Friday, 31 August 2018

THE DOME THAT DIDN’T GET BUILT…Part II

1987 Mother's Cookies Dodger Stadium trading card (US Public Domain)

In early 1957, O’Malley--his back to the wall--decided to play both ends against the middle by cleverly switching minor league franchises with Cubs owner Phil Wrigley. It cost O’Malley $3 million. For that, he received the Los Angeles Angels of the Triple A Pacific Coast League and their stadium, in exchange for the Fort Worth Panthers of the Double A Texas League. O’Malley’s transaction then gave him exclusive rights to any future major league move to Los Angeles. The reason: O’Malley knew that Los Angeles officials were still intent on bringing the Dodgers west and he didn’t want to miss out if the opportunity presented itself.

Back in New York, at a private meeting where two powerful figures locked horns, Robert Moses informed O’Malley that a better stadium spot loomed in Flushing Meadows, Queens, the site of the 1939 World’s Fair and where Shea Stadium was eventually built a decade later. Moses’ vision saw all three New York major league teams using the facility. O’Malley wasn’t the least bit interested in Queens or sharing any new park with the Giants and Yankees.

“Dodger fans won’t go for it,” he told Moses, bluntly. “It’s not Brooklyn.”

Moses wouldn’t budge. Faced with the “take it or leave it” Flushing Meadows ploy, O’Malley made preliminary plans, should the California relocation scheme become reality. He also knew that he needed another team to head west with him. The most obvious was his crosstown National League rival New York Giants, owned by Horace Stoneham, whose club had been plagued with dismal attendance figures at the 55,000-seat Polo Grounds, a park equally dilapidated as Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.

Since his 1954 World Series championship year, Stoneham had considered moving the Giants to Minneapolis where he owned a Triple A club in the American Association. O’Malley convinced Stoneham to relocate to San Francisco instead, where the Dodger-Giant rivalry would continue unabated. The customary train travel for the six opposing teams was now out of the question. It would be beneficial for them to fly in and play both the Giants and Dodgers on any western swing, thus cutting costs for the other teams around the league. Stoneham agreed with O’Malley and the two made the moves with the right people in the respective California cities.

Then it happened: And it was a news shocker, to say the least. League owners approved the move of both New York teams in August 1957, with a few weeks still to go in the season, leaving National League fans in both New York and Brooklyn in a state of depression that lasted for years. From then on, O’Malley was loved in Los Angeles and loathed in Brooklyn.

While playing their home games at the massive, unfit-for-baseball Los Angeles Coliseum beginning in 1958, the offensive-minded Dodgers with their over-the-hill roster finished a distant seventh. Changes had to be made. For 1959, they turned to speed and defense with younger players and won their first pennant and World Series in Los Angeles. And there were more championships to come in the early- to mid-1960s.

In 1962, O’Malley moved his club to his new 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium, a $23 million open-air facility tucked inside the hills of Chavez Ravine, the first privately-financed park since Yankee Stadium had opened in 1923. At the junction of Hollywood and Pasadena Freeways, it had 16,000 parking spaces. That first year, 2.75 million fans filed through the Dodger Stadium turnstiles to set a major league attendance record. No dome, but O’Malley got a beautiful stadium built for his Dodgers and he would fill the place for years.

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Dodger owner Walter O'Malley (US Public Domain)
In 1965, the all-purpose, air-conditioned Houston Astrodome opened amid much fanfare. The Harris County Domed Stadium, as it was initially called, took on the title of “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” At a cost of $35 million ($275 million in 2018 dollars), it soared 18 stories high and spanned 710 feet in diameter. Inside, the 208-foot ceiling structure rose above a playing field that had been dug 25 feet below ground level. Seating capacity for baseball was 42,000, another 8,000 more for football.

After all the pizazz and glamor died down, serious glitches quickly emerged. The translucent roof (installed to allow sunlight in) was causing a significant glare for the defense on most popups. Uncaught balls were dropping at will. For fear of getting knocked out or worse, some safety minded players even resorted to wearing batting helmets in the field.

Then, during a May 23, 1965 afternoon game, with two out and two runners on base in the top of the first inning, Houston Astros center fielder Jimmy Wynn lined himself up to catch an arching fly off the bat of Jim Ray Hart of the San Francisco Giants. The scene was a fiasco waiting to happen. Wynn lost the ball against the bright glimmer above. A few seconds later, the dying missile plunged to earth between him and the fence. Three runs scored, compliments of a Hart inside-the-park home run. The Giants went on to win the game 5-2.

As a result of this incident and many others before it, technicians were forced to climb the Astrodome roof and spray-paint the individual, clear panels. But by doing that, the natural grass below eventually turned yellow and died from lack of sunlight. This led to the installation of fake grass: what we now know as the iconic AstroTurf.

In the midst of these misadventures, the Astrodome drew 2.1 million baseball fans in its inaugural year, more than half a million better than any American League club and second overall to O’Malley’s Los Angeles Dodgers, even though the Astros finished ninth in the National League standings with a 65-97 record. Since 1965, many other domes have sprung up such as the Superdome, AT & T Stadium, the Rogers Centre in Canada, and NRG Stadium in Houston that replaced the obsolete Astrodome in 1999. In 2014, the Astrodome was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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The Houston Astrodome (US Public Domain)

Walter O’Malley’s Dodger Dome could have been the first of its kind and receive all the glory, instead of the Astrodome. Yet, some historians have conjectured that the idea of a dome in the 1950s was so outrageous that by O’Malley demanding such a huge, seemingly unworkable project for Brooklyn led to 
the perfect excuse for him to vacate Ebbets Field and the borough itself, which he had possibly wanted to do as early as 1951. Was the dome his way of getting what he wanted? Ultimately, Los Angeles gave O’Malley everything--the land and the park. Or, was he really serious about the dome and wished to stay? Was he a visionary or a con-artist? A hero or villain? Both sides have substance.

One thing’s for certain, O’Malley and his technicians would have been the first ones dealing with the clear panels and the grass problems had the translucent structure been built. Was the 1950s ready for artificial grass? Who knows? But, I’m sure American ingenuity would have risen to the occasion as it always does.
Many people believe that Robert Moses should’ve shouldered at least half, if not most or all the blame for the Dodgers departing Brooklyn. Then again, maybe, neither he nor the local fans and politicians ever expected O’Malley to actually leave. Soon after the exodus, O’Malley jokes spread throughout the proud borough of Brooklyn. One was…“Who were the three most-hated persons of the twentieth century?” Answer…Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and…Walter O’Malley. Another was…“If a Brooklyn man was in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and O’Malley, but had only two bullets in his gun, what would he do?” Answer…shoot O’Malley, twice.

We will never know Walter O’Malley’s true intent. Although, to his dying day in 1979, two months shy of his 76th birthday, he always maintained that he had preferred to stay in Brooklyn and build his majestic dome on his home turf. Instead, what he did accomplish by heading west--maybe without realizing it at first--was take major league baseball kicking and screaming into the modern age of jet travel, thus changing the game forever from a regional eastern sport to that of a national one.

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