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Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between
By Eric Nusbaum
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Illustrations by Adam Villacin
There used to be a place in Los Angeles called the Stone Quarry Hills. The hills are still there, but the place is gone. The Stone Quarry Hills were located just north of what is now downtown LA. They were split by five ravines:
Chavez Ravine was named for one of the most powerful men in the city. Julian Chavez had come to Los Angeles from New Mexico in the 1830s, when the city was still a small and distant outpost. In the ensuing decades he became an elected official and a landowner with vast holdings. But Julian Chavez did not own the Chavez Ravine. Rather, he owned property nearby along the banks of the Los Angeles River. The Chavez Ravine got its name because of a trail that happened to run through and over it and that ultimately ended at the Chavez property.
Long before Julian Chavez arrived, before Los Angeles was even an idea, the hills were a resource and refuge for the Tongva people. By the end of the twentieth century, the Tongva had been enslaved for generations, and Julian Chavez was dead. But his name would live on in the form of a road that wound through the ravine that he never actually owned. In the years to come, Chavez Ravine Road would become the site of a respiratory hospital, a brickyard, and a naval armory. Then, somewhere a little further along the line, the name Chavez Ravine outgrew the road and outgrew the actual ravine.
Chavez Ravine consumed Sulphur Ravine and Cemetery Ravine and Reservoir Ravine. Solano Canyon would be spared, but the Stone Quarry Hills were erased.
The action of this book is largely centered around the three communities that once sat nestled in these hills. Their names were Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop. They were erased. First, they were physically erased by powerful forces beyond the control of their residents. Then they lost their names: they became part of Chavez Ravine.
The contemporary Chavez Ravine has no geographic border and does not appear on any maps of Los Angeles. It is a place, but it isn’t. It is really a code word for the mysteries and pleasures of baseball. It is the metaphysical plane upon which Dodger Stadium exists, slightly outside the realm of daily life in the city. It is a state of mind. It is a vibe.
One thing Chavez Ravine isn’t, and never was, is a singular community. The communities whose prior destruction made the construction of Dodger Stadium possible had their own personalities, their own magic, and their own names. In the course of reporting, researching, and finally writing this book, I have come to believe that those names matter, both for reasons of historical accuracy and reasons of emotional truth: Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop.
This book has been written from a combination of first-person interviews, primary sources, and secondary sources. It is nonfiction—as accurate and as true of a book as I could write. But many of its central characters lived in a time and place that saw them under-documented, under-recorded, and undervalued by society. I have tried to be clear about any resulting mysteries and incongruities in the historical record. This is not an academic book; it’s a story, whose impact I believe would have been lessened with the inclusion of copious in-text citations and notes. At the back of the book, you’ll find an explanation and a list of sources. Before you read, I would also like to offer a preemptive thanks to the people who sat with me for interviews, to the librarians who guided me, and to the journalists, historians, storytellers, and artists whose research and work made mine possible.
ON MAY 8, 1959, ABRANA ARÉCHIGA STOOD IN THE ENTRYWAY OF her home as Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies broke down her door. This was the end. She watched as strange, silent men loaded her furniture onto waiting trucks. She wailed as deputies carried her adult daughter by the wrists and ankles down the front stairs. Outside, she bent and picked up a rock, feeling the weight of it in her hand. Finally, she sat, helpless, as a bulldozer plowed into her living room.
She wore a simple dress and a black sweater. Her hair was flecked with gray. Members of the local press crowded around her, capturing everything, squeezing the moment for all it was worth so that the images of her anguish could run on front pages and lead the evening news and live on for decades in libraries and archives. The reporters nearly swallowed her up in the madness. They climbed up onto parked cars and lampposts to get the best possible angles.
Afterward, as night fell, Abrana was surrounded by the people she loved. Her husband, Manuel, her children and grandchildren. There were cousins and family friends from the Palo Verde neighborhood. They came up over the hill by the carload, the same way the sheriff’s deputies had come earlier that afternoon, single file. These people who were her neighbors once. These people with whom she had built a life.
They sat around a campfire and mourned for what was gone and sang sad songs and remembered the good old days. If you look at the photos, they could have been anywhere. But this was the middle of Los Angeles. There were scrubby plants and a few trees. There was dirt. Behind them were a makeshift tent, a clothesline strung between two trees, and the empty lots where houses used to be. In the distance was the humming of the freeway. They ate and drank and tried to ignore the photographers creeping around and the blinding, wheezing flashbulbs.
