Jerald Podair on the building of Dodger Stadium

PodairThis April marks the 55th anniversary of Dodger Stadium’s grand opening. The stadium is well-known in the world of professional sports for its beauty as well as its history, but when Walter O’Malley moved his Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1957 with plans to construct a new ballpark next to downtown, he ignited a bitter argument over the future of a rapidly changing city. For the first time, City of Dreams by Jerald Podair tells the full story of the controversial building of Dodger Stadium—and how it helped create modern Los Angeles by transforming its downtown into a vibrant cultural and entertainment center. Podair recently took some time to answer a few questions about the book, and how Dodger Stadium came to serve as the field of battle between two visions of Los Angeles’s future.

What drew you to Los Angeles as a historical subject?

JP: I’ve always had the native New Yorker’s outsized pride in his home city, but if New York was America’s city of the twentieth century, Los Angeles may well be its city of the twenty-first. Our national multicultural experiment—one the rest of the world is watching closely—will, for better or worse, play out in Los Angeles. So I became fascinated by the ways in which Los Angeles grew and developed during the twentieth century, especially during the years following World War II, when it began to turn outward toward the nation and world.

I also came to study Los Angeles through the equally fascinating historical figure of Walter O’Malley, who altered the historical trajectories of America’s two most important cities when he moved his Brooklyn Dodgers west in 1957. The New York portion of O’Malley’s story is well documented, the Los Angeles period much less so. O’Malley was strikingly unfamiliar with Los Angeles when he moved there—his total time spent in the city amounted to less than ten days—and he had not anticipated the serious obstacles he would face in building his new stadium. There is a myth, especially prevalent in New York, that O’Malley enjoyed smooth sailing once he arrived in Los Angeles and that the road to Dodger Stadium was an easy one. This, as I discovered, was emphatically not the case. I was drawn to writing about O’Malley and his struggles in Los Angeles as a way to understand the larger story of that city’s journey to power and status in postwar America.

And why Dodger Stadium?

JP: No American sports venue epitomizes its home city as does Dodger Stadium. It would be out of place anywhere else. Dodger Stadium serves as a form of civic glue for a fractured, transient city. The people of Los Angeles disagree about many things, but not about Dodger Stadium. To them, it is an object of pride and fascination. So it seemed to me that Dodger Stadium would be the perfect vehicle through which to tell the story of the emergence of Los Angeles as a modern city through its signature sports venue. I’m always telling my students at Lawrence University to take a smaller (but not small) story and use it to tell a larger one.  This book is an instance of taking my own advice.

You argue in your book that the battle over building Dodger Stadium was really a battle over the modern identity of Los Angeles. What do you mean by that?

JP: The battle over Dodger Stadium divided the city of Los Angeles in half. Two clashing visions of the city’s future lay at stake. A revitalized downtown—which Dodger Stadium would anchor—was essential to the first of those visions, championed by business interests such as the Chandler family, publishers of the Los Angeles Times, and political elites led by Mayor Norris Poulson. Their Los Angeles was an ambitious city of “no little plans,” with civic institutions that matched its growing economic and cultural power. They wanted a downtown comparable to those in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles’s rival to the north, San Francisco.

But Los Angeles was also a city of what the historian Kenneth Starr has called the “Folks,” white middle class property owners with Midwestern roots who had settled in peripheral areas and who felt little connection to downtown and what it represented. To them, Dodger Stadium was a diversion of taxpayer resources—and the Folks identified very strongly as “taxpayers”—from the basic, everyday functions of government in their neighborhoods: schools, roads, policing, and sanitation. So their more circumscribed understanding of what Los Angeles should be and the purposes it should serve clashed with the vision of those who were identified, both geographically and philosophically, with downtown.

Between 1957 and 1962, Dodger Stadium served as the field of battle between these two visions of Los Angeles’s future. We know of course that the stadium was built, so the advocates of “no little plans” won that round. But even today, the argument over the city’s identity continues. Downtown Los Angeles is a much more vibrant place than it was when the Dodgers arrived in 1957, if you measure by institutions and edifices—museums, concert halls, sports arenas, restaurants, high-end apartments, and office towers—but it still lacks the coherency and depth, the soul, if you will, of more historically established downtowns. It remains a work in progress. And there are still those who, like the Folks who opposed Dodger Stadium in the 1950s and 1960s, view downtown as a drain of resources from their own communities. In many ways, they continue to see downtown Los Angeles as irrelevant to their lives. So in that sense, the argument over Dodger Stadium and the city’s modern identity continues today.

