Pee Wee Reese stood at home plate, waiting. The Detroit pitcher on the mound was a large young man named Jim Bunning. He was very fast this sunny March afternoon and very wild.
Pee Wee waited with a quiet confidence that became a 37-year-old man who still felt 19, who was the proud father of a practically brand-new six-weeks-old son and who in the four times he had appeared at bat in this young exhibition season had had a walk, a single and two lovely home runs.
Bunning threw. The fast ball went directly at Pee Wee's head, and Reese fell in a lump at the plate, hit by the pitch. There wasn't a man in the press box or in the dugout or in the stands who knew Reese who didn't feel a little sick to his stomach.
Pee Wee rolled over and held himself tautly, in an odd position, stretching his body in pain as he supported himself on his toes and his left forearm. People gathered around him, and after a while Reese stood up and allowed himself to be led from the field. Dr. Harold Wendler, the Dodgers' trainer, carried Pee Wee's right arm.
"Thank God, it wasn't his head," was the first reaction among those who knew Reese. But, from the way the trainer held the arm, it looked broken, and if it was broken that could be the end of the road as a ballplayer for Pee Wee Reese and the end, too, for this year's Dodgers.
"Bunning just settled the National League pennant race," said Jack Lang of the Long Island Press. However, an inning or so later word came up from Dr. Wendler that it was only a bruise, a bad bruise but no more than that, on the fleshy inner part of the forearm where Pee Wee had raised it protectively in front of his face. Jack Lang was wrong then. The race was still wide open.
But, even so, Lang's comment and Reese's injury suddenly brought the status of the 1957 Brooklyn Dodgers clearly into focus. They were, indeed, as everyone has charged, an old team, a collection of marvelous baseball players but old ones, past their prime, prone to injury, prone to ailments, losing slowly but surely to age. Carl Furillo's cranky elbow still bothered him; Carl is 35. Roy Campanella's hand, which crippled him so badly last season, was still a question; Roy is 35, too, and some say older. Sal Maglie felt fine, but Sal eases past 40 on April 26 and Sal has a history of back trouble; most men of 40 with back trouble feel it strike after a half hour of cutting grass. How can a 40-year-old man with a trick back pitch 200 innings of baseball?
And Don Newcombe's arm was hurting, and Carl Erskine's probably was, too, though with Carl a sore arm is as much a part of his baseball life as his glove and he tends to ignore it. Don and Carl are both past 30. Duke Snider, hit by a pitched ball, had picked up a bad bruise on his leg, and he's 30, too.
Clearly, then, this was a team of old and ailing players. And it was a team that depended on those old and ailing players for its strength. Lose a Reese or a Campanella or a Furillo, and where would they be?
The exhibition game went on. Bunning continued to be wild but the Dodgers had not scored against him when, with two men on base, Don Zimmer came to bat in the second inning.
Zimmer is a young man on this team, 26, and a fascinating study in courage. In 1953, when he was with St. Paul, Zimmer was batting .300 and leading the American Association in home runs and runs batted in, when he was hit in the head with a pitched ball. His skull was fractured, and he nearly died. It took him months to regain full control of his speech and his reflexes. But he did, and he returned to baseball. He moved up from the minors to the Dodgers and for three seasons has been a valued utility player for Brooklyn, though Zimmer resents the role of substitute and burns with an angry ambition to play regularly, every day. Last year, early in the season, he was struck full in the face by another pitched ball. This time he nearly lost his sight: the retina of his left eye had become detached. He was forced to lie completely immobile for several weeks while the eye slowly healed, and it was said that almost certainly his career as a baseball player was over.
ZIMMERS DON'T FLINCH
But here he was, back again, playing for the Dodgers again, and batting now against the wild, fast right-hander. Bunning's pitch came wailing in, high, inside, right at Zimmer's head. People who knew Zimmer's history flinched. Zimmer didn't. He fell to the ground like a cat, under the pitch, safe. He popped up to his feet and moved back into the batter's box at once, his bat cocked.
"He's been beaned twice, hasn't he?" a Detroit man said in the press box. He was thinking, along with everyone else, of Reese's arm and Zimmer's head and wondering how the player could possibly generate enough nerve to face the pitcher again.
"Watch him," a Brooklyn writer said. "He won't give an inch. The crazy bastard." He said these last words proudly, affectionately.
Bunning threw. Zimmer stepped into the pitch, swung and hit a three-run home run over the left field fence.
"Guts," the Detroit man said, almost to himself.
The Tigers rallied later on to bring the score to 3-2, and they loaded the bases with no one out in the eighth. In to pitch for Brooklyn came a tall, lanky Cuban named Rene Gutierrez y Valdes, who won 22 games in the Pacific Coast League last year. Valdes' nickname, he will tell you, is Làtigo, The Whip, and he exudes confidence. "I want to pitch only against Yankees," he announced, when he finally reported to camp after brashly holding out for a higher salary. Why the Yankees? he was asked. "If I beat Yankees I make team," he argued, logically.
