The year 2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the Dodgers’ move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and the 55th anniversary of the opening of Dodger Stadium. Jerald Podair, author of City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles, tells the story of the controversial construction of this famed stadium and its impact on the surrounding landscape. Podair is professor of history and the Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.
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City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles book information
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
JERALD PODAIR: He said, “Well, I can be ten miles from Brooklyn or I can be 3,000 miles from Brooklyn. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m not gonna be in Brooklyn.” That sort of opened the door for LA.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with author and historian Jerald Podair about his recent book titled City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles.
Dodger fans growing up in California in the 1960s fell in love with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Johnny Roseboro, Maury Wills, and the rest of the team. Drysdale, Roseboro, and Wills represented grace, power, and the Los Angeles style, while Koufax represented athletic dominance and the highest ethical standards. Between 1963 and 1966, Sandy won 97 games and lost only 27, and was twice named the World Series Most Valuable Player and crowned the best pitcher in baseball. He also refused to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.
But behind the pitches and home runs, there was another side to the Dodgers organization. And that’s a story best told through a history of its ball park, Dodger Stadium, which opened in Chavez Ravine in 1962 after years of financial and political maneuvering.
This history is the subject of Jerald Podair’s recent book, City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles. Dr. Podair is Professor of History and American Studies at Lawrence University. I spoke to him on the phone from a studio in Appleton, Wisconsin. And of course as I record this, the Dodgers are competing for the World Series title.
Jerald, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us about this extraordinary book.
PODAIR: Well, thank you for having me, yeah.
CUNO: Well, it’s a pleasure. All of us who are baseball fans know that Dodger Stadium is the oldest still standing and functioning baseball park west of the Mississippi, and the third oldest functioning today, after Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. What I didn’t know is that Dodger Stadium is the only baseball park never to have increased its capacity. It seats today what it sat when it opened in 1962, some 57,000 fans.
PODAIR: Right. In fact, we don’t know exactly how many seats there are in Dodger Stadium; they usually round it off. But yes, this is a stadium that I think was built so well right at the beginning that they didn’t really need to change all that much. Actually, one of the decisions that Walter O’Malley had to make when he was planning the stadium was whether to enclose the stadium. And there was at least a possibility that what you see today in the pavilions—and of course, you see the mountains and the hills out, you know, over the pavilions—that view could’ve been cut off, had they decided to enclose the stadium. And thank God, they didn’t.
Well, we’ll get back to the ballpark itself in due time. But let’s get to the history of the controversy over its construction. So the key figure from the Dodgers side was Walter O’Malley—you’ve already referenced him—who with Branch Rickey and the pharmaceutical magnate John Smith, owned 75% of the Dodgers while they were still in Brooklyn. Tell us a bit about Mr. O’Malley and his background.
PODAIR: Sure. Well, Walter O’Malley was born in 1903. And became a lawyer during the Great Depression, which meant that probably, one of the few growing fields in law during that time was bankruptcy and corporate reorganization law, which is what he happened to be in. As part of his law practice, he got involved with the Brooklyn Trust Company, which was owed money by the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1930s and 1940s.
And the way Walter O’Malley became involved in baseball is he was asked by the Brooklyn Trust Company to work out the finances of the Dodgers, who in the 1930s, were not a very good team and were not a very profitable team. From there, it was a short step to just becoming their general counsel, and then teaming up with Branch Rickey and John Smith to buy a piece of the team.
In effect, while his group owned three-quarters of the Dodgers, effectively there were three shares. So by 1950, Walter O’Malley owned the equivalent of a quarter of the Dodgers. Now, Walter O’Malley was a businessman. He was a baseball fan, but he was a businessman first and foremost. He was different from most of the other baseball owners at the time, because his main income came from the baseball team.
He was not a chewing gum magnate like Phil Wrigley, who owned the Chicago Cubs; he was not a Dupont heir like Robert Carpenter, who owned the Philadelphia Phillies. So he had to think in terms of business and in business terms, as he ran the Dodgers. And from literally the moment he acquired his share of the Dodgers, he realized that Ebbets Field was already, even in the 1940s, outmoded, outdated, and had to be replaced.
