Curveball Right Down the Middle
Battered but not bloodied, O’Malley had taken everything thrown his way in stride. Although he had plenty of solid support in Los Angeles, O’Malley found that the political atmosphere and obstacles were equally challenging as the decade he had spent in New York trying to build a stadium there, locked in horns with Moses, Wagner, Abe Stark, Chester Allen, et al. Now, only the names had been changed to John Holland, Earle Baker, Harold Henry, Patrick McGee, San Diego’s Smith brothers, and attorney Phill Silver, to name a few. But, the next curveball thrown his way was one that almost caused him to strike out in Los Angeles.
A major hiccup in the new stadium process occurred when a coalition to oppose the city’s ordinance to approve the contract for Chavez Ravine emerged. The opposition had to muster some 51,767 qualified signatures on a petition to force a vote of the electors on the referendum known as “Proposition B.” But, they did, meaning a public vote could have destroyed O’Malley’s longtime dream. “I was not aware of a thing called a referendum,” said O’Malley. “We don’t have them in New York.”Boston Globe, Sports Plus, July 28, 1978 A “Yes” vote meant that the contract with the Dodgers and the city would be approved, while a “No” vote meant the previously signed city contract would be rejected. The city went to bat for the Dodgers, granting their request to select the letter “B” for the proposition to remind voters of baseball.
O’Malley issued a lengthy press release on May 26, 1958 recapping all of the ways that the Dodgers had acted in good faith in moving west, stating the following:
“The National League does have the right to move the franchise BUT I shall fight any such attempt with all my strength. The players and our staff want to stay in Los Angeles. We like the location, the weather, the fans and the attendance records. We plan to be in Los Angeles PERMANENTLY. I pledge myself to try to keep major league baseball here.
“We appreciate the contract with the City and County of Los Angeles negotiated with the Dodgers has the support of every worthwhile civic organization...
“It is a miserable situation which finds our players and staff worrying over the opposition of two councilmen and one minor league owner. We regret being in the throes of a political controversy instead of a contender in the National League race for the pennant. J.A. Smith testified he and his brother own the San Diego Baseball Club and that he put up about 40% of the money to circulate the Referendum petition. His San Diego interest in keeping major league baseball out of Los Angeles is obvious. Without his contributions we probably never would have had the Referendum. As to the councilmen, they are public officials and they voted on the matter. I regret that they want to second-guess the official vote of their body.
“The Dodgers have acted in good faith and have obligated themselves as follows:
- We have already moved the franchise to Los Angeles.
- A contract has been signed by the Dodgers and Giants to pay the Pacific Coast League $900,000 for this privilege.
- We have contracted to pay the Coliseum $600,000 in round figures for a two-year lease. We receive no parking fees at the Coliseum.
- We have spent $300,000 converting the Coliseum for temporary baseball use, including restoration to original conditions for the following: Mary’s Hour, Scout-O-Rama, collegiate track meets, American Legion fireworks and college and professional football games at a cost of another $50,000.
- We gave up the Fourth of July date plus other dates to accommodate traditional tenants.
- We still own and maintain Wrigley Field. In addition, we are maintaining Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. We are the only ball club in the country with three vacant ball parks while paying the highest rental in the country to play in a converted one.
- We have committed ourselves by contract to build what I know will be the finest and most modern baseball stadium in the world at Chavez Ravine. We will make up all excess costs for grading and interior roads. Yankee Stadium was built in 1923 with baseball money. All other major league stadia since have been built with taxpayers’ money on tax-exempt property. When the Braves move[d] from Boston to Milwaukee they became tenants in County Stadium. When the Browns went from St. Louis to Baltimore they moved into Memorial Stadium. Kansas City purchased the Blues’ Stadium from the Yankees and refurbished it for major league ball and the Philadelphia Athletics. San Francisco has voted on a bond issue to house the Giants in their new ball park. The Dodgers, on the other hand, will build, finance and maintain a baseball park, pay taxes and become part of your Los Angeles family. We believe this shows our faith in BASEBALL and LOS ANGELES.
- We have committed ourselves by contract to donate to the City of Los Angeles for twenty years a $500,000 Youth Recreation Center and to financially support it at the rate of $60,000 per year.
- We have committed ourselves and contracted to turn over Wrigley Field — land, stadium, equipment and lights — to the City of Los Angeles. This has been appraised at $2,250,000 by the City. Reproduction costs have been testified to as $4,250,000 by City officials. (Several years ago Mr. Wrigley had a careful study made and reproduction cost at that time was given as $4,500,000.) We bought Wrigley Field and the Los Angeles minor league franchise for $3,000,000.
