Do you really want to know what the Dodgers are gonna do?" said Bob Shaw of the Milwaukee Braves last week. "They're gonna fold. In July they're gonna flop. Curl up and die, plunk. They're gonna finish nowhere."
"Why do I think this ball club will win?" said Ron Fairly, the fine-hitting first baseman of the Dodgers. "Because it's got good pitching, good power and great speed. Anybody that thinks that this ball club is going to fold is a nut. A lot of people say that winning every game is impossible. That's nonsense. How many games have we got left? Ninety-seven? If we can keep as mad as we've been lately we might just win 'em all. We fight every minute for every inch. We've got spirit and everybody on this ball club is pulling for everybody else."
Within the last month the Los Angeles Dodgers have become probably the most discussed team in major league baseball. Playing at a .778 clip, they swept five consecutive doubleheaders and completed their longest road trip of the year by winning 13 of 19 games. Despite a short slump against Houston last week, they remained in first place.
Before this season began, baseball handicappers assumed that the strong pitching arms of Johnny Podres, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Stan Williams would lift the Dodgers to the pennant. But it is not pitching or hitting or fielding that has put the Dodgers in first place. The St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants are outhitting the Dodgers. The Dodgers have the worst fielding average in the majors (.970); their nearest competitors are the Detroit Tigers (.971). It is The Swift Set that has put the team where it is, and The Swift Set might just run away with the National League championship.
The Swift Set is composed of five Dodger Negroes—Infielders Maury Wills and Jim Gilliam, Outfielders Tommy and Willie Davis and Catcher John Roseboro. These five have stolen 62 bases in 79 attempts this season, far and away better than the team total of any other club in either league. (The Cardinals are second in base stealing with a total of 44.) The Swift Set likes soft music and singing in harmony. It likes all kinds of new gadgets, like transistor radios that can be converted into walkie-talkies. It likes the sound of the Clavietta. When The Swift Set sits in a hotel lobby everyone marvels at its splendid sweaters. When it runs it brings baseball fans to their feet. As a group these five have become the biggest thieves to hit baseball since the 1919 Black Sox.
"There are probably some people," says Dodger Manager Walt Alston, "who would rather see a home run than a hit-and-run or a stolen base. But these fellows help our ball club tremendously. Every time Maury Wills gets on base in Chavez Ravine the crowds start hollering 'Go.' Early this year I went to Maury and told him to steal more. He's on his own out there now. We played a game in Houston recently and the score was 3-3 in the 13th inning. Maury walked, stole second, stole third and scored on a short fly ball to center. We won 4-3 and it put us in first place. With some other ball clubs that situation probably would have demanded a bunt. Why should I have bunted? Maury's stealing percentage [35 of 40] is better than any bunting percentage. He's got great timing, and with Junior Gilliam hitting behind him he gets the help he needs. Gilliam is one of the smartest hitters around and there are not many pitchers who can fool him. He sees Maury out of the corner of his eye and knows when Wills has a base stolen. A lot of guys can ruin a steal by fouling a pitch off when the runner already has the base stolen. They're a perfect combination."
There is a good chance that Maury Wills, at 29, will become the first National League player since 1916 to steal more than 60 bases. (In 1916 Max Carey stole 63.) Wills has led the National League in base stealing for the last two years with 50 and 35, doing most of his stealing in the last two months of the season. He is the leader of The Swift Set. For nine years he had kicked around as a minor league player, moving from Hornell to Pueblo, Miami to Pueblo, Fort Worth to Pueblo. The Dodgers once tried to sell him to the Detroit Tigers for $35,000. "We looked at Wills," says John McHale, who was then the general manager of the Tigers, "and passed him. He had speed, but we sent him back to the Dodgers." The Tigers and McHale made a bad mistake. Detroit still needs an adequate shortstop.
"When I first came up to the majors in 1959," Wills says, "I got caught on my first three tries. I began to study the pitchers carefully to find flaws in their motions. I know a lot of the pitchers now but I still keep studying them. When I get on base against a pitcher I don't know, I find out about him. I'll give him a one-way lead. A one-way lead is when you lead off the base and lean all your weight back toward the base. I'll draw throws and I can see a pitcher's whole motion. He won't pick me off because my weight brings me back to the bag. I read a lot about pitchers, too. I never aspired to be an average ballplayer. I want to be an outstanding player. I pick little things up. One night I was listening to a radio show and Vernon Law and Bob Friend of the Pirates were saying that when they get two strikes on a hitter they don't like to throw any waste pitches. Not too long after that they got two strikes on me and I was ready and hit them.
