Each afternoon after practice in Dodgertown, the converted Air Force base in Vero Beach, Fla. where the Brooklyn Dodgers train, Manager Walter Alston and his coaches gather in their dressing room in an unintentional parody of the classic meeting of the board of directors. There, in various stages of dress and undress as they shed the flannels and spikes of the ball field for the sport shirt and slacks of the Florida vacationer, they talk over the problems of their business: not questions of production and sales and profits, but whether Stan Williams, a promising rookie pitcher, is getting his fast ball over; and whether Jim Gentile, a promising rookie first baseman, is still swinging too hard at the plate; and how Pee Wee Reese's back is, and which of the young infielders (one or more of whom may be called upon to fill in for the ailing Reese) look particularly good.
These are all specifics of the general problem facing this half-dressed board of directors. Last year they won the baseball championship of the world. This year they have to do it all over again to please their vociferous stockholders.
Last year their problems were pretty much the same as this year and probably every spring in baseball: work the veterans into shape, teach the rookies, develop a balanced pitching staff, choose the strongest combination of players for the season-long roster. There was, however, one notable difference. Last spring, "dissension" was the headline word out of Dodgertown. The Dodgers were quarreling, reports said. Morale was low, it was claimed. This year, that, at least, is different.
Last week, before the Dodgers flew out of Dodgertown to open their spring exhibition schedule with the Boston Red Sox in Miami (they lost a pair to the sprightly young Sox as Alston studied six shaky rookie pitchers with a patient endurance that during the regular season would be unthinkable), there was an intersquad game at Dodgertown, and in the intersquad game there was a misplay. An outfielder made a wobbly throw and the second baseman relayed it poorly to the plate. In the confusion a run scored. A mild but spirited dispute arose in the tiny press box over whether the error should be charged to the inflelder or the outfielder. Fresco Thompson, Dodger vice-president in charge that day of handling the public address system, listened to the argument and then in his best Edward R. Murrow voice stated dramatically, "The writers fail to see eye to eye! Dissension is rife in the press box!"
March 19, 1956
It was a cheerful if not particularly subtle way to remind the sportswriters that last spring about this time their copy seemed to consist almost entirely of stories about seething discontent within the Dodger squad: of Jackie Robinson boiling in anger at Walter Alston because the manager had kept him on the bench, of Alston losing his temper and snapping at both Robinson and the press, of Russ Meyer complaining of not being pitched often enough, of Roy Campanella's protesting because he had been placed eighth in the batting order and, finally, after the season got under way, the great explosion when Don Newcombe refused to pitch batting practice and Alston promptly suspended him.
From it all (and Fresco Thompson's point was, of course, that last year's dissension and bickering were a lot less important than the writers made it appear) Walter Alston, the beleaguered manager, emerged as unquestioned leader of the team, and the Dodgers emerged as unquestioned leaders of their league (22 victories in their first 24 games, a commanding lead they never relinquished, a final margin of victory of 13½ games over the second-place Milwaukee Braves). Then, of course, they won a dramatic and fitting victory over the omnipotent New York Yankees in the World Series to climax the most satisfying season in Brooklyn Dodger history.
And now, this spring, the snail's on the thorn, God's in His heaven and all's right with the world and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Peace reigns. Everyone is happy, so much so that Fresco Thompson could have a little fun about it with the sportswriters.
The Dodgers are a loose, happy, hard-working, confident and very impressive ball club. In Vero Beach they'd start each day with a fast 10 minutes of calisthenics. Everyone took part-Roy Campanella, Most Valuable Player in the National League, and Mike Napoli, .269 with Elmira; Jackie Robinson, whom everyone has heard of, and Jasper Spears, who is well known in Cheraw, S.C. Everyone would end up running in place, first slowly and then more and more rapidly until, inevitably, some one would yell, "slide!"
Then they'd break up into two squads for batting practice. Walter Alston would stand behind the batting cage, studying each pitcher and batter. He watched intently as Johnny Podres pitched. Alston is reconciled to losing Podres in the draft and in none of his plans for the season does he include the brilliant young left-hander who achieved pitching maturity in the 1955 World Series. But nevertheless he watched him, perhaps hoping a little.
Dixie Howell, the old catcher, came near the cage, looked at Podres and then said to Alston, "He looks as though he's throwing bullets. Is he?" And Alston, agreeing, said, "He's throwing pretty good."
After he had thrown a few blistering fast balls, Podres said to the batter, Randy Jackson, "Gonna throw a changeup, Randy."
"Okay, John," Jackson said.
The changeup, Podres' choice pitch in the World Series, was very wide of the plate. He threw another, more successfully, then followed it, as a pitcher should, with a snapping fast ball.
"Curve now," he said to Jackson.
"This is where he's improved the most," Alston said. Podres threw a curve that broke like a stick.
"Well anyway, Walt," a sports-writer said cheerfully, "he'll be the best-conditioned pitcher in the army."
Alston grinned wryly, like the victim of a practical joke. Pee Wee Reese, the 36-year-old shortstop and team captain who had wrenched his back badly earlier in training and who had done little but run in the days since, came up to Alston behind the batting cage.
"I wonder if it would hurt if I hit, Walt," Reese asked. He sounded not unlike a boy confined to the house with a mild illness asking permission to go outside and play a little.
