When Walter O'Malley moved his Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, the big question on everybody's mind was not how well the Dodgers would do afield but whether Los Angeles would support them in the style to which they had become accustomed. "That's a football town out there," O'Malley was warned by some advisers. "It's a beach town," others said. "Those kids are raised on surfboards, not ball fields." "You can't get anybody to leave his backyard barbecue for a lousy ball game," still others cautioned.
And so it went. "They don't have any baseball tradition out there. They raise tennis players and shotputters," was a typical remark. "San Francisco will be better than L.A.," sniffed Horace Stoneham. "That's just an opening-day crowd down there."
Those who knew Los Angeles best compressed their lips and said nothing. They had heard it all before. When the late, shrewd Doc Strub proposed to set up Santa Anita race track near Los Angeles in 1934, the Cassandras were already at work: "If you set up your track on downtown Broadway, those creeps'll step around it to get to a fortuneteller," he was told. When the Cleveland Rams wanted to move their pro football franchise to Los Angeles in 1946 they were given a headshake: "That's a college football town out there. They don't care about the pros."
So now it's summer 1958. The Los Angeles Dodgers, like Santa Anita and the Los Angeles Rams, have set wondrous attendance marks. And Angelenos have been deserting their surfboards and barbecue pits under the jacaranda trees in swarms to motor over the freeways to the Coliseum and sit in on the strangest baseball show in the history of the sport. The stands are full of football fans, college and pro, tennis players, shotputters, beach bums, movie stars—and even baseball fans. To date, an unbelievable 949,802 of them have paid their way through the turnstiles to get in on the fun, and enough others—ladies, knotholers and just plain freeloaders—have made it in to swell the actual figure to well over a million. For the first 33 home games, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the most fabulous success at the box office baseball has ever seen.
June 29, 1958
SHARE THE WEALTH
Nor does the story stop there. At 27½¢ a head as the visiting club's share, the Dodgers have passed out to the other clubs in the league well over $250,000. The Milwaukee Braves alone lugged home $47,000 as their share of a single three-game series as 171,000 fans turned out, or more than saw the five-game World Series in 1933.
The concession profit is staggering. The biggest single concession day in baseball history was May 4 of this year, at the only double-header to date, when 38,000 customers spent at a rate of 92¢ a head. In the knothole section alone one afternoon, 10,000 kids bought $8,000 worth of pop and ice cream. There has been $60,000 spent on Dodger souvenirs, and it sometimes seems at first glance as if everyone in Los Angeles is sporting a royal-blue Dodger baseball cap. The concessionaires have turned over $150,000 to O'Malley and have an astronomical (and gastronomical) average of 57¢ a head from O'Malley's customers. On game day, the Los Angeles Coliseum is the world's greatest outdoor smorgasbord.
Subsidiary businesses have flourished also. Local factories are engaged in turning out cheap imitations of Dodger caps (which has inspired the official capmaker to take an ad in the Sporting News, offering Angelenos the genuine article by mail order). And another small band of small businessmen has set up such a lively business in the palm trees and shrubs around the Coliseum at night games that the police have been forced to advertise for them. The increase in mugging robberies is marked at night games, they report.
Beer and liquor consumption is forbidden at the Coliseum, but the stacks of empties after a game make it clear that prohibition, as usual, is unpopular with the masses, and bootlegging is getting around it. The Dodger special police, who cannot arrest, only eject, have taken to shaking down the ticket holders for Thermoses full of Martinis, half pints of sour mash and king-sized cans of beer. Claim checks are issued for them when detected, but liquor store sales around the ball park attest that contraband gets through the Dodger police cordon as frequently as ground balls through the Dodger infield.
When it became clear that the Dodgers in Los Angeles were a staggering fiscal success, it next became incumbent upon the Cassandras to find a good reason for it—not the real one, a good one. It was decided that the fans were just out to see the elephant for the first time around. These were just curiosity seekers, not baseball fans. Los Angeles, they still insisted, just wasn't a sophisticated baseball town. They really didn't comprehend what they were seeing.
When clubs like the Phillies and Pirates drew as well the second time around, this argument sank to last place quicker than the Dodgers. The baseball men who advanced it were overlooking the fact that Los Angeles had been the only minor league town in baseball that supported not one but two minor league franchises, and that both made money. Moreover, it has been established that California historically leads both leagues in producing players for baseball, and that the state has a lively tradition in baseball which antedates even John McGraw.
WHY SO BAD?
