Thursday, April 10, 2008

This Day in Baseball History (Dodger Stadium Opens)

April 10, 1962 – Though the Los Angeles Dodgers lost the first game in their new home, Dodger Stadium won widespread public acclaim and began to influence powerfully the construction of ballparks throughout the rest of the decade. 

More than 52,000 fans turned out at what the media were calling the “Taj Mahal of Los Angeles,” in a game that featured two mainstays from the team’s glory days in Brooklyn: centerfielder Duke Snider and 1955 World Series pitching hero Johnny Podres. 

Fan disappointment over the 6-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds soon turned to joy, however. In a signal of better days ahead, lefty fireballer Sandy Koufax threw a four-hitter the following day. 

In the process of fulfilling his dream of building this spanking-new structure, however, team owner Walter O’Malley had, by moving the franchise from its original home, ripped a hole in the heart of Brooklyn; ran roughshod over the rights of a disenfranchised Latino community in Los Angeles; and showed owners in all sports how to play off one metro against another in deals that did not necessarily redound to the best interests of taxpayers, let alone fans. 

The story of how the Dodgers’ departure from Ebbets Field severed a team from its intensely loyal fan base has been told and re-told repeatedly. For years, O’Malley has been cast as the villain of the piece, though there have been periodic attempts at historical revisionism

Well, there’s good revisionism (the more praiseworthy recent looks back at the once-scorned Reconstruction era in the South) and bad revisionism (the late-20th-century view of some historians that the Irish Potato Famine was not the product of malign forces in Great Britain). In my opinion, the more supposedly “balanced” view of O’Malley falls into the latter category, because it does not take into account the man’s character. 

From 1952 to 1956, O’Malley’s Dodgers were reportedly the only National League team to make money, so, unlike the Boston Braves moving to Milwaukee, he wasn’t moving a franchise abandoned by local fans. Yet he scheduled seven different games for the team in 1956 and 1957 in, of all places, Jersey City. 

And he appears to have exerted influence behind the scenes in inducing New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham to take his team to San Francisco, giving himself some degree of cover when he followed with his own move. 

In an excellent column last September, The New York Times’ Dave Anderson took a meat ax to the new revisionism, especially when quoting former Dodger exec Buzzy Bavasi on O’Malley’s motivation (money, of course) and his strong-arm tactics in the move: 

“He could have taken the Dodgers a few miles to where Shea Stadium is, but he took them 3,000 miles. We had a vote among the eight top people in the front office, and the vote was 8 to 1 not to go to California, but the one vote was Walter’s.” (Predictably, the team’s PR press release noted that the team vote of stockholders and directors was unanimous to go to Los Angeles.) 

O’Malley wasn’t done. After flying over the hilltop location at Chavez Ravine, he had decided this was the place where he’d build, and nothing was going to stand in its way. 

Los Angeles was still reeling over a bruising fight over the failed attempt to bring public housing to this working-class Latino enclave that resulted in the mass eviction, at the threat of eminent domain, of residents. 

Enter O’Malley, bearing a gift: the promise of a baseball franchise to a massively growing city that had never seen one. The mayor was all ears, and backed the Dodger owner’s proposal to build. 

Having bought 300-plus acres back from the federal government at drastically reduced prices, Mayor Norris Paulson was desperate to see productive use of the land. A nasty battle (marked by unproven allegations of payoffs to the mayor) followed as O’Malley fought to win a public referendum on the fate of his idea—which passed by only three percent. 

 As someone who watched his own neighborhood victimized by use of eminent domain nearly 40 years ago, I have tremendous sympathy with the remaining families who, offered pitifully small compensation by the city for their land, refused to leave. 

O’Malley with his money was too strong for them, however, and in the end they went, too, making way for the bulldozers who leveled, graded, and pushed up the site of O’Malley’s dream project. 

 And dream project it was. Disneyland had impressed O’Malley in his early imaginings of his “Taj Mahal,” and, with the park’s elaborate color scheme and stress on surrounding horticulture, he sought to create his own counterpart to Walt Disney’s fantasyland. 

How typical that O’Malley looked to this other Walt for inspiration. In listening to public radio some time back, I heard a Disney biographer say he was thrilled to have a likable subject like Cary Grant, because in researching the earlier Disney book, he’d had to deal day after day with someone whose name was mud in Southern California for his tough tactics in getting the land and removing families.

Another word about this park before we go: its influence on the shape of baseball action itself over the next decade. 

After a short burst of hitter exuberance at the start of the decade, highlighted by the Yankee duo of Mantle and Maris’ assault on Babe Ruth’s cherished single-season home run mark, baseball in the 1960s became increasingly characterized by pitching dominance, especially in 1968, when the Detroit Tigers’ Denny McLain became the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season, Bob Gibson ended up with a mind-boggling earned-run average of 1.12 per game, and the American League ended up with only one hitter with a batting average over .300 (Carl Yastrzemski, at .301). 

Part of the reason for this pitcher dominance was the increased number of so-called “pitcher’s ballparks.” No blasts over invitingly short right-field porches here. 

Instead, there were places like the Dodgers’ new home, or the one created to replace it in the hearts of New Yorkers, Shea Stadium (which I’ll consider next week). 

Over the years, Dodger Stadium developed something of a reputation as a “pitcher’s park.” Now, it’s true that the immortal Sandy Koufax threw so hard that it didn’t matter where he played, since batters had trouble seeing his fastballs in the first place. 

But others on the Dodger staff, less powerful than Koufax and Don Drysdale, also flourished, at least for a time, in this ballpark. 

Opponents of the so-called “ballpark effect” argue that the Dodgers simply spent more time cultivating hitters. But I think that proponents have some good points on their side regarding Chavez Ravine, including its somewhat large dimensions, capacious foul territory, and walls with no unusual caroms a la Boston’s Fenway Park. 

This past December, Walter O’Malley was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and it is indisputable that he opened the game up to expansionism and fielded consistently winning teams created through smart scouting and training rather than expensive contracts. 

But if you get around to watching the ceremonies where the late Dodger owner is inducted, think of what he did not only to Brooklyn, but to the squatters of Chavez Ravine to build his “Taj Mahal of Los Angeles.”

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