Seventeen months ago, on a humid Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, one of the more triumphant scenes in baseball history took place when Sandy Koufax finally got the last out of a lingering ninth inning to give the Los Angeles Dodgers a four-game sweep of the World Series with the New York Yankees. Players swarmed around Koufax in a shouting, backslapping knot to celebrate the finest moment a baseball team can know, and Dodger fans throughout the country rejoiced and gloated as never before. It was total victory.
But that was 17 months ago, long, sad months for the Dodgers and their followers. Last season the Dodgers had to win their final game of the year to gain a tie for sixth place; they had been virtually eliminated from serious contention for the pennant at about the same time that records of Easter Parade were being remaindered from the nation's jukeboxes.
Now, this year, as the chastened Dodgers of 1965 work their way through their spring-training exhibition schedule, they are the most drastically changed team in the major leagues, baseball's "mystery a go-go." True, the 11 players remaining of the baker's dozen who knocked off the Yankees in the World Series are still the Dodgers' big names: Koufax, Drysdale, Maury Wills, the Davises—that crowd. But big Frank Howard is gone, traded to Washington, and Jim Gilliam has retired to the coaching lines, maybe. The perfect relief pitcher, Ron Perranoski, lost his magic last year, and Johnny Podres was ailing so badly that he pitched only three innings all season. Tommy Davis' batting average dropped 51 points. The old baker's dozen needs help badly, and the Dodgers expect it to come from people you have seldom, if ever, heard of—Wes Parker, Jim Lefebvre, Bart Shirley, John Purdin, Willie Crawford, Tommy Dean, John Werhas, Al Ferrara, Derrell Griffith, Hector Valle, Greg Goossen, Howie Reed, Bill Singer. The Dodger roster is loaded with youthful nonentities. Seventeen of them are 23 or younger, five are 19, two are 18. Twice in recent weeks this infusion of youth has totally confused even the Dodgers themselves.
One morning Don Drysdale, who has been a Dodger since 1956, argued that once the Dodgers got organized they would have a very good chance this season to rise back to the top of the National League. A few days later Drysdale said despairingly that the New Dodgers did not have hitting enough to generate even a serious threat. Earlier the Dodgers had been brought together on a hill behind center field at Vero Beach for the official spring-training picture. There stood Manager Walter Alston surrounded by his coaching staff of four men—not one of whom has ever had any major league coaching experience. The rest of the club looked like a group of kids from Van Nuys High on their way to decorate the gym for the senior prom. After the picture was printed, it was discovered that there in the very front row between Don Drysdale and Maury Wills was a rookie, not even on the roster, who wasn't supposed to be in the picture at all. A Dodger official laughed and said, "Well, in a situation like this anything is possible."
Vast and rapid changes on any baseball team indicate one of several things: 1) certain key players did not perform well and must be replaced; 2) some older performers are getting too old to be counted on; 3) certain youngsters in the farm system have developed to such a degree that they must be brought up immediately; 4) the team has a lot of bonus players who must be put on the major league roster for a year or else they will be lost to other teams in the draft; or 5) the team is going all out with a style of play that the management feels will prove successful. With the 1965 Dodgers it is not one of these things—it is a combination of all five.
When the Dodgers make vast changes all baseball watches, because the Dodgers are historically a team that can be kicked one year and kissed the next. When the Dodgers left Brooklyn seven years ago the management felt that its new California clientele should get to see some of the stars who had performed so well in the past. But that aging 1958 team finished seventh. The next year new players like Wally Moon and Maury Wills were brought in, and the rebuilt team finished first. After blowing pennants in each of the three seasons that followed, including the late-season collapse of 1962, General Manager Buzzie Bavasi made a few trades and the Dodgers won by six games in 1963. Then came 1964.
"Last season," says Bavasi. "was discouraging to me. Very discouraging. I'll take the blame for quite a bit of it, because I put too much faith in some of our players and I was wrong." One of the players Bavasi apparently feels he was wrong about was Frank Howard, the 6-foot-7 slugger who was the Dodgers' only genuine home run hitter. Last December Bavasi traded Howard to the Washington Senators along with four relatively faceless players, including Infielders Ken McMullen and Dick Nen. In return the Dodgers got Claude Osteen, one of the best left-handed pitchers in the American League last year, and Third Baseman John Kennedy, a modest hitter but a splendid fielder. Acquiring Osteen and Kennedy seemed the obvious reason for the trade. But in giving up Howard, McMullen and Nen in a lump, the Dodgers seemed to be saying something else. McMullen and Nen, like Howard, are—or hope to be—long-ball hitters. Apparently the Dodgers had abandoned, once and for all, a playing style built around the home run, and they did it for some very logical and interesting reasons.
