Look at the Dodgers. See how they run. Slow-ly. See how they pitch. Pain-ful-ly. See how they hit. Weak-ly. See how they win. U-su-al-ly. Question: How?
Look at the Dodgers up in their plane, high over Colorado, late in the night. A gentle turbulence barely rocks the wings; cabin lights are dimmed and a certain amount of sonorous breathing can be heard. Still, there is action. Phil Regan, John Roseboro and Willie Davis are playing lowball poker, and Regan is winning again. Maury Wills is making good on a promise not to drive everybody berserk with his customary five-hour banjo recital; instead, he is playing nonstop guitar. Nobe Kawano, the clubhouse man with a heart of gold, and James (Junior) Gilliam, the ballplayers' ballplayers' ballplayer, continue a running game of gin rummy that goes back almost to the Harding administration. Jim Lefebvre, a switch-hitting bat boy who made good, and Wes Covington, an old pro who has found a new career as a holler guy, play a heated card game called crazy eights; anything involving Covington is likely to be heated. Sandy Koufax makes one of his rare appearances as a gin player, and gets knocked out of the box 39 to 21 under an arcane scoring system understood only by the participants.
A man from the front office looks anxiously at the dark shapes of clouds coming up under the wings and speaks in a low voice about the world champions of baseball: "We're known as a speed club, but except for Willie Davis we haven't got as much speed this year as the wrestling team at Wellesley. We're known as a pitching club, but the only overpowering pitcher we've got is Koufax, and with him every start may be his last. Stars like Maury Wills and Don Drysdale are having knee problems. So we're not winning on speed; we're not winning on stars; we're not winning on overpowering pitching. People say, look at the ball club; they can't be winning at all; it's an optical illusion, another one of Buzzie Bavasi's card tricks. But of course we're winning, and what we're winning on is the oldest thing in sport. We're winning on spirit.... Yeah, they do say that about every winning ball club. But without spirit this team would be the Los Angeles Cubs."
Look at the Dodgers in the clubhouse. See the boxes of baseballs and the players signing them. See the endless supplies of bubble gum, both normal and sugarless, the cases of soda pop and beer. See the bandages, hypodermics and bright-colored pills. Look at Reserve Outfielder Al Ferrara sauntering around in a protective undergarment and a 20-gallon Mexican cowboy hat. John Roseboro dresses underneath the latest addition to his locker: a picture of an eight ball. Pee Wee Oliver hums one of the selections from his new Roulette album, while his manager, Tommy Davis, beams approval. Koufax sees big-hit, no-field Dick Stuart fumbling with his glove, and shouts the length of the clubhouse: "Come on, everybody, let's get some laughs. Stuart's gonna field ground balls." Stuart laughs; of all the jokes in the world, he likes the ones about himself the most. Off to one side, Ron Perranoski is trying to put a writer on: "You want some funny stories about the bullpen? There's nothing funny goes on in the bullpen. The only funny thing that happened down there this year is I showed up." Perranoski struts off, smirking.
September 18, 1966
Walter Alston sits in a corner and muses. "Listen to 'em," he says. "They're loose. They're ready for everything. Either you have spirit or you don't. We're lucky to have it. It doesn't come from me or the coaches. People talk about managers getting a team up. Well, once in a while you can have a meeting and get them up a little bit, but baseball is played day in and day out and after you've had about five peptalks in a row it starts running right off their backs. Nobody in the world can make a dead-ass ballplayer get excited. These guys don't need that. They're competitors and they hate like hell to get beat. There're times when I don't know whether this is the best team in the league or not. But I know they're not gonna give up. On top of everything else we've got some young kids who seem to get better under pressure. Kids like Wes Parker and Jim Lefebvre. You'd expect young kids like that to choke a little. They do the opposite. And we've got enough veterans like Gilliam and Roseboro and that kind of guy who's been through everything."
