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How a city reached its limit with the Dodgers

Los Angeles' love for the Dodgers was unconditional for four decades. But their grip on L.A. began to slip in 1998, and now their popularity is in free-fall. How did this happen, and can they get it back?

June 25, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Once known as a Dodgers town, the Lakers have become the team of preference in L.A.
Once known as a Dodgers town, the Lakers have become the team of preference… (Paul Rogers / For The Times )

Los Angeles is a tough town to lose. It's a huge, sprawling metropolis of aqueducts, actors, avatars, beaches, mountains and freeways.

Somehow, incredibly, like a wallet or a set of car keys, the Dodgers lost it.

Seriously, it was in their hip pocket a minute ago.

"Where was the last place you had it?" is always the dumb question people ask.

The maddening fact is the Dodgers had L.A. but now they don't — and you can't blame it on the McCourts.

It's a Lakers town now and all other contestants are playing for parting gifts. The drop-off factor from No. 1 to No. 2 is roughly Mt. Everest to Holmby Hills.

How the Dodgers lost L.A. is the child's-play, sticks-and-balls version of Winston Churchill's 1938 "While England Slept."

While the Dodgers dithered the Lakers rode, like Slim Pickens on his A-bomb in "Dr. Strangelove," into an Internet explosion.

Lakers flags long ago replaced Union 76 balls on our car antennas.

As much as the Lakers earned their status, this never should have happened — it's like the Broncos misplacing Denver.

Los Angeles was — and never should have ceased being — Dodger Town.

"It will be again," says Fred Claire, the team's former general manager. "I don't know how. The roots are so deep in the community. . . . It's just my gut feeling. I just know the foundation of all of that. It's not as if it will be gone forever."

The Dodgers' reign lasted, unchecked, for about 40 years. The headstone would read 1958-1998.

The Rams owned L.A. first because they got here first, relocating in 1946 from Cleveland.

People forget the grip on us the Rams once had — fans later would call it a "choke" hold. They won the 1951 NFL title and alternated two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin.

Waterfield was married to movie star Jane Russell.

The players were nicknamed "Crazy Legs," "Night Train" and "Deacon Dan." In 1957, the Rams became the first team in football history to attract more than one million fans. A home game against San Francisco that year drew 102,368.

The next year, though, the Dodgers arrived from Brooklyn, moved into the Rams' Coliseum digs, and won the town over — seemingly forever.

"The Dodgers were really L.A.'s team," Jim Murray, The Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, recounted in his autobiography. "In the beginning, it was the Rams. They were the first big league operation to embrace Los Angeles. And their advent coincided with the spurt of interest in pro football, which, for a time, seemed about to put baseball in the supporting role category

"But the Rams jilted L.A. and left the Dodgers supermen. Not even the Lakers, when they came, nor the Raiders, when they did, could shake the Dodgers' hold."

Winning early helped.

The Dodgers claimed the World Series title in 1959. While the Rams would never win another title in L.A., and the Lakers spent the 1960s lighting cigars for Red Auerbach, the Dodgers added championships in 1963 and '65.

Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax became fastball fixtures as Hollywood celebrities flocked to the stadium (Doris) Day and night.

By 1962, the Dodgers had moved into a shiny new stadium on a hill overlooking downtown.

"The sun still rose in the east," Jane Leavy writes in her biography of Koufax. "But that's about all. Dodger Stadium spoke to the ascendancy of the west. It was the place to be, and to be seen, especially if Koufax was pitching."

The Rams were still popular, and in the 1960s were led by swashbuckling quarterback Roman Gabriel and the "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line. But George Allen, the coach who preached "the future is now," never figured out how to push past Green Bay, Minnesota or Dallas.

The Lakers arrived from Minneapolis in 1960, castoffs from a third-rate league, from a far-off land of lakes.

Despite the presence of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, the Lakers played in front of empty seats at the Sports Arena. Employees were deployed to count patrons as they entered, praying to hit the financial break-even number of 4,000 spectators.

The Dodgers held sway even as the Lakers took off in the 1980s after the arrival of Magic Johnson and "Showtime."

The Dodgers answered five Lakers NBA titles with "Fernandomania." They beat the damn Yankees in the 1981 World Series, soldiered on through the Pedro Martinez trade, Al Campanis on "Nightline," and capped a decorous decade with Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson in 1988.

"The Dodgers," Claire said, "were the Dodgers."

The Rams limped out of the town competition in 1980 when they moved to Anaheim, their bitter split from the Valley fan base every bit as nasty as the McCourts' divorce.

The Raiders swooped into the vacuum, won a Super Bowl title in 1984 and enjoyed a dedicated, if not barbarian, following.

Claire never viewed the Raiders as a threat.

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