A PREMIER TEAM BUILDING AND TOURNAMENT VENUE
A Florida Heritage Landmark
Historic Dodgertown
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“Haven of Tolerance”

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

By Jerald Podair

An aerial color view of Dodger players at Dodgertown in Vero Beach in the late 1940s, reminiscent of the LIFE magazine cover of minor league Dodger players in 1948.  Don Newcombe, the only major league player ever to win the Rookie of the Year, the Most Valuable Player Award and the Cy Young Award, stands on the far left in the first row at the front.  Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the major leagues in the modern era, stands on the far left in the third row.  Fresco Thompson, the Dodgers’ minor league director, stands on the far right wearing a white Brooklyn hat.

 

The Dodgers' move from New York to Los Angeles in 1957 had made a western training camp a potential option, but O'Malley's ties to Vero Beach were likely too strong to break; indeed, the team remained there for the duration of the O'Malley family's ownership, which came to an end in 1998. But while leaving Vero Beach was not a realistic option, the O'Malleys knew the Dodgers wielded enormous economic power in the town, and that the moment was now at hand to employ it. Within two days of his meeting with the interracial committee representatives in February 1962, Peter O'Malley had all whites/blacks-only signs painted over in Holman Stadium, including those at entrances, in bathrooms, above water fountains, and most important, in spectator seating, abolishing the "black" section down the right field line past first base.[31] At first African American fans were hesitant to move into the "white" sections of the stadium - not surprisingly, given the coercive history of the Jim Crow system - but urged on by black Dodger players, they soon were sitting where they wished.[32] As a sign of respect, Peter O'Malley invited the biracial committee's Ralph Lundy to sit with Walter O'Malley.[33]

In the wake of the integration of Holman Stadium, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner columnist Melvin Durslag observed that Walter O'Malley's "popularity hasn't thickened" in Vero Beach.[34] There was, however, little city officials could do. The dollars-and-cents impact of Dodgertown by the early 1960s was such that they had no choice but to tacitly waive the segregated-seating ordinance, yet another example of the power of economics to affect politics, social relations, and culture. By 1962, under pressure from Major League Baseball, individual teams, and even the state Chamber of Commerce, Florida spring training sites were integrating stadium and residential facilities; the last team to house its black and white players separately, the Orlando-based Minnesota Twins, desegregated its headquarters hotel in 1964. [35]

The Florida Heritage Landmark, dedicated at Dodgertown on November 10, 2014, tells the history of Dodgertown and its impact upon baseball and American civil rights.  Dodgertown was conceived by team President Branch Rickey and along with co-owners Dearie Mulvey, Walter O’Malley, and John L. Smith, determined the Spring Training base would be integrated for all players.  The Dodgers would hold their Spring Training at Dodgertown through the 2008 season. The site continues to function today as “Historic Dodgertown,” a multi-sport training and conference center.

 

In taking these steps, baseball franchises, as vehicles of commerce, offered a model for social change that was eventually adopted by the South as a whole. Jim Crow was clearly bad for business. The region's reintegration into the national economic mainstream, in fact, may have accelerated the process of social change as much as demonstrations, legislation, or oratory. And Dodgertown played an important role in that transformation by offering an example of interracial egalitarianism before other Southern institutions followed suit. The story of Dodgertown, like that of Jackie Robinson, resonates far beyond baseball. Both, in the words of sports columnist Red Smith, "revolutionized the social structure of baseball and, in a lesser degree, the nation." [36]

Today, the fact that blacks and whites can live and work together in an atmosphere of dignity and mutual respect is commonplace. But when we consider that throughout much of its existence Dodgertown may well have been one of the only locations in the South where this was the case, what occurred on its playing fields and in its barracks, dining hall, and movie theatre takes on added meaning. "Jim Crow wasn't buried in Vero Beach by any stretch - its ugly remains haunt us today," writes historian Timothy Gay, "but Dodgertown gave it a swift kick…the people of conscience who worked (there) made our pastime truly national".[37] As Charles Fountain, author of the spring training history Under the March Sun, reminds us, Dodgertown is "historic for reasons that have nothing to do with baseball."[38] Today, Historic Dodgertown continues that tradition, providing youth from around the world multi-sport training opportunities. Civil rights was the great American moral cause of the twentieth century. Dodgertown's contributions to that cause make it not just a great sports story, but a great American one.


 

 

[31] Moczydlowski, "Segregation Outlived Robinson Era," 27; Amore, "Sad Prospects at Vero Beach"; Gay, "Dodgertown's Integrated Field of Dreams"; Nack, "Dodgertown".

[32] Nack, "Dodgertown."

[33] Moczydlowski, "Segregation Outlived Robinson Era," 27.

[34] Melvin Durslag, "With Willie It's Always La Dolce Vita," The Sporting News, April 11, 1962.

[35] Fred Lieb, "Florida Airs Housing Plans for Negroes," The Sporting News, May 3, 1961, 27; Lieb, "Major League Baseball's Spring Training in Florida," 18-19; Jack E. Davis, "Baseball's Reluctant Challenge: Desegregating Major League Spring Training Sites, 1961-1964," Journal of Sports History, 19 (Summer 1992), 161.

[36] Quoted in Gay, "Dodgertown's Integrated Field of Dreams."

[37] Gay, "Dodgertown's Integrated Field of Dreams."

[38] Interview, Charles Fountain, March 13, 2009 www.northeastern.edu/news/stories/2009/03/fountain.html