I learned a whole heck of a lot about baseball at Dodgertown, mostly because of the way they taught it. You always had the spirit of the man down there: Branch Rickey. Those that followed him passed it on down. Everybody was aware of Branch Rickey, because they never let his spirit die around there. They always said, Mister Rickey did this and Mister Rickey said that. And it's still going on; it's still lasting. Those things never die.
Former Los Angeles Dodger
On a beautiful day in Vero Beach, Fla. last spring, with the sun hanging high in the belltower of an early afternoon, the black man stopped his wheelchair between home plate and the mound on Field 2, facing the mound.
The spirit of the past is always right around a corner at Dodgertown, and the way you get to Field 2 is this: You can enter Dodgertown by turning off Vero Beach's 26th Street into Duke Snider Road and then take a left on Vin Scully Way, which runs right past the field along the leftfield line. Or you can turn in at the main gate, onto Jackie Robinson Avenue. Then you head straight for a hundred yards or so. Don't turn left (what else?) on Sandy Koufax Lane, because that breaks like a good curve past the villas—small, one-bedroom, one-bathroom structures where most of the players live, two to a unit. Keep going until you get to Roy Campanella Drive. Take a right and, if you're on foot, walk straight on, through the gap in the fence and over to the pitcher's mound, until you reach...Roy Campanella.
Campanella, a Dodger instructor these days, among other things, was sitting in his wheelchair and addressing a dozen or so fresh-faced young catchers, most of them minor-leaguers, teaching and explaining in a voice clear and deliberate.
March 14, 1983
"And another thing," Campy was saying. "You have to give a pitcher confidence that if he bounces the ball in the dirt, you can get in front of it and block it. Any pitcher who can keep the ball down low is a better pitcher. When he starts bringing the ball up, he's going to get hit much harder. If one gets away, the pitcher depends on you to block it—not catch it, just block it—and keep the ball in front of you. If the runner sees the ball in front of you, he'll never run."
The Dodgers have trained at this site every year since 1948, when Rickey, then a co-owner of the team, first summoned almost 600 players to Vero Beach to chase fly balls, avoid the alligators, stay sober and attend church on Good Friday. The late Mister Rickey, as all who knew him still unfailingly refer to him, left the Dodgers after a power struggle with co-owner Walter O'Malley in 1950, but what he created and left behind is as immutable in these parts as the color of the orange.
He set out to create a "college of baseball"—in fact, in a 1948 Dodgertown field-operation log the place is called the Brooklyn Dodgers School of Instruction Camp—and he did precisely that. Rickey had been a catcher in his playing days, and one of his star pupils that first year was Campanella, a minor-leaguer about to join the Dodgers. "If Mister Rickey could only have caught like he could talk about it!" Campanella says. What Rickey talked about is what Campanella still talks about today. So there was a continuum at work on Field 2 that day, a tradition of teaching a catcher a certain way of catching. After 34 years, the same school was still in session.
The students listened raptly as Campanella made points and spun yarns. One illustrated the value and proper use of the pitchout. There was the day, he recalled, when he was catching Preacher Roe, who had excellent control, in a close game against the New York Giants. Willie Mays was on first, and Campanella called for three straight pitchouts before he ever asked Roe to throw a strike.
"I knew that Mays was going to run," Campanella told them, "and that out was very important. And I had the confidence I was going to throw him out. This comes from practice and from believing in yourself. I just knew in a close game that Mays would try to steal. I called for three pitchouts, and I got him on the third one. I knew I could put Roe in a hole like that because I knew he could get the ball over. You have to pick your pitcher to do this with. Know your pitchers and believe in yourself! "
Campanella's sermon on the mound that day covered familiar ground, but there's much about the Dodgertown of 1950 that no longer exists. And there has been a lot added since Rickey departed. The place has always been unique—it was, for instance, the first major league training facility in which both major and minor league clubs trained together—but now it's a real oddity, a kind of full-time, 450-acre country club that, incidentally, also happens to be the home of the Dodgers six weeks a year.
