Will the curtain come down on Dodgertown?

So much has been written about the baseball landmark we call Dodgertown that a book would probably be more appropriate. However, for the sake of brevity, I will give an overview of its rich history and then describe my two wonderful days on the grounds during this year’s Spring Training.

Though I will barely scratch the surface, I’m hoping that those who have never had the privilege of visiting Dodgertown will get a feel for the place as its time as a baseball institution winds down.

Like many baseball clubs, the Brooklyn Dodgers had trained during preseason in various locales, including Bear Mountain, N.Y., Catalina Island off the coast of California, the Dominican Republic and Havana, Cuba. As a franchise ahead of its time socially in the late 1940s with the signing of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and others, a practical location in a non-segregated area was essential to establishing team harmony while accommodating the vast farm system that president Branch Rickey had built.

The beginning of Dodgertown
Vero Beach, Fla., was a sleepy little town in the 1940s, with alligators likely outnumbering civilians. However, it was the site of a once-important Naval air base that had been abandoned at the end of World War II. The U.S. government had turned over the vast property to the town, and the question was what to do with it. It was then that local businessman Bud Holman contacted the Dodgers with the news that there was a facility that would fit their every need just waiting to be had in beautiful Vero Beach. General manager Buzzie Bavasi, Branch Rickey and owner Walter O’Malley were persuaded to come down for a look, and they liked what they saw, which was fields as far the eye could see for both major and minor league use; ready-made, military-style barracks that could adequately house hundreds of men and Dodger staff; accessibility by an airport on the premises; and the potential for expansion and refinement.

Best of all, it was cheap.

Rickey and O’Malley, baseball visionaries who brought about the modern baseball farm system, integration and West Coast baseball, set about creating the standard by which the tradition we now call Spring Training would be established. Holman, a Cadillac dealership owner, had his own vision of transforming Vero Beach into a small city. He had already convinced Eastern Air Lines to make Vero’s airport a fueling stop.

As previously mentioned, the Dodgers pioneered integration in the 20th century; sadly, in 1948, Florida was just one of many southern states in which Jim Crow was alive and well. Vero Beach, though not as bad as some, still was reflective of its time. The late Joe Black remembered that “. . . You had signs for colored and white. When Jackie first signed, the Dodgers would go to towns to play exhibition games, and the sheriffs were locking the ballparks or telling them that if Jackie gets on the field they’re gonna arrest him . . . That’s why they developed Dodgertown – so they’d have their own training camp . . . We didn’t go to Vero Beach proper because we couldn’t go in the stores or the restaurants, and so Dodgertown was our home . . . There was nothing for the Dodgers to apologize for. That was the mores of our nation.”

What Rickey and O’Malley envisioned, and later realized, was a completely self-contained complex where the players – white or black – could train, eat and relax together, away from a society that still frowned upon such practices.
Of course, the early years were, to be kind, somewhat spartan. The playing fields were uneven, reptiles prowled the grounds and the naval barracks were uncomfortable (and, on early season nights, cold.) Also, since there was yet no official ballpark, the Dodgers would have to bus down to Miami Stadium or elsewhere to play other teams.

That first season saw the refurbishment of the two barracks, and the establishment of offices, a mess hall and rudimentary recreational facilities. A Class-C minor leaguer might find himself on the morning chow line with O’Malley himself. Two practice fields and a third with temporary stands were utilized. Among the diversions that would become available to the players were shuffleboard, ping pong, billiards, and a movie theater. Rickey asked that a swimming pool be installed, and O’Malley designed a golf course. Dodgertown would also boast its own post office, canteen, barber shop, Western Union office and lounge.

During the early days of Spring Training, the players were jolted awake at 6 a.m. by a whistle. They grabbed some breakfast and then, after a full-group lecture (usually by Rickey on some nuance of the game), they broke up into rotating instructional stations on the various techniques of hitting, pitching and base-running. In time, the regimen was streamlined into the well-oiled machine we see today in just about every camp from Sarasota to Scottsdale.

As time went on, the living quarters acquired more efficient heating and air conditioning, the chow line evolved into a restaurant with linen tablecloths and a choice of entrees and club executives and visiting press were treated to cocktails and hors d’oeuvres each afternoon.

