By Nelson, Kevin
California History , Vol. 82, No. 4
The Los Angeles Dodgers may have begun and the Brooklyn Dodgers may have ended on a pleasant October day in Los Angeles in 1956. After losing to the New York Yankees in the World Series, the Dodgers flew cross-country on their way to a goodwill baseball tour of Japan. During their stopover in Los Angeles, Brooklyn owner Walter O'Malley met County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn for a helicopter ride around the city. But their purpose was not to see the sights; they were investigating possible places to put a new baseball stadium, should the Brooklyn franchise elect to pull up stakes and move west.
The search focused on Chavez Ravine, a three-hundred acre parcel of public land north of downtown. Named after Julian Chavez, a former owner of the land and a past city councilman, the site had been a source of controversy for years. In a bitterly contested civic debate, Los Angeles voters had turned down a proposal to build public housing there. Partly on the strength of his opposition to the referendum, Norris Poulson won election as mayor a few years later.
Since taking office Poulson had tried unsuccessfully to interest various groups in the site. About the only party to express serious interest was a cemetery that wanted to use it for burial plots. Then the Brooklyn Dodgers Baseball Club entered the picture. The possibility of a major league team--and not just any team, but one of the oldest and grandest in the history of the game--coming to Los Angeles caused a stir in the mayor's office and around the city. But a major league team would need a place to play its games, and suddenly Chavez Ravine became a vital piece of the puzzle.
To give the visiting Brooklyn owner a full appreciation of the site's potential, the Sheriff's Department provided the use of a helicopter for O'Malley and his host. They could see things from the air that they could not from the ground, and there it was, the whole panorama of Greater Los Angeles in the prosperous 1950s stretched out beneath their feet. The first freeway in the state, the Pasadena Freeway connecting Pasadena with Los Angeles, had opened in the previous decade, and since then an interlocking web of freeways had spread across the region. The automobile had freed people from needing to live so close to where they worked, and this newly mobile population was moving to the suburbs. The heavily agrarian pre-World War II California way of life was rapidly giving way to the needs of a growing urban and suburban population, and housing tracts were sprouting on what were once farmlands and orange groves.
The man from Brooklyn could see all this from the air, as well as the location of Chavez Ravine near a network of freeways. The new park would be a car-friendly place, providing Dodger fans in the outlying suburbs with easy access in and out. Beyond this, O'Malley could look across the dry, brown valleys and hills and see large and growing communities that were only certain to grow larger in the future. The potential was vast.
When the helicopter set down and the tour ended, O'Malley and Supervisor Hahn shook hands--easily the most controversial handshake in the long history of baseball. Did O'Malley, as some have alleged, agree to move the Dodgers to Los Angeles at that moment and furthermore tell Hahn to keep this information secret because of the public outcry that would surely erupt if news of their pact leaked out in Brooklyn? The answer to this question, like so many others involving the move of the Dodgers to Los Angeles, is not clear. No franchise shift in professional sports history has ever engendered so much rancor and emotion. And sorting out the facts of the matter, which frequently contradict, depending as they do on the perspective of who is telling the story and the particular ax he or she has to grind, is complicated still more by the figure at the center of the controversy, Walter O'Malley. To this day Brooklyn fans accuse him of nothing less than betrayal and treachery. …