By Glen Sparks
The Los Angeles Dodgers do their spring training work in the desert now, near cactus and rugged brown hills. For decades, though, and this goes back to their Brooklyn roots, the team reported to Vero Beach, Fla., each February, next to the Atlantic Ocean and rows of grapefruit trees.
MLB.com has posted several photos of the Dodgertown complex. You also can read about the sun-splashed site by going to historicdodgertown.com. You’ll get a little history and some news about the Dodgertown of today.
Bud Holman, a local businessman, built Vero Beach Airport in 1929, eventually making it a fueling stop for Eastern Airlines. The military commissioned U.S. Naval Air Station, Vero Beach, on Nov. 24, 1942. Pilots in planes from dive bombers to fighters trained at Vero Beach; more than 100 service men died in accidents.
At war’s end, the U.S. Government gave back the land, stipulating only that use of the site be “subject to federal approval.” Uncle Sam approved of baseball. The Dodgers began training at Vero Beach in 1948. That was the era of Robinson and Reese, Snider and Erskine. The Boys of Summer. Officials in January 1948 dubbed the old base “Dodger Town (two words).” Life magazine, a big deal back then, put Dodgertown (now, one word) on its April 5, 1948, cover.
Dodgertown was the envy of baseball. Walter O’Malley, who took over as team president in 1950, upgraded the dining facilities, built a nine-hole golf course and swimming pool for players, added more landscaping (300 hybrid hibiscus plants, 150 cocktail orange trees, etc.), and even a 120-acre wildlife sanctuary.
In 1972, the team built 90 “villas” for players and coaches to stay. Jimmy Powers a reporter for the New York Daily News wrote that “the kitchen and equipment room are first class.” The team played its home games at Holman Stadium, built in 1953, famous for its open-air dugouts and fans who would relax on the outfield berm.
Pitcher Carl Erskine, in his book Tales from the Dodger Dugout, wrote “Dodgertown was like a baseball college, with hundreds of players throwing, hitting, playing intrasquad games and doing baseball drills.”
The Dodgers left their Brooklyn home for Los Angeles in 1958. Teams made history there, too. Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Willie Davis supplanted the old Brooklyn stars. Eventually, Don Sutton, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Orel Hershiser and other stars made it to Dodgertown. Hall of Famers were honored at the complex in a special way. Streets were named after them. Anyone going to Dodgertown could make their way along Sandy Koufax Lane, Jackie Robinson Avenue, Pee Wee Reese Boulevard and other lanes.
Finally, in time for spring training in 2009, the spring training moved west, to Glendale, Ariz., outside Phoenix. The Dodgers share the Camelback Ranch site with the Chicago White Sox. It is a shorter drive, or plane ride, for fans in southern California. But, what would become of the team’s old spring home?
Actually, it is doing just fine. Former Dodgers owner, Peter O’Malley, Walter’s son, serves as president and CEO of what is now Historic Dodgertown. His founding partners included retired Dodger pitchers Chan Ho Park and Hideo Nomo. Youth teams in sports ranging from baseball, football and soccer to rowing, rugby and lacrosse can use the site. Historic Dodgertown also offers corporate retreats, a spot for weddings and receptions and a popular baseball fantasy camp. The complex retains its roots. You can still walk down Sandy Koufax Lane and all the other Dodger star-studded streets (Vin Scully Way, Duke Snider Drive, etc.)
The complex is both modern and nostalgic, something of today that still harkens to yesterday. Historic Dodgertown has much to live up to. In his book, 100 Things Dodgers fans Should Know and Do before They Die, author John Weisman writes that Dodgertown became “a full-fledged home away from home.” Weisman quoted former Dodger first baseman Wes Parker as saying, “I think it was a beautiful set-up.”