How The Dodgers Stole a Neighborhood

Written by BlackbirdGo October 25, 2018
The History

I’ve never been much of a baseball fan. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Northeast and spent my childhood playing hockey, and the pace of nine innings with alternating turns has always seemed unbearably slow by comparison. But somehow baseball seems to follow me wherever I go. When I lived in Chicago, my apartment was two blocks south of Wrigley Field. I shared an L Train stop with the stadium and found myself constantly walking on the sidewalk against a horde of drunk Cubs fans, feeling like a salmon swimming upstream. I swore I was done dealing with neighborhood baseball crowds, and yet here I am three years later living in Los Angeles just a mile up the road from Vin Scully Drive, home of Dodger Stadium.

While I’m not a baseball fan by any means, the one bit of baseball trivia I do know is the origin of the Dodgers’ team name, and it has nothing to do with Los Angeles. The team originated in Brooklyn back in 1883, when they were called the Brooklyn Grays (due to the color of their jerseys). However, The Grays never stuck as a moniker, largely because sports writers covering the games in those early years were responsible for coming up with team names. The team changed names several times before reporters began calling the team the Trolley Dodgers. This name came about because fans attending home games had to cross a network of streetcar tracks at a time when public safety was largely unregulated. Pedestrians were used to sharing the streets with slower horse-drawn wagons, and, in the first three years of trolley operations across Brooklyn, over 100 pedestrians were killed and nearly 450 were injured. Fans who ran past these electric trolleys into the stadium each week came to favor the abridged nickname, the Dodgers, and the name has stuck ever since.

The team was acquired by wealthy investor Walter O’Malley, who moved the team to Los Angeles after a very public feud with Robert Moses. Moses served as the New York City manager of municipal construction projects, and he refused to let O’Malley build a new stadium on a parcel of land in Brooklyn that had been set aside for public housing. Moses instead offered O’Malley a generous plot of land in Queens that could accommodate a 50,000-seat stadium, but O’Malley refused, wanting the more lucrative public land that Moses controlled in Brooklyn. Moses stood his ground, insisting that the public housing land could not be used for private businesses. In response, O’Malley moved The Dodgers across the country. He wanted a low price on high-value land, and representatives from the City of Los Angeles wanted a major sports team for their city. The Dodgers became the first major league team on the west coast, and their rival team, the New York Giants, moved to San Francisco at the same time as part of a deal worked out with the league.

Packing up a team and moving three thousand miles away was unprecedented in sports history. However, this move pales in comparison to how O’Malley came to own the land where Dodger Stadium and its sprawling paved parking lots now stand.

Before Dodger Stadium, the hilly land just west of downtown LA was known as Chavez Ravine. The neighborhoods there dated back to the early-1900s, populated by Mexican-American families that had been prevented from moving into the more affluent white communities around Los Angeles. With rampant redlining and nowhere else to go, these families were largely confined to the small, semi-rural neighborhoods that comprised Chavez Ravine. There were three primary communities in the ravine, complete with their own schools, churches, and markets. But by the early 1950s, white municipal developers began to see the value of this swath of land that was so close to the downtown region, and the city agreed to a land-grab plan ostensibly under the guise of building public housing (You can probably connect the dots on how O’Malley fits into this story.).

A team of developers offered Mexican-American landowners in Chavez Ravine cash payments for their property, but the payments they offered were well below the fair market value. This was followed by a sharp and progressive decrease in the offering price; families that held out longer risked getting an even lower payment for their property. In some neighborhoods through Chavez Ravine, the city simply took land under the guise of eminent domain, again offering families far less than the actual value of their land. Many families sold their homes out of fear that they would get even less money if they stood their ground.

Residents were promised that they’d be able to return to the land once the city had completed its public housing project, but it quickly became clear that city officials had never truly intended to construct any public housing in Chavez Ravine. In May of 1959, deputies from the Sheriff’s Department showed up to forcibly evict all of the families that had refused to leave, at times physically removing residents while bulldozers stood ready to demolish the last remaining homes. O’Malley then bought the land from the city for a fraction of what it was worth. One former assistant director to the LA City Housing Authority said of his role in clearing out Chavez Ravine, “It’s the tragedy of my life, absolutely.”

Many locals were furious over the demolitions that took place in Chavez Ravine, but even LA residents who were not forced out of their homes found fault with the new stadium. O’Malley, who seemingly never missed a chance to make a buck, built the 56,000-seat stadium with just two drinking fountains: one in each team’s dugout. Many suspected that this was a deliberate plan to force thirsty patrons into the lucrative beer lines that ring the stadium. It took hundreds of complaints to the city before O’Malley reluctantly installed 13 drinking fountains throughout the facility.

History has largely whitewashed the Dodgers’ move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, especially within Major League Baseball. The National Baseball Hall of Fame portrays Robert Moses as a villainous “development czar” who forced O’Malley to move the team out of New York. Even the Dodgers’ official team website paints a misleading picture of O’Malley, claiming that he reluctantly moved his team out of Brooklyn after what they deem “unprecedented” efforts to compromise with the city. However, some sports fans from this period remember O’Malley very differently. The esteemed sports writer Dave Anderson, who just passed away earlier this month at the age of 89, was one of the last journalists to cover the Brooklyn Dodgers before the big move. He dismisses this revisionist history that depicts Robert Moses as a bad guy who drove away the Dodgers, saying bluntly, “O’Malley has always been the villain. And always will be.”

At the time of writing, the Dodgers are heading into the World Series finals against the Boston Red Sox. I have no vested interest in the outcome of these games aside from my own private frustration with the sprawling Dodger traffic that takes over Sunset Boulevard before, during, and after every game (which I call “Dodger Danger”). But whether the Dodgers win or lose, it’s worth remembering that the problematic history of Dodger Stadium unfolded fairly recently in a city that continues to be reshaped by gentrification, racism, and real estate power grabs.