50 Years Ago: Dodgers welcomed to LA

50 Years Ago: Dodgers welcomed to LA

LOS ANGELES -- A huge sign proclaiming "The Greatest Catch in Baseball" served as a backdrop at a civic luncheon on Oct. 28, 1957, as Los Angeles residents had a chance to welcome the National League Dodgers from Brooklyn.

The pep-rally atmosphere at the Statler Hotel followed a series of whirlwind events that year, which set the stage for the Dodgers to leave their familiar Ebbets Field surroundings in search of greener pastures -- namely a new ballpark with increased seating capacity and parking.

Just 55 weeks after facing the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 1956 World Series, the Dodgers were a franchise in transition, moving their offices from the famous 215 Montague St. address in Flatbush to a makeshift location at the Wrigley Field Minor League ballpark in Los Angeles.

Dodger players in attendance included Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Pee Wee Reese. Team president Walter O'Malley also brought members of the Dodgers front office to the West Coast to scout locations for their new homes.

The invited guests included an interesting mix of Hollywood and baseball dignitaries. The success of the local Pacific Coast League franchises, the Hollywood Stars and Los Angeles Angels, meant Southern Californians were no strangers to baseball. In January 1957, the Dodgers purchased the Los Angeles PCL franchise and the Wrigley Field facility from Phil Wrigley, the Chicago Cubs owner who felt the move would facilitate Major League Baseball coming to the West Coast.

The Dodgers continued to negotiate early in 1957 with New York officials for a proposed new sports stadium located in Brooklyn, but owning the Los Angeles territory gave O'Malley another option.

The master of ceremonies at the luncheon was comedian Joe E. Brown, whose son, Joe L. Brown, was an executive with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Also attending was Pirates chairman of the board Branch Rickey, who in 1950 lost a power struggle with O'Malley after his contract as Dodgers president had expired. Rickey sold his Dodgers stock as O'Malley matched what he perceived was an inflated offer, orchestrated by Rickey and real estate magnate William Zeckendorf. O'Malley took over the team, and supposedly employees were to be fined $1 if they mentioned Rickey by name.

At the Los Angeles luncheon seven years later, O'Malley was on his best behavior with his predecessor, calling him "Mister Rickey" on several occasions and recalling how the pair visited the West Coast in 1949 when the Dodgers were purchasing a Beechcraft airplane.

"Mister Rickey said at the time Los Angeles will have to have Major League Baseball ... " O'Malley said.

During his speech, O'Malley thanked the local city officials, but none by name. If O'Malley sounded like a politician, he had good reason. During the team's first month in Los Angeles, there was a petition drive to challenge the legality of the Dodgers' contract with the City of Los Angeles for the construction of a new ballpark. Eventually, enough signatures were gathered to force an election the following June.

O'Malley wasn't aware of the possibility of a referendum when the Los Angeles City Council on Oct. 7, 1957, approved by a 10-4 vote ordinance No. 110204, which entered the city into a contract with the Dodgers. The city agreed to exchange some 300 acres in Chavez Ravine and the grading and construction of access roads with the help of the County of Los Angeles. In exchange, the Dodgers would trade Wrigley Field to the city, valued at $2.2 million, provide a 40-acre public recreational facility for 20 years (O'Malley was to set aside $500,000 plus $60,000 a year to support such activities) and pay annual property taxes of approximately $345,000.

The only reference to the Chavez Ravine controversy in O'Malley's luncheon speech was buried within a joke: "I realize we have trespassed on your football time. But we will get out of town shortly, we will go quietly and we will come back when we know how your referendum makes out."

O'Malley didn't use the podium to praise the famous Dodgers names and the past history of the franchise. Instead, he focused on the planned youth programs in Southern California, similar to the successful "Knothole Gang" programs started in the late 1940s by Rickey. O'Malley also discussed the merits of his front-office personnel, adding more humor about how none owned a real-estate license or knew anything about the oil industry. Those references were in obvious response to critics who worried the Dodgers might want the land for possible oil or mineral rights.

Referring to his employees, O'Malley said, "I wanted them to come out and spend a week here, look the city over, decide where they want to live and how soon they want to move out here. They're all baseball people. Their whole life is baseball. You're going to get to know them better over the months that are coming, and I think you're going to like them. I know this organization real well. There will never be an occasion when our ballclub will have to apologize to a mother or a father in this community for the conduct or actions of any of our front-office people, our players, or coaching or managing staff. They're family people. They're going to do some things out here that I think you'll like."

In closing, O'Malley said he appreciated the city's reception and looked forward to becoming part of the Southern California community. "People are welcoming us and they mean it," O'Malley said. "This isn't just a big production to make us feel good. But we do feel good because your warmth has caught us. And we want to bring you something in return that will make you very proud of the day that you decided to officially invite the Dodgers to become the Los Angeles Dodgers."

Mark Langill is the Team Historian of the Los Angeles Dodgers. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.