Now, this is something that Branch Rickey, his partner, didn’t seem to feel as urgent about, or as urgently about. And O’Malley and Rickey’s relationship was—certainly, it was not a cordial relationship; it was not necessarily an adversarial one. But I think in terms of both men’s personalities, I think they both wanted to be in charge of things. They were both, in many ways, self-made men, and I think it was almost inevitable that one of them would have to go.
Because O’Malley, in 1950, was able to forge an alliance with the widow of John Smith, who had died earlier that year, it was clear by 1950 that that odd man out was going to be Branch Rickey. And as it turned out, O’Malley was able to acquire, for a significant amount of money, the Brooklyn Dodgers. So as of the end of the 1950 season, O’Malley is the president and principle owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
And throughout the 1950s, aside from winning the World Series, which is, you know, what he obviously and what every owner wants to do, his goal was a new stadium in Brooklyn, a stadium to replace Ebbets Field, which was small, which had bad highway transportation, bad car access, poles all over the place; sort of a raffish charm to it, but not really the best place to see a game. No parking. Even the subway stops; I investigated that as I wrote the book. Even the subway stops, you couldn’t take a subway to go directly to Ebbets Field. You still had to walk a few blocks, which in New York is significant. So O’Malley spent much of the 1950s dickering with the City of New York, and specifically with Robert Moses, who was the highway and construction czar of the city, the power broker, in the title of the famous biography by Robert Caro. Moses really, in the fifties, decided what would be built in New York, who would build it, where it would be built, and under what terms it would be built.
And so O’Malley, to get a new stadium, a stadium he wanted to own himself, would have to go through Robert Moses. Robert Moses was not the easiest person to deal with. And in the end, he basically didn’t give O’Malley what he wanted.
CUNO: And he had a preferred place, I think, as I recall, in Brooklyn, where he meant to build the new stadium, Atlantic-Flatbush. Would that be today’s Barclays Center, would it be that area of Brooklyn?
PODAIR: [over Cuno] Yes. It is almost exactly where the Barclays Center stands today, maybe a block or so away. That was the land that he wanted. The problem for O’Malley is that he could not afford to buy that land at his own expense. You know, earlier, Charles Ebbets, who had built Ebbets Field, had secretly bought up plots of land in 1911 and 1912. Without telling the sellers what he was going to do with the land, he assembled enough land to build Ebbets Field. But O’Malley had tipped his hand by the 1950s, and it was clear that that Atlantic-Flatbush site was where he wanted to build.
So it was going to be financial impossible for him to pay for that land out of his own pocket. So he turned to Robert Moses. And he asked Moses to condemn that property, under the provisions of what was known as the Federal Housing Act of 1949, which allowed governments—city, state governments—to condemn blighted properties, to resell the property to a builder or a construction firm and have a new structure or a new development built that fulfilled a public purpose.
In other words, it could be a school or it could be a hospital or it could be a university building. And that was the general purpose of this Housing Act of 1949. Now, you can see what the problem was for Moses, as I’ve been describing this act. For Robert Moses, who was a total non-sports fan, who considered spectator sports a waste of time, much more of a participatory sport guy, he felt that a privately-owned baseball team was not a public purpose, and he turned O’Malley down.
And O’Malley argued that there would be a public purpose because of the property taxes that a private stadium would generate, the jobs, the employment, you know, the restaurants; that it would generally fulfill a public purpose, as it was also fulfilling his own purpose, which of course, as a businessman, was making money. Moses didn’t buy that. And O’Malley and Moses basically played Ring Around the Rosie for about—well, almost ten years, trying to reach some sort of agreement on the Atlantic-Flatbush property.
Ultimately, O’Malley saw that it wasn’t going to happen, that he was gonna have to look elsewhere. And he did so, actually quite reluctantly. I think there’s an urban legend in New York—and I’m originally from New York, so I’ve heard it many times—that O’Malley had planned to move to Los Angeles. The phrase that’s always used is, “all along.” And from my research, I found that not to be the case.
CUNO: Well, but he was first approached in 1955, by the city’s councilperson Rosalind Wyman. She comes to New York, if I remember correctly, [PODAIR: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.] So what happens in that conversation? And why does it take two more years before he gets to Los Angeles?