"Today," says Dodgertown's managing director, Charlie Blaney, "we're in...." He ticks off a list:
"The citrus business." Seventy acres are planted in orange and grapefruit trees. "They make an attractive border for Dodgertown," Blaney says, "and one of Mister O'Malley's hobbies was horticulture." The groves yield 6,000 to 8,000 boxes of fruit a year for the marketplace.
"The conference-center business." Since 1977, Harrison Conference Services has managed a program for firms wanting to hold meetings at Dodgertown. The facilities include 90 villas on Sandy Koufax Lane and Jackie Robinson Avenue, and some 200 corporations have made use of them, including IBM, GE and Memorex.
"The golf business." In part because blacks then had to drive 15 miles to Fort Pierce to play on public courses, O'Malley built a nine-hole course at Dodgertown in 1966. He added an 18-hole layout across the street six years later and called it Dodger Pines Country Club. Both courses are within walking distance of the villas.
"The football training business." Since 1974, the New Orleans Saints have used Dodgertown as a preseason training camp, spending six to seven weeks there, and for the last three years the Buffalo Bills have escaped Niagara Frontier winters to train at Dodgertown for late-season and playoff games.
"The residential development business." In 1972 the Dodgers built 45 houses adjacent to Dodger Pines to form a retirement community known as Safari Pines Estate and then sold them for $15,000 to $25,000 apiece. The homes are now worth $40,000 to $50,000 each.
"The restaurant business." The Great American Pastime Dining Establishment, in which waitresses wear Dodger uniforms, each bearing the name and number of a former hero—SNIDER, PODRES, KOUFAX, HODGES—serves lunch, an evening buffet and nostalgia. As in most of the nooks and corridors of Dodgertown, large black and white photographs of men playing baseball line the restaurant walls. "Joe Garagiola gets flattened as Carl Furillo scores," reads the caption on one.
In the restaurant lobby, a baseball treasure hangs in a glass frame with a caption reading: On September 24, 1957, this home plate was used for the last time at Ebbets Field. Brooklyn won, 2-0, over the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was a five-hit shutout for Dodger pitcher Danny McDevitt. Final run was scored by Gino Cimoli, driven in by Gil Hodges."
And, "The baseball business." Dodgertown is the most elaborate facility of its kind in the major leagues, and certainly much of its uniqueness derives from what it offers the players, on and off the field. There are two basketball courts, an Olympic-sized pool, six tennis courts (four lighted), two shuffleboard courts and nightly flicks at a movie theater, as well as a darkroom and a studio from which the Dodger radio network broadcasts a nightly three-hour call-in show.
For strictly baseball purposes, there are 2½ practice fields, eight batting cages, four pitcher's mounds, a sliding pit and 5,000-seat Holman Stadium, where the Dodgers play spring games and the Class A Vero Beach Dodgers play their home schedule.
There's also an area right outside the home clubhouse where the pitchers practice control. It's called The Strings because of the pieces of twine tied together to frame the shape of the strike zone at each of the four home plates. Rickey would be right at home here, because it was he who had The Strings set up many years ago, and he spent most of his outdoor working time at Dodgertown in this area. "When it comes to pitching," he used to say, "I know my onions."
When it came to training camps, he knew 'em, too. One day late in 1947, the season in which Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, a prominent Vero Beach businessman named Bud Holman, for whom the Dodgertown stadium would later be named, suggested to Rickey that the Dodgers transfer spring training operations from Pensacola to a disused Naval training base 500 miles away at Vero Beach. During World War II the 80-acre base had served as a center for training divebomber pilots to fly night missions; they' made endless strafing and bombing runs over nearby Blue Cypress Lake. After the war the U.S. government deeded the facility to the city of Vero Beach.
Red Barber, the Dodgers' radio announcer in those days, recalls that Rickey had already used the U.S. Naval Air Station at Pensacola as a "minor league factory" and that that experience certainly kindled his interest in Vero Beach. "Mister Rickey was always ahead of the parade," Barber says. "A very brilliant man."
