Day baseball, a midweek rarity. The marine layer lingers over Dodger Stadium an hour before the Arizona Diamondbacks’ leadoff batter steps to the plate on Mexican Heritage Day, my first game during the stadium’s 60th-anniversary season.
Traffic is light, also a rarity on the almost-ceremonial route I follow down Sunset Boulevard and into Echo Park before reaching forested Elysian Park and driving through Gate B to enter the sprawling 16,000-vehicle parking lot. (If you wonder why Dodger fans arrive late and leave early, that’s why.) Once inside the ballpark, I climb, via a series of escalators and stairwells tucked underneath the stands behind home plate, from field level to the stadium’s top deck, to take in the panorama.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
From the time of William Mulholland and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, L.A. has been a city unafraid of engineering on a grand scale, no matter the environmental or social costs. When owner Walter O’Malley moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn following the 1957 season, he turned to architect-engineer Emil Praeger, an expert on concrete construction, to design a stadium at Chavez Ravine, a 350-acre site creased by arroyos in the Stone Quarry Hills, near Downtown. As late as the 1950s, around 1,800 families lived here in three secluded, predominantly Mexican American villages: La Loma, Bishop, and Palo Verde.
The term Chavez Ravine is used interchangeably with Dodger Stadium and, largely thanks to the recently passed announcer Vin Scully, has become the most romantic place-name in sports. Even if it’s a misnomer: some of the eight million cubic yards of rock and dirt gnawed from the ground during construction came out of the adjacent Cemetery, Reservoir, and Sulphur Ravines. Names that even Scully couldn’t transform into poetry.
Dodger Stadium was built into the slopes of 726-foot-high Mount Lookout, and the venue’s terraced seating descends into the ravine like the rows of an ancient amphitheater. Construction also leveled the top of Mount Lookout. Now, the artificial summit of Dodger Stadium takes in the San Gabriel Mountains, rail yards and freeways, City Hall and Downtown skyscrapers, Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood sign. This is L.A.’s definitive perspective—the wild and gritty city from the most Los Angeles place in all of L.A.
Los Angeles was a baseball town long before the Dodgers relocated from Brooklyn. The first baseball games here were played in 1860, a century prior to the team’s arrival and the same year the town of 4,385 banned bullfighting. Through the first half of the 20th century, the Hollywood Stars and the Los Angeles Angels were two of the Pacific Coast League’s flagship teams, and by the 1950s, the region had produced such Dodger stars as Compton’s Duke Snider, Don Drysdale of Van Nuys, and Pasadena’s Jackie Robinson.
If the Dodgers’ move to Chavez Ravine marked L.A.’s coming-of-age, the monumental stadium symbolized L.A.’s emergence as the United States’ city of the future. Dodger Stadium is unmistakably of its time, yet even as the ballpark has become the third oldest in the majors, it still feels new. “The trick is growing up without growing old,” said baseball legend Casey Stengel, who played outfield for and later managed the Dodgers, and several hundred million dollars in renovations and face-lifts have certainly helped.
When the stadium opened, it joined the Rose Bowl and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum among the ranks of the world’s most venerable sports venues. The ballpark set a standard for innovative sports architecture, and with the debut in recent years of soccer’s acclaimed Banc of California Stadium and the National Football League’s lauded SoFi Stadium, Los Angeles has the finest collection of outdoor venues of any U.S. city.
Constructed of 23,000 steel-and-reinforced-concrete sections cast on-site, Dodger Stadium incorporated modern materials and architectural details instead of the iron and brick of more traditional ballparks. From the top deck, I look out at Googie-style hexagonal scoreboards, while the folded corrugated-steel canopy over the outfield pavilion wouldn’t be out of place in Palm Springs.
The pastel seats evoke the hues of a beach sunset, changing section by section from ocean blue to sandy yellow and orange and finally to sky blue. And the parabolic concrete roofs that crown the stadium cantilever low over the upper-deck concourse, casting shadows that create a play of light and dark straight out of a Julius Shulman photo.
In a hidden stairwell, I work my way down 21 flights so short they’re like switchbacks on a steep trail, reaching the field level in time to hear mariachi Julian Torres sing the U.S. and Mexican national anthems. The marine layer has burned off, leaving behind what ballplayers call a high sky, a glaring blue that closely matches the color of the outfield fence. What little remains visible of the fence, that is.
