Beneath the Ballpark

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In 1979, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed an unknown pitcher from Mexico named Fernando Valenzuela.

Vivian Le:
A couple of years later, in 1981, Valenzuela made his major league debut as a starting pitcher.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer and Angeleno, Vivian Le.

Vivian Le:
Valenzuela went on to have one of the most remarkable seasons in the history of baseball. This obscure player from Sonora, Mexico, became the first player ever to win both the “Cy Young Award” and “Rookie of the Year” in the same season. Valenzuela led the Dodgers all the way to the World Series where they defeated the New York Yankees.

Sports Commentator:
“Fernando Valenzuela, who threw 149 pitches tonight. That wasn’t one for the art museum…”

Vivian Le:
This season will always be remembered in Los Angeles as the year of “Fernandomania”. The whole city fell in love with Valenzuela, and in particular, LA’s large Mexican American community.

Edward Santillan:
We actually had someone – a real, true Mexicano – playing baseball for a major league team.

Vivian Le:
This is Edward Santillan, LA native and longtime Dodgers fan.

Edward Santillan:
… and it was in Los Angeles. And as you know, the LA is so big and it’s full of Latinos. We’re all struggling to make it in this world. And he actually made it and he made everybody proud.

Roman Mars:
Edward says there was nothing quite like watching a game at Dodger Stadium when Valenzuela was pitching.

Edward Santillan:
We would take a younger kids that couldn’t afford to go to a Dodger game. We would get tickets and take them and have them experience the cheering and the, you know, Fernandomania and Valenzuela and cheering and cheering and screaming for him. So it was a good time. It was fun.

Vivian Le:
But not everybody in Edward’s family wanted to go see Fernando’s famous screwball in action. Some of the older folks especially were hesitant to make the trek to Dodger Stadium.

Edward Santillan:
It’s just the younger generation that would go with us. I don’t know. There was still a little bit of animosity towards the Dodgers for what had happened and what transpired up at Chavez Ravine.

Vivian Le:
Chavez Ravine was a neighborhood where Edward’s father, Louis, grew up. And it used to sit exactly where Dodger Stadium is today. Back in the 1950s the community at Chavez Ravine was displaced in a contentious battle to reshape what the city would look like. Because back then Los Angeles wasn’t known as the sprawling world center it is today.

Archive Tape:
In the years since the turn of the century. Los Angeles go has grown from a sleepy pueblo to a vast seething metropolitan city.

Jerald Podair:
It’s an up and coming city, but it is not really completely there yet.

Vivian Le:
This is Jerald Podair, author of the book, “City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles”. In the early 20th century, the population of Los Angeles was exploding. People were moving to California for the climate, the jobs, and the cheap real estate. It was a city on the rise, but still something was missing.

Jerald Podair:
When Americans were asked to talk about the major cities of the country. In the 1950s, obviously they would say New York or they would say Chicago. They would say Boston. They might even say Detroit. But they might not say Los Angeles and they might even be amazed to know how big a city it was.

Roman Mars:
LA didn’t have the rows of towering skyscrapers that made New York and Chicago unmistakable. But it was missing something else too. Something that was hard to put a finger on. Los Angeles felt more like a collection of neighborhoods than a cohesive city. If you asked any Angeleno where they were from, rather than saying Los Angeles, they might say Boyle Heights or Highland Park.

Jerald Podair:
If they have any kind of civic identity, it’s tied to their neighborhood and not necessarily to their city. So there are very, very few pieces of what I call “civic glue” in Los Angeles in the 1950s. Very few municipal institutions that everyone in the city can identify with and rally around.

Roman Mars:
And a few city leaders thought if the people of Los Angeles needed something to rally around, let’s give them a baseball team. From its inception professional baseball in the U.S. was played mostly on the east coast. By 1953, only a couple of teams had ventured west of the Mississippi River – the Cardinals and the Browns. But they only made it as far as St Louis, which is actually on the Mississippi so it barely counts. But Los Angeles was a west coast city on the rise and was looking for a way to boost its reputation.

Jerald Podair:
And how do you get the reputation? Well, you get the reputation with big splashy acquisitions like a major league baseball team when there is no major league baseball on the west coast.

