It is said that baseball fans in Los Angeles will cheer anything that moves in Dodger Blue. As if to verify that statement, on a balmy evening last week the multitudes in "Beautiful Dodger Stadium" cheered a middle-aged man named Richard Dickson, who was attired in full Dodger apparel. Dickson was carrying a butterfly net with which he endeavored to capture live flies knocked out of a glass jar by Los Angeles Pitcher Tommy John. Dickson was being coached in this largely futile exercise by none other than Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda, who solemnly advised him to "keep your eye on the fly, Rich, your eye on the fly." Presiding over these bizarre proceedings was Bob Hilton, a prototypical television announcer—fluffy blond hair sprayed into place, blue blazer, open-necked white sports shirt, wrinkle-free gray slacks, Westbrook Van Voorhis voice you could hear in Canoga Park.
Hilton and his crew were filming fly-chaser Dickson for a sequence on the Truth or Consequences TV show. Get the picture? Dickson, a true-blue Dodger fan, was told by the emcee back at the studio that he would be outfitted in a Dodger uniform and brought to Dodger Stadium, where Lasorda would coach him in the technique of catching flies batted to him by John. All too true, Dickson must have thought, as John pounded the flies out of the jar toward his net. Naturally, this inane venture had the full cooperation of the Dodgers, who cooperate with everyone. And, of course, the Dodger fans viewed this pre-game nonsense with characteristic good cheer as it unfolded before them near third base. Dickson might charitably be considered a weirdo anywhere but in Southern California, where catching flies with a butterfly net while wearing a baseball uniform is, while not exactly routine behavior, not very far out of the ordinary. Indeed, at Dodger Stadium, Dickson emerged as something of a hero.
There are many heroes at Chavez Ravine these exciting days, but the biggest of all may be the fans themselves, because it is they, not the players they so adore, who are approaching a most remarkable major league record. By the end of last week, 2,790,153 of them had passed through the Dodger Stadium turnstiles this season, enough to surpass by 34,969 the major league attendance record set by the 1962 Dodger fans in the stadium's first year. With seven home dates remaining, including three with traditional rival San Francisco and one Fan Appreciation Day promotion, Dodgers attendance this year is likely to reach the heretofore unthinkable total of three million. Dodger fans are getting behind themselves, reaching back for that extra buck, girding themselves for the final push, congratulating themselves for having the good taste to back their club as no team in history has been supported, cheering for themselves to break their own record. As Fred Claire, the Dodgers' affable and canny vice-president for public relations and promotions, has pointed out, "How many times does a fan have a chance to be a part of a major league record?"
In Los Angeles he gets lots of opportunities. The Dodgers now hold virtually all of the big league attendance records, both for a season and for single games. Between 1958 and 1962, when the Dodgers played in the Los Angeles Coliseum, a football stadium, marking time while their stadium was being built, they attracted more than 90,000 fans to four different games. The largest crowd ever to see a baseball game—93,103—watched the Dodgers and the Yankees play an exhibition on Roy Campanella Night, May 7, 1959. That year the team also set World Series single-game records on consecutive days with crowds of 92,394, 92,650 and 92,706. In the vast, saucerlike Coliseum, many fans were seated so far from home that they may as well have been in another ball park. Still they came, cheering for themselves when the attendance figures appeared on the scoreboard.
September 25, 1977
Of the 10 highest season attendance totals, the Dodgers have seven, including the top two. (The others in the top 10 belong to the 1948 Indians, 1976 Reds and 1970 Mets.) They have drawn more than two million in 13 seasons and have averaged better than that for the 20 years they have been in Los Angeles. Two million is a figure most franchises never reach. This season the Dodgers hit it in their 50th game, the first time any team had drawn so many so soon. They have had 16 crowds of more than 50,000 (the average NFL team gets 56,482 a game for its seven-date home season) and 29 of more than 40,000. Their average for the year is slightly less than 39,000.
What the Dodgers have in their favor is depressingly apparent to competing franchises (although the opponents are more than happy with the money they receive as their 40¢-a-ticket visitors' shares at Dodger Stadium): excellent teams (since 1958, the Dodgers have finished lower than fourth only four times); perfect weather (only seven rainouts in 20 years); a huge population base (10 million people live within 50 miles of Dodger Stadium); and the cleanest, best-run and maybe even prettiest of all ball parks.
