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Dodgertown
William Nack
March 14, 1983
Since 1948, Dodgers of every stripe have convened at this crossroads in the Florida sunshine, minor- and major-leaguers studying together at Branch Rickey's "college of baseball"
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March 14, 1983

Dodgertown

Since 1948, Dodgers of every stripe have convened at this crossroads in the Florida sunshine, minor- and major-leaguers studying together at Branch Rickey's "college of baseball"

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In those days—the mid-'50s—Vero Beach was a small Southern town whose racial attitudes mirrored those of the region. Some observers have suggested that Rickey's decision to found Dodgertown was based in part on his desire to fully integrate the game. Robinson was already on the Dodgers, and Campanella and Pitcher Don Newcombe were ready to join the team. The idea of Dodgertown as a multiracial enclave, where black and white players could eat, train and sleep in one place, certainly had its appeal.

The conditions were explosive, and in 1948 they nearly blew up in Rickey's face. Newcombe had a confrontation with an opposing player, a white man, after a game in Vero Beach, and white fans descended from the stands to challenge Newk. "Here was a nigger going to fight a white man in Vero Beach in 1948," Newcombe recalls. "One man tore a picket off a fence and yelled, 'Kill that nigger! Kill that nigger!' They were going to lynch me." Newcombe escaped unscathed—physically, that is—but in the middle of that night Rickey had a meeting with the mayor and the chief of police. In an attempt to minimize the possibility of further conflict, Rickey asked Newcombe, Robinson and Campanella to stay on the base for the rest of spring training.

His memory of life at Dodgertown, a prison for him, still troubles Newcombe when he visits the place. "It's haunting, it really is," he says. "It was a lousy cracker town at the time. It's changed since then. That's what to me makes America great. I've lived to see it change."

Change came slowly to Vero, as it did elsewhere in the South. Tommy Davis recalls Holman Stadium's washrooms being integrated in 1964, and he also remembers urging reluctant black patrons to move from seats in rightfield to better ones in previously all-white sections behind home plate. "We almost had to push them," he says, " 'Get up! Everything's O.K. now.' " It was not until the mid-1960s that the town's stores and theater served blacks.

O'Malley, meanwhile, tried to accommodate his black players as best he could. The golf course came in '66, and when Outfielder Lou Johnson was evicted from a laundromat one year, O'Malley had washers and driers installed at Dodgertown.

Over the years O'Malley added this touch and that, and by the time he died 3½ years ago, he had made Dodgertown a garden spot. Nine royal palms stand just inside the grassy bank that delineates the outfield boundary of Holman Stadium, and a 120-foot-high dark green stand of Australian pines serves as a backdrop for the hitters. There are banyan trees and kumquat trees and even a flowering African orchid tree outside the mess...er, dining hall.

What Rickey originally conceived, the idea of a baseball college, O'Malley carried out and improved on. "We have fulfilled Mister Rickey's dream," Campanis says.

And then some. Several years after Drysdale retired, he visited O'Malley in his office in Los Angeles. "Boy, you retired too soon," O'Malley told him. "We've got Dodgertown all fixed up."

"I hear it's very nice," Drysdale said. "But we had an awful lot of fun in the old barracks. You could tell stories about those things for days and days. I understand it's a country club now."

"That's what I'm afraid of," O'Malley said. "When you really stop and think about it, those old barracks weren't so bad after all, were they?"

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