There is an elderly lady, Mrs. Alice Smith by name, who has watched the Dodgers work out at Vero Beach for the last seven years. She wears a blue team cap which has always carried the letter B in white. This year she was offered a new cap with the letters L.A. on it. She said no, thank you. To her, the Dodgers will always belong to Brooklyn.
It is not so with others at the Dodger training camp. This year it is the Los Angeles Dodgers, and no one, least of all the players, seems upset over the thought that they will never again play baseball in Brooklyn. The talk is of California, of Malibu Beach and freeways, of the good weather and comfortable living. Even the clothing has a California look.
Ballplayers are always a well-dressed lot, but this year there seem to be more rich-blue sports shirts and cream-colored slacks than ever before. Buzzy Bavasi, in a white cardigan sweater and sunglasses, looks more like a Hollywood producer than the Dodgers' general manager. After practice one day, Don Newcombe ambled from the clubhouse in a snazzy red golf cap that produced whistles and catcalls across three baseball diamonds.
Following the Dodgers around Florida this spring, recording what they say, what they eat, how they feel and what they do, is an army of typewriters. There are spanking new green-and-white ones and they are from California. The black-and-gray ones are from New York. The California typewriters are covering their first spring training; they are eager and excitable. The New York typewriters are covering their last spring training; they are relaxed but slightly jealous. There is no ill feeling between the two groups, although it must be admitted that the green typewriters and the black typewriters have had very little to say to each other.
All thoughts and activities, however, have not been devoted to California. After all, there is a baseball season ahead. On the afternoon of April 18, perhaps 100,000 happy souls will show up at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to take a look at their ball club for the first time. If their hopes are high, they may be disappointed.
Los Angeles acquired the Brooklyn franchise, all right, but it is not getting the Brooklyn team. Not the team that won six pennants in a decade. The Dodgers insist that theirs is not a wilting team. They point to their young staff of talented pitchers and explain that the team has simply undergone a curious metamorphosis. What was once a hitting team, they argue, is now a pitching team, and they are convinced that they can carry on as such. Perhaps, but other teams have had better pitching and have not won pennants.
The great Dodger team, the team Los Angeles fans read about in the papers and saw on television in the World Series, is gone. Some of the names are still there; uniform No. 1 still means Pee Wee Reese, but Pee Wee Reese no longer means what it once did. The massive Don Newcombe still stalks the grounds like a giant elk, but no longer is he the ace of the Dodger staff. He has slipped and he knows it, and so do National League batsmen. When Duke Snider swings at a pitch, players standing around the cage watch not the flight of the ball but the delicate left knee. And, of course, there are two members of that great team who will never play baseball in Los Angeles: Roy Campanella who won so many friends and Most Valuable Player awards, and Jackie Robinson who won so many pennants.
Yet do not believe that this first Los Angeles Dodgers team will be a poor one. It has the pitchers, headed by young Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres. Their pitches will be caught, in all probability, by someone now wearing another uniform. Cincinnati has turned down a Newcombe-for-Ed Bailey deal, but the Dodgers may get Bailey yet. They will have to get someone, for Rube Walker cannot win them a pennant. The outfield will be Gino Cimoli, Snider and Carl Furillo. If Snider's knee fails, Rookie Don Demeter will take over. As usual, Gil Hodges will play first base. The rest of the infield is like a game of musical chairs. Charlie Neal will switch from shortstop to second base because the Dodgers feel he can make the pivot better than Jim Gilliam. Gilliam will switch from second to third because he is too good to leave out of the lineup. That leaves shortstop open. Many of the Dodgers feel there is only one man for the job and chances are when the season starts, he will be there. That man is Pee Wee Reese.
When the Dodgers lost Jackie Robinson they lost their spark. Last year's team was listless. Now the spark is back in the form of peppery Charlie Dressen. When Dressen was last with the Dodgers it was 1953 and he was the manager. Now he is a coach, which puts the current manager, Walter Alston, a quiet, contemplative man, in an awkward position—like that of sharing an upper berth with your wife's garrulous first husband. With the exception of Casey Stengel, no one can talk longer or more enthusiastically about baseball than Charlie Dressen. What's more, he can be understood. Charlie is always ready with advice. Don Zimmer was swinging too hard; Charlie told him to choke up on the bat. Charlie Neal is a good base runner but lacks polish; Dressen is busy shining. Some of the Dodgers need an occasional kick in the pants; Charlie's right foot is poised. And when the manager is wondering who to pitch one day next August, Charlie will have a man in mind. His presence on the team will be of tremendous value.
Also of value will be the new setting into which the Dodgers will soon arrive. Playing in front of new and enthusiastic crowds may give the old pros a lift. The climate, too, should help. Los Angeles spring afternoons are warm and the summer nights are cool. Even the schedule is favorable. The Dodgers play their first 27 games in California.
One can't help feeling that perhaps this team could win. If Reese can still play shortstop, if they do get a first-rate catcher, maybe if Snider's knee—but what's the use? It is always a sad, sad thing to have to face the fact that a beloved old champ cannot come back.