TICKER TAPE, DYED GRASS, BLUE COWBOY HATS
All it lacked was 76 trombones and 50 beautiful girls 50. The opening of the baseball season, that is. The national game opened under the most gaudy, razzle-dazzle, Veeckian circumstances imaginable. There were ticker-tape parades on Broadway, stentorian speeches by city fathers in Los Angeles, record crowds in the bad-draw town of Washington and so many bright colors festooning the new stadium in Houston that players dubbed it "the rainbow sherbet." Art improved on life: the grass at Chavez Ravine was dyed greener than green; the ground crew at Houston donned fluorescent orange coveralls, blue cowboy boots trimmed with orange and blue cowboy hats. "Everybody so hoppy," said Roman Mejias of the Colt .45s, "it makes me so hoppy," whereupon he drilled a pair of three-run homers.
Baseball 1962, the liveliest corpse in town, opened officially in Washington when the President of the United States rose from his seat in the new District of Columbia Stadium (anybody who is anybody has a new stadium this year) and lobbed a ball at a grasping group of players knotted in front of him. Mr. Kennedy has lost some of his stuff this year—the pitch fell short. But the game didn't. Merrily ducking a foul ball by Willie Tasby, and at one point retreating under the stands to wait out a shower, the President—and 44,383 other fans—thoroughly enjoyed the Senators' 4-1 win over Detroit.
The new Colt .45s added to their own regional gaiety by reeling off a dazzling string of three straight wins (over Chicago) to the accompaniment of rolling drums and near-capacity houses. What did it matter that these wins were merely a harbinger of things not to come? And who cared that a Houston sportswriter pointed out that the Titanic had been launched 50 years before and had sunk five days later? Everyone knew that the Colt .45s would win at least a few more games in their carefully doctored home park, where the infield grass waves tall. ("They planted rice," complained Cub Coach Charlie Metro. Said Houston Manager Harry Craft: "When we make any changes in our park, it'll be to suit ourselves, no one else.")
But the biggest whoop-de-do of all was in Los Angeles, the movie, drive-in and strikeout capital of the world. After four hectic years during which he was sued, cursed and ridiculed, Walter O'Malley had turned a goat pasture called Chavez Ravine into the finest baseball stadium in the world. Some 52,000 people, just under capacity, turned out to see O'Malley's dream-come-true and, incidentally, to watch a little baseball. By the end of the first week total attendance at Chavez had exceeded 200,000, and O'Malley, who had sunk $18 private millions into his stadium, was out ordering a new, oversize money belt.
For a while there had been some doubt that the stadium would be ready in time for the opening game. Heavy winter rains delayed work, and the Los Angeles county supervisors suggested that O'Malley had better line up the Coliseum for the first Dodger home stand. But during the week before the opener the work crews labored around the clock—the glow from the stadium could be seen for miles—and O'Malley spent most of each day at the park. "Here's the gent again," said a plasterer. "We've seen more of him out here than we have our own boss."
O'Malley is a graduate engineer and he was constantly making suggestions. During the final week he inspected the Dodger dugout. "Ira," he called to his project engineer, "it seems to me this bench needs to be pulled out from the wall a couple of inches. Maybe it should have a backrest on it, too. If one of our guys is going to fall asleep out here we want him to fall back against the wall and not out on his face where 50,000 people can see him."
On the morning of the dedication ceremonies—the day before the opening game—someone asked O'Malley how he felt. "Just fine," he answered. "Really wonderful. Haven't slept in a week."
The ceremonies began on the steps of city hall. The Dodgers, in their home uniforms, sat up front in a long row and shifted back and forth impatiently as practically everyone in Los Angeles—politicians, bankers, ad men and auto dealers—was introduced. Ford Frick, the Commissioner of Baseball, made a speech in which he called O'Malley a man with the "courage, imagination and stamina to move a mountain.