But The Whip made his debut against the Tigers instead, and the bases were loaded and no one was out. The tying run was on third base. Làtigo pitched. The first batter fouled to the first baseman. One out. The second popped up to the infield. Two out. The third also popped to the infield. Three out. The Whip retired three more Tigers in succession in the ninth, and the Dodgers had the ball game 3-2, thanks principally to Don Zimmer and Rene Valdes.
It was only a spring training game, but suddenly the status of the Brooklyn Dodgers was out of focus again. Their great players were old, true enough, but now it appeared that it just wasn't that simple. There were some young players in the background, and their skills and energy could have a significant bearing on the success or failure this year of what almost everyone has come to think of as the old, old Dodgers.
A good part of this blanket thinking about the Dodgers as an old team stems from the sheer greatness of the key Brooklyn players, greatness that keeps young players from breaking into the lineup. No other group of stars in the long history of baseball has played together so many years so successfully as the eight-man nucleus of the modern Dodgers: Reese, Furillo, Gil Hodges, Snider, Campanella, Newcombe, Erskine and the departed Jack Robinson. Reese came to the Dodgers in 1940; Furillo in 1946; Robinson, Snider and Hodges (except for two times at bat in 1943) in 1947; Campanella and Erskine in 1948; Newcombe in 1949. A couple of them made one or two return trips to the high minors, but 1949 can be designated as the year this collection of extraordinary players became a team. In the eight seasons from 1949 through 1956, they won five pennants and tied for a sixth, lost another on the last day of the season and finished second the one other time they failed to win. And the same group was chiefly responsible, year after year. Aside from pitching (where first Preacher Roe, then Joe Black, then Clem Labine and Sal Maglie made significant contributions to success), only one other player, the resourceful Junior Gilliam, has become an integral part of the Dodger lineup. Compare the Brooklyn starting nine in the memorable first game of the 1949 World Series against the New York Yankees (when Tommy Henrich beat Don Newcombe 1-0 on a ninth inning home run) with that which started the memorable last game of the 1956 Series (when Yogi Berra destroyed Newcombe with two two-run home runs). Newcombe was the pitcher in 1949, Campanella the catcher. Hodges was at first base, Robinson at second, Reese at short, Snider in center, Furillo in right. In 1956 Robinson had moved to third base, but the others were all in precisely the same positions. The Yankees, who won seven pennants in the same eight years, had an almost complete overhaul in that time: of the nine who started against Brooklyn in 1949, only Yogi Berra was in the lineup for that final game of the 1956 Series.
The point being so laboriously made is simply this: the greatness of the Dodger nucleus makes it hard to believe that the Dodgers can continue to win without them, and the rapid turnover of personnel common in baseball makes it hard to believe that the Dodger nucleus can keep going much longer. The retirement of Jackie Robinson, the greatest of all Dodger ballplayers, lends strength to this argument. The nagging feeling persists that perhaps this at long last will be the year that the fabulous one-hoss shay falls apart, all at once.
But talk to Walter Alston about this. He's the fourth man to manage this extraordinary collection of players and the most successful, when you consider the declining ability of his stars and the rising ability of his opponents. Admirers of Leo Durocher, Burt Shotton and Charley Dressen may possibly object indignantly to that statement, and it is admitted that Alston may well be the weakest tactician of the lot. But as a strategist he is by far the best. Someone once explained the difference between tactics and strategy in describing Leo Durocher as a manager: "If you were in a building and it started to collapse, Leo would get you out. I don't know what he'd do, but he'd think of something, and you'd get out. That's tactics, and that's Leo. But someone else would have seen to it beforehand that the damn building was safe."
And that's strategy, and that's Alston. Durocher seldom thought past today's game. Alston is almost irritating in his consideration of the future. One of the standard joke lines of Brooklyn baseball writers is, "We'll have to wait and see about that," which is Alston's stock reply to most questions seeking his opinion. Alston doesn't pop off. Ask him, for instance, if he thinks the Dodgers will miss Robinson this year. It's a ticklish question in the first place because the fiery, outspoken Robinson was a constant bur on Alston's hide.
"I can't say yet," Alston replies. "Have to wait and see how the player who takes his place will do."
Press him a little further. "Hell," he says, "any team would miss a competitor like Robinson. He was a great player. But Charley Neal [a young infielder] had a better batting average than Robinson last year. Randy Jackson [Robinson's alternate at third base] hit about the same, and he batted in more runs."
Talk to Alston about the other old players, about the possibility of one or two or several of them breaking down this year. "There's always that chance, but I don't see any sign of it yet. And I don't think the whole bunch is going to break down at once."
