There are two points of puzzlement about the Dodgers. One concerns where they will play baseball in years to come; the other, how. There is a growing belief that whichever town inherits the team, be it Los Angeles, Queens, some more obscure part of Long Island, or just plain little old downtown Brooklyn, it will be getting a stinker.
The rhetorically inclined are using words like "denouement of a dynasty." The funny ones refer to it as the end of an "area," and they unfailingly place quotation marks around area, to insure against charges of illiteracy.
No matter how cleverly phrased, the insinuation is clear. The greatest of Dodger teams has had it. For the first time in 12 years, the perennial pennant favorite is out of the NL race during the month of September. The team which won six flags in that time and in post-season playoffs was beaten out of two others has, all at once, been devoured by age.
It will be years, the pessimists add, before the Dodgers are heard from again. The organization has dry rot at the roots. Only the rich legacy from Branch Rickey's time has carried the club since he left, anyway. The present regime rode the momentum of Rickey's driving genius, until now, seven years later, they were compelled to go it on their own—and flopped.
September 15, 1957
Three men run the Dodger organization. It is a uniquely compatible triumvirate. Walter O'Malley, president, occupies himself at present with conferences with mayors, city council-men, park commissioners and past presidents of the National Association of Manufacturers. This leaves the actual operation of the ball club to the vice-presidents: E. J. Bavasi, 41, (the E stands for Emil, which is why he is called Buzzie), and L. Fresco Thompson, 55.
O'Malley installed this dual directorship upon assuming command of the club after the 1950 season. The duties of each were well defined: Bavasi to run the big club, Thompson to direct the farm operations. From that day, the two executives have guided the fortunes of the eminently successful Dodger organization in complete harmony. At least, no gunshot wounds have been reported.
It is at them, then, that the criticism is directed. It is they who are accused now of having ridden Rickey's coattails until the material wore out.
Is the criticism justified? Are the Dodgers on the descending crescent of the cycle, or was this year merely an off season? The dual directorship prefers the latter interpretation.
"If we made a mistake," claims Bavasi, "it was in letting this team grow old on our hands. We could have sold a lot of the stars long ago, but we chose not to. We preferred to hold them, and win with them, because they were the best—the best the National League has known for a long time.
"Now, people seem to think we're going to get rid of everybody; rip the team down and start all over again. We're not."
Bavasi paused to let that blunt pronouncement sink in. He is a lean man, gaunt. His hairline is losing the fight. Still, he is handsome when he smiles, and he is personable, bordering on the suave.
"Let's go by position," he said with confidence. "Then you'll see what I mean. Okay?"
"Catcher: we know Campanella isn't the youngest, but we know he's not through, either. What I mean is, you wouldn't just release him, would you? Well, would you?"
"You're darn right. Six others would pick him up and, besides, we need him to break in the new catcher. Or, if the kid isn't ready and we have to go into the market, we need somebody to alternate. That's Campy."
The kid is John Roseboro, considered a splendid prospect, but spinach-green as a catcher. Background: originally an outfielder, with backstop experience amounting to little more than a year at Montreal and a dozen or so games in Brooklyn. But who could you go into the market for? "Who?"
"You'll have to surmise that," he said. "There are not too many good catchers in the big leagues. The Braves proved that by spending $119,000 for an untried youngster."
Surmise: Smoky Burgess of the Reds can be had. So can Outfielder Wally Post. And the Reds want Don New-combe. The makings are there.
"First base: Hodges still is the best first baseman in the league. He's not through, but the day will come—so we've got to be ready for that day, even though it's a long time away.
"Our thinking is this: Jim Gentile's temperament has to change. He's really got to have more than just sock. He gets mad at himself, and when he does he's emotionally unstable. The thinking on him is this: maybe next year Hodges will need two or three days' rest a month. If he doesn't need it and Jim proves he can hit big-league pitching, then—and only if Hodges is agreeable—what's wrong with Gil playing somewhere else?"
Surmise: This could be the big move in the 1958 Dodgers—Hodges on third base, Gentile on first. Bavasi is convinced the team needs an injection of batting power. Gentile appears to be a major source. Hodges can play anywhere, and excel.
"Second base: we're perfectly satisfied with Jim Gilliam. If we find somebody in our organization who can take Gilliam's place there, then he's got to be an all-star. There's nobody immediately in sight. We have some kids who are two or three years away."
Surmise: Gilliam sticks.
"Shortstop: you got Charlie Neal there, right? I never saw a boy pick up a strange position the way he has. Sure he has faults. We'll work them out.
"There's a boy who was all-star second baseman in every league he played, and look how quickly he adapted himself to shortstop.