Rickey dispatched one of his rising young organizational lights, Buzzie Bavasi, to evaluate the Vero Beach facility. Stepping off the train, Bavasi was stunned: "I thought, 'Oh, my goodness!' It was a town of about 4,000 people. I couldn't understand why Mister Rickey wanted to come down here. Then we went out to the base. It was rather dilapidated, and it was abandoned. Windows were broken. Weeds were all over the place. But it was all flatland, and you could see the possibilities. There were 18 apartments, single-story, one-, two- and three-bedroom, on a site adjacent to the base, and I thought, 'Those could be good for our staff.' "
That evening, in Holman's tow, Bavasi met the town fathers, who asked for $20,000 a year in rent. The Dodgers were scratching financially in those days, and Bavasi countered with an offer of "a dollar a year for 20 years." Holman had envisioned the Dodgers as a lure for tourism. Bavasi pointed out that 13 sports-writers traveled with the Dodgers and "they will have a Vero Beach dateline every day." After considerable dickering, town officials finally agreed: a dollar a year for 20 years. The tab for the apartments, which the Dodgers would rent for front-office people, was set at $75 a month for a one-bedroom, $100 for a two-bedroom and $125 for a three-bedroom.
In his three years at Vero, Rickey would make an indelible mark on spring training. By 1949 he not only had all his players in one spring training camp, unheard of at the time, but he also had them organized on the field like Marine recruits at Parris Island.
A total of 581 baseball players passed through Dodgertown in 1948, of which 477 were minor-leaguers: 61 catchers, 206 pitchers, 96 infielders, 28 first basemen and 86 outfielders. During that first spring the Dodgers themselves and the Triple-A Montreal Royals, as well as 38 free agents, stopped by briefly on their way back from training in the Dominican Republic. Just about everyone except Manager Leo Durocher and his wife, actress Laraine Day, stayed in two large barracks. Leo reported that Laraine could not abide the wire coat hangers, so they moved into a hotel that had wooden ones.
In those early years Rickey, the silver-tongued orator, began each day with a lecture on the fundamentals of the game. Actor Chuck Connors, then a minor league first baseman, recalls Rickey talking one morning about how to take a lead off first base. "Not the break," Connors recalls, "just the lead. He could hold you spellbound. Articulate, poetic, brilliant, compelling."
On the field there were so many players running around that each one not only wore a number, but the numbers were of different colors—orange, maroon, yellow, purple, black, green, blue, brown, white and red—so one No. 46 could be distinguished from another. Players rotated from one skill area to the next: bunting, executing run-downs, sliding, hitting, stealing. "Every half-hour they'd blow a whistle and you'd change," says Guy Wellman, a minor-leaguer then and now a scout for the Dodgers. The managers were easily discernible. "We thought that was pretty funny. All the managers ran around in white satin uniforms," Wellman says.
And there, presiding at The Strings, wearing a bow tie and a felt hat, holding a cigar and dictating notes ceaselessly to his secretary, was Rickey. He really did know his onions. One after another, pitchers came to perform for him. Al Campanis, now the Dodger general manager, then a minor league instructor, recalls Rickey watching a different pitcher at The Strings every 15 minutes. He called every player "young man."
"This young man's fastball," Rickey would say as his secretary scribbled furiously, "moves on a northeast axis. He has excellent rotation. His curve ball has good deflection in a straight downward rotation, and he has passed the aptitude test with flying colors. This young man will be pitching in the big leagues in two years."
Wellman, a catcher, used to work with the pitchers at The Strings, and he recalls Rickey setting a pith helmet on the plate and offering about $5 to anyone who could hit it with a changeup. "To see if a pitcher could keep the change down," Wellman says. "He was trying to get them to keep it low. That's the only way a change is effective, down low."
Rickey may have been baseball's all-time champion of marriage and drinking's alltime enemy. "Are you nervous, young man?" he asked a young pitcher one day.
