Although the spread of the novel coronavirus has delayed the start of Major League Baseball's season until some unknowable future date, that hasn't stopped people from enjoying the game through various mediums. That can mean watching a game in Korea or Taiwan; it can mean passing the hours on The Show; and it can mean diving into a good baseball book.
Author Eric Nusbaum recently penned one of the latter, called Stealing Home, wherein he details the secret history of Dodger Stadium. Nusbaum's book, released in March, details the human cost of the stadium's construction.
Let's start with the obvious. What inspired you to write this book?
It was both one thing and a lot of things. When I was in high school in Los Angeles, my U.S. History teacher brought a man named Frank Wilkinson in to talk about his experience being blacklisted in the Red Scare. To my great surprise, one of the first things Frank did was tell us that Dodger Stadium should not exist.
Frank was a public housing activist in LA in the 1940s and 1950s. He was a key part of the effort to build public housing where Dodger Stadium now sits. Those efforts ended with communities torn apart, Frank and his family ruined, and eventually, as we all know, Dodger Stadium.
I could never shake the story Frank told. As I became a writer and reporter, and got better at my job, I just grew more obsessed with this story every passing year.
There are a few main characters in the book, beginning with the Arechiga family, who ended up being evicted from their home on live television so that Dodger Stadium can be built on the land. Were they receptive to the project, and have they since read the book and offered any feedback?
There isn't just one answer to this question. For example, the Arechiga family by the time of the evictions, consisted of grandparents, children, sons and daughters-in-law, cousins, etc. It was a big, sprawling family and over the intervening decades, it has only grown. There were some people who were extremely receptive and others who were not -- which is absolutely their right. The other main character is Frank Wilkinson, who I mentioned above. His family was receptive, but not until I earned their trust. Frank was a complicated man, and they really wanted me to understand that.
Thankfully, so far the feedback has been really good.
This is a baseball book that doesn't feature much between-the-lines talk. You do touch on a few players, including Willie Davis, who coincidentally grew up in public housing—how did you decide which players to include, and did you struggle with how much on-field stuff to include?
I actually did struggle at first with how much baseball to include. The book obviously ends with the construction of Dodger Stadium (not a spoiler alert!). But on the LA side, a lot of the action that preceded the Dodgers' move west from Brooklyn did not specifically have to do with baseball -- at least not at first glance. But it also really did -- the book is about boosterism, and the fulfillment of the American destiny, and once I got to the point of thinking about baseball as a force in our society as opposed to baseball between the lines, it really started to make sense. The three Dodgers players I really focused on heavily (Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Willie Davis) each represent something different about baseball and its place in the context of the other action in the book. For example, I wrote about Robinson's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Snider's childhood growing up in Compton (which at the time was a segregated, whites-only city), and Davis going from living in public housing to taking over for Snider in center field.
This is also a book about community and city-building and politics and a whole slew of other things. How challenging was it to keep the whole picture in view, and to find a structure that allowed for all of this information to be presented in a digestible manner?
This was probably the most challenging aspect of the book, at least from a writing perspective. The actual story of how we got Dodger Stadium involves sprawling historical trends, very complex local politics, and the impact of choices made by individuals living through these times. It was important to me that I get all this right, and then to present it in a compelling way. One of the results is that the book features some very short chapters, which allowed me to jump between simultaneously occurring action as the figures in the book speed toward their ultimate destinies. It also allowed me to bring in some historical figures and stories that might not seem directly related at first, but who I think are ultimately very revealing.
You grew up a Dodgers fan. How has your fandom changed over the course of researching and writing the book?
I've been writing about baseball as part of my living for a decade now, so over that time my fandom has evolved. The process of researching and writing this book gave me a lot of reason to think deeply about what exactly we're cheering for, and what it means to support a team. My appreciation for the Dodgers and their history is much deeper now, and I think I have a better understanding of how important they are in the history + development of L.A. I'm also more sure than ever that it's not only OK, but the right thing to do for fans to scrutinize their favorite teams beyond on-field performance and front office choices. We're very vocal when we don't like a trade or the way a player is hitting. We should also be vocal about how our favorite teams treat their home cities and their fans.
What do you hope that people take away from the book?
First of all, I hope they enjoy the book. Then I hope they take away some appreciation for the remarkable communities that once existed where Dodger Stadium does now, and the tragic nature of their demise. The people who lived in Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop had agency and made every effort to have a say in their own destinies.Their voices matter as much as Frank Wilkinson's or Walter O'Malley's, and the forces that dispossessed them of their home were much bigger than baseball. Lastly, I hope readers come away reminded that it's okay to be critical of things that we love, and that doing so doesn't mean we love them less.