Look at the Dodger office. See the deep-pile rugs, the objets d'art, the handsome paintings of pennant-winning Dodgers all up and down the halls. See the money. See the smiling man behind the big desk under the picture of Lincoln. He is Emil J. (Buzzie) Bavasi, Owner Walter O'Malley's trail boss, and remember not to trade any of your stamps or coins to him. Bavasi is just finishing a talk with Ron Fairly, players' representative and perfect gentleman except when he pops out. "I was just telling Ron," Buzzie says, "that when I start a season with these 25 men I know that I've already got 25 games in the bag because each one of those guys is gonna do something to win a ball game. That's the kind of club it is. They take turns winning games. And that makes every one of them as good as Henry Aaron or Willie Mays when their turn comes. There's not a one of them that doesn't give 105%. Walter Alston is one of the reasons. He treats every man up there as if he were over 21. There are no children on this club. He doesn't fine 'em; I don't think, there's been a fine this year. Once in a while they'll have some drinks or stay out late, and Alston doesn't do anything about it because he knows they had a reason to do it, and he knows the next day they'll still be giving him 105%. You never hear him tell any player what to do with his private life or his free time. And the men'll do anything for him."
A loud outcry in the hall signals the arrival of Lou Johnson, the outfielder whose gentle innocence has earned him the nickname "Sweet Lou." "Hey, come here, you," Buzzie shouts. "What're you here for?"
"What am I always here for, Tiger?"
"Right again. Money. And now I gotta run into you. You're bad news. I'm on a hitting streak. Last night I got two hits, and now I'll go 0 for 40, and I can't afford it."
Buzzie points at Johnson with a fancy new ruler and Sweet Lou grabs it. "What's this?" he says with feigned anger. "You sitting up here playing with a ruler with pictures of the St. Louis Cardinals on it? Well, damn! We out there fighting like hell and you sitting up here with a St. Louis Cardinals' ruler. Man, you really bad news."
The Los Angeles Dodgers of 1966, the latest representatives of the most successful franchise in postwar National League history, are like a fighter who comes into the last round reeling and winded and firmly convinced against all logic that he is going to knock the bum out. "This ball club is like a single individual," says the erudite first baseman, college graduate and student author, Wesley Parker, a young man who overcame the handicap of coming from the right side of the tracks to wind up as a journeyman major-leaguer. "This club is like a human being. It has a cheerful personality, and it goes out and plays that way. Sure, once in a while the ball club gets grouchy, but that's rare. With guys like Lou Johnson and Wes Covington around, we stay loose most of the time."
"The day Covington joined this ball club the spirit went up 100%," says Bavasi, "and the same thing happened last year when we got Lou. The minute Lou comes into sight I gotta laugh. He says, 'Hello, Buzzie,' and I'm falling on the floor. Even his problems are funny. You know, Lou never had much money, playing in the minors, and some of his bills didn't get paid on time. There was one from a clothing store in Milwaukee. I called him in and I said, 'Lou, you gotta pay this bill. It's three years old.'
"He says, 'Gee whiz, Buzzie, I had to have clothes for my little boys.'
"I said, 'How old were your boys when you ran up this bill?'
"He says, 'One was 4 and one was 8.'
"I pulled out the bill and I said, In other words, they didn't wear 42 long?' There it was, right on the bill: 'Two suits, 42 long, $385.' But Sweet Lou, he just doesn't understand money. Money is another country. You open up your wallet and give him everything you've got and he'll be back for more tomorrow. Last year he comes to me for World Series tickets for his wife, so I handed 'em over and I said, 'That'll be $48.'
"He said, '$48 for what?'
"I said, 'Everybody has to pay for them, Lou. Drysdale and Koufax were just in here, and they had to pay for 'em, too.'
"He thinks it over for a minute. Then he says, 'She ain't going,' and he walks out. Now, how you gonna get grim with guys like that around?"
Covington, the other major morale builder on the Dodgers, is a born handler of money, umpires and words. He owns properties in just about every city he's played in, holds a real-estate broker's license to boot and is one of the three or four Negro ballplayers firmly in the running for jobs someday as major league managers. "The funny thing is, we almost didn't get him," says Bavasi. "I'd always heard that he was trouble. So one day he was turned loose and he got on the phone to me and asked for work. A guy like that just hates to quit playing ball. So I said, 'I've heard too much about you. You talk too much about things that aren't your business.'
