Ask a Yankee fan what he loves about his team, and he might tell you that while they lose occasionally, they usually dominate. They are like the baseball version of America, who rebounded from Vietnam with a CIA win in Afghanistan, Cold War triumph, and lone superpower status above all previous conception. An upset of the Yankees is inevitably reversed in Bronx Bombers style.
The Dodgers? Well, that's a different story. There was a time, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when the club was the classiest in every way. There was a sense of Dodger Exceptionalism, but history is a bluff. Disappointment, disaster and downright incompetence have marked the Dodgers at various times. The sale of the team from the O'Malleys to News Corporation proved they were not infallible. Since the 1988 world championship, rivals have built beautiful stadiums, drawn as many fans, and been more successful.
Baseball in Brooklyn - whatever the incarnation - was actually pretty darn good in the 19th Century, but once the American League came along and baseball "modernized," it was as if all competence were stripped from the Brooklyns. In 1904 under manager Ned Hanlon, the club finished in sixth place with a 56-97 record. Oscar Jones and Jack Cronin toiled and toiled and toiled, in magnificent obscurity and failure. Surprisingly, their arms did not fall off, what with Jones pitching 337 innings, Cronin 307 innings. Both featured ERAs below 3.00, but with little or no support Jones lost 25 games with Cronin losing 23.
In 1916, the Dodgers won the pennant, but their reputation as a clown act and disaster movie was enhanced by a Spring Training incident. The airplane was a new innovation. Recently a record had been set when a baseball was dropped 504 feet from the top of the Washington Monument. Charles Ebbets decided to break that record with a stunt, having aviatrix Ruth Law fly over the field and drop a ball from a distance higher than the previous record. At first Wilbert Robinson was going to drop the sphere from the flying plane, but was advised not to due to ill health. He then endeavored to do something far more dangerous, which was to catch the ball, which would be spinning inconsistently towards Earth at high speed and could kill him.
The event took place, all gathered around, the plane flew above, the sphere fell, and indeed Robinson missed it! It hit him on the chest and immediately splattered all over the place. Robinson fell and looked at himself. He was covered in fluid.
"Jesus, I'm hit!" he exclaimed, as if he had taken German machine gun fire on the Somme. Then everybody noticed that his face mask and chest protector was covered not with blood and guts, but with grapefruit juice and pulp. Law had forgotten the baseball in her hotel room. At the last minute she brought a grapefruit instead. Everybody was rolling on the ground in laughter. Casey Stengel, who according to rumor had recently recovered from a serious case of venereal disease that sidelined him for a long period of time, claimed that the prank was his idea.
It was typical of the Dodgers (actually still the Robins) that in years in which they made it to the World Series, their most vivid memories of those seasons was of disaster, defeat or demoralization. Such was the case in the 1920 World Series, when Tris Speaker and Cleveland, having pulled away from Chicago late in the season when eight "Black Sox" players were banned for throwing the 1919 Series, out-classed Brooklyn in the Fall Classic. The lowlight for Brooklyn was the infamous unassisted triple-play completed by Bill Wambsganss. Otto Miller was stunned when tagged for the third out.
Another Dodger disaster was of course the 1941 World Series, when Mickey Owen's passed ball let Tommy Henrich make it to first base, followed by a killer Yankee rally. "I lost a lot of ballgames in some funny ways," said pitcher Hugh Casey, "but this is the first time I ever lost a game by striking out a man."
"Nowhere else in this broad, untidy universe, not in Bedlam or in Babel nor in the remotest psychopathic ward nor the sleaziest padded cell . . . could a man win a World Series game by striking out," wrote the great Red Smith.
The Titanic of all Dodger disaster movies was Ralph Branca's delivery of a high strike, tommyhawked by Bobby Thomson on a low line into the short left field bleachers, for a three-run home run to give the Giants a 5-4 win over Brooklyn in game three of the 1951 play-off. The following season, the Dodgers again got off to a big lead, but history appeared to be repeating itself when Brooklyn slumped and New York rallied again. "There'll be 100,000 suicides in Brooklyn" when the Giants win again, stated the lovely Leo Durocher. This time, the Dodgers stemmed the tide and won the pennant, but with Gil Hodges suddenly bucket-footing half-way to the third base dugout, striking out over and over in an 0-for-the-Series disaster, the Bums failed to beat the Yanks . . . again.
Los Angeles native Willie Davis was one of the best center fielders of his era. His glove greatness is slightly diminished because he had to compete with Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente for Gold Gloves, but Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale would choose Willie D. six days of the week and twice on Sunday. That is, any day but game two of the 1966 World Series. In game four at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, Davis made one of the greatest catches in World Series history, robbing Boog Powell of a homer with an over-the-fence nab. His catch, however, merely seemed to mock his previous efforts.
With Los Angeles trailing one game to none with Koufax on the mound in a shutout duel with 20-year old Jim Palmer in game two at Dodger Stadium, Davis lost two balls "in the fierce, smog-glazed sun," according to Roger Angell in The Summer Game, followed by "his first really unforgivable play - an angry little league heave into the Dodger dugout . . ." Overall, six Dodgers errors undid Koufax's usual brilliance, but he was charged with six runs (one earned) in a 6-0 Palmer shutout. Dodger fans "cheered bitterly every time Willie Davis caught the ball in between-inning warm-ups," wrote Angell, but Willie responded "with grace" to what The New Yorker wordsmith described as a post-game "prosecutorial cross-examination that would have done credit to Eichmann's prosecutors."
For years, the Dodgers almost always seemed to make the right moves. Their trades were shrewd, farm system plentiful, rookies brought up at just the right time. When free agency hit, the Yankees and other clubs spent wildly, often with bad results. The great A's were completely destroyed by the game's new economics. The Dodgers, despite great wealth, were judicious and the results usually were on-field success.
In the 1990s, the wheels started to come off the cart. After Rupert Murdoch and his millions took over, the club decided it was time to spend big. Having let the great Mike Piazza go instead of paying him, they decided to give temperamental pitcher Kevin Brown $105 million and a private plane. Brown had won 20 in Texas and pitched very well for San Diego, although he had not lifted the Padres to victory over the Yankees in the 1998 World Series. He was an effective, hard-throwing right-hander with a nasty, sinking inside fastball, but nobody was mistaking the guy for Christy Mathewson or Nolan Ryan. That did not stop Murdoch from giving Brown enough cash to buy a small country complete with personal harem. He was 18-9 in 1999, which was nice but not 27-9 (Koufax in 1966), 25-7 (Tom Seaver in 1969), 25-3 (Ron Guidry in 1978) or any of the really great years that might have justified his $105 million salary. The club finished below .500, Brown's career was curtailed by injury, and he and his prickly personality eventually slipped away from the scene. Hopefully he returned the private jet. Good riddance.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism