Baseball's Dodgers Say So Long to Dodgertown

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Fans take in one of the last Dodgers games in Vero Beach. i

Fans take in one of the last Dodgers spring training games in Vero Beach, Fla. Greg Allen, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Allen, NPR
Fans take in one of the last Dodgers games in Vero Beach.

Fans take in one of the last Dodgers spring training games in Vero Beach, Fla.

Greg Allen, NPR

A Team's Florida Home

Dodgers President Branch Rickey talks to Jackie Robinson in 1949. i

Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey (left) talks to Jackie Robinson at a team training camp in Vero Beach in 1949. Curt Gunther/Keystone/Archive Photos/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Curt Gunther/Keystone/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Dodgers President Branch Rickey talks to Jackie Robinson in 1949.

Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey (left) talks to Jackie Robinson at a team training camp in Vero Beach in 1949.

Curt Gunther/Keystone/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Sandy Koufax pitches during a 1963 spring training workout in Vero Beach. i

Legendary Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax participates in a 1963 spring training workout in Vero Beach. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Bettmann/Corbis
Sandy Koufax pitches during a 1963 spring training workout in Vero Beach.

Legendary Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax participates in a 1963 spring training workout in Vero Beach.

Bettmann/Corbis
Holman Stadium sign. i

Holman Stadium, which opened in 1953, is one of the oldest spring training venues still in use. Greg Allen, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Allen, NPR
Holman Stadium sign.

Holman Stadium, which opened in 1953, is one of the oldest spring training venues still in use.

Greg Allen, NPR

For Dodgers fans, Vero Beach, Fla., isn't just a place. It's an idea — a symbol of the hope and promise that blooms anew every year at spring training.

For 61 years, Vero Beach has been the wellspring of Dodger spirit. It's home to Dodgertown, the place where Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges and Sandy Koufax trained.

But that era is about to end. Monday night, the Dodgers are playing their last game at Vero Beach before moving to a new $80 million complex in Glendale, Ariz.

On a typical day at Dodgertown, real fans start showing up shortly after sunrise. Five hours before game time, you might find legendary Dodger player Maury Wills giving bunting tips to centerfielder Juan Pierre.

A few steps away, a gaggle of Dodger fans are watching. There are kids with gloves and fans who have been coming here for 20 years or more — people like Maryann Schein.

"My biggest memories here, my best favorites are anytime Sandy Koufax appears and watching Maury Wills teach bunting," says Schien, who, like most fans here, is heartsick.

A Place to Develop Players

It's a decision that makes business sense but which many fans feel is a blow to Dodger tradition. This is the place after all where Branch Rickey brought the team in 1948 — taking over an old naval air station.

Former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda remembers his first year here as a minor league pitcher — staying in an old military barracks where players slept six to a room. Lasorda isn't happy about the move, but says owner Frank McCourt felt he had to do it for the Dodgers' California fans.

"It's tough for a fan to come from L.A. to Vero Beach," Lasorda says. "But to go from L.A. to Phoenix, Ariz. — four hours in a car — and we're going to have a lot of our fans go over there."

But what do you lose?

"Tradition, development," Lasorda says. "You couldn't find a better place to develop players than here."

In its heyday, there might be 600 players here from the Dodgers' many farm clubs playing alongside the major league team.

At Holman Stadium, players take batting practice on a field that's changed little from the days when Don Drysdale was on the mound and Duke Snider was patrolling center field. Both, by the way, have streets in Dodgertown named after them.

A Lucky Cut for Maury Wills

Maury Wills recalls spending eight and a half seasons here as a minor league player and then three more with the big team before he was finally allowed to move into the major league sleeping quarters.

Back then, because of segregation, Wills says, it was difficult for he and other black players to find a place in Vero Beach where they could get a haircut.

"I just got tired of what I had to go through," he says. "So I had my roommate, John Roseboro, just take a pair of electric shears and skin my head. So that way I wouldn't have to worry about where I could go to get a haircut. That year, I stole 104 bases — so I had it shaved every year after that."

Today, Wills isn't happy to be leaving a town where he now has many friends, as he says, "of all ethnicities."

'Dodger Bob,' Fan-in-Chief

Those friendships will be the part of Dodgertown that will be hardest to replace. It's not unusual to run into fans in Vero Beach who've keen spending their springs here for decades.

"I've been coming here since 1964," brags, 67-year-old Bob Scholl, better known here as Dodger Bob. "And I haven't missed a spring training game since."

He spent his honeymoon here, and has gotten to know all the players and staff. But even he concedes it's probably time the Dodgers left Florida for Arizona.

"It breaks my heart," he says, "but it certainly makes sense. It's closer, too, for bringing kids up to minor league affiliates. Everything [is] close. Plus all the teams in the Western Division are out there."

Some diehard fans say they'll probably make the trip to Arizona next spring and show up wherever the Dodgers are training. But not Dodger Bob. When the team plays its last game at Holman Stadium, he says, after 44 years as Dodgertown's fan-in-chief, it will be his cue to retire.

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