SPEED AND A STRONG LEADER
Los Angeles is worrying again. Not the team, mind you; not the Dodgers. It is the city that is worrying. Worrying itself sick. The people claim that they can see disaster bearing down on the Dodgers once more. This week, as September comes to Chavez Ravine, so do the San Francisco Giants for a four-game series, and this prospect brings no joy to an Angeleno's heart.
Although, at the beginning of the week, the Dodgers were six and a half games in front of the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, who were tied for second, Los Angeles remembers far too well that its team was in front last year, too. And at precisely the same time of the season. Then the Giants came to town for a four-game series, won three and forced the Dodgers into a skid which ended up in one of the worst wrecks in baseball history. While San Francisco won the pennant, the Dodgers won the reputation of a team with a built-in collapsing mechanism.
There have been hundreds of explanations for the failure of last season, a great many of them having to do with Manager Walter Alston, who has been accused of being no manager at all. And, superficially at least, Alston is hardly the picture of the fiery field leader with a set team of professionals firmly in hand. The Dodgers have no set lineup and no fixed batting order. When Alston picks a starting lineup, he does it with the same determination that one uses when ordering a Chinese meal. He takes a player from group A and two from group B, until he has gathered nine. Then he bows his head and seems to wonder what is coming.
September 1, 1963
What came last September was bad, but it definitely did not all come from Alston. There are only two valid explanations for the collapse. First, in mid-July the Dodgers lost baseball's best pitcher, Sandy Koufax, who sat out all but three games of the final half of the season with a finger injury. Then, according to Duke Snider, currently with the New York Mets but a Dodger for the preceding 15 years, "Everyone on that team, from the manager to the bat boy, folded in the last month. Everyone was to blame."
First Baseman Ron Fairly (see cover) was typical of those players who folded—he hit .301 up to Sept. 1, and .179 for the final month. And in the past few weeks of the current season there have been ominous signs that the whole ball club was about to do it again. The team has been amazing in its inconsistency. In one 11-game span, during which Fairly hit all of .167 as his average slid from near .290 down to .279, the Dodgers could score only 50 runs. And their fielding was something for Little Leaguers to snicker at. Yet, because their pitching was something between good and brilliant and their base running daringly successful, they managed to win eight of the games. It was a tough, almost frantic stretch of baseball, with some wild gambles (below) and a few pitches that were too tight (see preceding pages). But the Dodgers came out of it still in first place, with the season 11 days older. Moreover, they came out of it dead sure—even if their fans at Chavez Ravine were not—that there would be no repetition of 1962.
"Sure I was terrible that last month in 1962," said Fairly. "It was like a bad dream. But this year it will be different. We matured from that. We are on guard. Remember that as bad as we were last season, the Giants were equally bad. Neither team played like it wanted to win. But being so close to having the pennant right in our hands and then losing it makes us want this pennant even more."
The Dodgers showed the Cardinals how badly they wanted the pennant when the St. Louis team came at them for a three-game series in the middle of the hitting slump. Before the series began, Stan Musial chatted about its meaning. "Over the years the Cards and the Dodgers have been in some real dogfights. There were seasons when they knocked us out of pennants and we knocked them out. It's getting late now, though, and we have six games left with them. We need these games here." Then Musial and the rest of the fine Cardinal hitters ran into the Dodger pitching staff, whose jewel all season has been a sound and healthy Koufax. In three desperate games the Cardinals could get only nine runs, and five of those came in the first four innings of the first game off Johnny Podres. In the 30 innings that followed, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Ron Perranoski, Bob Miller and Larry Sherry gave the Cardinals four runs.
In the first game, Fairly was the star of a rough, tense 7-5 Dodger win. The Cardinals jumped to a 4-2 lead, and then the Dodgers started clawing and scratching. They got one run when Willie Davis wheeled all the way from first to home on a butchered double-play ball, flying into the plate safe as the throw from center field nicked the pitcher's rubber, causing the bounce to be slow and high. A bunt and two singles produced a pair of Dodger runs. Then, with the bases loaded, Fairly slashed a single up the middle to wrap up the game. In the clubhouse afterward, Fairly sat down and closed his eyes for a few seconds. "I'm hot and tired. I feel grungy. Real grungy. Please, Lord, let us have an easy one tomorrow."
