Wilson, Wayne, and Wiggins, David K. LA Sports: Play, Games and Community in the City of Angels. Fayetteville, Ark.: The University of Arkansas Press, 2018. Pp. 362. Photos and Illustrations, black & white (15). $26.95.
Reviewed by: Richard A. Macales
On the surface it appears Los Angeles has reached the apex of professional sports popularity in America. Within the past three years two NFL teams returned to their ancestral L.A. (Rams and Chargers). In the Big 5 major league sports (baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and soccer), Greater Los Angeles has the nod on bragging rights, being home to 11 teams. Only New York can match it (when including the New Jersey-based NFL Giants and Jets).
The City of Angels has hosted two Olympic Games (1932 and ’84), six Super Bowls (including the first-ever, in 1967), two World Cup Finals (men, 1994; women, 1999), three NCAA Basketball Finals (men, 1968 and ’72; women, 1992), the annual Rose Bowl, four BCS National Championship Games in collegiate football (2002, 06, ’10, and ’14), and the World Baseball Classic Final (2017). L.A. will be hosting the Olympics for a third time in 2028.
The most successful and impactful sporting event, by far, ever hosted by Los Angeles has been its Olympic Games. And LA Sports: Play, Games, and Community in the City of Angels, provides ample space devoted to the trend-setting and profitable Games (an Olympic rarity) in 1932 and ’84.
Wayne Wilson and David K. Wiggins serve as editors of this anthology, an insightful look at a diverse cross section of sports in Los Angeles, in what Wiggins calls “one of America’s most iconic cities”(p. x). Wilson is vice-president, educational services, at the LA84 Foundation, established through profits from the 1984 L.A. Olympics. He is also co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Sport History.
Prof. Wiggins of George Mason University’s School of Health, Recreation and Tourism, wrote the preface as part of his series on “Sport, Culture & Society,” analyzing various American cities. Wiggins, president-elect of the North American Society for Sport History, previously served as editor of the Journal of Sport History.
L.A. is a city and sports town of stark contrasts. Underlying the Hollywood glamor façade lays a city with much racial strife, and where fan support is reserved for winners attracting “Hollywood glitterati,” according to Mark Dyreson, professor of kinesiology at Penn State University. In his excellent introductory chapter to LA Sports, titled “I Love LA,” he composes it around the Randy Newman song by the same name; an unofficial anthem of sorts for Southern California sports teams. Like Newman’s song lyrics, LA Sports mixes both optimism and cynicism about L.A. and its fabled lifestyle.
LA Sports includes 15 essays addressing a broad range of topics — from socially elitist “Figure Skating in California” to racially exclusionary “Never Go Back: Pasadena Racial Politics and the Robinson Brothers.” (Pasadena, we learn, was the adopted hometown to modern Major League Baseball’s black pioneer, Jackie Robinson, and his brother, Mack, track medalist at the controversial 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin).
LA Sports provides a look at L.A. from both the glitzy and the noir sides of town, an odd mix for “72 suburbs in search of a city,” as satirist Dorothy Parker quipped.
Dyreson notes, “Los Angeles stands out as the newest and largest megalopolis – and from many vantages the most rootless and transient. “ He later adds, “Los Angeles has developed a sporting culture that is unique and exaggerated, as well as conventional and mundane, as the essays in this collection on the sporting life of the ‘City of Angels’ reveal” (p. 4).
Los Angeles-reared Elliot J. Gorn, co-contributor (with Allison Lauterbach Dale) of the insightful essay, “Vin Scully: The Voice of Los Angeles,” personifies some contributors to LA Sports who possess a love-hate relationship with the city. Now a Loyola University-Chicago historian, Gorn left L.A. for college in 1969, never returning to live in Southern California. He continued following the Dodgers, he confesses, mainly because of Vin Scully. Writes Gorn: “I’m not a big fan of Southern California but his [Scully’s] voice somehow captures what is best about the place…” Conversely, like so many Angelenos, Scully is himself an L.A. transplant, having begun his record 67-year broadcasting career with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950.
To understand the broader dimension of 21st century L.A., one must recognize the economic clout and demographic power of the Latino community, specifically Mexican-Americans — the largest population group in Greater Los Angeles. Relations with other ethnic groups in the city are complex and, at times, fraught with friction — and this can be found in the stadium, the neighborhood gym, and within the community-at-large.
In his essay, “Sports and Community in Mexican Los Angeles,” UC San Diego associate professor of history Luis Alvarez points out some pivotal moments: First was when Dodgers pitching legend Fernando Valenzuela was appointed, in 2015, by former President Barack Obama to be his Presidential Ambassador for Citizenship and Naturalization. Dating back to Mexico-born Valenzuela’s sensational rookie season, in 1981, he helped bridge relations between the Dodgers’ traditionally white and African-American fan base, as well as within the Mexican-American community; angry with club management when Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine (opened in 1962) built on land originally designated, a decade earlier, for affordable public housing.