"He says, 'Gee, that's not so.'
"So I said, 'Well, that's what my boys tell me. All except Gilliam. He says you're the greatest and we ought to take you on.' But I said, 'If we do, you gotta promise me you'll only speak when you're spoken to.' So we signed him and he's been absolutely great. On top of his spirit and hustle, he's won a couple of ball games for us by getting on base. We've been fortunate to have him."
Covington joined the team at the end of May and started out like a man who was lucky to have an independent income. When he was one for 29 and just about the most ineffectual ballplayer outside the Little League, he was standing on the top step of the dugout yelling and clapping with his customary élan, shouting declarations of war at every opposing player who came within earshot, impugning the integrity of umpires good and bad and exhorting the Dodgers to pull up their socks and get on the stick, except that his exact choice of words was far more Biblical and biological. "Come on, Stuart," Covington shouted at the sardonic first baseman. "Yell it up a little."
Stuart turned slowly to his slumping teammate and said in even tones, "Wes, if you weren't so damned valuable to this ball club I'd punch you right in the nose."
Soon after, Covington broke out of his slump (although he remains no threat to the Brothers Alou or even the Sisters Dolly in terms of batting average) and took on the role of undisputed leader of the Dodger cheering staff. "He keeps the bench alive," says Walter Alston, who usually sits quietly at the third-base end of the dugout. "That's worth something."
"Yeah, it's worth something," says slow-talking Lefty Phillips, the bespectacled pitching coach whose relaxed manner has steadied the pitching staff through some of its darkest days. "But sometimes he's too good at talking it up. Sometimes we're getting the other guy's pitches and when we try to signal our batter he can't hear us over Covington."
Of his own reincarnation as a human foghorn, Covington says, "I used to have spirit when I was with the Braves, but when I left Milwaukee and went to those other ball clubs, I allowed association to do something to me. I got in a rut with the type of ball clubs I was with after the Braves. I'd get so down in the mouth. You can be a fighting individual, but when you're getting overmatched day in, day out, it takes some of the sting out of you. But playing with a contending club does something to a man, mentally and physically. You shape up fast. You play your best, you have pride in what you do, where you go, how you dress, the people that you associate with."
"Sure we have pride," says the redheaded Ron Fairly, one of the team's steadiest hitters. "Last year nobody picked us to win anything, and when it was all over, there were 19 ball clubs behind us. We've won three world championships in Los Angeles, so we know what we can do. We don't choke; we play relaxed ball out there. Sometimes you wouldn't believe how relaxed it can be. One day I'm under a pop-up that's up above everything, and there's two outs and the other team has runners on base running like hell. And Gilliam comes running over the minute the ball's hit and he says, 'Lotta room, Ron, you take it.' The ball's on its way down about 600 miles an hour and Gilliam says, 'It's coming now. You're right under it.' And just before I make the catch, he says, 'Now don't get hit in the head.' Runners crossing the plate like flies, and he's trying to make me laugh."
