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Dodger Stadium: 'Where the Sheets Never Get Cold but Are Always Dirty'
2003-11-04 15:37
by Jon Weisman

Now that the 2003 baseball season is over, and before we confront 2004, return with me now to 1962.

A simpler time. A time of promise.

A time when Milton Berle compared sparkling new Dodger Stadium to a concentration camp.

As I wrote last month, offers not mere hagiography of the longtime Dodger owner, but a rich resource of untold or unremembered history about the Dodgers. Among the artifacts is an exchange of letters between Berle and O'Malley in June 1962.

Many of you know that Dodger Stadium, though a jewel, opened without any drinking fountains - sinful in a world before people dared sell water in small plastic bottles. (Reminds me of the time I was inspired to sell a sixth-grade classmate a Ziploc of air.) However, free de l'eau was a scant worry for a bigtime Hollywood comedian.

Buoyed by a level of familiarity with O'Malley and a stature in Los Angeles that few, if any, could have possessed, Berle decried the lowdown dirty depth of his Dugout Level seats, the absence of promised wait service for refreshments, the ill-considered location of his parking spot atop the stadium, and an elevator that came all too infrequently and all too full of folk. "If I wanted to faint, I couldn't find a place to fall," Berle wrote.

But that was just the warmup act. Suffice it to say, few would have crafted the following words in a letter to Walter O'Malley with the expectation of a response:

Who hired the usherettes ... Eichman?? Walter, I don't think you want your Stadium run like a concentration camp with Dachau damsels. Some of the usherettes are exceedingly discourteous and don't know the first thing about O'Malley hospitality. For example, the dugout level section is screened in and I feel like a cooped-up Jewish chicken. Well, that isn't too bad. It protects me from walking around with an extra ball! But if Ruth and myself have to be cooped in and guarded by female Storm Troopers, I think it's out of line.

As a primary example of usherette injustice, Berle describes what happened when called over by his friend Stan Musial for a chat. "As I was standing there shaking his hand, Mrs. Hitler tapped me on the shoulder and said: 'You'll have to go back to your seat.' "

The complaints continue for a second typed page before concluding with the following dead serious comedic threat: "Walter, don't make me go back to rooting for the Angels, Heaven forbid! They can't even play pinochle ... because the Cards are in St. Louis!"

Two days after the Berle letter was written, O'Malley replied with more remorse and candor than perhaps you can imagine any baseball owner possessing.

Dear Milton:

There is so much that you write in your letter that I know in my heart is true that I can only give you and Ruth my personal apology.

Let's face it, we opened a new park which was not completed with elevators that were not running properly, with a traffic program that left much to be desired, and with an entirely green staffing crew.

In passing, O'Malley described one of the unanticipated problems he faced. Dodger Stadium's attendees actually treated the ballpark like their new home.

The public went on a sightseeing binge to see the stadium that they voted for. They felt they had a proprietary interest inspecting every nook and cranny and our procedures broke down in such overwhelming demands. We are still waiting for the inside and outside indicators on the elevators, the fans are now installed but not working, and the telephones.

The Dodgers were already addressing other problems, schooling ushers and usherettes in (I particularly like this phrase) "courteous common sense." And those of you who still get stuck in traffic leaving the ballpark will appreciate this counter to the Darwinistic impulse of the California driver: "We have finally enclosed the parking lots with posts and this has kept people [from] jumping the curbs with their cars which resulted in a horrible traffic snarl."

As you can see from the word inadvertantly omitted from the previous sentence, either O'Malley or his secretary were in quite the hurry to get this letter out. In fact, another apparent problem facing the new Dodger Stadium was the owner's increasing struggle to articulate a coherent thought. More strange sentences followed in O'Malley's letter, such as, "This ball park is like the old boarding house where the sheets never get cold but were always dirty."

And in regard to Berle's complaint about not being able to chew the fat with Stan the Man, O'Malley traces the admonition - in confounding fashion - to fear of a Black Dodger scandal.

Unlike the Coliseum where all my friends could gather in my box behind home plate and chat with the players in the runway, this is a regulation park and whether you and I understand the rule or not it is a strict baseball rule that players are not supposed to talk to the spectators before, during or after a game. This rule is frequently violated and we make no attempt to have it enforced because we do not have the gambling here that bothered ball clubs in some other cities.

What in the name of Hollywood Stars Night is O'Malley talking about? If the Dodger ushers were making no attempt to have this frequently violated rule enforced, Berle would be happy as a Catskills clam. Uncle Milty must have thought O'Malley's letter was ghostwritten by Yogi Berra, or maybe Norm Crosby.

In the end, Dodger Stadium deliverance came down to one Hollywood Turf Club buddy asking another for a little peace, love and you know, understanding - explicitly as far as being a spectator, implicitly with regards to Strunk and White.

Milton, as you know, we value the friendship of you and Ruth and this is a time in our break in period when we will ask our friends to put up with some things until we can actually get around to correcting all the faults and killing all the bugs (and I don't mean moths).

"A time in our break in period ..." Yes, we've come a long way linguistically from "Dachau damsels" in two 1962 summer days. Nevertheless, 41 years later, that old boarding house with warm, dirty sheets, Dodger Stadium, lives on.

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