Vivian Le:
And so LA city leaders began plotting to lure a baseball team out west. One woman named Rosalind Wyman even campaigned for city council on the promise to bring a major league team to Los Angeles. And it worked. She was elected to city council at just 22 years old. And as luck would have it for Roz Wyman, and other Angelenos desperate for baseball, there was an east coast team in desperate need of a new stadium.

Roman Mars:
The Brooklyn Dodgers. They were a classic baseball team who had been playing at a classic ballpark called Ebbets Field. And these days, New Yorkers love to get nostalgic about quaint little Ebbets field right in the heart of Brooklyn, but…

Jerald Podair:
Those who are nostalgic about seeing a game at Ebbets Field probably never actually were there.

Vivian Le:
Ebbets Field had a lot of problems. There were columns obstructing the view of the field, steep climbs to the upper deck, barely any parking or freeway access, and the building itself was falling apart. The team owner, Walter O’Malley, wanted to build his own modern, well-designed stadium in Brooklyn.

Roman Mars:
He even went so far as to hire Buckminster Fuller to draft plans for a dome to go over the top of the field that would turn the stadium into an all-weather facility.

Jerald Podair:
You don’t usually think of baseball team owners as being friends with futurist architects, but in this case, that was what was going on.

Vivian Le:
O’Malley fought for years for his dream of a privately-owned stadium. But there was one very powerful bureaucrat standing in the way – New York’s infamous master builder, Robert Moses.

Jerald Podair:
It just so happened that Robert Moses not only didn’t like spectator sports, he thought that spectator sports were a total waste of time and for what he called “the rubes”.

Roman Mars:
And without Moses’s support, a new Dodgers Stadium in Brooklyn was basically impossible.

Jerald Podair:
And O’Malley said, “Well, one, I’m a Brooklynite and I want the park to be in Brooklyn. If it’s in Queens, it might as well be 10,000 miles away.”

Roman Mars:
O’Malley figured if he couldn’t get his dream stadium in Brooklyn, he might as well move the Dodgers all the way out to California.

Vivian Le:
Roz Wyman and the city council invited O’Malley out to Los Angeles for a visit.

Jerald Podair:
He had, by my estimation, had spent a total of 10 days in his entire life in Los Angeles. He doesn’t really know where he wants to build the stadium. He hasn’t made the deal, yet, to come to Los Angeles, but he’s scouting it out. So O’Malley decided to take a helicopter ride across the city to get a feel for the area and he saw something that caught his eye. What looked like an empty piece of land, just a few miles from downtown.

Vivian Le:
This hilly area was called Chavez Ravine.

Mark Langill:
The thing that he sees is all the vacant land around Chavez Ravine, but it was surrounded by the freeways.

Vivian Le:
This is Mark Langill, the official historian for the LA Dodgers. He says that the freeways made the site appealing because it meant that fans would have easy access to the stadium. The terrain was really hilly and O’Malley knew he would need to do a huge amount of work to flatten out the land, but it was all worth it because of the highway access.

Mark Langill:
He even estimated the amount of land that would have to be moved. That didn’t bother him because it’s easy to move that land, but it’s hard to build three or four different freeways.

Roman Mars:
But O’Malley probably didn’t realize that the plot of land that he had his eye on wasn’t completely empty. There were a few families living in Chavez Ravine. They’d been there a long time and if the Dodgers were going to build a stadium there, they’d have to kick those people out. And it wouldn’t be the first time that the people of Chavez Ravine had been forced to leave their home.

Vivian Le:
O’Malley thought he saw a vast empty stretch of land from the helicopter. But what he was really seeing were the last legs of a community that had existed there since the early 1900s. And for a long time it was a neighborhood full of life.

Carol Jacques:
It was very colorful because the ladies had colorful birds. Canaries were big. I mean that’s what would wake us up, canaries in the morning singing. And it was just a very colorful community.

Vivian Le:
This is Carol Jacques.

Carol Jacques:
Yes. My name is Carol Jacques. And it’s spelled J-a-c-q-u-e-s.

Vivian Le:
Carol is 76 years old now and still lives in Los Angeles. And as a little girl, she grew up in Chavez Ravine.

Vivian Le:
You were pretty young when you left, so as much as you could remember, I’ll-

Carol Jacques:
Oh, I can remember a lot.

Vivian Le:
Okay. Great.

Vivian Le:
Carol was only 9 or 10 years old when her family left Chavez Ravine. But her memories are crystal clear.

