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If these Walls Could Talk: Los Angles Dodgers
Stories from the Los Angeles Dodgers Dugout, Locker Room, and Press Box
By Houston Mitchell
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Houston Mitchell
All rights reserved.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were revered in the New York area, but they were beloved by fewer and fewer people as the years rolled by. In 1957, the team was overshadowed by constant talk of the team's possible move to the West Coast, and owner Walter O'Malley was demanding a new stadium if the team was to remain in Brooklyn.
O'Malley began negotiating for a new stadium in 1953, and his plans included a dome that could be closed if it rained and a seating capacity of 60,000. New York dragged its feet during negotiations, never really believing the Dodgers would leave for the West Coast.
On October 8, 1957, O'Malley announced that after 68 seasons in Brooklyn, the Dodgers would be moving to Los Angeles. Earlier that month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to spend $2.7 million from a gasoline tax fund to build access roads and prepare a section of Los Angeles known as Chavez Ravine for a new stadium that would be built for the Dodgers. When the decision to move to L.A. was announced, the city powers were thrilled.
It's easy to assume now that the move was greeted with great confidence that the Dodgers would be an immediate sensation in L.A. But that was not the case at all, as evidenced by this quote from 1957:
"We are delighted they are going to come," said John Anson Ford, president of the Board of Supervisors. "We hope they'll prove popular. We are relying on Mr. O'Malley's fine reputation to fill the gaps of uncertainty that have been created, and we believe that in the end the community will be deeply gratified."
On April 18, 1958, the Dodgers played their first game in Los Angeles, defeating the Giants 6–5 before 78,672 fans at the Coliseum. Stars on hand included Gregory Peck, Alfred Hitchcock, Burt Lancaster, Jack Lemmon, Nat "King" Cole, future Angels owner Gene Autry, Groucho Marx, Danny Thomas, and John Ford.
Although everything was all smiles that day at the Coliseum, dark clouds were rising not too far away.
... Now Go Home
Construction on Dodger Stadium began in 1958, but there was one problem — a large group of families lived on the site of the future stadium.
Lou Santillan was a teenager when his parents were forced out of their home in Chavez Ravine, the hillside area overlooking downtown Los Angeles that would eventually become the home of Dodger Stadium. In all, more than 1,000 mostly Mexican American families from Chavez Ravine were removed from their homes to make way for the stadium. It is still a dark note in Los Angeles history, one many people would like to forget. But not everyone can forget.
"There's people who won't even step into Dodger Stadium. They're still bitter. My uncle, who was a priest, he wouldn't have gone to any Dodger games," Eddie Santillan told the Los Angeles Times in 2012. "But I had no anger or frustration against them. I love the Dodgers. Growing up in L.A., that's our team, you know."
On May 9, 1959, with the team in the middle of a season that would send it to the World Series, the city of Los Angeles evicted all the people living in Chavez Ravine. TV cameras showed it all. Some went peacefully, some had to be dragged away.
It was an ugly start to what turned out to be a great love affair between the city and its team.
The L.A. Memorial Coliseum is easily the most unusual stadium to play host to Major League Baseball. When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, they were without a home. Dodger Stadium wouldn't be ready until 1962. So the L.A. Coliseum, a stadium built for football and home of the 1932 Summer Olympics, was the Dodgers' home for four seasons.
How unusual was the stadium? The home run distance to left was 250', but there was a 40' fence installed to keep players from hitting easy pop-fly home runs. To right field, the fence was 440'. In 1958, only nine home runs were hit in 77 games at the Coliseum.
"It was weird, weird, weird playing in the Coliseum," Dodgers infielder Randy Jackson said in an interview with Don Zminda in 2011.
But there is one player in particular who loved the Coliseum: Wally Moon.
Moon, a lefty, found a way to change his swing and put just the right spin on the ball to lift it high in the air and over the left-field screen. Moon hit 37 home runs in the Coliseum during his Dodgers career, compared to only 12 on the road. Fans took to Moon's slugging prowess so well that they dubbed his homers "Moon Shots."
But perhaps Don Drysdale said it best, "It's nothing but a sideshow. Who feels like playing baseball in this place?"
Roy Campanella Night
Sorry Mike Piazza, but Roy Campanella is the greatest catcher in Dodgers history. A three-time MVP, Campanella was expected to be one of the cornerstones of the team in their first few seasons in Los Angeles. That all changed on January 28, 1958.
Campanella owned a liquor store (these were the days when athletes needed off-season jobs just to make ends meet) in Harlem. On January 28, he closed his store and drove home on a cold winter's evening. While traveling on an Scurve on Dosoris Lane in Glen Cove, New York, his car hit a patch of ice and skidded off the road, overturning and hitting a telephone pole. Campanella suffered a broken neck in the accident, leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down. While he eventually regained the use of his arms, he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
On May 7, 1959, the Dodgers paid tribute to Campanella by holding a special night in his honor before an exhibition game against their old rivals, the New York Yankees. And the people of Los Angeles showed how much they loved their new team and respected the team's legends, as a record 93,103 people showed up for the game and to honor Campanella.
