary, their level remained so constant, they became part of the background noise." Wolfe went on, citing the various "epidemics" of the age — the divorce epidemic, the drug epidemic, and a vast shift in the values that had long sustained the country. As a result, according to Wolfe, "it became perfectly okay, quite the acceptable thing, to cash in on your life. ... There was no law that said you had to suffer an attack of scruples, and precious few of the boys did. Selling off chunks of one's righteous stuff via television commercials became not merely acceptable but conventional behavior for famous people in the 1970s. In 1969 the first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, delivered, via television, a cosmic symploce measuring the stride of mankind itself in the new age of exploration. In 1979 Armstrong was on television, in a Sales Rep sack suit delivering Cordobas, Newports, and Le Barons for the Chrysler Corporation."
So difficult was the era that Time would eventually, in 1979, offer this hard assessment: "The economy's most disruptive decade since the Great Depression has borne the stagflation contradiction of no growth amid rampaging inflation, the can't do trauma of receding productivity in the nation that was long the world's cornucopia, the reality of an energy shortage in the land of supposedly boundless resources, and the debauch of a dollar that once was 'as good as gold.' ... 'Things just do not work now as they used to,' says former Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns, and who can contradict him? The U.S. economy, bloated and immobilized, has been turned topsy-turvy."
In light of all this, in light of the degeneration of America's once polite society and of the so-called American way of life, what Cleveland's fans did on the field at Municipal Stadium in June 1974 is unsurprising. In truth baseball was suffering the times as much as the rest of the country. Chief among the modern game's problems was, as with the rest of the country, a distinct lack of class and decorum. Nestor Chylak, a member of the Greatest Generation who had survived the grueling Battle of the Bulge, was witness to the growing unruliness that surrounded the game. In one famous incident in 1968 in Baltimore, Chylak had nearly been brained by an anonymous fan who threw a bottle at him from the stands. The incident had occurred after Chylak, who was the third base umpire at the time, had leaped out of the way of a line drive. He was not very happy about the incident, to say the least. "There were a bunch of guys up there," Chylak said after the game, "near the Baltimore dugout, who were stone drunk. ... It scares you, I tell you. Maybe people don't think I've got eyes, but I do and I wanna keep 'em."9 Chylak, like many of his generation, believed in the necessity of strong rules and hard, but fair, judgment. Chylak's bitter denunciation of the rioters in Cleveland was likely influenced by his generation's disillusionment with the changing times.
The 10 Cent Beer Night riot was not the only sign of declining decorum in baseball during the 1970s. Not long after sportswriter Milton Richman predicted that events like the Beer Night riot would likely recur, Shea Stadium in New York closed off its right-field bleachers to deter fans from throwing bottles and other debris at rival players like Pete Rose. In 1976, meanwhile, two people were stopped while trying to burn an American flag at Dodger Stadium during a game against the Chicago Cubs. A few years later, in 1979 in Chicago, another ill-conceived promotion would cause an even more massive fan disruption in the middle of a White Sox doubleheader.
Adding to baseball's problems in the 1970s, at least in the view of traditional-minded fans, was the current crop of baseball players. By the middle of the decade an entire generation of players — rugged, no-nonsense, no-complaint guys of a certain old-school quality — had retired. These were guys who had been born during the Depression, had lived through World War II, and whose outlooks had been defined by the key American values of their time. These were players such as Ted Williams, who served in the prime of his career as a naval aviator during World War II and the Korean War; Willie Mays, a player so admired he received honorary doctorate degrees from Yale and Dartmouth; Bob Feller, who was the first baseball player to enlist in the armed forces after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941; and Joe DiMaggio, who served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. By the mid-1970s this generation of player had retired, replaced by a completely new brand of player.
The young players of the 1970s often seemed to reflect some of the worst aspects of the culture at large — the indulgences, foibles, lifestyle choices, and indiscretions that older baseball fans found objectionable. Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds, for example, approached his play in the field and at the plate like a Paleolithic hunter. Reds fans, of course, loved Rose's troglodytic drive to succeed, dubbing him Charlie Hustle and repeatedly voting him to the All-Star Game, but the darker aspects of Rose's approach to the game — his fights with opposing players, pushing matches with umpires, obsessing over playing statistics, and, famously, a senseless full-body hit at home plate on rookie catcher Ray Fosse during the 1970 All-Star Game — were truly ugly. And Rose was just the tip of the iceberg. Numerous star players in the 1970s were plain unlikable. Dave Kingman once sent a live rat wrapped in a pink box to a sportswriter, just because she was female. Dick Allen was so sullen and flatly dismissive of his own fans, they threw debris at him from the stands. Keith Hernandez was a noted (and unapologetic) misogynist. And so on.
Although it's true that baseball has always had its share of unsavory characters, bad behavior among the nation's sporting heroes had long been, by implicit agreement, swept under the rug or simply tolerated as part of the cost of doing business. What was different in the 1970s, however, was that in an age of crisis, eternal Cold War conflict, and political corruption, the culture no longer seemed able or willing to ignore the raging flaws of ballplayers.
Excerpted from Dodgerland by Michael Fallon. Copyright © 2016 Michael Fallon. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPrologue: Tuesday, October 17, 1978,
Part 1. 1977,
1. The Days of Bad Baseball,
2. Where It Will Always Be 1955,
3. Detours along the Dodger Way,
4. Great Expectations, Everybody's Watching You,
5. The Land of Golden Dreams,
6. We Were All Rookies Again,
7. The Game Has Gotten Worse,
8. But You Can Never Leave,
9. Hollywood Stars and Blue Hard Hats,
10. A John Wayne Kind of Adventure,
11. Heroes and Villains,
12. Dog Days in Dogtown,
13. The Right Stuff,
14. Gonna Fly Now,
15. Klieg Lights, Smoke Bombs, and Three Massive Bombshells,
Interlude: Postorbital Remorse; or, There's Always Next Year,
Part 2. 1978,
16. Rediscovering Baseball,
17. Paradise Defiled,
18. The Redemption of Rick Monday,
19. Every Day We Pay the Price,
20. The Ballad of Glenn and Spunky,
21. Ain't Talkin' 'bout Love,
22. Untaxing the Golden Cow,
23. Nothing Is Clicking Right Now,
24. The Grapple in the Apple,
25. Is the Force with Us?,
27. The Inevitable Yankee Miracle,
28. Chronic Hysteresis; or, Another Yankees-Dodgers Rematch,
Afterword: Leaving Babylon,