Carol Jacques:
It was very rural so we could always see the trees. And at that time, when I was growing up anyway, at this time of year there’d always be like a fog of when you woke up.

Vivian Le:
Chavez Ravine was like a small town within the city and it was home to mostly Mexican and Mexican American families. It was made up of three different neighborhoods called Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop. Some roads were paved, but most weren’t. A lot of homes had electricity, but some didn’t. In its own way though it was still a flourishing closely knit community.

Carol Jacques:
We were like any other neighborhood. We had some people that were doing very well. There was some families that were very poor. There were some families that were not so nice. There were some families that were very religious. But they were all still friends and everybody knew each other.

Roman Mars:
Chavez Ravine was located just a few miles from downtown Los Angeles, but it felt like a world apart. It was this isolated pocket within the city. It had its own schools, churches, stores, a barbershop. The residents had everything they needed without ever having to leave the neighborhood.

Vivian Le:
But a lot of the reason why they were so independent was because they had to be.

Carol Jacques:
Sixty percent of the people – the Mexican, Mexican American people – that were living in Chavez Ravine area owned their own home, and the reason is because that was the only place in the city we could live because of the covenants.

Roman Mars:
Covenants were racial restrictions that limited where people of color could actually purchase property. From the 1910s through the 1940s, Chavez Ravine was one of the few places in Los Angeles that non-white people could actually own a home.

Vivian Le:
The first threat to this community was not actually the baseball stadium. It came years before in the form of a new housing project. In 1949 the federal government passed the National Housing Act, which allocated funds to cities all over the country in order to build new low income housing for people in need. Los Angeles itself was going to be home to 10,000 of these new public housing units.

Eric Avila:
This was part an effort to alleviate a severe housing shortage that ensued during the early 1940s, during World War II. And public housing was seen as a solution to providing affordable, sanitary, living conditions for poor people who were not able to to provide that for themselves.

Vivian Le:
This is Eric Avila, professor of History and Chicano studies at UCLA. He says that the city selected Chavez Ravine to be the site for 3,600 new units because the city housing authority, or CHA, had determined it was a slum. The CHA claimed that it was infested with rats, homes lacked electricity and toilets, and it was actually in their best interest that the community be replaced with new modern housing.

Eric Avila:
From an urban planning perspective, or from the perspective of City Hall, a poor community like the Chavez Ravine fit their idea of what a slum was at the time. But if you talk to the people who remembered what it was like to live in the Chavez Ravine, they didn’t think of their neighborhood as a slum.

Carol Jacques:
We had flushing toilets everywhere that I went. And I went into a lot of houses and when I had to go to the bathroom, we had flushing toilets. We had some lights, not a lot because we could still see all the stars at night without any problem whatsoever, and we had a lot of things that would not mark us as slums.

Vivian Le:
But because Chavez Ravine was officially designated a slum, the city housing authority was able to use eminent domain to clear the land for the housing project.

Roman Mars:
Property owning residents were offered payment for their homes, which was far below market value, and it’s actually debatable whether you could even call it an offer. Carol remembers when a man named Frank Wilkinson, who was in charge of the housing project, came to the house.

Carol Jacques:
I remember when the actual knock on the door came and he wasn’t that congenial. He wasn’t really that nice. But…

Vivian Le:
What was he there to tell you? When he knocked on the door?

Carol Jacques:
He was there to tell us that we had no choice. That was made very clear. That there was no choice, that we all had to move.

Vivian Le:
Almost everyone in Chavez Ravine ended up selling their homes and then moving to different parts of the city. By 1948 the restrictive covenants that prevented families of color from moving into other areas were ruled unconstitutional. And a lot of these former residents became the first Mexican and Mexican American families in these new neighborhoods.

Carol Jacques:
We moved into what was a completely white community at the time. But what was going on for me when I moved there, there was a lot of white flight going on. I mean – people like me – they were leaving because of people like me coming in.

Roman Mars:
Some residents were told that they would be first in line to move into the new public housing community at Chavez Ravine, but those hopes were short lived.

Vivian Le:
In 1953 a new Los Angeles mayor, named Norris Poulson, took office with an ideological objection to the project.

Eric Avila:
He branded public housing as a communist plot or a socialist conspiracy.

Roman Mars:
Poulson thought that subsidized housing for the poor sounded like commie nonsense and he made sure that the housing project was dead in the water. The people of Chavez Ravine had been displaced for no reason.