As thousands of lighters illuminated the Coliseum, Campanella was wheeled to home plate by Pee Wee Reese. The microphone was lowered, and the audience remained totally silent as Campanella spoke:
"I thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart. This is something I'll never forget as long as I live. I want to thank the Yankees for playing this game, and my old Dodgers team, too. It's a wonderful tribute. I thank God I'm able to be here and see it."
And with that, 93,103 people gave Roy Campanella a standing ovation that lasted for seven minutes. "My legs aren't working, my heart is soaring," Campanella said of the ovation.
Thirty years later, Campanella remembered the game and team owner Walter O'Malley, who was responsible for organizing the special night.
"A lot of people didn't know O'Malley for what he was," Campanella said. "He stood by me every minute after my accident, helping me to see my way through. No one knows that after that wonderful night he had for me in the Coliseum when 93,000 showed up, he gave me a check for $50,000. And he continued my salary, which was more than $50,000 a year, for years after that. He was a great pioneer in integrating baseball."
Don't Pinch Him
Chuck Essegian has one claim to fame — he is one of only two people to hit two pinch-hit home runs in one World Series.
The 1959 World Series matched the Dodgers, in just their second year in Los Angeles, against the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox routed the Dodgers 11–0 in Game 1 and were leading 2–1 with two out in the seventh inning of Game 2 when Essegian turned around the Series.
Dodgers manager Walter Alston sent Essegian to the plate to bat for starting pitcher Johnny Podres. White Sox starter Bob Shaw ran the count to 3–1 when Essegian launched a curve ball halfway up the left-center stands at Comiskey Park, tying the score. Charley Neal homered two batters later, giving the Dodgers a 4–2 lead in a game they won 4–3 to even the Series.
The second home run wasn't quite as dramatic. The Dodgers were leading 8–3 in the ninth inning of Game 6 when Essegian, batting for Duke Snider, homered to left field against Ray Moore.
But to Essegian, those two homers may have ruined his baseball career.
"You know, you kind of get labeled as a certain kind of player," Essegian said when interviewed not long after his career ended in 1963. "If you have success as a pinch-hitter, then you're looked at as a pinch-hitter because you're not good enough to play every day. It's a hard tag to live down."
In 404 major league games, Essegian batted .255 with 47 home runs and 150 runs batted in. His best season was with Cleveland in 1962, when he had 21 homers and 50 RBIs. "For one reason or another, I just never played much in baseball," Essegian said. "It just didn't work out the way I'd hoped it would."
Essegian is one of the few people to play in a Rose Bowl game and a World Series game. He was a linebacker on Stanford's 1952 Rose Bowl team.
In case you were wondering, the other player to hit two pinch-hit home runs in one World Series is Bernie Carbo for the 1975 Boston Red Sox.CHAPTER 2
Welcome to Dodger Stadium
The Taj Mahal of Major League Baseball opened for business on April 10, 1962, and players were immediately impressed by the new Stadium.
"It's the most gorgeous thing I've ever seen in my life," shortstop Maury Wills said on opening day. "They've done a wonderful job on it."
Others were just as impressed.
Don Drysdale: "This ball park knocks your eyes out. Beautiful."
Duke Snider: "Being a native of California [Snider was born in Los Angeles], this is really wonderful."
Johnny Podres: "I'll tell you one thing, I'll win some games here."
Commissioner Ford Frick: "Baseball has never had anything like this. It marks the beginning of a new era in baseball."
Reds pitcher Bob Purkey: "There's only one problem. It's ruined one of my best banquet jokes. I used to tell fans that it really wasn't so bad in the Coliseum, that it came in handy along about the seventh inning to be able to rest by reaching out your right hand and leaning back against the left-field screen."
The fans immediately fell in love with the stadium, except for one problem — there were no drinking fountains. One fan in attendance, Rose Hernandez, said she asked a Dodgers employee where she could get a drink of water and was told she could use any of the taps in the ladies' restrooms.
The drinking fountains problem became public when then–City Council-man Edward Roybal pointed out that the L.A. Coliseum, where the Dodgers played from 1958–61, had 150 water fountains and the L.A. Sports Arena, home of the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and much smaller than Dodger Stadium, had 48. Roybal suggested that perhaps team owner Walter O'Malley was hoping the lack of fountains would drive more people to the concession stands for an ice-cold beer or soda.
O'Malley denied the charge, saying it was just an oversight.
For the second home game, on April 11, O'Malley came up with a solution. There were 221 perfectly usable cold-water faucets in the restrooms of the stadium, and the team had purchased Dixie cups to set out in the restrooms.
That didn't really please a lot of people, since drinking water from a bathroom faucet isn't really high on anyone's list of thirst-quenching refreshments. The City Health Department stepped in and ordered O'Malley to install drinking fountains in spectator areas.
And voila! Just like that, by the time the next homestand opened in late April, there were 54 drinking fountains.
Dodger Stadium Firsts
The Dodgers played the Reds for the Stadium opener, which the Reds won 6–3 thanks to a three-run homer by Wally Post.
