By Lionel Rolfe
Magic Johnson doesn’t come across as a Frank McCourt, so maybe he will be successful in his effort to rebuild the Los Angeles Dodgers, but I don’t necessarily wish him luck.
In the relatively short time Frank McCourt owned the Dodgers and that valuable real estate in Elysian Park near downtown, he managed to trash the franchise. He was such an obvious repulsive billionaire slimeball, people stayed away from his enterprise in droves. From my standpoint, that wasn’t necessarily bad. Because people stopped going to the ballgame, I was able to commute from my downtown Los Angeles home to Atwater late at night without getting stuck in all the traffic leaving the stadium.
McCourt was good for the traffic patterns on the freeways around his property. Now I fear the old days will return, and I’ll be sitting there in traffic in that series of endless tunnels just before you go north on the Golden State.
I’ve been to Dodger Stadium only once in my life, but I’ve been inconvenienced by it for decades now. Even back in the ‘60s, when Walter O’Malley owned the stadium, I used to live on Scott Avenue in Echo Park. It was a major thoroughfare into the stadium. On the days there was a ballgame, and there always seemed to be one, I couldn’t get in or come out of my own house. I’ve never liked the Dodgers. I didn’t like them when they were in Brooklyn and liked them even less in Los Angeles.
I never liked baseball. I was forced to play it when I was a kid. When I was growing up and was sent away to school, they used to “reward” us by putting us all in a big room and watching some dreary baseball game on a small TV. I would always get in trouble for trying to stay in my bunk reading a book. I hated–and still hate–the drone of sports on the boob tube or radio. So going to the ballgame is just not my idea of great fun.
Come to think of it, I’ve never liked competitive sports at all. I liked hiking when I was younger. I climbed most of the way up Mt. Whitney, I rode my beloved Allegro bicycle with the L.A. wheelman for a brief while, and later climbed up along the banks of the Stanislaus River to Kiersarge Pass, and then made my way south past the glacier along the John Muir trail.
I used to write articles in the Los Angeles Times about good places to hike. But I never liked organized sports of any kind. I don’t like large crowds goose-stepping or screaming for blood in unison in some huge stadium, whether in Munich, Tel Aviv or Los Angeles. I don’t think that arranging to watch the lions eating the Christians in Rome sounded like fun.
Some years ago I went to Israel where some relative of mine was the tourist minister and proudly told me he had gotten me front row seats at the Maccabi games. He swelled with pride as he told me this, and no doubt expected I’d be grateful forever.
My mouth gave me away. I told him I didn’t want to watch “my people” acting like a bunch of goose-steppers at the Sportsplatz, thank you. My relative was not pleased at my comments.
I know a love of sports can be somewhat more benign, I guess. My best friend for many years was Jon Newhall, of Newhall Land and Farming Company family fame. He was my boss and editor at the Newhall Signal. We hung out together all the time, and he was fun and intelligent, except when I’d go to his house he’d always warn me he had to watch “The Game.” I quickly learned there was always a “The Game,” and Jon loved every one of them. I saw a lot of them, but was always mystified as to their appeal. They did provide a sort of surreal backdrop to a lot of fun times.
But the basic thing is that I didn’t like sports, just like I don’t like organized religion. I’ve always been in a quandary when faced by my “intelligent” friends who liked sports. Back in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s my favorite person in all the world was my godfather, Jerry Baron. Jerry was the District Attorney of Monterey County. There was a particularly memorable moment when he dug a hole in the yard of his home in Carmel, trying to get to China. All the time he dug, and his son and I helped him, he was drinking and reciting “Finnegan’s Wake,” which he really knew by heart.
It was one of my most treasured childhood moments. Whatever his faults, Jerry was a unique and wonderful man.
Jerry was the one who took me to a ballgame at Dodger Stadium. It was awful, even if it was Jerry who took me there. It seemed interminable; the time dragged by slowly, leaving me with a terrible taste in my mouth. Maybe this was because Jerry tried to leaven it by buying me a desiccated genuine Dodger hot dog. He got himself a beer. The beer was gnat’s piss. The Dodger dog hung in my esophagus like asphalt.
But Jerry loved sports and he also loved James Joyce. That never made sense to me. Hopefully “Magic” isn’t a McCourt, or even a Walter O’Malley, the guy who brought this damn Brooklyn baseball team to Los Angeles half a century or so ago. You’ll be hearing a lot of nonsense about how wonderful O’Malley was. He wasn’t. He was of one of the city’s corrupt McCarthyites, a craven gang of scoundrels the likes of Mayor Sam Yorty and Police Chief Bill Parker. The monument they left behind was that stadium.
Parker despised Jews, blacks, Italians, and Mexicans because they could be swarthy, and Chinamen because they weren’t. Yorty became a racist right-wing mayor who decried communism in the ’50s, even though it was the communists whose support first put him into elective office in the late ’30s. Also, he had had a notorious affair with Dorothy Healey, chairwoman of the Southern California Communist Party.
Hopefully, no one is going to start talking about how Dodger Stadium is one of the city’s great landmarks. It isn’t. Union Station is a great landmark, and Griffith Observatory and Planetarium is one of the greatest landmarks in the world. Even City Hall is pretty impressive. Dodger Stadium is a monstrosity. It ain’t pretty and it ain’t healthy. If you’re going to argue that sports is healthy because it keeps people’s warlike instincts in check, I think it’s quite the opposite. I won’t mention the beatings and muggings in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, just don’t tell me that sports doesn’t light a fire under violent behavior.