In your book, you discuss the political cultures of New York and Los Angeles in the years following World War II. How did they differ?

JP: I think the very different political cultures of New York and Los Angeles determined that Walter O’Malley would get what he needed—affordable land on which to build his privately financed ballpark—from one city but not from the other. New York’s municipal politics in the 1950s featured a strong orientation toward the public sector and organized labor that, while not necessarily anti-capitalist in nature, did not offer an entrepreneur like O’Malley a particularly sympathetic atmosphere.  This meant that when he asked for assistance from New York City officials in acquiring land parcels in Brooklyn that were beyond his individual financial means in order to construct a stadium with his own funds, he was branded—unfairly, in my view—as seeking a “giveaway.” But in Los Angeles, publicly owned land at Chavez Ravine overlooking downtown was made available to O’Malley in exchange for property he owned elsewhere in the city. Los Angeles officials were thus willing to do what their counterparts in New York were not.

In my view, this was because the political culture of Los Angeles—where the statist reforms of the New Deal had less staying power than in New York—was more hospitable to businessmen, especially one like O’Malley whose private undertaking promised to advance the public good. In New York, the focus was almost obsessively on O’Malley’s profits; that the city would benefit from a new Dodger ballpark was deemed of lesser importance. In Los Angeles, the weight accorded these considerations was reversed. In deciding a taxpayer suit seeking to void the Dodger Stadium contract in favor of O’Malley, the California Supreme Court said as much. The Dodgers were permitted to make money on the deal, the court ruled in 1959, as long as there were tangible benefits accruing to the people of Los Angeles. Those benefits—a world-class stadium, not to mention millions of dollars in property taxes paid by the privately held stadium—were enough to justify state assistance to a private entrepreneur. O’Malley moved to Los Angeles for this very reason. Although O’Malley was a businessman and not a philosopher and probably would not have used the term “political culture” to explain his decision to leave New York, this is clearly what he had in mind. Had New York’s political culture been different, he undoubtedly would have remained there. And that would have been Los Angeles’s loss, since along with Walter’s son and successor Peter, the O’Malleys are widely regarded as the best sports ownership group in the city’s history.

Why are Los Angeles politics so difficult to untangle?

JP: One my previous books examined the byzantine politics of New York City, but I can tell you, my hometown has nothing on Los Angeles. For one thing, New York has party identifications. Los Angeles’s nonpartisan system makes it difficult to identify who belongs where. Yes, I knew that say, Mayor Norris Poulson was a Republican (he had served as a GOP congressman) and that Edward Roybal, a Mexican American city councilman who opposed the Dodger Stadium contract, was a Democrat, but there was nonetheless a disorienting quality to the political landscape that made it hard to follow.

Also unlike New York, there were few ethnoreligious identifying markers to guide me. Los Angeles had racial divides, of course, but during the 1950s it was a largely white Protestant city that lacked the deep-seated tribalism of New York. Beyond the Melting Pot, the classic book about the resilience of ethnic and racial politics in New York, could not have been written about Los Angeles. Los Angeles did not have a political machine like New York’s Tammany Hall or even a “power broker” like Robert Moses, who determined what got built in New York during the postwar years. I’m not saying that bosses and dictatorial bureaucrats are good things, of course, but they certainly make a city’s political terrain easier to “read.” Los Angeles’s politics were also relatively decentered, with media taking the place of strong party organizations and referenda (such as the 1958 vote on the Dodger Stadium contract that determined its fate) devolving power to the grassroots.

Approaching Los Angeles, I felt a bit like Walter O’Malley himself, who stepped off the plane from New York in October 1957 to encounter a Los Angeles political landscape with no parties, no machines, no power brokers, no white ethnics, and no center. Disconcerting, to say the least. But like O’Malley, once I got my bearings, I found Los Angeles a fascinating place to be. I feel that the surface of this city’s history has barely been scratched.

How does your book speak to current issues involving public financing for stadiums and arenas in cities seeking to attract or retain sports teams?

JP: When it was completed in 1962, Dodger Stadium was the first privately funded sports venue since Yankee Stadium forty years earlier. Over the past half-century, it has earned a great deal of money for both Dodger ownership and—since it is on the tax rolls—the city and county of Los Angeles. In contrast, municipally financed stadiums invariably fail to recoup their costs in line with their projected timetables. San Francisco’s city-built Candlestick Park, which when it opened in 1960 was compared favorably with the yet-to-be-completed Dodger Stadium, took over 30 years to pay itself off, far longer than expected.