The next night was anything but easy. After 15 innings, each side had one run. In the bottom of the 16th, Third Baseman Ken McMullen hit a high drive to center field with two out. Curt Flood, the Cardinal center fielder, turned the wrong way on the ball and when he picked up its flight again it was too late. Flood was playing with a severe muscle pull in his left leg, and his normally good speed was dulled. He crashed into the wall and McMullen pulled into second base with a double. With two strikes on him, John Roseboro singled just inside third and McMullen scored. The Dodgers ran onto the field and jumped up and down. Stan Musial stared at the ground. "It hurts. Really hurts," he said.
The final game was almost as close—and a little rougher. The Cardinals carried a 3-2 lead into the eighth inning. Then the Dodgers got Moon on third with one out and Fairly at bat. Dodger Coach Pete Reiser signalled for a suicide squeeze, but Fairly missed the sign. Instead of bunting he was swinging away. At the last instant he noticed Moon driving down the line. He waved awkwardly and missed it. Moon, scrambling back to third, saw that Catcher Tim McCarver had already thrown the ball to Third Baseman Ken Boyer. Now thoroughly trapped, Moon decided to gamble on an interference play. Once more he charged for home; McCarver was standing in Moon's path and, as the Dodger outfielder roared in, McCarver jumped three feet to the inside of the diamond to avoid illegally blocking the base path. But as Moon went by, he thrust out his arms and banged McCarver on the shoulder. Simultaneously, Boyer slapped the tag on Moon, and Moon screamed for the umpires to call interference. But the umpires were in no way deluded by the trap trick. Moon was out, the Dodgers had lost a good scoring chance and Walter Alston was mad.
The baseball press in Los Angeles—and a number of other places—paints a picture of Alston as a sort of Whistler's Mother with a scorecard in his lap. Every time the Dodgers lose as many as two games in a row, the papers rise up to call for his scalp. There is one radio announcer in Los Angeles who told his audience last week that "the team has won 76 games and Walter Alston has lost 49. Somehow they got themselves six and a half games in front, but anyone knows that if even I managed the Dodgers they would be 15½ games in front, and I'm an idiot."
However accurate the announcer's self-appraisal may be, he is wrong about Alston, who is no idiot. Alston is quiet and reserved but is a strong man. In nine years of managing the Dodgers, he has won three pennants, two world championships and has read about 58 of his fellow managers being fired. During this period, the longest interval of command enjoyed by any current major league manager, he has had handed to him as coaches such heirs apparent as Bobby Bragan, Leo Durocher and Charlie Dressen. Nevertheless, Alston has prevailed.
Despite this record—and because of the 1962 debacle—Alston has been crucified throughout the current season. In early spring, as the Dodgers bounced around from second to seventh, everyone said he would not last through May. From April 26 to May 6, as the Dodgers lost seven of nine games on the road in four cities—St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh—Alston's players could not pick up a newspaper without reading that their manager was about to be fired. Before long, the Dodgers themselves, who were playing terrible ball, began to wonder if these rumors were true. This uncertainty did nothing for the team's morale. But Alston suffered the slanders in silence. On May 6, the nadir was reached when the Dodgers got 16 hits in a game with the Pirates, but lost.
After the game the Dodgers piled into an old bus, which chugged its way toward the airport. In the back of the bus, some of the players started to make a few good-natured remarks about the quality of their transportation such as, "Hey Bussey, there's a dog running alongside the back wheel with bad intentions." Then it happened. The Pittsburgh Pirates glided by in a brand-new, leather-seated, air-conditioned bus on their way to the same airport for a trip to Chicago. Suddenly, the remarks were no longer good-natured. Weren't they the Dodgers? Didn't they draw 2,750,000 people into Chavez Ravine in 1962 to set an alltime major league attendance record? What was a second-division team like the Pirates doing outclassing them?
