I’m not a Dodgers fan. I live in Arizona, so I feel compelled to get that out of the way up front.
This weekend, though, Katie and I are in LA for a little Labor Day getaway. And tonight we’re going to Dodger Stadium. We’ve both been there before, but for me, it’ll be the first visit since June 24, 1998 – a whopping two decades ago. On that occasion, Cecil Fielder and Gary Disarcina each homered for the crosstown Anaheim Angels, with sluggers Gary Sheffield and Raúl Mondesi going yard for the Dodgers.
Even more significant, on that night a 19-year-old kid from Santo Domingo made his major-league debut, doubling and driving in a run while batting in the eighth spot for the home team. The name of this future Hall of Famer was Adrián Beltré. Still playing at age 39, he’s already logged well over 3000 hits and is closing in on 500 home runs. For 20 years he’s been one of my favorite players, even though he now plays for the Rangers, a divisional rival of my own Seattle Mariners.
In anticipation of our LA visit, I decided to read a couple of books about the history of the Dodgers. That story, of course, begins in Brooklyn. And no one tells it better than Roger Kahn.
The Boys of Summer begins with Kahn’s fond recollections of watching the team as a boy in the 1930s and ‘40s. He then recalls the memorable seasons and postseasons of the 1950s – dominated by the on-field performances of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Carl Erskine, and others – when he was covering the team as a beat writer for the Herald Tribune. In the second half of the book, researched and written in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Kahn sets out to learn what became of these larger-than-life men after their playing days. His discoveries are by turns memorable and mundane, inspiring and disastrous. In one especially moving passage he writes:
“Unlike most, a ball player must confront two deaths. First, between the ages of thirty and forty he perishes as an athlete. Although he looks trim and feels vigorous and retains unusual coordination, the superlative reflexes, the major league reflexes, pass on. At a point when many of his classmates are newly confident and rising in other fields, he finds that he can no longer hit a very good fast ball or reach a grounder four strides to his right. At thirty-five he is experiencing the truth of finality. As his major league career is ending, all things will end. However he sprang, he was always earthbound. Mortality embraces him. The golden age has passed in a moment. So will all things. So will all moments.”
Just as the careers of many of these “boys of summer” came to abrupt, unceremonious ends, so too did the very existence of the Dodgers in Brooklyn. After the 1957 season, following years of acrimony over a proposed stadium to replace the historic (and crumbling) Ebbets Field, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley moved the team west to Los Angeles.
The Dodgers’ coast-to-coast move didn’t occur in a vacuum. Lots of people were heading west at that time. While the cities of the Northeast and the Midwest represented the stability of the past, California had come to represent the possibilities of the future.
My mother was born in northern New Jersey in the early 1950s, where my grandfather worked for a large manufacturing company. In his free time, he rooted for the Dodgers. In 1959, less than two years after the Dodgers moved west, he was transferred to the company’s new facility in the San Fernando Valley – “America’s Suburb” – which is where my mom spent the rest of her childhood and young adult years and where my grandparents continued to live until retirement, many years later.
From time to time, my grandfather would get to watch Dodgers games in box seats provided by his employer. Once, while at a game in those seats with his father, it so happened that Doris Day was sitting directly in front of them. At some point, she turned around and told my great-grandfather that she liked the smell of the smoke from his pipe.
My own family lived in Pasadena for a couple of years in the late ‘80s. And as I think back, it’s quite likely that the first baseball game I ever watched on television was played under the bright lights at Chavez Ravine. The home team would have been wearing what even now I’d consider the best uniforms in baseball. And the announcer would have been the legendary Vin Scully.
Walter O’Malley may have seen southern California as a land of sunny optimism and new opportunity, but what he discovered in Los Angeles was anything but that. Eager to leave the likes of New York’s Robert Moses behind, O’Malley was not prepared for the complexity of local politics that stood ready to confront him.
The usual narrative about the Dodgers coming to LA consists of a rich businessman who predictably gets everything he wants, without much hassle or, for that matter, regard for heartbroken fans back east. But the real story of the move, as told by Jerald Podair in City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles, is far more complicated – and, not coincidentally, far more interesting.
When O’Malley arrived in California, he discovered long-standing racial tensions as well as competing visions of the future of Los Angeles. Turns out, not all Angelenos wanted their city to be the next Chicago or New York. In op-eds, radio and TV broadcasts, town hall meetings, and election campaigns, the debate raged on. Would Los Angeles be centrally constructed with all the trappings of a world-class cosmopolitan metropolis, or would it continue to be a collection of distinct and relatively autonomous neighborhoods?
A lot was at stake. And O’Malley unwittingly brought together an unlikely coalition of enemies, ranging from the Latino community who took issue with the displacement of families from Chavez Ravine, to “the Folks” – Midwesterners and Easterners in places like the San Fernando Valley – who saw the Dodger Stadium project as a lavish misplacement of priorities when their own suburban neighborhoods lacked basic amenities like paved roads.
In hindsight, had O’Malley known about all that awaited him in California, he likely would have never considered Los Angeles at all. Legal battles, unpopular evictions, public protests, and feuds between massive egos all threatened to thwart the project at every turn. But eventually, O’Malley got his stadium.
And despite all the pushback, once Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, the people of Los Angeles loved it. That affection continues to this day. Now, 56 years later, the stadium is the third-oldest in the big leagues – only Wrigley and Fenway are older – and is considered by everyone (except, of course, rival NL West fans) to be a modern gem of midcentury architecture.
While Ebbets Field had been a gritty place frequented mostly by male fans, O’Malley insisted from the start that Dodger Stadium be a family-friendly establishment. And so it was, with prices nearly everyone could afford. He made Spanish broadcasting an early priority, a decision that continues to pay dividends among the team’s many Latino fans. And because of the team’s legacy of breaking the color barrier with Jackie Robinson, followed by other black players like Roy Campanella, many African-American fans in southern California were quick to latch on when the team moved to town.
Despite its many controversies, Dodger Stadium truly had become a place for all Angelenos. Including, of course, celebrities – from Doris Day and Cary Grant to Kim Kardashian and Ashton Kutcher.
So tonight, as Katie and I watch the Dodgers take on the Diamondbacks – a game with serious postseason implications – I’ll be thinking of all this. Of “the boys of summer” who played at Ebbets Field. Of the two deaths Kahn wrote about. Of my own family, who, like so many families moved from east to west. Of Walter O’Malley and the business of baseball. Of the players I watched when I was younger, like Adrián Beltré, whose career longevity continues to defy logic. Of the new stars – on the field and in the stands – and the stars yet to be born. Of this country and this wonderful game.