Dodgers Had Rocky First Year in L.A.

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Fifty years ago, the Brooklyn Dodgers moved west to become the Los Angeles Dodgers. In June of 1958, Los Angeles voters approved the land swap that would allow Walter O'Malley to build Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. That's why he'd moved his team to L.A. But he couldn't break ground for his new ballpark - at least, not yet. In the final part of her 10-part series, KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde finishes the tale of how the Dodgers came to L.A.

Roz Wyman: That first year was dreadful. Dreadful.

Kitty Felde: Former L.A. City Councilwoman Roz Wyman remembers 1958 – the Dodgers' first season of baseball in Los Angeles.

Wyman: They kept saying, "Oh yeah? You talk about this great Dodger team. Look where they are." I think it was 7th.

Felde: Seventh out of eight teams. Part of the reason, according to Wyman, was team owner Walter O'Malley's marketing strategy. He attracted L.A. fans by hanging on to familiar Brooklyn Dodger players.

Wyman: They were just about to start changing the young guys coming up. And he thought that people wanted to see the stars, and they did. They wanted to see the Erskines, and they wanted to see the Johnny Podres, and the Duke Sniders.

Felde: The strategy didn't produce many wins, but it sure sold a lot of tickets. Fans packed the Coliseum; nearly two million that first year, more than the Dodgers had ever drawn in Brooklyn. O'Malley spent much of that season and the next in court, trying to finish the deal with the city of L.A. for Chavez Ravine.

In October of 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the case. But it didn't end there. Chavez Ravine had been taken by eminent domain for public housing a decade earlier, but more than a dozen families refused to leave.

The squatters were ordered to vacate by March 9th. The Arechiga family decided to stay. On May 8th, deputies showed up to evict them. They carried a young woman kicking and screaming out of the house, past newspaper photographers and newsreel cameras.

Delores Klimenko Colon: That lady they were pulling out, that was my mother.

Felde: Delores Klimenko Colon was 11 years old at the time. She remembers that day as she holds her granddaughter on her lap.

Colon: I didn't know anything about it until I came home from school. And then somebody ran toward, to us. I guess it was the other kids who were getting off the bus, and they said, "They're knocking your house down!" There was nothing left. It was gone.

Felde: Roz Wyman says the outcry was immediate, and much of it directed at her.

Wyman: The sympathy was with the people in the sense of, "Oh, this hard-hearted woman." You know, I felt terrible, you know, that they had no place to go. And as I say, we took a collection up in the City Council to give them money.

Felde: But then an anonymous postcard arrived at City Hall.

Wyman: And it said, "Go to the map division of the City of Los Angeles, and look under the Arechigas," and blah blah blah. I said, "I'm not going to deal with something that isn't signed."

Felde: Wyman's secretary gave the lead to a reporter who discovered the Arechiga family owned nearly a dozen properties around the city. After the story broke, the Arechigas took the $10,500 offered and left Chavez Ravine. The next year, 1959, was much better for the Dodgers.

They won the National League pennant, and beat the Chicago White Sox in the World Series, four games to two. On September 17th, 1959, Walter O'Malley finally broke ground in Chavez Ravine for his new ballpark. The late Dodger owner liked to remind people that Dodger Stadium was built with private money, not taxpayer dollars.

Walter O'Malley: And that's the first time since 1923, when Yankee Stadium was built by a brewery, that anybody in baseball had enough confidence in the game of baseball, or in the community in which it was being located, to put that kind of money up. The $25 million that was spent was to prepare the site and to build the stadium was Dodger money; (laughs) my money.

Felde: The Los Angeles Dodgers have done very well here. They've won the World Series five times. They were the first baseball team to attract more than three million fans in a season. But Roz Wyman says the Dodgers gave a lot back to their adopted city.

Wyman: If I look back and I would say today what has it meant, I think it's meant my city grew up. We became big league. It meant that businesses and corporations grew in L.A. I can't say the Dodgers made them grow, but I know that their recruiting grew because of the Dodgers.

Felde: Former L.A. Mayor Jim Hahn says the team gave Los Angeles a sense of identity, starting with 1959, the first year the L.A. Dodgers won it all.

Jim Hahn: That was what brought all this collection of suburbs that were Los Angeles really together behind one huge idea.

Felde: A few years later, Dodger Stadium opened for business, April 10th, 1962. But that's another story, for another 50th anniversary.

["D-O-D-G-E-R-S (Oh Really? No, O'Malley)" plays]