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Dodger History and Its Keeper
2004-04-26 15:56
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

According to Mark Langill, what saved Dodger Stadium, what made it complete in its incompleteness, was the rain.

"When you look at photos of the ballpark (construction) in early 1962, there were no pavilions," Langill said in an interview with Dodger Thoughts on Monday. "Torrential rains had really put a crimp on construction in terms of the timetable. Originally they were thinking they would enclose the ballpark, (but) they decided the view was so nice.

"In retrospect, it worked out so perfectly. I think because of the delays, they finally settled on the 56,000 number. I think if they had been able to build the park with no delays, it probably would have had a larger capacity."

As the publication editor and team historian for the Dodgers, it's Langill's job to know this.

Think about that. It's his job.

What a great job.

Even better for the 39-year-old Langill, who came to work for the Dodgers after covering them for the Pasadena Star-News (where I met him when I was a Star-News intern in 1987), the fates recently conscripted him to learn even more about the team. Last year, Arcadia Publishing approached Langill and the Dodgers with a proposal to produce a 128-page photo essay, to be printed in paperback form, on the Dodgers' history in Los Angeles.

The one book soon became two books, Los Angeles Dodgers and Dodger Stadium. Each came out this year, with about 200 images apiece and accompanying text, all put together by Langill (with the aid of many Dodger colleagues, he points out).

"This was just a project that came out of left field," Langill said. "It was a wonderful surprise. It was an excuse for us to dive into the archives and do the research."

If you consider yourself a passionate follower of the Dodgers, or a Dodger raconteur of sorts, know that in Langill you're about to meet your match. He's the kid that got the key to the candy store. In Dodger Stadium, he writes:

There is also a special place within Dodger Stadium, tucked away from the obvious landmarks and carefully preserved and packaged like a grandparents' cedar chest in a dusty attic. Assembled in a special storage area are rows of four-drawer metal cabinets, filled to the brim with manila-colored files and photos of Dodger players, executives, and press conferences. This is the heart of the organization with its roots in New York, a storied and colorful Brooklyn franchise that joined the National League in 1890.

Of course, that leaves a lot of candy to sort through. Langill looked for photos with versatility - that could convey more than just a moment, more than just a feeling. The images he selected had to have, for lack of a better expression, three-dimensionality.

"Imagine having 209 possible slots for photos and thousands to choose from," Langill said. "How do you choose, from a Sandy Koufax action shot to a Don Drysdale portrait, to an outtake. I just didn't want it to be the same photos that people have seen year after year."

You can deduce Langill's appreciation for the entire Dodger experience, as both insider and outsider, from the photos that he finally did settle on for the books. Alongside the indispensible shots Kirk Gibson thrusting his arm in the air after his home run in 1988 are images like these:

  • amid the controversy surrounding the property, the rise of Dodger Stadium's concrete in the regraded Chavez Ravine
  • Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett, young, with a Dodger Stadium center field in the background that's marked at the old distance, 410 feet from home plate
  • a sketch made when Dodger Stadium hosted ski jumping, of all things, at an international ski show in 1963
  • a full-sized basketball court laid out across the diamond in 1964 for two games: one featuring the Harlem Globetrotters, the other matching the Dodgers against Dick Butkus and the Chicago Bears.
  • at the dawn of the High Five, Dusty Baker and Reggie Smith holding their palms so high that it appears Tommy Lasorda won't reach them
  • the planned cover of the Dodgers' 1997 Division Series program that never was
  • a giddy Stan Williams helping to tear down the 40-foot screen after the Dodgers' last game at the Coliseum
  • Sandy Amoros delivering the lineup card to home plate as a Dodger in 1967, seven years after he retired a member of the roster, thanks to the Dodgers, so that he could qualify for his major league pension
  • a pre-curly Don Sutton, holding his catch of the day from a Spring Training fishing excursion, looking as Opie as can be
  • Mike Piazza, after hearing the news he had been traded to Florida, holding Ramon Martinez' hand toward his chest while in the Dodger locker room
  • with the Coliseum lights turned down, in a tableau of matchlight resembling an army of fireflies, the fans' salute to Roy Campanella on Roy Campanella Night in 1959.

    "I really wanted to go for impact," Langill said. "I would decide on a photo, and then change it, and then change it, and then change it again."

    Even for a definitive Dodger expert such as Langill, there were worlds of history to discover. He recalled seeing a photo labeled, "The East-West All-Star Game," and not knowing what it referred to. With further research, Langill found that in 1969 and 1970, after the death of Martin Luther King, the Dodgers staged benefit exhibition games at the conclusion of Spring Training, with each major league team sending players to participate. They were real live All-Star games and basically, no one knows anything about them. Langill, in fact, is still looking for a program from one of the games.

