Sunday, April 05, 2009

Tense Political Vote Preceded Dodgers' Move West Fifty Years Ago

Chavez Ravine before construction began for Dodger Stadium.
by Kitty Felde
From July 22, 2008
89.3 KPCC Website

It seemed like such a good idea at the time: LA wanted the Dodgers; Brooklyn Dodger owner Walter O'Malley wanted Chavez Ravine for a new stadium; and the city now owned Chavez Ravine, after the plan to build public housing there failed. What could go wrong? KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde continues her series about how the Dodgers came west 50 years ago.

Kitty Felde: When the voters of Los Angeles said "no" to public housing in Chavez Ravine, the city didn't know what to do with the 300 acres there. Build a park, a zoo, a college campus, maybe a cemetery? But then a sheriff's deputy took Dodger owner Walter O'Malley on a helicopter ride in 1957.

The chopper's doors were off, and the pilot tilted the craft so O'Malley could get a better view. He said he'd never been so scared in his life. But as O'Malley peered down at Chavez Ravine, he saw the possibilities for a ballpark.

Bob Hunter: I remember the first time I came out here with him to Chavez Ravine at the time.

Felde: The late "Herald-Examiner" sportswriter Bob Hunter says it was O'Malley who first introduced him to the area.

Hunter: And he said, "Come on. Let's go out there." And I said, "Well I don't know where it is," which is the truth. We had to get some instructions, how to– I remember a little gas station on Sunset Boulevard, we inquired, and drove down into it.

Felde: O'Malley had worked as an engineer for the city of New York. He envisioned a stadium carved into the ravine's hillsides. He even envisioned, accurately, as it turned out, that eight-million cubic yards of dirt would have to be moved to build that stadium. The L.A. City Council could envision the tax revenue it would get. So the city proposed selling Chavez Ravine to the Dodger owner. Former City Councilwoman Roz Wyman says that's when the fireworks began.

Roz Wyman: This land was, on one breath, the most valuable land in the world. And then in another breath, it was worth nothing.

Felde: Bob Hunter spent nearly a year at City Hall covering the story.

Hunter: And they argued about, not only the oil rights, and then they argued about the air rights, whatever the air rights are, maybe the airplane flying over, I don't know, but they argued about everything.

Felde: The fight culminated in a showdown on October 7th, 1957. The City Council proposed a land swap. O'Malley would get 300 acres of Chavez Ravine in exchange for Wrigley Field, the ballpark at 42nd and Avalon, for the minor league L.A. Angels. O'Malley agreed to spend up to half a million dollars for a recreation area in Elysian Park.

The city agreed to spend two million to prep Chavez Ravine for construction. L.A. County agreed to spend three million for roads. The deal needed 10 votes out the 15 city council members to pass, but those 10 were hard to find. For one thing, O'Malley was being cagey about cutting off all his ties to New York. Again, Roz Wyman.

Wyman: We had never had a definitive thing that said, "I am coming." It was never that clear. And any statement, you can go through anything he ever said, and you won't find it in New York, or our papers, or anywhere.

Felde: The night of the vote, Wyman spoke on the phone to O'Malley.

Wyman: And that last night I said, Walter – I said Mr. O'Malley. I said tell us, I'm going to the floor, we are– it was a night, we had a night session. And I said I'd like to say you're coming. And he said, Mrs. Wyman, I'm grateful for everything you've done. I'm grateful for everything the mayor has done. But I have to tell you, if I could get my deal in New York, I'd rather stay in New York.

I said, "My God! I can't go to the council." And he said, "I think everything's right for me there, in L.A." He said a lot of positive things. So I decided that I never would really tell the council, to tell you the truth, what that conversation was, unless I was asked. But my colleagues never said, "Well, did he say he was absolutely coming?" so I never had to answer it. 'Cause I really felt, if I had to say that, I would not have gotten the 10 votes.

Felde: Wyman got the 10 votes. And on the next day, October 8th, 1957, Dodger executive Red Patterson broke the news to Brooklyn that the team was moving to Los Angeles. But the fight wasn't over for O'Malley yet. There were lawsuits to be settled. A handful of families refused to leave their homes in Chavez Ravine and had to be removed, on television. And the land swap ended up on the ballot for a vote. The late County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn put it this way:

Kenneth Hahn: To be for baseball was at that time, in certain council districts, would be almost be for putting a toxic dump in your backyard.

Felde: Next week, we'll look at L.A.'s mixed emotions about bringing the Dodgers to Chavez Ravine.

by Kitty Felde
From July 22, 2008
89.3 KPCC Website


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