"At St. Paul, we've got Bob Lillis. He was the Association's all-star shortstop this year. Nine big-league clubs feel he's ready for the big leagues and have bid for him. So have we; that makes 10. If he's that good, there's a possibility of moving Neal back to second base if we have to. Anyway, it gives Walter a lot of chance to maneuver."
Surmise: It looks like Walter Alston will manage, and maneuver, for another year at least.
"Third base: right now, we've got Don Zimmer, Randy Jackson and Pee Wee. Add Dick Gray. He was the all-star third baseman in the Association. Lot of power for a young fellow. Whether he'll hit big-league pitching, we'll have to wait and see. This is the position I have to say this about: they fight it out, and the best man gets the job. It's wide open. Pee Wee can do an outstanding job at any infield position for a few days at a time."
Surmise: Reese remains active for another year. Sudden thought: Is the club willing to pay him $30,000 a year to play "a few days at a time"?
"Sure," says Bavasi. "Hell, yes."
"Center field: make it the outfield as a whole. This is the real problem. We don't think so, but they seem to say so. Snider may need occasional rests because of his knee. If so, Demeter is the man."
Don Demeter, tall, rangy, a free-swinger; speed, strong arm, serious-minded. Is Bavasi expecting him to push Snider out of center field?
"Not necessarily; not altogether. The doctors seem to think if we can afford to rest Duke now and then he'll be all right. If he gets worse, of course, we'll have to do something."
Surmise: Snider eventually will submit to surgery on his left knee. As time goes on and the remade Dodgers see more left-handed pitching, Snider will be platooned with right-swinger Demeter in center. Demeter will dovetail with part-time service in...
"Right field: when Furillo is available he's as good as there is. Whether he plays every day is up to Furillo. If he can't, Demeter may solve that problem, too."
Furillo is 35, how much longer can he be expected to play, even with rests?
"I think he has another three years. He is always in good shape, always kept himself that way."
Surmise: Furillo will play the majority of games in right for the next two years.
"Left field: we're satisfied with Gino Cimoli. He has been the most consistent man we've had out there in a long time. He has all the requirements: arm, can run, good outfielder and hit around .300 most of the way.
"If he tails off, we can slip Demeter in there from time to time. It sounds as if Demeter is the key, doesn't it? He is. Now, we come to the big thing, the thing that will be our strength for years:
"Pitching: on paper, it looks great. With fellows like Stan Williams coming up, and Bill Harris, Rene Valdes, those kind; if we get two more from the new crop, we'll have maybe the strongest staff in the league for the next 10 years."
Surmise: One more will be sufficient. Stan Williams looks like that one. He's very big, very fast. Fanned over 200 at St. Paul this year. If Williams arrives next season, as expected, Brook starters will include: Sandy Koufax, 22; Don Drysdale, 21; Danny McDevitt, 25; Johnny Podres, 25; Williams, 21. But the bullpen is in danger. Unless Labine and Bessent regain form, rehabilitation of the pen is required, with emphasis on a lefty or two.
"Our farms will come up with the necessary replacements," Bavasi promises, "and where they don't, we'll use the surplus in other positions to trade for what we need. We're not going downhill. Not by a long shot. Fresco and our scouts have done a great job of lining up prospects."
Then why have the Dodger farm clubs finished so low in their leagues this year? Of the three higher-classification clubs, only St. Paul made the playoffs—and they just did. Half the lower-classification farms finished in the second division.
"I'd rather," said Bavasi, "you let Fresco answer that for you."
ACROSS THE BOARD
Fresco Thompson's office in the downtown Brooklyn building is a large room, with blackboards covering the walls, and varicolored chalked names of hundreds of ballplayers covering the boards.
"I've heard that criticism before," said Thompson. "It's true our clubs aren't finishing as well as they usually do, but there's a reason for it. It doesn't mean we don't have as many good young players as the other big league farms, but just that we've spread our talent thin. While others have retrenched, we continue to operate 13 farm clubs."
Where are these future Dodgers coming from? You rarely read about the Brooks signing up one of the big bonus babies; always some other team is getting those headlines.
Thompson's full face crinkled in a pink smile. His fingers combed his glistening gray hair. He seemed happy to be asked.
"We spend money," he said, "but not that way. We always operate on the premise that it is better to give 10 boys $2,500 each than one boy $25,000. We figure you have the law of averages riding for you and, if the scouts are sufficiently capable in judging talent, we'll wind up with more good ballplayers than the club that goes for the high-priced kid. This year, up to August 1, we had spent $85,000 on 80 kids. I'd estimate we'll spend another $30,000 by the end of the year."
Surmise: The Dodger organization is very much alive and quite efficient.
Between the pessimism of some critics and the optimism of the Brooklyn front office, I am inclined to think the latter the more justified.