Review of Dodgerland: Decadent Los Angeles and the 1977-78 Dodgers

Fallon, Michael. Dodgerland: Decadent Los Angeles and the 1977-78 Dodgers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 472 pp. Notes and index.  $34.95 (clothback).

Reviewed by Tolga Ozyurtcu

“I’m recording the game.  Please, no spoilers.”  More than getting students to do the reading, even more than whatever it is the Lakers are purportedly doing, this is my main source of stress in the 21st century: I have the power to manipulate space and time with my DVR. I can watch a game on my own time and break advertisers’ hearts with the push of a button.  But it’s only worth it if I can avoid absentmindedly looking at my phone or computer and awkwardly avert my eyes from the screens at the restaurant/dentist’s office/gas station that want to ruin my fun.  Sometimes, I am my own undoing: gluttonously pushing that button, moving from fast-forward to faster-faster-fastest-forward, the button suddenly becoming unresponsive as the game flies by, spoiling what little elation/disappointment I had budgeted for Saturday afternoon.  (Call it advertiser’s revenge; I’m not convinced that the remote isn’t programmed to occasionally punish me for wielding too much temporal-spatial power.)

Dodgerland

University of Nebraska Press, 2016

If the uncertainty of the result is one of the most compelling features of watching sports, the ability to keep us engaged when we already know the outcome is perhaps the litmus test of the sports chronicler.  Such is the greatness of the classics by McPhee, Feinstein, Halberstam, and Kahn: they are tour guides on a road trip where the destination has already been stripped of its magic.  In the prologue to Dodgerland: Decadent Los Angeles and the 1977-78 Dodgers, Michael Fallon essentially leads with the spoiler, opening his sprawling take on the team and the city with Dodger hearts breaking in a second consecutive World Series loss to the New York Yankees. Over the ensuing 400-plus pages, Fallon offers a deeply researched, lovingly crafted treatise on a team and a city—inextricably linked—each wrestling with its own potential in a tumultuous period of transition.

Weaving together an intricate chronicle of two baseball seasons with a hefty dose of social, political, and pop-cultural history and commentary, it is an ambitious effort with a lot to love, even if it ultimately falls short of greatness (not unlike the ’77-’78 Dodgers themselves). To tie together the narratives of the unwieldly metropolis and the diamond contenders, Fallon employs a novel device, channeling his story through four ‘Toms’: Lasorda, Bradley, Wolfe, and Fallon.  Somewhat like a pitching rotation, Fallon deploys each man to navigate a different layer of his narrative: baseball (first year Dodger manager Tom Lasorda), the sociopolitical (Tom Bradley, the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles, who started his second term in 1977), the sociocultural (Tom Wolfe, the “new journalist” who coined the phrase ”the me decade”), and the local everyman (Tom Fallon, the author’s grandfather who brought his family west in pursuit of the Southern California goodlife.)  Despite feeling forced at times, this approach does help to anchor the impressive range of subject matter that Fallon tackles: Star Wars, the Venice Beach skateboarding scene, Roman Polanski, Bob Marley, Jimmy Carter, and so on.  Mimicking the up and down rhythms of a baseball season, chapters bounce back and forth between the team’s narrative and perspectives on the city, building toward some reflexive understanding of the team-as-the-city-and-the-city-as-the-team.  Lasorda’s locker-room guile is never far from Joan Didion’s incisive takes on the Golden State; Wolfe’s cultural critiques clear the bases for Steve Garvey and Reggie Smith.

The book is often entertaining and many of the connections Fallon makes between the zeitgeist and the state of Major League Baseball are interesting (and certainly original), but the intertwined tales of Los Angeles and the Dodger ballclub don’t always gel.  Taken as a whole, Fallon’s work reads almost like two books at once.  As a baseball book, Dodgerland is a solid contribution to the literature on 1970s baseball, especially considering this is Fallon’s first foray into sports writing (his previous book is an enlightening take on Los Angeles art in the 1970s). Fans less familiar with the era are likely better off starting with Dan Epstein’s Big Hair and Plastic Grass or Stars and Strikes, but Dodgerland does a good job of capturing the tensions surrounding big league ball in the decade, like free agency and the shifting norms of player behavior.  The book is probably best contextualized as an adept counterpart to Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning, the excellent study of the New York and the Yankee squads that bested the Dodgers (Fallon admits to finding inspiration in Mahler’s work.) While perhaps too detail oriented to appeal to the casual fan, deeper aficionados of the era (and Dodger fans especially) will appreciate the meticulously researched take on a team full of notable ballplayers and interesting personalities, like Dusty Baker, Davey Lopes, Rick Monday, Don Sutton, and Steve Yeager (as well as the aforementioned Garvey, Smith, and Lasorda).  Fallon relies heavily on direct quotes from the players and manager, with stretches of the book verging on oral history (in a good way).

As a book on a twentieth century Los Angeles and its role in popular culture and politics, Dodgerland is less essential, but serves a fine introduction to the city in the 1970s.  In terms of the “Toms,” the narrative driven by Mayor Bradley will be of interest to sports fans, as Fallon teases out the political cat-and-mouse game that Bradley navigated to land the 1984 Olympic Games, negotiating stringent International Olympic Committee demands and local opposition to public spending.  Tom Wolfe, the jumping off point for the sociocultural narratives, is where Fallon’s device feels the most strained, but part of this is simply the immense challenge of trying to encapsulate a city that refuses to be contained by geography or the imagination.  Fallon does hit many of the key touchstones of the era, like Hollywood, the music industry, and youth culture, and his thoroughly referenced source material will steer those interested to many of the key works on the city.  Somewhat unexpectedly, the familial narrative of grandpa Tom and the Fallon clan makes for some of the most interesting reading.  Certainly, it is the material that only Fallon could write, but there is something more to it than that.  Tracing his family history in the LA area and his own youthful fandom, Fallon adds a layer that humanizes the experience of the city and the Dodger team.  The effect is subtle, but notable: a reminder that no matter how big the city or the team, our sense of belonging to a place or a social group is rooted in individual experience and that even if we know how the story ends, it is still a story worth telling and reflecting upon.

 

Tolga Ozyurtcu, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Sport Management and Physical Culture and Sport Studies programs at the University of Texas at Austin.  He can be contacted at tolgao@gmail.com .

One thought on “Review of Dodgerland: Decadent Los Angeles and the 1977-78 Dodgers

  1. Pingback: Happy Book Birthday to Dodgerland! | University of Nebraska Press blog

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