MAY 16, 2017
THE STORY BEHIND Dodger Stadium is complex and revealing. Mostly it’s a tale of urban politics, but it defies the usual political categories. The 1958 stadium controversy didn’t split along party lines, and the conflict was resolved only after minority voters made common cause with white Downtown interests to approve the stadium’s construction. At the center of the drama lay the tension between private enterprise and the public good — a tension that has become even more problematic, especially in professional sports.
In City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles, Jerald Podair chronicles the political slalom Walter O’Malley ran to create one of the nation’s premier sports venues. Dodger Stadium — that seemingly permanent feature of the Los Angeles landscape, now the third-oldest ballpark in the major leagues — almost didn’t happen. That it succeeded on a grand scale, Podair claims, helped make Los Angeles a global metropolis instead of a gaggle of neighborhoods.
Podair begins his account in Brooklyn, where O’Malley was general counsel to the baseball franchise founded by Charles Ebbets. The son of a Democratic pol, O’Malley was a prosperous lawyer with Tammany Hall connections. Along with Branch Rickey and pharmaceutical magnate John L. Smith, O’Malley took over the struggling Dodgers in 1944 and eventually bought out his partners’ interests. The team had loyal fans, in part because it was an organic part of a scrappy community that included its players. Only two National League teams had better attendance that year, but only one team had a worse record. Moreover, Ebbets Field was crumbling.
Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson and engineered a turnaround on the field. But by the 1950s, the need for a new stadium was acute, and land costs in Brooklyn were prohibitive. Robert Moses, New York City’s powerful city planner, had no intention of aiding O’Malley’s attempt to build a new ballpark in Brooklyn. For Moses, the franchise was a private company, and there was no compelling public reason to keep it in Brooklyn.
For the legions who have mourned the Dodgers’s move to Los Angeles, O’Malley is the default villain. But Podair claims that Moses deserves at least as much blame for the westward migration, which the New York Giants quickly joined. After those two teams departed, leaving the city without a National League franchise, Moses put his weight behind the construction of Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets. Built with public funds, it opened in 1964 and was demolished in 2009 to create parking for Citi Field, the Mets’s current home. At no point did it match Dodger Stadium, or even Ebbets Field, as a classic American ballpark.
If Moses was a brick wall, Los Angeles was an open door. After some internal wrangling, the city offered O’Malley a deal that he quickly — perhaps too quickly — accepted. The Dodgers would buy Wrigley Field, the South Los Angeles stadium that hosted the Angels (and, for 11 seasons, the Hollywood Stars) of the Pacific Coast League. With a seating capacity of 22,000, Wrigley Field was too small for a big-league ballpark. But city officials told O’Malley he could swap it for city-owned land in Chavez Ravine. Then he would build his new stadium with private money. With those terms in mind, O’Malley moved his team across the country to a city he barely knew.
How the city came to own the Chavez Ravine parcel is an important part of Podair’s story. Using its eminent domain powers, the city had cleared out the largely Latino residents to build public housing. Conservatives denounced that project as unvarnished socialism, and a public referendum canceled the project. But the evacuation of Chavez Ravine continued. Some residents fought it energetically, which tarnished the city’s image, especially among Latinos. When the stadium deal was proposed, Latino city council member Edward Roybal came out against it.
Although well versed in New York City politics, O’Malley knew nothing of the hazards that lay between him and his new stadium. A lawsuit challenging the deal eventually worked its way up to the Supreme Court of California, where pro-stadium forces, led by Downtown lawyers, prevailed. Much like Moses, some Los Angeles conservatives argued that the city shouldn’t favor a private company that served no clear public purpose. O’Malley countered that his property taxes would fill the city’s coffers with no risk to the city. He also maintained that his free-market approach was preferable to the one taken by San Francisco, where the city built Candlestick Park and kept the proceeds.
Many right-wingers and fiscal conservatives found this argument persuasive, even though the San Francisco arrangement was working more smoothly than O’Malley’s. If only the same could have been said for the architecture. Built of reinforced concrete in the shape of a truck tire, and suffering the same design handicaps as Shea Stadium, with the added bonus of wind and damp chill from the nearby San Francisco Bay, Candlestick Park was shuttered in 2014 after decades of undistinguished service.
Other challenges to Dodger Stadium were novel and unforeseen. O’Malley was blindsided by a public referendum, Proposition B, that would have blocked his deal with the city. That political mechanism didn’t even exist in New York. But by the time voters went to the polls, the Dodgers were playing their home games in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and fans were listening to the dulcet tones of broadcaster Vin Scully. The Dodgers even won the 1959 World Series behind Sandy Koufax and hometown hero Don Drysdale. In the end, the city’s black and Latino voters delivered a narrow victory to O’Malley and his supporters.
O’Malley made the most of his opportunity. The stadium, which opened in 1962, was modern, clean, and well appointed; O’Malley strove to match Disneyland in those departments. He also went to great lengths to attract women and families. Tickets were inexpensive, and after O’Malley’s pay-per-view television plans fizzled, games were broadcast in both English and Spanish. The results were dramatic. That first year, the Dodgers shattered major-league attendance records by attracting 2.7 million fans. O’Malley’s profits were substantial (almost $1.2 million), but so were the property taxes that flowed to the city. Over the next decade, the Dodgers contributed almost $10 million to city coffers.
Podair maintains a fine ambivalence about the underlying politics. The stadium deal reflected huge aspirations, the kind that led historian Kevin Starr to call Los Angeles the “Great Gatsby of American cities.” Yet even in defeat, Podair notes, “the stadium opponents underscored the power of an alternative urban vision based not in office suites but in neighborhoods and streets.” In their desire to make Los Angeles a big-league city — which, not coincidentally, increased Downtown property values — stadium proponents further marginalized neighborhoods, some of which the city was already failing. Even the white middle class — whom Podair (following Starr) calls “the Folks” — were skeptical. Podair is alert, even sympathetic, to their case for keeping taxes low rather than smoothing the way for Downtown interests.
“Dodger Stadium made downtown Los Angeles possible,” Podair concludes. “Downtown Los Angeles in turn made modern Los Angeles possible.” He quickly concedes that other major projects — the Los Angeles Aqueduct (1913), Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (1923), and Union Station (1939) — were also formative. But the completion of Dodger Stadium, he claims, “began the process of change that created Los Angeles’s modern downtown.” Its vagueness makes this claim difficult to challenge, but Podair is certainly correct that O’Malley’s gamble remains a landmark — not only in Chavez Ravine, but also in the city’s history.
Peter Richardson teaches humanities and American Studies at San Francisco State University. He has written critically acclaimed books about the Grateful Dead, Ramparts magazine, and Carey McWilliams. He received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism in 2013.