"We believe," says Fresco Thompson, vice-president and director of minor league operations, "that people get more excitement out of the bunt, the steal, the hit-and-run and stretching a hit into extra bases than they do from watching somebody hit a ball into somebody's lap and then jogging around the bases." Walt Alston makes it even clearer. "In Dodger Stadium," he says, "it is almost impossible for anyone to hit a home run. The air is heavy at night, and the ball will not carry. Unless you hit the ball exactly down the lines [330 feet to both left and right fields], it isn't going to go out."
Certainly the 14,000 people who have already bought their season tickets for Dodger Stadium in 1965 are going to be in for a different form of baseball than even the powerless Dodgers of the recent past have provided.
Howard hit only 11 home runs at home last year, and the rest of the Dodger team averaged only one home run every 50 innings. (Even the Mets hit a homer at home on an average of one every 14 innings.) Says Johnny Podres, "Pitchers love to pitch in our stadium because it takes three hits off them to score a run. But with the speed we have and are developing, we can often do it with two hits."
The new young Dodgers have speed enough to put together a sprint-relay team that could scare USC. And the club still has Maury Wills, who has stolen 197 bases during the last three seasons and who feels mentally and physically capable of stealing more than 100 this year (though he'll miss Jim Gilliam, whose quick bat protected Maury on many a steal attempt). Center Fielder Willie Davis is generally regarded as the fastest man in baseball. Left Fielder Tommy Davis is faster than the majority of players in the big leagues. John Roseboro has above average speed, especially for a catcher. And now Los Angeles has Willie Crawford, an 18-year-old outfielder who signed for a $100,000 bonus. Willie can run 100 yards in 9.7 seconds and the 220 in 21.4. Wes Parker, who was strapped to the Dodger roster last year under the first-year rule, became a valuable asset to the team because he was versatile enough to play both the outfield and first base and—yes—he could run like the wind. Derrell Griffith, who came up in June 1964 as a third baseman and who has had his troubles on defense, is one of four players on the team described as having "exceptional" speed. The others are Crawford, Wills and Willie Davis.
Virtually certain to stay with the Dodgers is Tommy Dean, a $60,000 bonus baby from Iuka, Miss., one of the most exciting young shortstops to come into the National League in years. "No player has ever reminded me so much of Pee Wee Reese at the same age," says Bavasi. "And no one is going to get him away from us in any draft." The Dodgers have another youngster who very well could be in their Opening Day lineup—Jim Lefebvre, a 22-year-old second baseman who, according to the Dodgers, has only "average" speed, but switch hits. Lefebvre, not yet on the Dodgers' major league roster, was signed for an $11,000 bonus just after he graduated from Inglewood High in Los Angeles. "One other team offered me three times as much," he says, "but I wanted to play for the Dodgers, and my father wanted me to go with them." Lefebvre might replace Nate Oliver at second base because he can make the double play better, and the Dodgers need every double play they can get. Should the Dodgers bring Lefebvre up and start him along with Wills and Parker, their batting order will include three switch-hitters. And 22-year-old Bill Parlier, a dead ringer for Mickey Mantle in looks, has a chance to be with the team sometime during the season. Parlier, too, is a switch-hitter.
The youngsters are not the only new weapon the Dodgers plan to project into this year's pennant race. Last year John Roseboro did something that is deeply affecting Dodger thinking for 1965. Roseboro hurt his knee in early spring at Vero Beach and was sent to Los Angeles to rest until the season began. To keep his batting eye sharp, Roseboro spent hours in Dodger Stadium taking batting practice. For most of his eight seasons in the majors Roseboro had tried to go for distance, but during those hours of hitting alone he made a thorough study of how batted balls acted in his home park, how they moved when they bounced through the rock-hard infield and into the outfield gaps. Because of Dodger speed, the baselines in Dodger Stadium are banked slightly so that bunts will stay fair instead of rolling foul, and the hard infield allows grounders that would be outs in most other parks to shoot through for singles or doubles. Roseboro forgot about hitting homers and began to spray hits all over the park. In his two previous seasons in Dodger Stadium, Roseboro had hit .250 and .237; last year his average at home rose to .313 and his overall season average to .287, or 40 points better than his lifetime percentage of .247. Some of the Dodgers who had been suffering through the frustrations of trying to slug the ball in Dodger Stadium took notice. "There are times," says 11-year veteran Wally Moon, "when you want to pull your hair out. You hit a ball and it looks like it's going out of the park, and somebody backs up and gets it. It's awful. But Rosey showed us something, and you can bet that a lot of guys will be following his example this year."
As for last year, Walter O'Malley, the owner of the Dodgers, says, "We laid an egg at the start of the season and then spent the rest of the year hatching it." The Dodgers won on opening night against the St. Louis Cardinals and then lost nine of their next 10 games. The ninth loss in that string, in Milwaukee on April 25, was a nightmare. Podres was hit on the elbow by a Warren Spahn pitch and was lost for the rest of the season. Perranoski, who had a 16-3 record in the championship year, pulled a muscle in his left leg covering first base; he never regained his true form. Tommy Davis, who for two consecutive years had led the National League in batting, injured his right shoulder diving back into a base; until September, when he finally began to hit (.320) the way he should, he spent a miserable season. After that game in Milwaukee, the Dodgers were through.