Vivian Le:
Except for a small number of people who refused to leave their homes the community of Chavez Ravine was basically gone.

Carol Jacques:
We would go there, you know. It’s like, “Oh look, there’s this house.” Or this or that. “Oh, they took all the flowers out of this yard.” And we would just go back and visit but it was a ghost town except for a handful of people. All the stores were gone. The church was gone. They knocked down the school.

Vivian Le:
The city ended up buying the land from the Federal Housing Authority and left it undeveloped for years while it figured out how to put the property to public use.

Roman Mars:
And that’s where the Dodgers come back into the picture. Walter O’Malley was convinced that Chavez Ravine was the perfect place to build his perfect stadium. And at first it looked like it might be smooth sailing. The city council approved the deal to give the land to the Dodgers.

Vivian Le:
But as it turned out, a lot of people were opposed to the Dodger deal for reasons that had nothing to do with Chavez Ravine. They didn’t want the city subsidizing a private business, even if that business was baseball. In fact, the opposition was so intense that the city decided to put the deal up for a referendum. This meant that the following year the contract would be placed on a ballot and the citizens of LA would get the chance to vote on the new stadium. And in the end, voters did come out in the Dodgers favor, but just barely.

Roman Mars:
But there was still the issue of the handful of remaining holdouts living in Chavez Ravine. Even though the Federal Housing Authority had tried to clear the land, there were a small number of families who refused to give up their homes. Those who remained did so in protest.

Vivian Le:
There were only about 20 families left after the federal housing authority tried to clear the land and they needed to be evicted in order to start construction. These residents had watched their community disappear around them while the city referred to them as squatters.

Eric Avila:
That was their land. That was their property. I guess you could say that they were squatting, but from their perspective, they had owned that land for several generations. That’s not squatting.

Roman Mars:
On May 9th, 1959, their time had run out. The city of Los Angeles sent Sheriff’s deputies to Chavez Ravine to remove anyone who had refused to leave. What followed was a horrific scene of a family called Arechigas being dragged out of their house. Their daughter, a woman named Aurora Vargas, was physically lifted and carried out of the doorway of her own home.

Vivian Le:
This was captured on camera by reporters. We couldn’t find any audio recordings, but it was broadcast all over the country.

Eric Avila:
There are these scenes that are indelibly impressed into the living memory of Los Angeles of a mother and her children being forcefully evicted from their homes. A grandmother being carried out in her rocking chair from their home. Dogs Barking, chickens flying everywhere, children crying. It was a complete melee.

Carol Jacques:
When I saw Aurora Vargas on television being forcibly taken out of her house and I saw the house being knocked down. That was really true. That was the point where I hated the Dodgers. Because in my head that’s all I could see is this wonderful kind of nirvana place that I grew up in. I was sad to have left that all, of course, but I saw them, knocking down and doing what they did, live on TV. I was, I don’t know, 15, I don’t know, but it was pretty traumatic for me.

Vivian Le:
The evictions dredged up memories, not just of a failed housing project years earlier, but of an entire history of racial discrimination that Latino and Chicano Americans had been experiencing in Los Angeles for decades.

Eric Avila:
And if you know anything about Mexican American history, it is a history of conquest. It is a history of displacement. And it is a history, most of all, of land dispossession. So this scene really hit a nerve with a community that had long suffered the indignity, the pain, the inconvenience of displacement and land dispossession in particular. It just hit a nerve.

Roman Mars:
What happened at Chavez Ravine will always be part of the team’s legacy, but it wouldn’t be fair to blame all that pain on the Dodgers.

Jerald Podair:
The Dodgers got blamed for this, although it wasn’t the Dodgers who removed these families. It was the city who removed these families.

Vivian Le:
Here’s Jerald Podair again.

Jerald Podair:
I think it is unfair to say that the Dodgers removed the these families. The the chain of events is a little different.

Roman Mars:
This history is complicated. It’s hard to sum up all the forces and events that led to the destruction of Chavez Ravine. But the stadium has become a monument, a physical reminder of the community that was displaced from the land on which it sits.

Vivian Le:
Today, Dodger Stadium is the third oldest ballpark in baseball. And you have to admit it’s a beautiful stadium. It’s symmetrical with elegant lines, amazing views of the city, and somehow even a bad seat is still a pretty good seat.