PODAIR: Well, actually, the conversation between Councilwoman Wyman and O’Malley actually never takes place. His first choice was to stay in New York, and that’s what he told Roz Wyman in 1955, when she tried to meet with him. “I think I can get the deal that I want in New York, so there’s probably no reason for us to get together.” But by 1957, especially early 1957, it was clear that Moses was not gonna come through for him, and that Moses was offering something that O’Malley didn’t want. And that was a publicly-owned stadium, a publicly-controlled stadium, at Flushing Meadow in Queens, where Shea Stadium used to stand, and now where Citi Field stands, that O’Malley’s Dodgers would be a tenant in.
And there’s been criticism of O’Malley over the years. Well, why didn’t he take that deal? He could’ve been a tenant in a city-owned stadium. Well, as a historian, I’m always telling my students to take their characters, their historical figures, as they are. Don’t argue with them retrospectively and say, “You should’ve been a different kind of person,” or “You should’ve wanted different things.” Well, this is how O’Malley was.
He was a private entrepreneur. He did not like to be a tenant. Entrepreneurs like to be owners and not tenants. And so he felt that being a tenant in a city-owned stadium was not the right deal for him. His bottom line was he wanted to own his stadium. He also wanted to own his stadium in Brooklyn. And he said, since obviously, Shea Stadium is in Queens, he said, “Well, if I’m gonna be in Queens, if I’m not gonna be in Brooklyn, I can be ten miles from Brooklyn or I can be 3,000 miles from Brooklyn. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m not gonna be in Brooklyn.” And that sort of opened the door for LA.
CUNO: Well, tell us about his visit to Los Angeles in 1957. When he finally gets to Los Angeles in 1957. What tilts his interest in the city as the place for his baseball park?
PODAIR: Well, in May 1957, as negotiations with New York seemed to be at a standstill, he goes out to Los Angeles and he gets into a helicopter, and they give him a ride over the Chavez Ravine area. And I’ve seen a photograph of that helicopter ride that O’Malley took, and it’s almost like an open helicopter. It’s like a clear helicopter. I think O’Malley was terrified; I certainly would’ve been terrified. But through his terror, he looks out over the Chavez Ravine area, and he almost immediately says, almost as if he was Brigham Young in Utah saying, “This is the place.” O’Malley says, “This is where I want to build the stadium,” because it’s perfect for him. Well, almost perfect. It is adjacent to downtown Los Angeles; it is the last piece of basically open land that you have that close to Los Angeles’s downtown. So that’s a perfect location for him. The land is hilly and gullied. It has crevasses and ravines. But O’Malley, being an old engineer—and you know, this is someone who had engineering training and legal training and business training. O’Malley says, “You know what I’ll do with Chavez Ravine? I’m gonna scoop out tons and tons of dirt and build the stadium partially submerged into the ground. That will mean that my spectators, my fans, will be entering not at the very bottom of the stadium, but somewhere in the middle; so their climbs to their seat will be much less arduous. And also, I’ll be able to build a huge parking lot around the stadium, because there is so much land.”
CUNO: What did [Norris] Poulson, the mayor, and Rosalind Wyman, the councilperson, what did they say to him? What was their interest in his coming there and bringing the Dodgers with him?
PODAIR: Well, for Poulson and Wyman, these are two political figures who have, on the surface, very little in common. Poulson is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. He’s the mayor of the city. He’s a Republican, he’s a conservative, he’s aligned with downtown business interests. And by downtown, I mean downtown with a capital D. Wyman is the councilman from the Westside. She’s Jewish, she’s liberal, she’s a Democrat, she’s a labor supporter. And on a number of important issues, she’s on the opposite side of Poulson. But what they have in common is a vision for Los Angeles as a modern city, a city with the infrastructure and with the civic monuments, if you will, that are going to reflect the growing economic, social, and cultural power of the city. Downtown Los Angeles, in 1957, as I say in my book, is what I call a “work-and-flee zone.” Plenty of people go down there to work, but nobody sticks around, or very few people stick around—at least middleclass whites—stick around afterwards. They get into their cars and they leave.