Dodger Stadium itself draws fans. Situated in Chavez Ravine in the otherwise humdrum Echo Park section of Los Angeles, it is, at age 15, one of the oldest big league baseball stadiums, but it gets better looking every year. Palm trees wave seductively above the scalloped roofs of the pavilions in left and right field, and at sunset the forested hills beyond take on a lavender tint. The marigolds in the giant planters outside the park are replaced three times a season. The tiers of brightly colored seats rise above blue outfield fences and the lush green of a real grass field. It is a very nice place to watch a game.
The stadium was built expressly for baseball. And it was built by the Dodgers, thereby becoming the first privately financed ball park since Yankee Stadium was completed in 1923. No football games desecrate its turf; aside from an annual mobile home show, an occasional congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses and a rare rock concert starring the likes of Elton John, it is not used by anyone except the Dodgers.
The most appealing aspect of the place is its spit-and-polish cleanliness. You can almost check out the state of your hairdo by looking down at its polished concrete floors. Work crews numbering as many as 75 hose down and scrub the stadium daily. For large crowds—and there do not seem to be any other kind—there are attendants in all of the 75 rest rooms. The concession stands are immaculate, and they are thoroughly scrutinized before every game by various inspectors, one of whom makes his rounds on a skateboard. Every day an electrician checks all the bulbs in the structure by hustling from fixture to fixture on a motor scooter. As traffic enters the 16,000-car multilevel parking lot, it is directed from a booth on the stadium roof, and there is a service station on the lot, so the prudent fan can have his car lubricated, washed and gassed while he is inside the park.
The Dodgers employ their own security guards—as many as 85 for a capacity crowd—and 20 off-duty Los Angeles policemen to keep the multitudes in line. Several years ago, some unruly young patrons in the pavilions staged nightly punch-ups and tossed refuse on the field, particularly at Cincinnati's Pete Rose. Stadium Operations Director Bob Smith doused their spirits by cutting off beer sales in those sections. Fans there have been soberer and wiser ever since.
Dodger Stadium has the most garrulous message board in all of baseball, no mean accomplishment at a time when such appliances are given to prolixity, dazzling us with quizzes, statistics and other trivia, WELCOME TO BEAUTIFUL DODGER STADIUM reads the board as the fans arrive. Then, in a paroxysm of electronic conviviality, it sets about addressing each of them by name. A DODGER STADIUM WELCOME TO HELEN AND EARL SNYDER, LONG-TIME DODGER FANS...A DODGER STADIUM WELCOME TO SID AND MAY RIMER FROM LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND—SEEING FIRST DODGER GAME. DODGER STADIUM ANNIVERSARY GREETINGS TO...DODGER STADIUM BIRTHDAY GREETINGS TO....
The message board is meticulous about getting its readers' hometowns straight, and in the course of a leisurely game it will contrive to mention virtually every one of the numberless communities that fill the Los Angeles basin. During a recent evening when the Padres were in town, greetings were extended to visitors from Chino, Pomona, Ontario, Anaheim, Pasadena, Long Beach, San Jacinto, Huntington Park, Yucaipa, Norwalk, Culver City, Glendale, Burbank, Alhambra, Downey, Beverly Hills, La Habra, Ventura, Northridge, Van Nuys, Glendora, Montebello, Hacienda Heights, Simi Valley, Claremont, Sierra Madre, Highland Park, Whittier, Costa Mesa, Thousand Palms, Palm Springs and Oceanside, to name just a few. Anyone wishing to have his birthday, engagement, wedding or anniversary, or perhaps, divorce acknowledged by the board need only call Dodger Stadium between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on game days. The board sustains a running commentary as long as there are athletes on the field and fans in the stands. One almost expects it to extend Dodger Stadium Apologies to those few it has overlooked and, therefore, consigned to anonymity.