Of course, the arrival of Jackie Robinson coincided with a decade of success on the field which established the Dodgers as the preeminent franchise of the National League. Legendary names such as Duke Snider, Carl Erskine, Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese, as well as the aforementioned Robinson, Campanella and Newcombe, added to the glamour of Dodgertown. By the early ’50s, it was time for Dodgertown to build a stadium worthy of those players.

Upgrading Dodgertown
O’Malley, already thinking ahead to building a newer, more modern stadium in Brooklyn than tiny Ebbets Field, employed Capt. Emil Praeger, a noted architect, to design a scaled-down prototype that would serve the needs of this club during Spring Training.

The original proposal was for a 4,200-seat facility, open with no obstructed views, made of concrete and esthetically pleasing in its surroundings. It would cost substantial money, but O’Malley considered this money well-spent. Named for Bud Holman, it would open in 1953, coinciding with the signing of a 21-year lease agreement with the town of Vero Beach to stay put. The cost of the lease was $1 per year.

In its completed form, the ballpark would seat 5,000. (Stadia fans should note that O’Malley purchased 2,000 portable seats from the Polo Grounds at a buck apiece.) In the end, Holman Stadium, a state-of-the-art Spring Training ballpark, was completed in 55 days at a cost under $50,000. Some additions would be made later on, such as the outfield fence (which replaced a grass embankment) and royal palm trees beyond those fences, but if one closes his eyes for a moment in 2008, he can easily conjure images of the Boys of Summer in Spring Trainings past.

The years came and went; the Bums moved to Los Angeles and the Robinson-era players drifted into retirement. But each season, the Dodgers returned to Vero Beach, a true harbinger of spring. They were not the only ones to use the facility, however. Besides the Dodgers’ own minor league affiliate, Dodgertown has played host to the NFL Saints, Chiefs and Eagles; the Miami Hurricanes; the Chunichi Dragons and Osaka Buffaloes of Japan; and the LG Twins of Korea. For many years, an all-sports boys camp operated there as well. There were baseball fantasy camps, soccer camps and softball/baseball/horseshoe tournaments going on year-round.

In the ’60s, the Dodgers purchased an additional 110 acres of airport land from the city and continued a periodic upgrading of the facility and acquisitions of more land. The first MLB night exhibition game would be played at Holman Stadium in 1968. A second golf course came along, named Dodger Pines (which I had the pleasure of playing once).

Changing hands
O’Malley turned over the ballclub to son Peter in 1970 at Dodgertown, and a major renovation would follow in 1972, when 90 modern villas replaced the old living quarters. This was followed by an administration building in ’74, which included a clubhouse, medical department, dining room, broadcasting studio and equipment/training rooms for the different Dodger affiliates. The Dodgertown Conference Center was established in 1976, bringing in corporate businesses for meetings, seminars and conventions.

Meanwhile, the franchise kept rolling along under Peter O’Malley’s stewardship (Walter O’Malley would pass away in 1979), with multiple pennants as Walter Alston gave way to Tommy Lasorda, who would win two World Series in the ’80s.
The Boys of Summer of the ’50s evolved into the Koufax-Drysdale-Wills teams of the ’60s, the Garvey-Cey-Lopes-Russell squads of the ’70s and the Valenzuela-Guerrero-Hershiser-Gibson teams of the ’80s. Each spring at Dodgertown, the old guys would visit and even coach (Maury Wills and Sandy Koufax, on occasion, still show up to lend a hand), so you had that continuity of tradition and family.

But then things began to change. In March 1998, the O’Malleys sold the franchise to billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Thus began a changing of the guard throughout the organization, and by the new millennium, when I started my periodic visits to Dodgertown, the occasional upgrades in the facility were overshadowed by a nervousness over whether the Dodgers, the only West Coast team to train in Florida, would pull up stakes and move their Spring Training base of operations to a more cost-effective, hometown-fan friendly area, namely Arizona.

By 2006, it was kind of like a death watch. Life went on at Dodgertown, but there were cracks in the façade, so to speak, such as the Dodgers’ Vero Beach minor league club being replaced by a Tampa Bay Devil Rays team, and the Dodgers’ current owner, Frank McCourt, extolling the virtues of Glendale, Ariz., as a replacement for Dodgertown. Then there was the laments of Vero Beach columnists who mourned the inevitable defection of the Dodgers as far back as 2004, inviting speculation over whom, if anyone, would try to replace them.

