Did the Dodgers Really Transform Los Angeles Into a World Class City?

Did the Dodgers Really Transform Los Angeles Into a World Class City?
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It’s hard to say exactly when, but sometime in the early part of the 21st century downtown Los Angeles’s skyline changed.  And not in an inspiring way.

What lent it somewhat of a depressing feel was the nature of the name tenants on its tall buildings.  While at one time they were global banks and companies, by the early 21st the skyscrapers included law and accounting firms as their headline occupants.  That relatively prosaic firms could command name tenant status plainly signaled the decline of downtown Los Angeles as a headquarter locale for major businesses.  There are countless skylines in the Los Angeles area, and in the new millennium seemingly many downtown businesses had migrated west on the 10 Freeway to Century City and other parts of the westside, or north on the Pasadena Freeway for Pasadena itself.  Downtown had lost its luster.   

The above came to mind while reading Jerald Podair’s new book City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles.  The Lawrence University history professor has written an interesting history of downtown in the late 1950s and early 1960s that chronicles the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers for Los Angeles, and the subsequent fight by team owner Walter O’Malley to build a new kind of baseball stadium in his rather entrepreneurial, fan friendly image. Podair’s book is one that Los Angelenos will particularly find engaging, along with residents of other cities either in pursuit of the presumed prestige professional sports teams bring, or that have seen them depart.  Podair’s story will be familiar to all stripes, as the debate about the economic good or bad of professional sports in cities continues to this day. 

Interesting about the Dodgers’ westward migration is how close it came to not happening at all.  O’Malley was a successful New York lawyer, was dialed in to New York City’s Tammany Hall political network through his father, and while the entrepreneur in O’Malley knew that Brooklyn’s decrepit Ebbets Field was no longer sufficient for his profitable vision, he desperately wanted to keep the team in New York; specifically in Brooklyn.  He had even picked out the land on which he would build a new stadium that he planned to finance himself.  Podair makes clear throughout City of Dreams that O’Malley didn’t like having bosses.  Not only did he think it was the right thing to build his own stadium free of government finance, O’Malley also prized the independence that would he would enjoy if the stadium were his.  But there was a catch.

O’Malley’s contention was that while the expense of erecting a stadium should fall on him, the land itself should be transferred to him on favorable terms from New York City’s government.  The problem was that Robert Moses, the legendary New York ‘power broker’ through which all major construction permitting went through, proved an insurmountable barrier.  Moses was more of the mind to build a municipal stadium that the City could control (he eventually succeeded with the eminently awful, rat infested Shea Stadium), including taking a share of revenues from a venue that would be multi-purpose. Moses’s proposal was exactly the kind of public-private partnership O’Malley did not want. 

So while he played New York against its wannabe peer in Los Angeles for a time, eventually O’Malley pulled the trigger and moved his team west in 1957.  All of this speaks to an eye-opening quality of Podair’s book.  To most Dodger fans, the Dodger Stadium that O’Malley eventually succeeded in building is all about happy experiences.  Podair cites fabled sportswriter Jim Murray’s description of O’Malley’s creation as the “Taj Mahal” of stadiums, while Podair himself refers to it as “America’s greatest ballpark.” Allowing for the bias of this reviewer who grew up in the Los Angeles area, Murray was right and Podair is right.  Dodger Stadium is a fabulous baseball experience to this day, it doesn’t suffer by comparison to any other modern stadium, and that it doesn’t speaks to the genius of O’Malley’s otherworldly vision.  Lest we forget, Dodger Stadium opened to fans on April 10, 1962.  So while those who’ve been to it understand its arguably incomparable grandeur, few know how close it came to not happening.  Thus Podair’s book.

It’s hard to imagine now in light of the end result, but the building of Dodger Stadium “divided Los Angeles in deep and profound ways,” and as such was anything but smooth, or even a certainty.  It wasn’t simply because the Los Angeles of the 1950s was very different from the one we know today.  Podair describes average Angelenos back then as the “Folks”; mostly Midwesterners who’d migrated west for the weather and opportunity, or who had stuck around at the conclusion of the 20th century’s two world wars.  Los Angeles was once very “middle class” in the way that many perceive the Midwest of today.

Given the makeup of the citizenry, the idea of the city handing over land at affordable terms “for the personal gain of a private individual” was just too much for some of the Folks.  Interesting about all this is the political ties that the Dodgers’ arrival created: pro-business, small-government Republicans like city councilman John Holland who blanched at crony, socialistic uses of land, working in concert with more redistributive Democrats like Edward Roybal who felt the location desired by O’Malley (Chavez Ravine) would negatively impact poor minorities the most.  On the other hand, supporters of the Dodger Stadium deal included “Downtown,” pro-business Republicans of the Protestant strain like Mayor Norris Poulson, who felt a professional baseball team and stadium would be economically stimulative, working in concert with westside Democrats like Rosalind Wyman who viewed the Dodgers’ arrival as a path to Los Angeles becoming globally relevant.  Notable here is that New York sportswriters, plainly sour over the Dodgers’ departure, put “skyscrapers” in quotes when describing the tall buildings in its relatively bare downtown. 