And Los Angeles does not have the kind of downtown, the kind of vibrant downtown with cultural attractions and other institutions, with restaurants and stores and residential areas—except for the Bunker Hill area, which is a poorer area—that cities like New York and Chicago and San Francisco have. And that’s what unites Roz Wyman and Norris Poulson. They may disagree about a lot of other things, but they want Los Angeles to be a world city. And Dodger Stadium can be the first step in revitalizing that downtown and making it into a world city.
CUNO: Now, what kind of offer did they make him? What made him think that he could get from Los Angeles what he couldn’t get from Robert Moses in New York?
PODAIR: Well, Wyman and Poulson and the LA City government, and also the LA County government, were willing to give O’Malley exactly what New York and Robert Moses were not willing to give him, which is land that he could build a private stadium on at an affordable price. And for O’Malley, that meant he would get the land at Chavez Ravine—or at least enough acres to build the stadium and the parking lot, in exchange for a property that O’Malley had acquired and owned elsewhere in the city, a small stadium called Wrigley Field.
So basically the kind of deal that he wanted in New York, but Moses said, “That’s not a public purpose.” In Los Angeles, they said, “Yes, it is a public purpose.” And the fact that O’Malley will be making money is not really material to that decision, because the city of Los Angeles and the county of Los Angeles will be making money, as well. In New York, largely, the attitude, and I think the political culture of the city was, if O’Malley is gonna make a lot of money, that should void the deal right there. So—
CUNO: [over Podair] Was O’Malley or Poulson or Wyman under the illusion that it was gonna be easy? Or did they know it was gonna be as difficult as it turned out to be?
PODAIR: Well, Poulson and Wyman know that there is substantial opposition on the LA City Council to this deal, because they know the kinds of people that they’re dealing with. But they don’t really tell O’Malley that. Also, they are aware, of course, as veteran Los Angeles politicians and California politicians, that there is a referendum mechanism in California that really doesn’t exist in New York City.
And then if enough signatures are obtained on petitions, the contract that the City of Los Angeles offers the Dodgers and O’Malley to build Dodger Stadium could be the subject of a referendum, which in fact, it was. O’Malley’s not aware of this, either. O’Malley is also not aware, or only vaguely aware, that before the city acquired the Chavez Ravine land, it was private property, owned by Mexican-American families who had lived in Chavez Ravine, a very tradition Mexican-American community for many years.
CUNO: And we’ll get to them, too, because that’s a very important part near the end of your book. But tell us about 1958 when the New York Giants, the big rival to the Brooklyn Dodgers, announced they were moving to San Francisco. How did that catalyze the project in Los Angeles?
PODAIR: Well, in August 1957, the New York Giants announced they were moving to San Francisco. And they were getting a city-owned stadium. So they went a completely different route from the Dodgers and Walter O’Malley. Horace Stoneham, the Giant[s] owner, was very happy to have the city of San Francisco build him a stadium and be a renter there, and that’s what happened. The stadium was Candlestick Park, which anyone who has ever spent time in Candlestick Park watching a San Francisco Giant[s] came, I’ll try to be kind and say it’s not Dodger Stadium. Let’s put it that way. Or it was not Dodger Stadium.
CUNO: [over Podair] Freezing cold. Freezing, freezing cold.
PODAIR: [over Cuno] Freezing cold. Ver—windy. Just really, really windy. So once that announcement was made, it was clear that the momentum favored the Dodgers leaving New York and going to Los Angeles, because of that traditional rivalry that the Giants and Dodgers had, that they could just continue their rivalry. But there was also, I thought, the possibility that O’Malley could just say, “Okay, now I am the only National League team in New York, I would have the whole city to myself…” And perhaps redouble his efforts to stay in New York. And as I say in the book, O’Malley wanted to stay in New York and was hoping to stay in New York, literally up until the last couple of days before he made the decision. The night that the LA City Council approved the contract for the Dodgers, which was October 7th, 1957, O’Malley talked to Roz Wyman on the phone from New York and basically said, “I’m still not sure whether I really want to go. If I could get my deal in New York, I would take it.”