The Torre Effect
By the time I made my travel arrangements in November 2007, sportswriters were already celebrating this Spring Training as the last go-round at Dodgertown, their columns a mix of nostalgia, resignation and sadness. No more Don Drysdale Drive or Vin Scully Way. No more Campy’s Bullpen. No more Holman Stadium. No more Dodgertown.

For my nostalgic trip to Dodgertown, I decided upon a two-day approach, book-ending my visits to Port St. Lucie and Viera. The thinking behind this was that session one, which coincided with the end of “Pitchers & Catchers,” would lend itself to prowling the entire complex, spending time in Holman Stadium and hopefully getting a quote or two. In other words, purely journalistic. The second day would be devoted to autograph collecting and whatever else came my way.

Even without the “last season at Dodgertown” factor, this Spring Training would be vastly different from those of the past decade due to the presence of a person who has been elevated to rock star (if not sainthood) status in the baseball world – and he’s not a player. I’m speaking about Joe Torre, former manager of the most recent Yankees dynasty (not the one who managed the Mets, Braves and Cardinals with modest results). Torre achieved a level of martyrdom in New York after what seemed like a cold, calculated dismissal by the Steinbrenner clan. Within days, Torre landed squarely on his feet in Los Angeles, where the Bums had grown impatient with manager Grady Little’s seeming inability to smooth out differences between the older and younger players in his clubhouse.

Torre brought some of his lieutenants with him – most notably Larry Bowa and Don Mattingly (though Donnie Baseball would be forced to relinquish his post as batting instructor for a lesser assignment due to family problems), and he immediately gave the L.A. manager’s position the most cache it has had since the tenure of Tommy Lasorda, whom I expected would still be on hand, along with many famous Dodgertown fixtures, such as Maury Wills and Manny Mota.
I had an inkling that Torre’s impact would resonate along the Treasure Coast with transplanted New Yorkers when my mom, who qualifies as a senior citizen, called me the day before my flight to Florida and excitedly proclaimed, “I got Joe Torre’s autograph!”

“You what?!”

“I got Joe’s autograph! You see, your father and I were coming back from Wal-Mart (senior citizens day) when I suddenly decided, ‘Let’s go by Dodgertown and see if the team (namely, Joe Torre, whom she’d loved as Yankees manager) is practicing.’ ” So, my parents drove over about midway through pitchers and catchers drills.

“There was a good crowd there, and most of them were there to see Joe. Well, he was out on the field and one fan yelled, ‘Hey Joe, how about an autograph?’ He told the fan to wait there and he’d sign later. I figured, I’ll wait here, too. So, after a while he came over, and sure enough, he was going to sign a few autographs. Well, you can’t imagine the crush of people behind me! (Welcome to the world of autograph hunting, Mom.) But when I looked in my pocketbook, all I had to get signed was the back of a sneaker store circular. So I gave that to him and he signed it, and I made sure to thank him for all he did in New York. He said you’re welcome, of course.”

“And where was Dad during all this?”

“Oh, you know your father. He didn’t want any part of it, and stayed in the back.”

A first-hand taste
However, Dad did tag along with me on visit No. 1, and it was good to have him. As we drove to Dodgertown, he told me that he’d been keeping up with the local papers on the Dodgertown saga. It seems that the club had started hedging on its final “evacuation date” with regard to whether their new digs in Glendale would be ready by next season. The local burghers of Vero, who would obviously like to see another team take the Dodgers’ place and thereby maintain their main winter tourist attraction, were becoming exasperated over what they considered stalling tactics.

The more immediate plan was for the Dodgers to hold the first weeks of training camp in Vero Beach and play all games up until March 11 at Holman Stadium with their Torre-led, complete squad. Then it would get complicated. Torre and some coaches would take what amounted to a “B” team to Bejing, China to play a few exhibitions against the Padres, while Dodger legend Tommy Lasorda (more on him later) would skipper the “A” club through all Vero-based games through March 18. Then, the two squads would converge in Arizona for some games the last 10 days or so of the schedule, culminating with a contest against the reigning World Champion Red Sox at the humongous L.A. Coliseum.

Dad and I caught the final day of pitchers and catchers, with a sun so bright it hurt your eyes. While he wandered over to one of the side fields to observe the already-in-progress drills, I took one really long stroll through Holman Stadium.

