Since then, in many variations, we’ve been conditioned to believe that sports — and baseball in particular — mirrors our society and culture. Certainly, that’s true — but explaining why it does can be a difficult task.
That’s what makes Michael Fallon’s look at Los Angeles and the Dodgers of the late 1970s so refreshing. In Dodgerland: Decadent Los Angeles and the 1977-78 Dodgers (University of Nebraska Press; hardback; $34.95; 454 pages), Fallon uses the 1977-78 Dodgers as the main focus of his narrative, but also gives the reader a view of Los Angeles through political, social, cultural and economic lenses. Is Dodgerland a west coast version of The Bronx Is Burning? In an April 2016 blog interview with longtime L.A. sportswriter Tom Hoffarth, Fallon said he wanted to mimic the narrative structure of the 2007 ESPN mini-series that was adapted from Jonathan Mahler's best-selling book “without in any way copying it.”
The inspiration is a good one, since the New York Yankees were the team that defeated the Dodgers in back-to-back World Series in 1977 and ’78.
It was a conscious decision, and the first three choices are not surprising: Tom Lasorda, the garrulous manager of the Dodgers who took over the team from taciturn Walter Alston for the final four games of the 1976 season; Tom Bradley, the first black mayor of Los Angeles who weathered a tax revolt, rising crime, and had a vision for his city that included hosting the 1984 Olympics; and Tom Wolfe, the author who brought the story of America’s first astronauts into sharp focus with his 1979 book, The Right Stuff.
The fourth is Tom Fallon, the author’s grandfather. At first blush, this choice seems a bit self-indulgent. But as the narrative progresses, it turns out that Tom Fallon was the perfect choice — a diehard Dodgers fan in New York who moved his family west, settling in the Los Angeles suburbs and working to achieve the California dream through his hardware store.
Fallon the author tells his grandfather’s story straight without sentimentality, demonstrating how the economics of the 1970s affected the small businessmen in California. Following the Fallon family journey is similar to tracing a once-calm Los Angeles that turned raucous in the mid- to late 1970s. The comparisons Fallon draws from all four Toms makes for a bouncy, vibrant storyline. Hardcore baseball fans may not find much new material in Fallon’s writing, but there are some surprises and a much greater attention to detail than previous works about the era.
Michael Fallon’s family moved to California when he was 3, and he spent much of his youth growing passionate about the Dodgers, a trait that had been passed down from his father and grandfather. The heart of Dodgerland revolves around the Dodgers, who would win the National League pennant in Lasorda’s first two full seasons as manager.
Most of the time, anyway. Los Angeles sportswriter Melvin Durslag once wrote that Alston, incensed when he caught pitchers Sandy Koufax and Larry Sherry breaking curfew during spring training, chased them to their room. When the pitchers locked the door, Alston smashed it in, breaking his World Series ring in the process.
But by the mid-1970s, Alston was still respected but viewed as aloof, quiet and possibly even out of touch. Lasorda, Alston’s third base coach, brought a more electric, rejuvenating vibe to the Dodgers. In the most eye-opening section of the book, Fallon reveals the apparent dislike between Alston and Lasorda, which had its roots in the early 1950s when Alston managed Lasorda in the Dodgers’ minor-league system. Lasorda was part of a group that tried to pull a prank on their manager, and Alston was not amused. Afterward, Fallon writes, Alston “had nothing but stern, disapproving looks for Lasorda.” When both made it to the majors—Alston as the Dodgers’ manager and Lasorda as a left-handed pitcher — Alston hardly used him.
“That guy Alston never gave me a chance, and I never forgot it,” Lasorda said.
With that in mind, Lasorda set out to grow a new culture in Los Angeles. “It’s simple, really. I show you the loyalty of a father, you show me the loyalty of a son,” he said. “You show me loyalty, I will watch your back forever.”
That demand for loyalty and an insatiable desire to show he was just as good as his predecessor drove Lasorda in that first season, and despite some bumps in the road, that tactic put the Dodgers into the World Series against the Yankees, their ancient rivals. The two teams would meet again in 1978, with the same result: a Series victory for New York.
Fallon sprinkles the day-to-day grind of the season with stories about players. Anecdotes about players like Reggie Smith are instructive. The outfielder was known for a great arm, strong work ethic and was respected for his leadership. “Reggie’s a foxhole dude,” teammate Dusty Baker said. “If it was war or a baseball game, there wouldn’t be another person I want next to me.”
Smith also could play seven different instruments and was called “The Professor” by his teammates because of his intelligence.
Fallon also writes about Glenn Burke, a promising player with a dark secret — he was the first baseball player to reveal he was gay, and believed he was traded by the Dodgers for an older player (Bill North) because of his lifestyle. Future Hall of Famer Don Sutton was a fierce competitor who always seemed to challenge Lasorda’s leadership, while first baseman Steve Garvey cultivated a squeaky-clean image that seemed phony to his teammates. Garvey’s much-publicized fight with Sutton in 1978 reveals Lasorda’s genius in manipulating a potentially bad situation into a positive motivational tool.
What also distinguishes Dodgerland is Fallon’s look at the pop culture of the decade. He references television shows like Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels, and movies like Star Wars. Frank Zappa, Hugh Hefner, Roman Polanski, John Wayne and Bob Marley also come under Fallon’s microscope. Even the comeback of pitcher-turned-author Jim Bouton is given good treatment.
The only glitches in the book were minor fact errors. Fallon notes that the between 1941 and 1963, the Dodgers and Yankees had met eight times, with the Yankees winning seven of them. That number should have been six, as the Dodgers won in 1955 and 1963. He later writes that between 1949 and 1963, the Yankees appeared in all but two World Series (true) and won 10 World Series titles (they actually won nine).
In the end, Los Angeles mayor Bradley weathers the Proposition 13 controversy and stares down the IOC to get the 1984 Olympics (mostly) on his terms. Wolfe kicks his writing into gear and completes The Right Stuff, and Tom Fallon comes to grips with the grim economic realities of Southern California as society becomes more of a freewheeling, disposable society. Lasorda, meanwhile, has two pennants in his pocket but two disappointing World Series defeats to the Yankees that will gnaw at him until 1981, when the Dodgers exacted their revenge against New York in the World Series that ended a bizarre, strike-ridden split season.
Michael Fallon combines baseball, culture, politics, and social issues into a neat package in Dodgerland. The mid-1970s saw the beginnings of a big shift in maj0r-league baseball because of free agency, and California struggled to emerge from the “Me Decade” that was coined so cleverly by Wolfe in a cover story that appeared in New York magazine on August 23, 1976. Fallon shows that the games of the 1970s culture were a perfect mirror for American culture overall.
It’s worth reflecting upon.