"A little, Mister Rickey," said the lad.
"Do you drink?"
"Do you have a girl friend?"
"Yes, Mister Rickey."
Then, gruffly, "Do you love her?"
"Why don't you marry her?"
Invariably the reason for continued bachelorhood was a lack of funds. So more than once, Campanis says, Rickey would give a young player $500 to get hitched.
Sometimes it was as if Rickey were putting those kids on a couch. "Is there a lot of love in your home?" he once asked a young Tommy Lasorda, while Lasorda was pitching before Rickey in practice. Lasorda was being sent to the International League. And then, "Does your father drink? Does your mother?" After the workout, and after answering a series of what he considered—and still considers—bewildering questions, Lasorda said to Rickey, "From what you've seen, do you think I can pitch successfully in the International League?"
"If you don't, I will be up there to investigate," Rickey said.
For a young catcher like Campanella, who had spent most of his career in the Negro leagues, the Dodgertown facilities and Rickey's emphasis on fundamentals were exhilarating. "I'd never seen anything like this," he says. "I never knew what a sliding pit was. To learn how to slide? Batting cages to hit a ball off a batting tee? Never did see one before. This was the first time I'd ever hit against a pitching machine. I was getting grounded in the basics that the Dodgers always practiced—of throwing the ball to the right base, of learning how to take a lead off first. And there were exercises before you started every day. This was a new challenge to me. This helped me to develop into the player I became."
It was no wonder the Dodgers became known for producing the most fundamentally sound players in the game. Talent varied, of course, but insofar as they could, the players in the Dodger system, from the parent team to the lowest club in the organization, executed in the same way. They all learned together at the same school.
"Dodgertown was like an automobile plant," says Bavasi, now general manager of the California Angels, "only it was designed to make and develop players. It also developed managers: Walt Alston, Dick Williams, Preston Gomez, Tommy Lasorda, Bobby Cox, Don Zimmer, Clyde King, Bobby Bragan, Gene Mauch, Sparky Anderson, Billy Hunter, Gil Hodges, Danny Ozark, Roger Craig, Maury Wills, Frank Howard, Eddie Stanky, Jeff Torborg...."
Besides teaching fundamentals, Dodgertown gave coaches a chance to evaluate all the talent in the system, and to determine which players to sell off as excess. Toward the end of camp the staff would meet every night after dinner, often until well past midnight, moving players around. "They talked about the potential of each ballplayer and where he could play," Alston, a minor league manager then, recalls.
"In those early years we would sell enough ballplayers each spring to make ends meet at Dodgertown," says Bavasi, who served as the Dodgers' general manager from 1951 to 1968.
It was Rickey who said, "Luck is the residue of design," and at Dodgertown nothing has been done except by design. The residue, accumulated over the last 35 years, adds up to these ineluctable facts: The Dodgers have won more pennants (13) and more World Series (5) than any other team in the National League.
The design shaped by Rickey at Vero extended far beyond the ABCs of pitching and hitting. "Mister Rickey felt that players should know each other like they know their families," Bavasi says, "that they should get to know each other's habits, each other's strengths and weaknesses. He felt if they knew these things, they could play better together."
Thus, a communal life-style emerged at Dodgertown, and with it a body of lore unique among American sports franchises. In 1951 Pitcher Johnny Podres was standing around during his first day in camp when suddenly a meeting-room door burst open and 600 players charged past him onto the field. "They come flyin' out of there," Podres recalls. "I said to myself, 'How the hell am I ever going to make the big leagues?' "
Until the mid-1960s, when a good many players were earning enough money to rent housing off base, most of the major-leaguers lived in those two big barracks, shared the latrines and ate en masse in a mess hall that was also a Navy leftover. The chow line used to snake out the door and stretch across the street. Players ate off steel trays, Campanella recalls. TAKE ALL YOU WANT, BUT EAT ALL YOU TAKE, cautioned a sign on the mess-hall walls.
