Review by George Yatchisin
If there were any justice, the names Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop would be as well-remembered a baseball triumvirate as Tinker, Evers, and Chance. But if there were justice, there’d be no need for Eric Nusbaum’s wide-ranging, moving, and powerful history Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught Between. That first list of three names are the Mexican-American communities that existed in what we now know as Chávez Ravine, erased by history. Nusbaum’s book helps us see the vibrant life of those communities, done in at first by what was (arguably) a misguided desire to build public housing, but eventually became the golden real estate opportunity for Walter O’Malley to leave Brooklyn and bring Dodger baseball to the west coast.
Obviously, the outcome of the book is never in doubt—Dodger Stadium not only still stands, our ever-profit-craving world (read: publicly funded ballparks) means it survives as the third oldest stadium in baseball, despite opening only in 1962. But it’s on page 5 of his preface that Nusbaum writes, “Dodger Stadium should not exist.” So we certainly know how he feels, even if the book rarely strays into polemic. Instead he crafts both a long view and a broad view of the making of Los Angeles as a major league city, and all that phrase implies.
While the book’s heart and soul chronicle the decade of the 1950s, when Los Angeles first chose to evict all the home- and land-owners in the three communities so close to downtown LA physically, yet a world apart, it gains strength by placing everyone and everything in historical context. We read about the mountainous communities in Mexico from which many of the area’s families migrated. We read about the wild west Arizona upbringing of one of the book’s major players, Frank Wilkinson, public housing proponent and eventually tireless fighter of HUAC. Nusbaum even offhandedly suggests a soundtrack to his book when he references Ry Cooder’s 2005 slinky and sly concept album Chávez Ravine.
But what’s most fascinating is how Nusbaum teases out where history and myth-making meet. Enter, for example, Abner Doubleday, a real person about whom almost everything we think we know is untrue (he didn’t invent baseball, for example). That doesn’t stop Nusbaum from sharing this story that he plainly debunks: “And thus, according to mythology, the first baseball game on Mexican soil was played on a sunny April afternoon in 1847. For a ball, the players improvised, wrapping a small rock in leather. For a bat, they used the [recently captured] wooden leg of General Antonio López de Santa Anna.” The real kicker—that leg is still in a museum in Springfield, Illinois. Imperialism can be so off-hand.
Nusbaum, to his credit, is as fine a researcher as he is a writer. This is not a surprise given his career as a former editor at VICE Sports, with work in Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, and the Best American Sports Writing anthology, plus being a card-carrying member of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research), for extra nerd cred. One of his notes explains, “These chapters were built from a combination of interviews, newspaper reports, city council minutes, and newsreel footage;” he is assiduous in his devotion to primary sources, letting people speak, and then checking what they say versus any and all records. None of the people captured in these pages come off as caricatures, from O’Malley, ignoring what his dream stadium was doing to those displaced by it while also personally testing out seat after seat during construction to be sure his baseball palace would be comfortable, to Abrana Aréchiga, the defiant matriarch of the family who fought leaving her home of three decades the fiercest.
In many ways the villain of the book isn’t a person but the notion of progress itself, which tends to get defined by those in power. So, yes, the Chandler family are kind of the off-screen evil, wielding their career-making Los Angeles Times to make mayoral kings out of nobodies and bury Latino communities under parking lots and a stadium, while also pooh-poohing public housing (so bad for real estate values). Think of them as Noah Cross from Chinatown without any of John Huston’s gleaming sense of humor beneath the malice. But perhaps here I’m reading my own need for myths into Nusbaum’s clear-eyed history.