The Hollywood celebrities who have descended on Dodger Stadium in increasing numbers this season are safe from such a fate, because Lasorda himself dances attendance upon them in his dressing room. During his 19 seasons as the Los Angeles manager, Walter Alston conducted his business in an office the size of an airplane lavatory. The taciturn Midwesterner was not the sort to exchange ripostes with Cary Grant, so although many of the stars have long been loyal Dodger fans, few of them had been seen in the clubhouse until this year. All that has changed with the ascendency of the star-struck Lasorda. He selected as his office a room once used by the trainers and has had it carpeted in Dodger Blue from wall to autographed-picture wall. Here, in capacious grandeur, he entertains his famous friends in a manner reminiscent of the late Elsa Maxwell. Wines are served, and catered Chinese dinners are delivered. The guest list reads like Johnny Carson's. Already this season, Lasorda has wined, dined and exchanged Beverly Hills bearhugs with, among others, Frank Sinatra, Jonathan Winters, Don Rickles, Shecky Greene, Gene Kelly, Huntz Hall, Irving (Swifty) Lazar, Tom Jones, Danny Kaye, Telly Savalas, Walter Matthau, soap opera star and former baseball player Johnny Beradino and, representing another Los Angeles team, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Mike Douglas did a segment of his talk show in Lasorda's office, and Winters performed a baseball skit there before an audience of players.
"What do you think about all this?" Lasorda shouts exultantly in his cannonading voice. "Who'd ever think that the third-string pitcher for the Norristown, Pee-ay high school team would be hanging around people like this?"
Visiting newspapermen seeking an audience with Lasorda have been startled to find themselves being introduced instead to Kelly or the legendary agent Lazar, who once handled Ernest Hemingway's affairs. One journalist wishing to discuss baseball matters with the roly-poly manager last week found Lasorda engaged in an animated telephone conversation. Everybody's host on the Coast beckoned the visitor to be seated while he talked.
"Francis," he bellowed into the blower, "how the hell are you? Yeah, the team's goin' good right now. Hooton's hurt his arm, though, and Russell can't play tonight. But we're doin' better than the last time you were here. Hey, Frank, what I want to talk to you about is that on Sept. 30 we're having a celebrity long-ball hitting contest here. I've been telling everybody about what power you had in your day. How about it? Yeah, yeah." Deafening laughter. "Hey, Frank, there's somebody here doing a story on the team. I'd consider it a personal favor if you'd talk to him. O.K., I'll put him right on."
The receiver was handed to the dumbfounded sportswriter. On the other end of the line he heard Sinatra's unmistakable voice. He listened as Old Blue Eyes, who reportedly has spent the better part of a career denouncing all journalists as prostitutes and worse, pleasantly sang the praises of Lasorda. "Of course I was rooting for Tommy to get the managerial job," the Voice said. "Everybody has been trying to boost him along. The players adore him. I think he's an unusual kind of manager. He stays so close to the kids. He has such a genuine quality about him. I know I like him. I've always been a good friend of Leo's [Durocher], and Tommy is just as gregarious. But Leo's drive is more...well...boisterous. I've seen him get thrown out of games. But Tommy is just great. Tell him he's a little overweight, though. I've just lost 32 pounds."
The journalist wordlessly handed the phone back to Lasorda.
"Yeah, thanks a lot, Frank. And say hello to Barbara."
The celebrities are highly visible in Dodger Stadium. Sinatra has a box behind the Dodgers' dugout, and he and Gregory Peck dined in the plush Dodger Stadium Club before a game with Cincinnati last month. But the team's promotion department, which works feverishly the year round, does not feel the big names are much of a lure for fans in a town where you are apt to end up standing in line behind Jack Nicholson in the meat market. It is the team that attracts the crowds, and more than any other organization, Los Angeles makes certain that even the most reclusive sorts in their potential audience know about the Dodgers. "Promotion requires everyday persistence," Board Chairman Walter O'Malley has said. "We have never taken the position that tickets will sell themselves."
The Dodgers are regularly covered by from 25 to 30 Southern California daily newspapers, and irregularly by as many as 50. Three major television stations and 10 radio stations are represented almost nightly at the stadium. For those stations that do not have people there, the Dodgers, through John B. Olds and Associates, provide summaries of every game, complete with post-game interviews, for use on the air. Not content with what amounts to free advertising in stories on the sports pages, the Dodgers pay for advertisements in at least seven of the area's biggest dailies. Their commercial spots abound on the airwaves.
Because most Dodger players live in Southern California, they are employed by the club throughout the year, advancing the cause at banquets and meetings. The players begin informal workouts in Dodger Stadium as early as January, and newsmen are kept fully apprised of any developments that may come out of these mostly inconsequential sessions. The culmination of these midwinter workouts, an annual game with USC's crack college team, has drawn as many as 50,000 fans in February. The Dodgers have their own television crew at their Vero Beach, Fla. training camp, and local sportscasters are encouraged to make use of the service. The team makes it a point never to be out of the news.