While the costs of private stadium construction are almost prohibitively high today, Dodger Stadium offers a lesson for cities seeking to build sports arenas without saddling themselves with debt or blowing up their budgets: get as much private money as you can. That is easier said than done, of course, because the threat of ownership to leave town or to reject an offer from a suitor city is omnipresent. But private financing beats public spending every time. Walter O’Malley had a personal stake in making Dodger Stadium the cleanest, most welcoming, most efficiently run and most attractive sports venue in America, because it belonged to him. He was responsible for it, good or bad. Around the same time Dodger Stadium went up, the municipally owned Shea Stadium opened in New York to house the National League’s new franchise, the Mets. Arriving well over budget, Shea Stadium was charmless and hulking, with dirty corridors and bathrooms and surly employees. The city of New York maintained it poorly. Unlike Dodger Stadium, no single individual was accountable when things went wrong at Shea Stadium, as they often did. The contrast between private and public ownership could not have been starker.

Another lesson of the Dodger Stadium story is one that many sports economists will dispute, but which I hold to nonetheless: these teams are worth keeping. Something goes out of a city’s soul when a sports franchise leaves. Certainly that was the case in New York, where aging Brooklyn Dodger fans still lament their team’s departure. For all the brave talk about “not needing” a team, after it goes there is an emptiness that even improved municipal bottom lines cannot fill. This is a distinctly non-empirical view I’m propounding, and I’m sure that “the numbers” argue against me, but to cite one example, the last time I was in Seattle I saw “bring back the Sonics” signs in windows, years after their NBA team left for Oklahoma City. Ask Seattle fans—and the city ardently pursued a replacement team a while back—how the money they saved when the Sonics left town feels jingling around in their pockets. It’s cold comfort. They want their team back. Similarly, ask Brooklyn fans what they’d do if they could do it all over again in 1957. The “let them leave” bravado would vanish. They’d want their Dodgers back. They’re baseball fans, not accountants.

Are you a Dodgers fan?

JP: No, I’m actually a lifelong (and long-suffering) fan of the New York Mets, who are the spiritual successors of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team I am too young to remember personally. But studying and writing about Dodger Stadium—for my money, America’s most beautiful ballpark—has certainly pulled me in the direction of its featured attraction. When you’re sitting in the upper deck at Dodger Stadium at dusk on a summer night in LA with the organ music playing and the San Gabriel Mountains beckoning in the distance, it’s hard not to root for the home team.

Jerald Podair is professor of history and the Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He is the author of The Strike That Changed New York and Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer and City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles.

Jerald Podair: The story of Dodger Stadium

Dodger Stadium, which opened in Los Angeles on April 10, 1962, was the single most controversial building project in the city’s modern history. It was constructed in Chavez Ravine, a neighborhood overlooking downtown, whose Mexican American residents had been dispersed for a public housing project that was never built. In 1957, the city of Los Angeles attracted the Brooklyn Dodgers by promising team owner Walter O’Malley Chavez Ravine for his new stadium on favorable terms. O’Malley agreed to build Dodger Stadium at his own expense.

Critics of the contract between the city and the Dodgers under which the land was transferred labeled it a “giveaway.” Over the next five years they fought a multi-front battle to have the contract voided. They initiated a ballot referendum challenging the contract’s validity that failed by a razor-thin margin and brought a series of taxpayer lawsuits that were initially successful but eventually reversed by the Supreme Court of California. There was also a racially charged eviction of Mexican American homeowners from the Chavez Ravine land by city authorities.

The battle over Dodger Stadium was a civic war that divided Los Angeles in half. But it did not divide the city along the lines we might expect, especially if we adopt the essentialist view of race and class that seems to be in vogue today. It is tempting to view the Dodger Stadium story as a simple one of rich white people on one side and poor people of color on the other. But the truth is more complicated. There is no question that the city’s Latino community was deeply wounded by the Chavez Ravine removals. The evictions have been the subject of plays, films, and songs, and are credited with inspiring the Chicano movement in Los Angeles. They remain a subject of bitter memory today. But a majority of residents of the city’s heavily Latino East Los Angeles council district defied their own anti-contract councilman to vote in favor of the Dodger Stadium deal in the closely contested ballot referendum. Latinos have also constituted the Dodgers’ most loyal and enduring fan base through the years. Fair-weather fans come and go, but the Latino community remains Dodger Blue. The divided character of the Latino response to the Dodger Stadium controversy thus defeats attempts to cast it solely in racial terms.