I remember once I was with my daughter Hyla on the London underground and soccer fans were coming into the Swiss Cottage stop from Neasdon on the Bakerloo Line. A whole gang of the them were getting out of the Bakerloo train and rushing across the platform to get into our car. Luckily only one of them got in before the doors closed. He was a skinhead with Nazi tattoos on his head. In a mob with a lot of clones, he was scary. But once he slumped down in his seat, realizing he was the only one of his gang who had made it into our car, he became sullen but somehow pitiful. Like most of his kind, he was a coward unless he was in a mob. To me, this guy was the archetypical sports fan–soccer, football or baseball, it doesn’t matter.
Now I’ll be willing to agree “Magic” is no doubt a scholar and a gentleman compared to a McCourt. But McCourt wasn’t the first scoundrel with a sports franchise. Before McCourt there was O’Malley, who basically made himself rich by stealing from the public purse. And don’t be shocked by that–that’s what most sports tycoons do to get rich. That’s how they become tycoons.
About the time construction was completed on Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine, it was the early ‘60s. By 1975, the House Un American Committee was winding down. But the stadium was one of the tangible results of McCarthyism in this town.
Dodger Stadium came into being through the offices of scum like Nixon, Sam Yorty and Ronald Reagan and House Un American Committees. It was part of the ugly tale of red baiting and McCarthyism of the time. It was America’s great flirtation with fascism.
The whole sordid tale was told in a song “Don’t Call Me Red” by Ry Cooder. The song was about the saga of Frank Wilkinson in the battle of Chavez Ravine.
A few hundred acres just east of downtown, Chavez Ravine was the soul of the barrio. It was destroyed in a sinister land swindle that used Frank Wilkinson as the fall guy by labeling him a communist. He may or may not have been–many folks who grew up in the Great Depression were.
The ravine was a place where some 300 Mexican immigrant families, many of them retired railroad workers, lived in conditions reminiscent of rural Mexico. Goats wandered the dirt road. It was a tight-knit community whose local institutions – churches and the schools – were run by the neighbors.
The late 1940s, when Wilkinson began battling for public housing in Chavez Ravine, was one of the most politically optimistic periods of American life, mainly because it was molded by a generation of Americans who had faced down fascism in Europe and weren’t about to let it sprout in their own land. Wilkinson was head of the Housing Authority in Los Angeles under Mayor Fletcher Bowron, a prince among the scoundrels who have held the office of mayor in Los Angeles.
When McCarthyism rolled around in the early ‘50s, Wilkinson was targeted. You have to understand, McCarthyism was designed to curb those democratic and progressive tendencies that the war against fascism had engendered. The great Satan of Communism was only the bogeyman. McCarthyites were really never about communism, it was how Republicans even then wanted to make it a capital crime to be a Democrat. And no, the parallels to today are not accidental.
Wilkinson had joined the Los Angeles Housing Authority in 1941, a year before the Zoot Suit Riots. Through his prodding, the authority hired the great architect Richard Neutra to design public housing for about 10,000 people on city land in Chavez Ravine: not only for poor immigrant Mexicans, but Asians and blacks and whites, in other words, working people of every kind.
Instead of clearing out the land to build the housing, however, the first bulldozers that were sent swept aside the poor Mexican families who lived there. Then they built the stadium.
Chiming in to applaud the erection of O’Malley’s stadium, the McCarthyite chorus played their harps as if they were angels in heaven. Ronald Reagan, then a B-rate actor just beginning his political career as a right-wing henchman, seriously maintained that people who were against baseball in favor of public housing in Chavez Ravine were un-American.
Wilkinson was an old-fashioned American who took literally the Bill of Rights and once planned on becoming a Methodist minister. His trip to the political left began when he came across a quote from Alexander Meiklejohn, a famed civil libertarian of his time.
“The First Amendment seems to me to be a very uncompromising statement. It admits no exceptions. It tells us that the Congress and, by implication, all other agencies of the government are denied any authority whatever to limit the political freedom of the citizens of the United States. It declares that with respect to political belief, political discussion, political advocacy, political planning, our citizens are sovereigns, and the Congress is their subordinate agent,” Meiklejohn wrote.
“Whatever may be the immediate gains and losses, the dangers to our safety arising from political suppression are always greater than the dangers to that safety arising from political freedom. Suppression is always foolish. Freedom is always wise. That is the faith, the experimental faith, by which we Americans have undertaken to live.”
Wilkinson refused to speak to the authorities about his politics, including whether he had ever been a member of the communist party. But Wilkinson, convinced that being interrogated about his friends and his politics was a violation of freedom of speech, fought efforts to throw him in prison not by invoking the constitutional amendment against self incrimination, but rather the first amendment. By a five to four decision, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, and he sent to prison for 15 years.
Wilkinson never had a chance against the combined power of the city’s police and press and real estate lobby. At one point he was reduced to being a night custodian in a Pasadena department store, with the promise not to tell he had been given a job there.
He went to prison for trying to build public housing on city land, but they erected a stadium instead.
So Mr. “Magic” Johnson, please don’t become one of those sports moguls who “make millions” from taxpayer subsidies at the same time the city dads who are granting such dispensations cry poverty when anyone suggests support for the arts or music, museums or libraries, or the poor.
Look carefully at the institution you now “own.” Look, “Magic,” if I may presume, I know that stadium isn’t quite Dachau or Auschwitz, but I’m not sure that it was just coincidence a slimebucket like McCourt swooped in as its proprietor, and walked away with millions of dollars–really our dollars. Maybe it would be better if the whole thing were demolished. Forget the bread and circuses. Tear down Dodger Stadium and build some great public housing there instead. And make sure they have plenty of murals and musicians and poets to serenade us as we walk its pleasant pathways.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of “Literary L.A.,” about which a documentary is being made http://facebook.com/literaryla. Many of his books, including “Literary L.A.,” “Fat Man on the Left,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey” and “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather” are available digitally in Amazon’s Kindlestore.