Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers and the Lives Caught in Between by Eric Nusbaum
Published by Public Affairs/Hatchet Book Group 2020
Have you ever read an excellent book, put it down and said, “Man, I wish I’d written that?” Well, that was my reaction when I read the last page of “Stealing Home” by Eric Nusbaum. I wish I’d written it. Not only is it a book that’s methodically researched and eloquently written–it is something that just happened to resonate with me and with my family history in a very particular way. The Mexican families in this book followed similar historical paths from Mexico to Los Angeles as my own family. That made the story Nusbaum tells all the more engaging for me.
But aside from the personal resonance, it stands out as an exceptional storytelling achievement. It is a perceptive examination and analysis of an important chapter of American history.
It’s a true story, meticulously documented, but it often reads like a novel. The writing is clean and crisp and always illuminating. If you live in Los Angeles (especially if you grew up here) you are at least familiar with the broad outlines of how the Brooklyn Dodgers came to L.A. in the late 1950s. You are familiar with newspaper photographs of Mexican families being forcibly booted out of their homes by shotgun-wielding Sheriff’s deputies with bulldozers, engines idling, in the background, ready to demolish the homes of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Those images are ingrained in many of us in the Chicano community. But the real story is in the particulars–in the details. This book provides them.
Dodger Stadium was built where longstanding Mexican communities–La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop–were destroyed to make room for Major League Baseball in L.A. Those communities came to be referred to collectively as Chavez Ravine. (When I was a little boy my family lived in La Loma; today that little barrio is a Dodger Stadium parking lot.) But the story of how Mexican residents were displaced and Major League Baseball came to California is a complex and intriguing tale. And “Stealing Home” tells the story seamlessly – like a baseball game play-by-play by the inimitable golden-voiced Vin Scully. The book is that good. And that satisfying to read.
Nusbaum weaves the stories of a number of individuals and events into the fabric of the tale. One family that was among those uprooted from Chavez Ravine by Los Angeles city and county officials was the Aréchiga family. Like my own family, they made the trek from Mexico (Zacatecas, specifically) to the copper mines of Morenci, Arizona, and then on to Los Angeles. (By contrast, my family went from Chihuahua to Morenci to L.A.) The Aréchiga family, representative of many families who left Mexico not long after the 1910 Revolution and made their way northward seeking stability and a better life, was characterized by a life of struggle and perseverance.
In the 1920s the copper mines in Arizona provided jobs and opportunity and hope. Then the Great Depression silenced the cacophony of the mines. Men and women were out of work and hungry. Then the Hoover Administration began the pernicious “Repatriation” program. The president essentially blamed Mexicans for the economic hard times (sound familiar?) and ordered Mexicans in the United States to go back to Mexico. Many were rounded up or threatened by the United States military (sound familiar?) My parents found themselves back in Mexico. But they eventually went northward again.
In the years following World War II my family (eight siblings) worked the piscas in the Central Valley of California until 1950. That year my family made its way to L.A. and I was born. We lived in Chinatown and La Loma when I was an infant and a toddler. (I was born the year Vin Scully began broadcasting games of the Brooklyn Dodgers.)
There are many parallels between my family and the Aréchiga family and the scores of other families who built safe and promising lives in what came to be known as Chavez Ravine. But moneyed interest would disrupt those seemingly peaceful lives, just a few miles from a frenetically growing downtown Los Angeles. “Stealing Home” reveals how developers, politicians and Walter O’Malley of the Brooklyn Dodgers schemed and manipulated in order to give the Brooklyn Dodgers a new home.
The book presents memorable portraits of the individuals involved, from young and ambitious Roz Wyman of the L.A. City Council to the predatory Otis Chandler of the nefarious L.A. Times to rapacious developer Fritz Burns to a host of demonstrably corrupt and avaricious City Hall politicians. That includes the unscrupulous William Parker, L.A.’s police chief. Parker was an iron-fisted authoritarian whose racist disdain for Mexicans/Chicanos is well documented. What a host of characters!
And there’s a singular character in the story whose sincere beliefs and humane and heartfelt activism ultimately make him a genuinely tragic figure in the tale. That man was civil servant Frank Wilkinson. A decent, good-hearted man, Wilkinson wanted to abolish slums, eliminate hunger and poverty and provide safety and dignity to the poor. His guiding belief was that modern, clean public housing was part of that solution. There was controversy in that viewpoint.
He was undeterred in his support of the potential for public housing in La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop. Because of the advocacy of Wilkinson and many others, the land in Chavez Ravine was designated as the site of a massive public housing project. It was never built, of course. The modest houses that ringed the hills of Elysian Valley were largely owned by poor but industrious Mexican families. Evictions began. Lots of shenanigans ensued.
When most of the dust settled, the city owned most of the land; Mexican families were being removed. That provided an opening for Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley and L.A.’s burghers who were eager to bend over backwards to lure Big League baseball to town.
A series of dynamic forces came into play about the time the Brooklyn Dodgers began looking for a new home in L.A. Crooked deals at City Hall. McCarthyism and redbaiting. Unctuous underhanded unscrupulous business dealing. That and more set the stage for the building of Dodger Stadium. The land in Chavez Ravine, which was intended for public housing, was swapped with another chunk of land, giving the site of the once-and-future Dodger Stadium to the cigar-chomping O’Malley.
Chaos and damage to innocent people characterized the process that eventually enabled the first pitch to be thrown in the ballpark.
The stadium opened in 1962. During that first season my friends and I often walked there from Lincoln Heights and paid two-fifty for a general admission seat. I fell for the Dodgers, and baseball in general. But many in the Mexican community of L.A. did not. The images of people being dragged out of their houses were still fresh in the minds of the Chicanada. That experience represented a giant slap in the face of la raza by the gringo Powers That Be. That feeling of being grotesquely disrespected endured. It took the emergence of Fernando Valenzuela and “Fernandomania” twenty years later to allow some folks begin to forgive the Dodgers.
It’s all chronicled masterfully in “Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers and the Lives Caught in Between.” A remarkable book about a remarkable chapter of modern history. Glad Eric Nusbaum wrote it; I wish I had.
Copyright 2020 by Luis R. Torres. To contact Torres write: Luis.firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos of Chavez Ravine evictions and of Walter O’Malley copyrighted by USC Libraries and used with the permission of the USC Digital Library, Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection. Photo of Dodger Stadium by Frederick Dennstedt and used under the Creative Commons Attribute Share Alike licensing.