It was a beautiful, clear Southern California night. The high in downtown that day was 76 degrees, and the low was 58. The heavy summer winds were still gathering themselves over the ocean. Across the city, the jacarandas were beginning to bloom: purple flowers sprouting on unassuming branches.
Abrana Aréchiga was in her sixties, but she seemed older. She was thin and wiry, and her face had a severe aspect. She was not known to be a sentimental person, but she must have been tired. Or if she wasn’t tired, she was seething. Or if she wasn’t seething, she was mourning. She had lived a life underlined by tragedy: she had lost a husband and a child before she turned forty. She had lived hand to mouth for many years and built a home for herself far away from the place she was born. Right before she died, she would tell a reporter that this eviction was the lowest point in her life, the greatest injustice that she ever faced.
I can picture her looking out into the darkness beyond the campfire at the empty space where her home had been, picture her looking for the shape of it: the familiar silhouette of the big wood-frame house against the dark sky. The house had grown over the years, room by room, as her family grew. It had taken on a life of its own in the hills overlooking the city. There had been goats and chickens out back and venetian blinds on the windows. Abrana had insisted on venetian blinds. Or maybe she wasn’t thinking any of that. Maybe she kept herself busy playing host, feeding her grandchildren, fending off reporters and visiting politicians. Maybe she was already worrying about what might come next.
Abrana and Manuel Aréchiga came to this place, Palo Verde, in 1922. They bought an empty parcel of land on Malvina Avenue and pitched a tent. They built their home one two-by-four, one shingle, one nail at a time. With other families, mostly like theirs, mostly immigrants from Mexico, they built a community out of nothing right in the middle of Los Angeles. And now it was gone.
THE REMAINS OF Abrana Aréchiga’s home at 1771 Malvina Avenue are buried somewhere underneath the distant parking lots of what is now Dodger Stadium. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. But it is.
Today we call this area Chavez Ravine. If, like me, you grew up in Los Angeles, you can probably hear longtime Dodger announcer Vin Scully saying the words in a sort of sweet, folksy way, almost singing them:
When Vin Scully says something, it is like God speaking. His voice is ambient in the Southern California air. It is the voice inside your head.
In my experience, Chavez Ravine is beautiful and idyllic. It isn’t even a place. It’s more than that. It’s a state of mind, a heightened sense of being that you achieve when you visit. There are palm trees. There are magnificent sunsets and vistas that open up on the downtown skyline and the San Gabriel Mountains. The shadows crawl across the field at Dodger Stadium like cars edging forward in freeway traffic. The parking lots sprawl out for acres beyond the terraced decks and the low-slung outfield pavilions.
When I think about growing up in Los Angeles, I don’t think about going to the beach, the mall, or the movies. I think about making that rush-hour drive to a Dodger game. I think about getting there late and catching the first inning on the radio: Vin Scully in simulcast. I think about buying a scalper ticket or a six-dollar bleacher seat. I think about how I never felt more at home in my city than I did there, among tens of thousands of perfect strangers. I think about how silly it is that for millions of us, civic identity is tied up in something as tenuous as a baseball team; then I think that it’s not silly at all, that baseball does have magical powers, or at least it can, and that our caring is what gives it those powers. I think about the long walk back to the car and the slow crawl out of the parking lot and the stadium lights receding into the darkness.
A DECADE BEFORE Abrana watched her house reduced to a pile of bones, President Harry Truman signed the Federal Housing Act of 1949. The bill would make way for the construction of huge new public-housing projects in cities across the country. This was before the term housing project became a loaded one. To the people who believed in it, public housing really was a project for the betterment of humanity: a key to unlocking the great potential of hardworking Americans and a way to maximize the brilliant notions of architects and planners who calculated that they could design communities in optimal ways and thereby enhance human happiness. It was utopian, and in the wake of World War II, utopia seemed worth striving for. “This legislation permits us to take a long step toward increasing the well-being and happiness of millions of our fellow citizens,” Truman wrote upon signing the bill into law. “Let us not delay in fulfilling that high purpose.”
He could not have known it at the time, but in fulfilling that purpose, Truman would also be unleashing one of the great civic dramas in the history of the United States, a story with everything: corruption, Communism, racism, misguided idealism, displacement, grand visions, evil schemes, and the mystical power of baseball; a story about manifest destiny as it played out in Mexico and the West, and then continued unabated even after the frontier was tamed; a story about the human costs of ambition, both public and private; a story about families.
