A year ago last Sunday, while the rest of the world displayed absolute indifference, the Los Angeles Dodgers lost a ball game to the Chicago Cubs. The score was 7-4, and a tall, gangling man with a big nose and a long face named Roger Craig was the losing pitcher. This drab and completely uninspired performance earned the Dodgers exactly what they had been chasing all season long: seventh place. They finished 21 games behind the champion Milwaukee Braves.
Last Sunday, while most of a nation watched or listened or waited for the score, the Dodgers played the Cubs again. This time they won. The score was 7-1, and the winning pitcher was a tall, gangling man with a big nose named Roger Craig, only now his long face was split by a grin that seemed to stretch all the way across Chicago's North Side. Craig was happy because this bright and highly inspired performance earned the Dodgers what they had been chasing all year, but which no one in his right mind really expected them to attain six months or even six weeks ago: the 1959 National League pennant or, at any rate, a tie for it with the Milwaukee Braves.
Regardless of what was to happen in the playoff the next few days, the playoff which decided whether the Dodgers or the Braves were to meet the White Sox in the World Series, the Dodgers had come flipping out of near obscurity to accomplish a near miracle. Ball clubs that finish seventh one year are not supposed to finish first the next. In all the National League's 84 years it had never been done before. Yet that is what the Dodgers did.
A lot of people now want to know why.
Well, they didn't do it by frightening the rest of the league to death, because these particular Dodgers do not have very large muscles. Neither do they have dashing speed or sticky defense, those city-slicker tactics used by the White Sox. The Dodgers can run all right and they catch the ball pretty good, but no one is going to write a book about these phases of their baseball skill. The pitching is sharp, but sometimes it comes from the strangest places. What the Dodgers really did to win their share of the pennant was simply to hang in there all season long, try to stay as inconspicuous as possible, and then one day, the most important day, pop up in first place. They were able to do this because first place is where they seemed to want so very much to be.
"We never wore anybody out," said Walt Alston, who is fortunate enough to have been the manager of this ball club. "We didn't win half a dozen easy games all year. We had to scramble and scratch for everything, we got. But I've never been around a ball club that could equal this one for spirit. I've never seen another team that wanted so much to win." Actually it is easy now to list the physical reasons for the Dodger ascent. For one thing, they learned after a year of misery to accept the monstrosity of a ball park which they call home, the huge Coliseum which this week had a last laugh at its mocking critics when it served as the site of the deciding game of the playoff for the National League pennant. The Dodgers learned to live in the Coliseum, with all its bad lights, lumpy infield and lopsided dimensions. In fact, they almost learned to ignore the giant screen which hangs over their shoulders like an evil genie. And the way that they did this was to make believe that the screen was really a good genie who was on their side.
They received a great boost from the splendid performance of two old veterans, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges, who in 1958 because of one thing or another contributed almost nothing at all.
They found a slick kid with a glove named Maury Wills who took over at shortstop and pasted the infield back together. Sometimes he even hit. Charlie Neal was a good young second baseman in 1958; in 1959 he was a year older and at least that much better. Jim Gilliam, counted on to be a valuable utility man, became an invaluable third baseman once the Dodgers decided that this was where he belonged. And Walt Alston was blessed with a batch of outfielders who one way or another always seemed to get the job done: Don Demeter, Ron Fairly, Norm Larker, who also filled in at first base, old Carl Furillo, who can still hit, Rip Repulski, who always could hit, and Wally Moon. Particularly Wally Moon. Considered washed up a year ago by the Cardinals, he was the most consistent player on the team, hitting the ball hard, hitting it often, stealing bases, making plays in the outfield that even Moon himself wasn't sure he could make.
Moon gave the Dodgers the biggest lift of all.
The pitching, which was supposed to be built around Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres, with an assist from young Sandy Koufax, was built around no one. For a while Drysdale appeared to be the best in the league, but then he tired. Podres, unbeatable one day, was atrocious the next. Koufax blew everyone down when he was right; frequently, however, Koufax wasn't right at all. But when these failed the Dodgers found others: a tough, brash, confident rookie with all the stuff in the world named Larry Sherry. And Roger Craig, who came back from the minor leagues to pitch with a wizard's touch. Three times in the last nine days he started; three times he pitched complete games; three times he won.
But these are physical assessments and they really have no place in what happened in the National League this year. Everyone knows that the Braves were a far better club than the Dodgers and so, too, were the Giants; they had more man power all the way.
The trouble is no one told this to the Dodgers. No one told Moon, or Craig, or Hodges, or Snider, or Wills.