"During a ball game," Wills continued. "I'm stealing all the time while I'm on the bench. I'll sit with Willie Davis [15 steals in 17 attempts, second best in the National League] and we look for something wrong. I'll say 'Now!' when the pitcher starts to throw to the plate, and a lot of times Willie will say, 'Yeah, man, you had it.' There are a lot of lefthanders that are easier to steal against than right-handers. Pete Reiser [Dodger coach and a former fine base stealer] has helped me a lot by talking to me all the time about positive thinking."
"Positive thinking," says Reiser, "is using a ballplayer's inner conceit. All ballplayers have a great amount of inner conceit and it has got to be used. Every hitter thinks he is the world's greatest hitter; every pitcher thinks he is the world's greatest pitcher. To be great ballplayers they have to think that all the time. The Dodgers don't want hitters going up to the plate hoping they are going to get their pitch or outfielders hoping that they can get to a fly ball or runners hoping to steal. We want players who know that they are going to hit the pitch and know that they are going to get to a fly ball and know that they will steal. Somebody else can hope for a ballplayer but he's got to know for himself."
Handsome, red-haired Ron Fairly is one Dodger who has a prodigious amount of inner conceit. "When he goes up to the plate," says Captain Duke Snider, "he never goes up on the defensive. That's what it takes to make a hitter and he's got it." Last year Fairly was the team's second-best hitter at .322. This year he is on the same pace, and during the Dodgers' recent drive he hit .407.
But the pleasantest surprise of all for the Dodgers has been Tommy Davis. He leads the team in hitting (.330) and the majors in runs batted in with 68. "I've been pretty lucky getting my ribbies [RBIs] this year," he says. "Near the end of last year I pulled a muscle at the base of my spine and was in traction for two weeks. It's strong now and it only bothers me when I hit a base wrong or take a big cut and don't get anything."
Davis smiled his handsome smile. "We have a lot of fun on this ball club," he said. "In spring training Johnny Roseboro and some of us got together and shaved all the hair off Maury Wills's head. We all like music. I'm playing the Clavietta now. Standards. My Funny Valentine, Stella by Starlight. King Cole plays the Clavietta. King Cole and Johnny Roseboro. You can get a bad Clavietta for $12 or $14. I had one of those but now I got a $40 Clavietta. Moon River is nice on a Clavietta."
The Dodger spirit is perhaps best typified by the "Hero of the Day Club." After the Dodgers win, Utility Infielder Andy Carey watches the photographers take the standard cliché pictures and then, with a Polaroid camera of his own, sets up a satirical picture. Recently, after Sandy Koufax had pitched a three-hitter against the Braves and hit a home run to win his own game 2-1, the photographers had Koufax kiss his bat. After the photographers had left the dressing room the players gathered around Koufax as Carey set up a shot of Koufax holding on to 15 bats, his hat tilted sideways and falling to the floor. "When Koufax hits a home run," said Carey, "he's got to be the hero of the day." In his entire baseball career Koufax had never hit a homer in the big leagues, the Little League or even at a B'nai B'rith picnic.
While the Dodgers have speed and spirit, they also have a problem. Two of their starters, Johnny Podres (18-5 in 1961) and Stan Williams (15-12) have been able to complete only three of 24 starts. Podres is not getting his pitches low enough and Podres is a pitcher who is effective only when his pitches are low.
Williams, although his record is 6-3, hasn't completed a game in almost two months. Don Drysdale, on the other hand, has stopped his temper tantrums and has already won 10 games while losing only four. "When somebody gets a hit off him now," says Milwaukee's Henry Aaron, "he doesn't stamp his foot around on the mound like he used to." Koufax (9-2) and Relief Pitchers Ron Perranoski, Ed Roebuck and Larry Sherry (combined record 11-2) have been outstanding.
The Dodgers arc the only major contenders for the National League pennant who have not suffered a losing streak of five or more games since the season began, although at various times they have looked horrendous, losing ball games by scores of 19-8, 14-0, 13-1 and 15-2. "Each time we have lost like that," says Manager Alston, "we have bounced right back. That's what I like about this club." Playing so steadily, the team has lost only two series since the season began.
With the Davis boys in the outfield—Tommy in left and Willie in center—Alston can put either Wally Moon, Duke Snider or Frank Howard in right field; not many ball teams are equipped with such powerful bench strength. The team's three catchers—Roseboro, Norm Sherry and Doug Camilli—average only 28 years of age.
So the picture is bright in Los Angeles, where past frustrations have dogged the populace and endangered Walter Alston's job almost annually. If Podres and Williams suddenly round into form, no team will beat the Dodgers for the pennant this year. But win or lose, they will be running all the way.