Monday, May 16, 2011
FEBRUARY 20, 1961, SPORTS
Copyright 1961/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
Walter's Way West
The time is January, 1957, the place, Wilshire Boulevard, a warm, winter day with the sun shining through the windows of the Auto Club branch office as the man pauses at the counter.
This is a pleasant man with a full belly flopping behind his out-of-fashion double-breasted suit. He is holding a cigar which is stuck in a filter-less white plastic holder and an ash flops off onto the lapel of his suit as he stands there.
He is wearing a hat which stamps him an outlander in this land of sunshine. His eyes twinkle behind old-fashioned rimless glasses without which he would resemble a benign, smiling Buddha.
His voice, when he speaks, sounds like a rusty hacksaw being drawn across a corroded iron pipe and his chins bobble when he talks. "Pardon me, young man," rasps Walter O'Malley politely. "Can you tell me where Chavez Ravine is?"
A Question With Big Implications That was four years ago. But in the little world of baseball, that question was as full of portent as if George Washington had sidled up to a Hessian guard and asked him how wide the Delaware was at Trenton or what was the best way to get to Yorktown — or if Lincoln had called downstairs at the White House and asked Mary how to spell "Emancipation."
Now, it's 1961, and I stood on a side hill with a group of other kibitzers the other day and pondered the implications of O'Malley's question and wondered if the clerk who unraveled the auto club map that day knew he was disclosing the future capital of baseball.
Far below me, a fleet of Euclid carryalls were crawling down hillsides like giant diesel beetles disgorging 20 cubic yards of earth at a crack or enough to build a lawn.
Mountains 'Moved' for O'Malley
Bulldozers and compactors were leveling a road which was 60 feet above the roadbed of an existing one. Two mountains have had their crowns sliced off and it is doubtful if so much earth has been moved so fast since the island of Krakotoa disappeared in a volcano in the Pacific in 1883.
Eight million cubic yards of earth will have been swept aside and relocated, whole hills of rocks will have been dynamited (and one workman gave his life) to make a playing field for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels in 1962.
It is an impressive dream Walter O'Malley is fulfilling — at a total cost to all parties of more than $20 million. And it is possible to reflect on the long hard road he had to travel to do it.
O'Malley had certain misconceptions about California when he first came here. For one thing, he must have thought the sun shone at night. At least, he told the Coliseum people he couldn't locate his diamond in the peristyle end because the sun would be in his batters' eyes.
Rude Awakening for Walter
For another, he thought he could build his ballpark in the Ravine on a 99-year lease at one dollar annual rental and no real estate taxes. He was outrageously encouraged in that notion by overenthusiastic politicians who either didn't realize it was just openers by O'Malley or who reasoned they could tone down the extravagances once they had lured him West.
Mayor Poulson once explained it to me: "I'm like the old owl who sees a slow-moving centipede and says 'Hey, you ought to get rid of those legs and get some like a grasshopper so you could move faster.' When the centipede said, 'How,' the owl said, 'I dunno. I only set policy.' "
O'Malley's centipede was turned into a grasshopper by hard-working, hard-headed city lawyers who scaled down his hopes — and his acreage — until today, Walter, a lawyer himself who understands, is prepared to shell out over $16,000,000 to build and pay the city $360,000 a year in taxes.
Dodger Owner Hard to Analyze
It took a long time. Part of the trouble was that O'Malley's personality, described by a friend as "part-Machiavelli-part leprechaun," was baffling to the Westerner who was sure Walter had a marked deck on him even when he didn't.
It should be comforting to those who feared the worst, and freely predicted it, to see that the structure in Chavez Ravine is, indeed, a baseball park, the world's finest, and that the home sites O'Malley shelled out $494,000 to clear will be parking lots.
It should be a showplace of the world of sport and a fitting complement to the Coliseum, Rose Bowl and Sports Arena which were also built only after earsplitting controversy.
Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.
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