LA's Baseball Team Almost Became the 'Senators'

Most of us in Southern California came here from someplace else. Fifty years ago, L.A.'s most famous sports transplants, the Dodgers, unpacked their bats and gloves to settle in the Southland from Brooklyn. In the second of a seven-part series, KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde tells the tale of how the Dodgers came to L.A. fifty years ago.

Kitty Felde: In the 1950s, Manhattan was the center of the universe. Chicago was "Second City." And Los Angeles? Well, L.A. boosters, like former City Councilwoman Roz Wyman, had big plans.

Roz Wyman: I felt that you were not a big league city unless you had big league sports. Because I had done some studying, and I found that major corporations especially, one of the things that they ask before they come and settle in your community was what kind of arts and what kind of sports did you have?

Felde: But not everyone was a true believer. The late L.A. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn talked about that in an interview 20 years ago.

Kenneth Hahn: Everybody said Los Angeles was not ready to be a big city. Not ready for major league baseball. But there was a baseball writer named Vincent X. Flaherty at the old "Los Angeles Examiner" who was an absolute fan. And everything he wrote, thought, and talked about was bringing a major league team.

Felde: By the fall of 1956, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors got into the act. Hahn, the youngest board member, was dispatched to the World Series to see if he could bring a major league team to Southern California. Hahn flew to New York for the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Hahn: Vincent Flaherty was going back to cover, so we went back together. And he says, "Now, Kenny, you'll never get a winner to come to Los Angeles. Let's go for the bottom of the league." I said, "Great." He said, "Well I know Calvin Griffith."

Felde: Calvin Griffith owned the hapless Washington Senators. The team was so awful, it inspired "Damn Yankees," the Broadway musical about a Washington fan who sells his soul to the devil to get his team to the World Series.

[Music from "Damn Yankees": "We've got heart! All you really need is heart!"]

Felde: Griffith, like every baseball owner, had taken note of the Braves' move from Boston to Milwaukee a few years earlier. The team was now drawing a National League record two-million fans a year.

A secret meeting was set up at Toots Shor's, the famous Manhattan sports saloon. Griffith seemed interested in L.A. and Hahn was ready to head home with news that the Senators might come west. But at the ballpark the next day, Hahn said he was handed a message on a napkin.

Hahn: He said, "Don't make any deal with Calvin Griffith. I want to see you when I come to Los Angeles. I'm interested." And it was signed "Walter O'Malley."

Felde: That might not be exactly the way it happened. But Hahn, somehow or another, came back to Los Angeles with the idea that O'Malley might be interested in coming west. The Dodger boss had been touting a futuristic domed stadium in Brooklyn to replace the cramped and aging Ebbets Field.

But New York's powerful city planner Robert Moses wanted O'Malley to build in Queens. Queens! The owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers was appalled. Here's Walter O'Malley in an interview 30 years ago:

Walter O'Malley: We wanted to stay in Brooklyn, but we had exhausted a 10-year campaign to make it possible for us to buy land and to build a ballpark with adequate parking. When we struck out on that, it appeared that we had our choice of going to San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Felde: Horace Stoneham, the owner of the New York Giants, had his own attendance and parking lot problems. O'Malley said he heard Stoneham was closing in on a deal to move his ballpark to Minnesota.

O'Malley: And I told him if he went to Minneapolis and I stayed in Brooklyn, the old Giant-Dodger rivalry would be dead. And maybe both of us should consider moving, and I told him there were possibilities in both San Francisco and in Los Angeles. He expressed a strong feeling toward San Francisco. I said, "Well, that's fine. We'll go to Los Angeles."

Felde: Again, that's not exactly how it happened. O'Malley was talking to L.A. officials before he heard that the Giants might leave town. But the telling of the tale says a lot about Walter O'Malley. Next Tuesday, we'll tell you more about the old Irishman, the most hated man in Brooklyn.

[Music from "Damn Yankees": "What've we got? We've got heart!"]

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