Alston looked at him, thinking.
"Why don't you go over to the cage?" he said, referring to the area serviced by "Iron Mike," an automatic pitching machine. "You know you couldn't be knocked down there."
"Yeah," Reese agreed. "I guess that'd be a good idea, Walt. Okay."
He started away.
"Pee Wee," Alston called, and the tone of his voice strengthened the analogy of parent and child. He sounded as though he were going to remind Reese to bundle up warmly. "What'd Doc say?"
"Well, he said I should work out."
Alston nodded, satisfied. "I think the batting cage. You know that you wouldn't be knocked down."
The last intersquad game the Dodgers played before going to Miami was conducted in the same atmosphere of genial informality. Other than the pitchers and Jack Robinson, who substituted at third base for the last few innings, the Dodger stars did not play, except to pinch-hit. Roy Campanella acted as bat boy. Roy worked hard, too. He handed each player his bat, retrieved it, stacked it neatly and knelt in the on-deck circle with the next batter in what looked like approved bat-boy style. But Charlie DiGiovanna, the Dodgers' regular bat boy, wandered over from the clubhouse half way through the game, sat down on the bench behind Campanella and watched him critically. When Campanella finally looked around and saw him, Charlie shook his head and said sadly, "You'll never make it, son."
Intersquad games in spring training are often deadly dull affairs, but this one and the one played on the preceding day were lively and even exciting. Most of the pitchers threw easily, of course, that early in training, but even so the hitting seemed sharp and the fielding—with some exceptions—crisp. Young players like Outfielders Gino Cimoli and Bob Wilson and Dick Williams stood out, as did infielders like Chico Fernandez and Charley Neal.
Everything looked fine, but then there is no place in all the world where things are so perfect as the spring training camp of the team that has just won the World Series. Everything seems to work out. In the clubhouse after practice Alston spoke to Reese. "How'd it go, Cap?"
"Fine," Pee Wee said. "Fine."
"How's the back feel?"
"Feels good," Pee Wee said.
In the board of directors room, Alston said, "I'm not worried too much about Pee Wee. I think it'll slow him down some; maybe he'll be a week or two behind. He'll be all right. And we have pretty good boys to spell him—Zimmer, Fernandez."
He sat down by his desk.
"People ask how you can improve a championship team," he said. "Well, I believe you can't sit back and be satisfied with success. In anything. Because if you do you have only one way to go, and that's down.
"We've tried to improve. One way we've improved, we got Jackson from the Cubs. Another way is with these young kids we have. We've got some real good-looking young kids and they can do a lot to help."
It was pointed out that rookies, even if they came through, could not be expected to displace or improve upon the performances of the great players Alston had on the Dodgers.
"Some of our players had exceptional seasons last year," Alston argued. "Snider, Campanella, Furillo, Newcombe, Labine. Now, I say there's no reason why they can't do the same this year. But you got to realize that maybe they all won't. Well, we have some of these young fellows, they're ready to step in and play a week or two, maybe more, pick up the slack.
"If they can't..." he grinned. "Then it's different.
"Maybe they won't have exceptional seasons again. But I'm not worried about that. Hell—the Hodges, the Campanellas, the Furillos—I know those guys are going to get runs.
"The only real worry I have is pitching. We got real good pitching last year, and even so we had some bad luck. There—" he raised his voice. "Maybe three or four of those fellows who had exceptional years won't come up with four sore arms at the same time, either. If Carl Erskine can go through without a sore arm this year, that'd mean a lot. And Spooner and Loes. [Erskine, 8 and 2 early in June, won only three games the rest of the season. Loes, 9 and 2 before the All-Star game in July, won only once after it. Spooner was unable to pitch effectively until July.] Those are three pretty good pitchers. And Jim Hughes. He had a sore arm. But he's throwing hard down here, and he looks real good. Suppose they all come through this year, and Newcombe and Labine have good seasons again, and the young pitchers like Roger Craig and Don Bessent. Maybe those young pitchers won't be as good as they were last season. But maybe they'll be better. They should be better. And we'll have them for a whole season.
"If things work out, I could have a pretty good pitching staff, a pretty good pitching staff." He grinned then, as he had grinned about Podres, and the Army, and rubbed his head. "Of course, if things don't work out I could have just an average staff. Or I could have a pretty damn mediocre staff.
"I'm not worried about scoring runs," he repeated. "Pitching is what we'll win or lose on. It better be good because this is a tough league. Hell, Pittsburgh finished last last year and they won more games from us than Milwaukee did. They're all tough."
Tough or not, last year the Dodgers beat them all. And Alston, despite his realistic appraisal of his pitching prospects, expects to beat them all again this year. The World Series triumph was a tremendous boost to the morale of an already great team, instilling in it an impressive backbone of confidence.
Randy Jackson, who spent six seasons with the second-division Chicago Cubs before being traded to Brooklyn during the winter, was asked how he felt about his transfer to the Dodgers. A personable, intelligent man, Jackson answered slowly and seriously.
"It's a pleasure to be with this club," he said. "They have the habit of winning. Maybe it'll rub off on me." He grinned and looked down at his Dodger uniform.
"It already has," he added.
For James Murray's report from Arizona on the Giants and Indians, turn to page 40