Lee Scott, the team's traveling secretary, suggested that if they won some ball games they would deserve better buses. At this, Infielder Jim Gilliam shouted, "What do you think we're doing, trying to lose?"
And now, at long, long last, Walter Alston had had enough. First, he told everyone to be quiet. For the next 20 minutes he sat stonily in his seat. Finally, he told the driver to pull the bus over to the side of the road. He got to his feet and stood next to the driver. "There are a few things we better get straightened out," he said. Then he told the team that nobody had the right to tell them that they were playing badly except him. He said that he would see to the buses and make sure they got the best. And, if anyone had any complaints about buses or anything else, they were to come and see him—one at a time. Later, two of the players who had been complaining were traded.
Now the team had the answer it needed to the questions raised by the press. Alston was the boss, and he did not have to lower himself to tell them not to believe everything they read. The Dodgers immediately went out and won 15 of their next 19 games and rose from seventh place to a game short of first. In June they failed to hit, but still played better than .500 ball, and in July they won 17 of their first 20 games. By early August, with Koufax once more established as the league's leading pitcher and with Shortstop Maury Wills delivering a bundle of key hits and fine defensive plays, they were in first place by a solid six games. However, in the midst of the dogfights of late August, they ran up against an old, old friend, Milwaukee's Warren Spahn.
In his otherwise triumphal march of 19 years through the National League, Spahn has been surprisingly bad against the Dodgers, losing 34 games while winning only 22 before this season. But this year Spahn had not been so friendly, winning all three of his starts against Los Angeles. When he went to the mound against the Dodgers last Friday, he was downright unpleasant. Kicking his 42-year-old leg high in the air before each pitch, he set the Dodgers down with nine hits and one run. Alston, trying to rest his first-line pitchers, had gambled with 19-year-old Dick Calmus, who was hit hard as Los Angeles lost 6-1.
The next night the Dodger hitting was no better, and the Brave pitching was almost as good. The score: 2-1. In both games, there would have been no Dodger score whatever had it not been for a pair of hits and some magnificent base running by Maury Wills. For the final game of the series, the Dodger attack, mounted in full fury, managed to produce exactly two runs. But this time they got tight, one-run pitching from Koufax and Miller. On that one, faintly happy note, the Dodgers marched into the last month of the season with the firm conviction that they were going to win the pennant. Despite the pasting he had just handed them, Milwaukee Manager Bobby Bragan agreed. "The Dodgers should win the pennant," said Bragan. "But they will have to do it by picking and pitching. They don't have a hitting attack. They are sixth in the National League in fielding, tied for sixth in double plays, fifth in runs, sixth in hits and they don't have one man in the top ten in runs batted in. But statistics are silly sometimes. They are first in the league, and the teams that are chasing them are really going to be up against it. The Cardinals and the Giants may have the best hitting, but the Dodgers have great pitching, and pitching beats hitting every time. What a pitching staff those devils have."
This week, to see if Koufax, Alston, Fairly and the rest of the Dodgers can turn back the Giants and avoid a repetition of last year's wreck, more than 215,000 people will squeeze into the multicolored, five-tiered elegance of Chavez Ravine for the four games. The demand for scalper tickets surpasses anything seen since the opening of The Jazz Singer. So fascinated has the city of Los Angeles become with the pitching of Sandy Koufax alone that he is worth 7,000 people extra at the gate. There is a very good chance, in fact, that the Dodgers will, by season's end, break their own attendance record.
However, the people of Los Angeles are not interested in setting records. What they are worried about is whether the Dodgers will at last pay off for the agony of that dreadful flop of last September. The coming of the Giants intensifies the worry—understandably so. But if the pitching holds, and it should, the city of Los Angeles will be paid off 10 dimes on the dollar.