    Through the books, we also learn, as Langill did, how much of a work in progress that Dodger Stadium was during its construction in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and that Walter O'Malley was no small thinker that his vision was influenced by none other than Walt Disney and Disneyland.

    "I think the thing that really blew me away was the degree that Walter O'Malley wanted to make that such a baseball showplace, to see all the ideas that he had," Langill said. "He wanted to have a musical fountain in left field, that would change colors if someone hit a home run. That was on the early drafting board late 50s, early 60s.

    "The very fact that they imported a sound system that was from an Italian opera house. He really, really wanted to make it something that baseball fans hadn't experienced before."

    O'Malley's views evolved during Dodger Stadium's first decade, Langill notes. In Los Angeles Dodgers, Langill quotes from a 1969 O'Malley interview with the Times that discussed the ballpark:

    We wanted this to be a showplace, and it is, but we've been here eight years, and most people have seen it who want to. Our attendance, you see, was inflated in the early seasons. The fact is that it was much larger than our wildest hopes. But it couldn't go on.

    Buses drop off loads of visitors here every day. They lean down and touch the grass, and walk out to the mound where Don Drysdale stands in those Vaseline commercials. And I have to hope that many of them will come back. But as the years go along, we're judged more and more as a baseball team. As in other baseball cities, our attendance will rise when a Drysdale pitches 58 scoreless innings or when we develop other great stars or when we get another guy with that word charisma. Attendance will also rise if we just have a team that plays well as a unit.

    For Langill, there is one constant throughout Dodger Stadium's history that transcends wins and losses, or even bobblehead giveaways (which began with Danny Goodman, one of the team's first hires when it move to Los Angeles).

    "I think as I've gotten older," Langill said, "I've had a unique perspective. I've gone from fan to journalist to member of the front office. The one thing that has always remained the same is I've always looked forward to going to the ballpark. No matter how the team was playing. I think over the years it's the ballpark experience, in terms of customer service, how the fans, the players, the workers, when they're all considerate of each other, that is so important.

    "I've seen so many new ballparks, and somehow when you have this state-of-the-art facility, somehow the fan experience gets lost in terms of how the workers treat the fans. They're leaving their place of work, they're spending a lot of money to go there, they also spent family time together. It sounds like a basic thing and you just have it as a throwaway line, but you really see that the human touch is so important."

    The fact that Dodger fans have grown concerned at times that the organization has lost sight of this mission or that it might lose sight in the future only encourages Langill in this belief.

    "The premise that they're concerned is a wonderful premise because they show that they care," he said. "I have absolutely no problem with fans playing the what-if game the worst possible thing that could happen is indifference. Whoever's in charge now is held to a high standard."

    As team historian, Langill enthusiastically aims to hold up his end of the deal. All requests for historical information, trivial or truly significant, flow through him, and he attends to them like they're a cause. Last year's remembrance of Roy Gleason, the Vietnam War veteran who had one at bat a double with the Dodgers before going to war, began with a simple phone call.

    Recently, an inquiry came from a fan who, decades before, had lost an audio record of KMPC highlights from the 1959 championship season. On a lark, the fan called the Dodgers to see if he might have a copy. In this case, Langill did in his desk drawer, no less.

    "To me, that was great just to burn a CD and send it to him," Langill said. "He got quiet on the phone and cried a little, and said, 'You really don't know what this means to me."

    It might sound saccharine, but know that when you talk to Langill, he actually seems in awe of his job. Covering the Dodgers as a reporter was a dream job for him to begin with, so you can imagine what it must feel like for him to have found something that could be even better.

    "If you're calling the stadium and put on hold, you hear highlights," Langill said. "And that was a CD we produced in 2002. We were able to collect different highlights on audio from all different moments at Dodger Stadium and write a script that Vin Scully would read. You talk about an awesome responsibility. Let's just say I could write a story and know a million people could read it, but it's a really, really unique feeling knowing that Vin Scully is going to narrate a script that you're writing. When you hear him read your words it's just amazing.

    "I've learned just to appreciate every day so much. There comes a point and I probably passed it long ago, just realizing how fortunate I am to be there and just how lucky I am. I never lose sight of that. I had a high school teacher that one day walked into the classroom and said, 'If you can find a job that you love, then you'll never have to go to work.'"

    Lucky for him and lucky for us who get to take advantage of his work. These books show that Dodger Stadium is the only place for Langill to work.

    "I don't think people would want me to be doing their taxes or landscaping their yard," Langill said.

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