The most vociferous and passionate opponents of the Dodger Stadium deal, in fact, were white. They were the people the late California historian Kenneth Starr has called the “Folks”: middle-class homeowners, often with Midwestern or Southern roots, who lived in the peripheral areas of the city and harbored conservative cultural and economic sensibilities. Fearful of resources in their outlying communities being siphoned off for the benefit of large-scale undertakings downtown, the Folks were fiercely opposed to the Dodger Stadium project. Their campaign to keep it from being built allied them with the evicted residents of Chavez Ravine and their supporters in the city’s Latino community. Both groups united around the rights of property owners, no matter how humble, to keep what was rightfully theirs.

The coalition in favor of the stadium contract also defied simplistic race-and-class based expectations. Conservative downtown commercial and financial leaders lined up behind the stadium project, as did more liberal representatives of the city’s “Westside,” a center of the building-and-loan, construction, and entertainment sectors with a substantial Jewish population. Both shared an interest in revitalizing a downtown core whose civic and cultural amenities lagged significantly behind those of Los Angeles’s chief rival cities, New York and San Francisco.

These elites were joined by a crucial ally: the city’s African American community, which backed the stadium project overwhelmingly. The Dodgers, were, of course, closely associated with civil rights, having brought Jackie Robinson to the major leagues in 1947. Robinson was a Los Angeles-area native and his endorsement of the Dodger Stadium project was critical in gaining African American support for it.

The battle over Dodger Stadium thus produced interracial, cross-class alliances on both sides of the partisan divide. We can, of course, interpret these alignments as counterintuitive and even aberrational. But this view implies that identity is destiny, and that our political configurations can always be explained by the simple binaries of race and class. At Dodger Stadium, interest politics overcame identity politics. And that may not be a bad thing. In an identity-obsessed contemporary political environment, Dodger Stadium’s example of boundary-crossing allegiances is one we should take to heart.

PodairJerald Podair is professor of history and the Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He is a recipient of the Allan Nevins Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians for “literary distinction in the writing of history.” He is the author of City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles.

Celebrate Major League Baseball’s Opening Day by Reading about Baseball in Blue and Gray

Today is THE day baseball fans. Major League Baseball is back in action. Over at the New York Times, they are celebrating by looking back at the early days of baseball. Specifically, they have posted an article from Princeton University Press author George B. Kirsch on baseball during the Civil War.

Compare Kirsch’s description of “spring training” and “opening day” in 1861 to the great hullabaloo today:

In late March and early April 1861, ballplayers in dozens of American towns looked forward to another season of play. But they were not highly paid professionals whose teams traveled to Florida or Arizona for spring training. Rather, they were amateur members of private organizations founded by men whose social standing ranged from the working class through the upper-middle ranks of society. There were no formal leagues or fixed schedules of games, although there were regional associations of clubs that drew up and enforced rules for each type of bat and ball game. Contests between the best teams attracted large crowds (including many gamblers), and reporters from daily newspapers and weekly sporting magazines wrote detailed accounts of the games.

While much has changed in American baseball since 1861, what hasn’t changed is the anticipation, excitement and pure sport of the game. Unfortunately, this spirit wasn’t enough to hold the reality of the Civil War at bay according to Kirsch. He writes:

As military action between the North and the South loomed, sportswriters highlighted the analogy between America’s first team sports and warfare. Yet they were also aware of the crucial differences between play and mortal combat. In March 1861, The New York Clipper anticipated the impending crisis:

God forbid that any balls but those of the Cricket and Baseball field may be caught either on the fly or first bound, and we trust that no arms but those of the flesh may be used to impel them, or stumps, but those of the wickets, injured by them.

But three months later sober realism replaced wishful thinking. A Clipper editor remarked:

Cricket and Baseball clubs … are now enlisted in a different sort of exercise, the rifle or gun taking the place of the bat, while the play ball gives place to the leaden messenger of death. Men who have heretofore made their mark in friendly strife for superiority in various games, are now beating off the rebels who would dismember this glorious “Union of States.”

Click over to read the complete article and peruse the Disunion feature at the New York Times. Disunion is tracking, day-by-day, the course of the Civil War in America through terrific articles from experts in a variety of fields. While there is certainly a lot of military history, the editors are also focusing on cultural and social issues (like baseball!) which make for truly compelling reading.