The Dodgers' capacity for jollity, as the long season grinds on, has had to survive a series of injuries that would have sapped the morale of a traveling troupe of Pierrots. Until a few weeks ago there was an apt cartoon tacked to the press-box bulletin board. It showed a catcher and a pitcher in emergency session on the mound, and the catcher was saying something like, "Give him as much of a curve as your bursitis will allow, right in on that jammed wrist of his, but not too hard because of my bone chips." The cartoon was funny until the Dodger clubhouse began to look like a city-hospital emergency room on Saturday night; then the cartoon mysteriously disappeared. To be sure, the Dodgers are not the only team in baseball with the medical problems. Every manager can point to injuries toward the end of any season, but the Dodgers have carried the cliché to a ridiculous extreme. Maury Wills has been playing infrequently, and when he does start a game it is said that the Ace bandage people declare a dividend. The pitching staff was on a walking-wounded basis for several weeks. In one recent four-game stretch Claude Osteen started and had to quit in the sixth with a pulled thigh muscle; Koufax was forced to retire with the miseries after six innings; Don Drysdale reinjured a trick knee and turned himself over to the medics after two innings; and Don Sutton, whose 12 wins make him the most successful rookie pitcher in Los Angeles Dodger history, kinked up the flexor muscle on his pitching arm and was taken out in the third. The result of those foreshortened pitching appearances was four straight wins, high tribute to a bullpen which features Tiger castoff Phil Regan, winner of 13 games, saver of 15 and composer of a Dodger fight song, The Ballad of the Blue Berets. To relieve the strain on the suffering pitching staff, Alston called up Bill Singer, strikeout leader of the Pacific Coast League, and Nick Willhite, a sometime major-leaguer whose hernia enabled him to fit perfectly into the scheme of things. Characteristically, the Dodgers tried to kid their way through the agonies. "I understand we're also recalling Dr. Ben Casey," said Fairly, and somebody else observed that the pennant was in the hands of Sharp and Dohme.
When Sutton hurt his arm, Dodger doctors ordered him to undergo the same treatment that has preserved the mighty wing of Sandy Koufax. The arm is encased in a long section of inner tube and dunked into a bath of ice water and ice, a Chinese torture that Koufax bears with typical equanimity. Not so the young Sutton. Taking one of his first treatments, he began inching his arm slowly out of the water until little more than the tip of the elbow was immersed. Koufax walked into the medical room, saw what was happening and gave Sutton's arm a full dunk. "Do it right!" Koufax said, winking sideways at an observer.
"Who's doing this, you or me?" Sutton asked.
"I've got more experience than you," Sandy barked, shoving the arm down again.
"Yes, sir," said a bemused Sutton, and began inching his arm out of the water the second Koufax was out of sight.
Sandy's own arm remains the great X factor, not only for this season but for the Dodgers' future years as contenders. Every time he throws a ball, teammates wince and arthritis sufferers all over the country share his pain. "It's become a frightening thing," said a longtime press-box habitué. "We know what's gonna happen; we know it's got to happen, and we all live in some kind of quiet terror about it. One of these nights the best pitcher that ever lived is gonna throw that left arm all the way up to the plate. That's gonna be it. Finished. The end."
Koufax still gets all kinds of medical advice, solicited and otherwise. The letters trickle in: "Dear Sandy. If you will rub a mixture of oil of cloves and paragoric on your elbow you will be cured like I was. I had arthuritis for years and now this remedy has helped me plus my doctor. God bless you Sandy." Koufax lives on a regimen of guts and Butazolidin, the pain-killing drug that sometimes is used on horses. Often the pain is so severe that spectators in the last rows can see him wince. His lips draw up in a tight line, and the cords on his neck stand out. And when you ask him about it, he keeps to his steady line: "No, it didn't hurt any more than usual." It never hurts any more than usual, to hear Sandy tell it, and one suspects that it never hurts any less than usual, either. The profile in courage that is Sanford Koufax goes right on taking steady turns, complaining about nothing except getting undercut in gin.
But all the team spirit and raw courage in the world only add up to what the gamblers call "zip," nothing, a dead sparrow and piece of string, unless they can be translated into wins on the playing field. Everybody knew that the Dodgers were winning a lot of one-run games (32 wins and 16 losses through last week), and one-run wins are a good test of spirit, but it remained for some enterprising statisticians to show the firmest correlation between the intangible of emotion and the fact of winning. The Dodgers, it developed, have scored the winning run in their last time at bat in 26 of their games, or roughly one out of every three wins, a record that was brought to the public's attention by the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in a chart appropriately named DODGER LAST GASP-O-METER. In seven of the last 11 such victories the key run has been knocked in or scored by Junior Gilliam, the Dodgers' contribution to sartorial and gerontological splendor. Gilliam was simply going up to the plate in the last inning in his usual businesslike style, looking for what he calls "sock-me-outs," a term which puzzled certain Dodgers. One day he returned to the bench and told Fairly, "He threw me one of those sock-me-outs."