When I was a junior in high school in Culver City, California, not terribly far from Dodger Stadium, a man named Frank Wilkinson came to speak to our history class about the horror that was the McCarthy era or, as he would have put it, the J. Edgar Hoover era. Wilkinson had been a victim of the Red Scare. In fact, it had nearly ruined him, had sent him to prison, and had almost killed his entire family, but we’ll get to that. He appeared before us in the school auditorium, stooped, white-haired, and grandfatherly. He spoke with the sort of conviction that gets you in trouble, even when you are on the side of righteousness, which Wilkinson believed himself to be.
Wilkinson had been a public-housing official in Los Angeles. His demise began when Truman signed that bill into law. It began, more or less, the moment that he knocked on Abrana Aréchiga’s door with an eviction notice in his hand.
I don’t remember exactly what Wilkinson told us that day about McCarthy, Hoover, and the House Un-American Activities Committee. But I remember how he began his presentation. He asked us to raise our hands if we were fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was sixteen. Baseball was my life. I played on the high school team. I occasionally called into the Dodgers postgame radio show to answer trivia questions. My hand, of course, shot up.
“Well,” said Wilkinson. “Dodger Stadium should not exist.”
Dodger Stadium should not exist.
Yet no building more perfectly captures the history of Los Angeles or more perfectly captures the history of baseball in America up to the point of its opening in 1962. Dodger Stadium should not exist. There are a million reasons why, yet all those reasons are precisely what give the stadium its power.
This book tells three stories that ultimately coalesce into one bigger story about Los Angeles as it sped toward its destiny as a major-league city. There is the story of Abrana Aréchiga and her family as they journeyed north from Mexico, ultimately settled into the community of Palo Verde, and then fought like hell for their homes. There is the story of Frank Wilkinson, who sought to make a better world but then became the means by which his enemies obliterated any possibility that the world he envisioned would come to fruition. Then there is the story of baseball itself.
I hope that this book provides both an intimate look at the journeys and motivations of its principal characters and a sweeping impression of a city and two countries to which it has belonged. The book includes familiar faces such as Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and the Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna, as well as less familiar ones such as Clifford Clinton, a crusading downtown LA cafeteria owner, and Fritz B. Burns, a visionary real-estate developer and showman who helped turn Los Angeles into the city that it is today.
I come at this book as a person who has spent many hours watching, writing about, and thinking about baseball. I come at it as a reporter who has worked in the United States and Mexico. I come at it as a native Angeleno who believes the story of my city has too often been told from the perspective of writers perched firmly on the East Coast and peering west as if through a pair of binoculars. On some level, I think I have wanted to write this book since the day I saw Frank Wilkinson in high school. The story broke my heart. I struggled to reconcile that Dodger Stadium, a place that I loved so much, was also the source of pain to so many people. I have never had to pick up the pieces of a broken life like Frank Wilkinson or build a life from scratch like Abrana Aréchiga. I have never been displaced like the residents of Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop. But all four of my grandparents were, and I grew up hearing their stories. My father’s parents were Jews in Poland during World War II. They both lost their homes and eventually their entire families in the Holocaust. My mother and her family lived in Havana until 1961. After the Cuban Revolution, they had to leave their apartment and their belongings behind because although my grandmother was Cuban, my grandfather was from the United States.
One of the recurring themes of this book is how we rewrite history to suit our own present aims. This was especially true in the early days of baseball and especially true in the early days of Los Angeles. It has also been true when it comes to the story of baseball in Los Angeles. The story of Dodger Stadium has been condensed and mythologized. It has become—with good reason—a fable. The real history is less like a fable and more like the story of a crime that Los Angeles perpetuated on itself.
For all its magic, Frank Wilkinson was right: Dodger Stadium should not exist. This book is my attempt to tell the story of why it does.
AMONG THE ROCKS
MONTE ESCOBEDO, ZACATECAS, SITS HIGH UP IN MEXICO’S SIERRA Madre mountain range. This is where, in March 1893, at seven thousand feet above sea level, a baby girl named Abrana Cabral was born. The exact date and circumstances of her birth are lost to history. We don’t know whether she was born on a bed, or a sofa, or a kitchen table. We don’t know what her mother felt like for the nine months she carried Abrana or at the moment her daughter entered the world. We don’t know what kind of parents Abrana had. But we do know their names. They were Vacilla Bañuelos and Juan Cabral. We know that they were rural people. They lived on a remote ranch nestled between green valleys and lakes.