Those in favor of the stadium felt it would propel Los Angeles into the first tier of U.S. cities, and similarly saw its construction as a way of transforming downtown from its present state as a “work-and-flee” (work during the day, flee at night) zone.  About the debate, while Podair is successful in giving fair hearing to both sides, he makes plain throughout City of Dreams his view that those in favor of the Dodgers and O’Malley were in the right.  As he regularly explains in a book that perhaps suffered from too much repetition, “A nearby stadium built on city-owned land at private expense would certainly benefit Los Angeles.” Podair’s view will be discussed more at conclusion, but his commentary surely suffered from its exclusion of the voluminous research of modern vintage that reveals no correlation between new stadiums and economic growth. 

That’s why his repeated assertion about the stadium debate taking place “between growth advocates who believed it was appropriate to offer state resources to private businesses” and “those who opposed public sector gifts to entrepreneurs which made the rich even richer” rang as rather hollow.  To Podair, the political class in Los Angeles had a binary choice: hand over land to O’Malley on the way to Los Angeles morphing into a global city, or refuse the transplanted New Yorker only to remain second rate in the most Midwestern of ways.  That Podair framed the debate this way surely made for a better, and at times gripping story, but his analysis doesn’t stand up to basic economics. 

O’Malley soon settled on Chavez Ravine as the place he would build Dodger Stadium after seeing it from a helicopter.   Though there was little criticism of the Dodgers moving west, the deal put in place as mentioned divided the city.  O’Malley would transfer ownership of Wrigley Field (near downtown, and a non-starter as a stadium) to the city in return for what would ultimately be 300 acres in Chavez Ravine.  The city of Los Angeles would also “contribute $2 million for land excavation and grading, and Los Angeles County would allocate $2.74 million from its motor vehicle fund for stadium access roads.”  It was what the government was giving away to O’Malley that set the stage for years of conflict.  As Holland put it, “There are so many things wrong with this deal.”

Eventually, however, the Los Angeles City Council voted in favor of the agreement by a rather slim margin, but opponents didn’t give up easily.  The deal that divided Los Angeles then went to referendum only for “yes” on the stadium to win by yet another small margin.  But then the courts entered the picture.  The fight over Dodger Stadium was eventually contested in the California Supreme Court, and following that, the U.S. Supreme Court.  So uncertain was the outcome at times that comedian Bob Hope referred to the Dodgers as “the orphans of baseball.”

O’Malley was nonplussed.  As he told Sports Illustrated, “I think it’s rather significant that in this era of socialism and government effort there is someone who wants to put up the first new ball park with his own funds since Yankee Stadium was built with baseball dollars in 1923. I think it’s a rather refreshing idea at a time when everyone expects the taxpayer to take the rap.” O’Malley surely had a point.  He wasn’t seeking the transfer of land that anyone was doing much with. 

Interesting about this is that Podair’s research unearthed the fact that no less than Ronald Reagan agreed with the Dodger owner.  Reagan observed that “Chavez Ravine has been sitting there in the heart of Los Angeles for years and nothing was done with it.” Podair also reports that “as of November 1957 it [Chavez Ravine] was barren and unimproved, with land valued at only $7,000 an acre.”  All that, plus at the time property tax revenues from the land desired by O’Malley were $6,000.  O’Malley’s deal would bring the city $350,000/year in property tax revenues alone.  On the face of it, O’Malley’s request for Chavez Ravine at easy terms was a win-win for everyone: cheap, underutilized land would be improved with the mother of all baseball stadiums.  What’s not to like?

Of course, the fact that O’Malley’s chosen locale was so barren and cheap begs the question why he didn’t hide his location intentions and buy the land outright? Surely it would have saved him years of grief and uncertainty.  Along these lines, Podair found that the political fight for the largely unused land eventually had a cost that could be measured in the $2 million+ range.  It would have been interesting if Podair had asked O’Malley’s descendants if, with the benefit of hindsight, he ever expressed regret at not simply purchasing the 185 acres that the city already owned at the market price, only to buy the other 115 acres from their private owners.   

The main explanation offered in the book was that his Dodger Stadium vision wouldn’t be profitable absent a public-private partnership, but then the deal’s uncertainty was surely a factor in the unfriendly borrowing terms that California banks ultimately presented to O’Malley.  Union Oil eventually acted as O’Malley’s banker in return for exclusive signage rights at Dodger Stadium, but it seems a lot of political and financing agony could have potentially been avoided. 