What a park! A modest scoreboard in left, outfield walls devoid of advertising with palm trees beyond the fences (and Dodger club buildings in right), the plastic chairs with cast-iron stanchions, most showing a lot of wear through the paint. Every seat is a good one. Outside, you have manicured hibiscus hedges, flower beds and, of course, palm trees. The fixtures atop surrounding light poles are oversized baseball globes. Very cool. Any fan is free to walk the entire premises (except the bullpen down the right field line, which is hidden from view and the site of, at times, top-secret pitching drills) at any time of the day, and it is not uncommon to catch some batting practice or witness the ageless Wills conducting a baserunning clinic.
Upon exiting the park, I passed by one of the Dodgers’ souvenir stands. In the past, there was a single memorabilia shop next to the ticket booth at Holman Stadium. Then they added a mobile truck, flanked by a food concession truck selling hot dogs, burgers, cold drinks and the like, which is situated on the other end of the complex near the former clubhouse and indoor batting cages. The one I entered on this day was of the outdoor tent variety, featuring a host of Spring Training 2008 shirts and even, inexplicably, a few racks of Red Sox paraphernalia.

Tommy Lasorda
It was when leaving the tent that I had my journalistic highlight moment. On the pathway, right in front of me, in his trademark golf cart, sat the one-and-only Lasorda in a bright print shirt and slacks, shooting the breeze with a few fans and signing autographs for their kids.

Now, I’ve observed Lasorda on numerous occasions, and he can come off as anything from utterly charming to cantankerous. Kids, especially polite ones, tend to fare better than unaccompanied (mostly male) adults. Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I approached him, identified myself as a writer for SCD and asked for a minute of his time, to which he nodded his approval.

“In a couple lines, what does Dodgertown mean to you?” was my question.

Without hesitation, he said, “I love it here. It’s the finest Spring Training sports complex of any team in the major leagues. The people coming around here have always been nice, and I’m gonna miss it.”

What I did not know at the time was that Lasorda, who had stopped managing in the mid-’90s, would be piloting the club in Torre’s stead during the middle of the Spring Training schedule, which must thrill him to no end. It is only fitting that this man, who is for all intents and purposes the Mayor – no, the King – of Dodgertown, should get to manage one more time. Let’s face it, since Lasorda hung ’em up, the team had been piloted by a succession of lesser lights, and he was, by far, the major presence in camp – until this year.

With the hoopla surrounding Torre, I had wondered what Lasorda’s role would be, and whether second banana status would sit well with him. Well, on this day (and on the second, as I will later explain), he was accessible and friendly, unless a person was a complete jerk in his presence. And that made me feel king of good, because when you hear someone lauded as “a great ambassador of baseball” in the media, you want that person to live up to the billing when you finally meet him.
Missed opportunity?

By the time I found Dad, the drills were starting to break up, and the players were drifting back toward the clubhouses via the famous small footbridge that separates Holman Stadium from the practice diamonds. As always, only a single yellow rope would separate the few hundred fans from the players. Since I had all my notes and photos and was putting off collecting duties until next time, we took off to avoid the crush.

But it seems that I outsmarted myself on this one, because the next day I almost gagged on my corn flakes when Mom placed the local newspaper in front of me with the headline “Koufax Pays Visit to Dodgertown.” Yep, there he was, looking trim in a cover page photo, lending instruction to pitcher Scott Proctor under the watchful eye of Torre. Koufax has become legendary for slipping in and out of both Dodgers and Mets camp (he was a high school teammate of Mets owner Fred Wilpon) with James Bond–like stealth. Though the special pitching seminar probably took place in the isolated bullpen area at Holman Stadium which I mentioned earlier, there was the slim chance that I could have run into him in my travels around the park. Oh well.

For day two, I would be on my own, armed with a few balls and the realization that this day’s experience would be my last until the next time I got down to Spring Training.

The first thing I noticed, now that full team workouts had officially commenced, was that there were hundreds more people than earlier in the week (though still not as mobbed as Port St. Lucie). I got there early and took my place outside the players’ entrance to Holman Stadium, where the guys would emerge to cross the tiny bridge to the practice fields. They came out, in their wonderfully white Dodger uniforms, in twos and threes, walking past the fans who stood politely behind the yellow rope, most acknowledging their presence with a wave or a hello, some promising to sign later on.