"When you see that thing out there, that stadium," Frick said, waving a finger to the east, "then you will visualize the answer to some of those crybabies who say"—his voice cracked with emotion—"baseball is dying." O'Malley puffed on his 606 Manila cigar and smiled. Then Warren Giles, president of the National League, said something that sounded like "courage, imagination and stamina," and sat down. A third statesman predicted that the new stadium might become "a symbol of peace for this world." O'Malley smiled, then got up and told the faithful that now they knew there were other things that were long and drawn-out besides baseball. Everyone piled into a long line of shiny new cars and drove out to see what Walter O'Malley had wrought.
Chavez Ravine is a five-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles. The stadium is built to the contour of the land so that there are entrances for each of its four tiers. A five-lane drive, complete with traffic lights, encircles the stadium. Patrons are assigned parking lots on the same level with their seats, so that they can approach the stadium on the drive until they have found the proper lot. In theory, this eliminates the necessity of climbing stairs.
The outside of the stadium is painted a light blue and it is trimmed here and there with what looks like the shredded remains of silver and gold wrapping paper. On the outfield approach to the stadium are the big block letters DODGER STADIUM. (This is to remind the Los Angeles Angels, O'Malley's tenants, just who owns the place. The Angels have insisted on calling the place Chavez Ravine. "The whole world has heard of Chavez Ravine," says Angel Owner Bob Reynolds. "You can't expect us to invite our fans out to 'Dodger Stadium.' Where's that?")
Dodger Stadium or Chavez Ravine, or the Taj Mahal, as some Los Angeles sportswriters insist on calling it, has no pillars or posts, and the field is clearly visible from each of its 56,000 seats. For this reason alone it is a magnificent stadium. The fourth tier, however, is up in the clouds, so high that from there all players look a little like Albie Pearson. Pearson, the Angels' 5-foot-6 outfielder, may not be visible at all. Despite the height of the stadium—its elevators stop at nine levels—it does not look as awesomely tall from ground level as Yankee Stadium, perhaps because the decks recede rapidly as they rise, giving a feeling of spaciousness. The Dodgers passed around a booklet which included some heartening information: if the stadium is knocked over by an earthquake it has been built to fall backwards. The booklet also said that enough concrete had gone into the stadium to build a sidewalk from Los Angeles to Mason City, Iowa.
When O'Malley, Frick and the rest of the dedication committee arrived at the stadium for the ceremonies, workmen were still scurrying around all four tiers, hammering, welding, plastering and painting. A huge orange crane stood in left field lifting sections of the electronic message board into place. The grass, which had been grown outside the stadium and then carted inside in squares a few weeks before, was uneven and splotchy. Half of it had been dyed a rich green, but the other half was an unhealthy yellow. Delivery boys raced wildly about with bunches of flowers asking ushers where such-and-such a place was. The ushers could only shrug. Even the Dodgers' batting cage got lost, preventing the team from taking batting practice. A crowd of about 5,000, who had paid $5 apiece, partly to see the stadium, partly to watch the ceremonies, but mostly to see the team work out, groaned with the announcement that the Dodgers would not hit. When the crowd was told that "the Dodgers will, however, have a spirited infield drill," the fans groaned some more and went spiritedly home.
The next morning, opening day at Chavez Ravine, the Los Angeles chief of police warned that it would probably take two hours to reach the stadium and two hours to return home. Radio stations cautioned listeners "that an error on the highway could be worse than an error on the field." As a result, the crowd began to arrive soon after breakfast.
The ushers and usherettes, spiffy in their new uniforms, were ready. The ushers were dressed in maroon jackets, gray pants and straw hats with maroon and blue bands, the outfit designed by d'Grenza of Beverly Hills. One usher showed up in a bright sports jacket.
"Where's your coat?" asked the head usher.
"They didn't have one my size," answered the man.
"Well," said the head usher. "You certainly can't come in here looking like that." The man shrugged his shoulders and left.
The usherettes wore blue suits and straw hats with red and blue bands. There was another, smaller group of girls who wore expensive blue dresses and no straw hats. They were models and they were acting as hostesses in the Stadium Club for opening day only.
The field, which had been so cluttered the day before with workers and equipment, was tidy and empty. Now the other half of the grass had been dyed and looked elegant. Gone was the crane in left field. The message board was functioning. Its first words to the public were "WLCMSX DDGZA FNSA," but before the afternoon was over it was reporting other scores, bits of information about the stadium and even the Dow-Jones closing averages, a statistic of great interest to ballplayers.
