The Los Angeles Dodgers are back in the thick of the National League pennant race and two men are responsible. Their names are not Snider and Hodges, nor are they Sherry and Drysdale. In fact, the men are not even players. Their names are Griffin and Roth. One is a clubhouse man, the other a statistician.
John Griffin is an odd-looking person, tubby, unkempt and usually sweaty. His habitat is the locker room of the Dodgers and his duties include gathering soiled towels, distributing razor blades to bearded players and guarding wallets during games. While he works, Griffin often wears a grass skirt, or a flowered hat, or a kimono—always something ludicrous. The Dodgers, however, never laugh at him. Griffin's costumes are part of an old superstition, and ballplayers are as superstitious as primitive man.
This is how it works: if John Griffin dresses like Bloody Mary before a game, and the Dodgers win that game, Griffin will remain Bloody Mary just as long as the team keeps winning. When the Dodgers lose, Griffin will switch to, say, Charlie Chaplin (charcoal mustache, a silly grin) in the hope of launching a new winning streak.
Griffin's magic became especially effective in late June and continued that way through July and into early August. During that time the Dodgers never lost two games in a row and several times went on winning for as long as three and four days. In the process they moved from sixth place (Griffin had a bad spring) to third, grouped with Milwaukee and the surprising St. Louis Cardinals, the three of them just a few strides behind Pittsburgh. Griffin is sure he can come up with enough costume changes to pull the Dodgers through to another pennant.
Allan Roth, a hefty 43-year-old who moved from Long Island to Los Angeles when the Dodgers went West, takes a more scientific approach. Roth has been keeping statistics for the club since 1947. His, however, are not just ordinary publicity-type statistics. Roth records every pitch of every game the Dodgers play. He registers the hits: who made them, where they went, who was pitching, what the count was and how many men were on base. He knows (or can look up) how many hits Gil Hodges has made off Lou Burdette since 1952. Some people might not care how many hits Hodges has made off Burdette, but Walt Alston, manager of the Dodgers, does, and very much.
Roth has two sets of 5-inch-by-8-inch cards which Coach Pete Reiser keeps in the dugout during games. One set is blue; on each blue card is the name of an opposing National League pitcher and also the names of all the Dodger batters and how they have done against that pitcher, in 1960, in 1959, and lifetime. If Milwaukee brings in Joey Jay to pitch and Alston wants a pinch hitter, he will call down the bench to Reiser and ask, "Who hits Jay?" Reiser, after consulting the "Jay" card, may call back "Essegian." In which case it is likely that Chuck Essegian will pinch-hit and, of course, hit a home run.
The other set of cards is yellow, one for every opposing batter in the league. Also on these cards are the names of the Dodger pitchers. Now Alston can see which of his pitchers, especially his relief pitchers, have had the best luck against Spencer, Kirk-land or Altman.
"Alston doesn't make a move without consulting Roth," said one Los Angeles writer last week. But Roth himself made it clear that he is in no way a second manager.
"My cards are just a guide," Roth said. "I sit in the radio booth, not on the bench. Walt makes all the decisions."
Nevertheless, one Roth suggestion contributed directly to a Dodger victory recently. Alston was inclined to start Rookie Tommy Davis against Bob Friend of Pittsburgh. Roth pointed out that both Wally Moon and Duke Snider had good records against Friend. So Alston started them both in the outfield, along with Frank Howard. Moon hit a two-run homer to win the 3-1 game. Snider hit a triple.
Of course, good as Roth and Griffin are, the players help, too. So far this season several men who had comparatively little to do with last year's pennant glory have been the big heroes.
Foremost is Pitcher Stan Williams, who has won 11 and lost only four (and those by scores of 2-0, 2-1, 3-0 and 3-1). Williams is 23 and huge. (Dodger pitchers, walking through a hotel lobby, look like a visiting basketball team. Both Williams and Don Drysdale are 6 feet 5 inches, Roger Craig is 6 feet 4 inches and Larry Sherry and Ed Roebuck are 6 feet 2 inches.) Last year Williams was undistinguished until he pitched the final three innings of the last playoff game against Milwaukee, blanking the Braves and getting credit for the win.
"We threw nothing but fast balls that day," recalls Joe Pignatano, his catcher.
This year Williams has added a respectable curve to what Pignatano calls the best fast ball in the league, and he is now the most effective starter on the staff.
The most effective relief pitcher—on the staff and in the league—is 29-year-old Ed Roebuck, who wasn't even with the club last year. When the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, Roebuck put in several seasons as a good relief man, although he was overshadowed by Clem Labine. Then Roebuck developed arm trouble, which is par for relief pitchers, and he drifted off to the minors. Now his arm feels fine again and his money pitch, the sinker, is working. Roebuck has won eight games and his earned run average is the best in the league.
A major share of the Dodgers' hitting support has come from 24-year-old Frank Howard, the 6-foot-6-inch, 240-pound giant from Ohio State. Few young players have received the fanfare Howard did when he turned professional. His tape-measure home runs in the minors and in spring training made good copy, and he was soon labeled as the man who would someday break Babe Ruth's home run record. After false starts in the majors in both 1958 and 1959, Howard was brought up quietly this May, after the season began. Despite this late start, he leads the team in home runs and runs batted in. Howard is still an unfinished product and often strikes out on terrible pitches, but no one doubts that experience will cure the habit. In right field he is ungainly but competent and his arm is strong enough to keep runners alert.
Howard is as uncommunicative as he is large and reporters have found him hard to talk to. One day last week he was standing in front of a Pittsburgh hotel when two Los Angeles writers came out.
"Seen Essegian?" Howard asked.
The reporters replied that they had not and as they walked away one said to the other, "You have just had an interview with Frank Howard."
The two other Dodgers who have helped the team most this year are Norm Larker and Maury Wills. Larker, filling in at first base for the slumping Gil Hodges, has been among the league's leading hitters all season. "We would not be in contention without him," Walter Alston has said.
Wills, a slight, mild-mannered man, joined the Dodgers at midseason last year and after a shaky start was an important factor in the team's September rush to the pennant. This year he has become the best defensive shortstop in the league.
But the Dodgers' most solid asset, and what the other National League teams fear most, is the pitching. Day after day Alston is able to use a good pitcher: Williams, Drysdale, Craig, Podres. Roebuck and Sherry arestrong in relief. If the Dodgers are close to first place as the season goes into its final weeks, they will be tough to stop.
Remember, too, that John Griffin will be down in the Dodger locker room, dressed like Sadie Thompson. And Allan Roth will be up in the radio booth, plotting. That gives the Dodgers a definite edge.