Worse, the negative politics surrounding what the Folks saw as a sweetheart land deal carried over to the eventual excavation work where Dodger Stadium was to be built.  While it was later suggested that members of the Arechigas family were perhaps grandstanding (they owned 11 houses in Los Angeles) when they barricaded themselves inside their two houses at Chavez Ravine, the optics of certain family members being forcefully removed from the houses (followed by the homes being bulldozed) set back the Dodgers’ cause even more.  Private property matters.  End of story.  Had O’Malley once again just purchased the land on which Dodger Stadium was built, he could have avoided so much expensive (financially, and in terms of PR) trouble between 1957 and 1962. 

Still, the end result, at least as far as the Dodgers go, was a happy one.  Dodger Stadium was opened as mentioned in 1962, and World Championships soon followed in 1963 and 1965.  And the stadium, as previously alluded was a marvel; one that other teams to this day seek to emulate.  O’Malley required the stadium employees to create a Disneyland-style experience whereby fans were happy regardless of the outcome on the field. O’Malley didn’t charge much for seats, the bathrooms were immaculate, the food very good (Dodger Dogs a treat to this day), and then well ahead of his time, O’Malley created high-end food options (the Stadium Club most notably) within for guests who either were stars, or who wanted to be treated as such.  And while it doesn’t excuse the land deal, or the subsequent government waste, the extraordinary financial success of the Dodgers proved a tax windfall for the City of Los Angeles.

Podair has told an interesting story, and also a timely one considering the ongoing debate over whether cities should open up their checkbooks with the money of others in order to lure teams.  Of course, that’s what speaks to the weakest part of the book: Podair’s conclusions.

About them, there’s no doubting Walter O’Malley’s genius, vision, and first-class treatment of Dodger fans.  As for the municipal stadium route that O’Malley avoided, the fact that Shea Stadium was bulldozed in 2008 is but one of many reminders that the Los Angeles political class avoided monumental waste in providing O’Malley with a favorable land deal over building him a stadium with taxpayer money.  Notable here also is that San Francisco built the Giants a municipal stadium in the form of Candlestick Park at the same time O’Malley was trying to get Dodger Stadium built, yet Podair notes that the city didn’t finish paying off what is now closed until 1993. 

The problem is that Podair extrapolates from the proverbial home run that O’Malley and the Dodgers were for baseball fans the massive untruth that Dodger Stadium transformed “the identity of Los Angeles from a neighborhood city to a world metropolis.” Nonsense. 

To understand why Podair’s conclusion is so wrongheaded, one might first consider the new Yankee Stadium.  It’s beautiful, this reviewer is lucky enough to have attended several games there, but a walk outside the stadium reveals in living color how little economic impact sports teams have on their surroundings.  The Bronx location where the stadium rests was and is run down.  Yankee fans attend games, only to exit as quickly as possible.  Yankee players correctly earn enormous amounts of money, but their earnings migrate to where there are returns, which means far from the Bronx.  

Which brings us to Los Angeles.  While downtown is finally experiencing a renaissance today such that it’s no longer a “work-and-flee” zone, the facts are that until a few years ago it was routinely empty at the end of each work day.  And as mentioned at review’s beginning, as of not too long ago downtown was in such decline that skyscrapers had been reduced to selling lead tenant naming to local law firms; those law firms headline tenants to this day.  So for Podair to fail to acknowledge downtown’s work-and-flee truth long after Dodger Stadium’s 1962 opening amounted to a rather glaring omission.

That the arrival of the Dodgers had little to no impact on the economic health of the downtown area that it was supposed revive has long been a known quantity for anyone who has lived in Los Angeles, or who has spent time after work hours in downtown.  So for Podair to contend that the Dodgers were part of what made Los Angeles the city a “world metropolis” is for him to misunderstand why cities become great in the first place.  Great sports teams can be an effect of a city’s greatness, but ultimately it was the people who migrated west – including the Folks – who made Los Angeles a globally prominent city.  The latter isn’t some kind of pander to the middle classes as much as from the Folks along with other new arrivals emerged brilliant entrepreneurs whose capitalistic exploits have rendered Los Angeles one of the most important cities in the world. 

What can’t be stressed enough is that a baseball team, even one as tradition-laden as the Dodgers, wasn’t going to transform Los Angeles, or any other city.  If Podair doubts this, he might spend some time in Green Bay.  People are once again the drivers of city and state advance, which tells us that the migration of countless ambitious New Yorkers to Los Angeles had an exponentially bigger impact on Los Angeles’s fortunes than Walter O’Malley’s Dodgers.  None of this is to say that Podair’s history isn’t interesting, and indeed, very worthwhile.  But it is to say that a good book was deprived of being a much better book thanks to a conclusion Podair seemingly started with in writing City of Dreams; one that doesn’t stand up to observable or economically reasonable realities.

John Tamny is a speechwriter and writer of opinion pieces for clients, he's editor of RealClearMarkets, Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). His new book is The End of Work, about the exciting explosion of remunerative jobs that don't feel at all like work.  He's also the author of Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.  

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