A PREMIER TEAM BUILDING AND TOURNAMENT VENUE
A Florida Heritage Landmark
Historic Dodgertown

“Haven of Tolerance”

“Haven of Tolerance”: Dodgertown and the Integration of Major League Baseball Spring Training

By Jerald Podair

(L-R) Peter O’Malley; Walter O’ Malley. Peter O’Malley, the President of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Walter O’Malley, the Chairman of the Board of the Los Angeles Dodgers, are seen in a 1970s photo on a day at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida. Walter O’Malley was one of four Dodger co-owners when Dodgertown opened in 1948. It would be Walter and Peter O’Malley who would later modernize Dodgertown, including new villas for living quarters and a nine-hole and 18-hole golf course. In 1962, Peter O’Malley was the Dodgertown Camp Director who integrated Holman Stadium for all fans.

 

But throughout the 1950s, "bars, beaches, golf courses, some restaurants, and the town's better stores remained off-limits." [17] It would, in fact, not be until the mid-1960s that Vero Beach's stores and theatres served African Americans.[18] As late as 1971, black outfielder Willie Crawford was turned away at a local bar. [19] O'Malley flirted with the idea of moving his spring training site to the West Coast, where these issues would not exist, but had invested too deeply in Dodgertown - both financially and emotionally - to pull away from it. [20] Unable to control over what lay outside Dodgertown, he sought to make what lay within its boundaries open and equitable.

Walter O'Malley's goal during spring training at Dodgertown was to bring the team and organization together. He emphasized communal activities - St. Patrick's Day parties, memorial masses for Dodger personnel who had passed away during the preceding year, recreation rooms with ping pong and pool, movie nights, family activities, and beginning in 1954, golf. That year, O'Malley opened a pitch-and-putt golf course at Dodgertown, in part to address his own growing interest in the sport, but also to give African American Dodgers a place to play, since the local Riomar and Vero Beach country clubs were open only to whites. In 1965, with African Americans still barred from Vero Beach courses, Walter O'Malley built a 9-hole course at Dodgertown; he added an 18-hole course in 1971.[21]

A postcard of the nine-hole golf course and wildlife sanctuary at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida. Walter O’Malley had opened a pitch-and-putt course in 1954 and added a nine-hole golf course in 1965, so all players could enjoy a relaxing game as two local existing golf courses were segregated.

 

Peter O'Malley recalled that "the real reason (his father) built the nine-hole course was so the black ballplayers could have a place to play." [22] According to African American Dodger outfielder Lou Johnson, "When they put that golf course up there, that was a highlight. I didn't know one place we could go to play golf. That made a big difference, I think, in the African American players in their appreciation of Walter O'Malley."[23] O'Malley's concern extended beyond the golf course to more everyday matters. When Johnson was refused service at a Vero Beach laundromat in 1965, O'Malley arranged for on-site washing and drying facilities at Dodgertown. [24]

But while the O'Malleys did what they could to spare their black players the indignities of Jim Crow, it was obviously no substitute for the end of the practice altogether. By the early 1960s, with the modern civil rights movement sweeping through the South, the racial atmosphere was changing. Two organizations that had not existed when Dodgertown opened its doors in 1948, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had employed the tactics of nonviolent direct action - targeted civil disobedience - to attack Jim Crow at its grassroots. Just as important as these new tactics of the civil rights movement were the changes underway in the racial culture of the South. World War II and its aftermath had put an end to a period of Southern economic stagnation and isolation that had lasted for three-quarters of a century. Attracted by low taxes and labor costs, Northern businesses were relocating to the "Sun Belt" and the region was attracting increasing interest from investment and financial institutions. By the early 1960s, buoyed by an influx of businesses and residents from other parts of the country, the South was no longer the nation's economic backwater.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Florida itself, which was diversifying from its traditional economic bases in agriculture and tourism to aerospace, defense, manufacturing, construction, and finance, all of which drew employees from outside the South and aligned the state more closely with national politics and culture. By the early 1960s what had seemed impossible only a few years before - the integration of spring training stadium seating and residential accommodations - was bubbling just beneath the surface of Florida's social structure. The O'Malleys had long chafed under the obligation to segregate spectators at Holman Stadium, but felt they had no choice but to abide by the local ordinance requiring the races to be separated at public events where admission was charged.[25] At Dodgertown's first exhibition game in 1948, Vero Beach police had required black fans to move three times to maintain their distance from whites.[26]

But their opportunity to challenge this policy came in 1962, thanks in part to the work of a biracial committee formed by residents of Vero Beach and nearby all-black Gifford which sought to make the transition to integrated institutions less volatile and confrontational than it had been in other parts of the South.[27] In early 1962, members of this committee met with Peter O'Malley, who had recently become the director of Dodgertown, to discuss the possibility of desegregating Holman Stadium. One of the committee members, Ralph Lundy, recalled that "he (O'Malley) was very receptive and understood the problem. He knew what we were asking."[28] African American Dodger stars Tommy and Willie Davis had also spoken to O'Malley on the same issue as spring training began. [29] A few months earlier, Walter O'Malley had written to the Major League Baseball Players Association expressing his frustration with legally mandated segregation at Holman Stadium. "There are local city (of Vero Beach) ordinances," he complained, "that are not in keeping with our thinking which, however, cover situations off our self-contained base. Our relations with the local political administration are not cordial at the moment and we have been giving some thought to transferring our base to the West Coast unless we see signs of improvement." [30]

[17] Brew, "Boom and Bust."

[18] Nack, "Dodgertown."

[19] Ross Newhan, "Poised Crawford Suffers Racial Snub, Keeps His Cool," Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1971

[20] Letter, Walter O'Malley to Frank Scott and Robert C. Cannon, August 8, 1961

[21] Peter Kerasotis, "Dodger Blues," Golf Journal, March-April 2002; Charles Fountain, Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 72; Nack, "Dodgertown"; Joe McDonnell, "If Roy Campanella Didn't Invent Courage, Who Did?," Sepia, September, 1980, 74; Ross Newhan, "Not Everyone Was a Happy Camper," Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2008, D6.

[22] Kerasotis, "Dodger Blues."

[23] Fountain, Under the March Sun, 72.

[24] Nack, "Dodgertown"; Jim Murray, "Color It Zero," Los Angeles Times, April 9, 1965, B1.

[25] Still, "Militant New Stars Attempting to Bat Bias Out of Ballparks," 54-55.

[26] Wendell Smith, "Roy Looks Classy as Newest Dodger; Jackie Hits Homer," Pittsburgh Courier, March 31, 1948

[27] Tom Moczydlowski, "Segregation Outlived Robinson Era," Vero Beach Press-Journal and Sunday Free Press, February 21, 1988, 27.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Dom Amore, "Sad Prospects at Vero Beach," Hartford Courant, March 16, 2008; Gay, "Dodgertown's Integrated Field of Dreams."

[30] Letter, Walter O'Malley to Frank Scott and Robert C. Cannon, August 8, 1961