The Dodgers have some big-name players, with Nomar Garciaparra, Andruw Jones, Jeff Kent and Rafael Furcal leading the way, along with promising youngsters James Loney, Jason Repko and Matt Kemp rounding out a solid roster. The coaches entered next, with Torre and Mattingly, who looked oddly out of place with jersey No. 8, bringing up the rear in a golf cart, which was immediately swamped by fans. Some harried security personnel cleared a path, but it was clear they weren’t used to this stuff.

Torre pulled the cart onto one of the workout fields and proceeded to hold court with a host of reporters for the next hour, while Donnie Baseball hopped out and made his way over to the batting practice diamond. I made the rounds, snapping photos and taking it all in until 10:30 a.m. when I saw a first: they were setting up a table where Tommy Lasorda – resplendent in his Dodger uniform – was going to sign autographs! This was too good to miss.

So, I got in line (with hat and shades, of course) to check it out. Well, Tommy was Tommy. He was sweet to an older lady (“How old are you, my dear? Well, I’m 80 and I feel great.”) and reamed out some guy who was elbowing a kid out of the way. Then an older man said, “Tommy, I’d like you to take a picture with my grandson. He promised that afterward he’ll let me take him for a haircut.”

Tommy’s reply? “Why don’t you go for the haircut first and then we take the picture?”
Then, directly in front of me was a rather large, loud woman with two extremely annoying adolescent daughters (“How long are we gonna be here? We gotta work on our tans!”) who was determined to get her picture taken with Tommy.
“I’m gonna pose with Tommy Lasorda, and when I count to three, snap the picture,” she instructed. Then she turned to me and winked. Oh-oh.

So she steps up to the table, asks Tommy to pose (to which he agrees), slides around the table, leans in next to him, counts to three and promptly plants a wet one on his cheek as the camera clicks.
It’s good to be the King.

Some other notable images from my meanderings: Torre putting his arm around a young catcher’s shoulders while imparting some nugget of baseball wisdom; longtime coach Manny Mota cycling from station to station on a three-wheeled bike; Torre, Bowa and Mattingly side by side, wearing Dodger Blue instead of pinstripes; and a sudden sadness at the realization that I had not seen the familiar face of Wills, who had graciously given me some time and posed for photos with my wife upon our visit in 2005.

Saying goodbye
As practice drew to a close, I took my place on the footbridge near a security guy named Fred who has manned the same post for years. We became reacquainted, and I asked him for a prediction for next year’s occupant at Dodgertown. He looked both ways, and then said in a conspiratorial tone, “The Orioles.” You heard it here first, folks.

In drips and drabs, the players made their way across the bridge. The Torre-Mattingly golf cart was so engulfed by fans that I stayed clear with regard to my own safety. Garciaparra, who had been pictured in the previous day’s newspaper signing autographs under the headline “They Don’t Dodge Their Fans!” blew through the throng with nary a one. Then came a golf cart carrying a foursome which included free agent center fielder Andruw Jones (who by the look of his physique would have benefited more from the exercise of walking).

Good signers on this day included Brad Penny, Juan Pierre, Loney, Furcal, Jason Repko, Kemp, Proctor, Esteban Loiza and coaches Mike Easler and Rick Honeycutt. But the best signer award has to go to second baseman Jeff Kent, who conducted himself exactly as he had upon my ’05 visit, signing for around 200 fans, requesting only politeness on their part, engaging in good-natured banter and posing for pictures until every single person was satisfied.

And then it was over. The crowd dispersed, the security people packed up and left. I’d done OK, with a dozen or so signatures on one ball and a single-signed Tommy Lasorda (you didn’t think I’d pass that opportunity up, did you?) on the other. The next day I’d be on a plane back to Connecticut, where they were predicting a snowstorm.

I’ll miss Dodgertown. And, though I do hope another club moves in (rather than flattening it for condos, a golf course or a mall), it won’t be the same. Koufax, who popped up in Port St. Lucie a day later, would say of Dodgertown, “I think (their relocation) is almost understandable. The Dodger fans from New York are no longer with us. Most of their fan base is on the West Coast. It just sort of made sense to them, I guess. I’m not happy. I’m sad to see them go. I had a lot of friends there, but most of them are not there anymore, either. They’re retired, or whatever happens. That’s the way it works.”
Goodbye, Dodgertown.

Collectors can write to Paul Ferrante at 23 Benedict Ave., Fairfield, CT 06825 or via e-mail at
baseballjourney@sbcglobal.net.

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