After dinner, says Don Drysdale, many of the players gathered in the main lobby of one of the barracks around a Baldwin piano and two large oak tables and talked baseball. Pinball machines snapped, a jukebox played. Willie Davis has vivid recollections of Alston and Maury Wills, two mean sticks, playing pool in an adjoining room. A huge copper bowl filled with oranges sat on the floor. The oranges were among the few that escaped Beansie Kunz, an old man whose sole job was to squeeze oranges and grapefruit for the players. The juice was set out all over the camp in giant drums and Lister bags, and on hot days the air above the drums shimmered like that above oases.
The wooden barracks could be stifling on a hot day, frigid at night. When the temperature plunged, players slept under their mattresses or in their overcoats. "You had to get out of bed and walk down the hall to the latrine," Lasorda says. "The floor was cold. You wouldn't want to go because it was so cold." Manager Charlie Dressen once bought 13 electric floor heaters, and on cold nights fuses popped like flashbulbs. Men stumbled about in the dark, stubbing their toes and cussing.
Podres can still hear the rain leaking into the barracks: "They put the big garbage cans in there when it rained." When it was dry the barracks were potential tinderboxes. One evening the fuses blew during a violent electrical storm, and, fearing lightning would turn the barracks into cinders, Minor League Director Fresco Thompson bellowed to staffer Bill DeLury, "Make sure everyone's down in the lobby!" DeLury looked up the staircase to the second floor and saw, reflected on the wall, a brilliant orange flame. He dashed up the stairs and swept into the glowing room. A mound of paper was blazing in the sink, flames lapping up the walls, and there was "one of our phenoms," DeLury says, lying back with his legs crossed and reading a newspaper by the light of his fire.
The hour of curfew, midnight for major leaguers, somewhat earlier for minor leaguers, caused another type of hot time at Dodgertown. Scouts and instructors, enforcers of the curfew, raced madly through the dark. "It was like an escape from Alcatraz," says Drysdale. "You'd look out the window, and there were flashlights shining and coaches yelling 'Stop! Stop! I know who you are!' They'd find guys hiding, even in orange trees. It was unbelievable."
Then there was the afternoon when Drysdale, stopping at the drawbridge over Indian River, saw a man standing up in a rowboat. He was holding out his jacket like a matador brandishing a cape. As the boat drifted past, Drysdale saw that the man was Podres. He yelled to him, "Hey, John, meet us at the Tahitian!" When Podres walked into the bar a while later, Drysdale asked what he'd been doing.
"What the hell do you think I was doing?" said Podres. "I sheared a pin in the engine, and I was making a sail trying to get back!"
Podres was one of many Dodger-townsmen who fished the river and the ocean, but the best fish story of all happened right at camp. In 1953 O'Malley stocked the heart-shaped pond 250 feet off third base at Holman Stadium with largemouth bass. In years of fishing the pond for a certain large bass Wills had hooked his prey more than once but always lost it. One afternoon, after playing the first few innings of an exhibition game, Wills fetched his pole from the clubhouse and returned to the pond. Behind him, the game went on.
He was casting with live perch as bait when the beast struck. Wills was in a fight. The bass broke water. One fan, seeing Wills battling the fish, left the stands and went to the pond to watch him. Soon other fans joined him along the shore. They urged Wills on with loud cries. "Give him a little line!" one cried.
"Keep the rod up, Maury!" yelled another.
"Don't rush him!" someone called. "Keep the line tight!"
Minutes later, to rousing cheers, Wills banked an eight-pound largemouth. "I felt like the Old Man and the Sea," says Wills.
"The camaraderie we had was an awful lot of fun," Drysdale says. "You got to know everybody's little mannerisms. When I first went there, they made me feel like I'd been around for 10 years. The way they helped me, I felt I belonged."
As Rickey intended it, Dodgertown became a baseball camp in which the players mixed and fed each other baseball, where the minor-leaguers could see how the big-leaguers played, acted, lived, behaved. A young player could develop by osmosis.