CUNO: Yeah. Well, tell us about the special interest groups in Los Angeles. Break ’em down for us and tell us what role they played in the fight over the Chavez Ravine.
PODAIR: Well, the way I see it, the supporters of the deal to build Dodger Stadium and the opponents of the deal to build Dodger Stadium had different perspectives about what they wanted Los Angeles to be as a city, and perhaps the purpose of the city generally. The supporters of the stadium, as I mentioned—Roz Wyman, Norris Poulson, the downtown business interests, notably the Chandler family, who owned the Los Angeles Times, business interests who resided on the Westside—their view of Los Angeles was a modern city with modern institutions and modern monuments. And a city with a vibrant downtown.
Now, to that coalition of the Westside and Downtown, they were able to add African-Americans. Los Angeles’ African-American community favored the Dodger Stadium project, to a large extent. This was related to the fact that Jackie Robinson came from Los Angeles and that Jackie Robinson favored and spoke out in favor of the Dodger Stadium deal. So the African-American population was on the side of the project.
Now, opposing the project were people in the city who had a different view of what Los Angeles should be. They weren’t really interested in the downtown area. They were people who lived on the peripheries, maybe in the San Fernando Valley, and their view of the city was a city that did the basic, average functions of a city, that didn’t necessarily have big civic monuments, but that educated the kids, policed the streets, cleaned the sidewalks, built the housing, and did the kinds of things that cities do on an everyday basis.
What we would call quotidian, the average functions of daily life. Now, those opponents included a large number of white middleclass and lower-middleclass Angelinos that I call “the folks.” And they are a major component of my story. Now, who are the folks? The folks—and this is a name that the great— and late and great California historian Kevin Starr gave to them; I borrowed the term from him—are the descendants of Midwestern migrants from Missouri and Illinois and Iowa and states like that. Migrants who come to Los Angeles in the twenties and thirties and forties, also from the South. And these are very conservative people. They come for their piece of the American dream—a small house, a small business. They don’t have expansive views. They’re fiscally very conservative, and they look at this Dodger deal and they say, “Well, taxpayer resources, in the form of the Chavez Ravine land, are being given to a private entrepreneur. And that’s not fair and that’s not what we want.” So they lined up against the deal, and there are a lot of them.
And then there is the Latino community in Los Angeles, which is very divided and very conflicted over this stadium. On one hand, Latinos have almost immediately become great Dodger fans. They love the Dodgers. They remain, the Dodgers, I think, their most loyal fan base, even today. So they loved the Dodgers and they’re very happy that the Dodgers are in Los Angeles. The problem, of course, is that the stadium itself is going to be built at Chavez Ravine, which is the site of a demolished Latino community, a community of Latinos who are basically pushed off that land, first to build that housing project. And now the remaining residents of Chavez Ravine are gonna be forced by the city to leave, to build Dodger Stadium.
CUNO: [over Podair] And so the opposition groups do get enough signatures to force a referendum, so the referendum’s gonna go forward and he’s gonna have to combat the referendum. But at the same time, he’s gonna have to play baseball in Los Angeles. He’s gonna have to get the stadium and figure out where he’s gonna play this baseball season. Tell us about how he manages to both oppose the opposition, fight for the referendum, and build his brand in Los Angeles by having baseball games played in Los Angeles.
PODAIR: Well, he obviously needs a place to play immediately because Dodger Stadium is on the far horizon. And what O’Malley ends up doing is making a deal to play in the city-owned Los Angeles Colosseum. He hopes for two years, but it ends up being ’58, ’59, ’60, and ’61. And of course, anyone who has seen the Los Angeles Colosseum knows that it is a football stadium and not a baseball stadium. So the configurations of the stadium, with a very, very short left field, with a very, very high left field screen—almost like the Green Monster in Fenway Park, only not as good-looking—that becomes his the Dodgers’ home field, between 1958 and 1961.
