Back in 1958, Hollywood’s passion for its new major league baseball team helped build Dodger Stadium.
To encourage a “yes” vote that June from the Los Angeles electorate on Proposition B, which was needed to approve construction of a ballpark in the controversial Chavez Ravine area north of downtown, the entertainment elite mobilized. Their efforts culminated in a celebrity-studded, five-hour “Dodgerthon” on KTTV Channel 11, featuring such names as George Burns, Jack Benny, Danny Thomas, Debbie Reynolds, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Two days later, Proposition B passed by a slim margin of 25,000 ballots.
Fifty years after Walter O’Malley moved the team west from Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Dodgers have become their own branch of the entertainment industry. Even though the franchise is 20 years removed from its sixth and most recent World Series title, ticket sales and team revenues are higher than ever.
In a sense, the Dodgers are the ever-sequeling blockbuster, the showbiz tentpole that keeps on churning through reviews good and bad.
Though winning remains the goal of current owner Frank McCourt, who with his wife Jamie purchased the team in 2004, he is fully cognizant of how the Dodgers have sustained interest.
“Absolutely, at many levels, the Dodgers and Hollywood were made for each other,” McCourt says. “Entertainment is about storytelling, and there’s a story told each and every baseball game, and there’s a connectivity between the entertainment industry and sports. In a baseball game, there’s a beginning, middle and end. Same thing to a season. It’s the ultimate reality show. … None of us know how it’s going to end up from moment to moment.
“Let’s not forget (team announcer) Vin Scully, who is one of the ultimate entertainers. He’s a storyteller each and every night into everyone’s homes. … I think it’s very organic, very vital — the relationship is a very real one.”
Underscoring this connection is the fact that for all five decades, Hollywood has been part of the Dodger scene (and vice versa).
In the 1960s, when ballplayers such as Wes Parker and Don Drysdale weren’t taking turns in front of the cameras, you had Danny Kaye cooking in the Dodger Stadium owners’ box and belting songs about the Maury Wills/Sandy Koufax champs. In the ’70s, Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles headlined a coterie of regulars in the clubhouse of manager Tommy Lasorda, whose outsized personality gave him the highest profile of any Dodger.
“Always, always, they were in my office at all times,” Lasorda recalls. “Gregory Peck, Milton Berle, (Jack) Nicholson, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis and George Raft. Oh, Rickles. … They came to the ballgames, and when people saw them on television, they knew they would be here at the game. So a lot of people came to the game just to see those guys.”
“He always used to ask me to come down to the locker room and give a pep talk,” Rickles adds. “I used to go in the locker room, and they’d think I was Knute Rockne.”
Lasorda says the atmosphere began to change when baseball tightened its rules on clubhouse visits in the 1980s. That doesn’t mean Hollywood abandoned the ballpark it pushed forward: Tom Hanks and Rob Reiner are among those who frequent Dodger Stadium today. But as evidenced by dwindling A-list participation in the annual Hollywood Stars charity game, there is a sense of glamour lost.
Nonetheless, the Dodgers have finished first in National League attendance each of the past four seasons, two of which saw them make the playoffs. Last year, they sold a club-record 3.86 million tickets.
“This is a very honest feeling: It’s extremely difficult to win,” the iconic Scully says. “I think people — and I don’t blame them — they pay their money, they come and see the team, they want to see it win. But it’s hard to win, win where you go all the way and win the pennant, win the World Series.
“They had a tremendous run at that when they had good drafts and they picked up good players. But it’s also, to me, a normal part of the operation where you have tough years.”
After an 82-80 finish in 2007, the Dodgers have struggled to play winning baseball so far in 2008. But there are still signs of rebirth. A young core of players led by catcher Russell Martin — son of a jazz musician — has begun to re-energize the fanbase by recalling the days of homegrown stars like Steve Garvey.
In addition, this year the Dodgers unveiled plans to renovate Dodger Stadium in time for its 50th anniversary in 2012, by turning its surroundings into a year-round entertainment venue replete with shops, restaurants and interactive experiences to compliment the 81 home games a year.
“We have designed this project so there is something for everyone here,” McCourt says. “For the baseball purist, we can guarantee that nothing’s going to change in the actual game for them, because the field that they love and the dimensions and the sightlines … all the things here that fans have grown to love are staying the same. For the other fans that want modern amenities and conveniences and enhanced experiences, there’ll be something for them as well.
“We have 4 million fans a year coming here: a huge, huge fanbase and growing. We have connectivity with our fans all over the world. … We’re investing in new high-definition technology for the stadium. We provide entertainment here, at least 81 days a year — and hopefully many more if we play deep into October — for this community.”
What: Dodgers receive Award of Excellence star from Hollywood Historic Trust and Chamber of Commerce
When: 11 a.m. Friday
Where: Hollywood & Highland