As one of the more well-known sports venues in North America – and perhaps even more widely – Dodger Stadium has hosted a countless number of people since its opening in April 1962. The Los Angeles Dodgers alone had an official attendance of 176,416,038 at the stadium through the 2022 season. The Los Angeles Angels also played there from 1962-1965, with 3,292,244 fans officially coming through the turnstiles. And there have been many non-baseball events at Dodger Stadium, including concerts and more.
Yet, as familiar as the place is, there is one notable artifact on the grounds that probably not so many know about, even though it stands 10 feet tall, weighs nearly 4,000 pounds, and has been near the stadium since 1966. It’s on the hill behind right field, beyond Parking Lot 6 and past the Union 76 gas station. It’s made of stone and can emit a single light that can be seen on a summer night if one is sitting high enough in the stands.
It is Japanese stone lantern, a gift to former Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley from famous Japanese sportswriter Sotaro Suzuki and his wife Toku, and it serves as the primary focal point of a traditional Japanese garden.
“Who knew?” Robin Plaskoff Horton asked in 2015. “I grew up in Los Angeles, [and] went to many baseball games, but never knew that there was a Japanese garden hidden behind Dodger Stadium.”
Some background is in order.
The Dodgers have long had a relationship with Japan, having played exhibitions and conducted clinics there, in addition to hosting Japanese teams and coaches at their spring training facilities, since the mid-1950s. In 1995, pitcher Hideo Nomo ended a 30-year absence of Japanese players in MLB by signing with the Dodgers and becoming an immediate sensation. In 2008, the Emperor of Japan even gave former Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda the Order of the Rising Sun Award – the second-highest honor that a foreigner can receive.
As for Suzuki, he worked closely with O’Malley to coordinate a goodwill tour of Japan by the Dodgers following the 1956 World Series (Jackie Robinson would make his last appearance in a Dodgers uniform as a player on this tour), as well as a similar tour ten years later. O’Malley invited Suzuki and his wife to the grand opening of Dodger Stadium on April 9, 1962, and the Japanese couple wanted to do something in return. After getting back to Japan, Suzuki noticed a photograph of a stone lantern, thought it would be an appropriate gift, and got in touch with a famous stone-carving business called Shimizugumi Stone Works to arrange for the construction of a lantern for the Dodgers.
In a letter to O’Malley dated May 19, 1965, Suzuki said, “After thorough investigation and research, I have found a reliable manufacturer of the ‘Toro’ (Stone Lantern) to be dedicated to the Dodger Stadium in memory of our being invited to the Grand Opening on April 9, 1962, which Toku and myself are always thinking one of the greatest honors . . . in our life.”
With an official weight of 3,921 pounds, the lantern was shipped in six sections to Los Angeles during the winter of 1965. O’Malley decided to place it in its current location along with two cherry blossom trees, traditional-style river-rock paths, and pine trees cut in a Japanese style. Suzuki’s goal was to provide a relaxing setting for fans.
O’Malley often visited the garden and had plants and trees from the team’s former spring training home of Vero Beach, Fla., flown in and placed around the lamp. The organization’s groundskeepers maintained the garden for many years. Throughout the 1990’s, local resident Frank Ego made regular weekend visits to the Japanese garden to care for it and help maintain its beauty and importance.
The garden was re-dedicated in 2003, but currently is mostly overgrown due to neglect. With a renewed focus on landscaping surrounding the ballpark, including the maintenance of a formal botanic garden, here’s to hoping that a local Angeleno with horticultural chops gives the garden some renewed care in the spirit of Frank Ego.
“The lantern contains a light, and the light is a symbol of our enduring relationship with the people of Japan and . . . the game of baseball, [which] brings us all together,” former Dodger owner Frank McCourt said in 2009 before the Dodgers hosted Japan’s national team at the World Baseball Classic.
At the same event, the Hall-of-Famer Lasorda remarked, “We are proud of this lantern, [which] will shine long after we’re all gone. It will be here forever as a token of our esteem and appreciation to Japan.”