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.