Now, while he’s playing in that stadium, O’Malley and the Dodgers are trying to win a referendum, which was placed on the ballot to void the contract for Dodger Stadium. And the vote for that would take place in June, 1958. And what O’Malley has to do is he has to try to influence the outcome of that. But he can’t get too directly involved in it, because then he’ll be viewed as meddling. And so a number of civic groups come together to form a committee called the Taxpayers Committee for Yes on Baseball. Meaning yes on the referendum proposition. And he gets Hollywood involved, he gets the entertainment industry involved. Obviously, Norris Poulson, the mayor, Roz Wyman, that part of the government that’s in favor of it—they pitch in. And they are opposed in that referendum by another committee, a committee called the Citizens Committee to Save Chavez Ravine for the People. Both of these committees have very long names. In the book, I just call them the Taxpayers Committee, which is pro-contract, and the Citizens Committee, which is anti-contract.
The Citizens Committee is run by the small businesspeople, by the folks, and by elements of the City Council, notably Councilman John Holland, who represents Eagle Rock, a conservative, fiscally very, very parsimonious Republican, who does not want to see taxpayer resources spent on a private entrepreneur and on a private project like Dodger Stadium. They line up against it. And the referendum election is very bitterly contested and very, very close, going down to the final couple of days.
And what may have turned the tide is, two days before the referendum election, on June 1st, 1958, the Dodgers run a television program called Dodgerthon. It’s a telethon to whip up support for the “yes” vote on the referendum, for the stadium.
CUNO: [over Podair] And it’s five hours long. I mean, it’s a big, big, big production.
PODAIR: It is a big, big production. And all the big Hollywood stars, who were virtually all in favor of the stadium, they come out. Ronald Reagan is on there, Groucho Marx is on, Danny Thomas. All sorts of major names. They’re basically bringing people in and out of the studio. And what I notice they do is they try to cover all ethnic groups. You know, they have a representative from the Latino community, they have a representative from the African-American community. You know, they’re getting all these civic groups, and they’re just basically making pitches for the stadium. And I think the reason that people are watching is that all the Hollywood stars are on it.
And then during the telethon, during the Dodgerthon, the Dodgers played in Chicago against the Cubs that afternoon. They were having a lousy year, but that day, they won. That Sunday, they won. They almost had to win that game. And what they say then is, “Why don’t people come out to the airport to greet the Dodgers as they get off the plane from Chicago?” And thousands of people go out to the airport, and they’re interviewing Dodger players. And Vin Scully is there, of course, interviewing players.
And that actually gives, I think, a boost to the pro-contract movement. In other words, I often wonder what would’ve happened if they lost that day. They were [Cuno chuckles] coming off—it was like a really terrible road trip. They were, you know, something like, you know, five and thirteen or something. It wasn’t going well for them that year. But that day, they won. They pitched a rookie pitcher, Stan Williams. I think it was his first Major League start and he shut out the Cubs, so they got a win, and then they flew home that day. And I think it was largely the Dodgerthon that gave the referendum that extra little push, because the following Tuesday, it was 51-49, but they won it. The contract passed.
CUNO: You also say that Mexican-American and African-American voters made the difference, and they joined with the pro-business Republicans to form that victorious vote of some—I guess it was 700,000 votes cast, and the “yes” won by 26,000 votes.
PODAIR: Right. And if you look at the African-American council district and the council districted that was represented, ironically, in the Latino area, by Councilman Edward Roybal, who opposed the Dodger contract. He wanted the Dodgers in Los Angeles, but he opposed the contract because of the Chavez Ravine issue. If you put the margins of the Latino and African-American districts together, that’s your margin right there. It lost in the San Fernando Valley, it lost in John Holland’s district in, you know, in the Eagle Rock area.
But it won in the African-American and Latino communities, which again, you know, given the fact that there were these controversial evictions from Chavez Ravine, the fact that the Latino community did, at least for that referendum, that they did vote in favor of it, I think is telling. And as I said, it shows that there’s a lot of contradiction and a lot of tension within the Latino community of Los Angeles about that stadium.
CUNO: So the Dodgers win in Chicago, and they come home and the referendum passes. But soon enough, the Superior Court issues an injunction blocking the execution of the contract. Why then?
PODAIR: Right. Well, what also happens once the Dodgers move to Los Angeles in 1957, is a number of taxpayers in Los Angeles, file suit against the contract, saying that it’s an illegal use of state funds, or of government funds, on behalf of a private individual, Walter O’Malley.
