Books about the intersection of sports and society are in my wheelhouse. Given that, and a current inclination for any kind of Dodgers nostalgia — no doubt encouraged by the pending retirement of Vin Scully — I was eager to read both Michael Leahy’s The Last Innocents, and Michael Fallon’s Dodgerland.
The Dodgers — first of Brooklyn, now of Los Angeles — are one of the most heralded and successful baseball clubs. Its later years in Brooklyn have been famously chronicled by the likes of Roger Kahn. These two books, both released earlier this year yet entirely unrelated, respectively cover years from the 1960’s and ’70s, its first two full decades in Los Angeles. It was a time of transition for both the sport and the city.
The team moved out west in 1957, two years after its only World Series title. In its early years in LA, the team was a force, winning multiple pennants in the first decade. It was always wildly popular, especially once it moved into its sparkling new stadium in Chavez Ravine for the 1962 season. It was a period of ascendance for Los Angeles and California as a whole. Migrants moved west in droves, seeking a California dream that became synonymous with the American dream. Cold War uneasiness abounded, but so did strong economic growth and upward mobility.
The Dodgers were well poised to benefit from this, and they were shrewd in doing so. They played far more night games than was the norm; their games radio in the evening gave people something to do and new arrivals an avenue by which they could feel connected to their new home. The entertainment industry that also called the city home meant that some of the more prominent Dodgers became celebrities in their own right, appearing on talk and variety shows.
The subtitle of Leahy’s book, “The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers” speaks to the changes and conflicts underway in the mid-’60s. In some cases, Dodgers players were directly involved. As the Watts riots were underway in 1965, Maury Willis stood guard outside the dry cleaner he owned so rioters would know it was a black-owned business. In the aftermath, John Roseboro was hired to help the LAPD with race relations. The likes of Lou Johnson and key opponent Mudcat Grant also figure into the civil rights issues of the era. Dodgers players were also central to the changing power structure within the game, which culminates in the holdouts of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, in search of pay that reflected the superstars they were. It is, ultimately, a book about people, and shines in this respect. What motivated Koufax and Drysdale, and the stories of the likes of Maury Willis and Wes Parker, are powerful and deserve to be heard.
Fast forward about a decade, and Dodgerland picks up the story. Success on the field has been harder to come by in the the time in between. The two Walters, constants since the Brooklyn days, are fading into the background — manager Alston is replaced for the 1977 season; owner O’Malley turns the reigns over to his son. Baseball has gone through dramatic changes. Free agency has arrived, and players have salaries and more freedom to move around than ever before. Multi-year contracts, previously a non-starter for the Dodgers, are now the norm throughout baseball. The Dodgerland story is told through the prism of four Toms — LaSorda, the new manager; Bradley, the (first African-American) Mayor; Fallon, the author’s grandfather; and Wolfe, the famous writer, gazing askance from across the country. The California Dream has been replaced by California Decadence (as the book’s subtitle references). An era of seemingly unending prosperity and upward mobility turns to one of struggle and uncertainty. LaSorda tries to make his mark on the club, Bradley deals with a myriad of issues — the book gives a lot of attention to his efforts to land the 1984 Summer Olympics, Fallon tries to build and grow a family business.
Fallon also brings personal insight into the principles. The readers learns much about LaSorda and Bradley, in the former’s case many things not known well to fans; the family aspect is a look into the experiences, the triumphs and the hardships, of middle class Californians in that era.
Both Leahy and Fallon are Dodgers fans writing about periods from their childhood. Leahy makes reference to games he attended in person. There is enough quality writing about the baseball itself to make both books interesting to fans. Both the action on the field and off of it, and the revealing insights into the backgrounds and characters of players off of it, are gripping. What really stands out, reading them consecutively as I did earlier this summer, is the broader context they bring in. They’re not just the story of the Dodgers, but of Los Angeles, as it rose to pre-eminence in the second half of the 20th century.