Decades later, when she was living in the United States, Abrana would name her first son Juan, after her father. Decades after that, in the early 1950s, this younger Juan would journey to the ranch where his mother was born. He went with his wife, Nellie; their daughter, Helen; and two friends, Camilo and Feliz Arévalo. They drove south from Los Angeles, where Abrana ultimately settled and raised her family in the community of Palo Verde, all the way to Zacatecas. It was a sort of pilgrimage. It was like driving back in time.
When they reached Fresnillo, an industrial city at the base of the Sierra Madres, they had to leave their car behind and hire a man with a truck. The truck carried them up the rough, steep roads to Monte Escobedo. There were no bathrooms, no rest stops. There were trees and lakes and grassy fields. The little girl bounced along on their laps.
“It was mountains. Hills. You don’t see no neighbors, no nothing. Just a house there,” Feliz recalled. Juan and Nellie were gone. Abrana was many years gone. But Feliz remembered: “You’d go in the truck, and all you’d see is rocks on the roadsides. They used to make fences out of rocks, rocks, rocks all the way up.”
ALL WE CAN do is guess about what Abrana’s childhood was like up there among the rocks. But somehow, in the thin air, she grew up hard and stubborn like the rocks themselves.
The simplest way to trace the outlines of Abrana’s journey is through official government documents, but documents alone paint an incomplete picture. In Abrana’s case they are riddled with errors and inconsistencies. The truth is that Abrana was born into a world that was not particularly concerned with details like her birthday or even the proper spelling of her name. That didn’t change when she set out for America.
Abrana Cabral crossed into the United States at Laredo, Texas, on October 10, 1916. She was nineteen years old and pregnant when she traversed the narrow wooden bridge spanning the Rio Grande. She would have been walking among businessmen and fellow immigrants. In making her way to the border, she would have been traveling through the wreckage of the ongoing Mexican Revolution. She would have been carrying the baby, her memories of home, and probably very little in the way of money or belongings. In a practical sense she would have been thoroughly unprepared for her new life. But she was willing to risk the journey, so in another sense she was exactly as prepared as she needed to be.
Abrana was probably traveling with her husband, Nicolas Ybarra, the father of the little girl growing inside her. Nicolas was also from Monte Escobedo. Together, they were part of an entire generation fleeing north, drawn by the promise of stability and economic opportunity at a time when Mexico offered neither. US companies were luring cheap labor across the border. They called it the enganche, the hook. The hook was steady wages and relative safety from violence. The hook is what caused entire towns to empty out, often with all the residents going to the same place. In the case of Abrana and Nicolas and the people of Monte Escobedo, that place was Morenci, Arizona, where the Phelps Dodge company needed strong men willing to do hard labor in hard conditions. The work of mining copper was hot and dark and miserable, but it paid out for every single shift, and there were shifts to be had.
Abrana would have taken a train up to the border. Mexico had industrialized swiftly in the early years of the twentieth century. With the advent of a national railroad, people and goods were moving around the country like never before, and small, isolated towns like Monte Escobedo suddenly didn’t feel so small or isolated. Her last stop on the threshold of America was Nuevo Laredo. Nuevo Laredo had been a source of contention during the revolution. In 1914, just two years before Abrana passed through, much of the city had been burned to the ground. Crossing the bridge into Texas would have seemed like the end of a long journey for her: leaving a smoldering Mexico for the promise of the United States. But it was really just the beginning.
IN MARCH 1847 THE US ARMY, UNDER WINFIELD SCOTT, LANDED IN Veracruz and took the city following a bloody siege. Old stone walls crumbled. Women and children starved and crumbled beside them. Scott had 13,500 men in his command: officers, enlisted soldiers, volunteers, slaves. He had President James K. Polk and the wind of manifest destiny at his back. Winfield Scott thought that invading Mexico was both reckless and immoral. Unlike Polk, Scott did not believe that the US had a God-given mandate to conquer the entire continent. But Scott was also America’s most decorated and respected general: if his country was going to fight a war, he was going to goddamn lead it. Scott’s idea was to land in the port city of Veracruz and march his troops across the humid, soft countryside, up over the rocky volcanoes, and finally into the Valley of Mexico, nestled seven thousand feet above sea level.
Scott was an ornery commander. He was big and vain and brilliant. Ulysses S. Grant once called him “the finest specimen of manhood my eyes had ever beheld.” He had no formal military education and was largely self-taught as a tactician, but he had always been a keen student of history. Three centuries earlier, another conquering army had landed in Mexico, marched through the same countryside, and traversed the same mountains. It was from them that Scott took his inspiration.
