Today in Baseball History: Dodgers commit to Dodgertown
On this day in 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed a 21-year lease with the city of Vero Beach, Florida, for use of their spring training facilities there. The facility would become known as Dodgertown, the most storied spring training facility in baseball history.
Dodgertown owed its existence to Bud Holman, a Kentucky-born Cadillac dealer who had set up shop in tiny Vero Beach, Florida in 1925. In 1929 he and a few other local businessmen established the Vero Beach Airport. Within six years he would manage to convince Eastern Air Lines to make it into a fueling stop and to obtain direct air mail service for the community. At the time, Vero Beach would be the smallest U.S. city to have such service. By the time of World War II, the airport and Vero Beach would become a military community and naval housing would be established. The U.S. Naval Air Station, Vero Beach, Florida was commissioned on November 24, 1942 to provide a Navy and Marine flight training base. In 1946 the Navy gave the facility back to the city of Vero Beach, and Bud Holman and the city leaders needed to find something to do with that land.
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Dodgers had been training in a number of places. In 1947 they actually trained in Havana, Cuba, partially because they got a great offer to do so, partially so Rickey could keep the fact that he had invited Jackie Robinson to big league camp as far from the public eye as possible. He was not quite ready to let that news break wide. It’d break wide pretty soon, of course, and as the 1947 season wore on, Rickey and the Dodgers had to figure out where they’d go for the following year’s spring training. They had a decent offer on the table from some interests in the Dominican Republic, but nothing was set in stone. Rickey preferred to come back to the United States the following February, and he wanted a big, self-contained place. The Dodgers had over two dozen minor league teams at the time, and Rickey wanted everyone to train in one location if possible.
Holman heard of the Dodgers’ interest in a big U.S. location and put himself and Vero Beach on Rickey’s radar. Rickey sent an underling -- future Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi -- to Florida to scout Vero Beach and some other places. He’d never make it to the other places thanks to Holman’s sales pitch and, more importantly, the fact that they had a self-contained facility with housing, mess halls, and a private airstrip. It was everything the Dodgers wanted. All they had to do was build the actual baseball diamonds. In December of 1947 the Dodgers and the City of Vero Beach reach a five-year lease agreement for the former U.S Naval Air Station and renamed the property “Dodger Town.” It’d be shortened to one word over time.
Dodgertown -- featured on the cover of Life Magazine that spring -- housed more than 600 players in its early days. Unlike all previous spring training facilities, it enabled the players to live, work, and spend their leisure time on base. It had a post office, a canteen, a barber shop, a Western Union office and a lounge. All of this was particularly important for the racially-integrated Brooklyn Dodgers, as segregation was still the rule of the day in most of Florida. At Dodgertown, Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella and other black and dark-skinned Latino players would live and train on equal footing with their white peers.
As the 1950s dawned -- and as Walter O’Malley pushed out Branch Rickey -- Dodgertown would see numerous upgrades, transforming it from a utilitarian military-style facility into one of far greater luxuries, both for team executives like O’Malley and for the players. White linens appeared on the tables of the dining facilities and the quality of the food improved. Modern exercise facilities, swimming pools, and a nine-hole golf course were built. In 1953 a 5,000-seat stadium -- named after Bud Holman -- was dedicated, ensuring that not just training, but a regular slate of big league exhibition games would be played.
Over the years, the luxury and self-contained nature of Dodgertown made it a favorite of players, fans, and the media who covered the team. Players’ family members liked it because they basically had their run of the place, recreation facilities included. Fans liked it because they were given far more up-close and personal access to the players than they’d ever had before. That extended all the way to the games in Holman Stadium, which featured open-air dugouts which backed up directly to the fans:
“At the places where the teams I covered trained, you would get maybe like a sandwich in this little shack before the game,” he said. “Then we went to Dodgertown and they literally had shrimp cocktail for the writers before the game.”
If that wasn’t fancy enough, there was an actual bar, open to all, including the working media.
“Any media, visiting or home, could go in there and have a drink, have a beer, while they’re writing their story,” said Kurkjian.
