Root, Root, Root for the Home Team A new book about a legendary sports stadium, what it gave, and what it cost.

Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between

By Eric Nusbaum (2021, PublicAffairs) 331 pgs. with Illustrations, notes, and index

What do a migrant family from Zacatecas, a hard-of-hearing public housing advocate, the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and the shrewd owner of one of America’s most celebrated sports franchises all have in common? Their experiences, along with scores of other seemingly disparate lives, events, and social movements, all converged together when three Mexican American neighborhoods in the hills just north of downtown Los Angeles were chosen as the site of a new ballpark for the soon-to-be relocated Brooklyn Dodgers club. Eric Nusbaum’s Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between weaves together the historical narratives, biographies, and accounts of various stakeholders whose lives were impacted by the planning and construction of a modern day American sports cathedral: Dodger Stadium.

Nusbaum does not simply set out to tell one story from one singular point of view; instead, he explains that, “this book tells three stories that ultimately coalesce into one bigger story about Los Angeles.” (5) His narrative style is highly segmented, alternating frequently between fragments of the lives of people who appear to be completely unrelated at first, but whose trajectories slowly begin to come together as the chronology of the growth of Los Angeles progresses. The first of these three stories that Nusbaum introduces is that of the Chavez Ravine community, which he identifies as three different neighborhoods: Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop. Primarily focusing on the Aréchiga family history, Nusbaum traces the origins and development of these neighborhoods to not just tell their stories, but also place emphasis on their sense of agency in their resistance to the city’s efforts to relocate them. Nusbaum paints a picture of a thriving community with strong cultural institutions that began to establish generational legacies in their neighborhoods. Although they were physically and culturally isolated from the rest of Los Angeles, these residents cared deeply about their homes, and gave it their all to defend them.

He makes sure to emphasize not just how the Brooklyn Dodgers relocated to Los Angeles, such as through a deal for a new stadium, but also why. He addresses the childhoods of future Dodgers stars like Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Willie Davis, each of whom grew up in the Los Angeles area.

The second story Nusbaum shares revolves around Frank Wilkinson, a soul-searching warrior for public works who labored earnestly trying to develop a vision for a burgeoning Los Angeles as a model for public housing, helping to eradicate poverty and homelessness in the process. Nusbaum outlines how Wilkinson’s perspective changed when he first witnessed mass poverty around him as a young man traveling the world, and set off on a mission to address the crisis locally in Los Angeles. He proposed tremendous public housing projects not just as something that was important in providing a place to live for thousands living in poverty, but also as a necessary amenity if Los Angeles were to meet its potential as a modern city. Wilkinson set his sights on the Chavez Ravine neighborhoods, whose conditions were determined to be “slum-like,” as a candidate for a massive housing project called Elysian Park Heights. While many residents were resistant to the idea, Wilkinson’s plans ultimately met their demise at the hands of growing home-ownership initiatives and the association of public housing, and Wilkinson himself, with the specter of communism. Nusbaum portrays Wilkinson to be an innocent yet naïve advocate whose overzealousness at the onset of the Red Scare cost him his reputation and Elysian Park Heights project, the land for which now rested in the hands of the city with no use for it.

Nusbaum’s third story traces the growth of baseball in Los Angeles. He makes sure to emphasize not just how the Brooklyn Dodgers relocated to Los Angeles, such as through a deal for a new stadium, but also why. He addresses the childhoods of future Dodgers stars like Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Willie Davis, each of whom grew up in the Los Angeles area. He also pays homage to the Pacific Coast League (PCL) and its many teams that played in the West before the Dodgers relocated in order to highlight that a big baseball culture did, in fact, already exist in California. However, the PCL would always play second fiddle to Major League Baseball (MLB), and Los Angeles City Councilors like Edward Roybal and Rosalind Wyman believed that a Major League team was a necessary step in order to make Los Angeles a modern city, similar to the way Frank Wilkinson believed in public housing. Nusbaum’s three stories all converge here, when Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley identified the land of the Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop neighborhoods as the site for a state-of-the-art ballpark that would pivot his decision to move his team to Los Angeles, which had sat unused in government hands since the dissipation of Wilkinson’s Elysian Park Heights project.

