No self-respecting Dodger fan will want to overlook Michael Leahy's The Last Innocents:The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers (HarperCollins).Independent of the Dodger fan base, students of baseball history will find much to enlighten them here about such subjects as the glory days of Sandy Koufax, the ailments (physical and mental) that plague big-time ballplayers, and the relations of management versus labor when Walter O'Malley owned the Dodgers.
There are terrific anecdotes based on interviews the author conducted with Sandy Koufax ("simply the best," as the Yankees advance scout noted in 1963), Maury Wills (who stole 104 bases in 1962), Wes Parker (maybe the slickest fielding first-baseman ever), Lou Johnson (hitting hero of the 1965 World Series), second-baseman Dick Tracewski, catcher Jeff Torberg, the underrated Ron Fairly,and others.The only thing I am not crazy about is the book's title, and the author may not have liked it either. The book is at its weakest when trying to correlate the fortunes of the Dodgers as a team and as a group of individuals with the "turbulent" decade of war, riots, assassinations, uprisings and political movements.
The most compelling pages are on Koufax, a ferocious competitor who was the key to the Dodgers' two World Championships and three National League pennants in the four-year stretch from 1963 through 1966. A hero to the Jewish community for his principled refusal to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, Koufax is enigmatic to the extent that his modesty, shyness, and reticence seem to indicate hidden depths of complexity. Like the "no trespassing" sign that begins and ends Citizen Kane, Koufax's avoidance of publicity is an invitation to let speculation and multiple points of view determine our sense of the man.
The other Dodgers interviewed for the book speak of Sandy with respect bordering on reverence. I didn't know that there was an anti-Semitic strain in some newspaper articles in the mid-60s. "Some skeptics suggested [that] perhaps Koufax was less a ballplayer than a budding businessman and bon vivant." Moreover, "some stories cast him as a closet intellectual, always grounds for suspicion in professional stories." The stories may have been planted by management hoping to improve their bargaining position or their public image. Koufax was underpaid not only in comparison to today's players but by any criterion of the time. And as Leahy says, "there can be no reasonable doubt" that anti-Semitism lay behind the stereotypes provoked by "newspaper references to Koufax's supposed business shrewdness and inferences that Koufax might be less committed to the Dodgers than to getting more money."
By staging a joint holdout in 1966, Koufax and Don Drysdale got the raises they deserved -- and helped pave the way for the free-agency revolution that Marvin Miller was about to engineer. It was never a secret that Koufax pitched despite intense pain from arthritis; that he had to prepare elaborately for each game, and that he quit baseball at the height of his fame, age 30, because he was told that if he continued to pitch, he may ultimately lose the arm. He is the primary hero of this book, and we see him only through others' eyes, because he agreed to speak with Leahy only about his old friend Maury Wills.
Wills suffered from old-fashioned racism. Fierce in his play on the field, someone whose commitment to winning was absolute (in the manner of Chase Utley or Hunter Pence), he felt manipulated by Dodger management, and disrespected. Part of the problem was Vero Beach, Florida, where the Dodgers held their spring training for many years.The town's hostility to blacks was palpable. But management treated the star shortstop with contempt during contract negotiations. Remembering Dodger games in which the only offense was provided by Wills (who would beat out a bunt, steal second, steal third, and come home on a fly ball), I agree with those who contend that he belongs in baseball's Hall of Fame. Wills revolutionized baseball. He brought back the stolen base as a weapon. His career prefigured those of Lou Brock, Ricky Henderson, and Davey Lopes.
One thing I did not know about Wills is that he apparently dated Doris Day.
There must be a technical term for the degree of insecurity that plagued Wes Parker. Lou Johnson's story is that of the veteran minor-leaguer who is about to hang up his spikes when he gets one last chance and makes the most of it.Johnson hit the decisive home run when Koufax shut out the Minnesota Twins in game seven of the 1965 World Series. The game was played in Minnesota. "You could hear a cat pissin' on cotton after I hit it," Johnson recalls. As for Parker, the affable Tim McCarver says that Parker made "the best play I ever saw made by a first baseman in a game I was ever in."