- We have kept every promise we made and we know the City and County will do likewise.
“In view of the above,” O’Malley continued in the press release, “it is inconceivable that there is any merit to the suggestions made by opponents of major league baseball that this contract should be renegotiated. IT CANNOT BE RENEGOTIATED. There is a serious business recession on now as all wage-earners and business people know. Suppose the Dodgers at this delicate time had the temerity to ask that the contract be renegotiated downward? Can you imagine the uproar these same critics would raise? The Dodgers signed the contract offered to them and intend to remain honorable in its performance. The present referendum has already brought us to the time of economic recession. Immediate construction at Chavez Ravine would help employment and business and fulfill our National League commitments to be in the new ball park for the 1960 season.
“We are BASEBALL folks — not oil operators or real estate promoters. Out of 314 acres in a rugged terrain we can carve only enough shelves for the Stadium, Youth Center and parking fields for 17,500 cars.
“Finally, let me say this. All my inclinations are not to get into this fray. I have carefully refrained from doing so.
- We will fight to stay in Los Angeles.
- There is neither the time nor the willingness on either side to renegotiate what is already a fair contract — and suffer the chance of still another referendum election.
- The National League — and not the ball club — controls the franchise. They could force us to move if we cannot provide the home we promised them by 1960.
- We have fulfilled and will fulfill all conditions of the contract — and are confident that the voters will want to do likewise.”
In an Associated Press poll published on May 24, 1958, the “No on Proposition B” referendum voters were ahead by a 44.7 to 43.3 margin, while 12 percent had “no opinion.”Los Angeles Examiner, May 24, 1958, AP Poll The City Council had already approved of the Chavez Ravine contract by a 10-4 margin, but opposition grew from individuals who mistakenly didn’t believe O’Malley’s private enterprise should receive any special concessions using public money.
The “Proposition B” referendum vote took place on June 3, 1958 and O’Malley and the Dodgers, using all means of communication available, including straightforward television messages, brought their side of the story to the public. Two days earlier on Sunday, June 1, as the Dodgers completed a road trip in Chicago, a live, five-hour Dodgerthon on KTTV Channel 11 was held in support of the contract and O’Malley’s new stadium. A jam-packed lineup of civic leaders, celebrities, and sports stars, including Jerry Lewis, Ronald Reagan, George Burns, Chairman Joe E. Brown of the Taxpayers’ Committee for “Yes on Baseball,” Dean Martin, Jack Benny, Laraine Day, Debbie Reynolds, Ray Walston, Casey Stengel and Jackie Robinson (via tape) participated on the show. The culmination of the show was the Dodgers’ arrival via United Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport before thousands of adoring fans who crashed their way through the gate to push onto the tarmac and greet their hometown heroes. The next night O’Malley made his key points for supporting Proposition B on local television (Channel 13), while on the same show his opponent J.A. Smith gave opposing viewpoints.
Celebrity support was nothing new for the Dodgers, who had an impressive first-year list of season box holders in 1958, including Gregory Peck, Yul Brynner, Eddie Fisher, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Cecil B. deMille, Sam Goldwyn, Reynolds and Lewis. Doggone if even the famed four-legged star “Lassie,” who boasted her own series, purchased season seats.
The Dodgers had defeated the Cubs on a bitter cold day at Chicago’s Wrigley Field and the momentum of that victory helped to bolster the positive referendum vote in O’Malley’s opinion.
Every type of business supported “Proposition B,” including industry, labor, taxpayers’ associations, veterans, realtors, the ministry, entertainment, Chambers of Commerce and politicians at City Hall.
The largest non-Presidential election turnout in Los Angeles history resulted, as 62.3 percent of the city’s 1,105,427 registered voters cast ballots.New York Journal American, June 4, 1958, AP story The referendum favored O’Malley and the Dodgers by 25,785 votes, with more than 670,000 total votes cast.
Asked if he was surprised by the close vote on the referendum, O’Malley said, “In baseball we have learned to call it a victory and it counts in the standings, whether you win by 1 to 0 or by a big score.”Mirror News, June 5, 1958
Meanwhile, on the field, Los Angelenos embraced their new baseball team with gusto. They flocked to the Coliseum to watch the Dodgers, setting attendance records every year in the majors. One area that O’Malley had been dead-on target was the Los Angeles area fans’ support for a major league baseball team. When the Giants came to town, the rivalry which had started in New York never waned in California, something that owners O’Malley and Stoneham had hoped would continue and were delighted to see. While the 1958 Dodgers had trouble getting out of the gate, Major League Baseball was gaining acceptance in its new environs due in large part to one man.