Nusbaum’s narrative style is one of the book’s primary strengths. The alternating fragments of each of these stories is helpful in establishing thorough backgrounds for the historical figures. It allows the reader to see each historical figure’s arc, and how they all end at a single event: the construction of Dodger Stadium. The reader is able to form relationships with the historical figures almost as if they were characters in a novel, even developing empathy or rooting interests for them. At the same time, this also allows the reader to think more critically about the competing perspectives in deciding the fate of Chavez Ravine. A typical historical monograph that traces one narrative from beginning to end does not as easily solicit a well-rounded analysis of a complex historical event, and Nusbaum is transparent about this.

The plight of families like the Aréchigas is perhaps most obvious: as victims of eminent domain, they were doomed to lose their homes to dispossession, whether for the housing development or Dodger Stadium. For Frank Wilkinson, Nusbaum poses the question of whether a utopian vision of community housing remains as virtuous if it does not address larger systemic issues that cause inequitable living conditions in the first place; the residents of Palo Verde knew that the city considered their neighborhood “slum-like” because the city did not even provide them with basic services to begin with, so why should they have to be removed because of that negligence? As for Walter O’Malley and the Dodgers, Nusbaum notes how “he had made a fair deal with the city. He acquired land to build a ballpark that would serve millions of fans and enrich the community at large.” (246) The city decided to offer the land that was no longer able to be used for public housing for something else they considered to be a public good; should the fate of families like the Aréchigas be of any concern to O’Malley?

A typical historical monograph that traces one narrative from beginning to end does not as easily solicit a well-rounded analysis of a complex historical event, and Nusbaum is transparent about this.

The biggest strength of Nusbaum’s work is how he grapples with baseball as mythology. “The story of Dodger Stadium has been condensed and mythologized,” he says. (6) “I think about how silly it is that for millions of us, civic identity is tied up in something as tenuous as baseball teams; then I think that it’s not silly at all, that baseball does have magical powers.” (3) The level of clarity and matter-of-factness with which he discusses these ideas is something that can resonate with any baseball fan, or fan of sport in general. It captures not just the attraction of the sport for fans, but also the symbolism and consequences that a game can have. It provides a foundation for the rest of the historical narrative to build upon to recall how the fates of all of these seemingly disparate events and people all end with baseball, and reminds readers that sport is never merely a recreational activity. It also reminds readers that other sporting events, teams, buildings, and experiences all weave together their own historical threads that connect different people together and create their own sets of ripple effects that change the trajectories of their communities and stakeholders. At the same time, Nusbaum warns that we often hide behind the cloak of mythology to shield ourselves from histories that are disruptive or uncomfortable. The allure of palm-tree lined California sunsets, the Vin Scully catchphrases, and the full display of baseball Americana can obstruct the histories of those like the Aréchigas that are buried underneath the outfield bleachers. Nusbaum is successful in giving these histories the due diligence that they deserve.

Dodger Stadium is perhaps one of the most researched subjects in baseball history, and Nusbaum’s book marries it with hearty understandings about city planning, public housing, political movements, and other early twentieth century historical events.

Nusbaum is also very clear that he never intended to write an academic book, which is in part what makes it so accessible to non-academic audiences. The book is clear of any technical jargon or dense conceptual frameworks, but it would still carry its own weight in an academic setting because of his smart use of research methodologies and suitability as a text that can teach students about balancing different historical perspectives. However, he also explains that because he chooses to write for a general audience, he chooses not to include footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography, believing that the impact “would have been lessened with the inclusion of copious in-text citations and notes.” (xiii) Instead, he includes a section entitled “Notes on Sources” that briefly describes his source material for each chapter in about one paragraph each. Dodger Stadium is perhaps one of the most researched subjects in baseball history, and Nusbaum’s book marries it with hearty understandings about city planning, public housing, political movements, and other early twentieth century historical events. The inclusion of citations, or even just a bibliography, would have provided an immense resource for readers may become inspired to build upon this work through their own research or trace back some of Nusbaum’s evidence to a specific source, interview, or archival collection. This omission severely limits its usefulness as a research tool. Nonetheless, Stealing Home adds much to the rich existing historiography about Dodger Stadium by rehumanizing some of the many stakeholders whose lives shaped, and were shaped by, the Brooklyn squad’s move westward.

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