Much has changed at Dodgertown during the last 10 years, since they tore down both sets of barracks and more big-leaguers began to move off base. But even today's young players sense, as Drysdale once did, a feeling of togetherness in the camp. "That's the first thing I noticed," says Outfielder Mike Marshall, 23. "They try to make you feel a part. When I first came here I was 19 years old, in A ball, and I felt like I was a Dodger. You get with these guys and it makes you think, 'I don't want to be anywhere else but the major leagues.' "
This is yet more residue from the original design. "The best ballplayer is the hungry ballplayer," Rickey used to say. No one knows better than Wills how keen that hunger can be. Of the original two barracks, one was for Dodgers and high minor-leaguers, generally two to a room; the other was for the rest of the players in the organization, who lived three or four to a room. During Wills's 8½ years in the minors, he was never more than Pitcher Joe Black's visitor in the big league quarters. "I used to go over and sit on his bed while he wrote letters," Wills recalls. "Just looking around—feeling the aura of being in those barracks—was a thrill. It gave me something to shoot for."
In those days—the mid-'50s—Vero Beach was a small Southern town whose racial attitudes mirrored those of the region. Some observers have suggested that Rickey's decision to found Dodgertown was based in part on his desire to fully integrate the game. Robinson was already on the Dodgers, and Campanella and Pitcher Don Newcombe were ready to join the team. The idea of Dodgertown as a multiracial enclave, where black and white players could eat, train and sleep in one place, certainly had its appeal.
The conditions were explosive, and in 1948 they nearly blew up in Rickey's face. Newcombe had a confrontation with an opposing player, a white man, after a game in Vero Beach, and white fans descended from the stands to challenge Newk. "Here was a nigger going to fight a white man in Vero Beach in 1948," Newcombe recalls. "One man tore a picket off a fence and yelled, 'Kill that nigger! Kill that nigger!' They were going to lynch me." Newcombe escaped unscathed—physically, that is—but in the middle of that night Rickey had a meeting with the mayor and the chief of police. In an attempt to minimize the possibility of further conflict, Rickey asked Newcombe, Robinson and Campanella to stay on the base for the rest of spring training.
His memory of life at Dodgertown, a prison for him, still troubles Newcombe when he visits the place. "It's haunting, it really is," he says. "It was a lousy cracker town at the time. It's changed since then. That's what to me makes America great. I've lived to see it change."
Change came slowly to Vero, as it did elsewhere in the South. Tommy Davis recalls Holman Stadium's washrooms being integrated in 1964, and he also remembers urging reluctant black patrons to move from seats in rightfield to better ones in previously all-white sections behind home plate. "We almost had to push them," he says, " 'Get up! Everything's O.K. now.' " It was not until the mid-1960s that the town's stores and theater served blacks.
O'Malley, meanwhile, tried to accommodate his black players as best he could. The golf course came in '66, and when Outfielder Lou Johnson was evicted from a laundromat one year, O'Malley had washers and driers installed at Dodgertown.
Over the years O'Malley added this touch and that, and by the time he died 3½ years ago, he had made Dodgertown a garden spot. Nine royal palms stand just inside the grassy bank that delineates the outfield boundary of Holman Stadium, and a 120-foot-high dark green stand of Australian pines serves as a backdrop for the hitters. There are banyan trees and kumquat trees and even a flowering African orchid tree outside the mess...er, dining hall.
What Rickey originally conceived, the idea of a baseball college, O'Malley carried out and improved on. "We have fulfilled Mister Rickey's dream," Campanis says.
And then some. Several years after Drysdale retired, he visited O'Malley in his office in Los Angeles. "Boy, you retired too soon," O'Malley told him. "We've got Dodgertown all fixed up."
"I hear it's very nice," Drysdale said. "But we had an awful lot of fun in the old barracks. You could tell stories about those things for days and days. I understand it's a country club now."
"That's what I'm afraid of," O'Malley said. "When you really stop and think about it, those old barracks weren't so bad after all, were they?"