Here are some Stadium firsts:
First hit and first extra-base hit: Cincinnati's Eddie Kasko led off the game with a double.
First run scored: Kasko, who scored in the first on Vada Pinson's single.
First double play: Cincinnati's Frank Robinson, who grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the first inning.
First strikeout: Cincinnati's Gordy Coleman was struck out by Johnny Podres in the second inning.
First walk: Cincinnati's Tommy Harper was walked by Johnny Podres in the second inning.
First Dodgers hit: Duke Snider, a single to center in the second.
First homer: Post, his three-run homer in the seventh off Podres.
First Dodgers homer: Jim Gilliam, on April 11, off of Cincinnati's Moe Drabowsky.
Let's get one thing straight right away: Maury Wills should be in the Hall of Fame. He won an MVP Award, but he also made the stolen base a weapon again, and that alone should put him in Cooperstown.
Wills came up to the Dodgers in 1959 and stole seven bases in 83 games. Big deal. In 1960 he led the league with 50 and led again in 1961 with 35. Good, but not earth-shattering numbers, and they are well below the record of 96 set by Ty Cobb in 1915.
And then, in 1962, Wills stole the spotlight.
He stole five bases in the first two games of the season, giving the league fair notice that he was planning to run with abandon. He stole eight bases in April, 19 in May, 15 in June, nine in July, and 22 in August. But in September he really turned it on.
In a game against the Cubs in Chicago, he stole second, but the Cubs protested to umpire Jocko Conlan, saying he made the call before the ball even reached the bag.
Conlan replied, "You ain't got him all year. Why would you think you'd get him this time?"
Wills had 95 stolen bases, one away from tying the record, as the Dodgers began a game against the Cardinals on September 23 in St. Louis. Curt Simmons was scheduled to start for the Cardinals.
"The writers were always asking me who was the easiest pitcher to steal off," Wills said in a 2012 interview. "I never told them, but the truth was it was Curt Simmons. I think I could steal off him today."
When the game started, Curt Simmons wasn't on the mound. Larry Jackson was.
"The toughest guy to steal off was Larry Jackson," Wills said. "Suddenly, he was on the mound. I found out later that Simmons had given him the ball. The Cardinals didn't want to give up the record."
Wills singled and stole second in the third inning to give him 96 steals, tying Cobb.
"Tying it is nothing," Wills said. "When you get that far, you want it alone." Wills stayed off the bases until the seventh inning, when he singled with two out and no one on. The whole stadium knew he would go for the record. Larry Jackson knew it, too.
"Jackson threw over to first 16 times," Wills said. "Bill White was the first baseman, and every time I went diving back into first base, he'd slap the ball down hard on my head or face. They were killing me."
It was then that something Dodgers general manager Al Campanis had said to Wills came into his mind.
"It had been just a couple of weeks earlier," Wills said. "Al stopped me on the way in, took me in his office, and reminded me that once in a while I ought to try a delayed steal. We practiced it right there in his office. You take a shorter lead, you make the pitcher think you have given up, that he's won. You don't even break until you see the white of the ball leave the catcher's hand. At that point, the catcher's eyes and infielders' eyes are off you and on the ball. Then you break."
Wills broke and stole second. The record was his. He finished the season playing every inning of the Dodgers' 165 games and stealing 104 bases.
In 1961, the entire National League stole 468 bases. That number rose to 788 in 1962, and in 1970, the NL had 1,045 stolen bases mainly because of Maury Wills, who blazed a new trail for baseball.
Wills spent 15 years on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. The highest voting percentage he received was 40.6 percent in 1981 (you need 75 percent to be elected). He dropped off the ballot after the 1992 election, and today his fate rests in the hands of the Veterans Committee.
Hopefully, one day it will do the right thing.
Almost, but Not Quite
The 1962 season is one that the Dodgers let get away from them. With seven games remaining, the Dodgers were leading the National League by four games. Then everything fell apart. They lost six of their last seven and were tied by the San Francisco Giants on the final day of the season, necessitating a three-game playoff to determine the NL champion.
But this couldn't end up like 1951, could it? Splitting the first two and leading in Game 3 until the Giants rally to win the pennant? That couldn't happen again, surely. What are the odds?
Game 1 was a laugher for the Giants. Sandy Koufax, who wasn't quite the legendary Sandy Koufax yet, was pelted for three runs in only one inning pitched, came out of the game in the second, and watched from the bench as the Giants ran away with an 8–0 victory at Candlestick Park.
"I had an idea what I wanted to do out there, but I couldn't seem to do it," Koufax said after the game. "I try to throw hard, but the ball doesn't come out hard and my control was way off."
Manager Walter Alston seemed confident. "My theory is that if just one or two guys break loose, we'll catch on fire," Alston told a gathering of reporters after Game 1. "If there's any pressure now, it's on the Giants. We have everything to win and nothing to lose."
Excerpted from If these Walls Could Talk: Los Angles Dodgers by Houston Mitchell. Copyright © 2014 Houston Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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