"The difference between 1963 and 1964," says Ron Fairly, the redheaded first baseman, "is that in 1963 we knew when we went out of the dugout that in some way we were going to win, and somehow we did. In 1964, when we left the dugout we felt that somehow we'd get beat, and somehow we would." In the middle of August the final blow landed when Koufax, who had 19 wins and five losses at the time, including a no-hit no-run game and six other shutouts, hurt his pitching elbow sliding. He was through for the rest of the season, and the Dodgers finished below .500 for only the second time in 20 years. Their dismal performance so provoked a headline writer for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner that he described them as "a civic disgrace." It was a bad rap.
Podres, for example, had been pitching for two years with the help of cortisone, even before Spahn's pitch put a bone chip afloat in his elbow. He was operated on, and then last fall pitched in the Arizona Instructional League, where he had a record of 5-1. In January he started throwing again, taking it easy. On the very first day of spring training he was pitching to Greg Goossen, a 19-year-old catcher on the Dodger roster. The day was exceptionally muggy, and Podres worked himself into a heavy sweat throwing changeups and curves. He got a new ball and tossed it to Goossen, who hollered, "You want a little palm gum on it?" as he rubbed the ball in his hands. When Podres got the ball back he said, "Fast," and threw a hard, low fast ball that jumped the way a good fast ball is supposed to jump. "Wow!" said Goossen, but Podres had turned away and was hollering, to no one in particular, "Did you see it jump? Did you see it jump?" He put his hands on his knees in his familiar pitching style, wound up and threw another fast ball. It jumped again. A big smile came over Podres' face. He threw a few changeups and curves and then the fast ball again. Again it jumped for him. In those few moments he was the Johnny Podres again, the Podres with the big fast ball at Mineville High in upstate New York who drew the scouts to tiny Witherbee, near Lake Champlain. He was the Podres of 23, who brought the Brooklyn Dodgers their first world championship when he beat the Yankees twice in 1955. He looked like the Podres before the cortisone, when he was 18-5 in 1961. Or the Podres of two Septembers ago, who had enough stuff to stop the St. Louis Cardinals when they had won 19 of 20 down the stretch and come within one game of the first-place Dodgers.
After he had finished with his workout Podres stood in the Dodger clubhouse and said, "My arm feels better now than it has in five years. I'll take my time, but it'll be all right. My arm feels like a big year."
If Podres and Koufax both come back sound, the Dodgers will have one of the best pitching staffs in the history of the major leagues. Osteen has excellent control and command; winning 15 games for ninth-place Washington is not easy to do. Don Drysdale is a superb pitcher, and his record last year of 18-16 does not show that he lost four games by scores of 1-0 and another by 2-0 and came out of another game after 10 innings with the score tied 0-0. Bob Miller and Perranoski should give the Dodgers excellent relief pitching. If these pitchers alone could repeat their best major league years, the six of them could win 109 games.
But there are new Dodgers on the pitching staff, too. Dennis Daboll, an 18-year-old right-hander, and Mike Kekich, a 19-year-old left-hander, will both probably stay with the team, though the youngster with the most promise right now is John Purdin, a 22-year-old right-hander who last year started pitching in Wiesbaden, Germany and went on to Salisbury, N.C., Spokane, Wash., Los Angeles and Mesa, Ariz. His overall record was 42-9 (the figure is correct) and it included a perfect game in Salisbury as well as a two-hitter for the Dodgers against the Chicago Cubs near the end of the season. Purdin was in the service at Wiesbaden when two Americans there sent rave letters about his pitching to O'Malley. Later on, shortly after his discharge, Purdin tried out in his grandparents' backyard in Ohio. Dodger Scout Cliff Alexander, who is Walter Alston's brother-in-law, signed Purdin for $8,000, a chunk of which was promptly used to increase Purdin's collection of hunting rifles. "The Tigers had signed me before I went in the service," says Purdin. "They gave me $4,000 and looked at me in Lakeland one spring, but then they let me go. I said, 'The devil with it,' went in the service for three years to get that over with and then came back as quick as I could. I wanted to play last year, so I signed right away. That time against Chicago, Mr. Alston told me I was going to start a couple of days ahead of time, and I walked around the hotel late and couldn't sleep. I really just wanted to see if I could get five or six innings of good ball in, and that would be fine. The two hits the Cubs got were scratch hits."
If nothing else, the Dodgers of 1965 will certainly be interesting. If their plan for adapting both veterans and youngsters to Dodger Stadium is successful, other clubs are sure to follow their lead, because the newer ball parks around the league—Shea Stadium, the Houston dome and the new stadiums being built in Atlanta and St. Louis—are very similar to Dodger Stadium: they are all very hard to hit home runs out of. And if the Dodger plan of stuffing their roster with new players is not successful, at least Walter O'Malley has found a way to make everyone buy a scorecard.