Michael Leahy's affection for the team is evident and understandable. He was a teenage kid at Dodger Stadium when Koufax pitched his perfect game in 1965. That game was, Leahy says, "the apotheosis of Koufax" and it must have felt magical to be in the stadium. As Leahy suggests, Koufax stood in relation to the Dodgers of the 1960s as Joe DiMaggio stood in relation to the Yankees twenty years earlier.
Among the many other things I learned from "The Last Innocents," I'll leave you with a few. One is that Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodgers' general manager, was not entirely the jovial guy I had imagined. He was a tough negotiator and employed a variety of tricks to fool a player into signing a lowball contract. In 1964 Ron Fairly came in for his contract meeting. Bavasi said he had good news. Tommy Davis had just signed. The contract is on the desk. Then Bavasi invented an excuse to leave the room. Fairly took a look at the contract on the desk -- a bogus document -- gulped and lowered his financial expectations accordingly. (The GM bragged about the tactic to newspapermen.) Buzzie did have a jovial side, and some players speak of him with warmth. But first of all he was O'Malley's henchman at a time when ownership routinely exploited the players. It is a business now. It was a business then.
With rosters changing as rapidly as they do, and with management and labor so often at odds, one has to wonder about fan loyalty to teams. In Philosophy 101 the professor asks you whether it's still the same hammer if you replace the handle. Is it still the same hammer if you replace not only the handle but the metal head? It is the same with a team. The Dodgers of 2015 are completely different from the Dodgers of 1956 -- different owners, a different city, different personnel, Yet the fans are unwavering. They are the only constant. And one is a little nostalgic for the time when certain players -- DiMaggo and Mante with the Yankees, Koufax with the Dodgers, Ted Williams with the Red Sox, Stan Musial with the Cardinals -- played their whole career with just one team. And yes, I am still furious with the Mets for trading Tom Seaver to the Reds for what Ira Gershwin would call "plenty of nuthin," and nearly forty years gone by since that ugly day. Seaver should have worn no other uniform than that of the Mets.
With just three exceptions (Koufax, Drysdale, and rookie pitcher Don Sutton, who was nursing a sore arm), O'Malley insisted that all Dodger players go to Japan for a few weeks of games with Japanese teams following the 1966 season. The players were exhausted and many did not want to go. They had played 162 regular season games plus four in the post-season. Leahy's dry comment: O'Malley "found it hard to imagine why anyone would wish to pass on a chance to see Japan, especially when he was paying each player $4,000 in addition to their travel expenses." Players who rebelled, as Wills did, got traded. So much for management's loyalty to the players who defined the team.
When manager Walt Alston was asked who would pitch the seventh game of the 1965 World Series, Drysdale, whose regular turn it was, or Koufax on two-days' rest, Alston said, "the lefthander." Make of that what you will.
I was also glad to acquire the answer to the question "who moved Burright?" This refers to the calamitous ninth inning of the third playoff game between the Dodgers and Giants in 1962. Had Larry Burright, the team's rookie second baseman, stood at his usual place, the team may have made a double play that would stop the Giants' rally. According to Leahy, it was Leo Durocher, then the team's third base coach, who gave the disastrous signal that moved Burright out of position. But, then, Leahy does't really approve of Leo the Lip ("Nice Guys Finish Last"). In any case it's hypothetical. The Giants won the game and took the Yankees to the ninth inning of game seven of that year's World Series before expiring while Tony Bennett sang the hit of that fall, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
If Koufax fascinates you, if you're curious about the game in which Giants' pitcher Juan Marichal used a bat to clobber Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro's head, or if you just want to relive the crucial contests of 1963 and 1965, this is the place to go.
-- David Lehman