Another contentious topic raised by Alvarez is the favorite team of Mexican-Americans: Mexico’s National Soccer Team. He points out that since the 1990s during soccer matches of Mexico vs. USA played in Los Angeles, fans in the stadium wave flags of Mexico and Mexican-Americans are a sizable contingent of those typically in attendance. Anti-Mexican-American hostility inevitably follows. Alvarez singles out a highly influential agitator-journalist, columnist, and TV commentator, Patrick J. Buchanan. He quotes Buchanan: “What took place in the L.A. Coliseum was a two-hour orgy of anti-Americanism and hatred against the United States.” The game to which Buchanan referred was the Gold Cup final for soccer supremacy in the Americas, in which Mexico defeated the U.S., 1-0, in 1998.
Another chapter in LA Sports shows other nontransparent stadium deals — aside from Dodger Stadium/Chavez Ravine. “The Life Cycles of Sports Venues in Los Angeles,” provides a sobering look at rampant corruption that has dogged management of the publicly-owned Los Angeles Coliseum and the iconic former Los Angeles Sports Arena. The Arena was torn down in 2016 for a controversial privately-owned soccer stadium. Though the nonagenarian Coliseum is co-owned by the State of California and the County and City of Los Angeles, most L.A. media shied away from discussing missing money earmarked for structural improvements. Backroom deals excluded public input. This impactful investigative piece was co-written by Greg Andranovich, professor of political science at California State University, Los Angeles, and Matthew J. Burbank, associate professor of political science, University of Utah.
In a “lighter” chapter, “I Was Standing There All the While: Jim Murray and the Birth of a Sports Mecca,” we get an inside look at arguably L.A.’s most famous sports columnist ever. Murray was recipient of the National Sports Media Association’s Best Sportswriter of the Year Award 14 times. Author of the essay (and a book) on Murray, Ted Geltner, professor of journalism at Valdosta State University, Georgia, points out the Los Angeles Times’ syndicated columnist’s popularity stemmed, in part, from his “potshots,” particularly of various sports cities he visited. And, he adds, even L.A. wasn’t spared by Murray. Early on, Groucho Marx wrote Murray, saying he was a “daily, satisfied reader.”
Reviewer observations on Murray: It is not a coincidence that Murray’s popularity was at a time in American history of ethnic and gender zinger comedy and “one-liners.” Top rated TV shows like All in the Family and The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast were at their peak of popularity, from the 1960s to ‘80s; athletes often on the receiving end. Murray’s pre-Twitter stereotyping “humor” writing style would probably not be tolerated in today’s political climate.
Prof. Daniel A. Nathan, chair of American Studies, Skidmore College, writes a lively piece about another form of media – movies – as they relate to the sports genre. Titled “Reel Sports: Hollywood Stars at Play in LA,” Nathan asserts that “for many years powerful Hollywood filmmakers and respected critics did not think much of sports films” (p. 168). The Karate Kid, released on the eve of the 1984 L.A. Olympics to rave reviews, helped demonstrate public demand for sports-themed movies. To Nathan this validates that like the movie’s plot, “Southern California is a land of fresh starts, a place where dreams can come true (at least on the big screen).” This low-budget film ($8 million) ended up grossing more than $90 million; proving to future producers that sports films are not “box office poison.”
LA Sports provides a comprehensive rollercoaster look at pro football in Los Angeles, well written and researched by sports historian Raymond Schmidt. Basketball’s Magic Johnson and the Lakers’ “Showtime” dynasty of the 1980s are thoroughly covered by Scott N. Brooks, Arizona State University sociology professor.
In contrast (and reality), the baseball Dodgers won their last World Series 29 years ago; and the Angels, their only championship in 2002. Football’s L.A. Rams have never won a Super Bowl; nor have the Chargers. The vagabond Las Vegas-bound Oakland Raiders won the City of Angels’ only Super Bowl as the Los Angeles Raiders.
LA Sports is a microcosm of the future of America woven into its various essays. It focuses heavily on multiculturalism, and how fair it can be on the playing field and yet so far removed in the community-at-large. It does an admirable job in deciphering the reality, while exposing the myths.
Rich Macales, a native Angeleno, was a former longtime senior writer and public information officer at UCLA. He is a contributor to American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols and Ideas, edited by Prof. Murry R. Nelson, ABC-Clio. For SAH he is the author of The Los Angeles Sports Arena: One Year After a Cultural Icon’s Demolition, July 3, 2017.