The Dodgers sell more season tickets—around 13,000—than any other major league team, and they excel at group sales. When 18,000 Sears employees showed up at the stadium for a game two years ago, they represented the largest single gathering of employees in the company's history. Of course, not every group is that formidable, but during a typical season, the Dodgers will entertain at least a dozen consisting of 5,000 people or more. Ticket prices, which are now $4.50 for boxes, $3 for reserved seats, $2 for general admission and $1 for general admission for children under 12, have been raised just once in 20 years.
But the team's most effective salesman is unquestionably Broadcaster Vin Scully, generally conceded to be the best in the game. Scully, who moved west with the team from Brooklyn, probably receives as much fan mail as any of the players whose exploits he faithfully recounts. And though the transistor radio is no longer a staple at the ball park, Scully's resonant nasal voice remains the most dominant sound in Dodger Stadium. He is both educator and entertainer, a sharp, incisive reporter and wry observer. When Third Baseman Ron Cey walked on each of his plate appearances in a game against the Padres, Scully quipped, "Cey could have mailed this game in." A recent study by Los Angeles Mediatrend disclosed that an estimated 63.1% of the teen-age and adult population in the Los Angeles metropolitan area had been exposed to Dodger baseball through radio or television this year. Considering how often Scully's voice is heard, even that does not seem high enough. What in the name of Walter O'Malley is that other 36.9% listening to?
Because of network commitments, Scully has cut back on his Dodger broadcasts this year, a decision that outrages many of his loyal listeners. He now announces only home games on the radio and the 30 road games the Dodgers televise, which means that about 50 broadcasts are Scullyless. The great man's associates, Jerry Doggett and Ross Porter, have gamely carried on in his absences, but they cannot assuage the anxiety his absences create. Before a recent game, a woman in a box seat was heard to call out to her companion, "John! John! Vinnie's here! He's out on the field." It would be safe to switch on the transistor.
Pockets of unusually devoted fans may be found at any major league ball park, but few teams have been favored with such loyal followers as Mrs. Bonnie Marvin, who is 93, and her daughters, Mrs. Iola McCoy, 69, and Anna Marvin, 65. The Marvin women have seen every game the Dodgers have played in Los Angeles, some 1,600 in all. Despite advancing years, neither illness, injury nor afflictions of the pocketbook have kept them from their appointed rounds. "We catch the flu when the team is on the road," says Anna Marvin. "We do not give in to ourselves," says Mrs. McCoy. The daughters operate their own businesses—Anna is a caterer, Mrs. McCoy, a widow for 27 years, runs a secretarial service—so they have no bosses to sneak away from to get to the ball park. Their working hours are fixed to the Dodgers' schedule. The three live together in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood, a 10-minute drive from the stadium. Season-ticket holders from the beginning, they currently occupy front-row box seats at the outfield end of the Dodger dugout. "At the start of each season," says Mrs. McCoy, "the players come over to count us." The women are shooting now for 2,000 straight games, perhaps another major league attendance record.
One of the large arteries into Dodger Stadium is Elysian Park Avenue. How appropriately named it must seem to the O'Malleys, because the ball park has proved to be a paradise for them. It is their own building, not the city's or county's, and the people have flocked to it. The team's income—the parking revenues as well as a portion of the concessions also go to the Dodgers—staggers the imagination. (Because the franchise is family owned and not required by law to release an accounting of its income, any estimate of Dodger earnings would be wildly speculative.) There are stars on the field, stars in the stands and riches everywhere. The league championship playoff's are ahead, and beyond that, with luck and skill, the World Series. The Dodgers are taking a fortune out of their Elysian field. But "take" is a deceptive word. To some fans "give" actually seems more apt.
"People always ask us if we have ever added up how much money we've spent on the Dodgers," Iola McCoy said last week, looking up from her scorecard. "Why, we never stop to figure that out. Where can you go and see a show like this for as little as $4.50? These years with the Dodgers have been wonderful ones. We've cried with them, laughed with them, gotten mad at them, forgiven them, loved them. There is nothing like it. How much have we spent? All I know is that every penny of it has come back to us threefold in pleasure."
A fan cannot ask for more than that. Neither can a ball club.