So they go to court and in July, 1958, right after the referendum passes, a superior court judge in Los Angeles County enjoins the contract, says that the contract is illegal, that this is an illegal use of public funds on behalf of a private entrepreneur. Basically, repeating the argument that Robert Moses had made in New York, that the stadium is not a true public purpose.
Now, this, of course, knocks everything off stride. And it certainly knocks O’Malley off stride, because once you end up in the court system, as we all know, it can take a real long time. But he is able to quickly get an appeal going. His lawyers—and I’m a former practicing lawyer myself, so looking at the legal work that was done, he had some very good lawyers. O’Melveny and Myers were his lawyers. And they appealed it and got the California State Supreme Court in early 1959 to reverse that judgment and allow the contract to go forward. And—
CUNO: [over Podair] On a unanimous decision, I think.
PODAIR: A unanimous, seven-zero decision. And what I thought was interesting about their reasoning is, they say that once you can establish some sort of public benefit from this contract—and they say that that benefit can be anything from property taxes to jobs to general recreational opportunities for the children of Los Angeles—once you establish that, that there is some public benefit, that’s where their inquiry ends.
CUNO: And while that’s going on, O’Malley continues with his plans for the new stadium, with some optimism, I guess, that ultimately, he might prevail. And his architect is Emil Praeger, who among other things, work in New York under Robert Moses, designed the Tappan Zee Bridge in 1955, and I think designed Shea Stadium in 1964.
PODAIR: Right. Right. Praeger is a great architect. I will say that Shea Stadium was probably not one of his greatest achievements. And I say that as a long-time New York Mets fan. I’ll have to identify myself as a Mets fan, who spent a lot of time in that stadium. Like Candlestick Park, Shea Stadium was not Dodger Stadium. But for Praeger, I think Dodger Stadium was the project of his life, because he was able to do things that were innovative, that no one else had really been able to do before in stadium design.
And of course, for O’Malley, it was a great opportunity, as well, because he, I think basically, had an idea for the perfect stadium in his head, and he knew that Ebbets Field was not that perfect stadium and never could be. But given a chance to start over in Los Angeles, he had all sorts of ideas as to what he wanted his stadium to look like. And Dodgers stadium allowed him to basically work from a blank canvas.
So even while the referendum was going on and the taxpayer lawsuits where winding their way through the courts, O’Malley was planning this dream stadium.
CUNO: And then there was the Arechiga family, which was on the property and was dispossessed from the property.
PODAIR: And yes. This is certainly an incident that resonates deeply in Los Angeles’s Latino community. There were still some families that had refused to leave the Chavez Ravine land for that housing project, and then just stayed on the land after the project was cancelled and after the city bought the land. One of those families was the Arechiga family. This was an extended family, a number of people—father, mother, some children, even some grandchildren. And they lived in two houses on what was then Malvina Street in Chavez Ravine. And they refused to leave. They felt that the amount of money that they were offered for their property by the city was not enough. But I think they also felt that they loved where they were. That’s really the only place that they knew, and that that’s really where they wanted to live. Unfortunately, the city was forced to evict them forcibly in May 1959. And I think the point has to be made that it was the city that did the evicting, not the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It was not handled particularly well. There probably should’ve been much more in the way of negotiation. But they came in, the sheriffs, with the bulldozers. They brought the people out, the bulldozed the houses and this is all on television. So it certainly did not look good.
CUNO: But then it turned out to be more complicated than even that, because it turns out the Arechiga family had seven other houses in Los Angeles, and one of them was in walking distance of Chavez Ravine and while they were camping out on the property, appealing to the sensitivities of the voters and the public.
PODAIR: Exactly. And today, we would probably use the words “bad optics” to describe this. The Arechigas, after being taken out from their homes, set up a tent encampment across the street, implying that they had nowhere else to go, and certainly, generated a lot of sympathy over the next few days because of that. But then it was revealed by one of the LA newspapers that they owned properties in other parts of the city. And as you mentioned, one of them was almost within walking distance of where they were and that they were not destitute.