Scott’s adversary, the Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna, must have felt the weight of this history. He must have known that what began with Hernán Cortés would certainly not end with Winfield Scott. Santa Anna was a proud and mercurial person, and he had recently declared himself president of Mexico (not for the first or last time). Santa Anna called himself the Napoleon of the West. But for all that, his countrymen were unsure how to feel about him. His career had been as jagged as the terrain in his country, filled with soaring peaks and desolate valleys. When he lost his leg in battle almost a decade earlier, Santa Anna ordered it buried with full military honors.
Determined not to let Mexico fall to another conqueror, Santa Anna met the US Army in the hills just outside of Xalapa. His troops appeared to have the invaders overmatched. They equaled the Americans in size and firepower and held a superior defensive position on familiar terrain: Xalapa was Santa Anna’s hometown. But an American captain discovered a mountain trail that allowed Scott’s troops to outflank Santa Anna and catch him by surprise from above. The battle was devastating and short. It ended with Santa Anna escaping on horseback, in such a desperate hurry that he left his wooden leg behind on the battlefield.
The path to Mexico City was now clear for the Americans. They pushed the Mexican Army deeper and deeper into their country, into themselves. In Puebla the Americans rested and gathered their strength for the final phase of the conquest. All that remained was for the Mexican troops to make their last stand and for Scott’s army to drive all the way to the Mexican heart, barely beating, the city that was once called Tenochtitlan. On September 12, 1847, the Americans finally turned their attention to Chapultepec Castle.
The castle looms on a hill high over Mexico City. This hill has been a sacred place since pre-Columbian times. Aztec priests used to climb it in rituals. Emperors vacationed there. The castle, constructed by lackeys to the Spanish crown in an exercise of colonial vanity, had been abandoned in the decades following Mexican independence. Eventually it was converted into a military college. Scott’s troops launched their cannonballs and bullets at dawn and sustained the barrage until nightfall. Holding the castle as their countrymen escaped to a nearby fort was a motley group of just four hundred men and boys. They were Mexican soldiers, and they were unrelenting military cadets who refused to surrender. Teenagers dying alongside wary veterans.
The story goes that after every other Mexican soldier was run down or run off by the invaders, only six cadets remained. They were children, really. As young as thirteen years old. Their names were Juan de la Barrera, Agustín Melgar, Juan Escutia, Vicente Suárez, Francisco Márquez, and Fernando Montes de Oca. Eventually they would come to be known collectively as los Niños Héroes.
They held out in their castle, on their tall hill, against the conquering US Army. They held out, even as Santa Anna watched from a distant perch through his field glasses as the bulk of his troops retreated. Legend has it that as the Americans entered the castle proper, one of the cadets, Juan Escutia, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and leaped from the side of the building so that the flag would not fall into enemy hands. He died—in the fall, or by bullet or by bayonet. They all died.
"A well-known tale of racial injustice given a fresh look...Provocative, essential reading."
- "Eric Nusbaum takes several overlooked threads of history and weaves them into a vivid tapestry of twentieth-century America that is at once sprawling and intimate, raw and poignant. Stealing Home is a relevant and important book--and a fantastic read."—Margot Lee Shetterly, New York Times-bestselling author of Hidden Figures
- "Stealing Home has a driving plot, a humane heart, and a proud conscience. Read it and enjoy the story, or read it and get mad, or read it and change your mind. Most importantly, read it."—Chuck D, founding member of Public Enemy
- "In my family, the Dodgers caused pain and disillusionment when they left Brooklyn. But what happened in Los Angeles is a second drama with its own measure of financial manipulation, political intrigue, and working-class heartache. Stealing Home takes on a whole new meaning in Eric Nusbaum's marvelous book."—David Maraniss, New York Times-bestselling author of When Pride Still Mattered and Clemente
- "As a sports book, Stealing Home is astonishingly good-but it's more than just a sports book. The human experience it depicts resonates far beyond Los Angeles. The writing is lean, hard, and urgent. You'll read it quickly and think about it for a long time."—Brian Phillips, New York Times-bestselling author of Impossible Owls
- "A story perfectly told, riveting, moving, and deeply human."—Will Leitch, author of Are We Winning? and God Save the Fan
- "A detailed, compelling history that goes well beyond Los Angeles. Eric Nusbaum asks an urgent modern question: What do the things we love actually cost? And who pays the price?"—Jay Caspian Kang, writer-at-large, New York Times Magazine
- On Sale
- Mar 24, 2020
- Page Count
- 352 pages