Gazing toward left field, I’m confronted by a brand slam of logos: Golden Road Brewing, State Farm, Bank of America, California Pizza Kitchen, Yaamava’ Resort & Casino. Plus a scroll for Jinro (“Official Soju of the Dodgers”) and a Postmates ad wrapped around my cup holder.
There are also five circular, orange Union 76 logos in my field of vision, although at least they qualify as traditional at Dodger Stadium. In early pictures, the only stadium advertising is the orange Union 76 ball atop the scoreboard. Union Oil helped bankroll O’Malley in exchange for exclusive sponsorship, and, befitting an autopian city that once led the world in oil production, a 76 gas station operated for four decades in Lot 37 and still stands today. The ballpark has an almost minimalist appearance in those photos, especially the classic shots by Sports Illustrated’s Neil Leifer. The pavilion canopy’s silhouette zigzags above the outfield wall, brightly lit by the California sun and unadorned, except for painted numbers denoting the field’s dimensions.
This is the ballpark I remember from my first Dodger game. In August 1964, we were staying with my grandparents on Hope Street, a few blocks from the Coliseum (where the Dodgers had played before their own stadium opened). We sat in the top deck, and I can still see the blues and reds and white of the uniforms against the green grass, palm trees and mountains in the distance, as the crowd yelled “Go, go, go!” when Maury Wills stole second base. A few days after that game, I’d board the Santa Fe Super Chief to return to Chicago for my first day of kindergarten. I came back to L.A. for good 25 years later and soon fell into a share of prime field-level season tickets that I’m still using.
The fans’ chant that day could have served as a civic mantra for the booming Los Angeles of the 1960s. The Dodgers were the city’s glamour team, the original Showtime, and an early example of the nexus of entertainment and sports. Celebs like Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, and Doris Day were regulars, and Mister Ed hoofed out an inside-the-park home run off Sandy Koufax. The transistor radio was the smartphone of its time. When I spoke with Scully a few years ago, he said, “As far as my career was concerned, the biggest break we got was the transistor radio. It helped us to actually talk to the people in the ballpark.”
Dodger Stadium is often called baseball’s Disneyland, which isn’t a surprise considering that O’Malley found inspiration in the theme park and shared Walt Disney’s penchant for directing the visitor experience. Disney had even eyed Chavez Ravine for Disneyland. But from Mulholland to O’Malley, Los Angeles likes its origin stories with a frisson of morality play. And Dodger Stadium is where Tomorrowland met Chinatown.
The stadium’s construction saga encompassed familiar L.A. themes: land deals, backroom intrigue, housing shortages, property rights, displacement (my grandparents’ apartment is now a Harbor Freeway off-ramp), court battles, and celebrity: stars were enlisted to rally support during a pro-Dodger telethon.
The saga began in 1949, when the city approved 10,000 public housing units, including more than 3,000 in the modernist, Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander–designed Elysian Park Heights, which was slated to replace the supposedly blighted neighborhoods of Chavez Ravine.
It wasn’t the Dodgers that bought out most ravine residents; it was Los Angeles’s housing authority. In 1953, however, the project was scrubbed, thanks largely to an ongoing campaign that branded public housing a socialist threat. So the popular legend that the Dodgers destroyed the ravine communities isn’t true, although the team won big when it acquired the land in a deal with the city. That deal happened despite the property’s designation for public, not private, use.
After the Dodgers narrowly won approval in a voter referendum on the deal, the final ravine holdouts were forcefully evicted—complete with footage on the 10 o’clock news. The team found itself in a public relations nightmare as la gente and the Folks—the city’s conservative political class—briefly came together in defense of the little guy in the battle against big government and big business, though soon sentiment turned in the Dodgers’ favor.
Six decades is a long, long time in Los Angeles, but not everyone has forgotten. Last season, three protesters ran across the outfield carrying banners bearing the names Palo Verde, Bishop, and La Loma to remind fans of los desterrados. The uprooted.
With the Dodgers leading in the ninth, I walk from the field level to the outfield pavilion and take in the end of the game. An elderly Latina woman, wearing a Heritage Day jersey in the colors of the Mexican flag and with a faint Aztec-calendar background, is telling stories to a pair of young men drinking micheladas. Dodger Stadium has lots of stories. Baseball stories and ghost stories.•