"What the hell is a sock-me-out?" Fairly asked.
"Well, you know, when the pitcher gets a little tired and he throws one down the middle? That's a sock-me-out." It was not the first time Gilliam had enriched the language and added to the gaiety of the nations. On a sultry night long ago in backwoods Florida, he walked into a country pool hall, laid down a $20 bill and announced to the house: "Who wants some of the devil's action?" Since then he has been known to the Dodgers as "Devil." For equally sound reasons, Phil Regan is known as "the Vulture." "He goes out there in the late innings of those tie ball games and pounces on the wins like a vulture," Koufax explains. Maury Wills is "the Mouse" and sawed-off Jim Barbieri is "the Rat" or "Jockey" or "Runt." Willie Davis is "Three Dog," a name that derives from a night at the greyhound races during spring training. Ron Perranoski is "Nonchalanski," for obvious reasons; Claude Osteen is "Gomer," for his resemblance to television's Gomer Pyle; Tommy Davis is "T.D.," and John Roseboro, a solid bastion and unsung team leader, has been honored by five nicknames: "Rosey," "Gabby," "Dad," "Old Folk" and "Rosenberg."
Last week, in a memorable game of the 1966 pennant race, Sandy and the Mouse and Old Folk and Devil and Sweet Lou and Three Dog and the whole jolly cast of characters went out to engage the San Francisco Giants before 54,993, the largest regular-season crowd in Dodger Stadium history, and just to prove that they are not a bunch of laughing machines, the Dodgers did everything wrong, even in the spirit department. Players failed to give themselves up for the team; three errors were committed; 13 were left on base; and the man from Mars, Willie Mays, was given the opportunity to steal the ball game by going from first to home on a routine single, topping off this Cobbesque maneuver by kicking the ball out of the glove of that famous immovable object, John Roseboro, or Rosenberg, or Old Folk, or whatever his name is. To add another imperfect touch to an imperfect night, the gay abandon on the Dodger bench evaporated in a near fist-fight between two old friends and neighbors, Maury Wills and Tommy Davis. In the 10th inning, with the game tied and tense and the Giants at bat, Captain Wills held up the old two-finger signal to remind Left Fielder Davis that there were two outs. When Davis came into the dugout, the Mouse said, "How come you didn't acknowledge me out there?"
With no further ado, Davis exploded. This has not been the two-time batting champion's most satisfying year. Leading the team in hitting, he is still platooned, a stratagem that makes no sense to him, even though Walter Alston has built a successful career on an uncanny ability to move players around effectively. All the bitterness and tension boiled over in the usually quiet Davis, and he began screaming at his good friend Wills in a voice that could be heard 10 rows back: "Don't give me that——! Don't give me that——!"
Wills, whose own year has been one of painful enterprise, was squaring off when Nate Oliver, Wes Covington, Dick Stuart and Al Ferrara jumped on Davis and pulled him away, still shouting. Wills left the dugout to hit, announced on the way that he would be pleased to take Davis on after the game and added, "You ought to button your lip."
Back in the clubhouse, after they had handed the game away like the St. Louis Browns instead of the Los Angeles Dodgers, nobody had the strength to fight. At first, everyone spoke sotto voce. Nobe Kawano went about his task of knocking the dirt out of six dozen spikes without so much as a glance to the side. Walter Alston, calm as always, retired to his office. When reporters asked Roseboro if Mays had kicked the ball out of his glove, that gentlest of men snapped, "How the hell do you think it got out?" Professional ballplayers are not known for whooping it up in the dressing room after a loss, but they are also not known for remaining in the depths of depression simply because one night's work goes awry. Least of all the Dodgers. Slowly the gibes and gambols returned, voices picked up a few decibels, and Davis and Wills, T.D. and the Mouse, let it be known that the shouting incident was forgotten.
"A game like this would discourage an ordinary ball club," Captain Wills said. "We're not an ordinary ball club." Then the club that is not ordinary, and the pitching staff that is at death's door, hobbled onto the field and shut out the Houstons four straight times.
Look at the Mouse. See how well he sums things up.