And public opinion turned against them. What also starts to turn against them is it starts to become racial. A good number the white Angelinos who are writing in to councilmen and senators start to use racial imagery and racial demagoguery to describe the Arechigas. They’re not just poor property owners pushed out of their homes, now they’re Mexican property owners, or Mexicans who owned other properties and are trying to, you know, hoodwink the people of Los Angeles.
So there’s sort of an unfortunate racial aspect to this, which starts to come out when these additional Arechiga properties are revealed. Now, what the Arechigas and their supporters argue is the fact that they have other properties doesn’t relate to their right to stay on that property right there. They could have millions of other properties and the issue is that property, not the others. But as I said, the optics are not good, and at least white public opinion, or mostly white public opinion, in Los Angeles turns against them, which again becomes an implicit victory for the Dodgers and Dodger Stadium.
CUNO: And then late that summer and early in the autumn, the Dodgers end up winning the pennant and then they go into the World Series, against the Chicago White Sox. They play games three, four, and five in the Colosseum in Los Angeles. And it was said that those games generated some $3 million for the local economy. And the Dodgers go on to win the World Series, and it’s said that they unite the city behind them. You couldn’t have written a better ending to that chapter of the history of the Dodgers.
PODAIR: Oh, absolutely. That’s something that the Dodgers needed very badly. To get that surprise pennant and surprise World Series victory in 1959, in only their second year in the city, after coming off a terrible 1958, I think was really what may have made the Dodgers in Los Angeles, and made them truly Los Angeles’s team. You know, baseball sometimes will break your heart, as we know, but sometimes it has the ability to surprise and delight you. And that was one of those times. It was a underdog pennant victory, and I think even an underdog World Series victory.
CUNO: So then three years later, as Dodger Stadium is ultimately built and the season starts, the day before the season started, there’s big opening ceremonies. Describe those opening ceremonies.
PODAIR: Well, the day before the stadium opens, which is April 10th, 1962, the day before, April 9th, there is a big celebration on the steps of City Hall, which is not all that far from Dodger Stadium, with all the Dodger players and the owners. The mayor is there, Poulson is there, Ford Frick, the commissioner, is there, and all the media. And then they move to the stadium itself and have almost like a welcoming ceremony there, which goes on for hours and hours. You know, the people had to be sort of shooed away because the stadium walls needed to be painted. I mean, the stadium was not completely done. But I think the atmosphere there was really festive and celebratory, because it was like the City of Los Angeles had won, as well as the Dodgers, because they at last had a world-class stadium that befitted an ambitious city like Los Angeles that wanted to take its place on the national stage, on the world stage. And obviously, you need more than a baseball stadium to do that. But that stadium was a start, and I think that was the feeling in the air on April 9th and April 10th, 1962.
Soon after the stadium opened, Franklin Murphy, who was the chancellor of UCLA, wrote to Walter O’Malley and basically said, “Thanks to you,” or “Thanks to Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles is now taking its place on the world stage.” And when someone who’s in academia, someone who’s not necessarily in sports or even in city government says that, I think that’s significant.
CUNO: And then the Dodgers did their job. That is, the baseball team did their job. Over the next five years, I think they win three pennants, two World Series. You couldn’t have asked for a better start to a relationship to the city.
PODAIR: Exactly. Except for 1962 itself, where they lost the pennant in a playoff on the last day of the season in probably the most excruciating fashion possible. They had a four-two lead going into the ninth inning of the last playoff game, against the Giants, no less. Couldn’t hold the lead and lost under excruciating circumstances. But that was probably the last sad moment. They won the World Series in 1953, they won in ’65, they also won the pennant in 1966. And Sandy Koufax, between 1962 and 1966, I think it’s fair to say that no pitcher has dominated baseball during any five-year period the way Sandy Koufax did between those years.
CUNO: Well, you make a strong case for the claim that Dodger Stadium is important to the birth of modern Los Angeles. The book is riveting. It’s almost Shakespearean in its development and its execution. And we are grateful to you for the book and grateful to you for taking the time on this podcast. So thank you so much.
PODAIR: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Jim.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
JERALD PODAIR: He said, “Well, I can be ten miles from Brooklyn or I can be 3,000 miles from B...