But the possibility is there, and Alston knows it, and so he is constantly working his young players in and out of the lineup: Don Demeter, a 21-year-old string bean of a center fielder who hit 41 home runs for Fort Worth last year; Jim Gentile, a 22-year-old first baseman, who hit 40 homers as Demeter's teammate; John Roseboro, a left-handed hitting catcher who is not yet on the Dodger roster but who hits sharply, throws well, runs fast and, all in all, looks like a fine baseball player. Alston has been using Neal and Chico Fernandez at second and short. And Zimmer, of course, and others.
All this is an attempt to reinforce the dike, to buy insurance. The Dodgers have had, for the past decade, brilliant fielding and powerful hitting. Lately, both have become just a little frayed.
PITCHERS AND HITTERS
Last year Alston insisted he wasn't worried about his hitting. "We'll get enough runs," he said at that time. "I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about my pitching." A year ago Johnny Podres had just been drafted, Billy Loes had a sore arm and so did Karl Spooner, and Don Bessent had been operated on for an abdominal obstruction. "That's four pretty good pitchers we didn't have," Alston said the other day. "But it turned out the pitching came through better than we ever expected. Newcombe won 27, and we got Sal Maglie. Roger Craig was very good the first part, and Erskine was good. The bullpen was strong: Labine was very valuable in relief, and so was Bessent when he came back. Drysdale did pretty good. The pitching won for us. But the hitting didn't get us enough runs, except the last 10 days of the season. That was the only time all year we had a sustained attack. It carried through the first two games of the Series, and then it stopped cold."
He made a wry face, remembering that the Dodgers scored a total of six runs in the last five games of the Series after scoring 19 in the first two.
"This year now we're not worried about our pitching. I don't know if Newcombe and Maglie will win 40 games between them again, but you have to expect them to do pretty well, and we have Podres back. We have Erskine and Craig, and they're reliable pitchers. We have a very good bullpen, with Labine and Bessent. And Ed Roebuck. Young fellows like Sandy Koufax and Spooner and Fred Kipp can help us. They're all lefties, like Podres. Did you know we didn't throw a left-handed pitch against the Yankees in the Series last year? We can use lefties. Koufax and Spooner have been throwing hard. Koufax has very good stuff; all he ever needed was control, and now he seems to have it. Everyone knows how hard Spooner can throw when he's right [Spooner struck out 27 men in pitching two consecutive shutouts when he made his maj'or league debut in 1954, and then pitched well in the latter part of 1955 before hurting his arm]. Now and then he looks all right again. Kipp looked awfully good in Japan on that trip we took after the Series. And I'm very high on young Drysdale; he could be one of our big pitchers. You can't be sure, of course, but it could turn out we might have a hell of a pitching staff. We better have, because I'm worried about that hitting."
The pendulum has swung, then, over the years. Where once the Dodgers were accepted as a team of power hitters and great fielders who made up for a mediocre pitching staff, now the once-great team is carried by its pitchers.
Baseball men have an almost reverent respect for good pitchers, and the Dodgers' chief rivals for the pennant—the Milwaukee Braves and the Cincinnati Redlegs—always praise Brooklyn's pitching staff. But pitching is a delicate thing. The odds that say there's a chance that Kipp and Spooner and Koufax and Drysdale will blossom into full-fledged major leaguers are no better than those that say Newcombe's arm will stay sore or that Maglie's age will trip him up or that Podres and Erskine and Craig will fail.
The Dodgers are a fragile team in their twilight years, and if they manage to hang on to win the pennant one more time it will be a signal tribute to their lingering greatness and to the skill of their unpraised manager in utilizing his Zimmers and Kipps and Làtigos. And it may well be their last hurrah.
Be sure to see them play this year if you can, because the fabulous Bums of Brooklyn won't be the same much longer. For one thing, they may be moving cross-country to Los Angeles. For another, Jackie's gone and the rest of the old gang can't be too far behind.
OLD AGE AND DEPRECIATION
The Brooklyn Dodgers were the oldest team in the majors when they won the pennant last year. Calculating the ages of the starting eight (pitcher omitted) on September 30, 1956, the Dodgers spotted an average five years per man to the second-place Braves and third-place Redlegs and more than seven years per man to the coltish Pittsburgh Pirates. Only other club to average over 30 years per man was the Chicago White Sox. Average age of the 128 major league starters is 27.8.
Linked inseparably with old age is insurance. Baseball men can only speculate how much the Dodgers have slowed down in recent years, but Mutual of Omaha can tell you. Last year the value of the habitual National League champions had depreciated, they said, exactly 40% since 1953. The Dodger regulars were insured at $150,000 apiece, compared to $250,000 three years ago. (Incidentally, Mutual of Omaha took a jaundiced view of managers which would cause many an armchair general to mutter, "I knew it." Insurance value of Dodger Manager Walter Alston: $0.) This year they are the Flying Dodgers; a blanket policy of $2,800,000 will cover the whole Convair-load of players on each trip, averaging $112,000 a man.
TOTAL AGE OF STARTING 8
Chicago White Sox
Boston Red Sox
Kansas City Athletics
New York Yankees
St. Louis Cardinals
New York Giants