The really complex question, of course, is why Los Angeles supports as abysmal a loser as the Dodgers have proved to be, and its corollary, why the Dodgers have proved to be as bad as they have.
"They told us you have to have a winner to succeed in Los Angeles," admits the somewhat baffled Dodger vice-president, Fresco Thompson. "But I have never seen such continuous, concentrated enthusiasm. I don't believe another town in baseball would tolerate the kind of baseball we are delivering. I would shudder to think what the fans in Ebbets Field, if they were there at all, would be saying at this stage of the game if we were dead last and playing the way we have been."
If the Coliseum fans were sitting in pained, perplexed silence at the Dodger debacles, say like residents of the Belgian Congo watching a barnstorming baseball troupe, the phenomenon would be easier to explain. But Los Angeles fans are usually having more fun than a Cub Scout pack at Disneyland. Ebbets Field Hilda has been replaced by a shirtless cat who never misses a game and takes up his stand behind third base, equipped with an air horn and a freshly filled container of air which he looses periodically with a doomsday blast from the horn and a Teddy Roosevelt bellow of "Ch-a-a-rge!" whenever something happens on the field. It doesn't matter what. "These people yell whether the score is 9-0 for us or 9-0 against us," notes Fresco Thompson in some perplexity.
This is not to say the fans have entirely taken the Dodgers into the bosom of the family. There is almost no booing in the Coliseum. Even the umpires escape. A boo-boo on the part of the Dodgers usually draws a kind of reproachful exclamation or an "Isn't-that-too-bad!" sigh from the packed stands. And this has to be taken as a lack of wholehearted affection. The Dodgers are still quasi-guests-in-the-house and one doesn't chew them out for failing to hang up their wet towels or playing the radio too loud—yet. This is one reason why the recent trade of Don Newcombe for Steve Bilko, longtime Los Angeles slugger, will be good for the fans although not good for the team. Bilko belongs, and the crowd can release a lot of pent-up hostility when Big Steve boots one. He'd better hang up his wet towels, the big bum.
Artistically as well as athletically, the Dodger show was enough to discourage a saint. The field, like the team, is the worst in the league (for pure baseball). Its well-publicized dimensions, 250 feet down the left-field line and infinity down the right, have panicked baseball men from the commissioner himself down to the Dodger mound staff. It is hot as a brick kiln at the start of an afternoon game and often as cool as a Popsicle at the end of an evening game.
The playing field itself is scabrous where the grass has been burned out and torn up. The Dodgers blame the Boy Scout shows and track meets which take place between home games, but the Coliseum blames the Brooklyn-bred groundskeepers who, they say, do not seem to comprehend that a field on which no rain will fall and a 100° sun will shine all summer cannot be hose-watered (it evaporates before soaking the roots) and has to be flooded like a rice field almost daily. Wherever the fault lies, the field looks terrible. And the baseball, at times, has been enough to get John McGraw thumbed out of Heaven if he gets a look at it.
Why, then, does Los Angeles not only support it but pamper it?
A canvass of a score of fans shows that there are many reasons for the extraordinary indulgence on the part of the supporters. Number one, they realize that the Chavez Ravine controversy, regardless of its merit or lack of it, was no fault of the players, yet could not help but rattle them somewhat. No one can do good work under insecure conditions.
Number two, the fans agree with Dodger President O'Malley and others that the ball team was bothered by the presence of the strange contraption in left field. The town just thought it was funnier than hell but the team played almost as if they were ashamed of it, and the pitchers had to fight off incipient hysteria every time they looked at it. Don Drysddale who used to knock the bats out of the hands of the opposition last year, waited till he was a safe 2,000 miles away from it before he even recovered enough of his composure to talk about it. It was a "monster," he said in Chicago. Other Dodger flingers went to the mound in the Coliseum as though they were on their way to be tied to the railroad tracks. Evidence of how rattled they were is not the home runs hit off them (73), it is the number of walks (nearly 200) they have given up in 50 games.
Number three, the fans realize the Coliseum is difficult to field in. For one thing, at day games the concrete rows glare whitely in the afternoon sun. Even veteran outfielders cannot get a jump on the ball till it soars above the rim of the stands, and they sometimes stagger around looking for it like a man brushing a wasp from his nose. Milwaukee Outfielder Mel Roach dropped one and, after pirouetting frantically under another one, finally settled where he thought the ball was coming down only to have Hank Aaron, sliding up behind him like a cat, catch it 10 feet from where Roach was waiting. At night, lights which are good enough for football are not quite good enough for a baseball which is so much smaller—even though the Dodgers added two expensive new banks of lights. The Coliseum takes some getting used to.
