The most important helicopter flight ever made over Los Angeles was in May of 1957. Aboard the chopper were Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenny Hahn, Los Angeles City Council member Roz Wyman, and Walter O'Malley, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. They were scouting for a location that would become the home of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Mr. O'Malley had his priorities of course: lots of space for the stadium and for parking, easy access from all over southern California and most important of all, he wanted to get the land for free. By the time the helicopter landed that day, Mr. O'Malley had, in principle at least, everything he wanted. The two elected officials got what they wanted too. Because they could take credit for clinching the deal that brought the Dodgers to Los Angeles, Wyman and Hahn were guaranteed re-election for as long as they cared to run for public office. For Mr. Hahn, that was an unprecedented 40 years.
Angelenos were not strangers to big league quality baseball. A lot of players, on their way up or on their way down from the majors were members of the Los Angeles Angels. It was a Pacific Coast League, AAA team that was part of the Chicago Cubs organization. Not surprisingly, they played at Wrigley Field, a creaky, wooden stadium on Avalon Boulevard at 42nd Place in what today we call South Los Angeles.
Across town, the Hollywood Stars played at Gilmore Field on Beverly Boulevard at Fairfax Avenue, right next to what we now know as The Grove.
Neither stadium was suitable for the Dodgers, either permanently or temporarily, so where could the Dodgers play until their new stadium could be built?
The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, of course. It had been the city's default venue for outdoor sports since 1923. The fact that its proportions weren't suitable for baseball was not a deal breaker, not after someone came up with the idea of putting a 40 foot tall fence in left field. Without that fence, there would have been dozens of home runs in every game because the left field line was just 251 feet long. Over the next four seasons, someone, probably one of those newspaper rascals, described the chain link fence as "The Great Wall of China." The name stuck like white on rice.
Meanwhile back at Chavez Ravine, the community in the hills just north of downtown Los Angeles was undergoing its second upheaval. Most Angelenos don't know about the first one.
Right after the end of World War II, the Community Redevelopment Agency decided that Chavez Ravine was a "blighted" community that had to be erased from the city's landscape. The hundreds of people who lived there, some for several generations, had to leave, either voluntarily or by eviction. The redevelopment plan called for everyone to move back into the ravine after their homes were demolished and replaced by new apartments built at the city's expense. The project came to a screeching halt when the "Red Scare" hit Los Angeles. The city's leaders realized that housing built at public expense was too much like the Communist plots to take over the United States that Senator Eugene McCarthy was warning about. The decimation of Chavez Ravine suddenly stopped.
Less than ten years later, bulldozers rolled back into Chavez Ravine. By this time its residents had learned how to resist but baseball fever and platoons of deputy sheriffs prevailed. Nearly everyone who lived in Boyle Heights, East L.A. and on Bunker Hill was either related to, or friends of, someone who was losing their home. It was a time when allegiances were put to the test.
I have vivid memories of Manuel Arechiga and members of his family being dragged away as they promised revenge. According to legend, his home was on the spot where third base is now. There are those who still believe that corner of the diamond is cursed.
As much as I loved the Dodgers during the "Great Wall of China" era, particularly second base man Charlie Neal who was my hero, I didn't go to a game at Chavez Ravine until sometime in the 1990s when King Taco had a location inside Dodger Stadium. Like a Duke Snyder home run, it's long gone.
One of the most memorable moments of my life was at the Coliseum on Thursday night, May 7, 1959. It was Roy Campanella night. A traffic accident in Harlem left the Dodger catcher a paraplegic so he was never able to play in Los Angeles. But Campy was so highly respected, the Yankees flew to Los Angeles for this unprecedented tribute to him. Between the fifth and sixth innings, Campanella rolled up to home plate in his wheel chair. I was sitting near the top row, right next to the peristyle end of the great stadium, about as far away from home as one could get. A few seconds later, all of the Coliseum's lights were turned off and everyone in that standing room only crowd of 93 thousand plus lit a match or flicked their Zippos. It was the most amazing glow, the most unforgettable gathering of people, I have ever witnessed as a newsman or as a civilian.
As for the Great Wall of China, I keep checking eBay, hoping that some day I'll find someone selling pieces of it.