Roman Mars:
In some ways the ballpark did exactly what those politicians back in the 1950s wanted it to do. The Dodgers are a civic institution, beloved by people throughout the city. The Dodgers are even known for having one of the most diverse fan bases in baseball. Thanks, in large part, to LA’s Latino community.

Eric Avila:
I would have to say that that LA’s Mexican American community is of two minds on this issue. I think many Mexican Americans see the Chavez Ravine as part of a larger story of discrimination and displacement in Southern California. On the other hand, Mexican Americans are among the Dodger’s biggest fans. And that was especially true in the early 1980s with the arrival of Fernando Valenzuela.

Vivian Le:
And Fernandomania isn’t the only reason why. The Dodgers have tried to appeal to the LA Latino community from the very beginning with broadcasters like Jaime Jarrin who’s been calling games for the team in Spanish for almost as long as the Dodgers have been in LA.

Jaime Jarrin:
(Announcing game in Spanish)

Vivian Le:
Edward Santillan’s father, Louis, was one of the many who refuse to see games at Dodger Stadium. He didn’t blame the team for what happened to his community, but the stadium would always be a reminder of the home he used to have.

Edward Santillan:
His claim to fame is that he was born where third base is at, and his umbilical cord back then would be buried wherever you were born. So he claims that third base, that every time somebody hits a triple or a home run, he would get a pain in his stomach because that’s where his umbilical cord is buried at.

Vivian Le:
On the third Saturday of July, former residents of Chavez Ravine get together for an annual reunion picnic in Elysian Park. Edward’s father, Louis, started the tradition years ago and named the group “Los Desterrados”, meaning “the uprooted”. And they don’t get together out of anger. They’re not there to protest the Dodgers. It’s just a bunch of friends and family who want to tell stories and celebrate the neighborhood that they shared beneath the ballpark.

Credits

Production

Producer Vivian Le spoke with Carol Jacques from the project Chavez Ravine: an Unfinished Story; Priscilla Leiva, Assistant Professor of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies at Loyola Marymount University; Jerald Podair, author of City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles; Mark Langill, Historian for the L.A. Dodgers and author of Dodger Stadium, Eric Avila, Professor of History and Chicano Studies at UCLA

Thanks

Special thanks to Carol Jacques and Priscilla Leiva who have been working on an oral history and preservation project documenting the stories of Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop called Chavez Ravine: An Unfinished Story. Find out more at www.chavezravinela.com.

Comments (6)

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  1. Leonard Topolski

    Another wonderful program on Dodger stadium with a slight correction. It stated Fernando was the first Cy Young and rookie of the year winner, when I believe, in fact, that recently passed Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe was the first.

  2. Fred Leonard

    Professional baseball played mostly on the East Coast? Really? Ever heard of the Pacific Coast League? The (original) LA Angels and Hollywood Stars? Not to mention, closer to your home, the Oakland Oaks and the San Francisco Seals? Before the teams stolen from Brooklyn and New York, the PCL was in the process of being upgraded to a third major league but O’Malley killed that
    And putting up some skyscrapers does not make a city. LA is still Long Island with palm trees. Paraphrasing Shaw, put a roof over LA and you have one big shopping mall.

  3. I feel like this podcast whitewashes O’Malley’s intentions for wanting a new ballpark in Brooklyn. After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, the Dodgers became incredibly popular with black fans. When O’Malley acquired the team in the 1950s, he and Dodger execs were concerned that the many black fans at Ebbets Field were scaring away the “more desirable” white fans. A new ballpark with freeway access and parking was intended to draw in white fans from the suburbs while making access more difficult for urban African Americans.

  4. Joseph

    I was hoping to see some of the political cartoons mentioned in the post script regarding the trolley dodgers. It reminded me of that great cartoon you posted about the automobile God consuming children.

  5. Julie

    I struck up a conversation with another parent/kid combo on the STL zoo carousel and discovered that they had tickets to the Cards/Dodgers game on Monday. The dad mentioned “Fernandomania” and – thanks to this episode of 99% Invisible – I knew exactly who and what he was talking about. He mentioned his Mexican heritage – he’s from El Paso – and I mentioned my daughter’s Spanish immersion school and we shared a happy few moments being human, together. So, thank you for providing some “human experience glue” (to vandalize a term from the episode) to connect strangers on a zoo carousel. What a gift!

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