The Dodgers, further, suffered a painful short-circuiting of their power when Gil Hodges unaccountably failed to hit over or even up to the left-field fence and Duke Snider, of course, couldn't even aim at it. A left-hander's average port of exit from the playing field of the Coliseum is about 400 feet away, and in the recent Pittsburgh series, Pirate Pitcher Bob Friend almost laughed as he just lobbed the ball up to the Duke twice. The Duke, exasperated, finally lashed into one—for a 380-foot out.
But the fans have been sold on the idea that the Dodgers are fundamentally better than their record. In some respects, they are just right for the town. Los Angeles, fan after fan agrees, does not really want a crew of monotonous perfectionists like the Yankees or a one-or two-man team like the Giants. They rather approve the crew of gifted but jittery professionals the Dodgers have proved to be—a team which is capable of having 12 runs scored against it in two games with only one ball hit out of the infield but also capable of turning around and knocking the ears off the world's best, as the Dodgers did in three straight against Milwaukee. And besides, as Publicist Harry Brand points out, "If they win the pennant the first year, what are they going to do for an encore?"
The Dodgers will get better, Los Angeles feels. They watch with sympathetic interest the twilight efforts of Reese and Hodges, and they are quietly sizing up Manager Walt Alston, a silent, aloof man who gives the grandstand wolves nothing to howl about because he, too, suffers in silence. If he would pop off, extroverted L.A. would answer him back. But Los Angeles has its heroes already: Johnny Podres, who calmly and coolly won four games in the Coliseum, one a shutout, at a time when other pitchers needed smelling salts just to get themselves to go out to the mound, is one. Charley Neal and Don Zimmer are the pets of the Coliseum, and the fans chuckle approvingly when Radio Announcer Vin Scully alludes to their double-play antics as "two kittens with a ball of yarn."
The Dodger broadcasts (there is no television save for two out-of-town series with the Giants) have revived the almost lost art of radio listening. There are 10 radio stations in the Dodger network in southern California from Santa Barbara to the Arizona border, but 50,000-watt KMPC is the Los Angeles outlet, and Advertising Director John M. Asher reports: "The Dodger baseball broadcasts brought back the kind of radio ratings the medium used to enjoy in the heyday of Lux Radio Theatre, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen and the other top-rated broadcasts. Baseball put half again as many sets into use as would ordinarily be turned on during the time periods, has made the area radio conscious as it hasn't been in many a day. Reports from radio repairmen show that people are digging dozens of old sets out of the attic and are having them put back into shape and that people buying new cars...specify that one of the pushbuttons on the car radio be set so that they can tune the broadcasts. The station's mail has been tripled."
KMPC reports that its ratings were "the highest radio ratings earned by any station since television achieved saturation, with 66% of the radio audience or 400,000 homes tuned in."
If Los Angeles likes the Dodgers, the feeling is mutual. Most of the ballplayers settled in the solidly middle class southwest corner of the city abutting Long Beach, where the neighbors are working people but well paid and there are swimming pools in every block if not in every house.
The players go to work on the freeways in car pools, and like a lot of other newcomers find the weather too good to be believed. "Every day Pee Wee gets up in the morning," reports Mrs. Reese, "and says, 'Just imagine waking up every day and seeing the sun shining and knowing it is going to shine all day.' "
On the whole, the advent of the Dodgers into Los Angeles is working out just fine. A new ball park will have to be built—or the fence in the Coliseum will have to be moved back 50 feet (expensive at $5,000 or more a foot). But the Dodgers are quite clearly a part of Los Angeles and Los Angeles a part of baseball. If the yardstick is Abner Doubleday's, baseball here is less than a smashing success. But baseball is also show business. As such, it must be measured by P. T. Barnum's yardstick also. On that scale, L.A.'s is the greatest show on earth.
THE OMINOUS GROWL
Paul Zimmerman, sports editor of the L.A. Times, last week unleashed the first local blast against the Dodgers since the move from Brooklyn: "It is high time someone in authority does something about the doddering Dodgers besides alibi.... It has been some weeks now since the Dodgers were able to blame their weird antics on the diamond on the Chavez Ravine problem and they're still kicking away victories in class-D fashion.
"The loyal Los Angeles fans, who are well on their way toward setting a new National League attendance record are entitled to something better.
"Dodger management is still giving the fans doubletalk....
"There's no real excuse for a team dropping from world's championships to the depths of the National League in two years.... The time for outside transactions is past...from now on any correcting of existing conditions must come from within."