Naturally there was confusion, annoying to some, hilarious to others. The bus carrying the Cincinnati players was kept waiting in line on one of the roads leading to the stadium. When it was finally allowed to pass, the bus driver was forced to pay a dollar for parking. People parked their cars in the wrong lots and had to take the elevator up or down to their seats. When one of the two elevators broke down, the stairs were crowded with people huffing and puffing. None of them seemed to mind. There were, of course, no visible water fountains; there never are. (One was tucked away deep in the innards of the stadium, but only a few park personnel knew where it was, and they weren't telling.)
The Stadium Club kitchen was not yet ready, so lunch was served buffet style on fancy white tablecloths bearing the same kind of china that is used in the White House. There are only 750 members, all of whom paid $250 in addition to the price of a box seat for the season—another $265—for the right to join. But each member brought guests on opening day, so many that the food line stretched along the third tier from the right-field foul pole to first base. The food supply eventually gave out.
The game was an exciting one, although the Reds had the temerity to win. The first pitch in the new stadium—Johnny Podres to Eddie Kasko—was a ball. Kasko hit the next pitch into the left-field corner for a double, the first hit. A minute later he scored the first run on Vada Pinson's single. Duke Snider, who made the first Coliseum hit four years ago, singled in the second inning for the Dodgers' first hit. When John Roseboro walked, one batter later, the Dodger bugle sounded in the warm afternoon air and 50,000 people roared "Charge" in Chavez Ravine. In the fifth inning Willie Davis hit a long fly to left field, an easy home run in the Coliseum but just an out at the new stadium.
It was a rough game for Manager Walt Alston, who must win this season to keep his job. The Dodgers, behind 5-2 in the eighth inning, loaded the bases with one out. Manager Fred Hutchinson brought in Bill Henry, a left-hander, to pitch to left-hand-hitting Duke Snider. Snider is the Dodger captain and he had already made two hits, but Alston removed him for Tommy Davis. The crowd booed, the first big boo in the history of the new stadium. When Davis hit into a double play, there followed the second big boo in the history of the stadium.
The players were generally satisfied with the field. The pitchers, naturally, liked the dimensions—330 feet down each foul line. The batters liked the hitting background, a huge green canvas beyond the center-field wall which is supported by the old Coliseum left-field screen. But there were a few complaints about the Japanese boxes O'Malley installed behind home plate at ground level. "You can't see line drives coming out of the white-shirted background," said Pitcher Bob Purkey of the Reds, who was hit in the groin by a Duke Snider blast. "1 could have been killed by balls hit at me that I never saw."
As it turned out, there was no traffic jam at all after the game. While eight helicopters whirred over the stadium looking for pictures of cars bumper to bumper, the parking lots emptied quickly and people were home in good time. The stadium workers went back to hammering and painting—for there is still a lot of minor work to be done—while up in the plush Stadium Club, with its deep aquamarine rug and old wooden beams, the members drank and discussed what they would have done if they had been managing in the eighth inning.
The next night the Dodgers won their first game in Chavez Ravine. They won again the night after that and the night after that. The Dodgers finished the week with four wins, two defeats and money in the till. Walter O'Malley was smiling broadly. He likes to win and he knows that his new stadium will be in perfect shape for the World Series.
The Polo Grounds, that grand old dowager queen of baseball parks, will be in fine shape in October, too, but only for the New York Titans of the American Football League. The New York Mets, despite a ticker-tape welcome in raw April cold and the faithful appearance of automatic National League fans, will bring no glory to Coogan's Bluff this year or any other year in the near future. George Weiss and Casey Stengel stocked their team with geriatric journeymen for now and babes in arms for the future. But one dreary week of play indicated that perhaps the two wise men of baseball had solved nothing in trying to solve everything. In monotonous succession the Mets lost four straight, appeared headed for a quiet summer in the Polo Grounds and the cellar. The focus of National League baseball remains in the wild, wild West.