Players would wander in after games. Kurkjian even said he saw Davey Johnson, who managed the Dodgers at the time long before he took the same job in Washington, drop by for a beverage.
“It was just amazing to me that this was how things were done in Dodgertown,” said Kurkjian.
The Dodgers moved west to Los Angeles a mere decade after establishing Dodgertown, but due to that 21-year lease -- and another one, and extensions beyond that -- they kept making the cross-country trek to Florida each spring. Partially because the Dodgers still had a sizable east coast fan base for quite a while after the move who would flock to Florida each spring to see their erstwhile hometown team. Partially because Dodgertown was so damn nice.
As the 2000s dawned, however, it made less and less sense for the Dodgers to make that trek. Dodgertown was getting long in the tooth. So too were Dodgers fans from back east. It had been decades since people truly thought of the Dodgers as anything other than a California team and all the other California teams trained in Arizona. If the Dodgers wanted their fans, most of whom called California home, to see them train, it’d simply make more sense for the club to hold spring training in the desert. They’d hold their last spring training at Dodgertown in 2008. In 2009 they opened up shop at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona, sharing digs with the Chicago White Sox.
I’ve been to Camelback many times and it’s an extraordinarily nice place. The training facilities are, obviously, state of the art. The comfort level for players is top notch. No, there’s no nine-hole golf course or living facilities for the big leaguers, but they’re all rich enough now to rent or own luxurious homes nearby and join any country club they want. There are not any open-air dugouts, but for reasons that are unclear, Camelback is the only Arizona spring training facility where the batter, and the crowd, faces south, which means there is almost zero shade for anyone during those hot late spring training games under the desert sun. Maybe it’s a tribute?
Oh, and the media does not get booze anymore, but I hear rumors that a writer covering the Dodgers at spring training can hide their credential and buy a beer down on the concourse without anyone noticing if they really want one. Don’t tell anyone I told you that, though. I’ll play dumb about that.
As for Dodgertown, it faced some uncertain years after 2008. In 2009 Minor league baseball reopened the facilities and renamed it Vero Beach Sports Village. It held tournaments and umpire schools and other year-round activities, but couldn’t get much traction and closed again in 2012. In 2014 Peter O’Malley and Terry O’Malley Seidler -- the son and daughter of Walter O’Malley -- and ex-Dodgers pitchers Chan Ho Park and Hideo Nomo invested in the facility and renamed it Historic Dodgertown. They made upgrades, including youth-sized baseball and softball fields as well as fields for football, soccer, and other outdoor sports. It has seen Korean Baseball teams and Canadian Football League teams train there. It’s a true multi-use facility.
That may not be what anyone figured the place would end up being, but then again, in 1948, no one ever figured that spring training would become the phenomenon it is now, with large training facilities open to the public and all the luxuries players would need. Dodgertown pioneered that too, so why wouldn’t it find a new way forward once again?
Also today in baseball history:
1990: A gambler named Howie Spira is arrested by the FBI for trying to extort money from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Spira, it turns out, was paid $40,000 by Steinbrenner to dig up dirt on outfielder Dave Winfield, for whom Spira had worked as an unpaid publicist and from whom Spira had borrowed money. Steinbrenner detests Winfield and was looking for a way to sully his reputation or, possibly, find a way out of paying his ten-year contract with the club. In the fallout of the Spira affair commissioner Fay Vincent bans the Boss from having a role in the Yankees’ day-to-day operations for thirty months. Ironically, this works to the Yankees’ and, eventually, Steinbrenner’s benefit, as his being unable to engage in his characteristic meddling with baseball decisions, the club’s front office is able to make deals, signings, and draft players who would become the heart of the mid-late 1990s Yankees dynasty.
2009: The Miami-Dade County commissioners approve a deal to build a new 37,000-seat, retractable roof stadium for the Marlins. The project breaks ground in July and opens for the 2012 season. The deal to use public funding for the stadium becomes a political headache for basically everyone involved except Marlins owner Jeff Loria, who makes out like a bandit.