The book: “The 50 Greatest Dodgers Games of All Time”
The author: J.P. Hoornstra
The vital statistics: Riverdale Ave. Books, $19.99, 351 pages (released June, 2015)
Find it: At Amazon.com, at the publishers’ website
The pitch: The Dodgers’ 2016 opener in San Diego has our mind churning.
The greatest game that the Dodgers ever had to start a season?
Going by this criteria, compiled by our Los Angeles News Group longtime Dodgers (and Angels) writer, it’s pretty easy call: The first game of the 1947 season, on April 15, which was Jackie Robinson’s first big-league game.
Then there’s the April 21, 1890 season opener – and the franchise’s first win as a National League team, as the Brooklyn Bridegrooms knocked off the Boston Beaneaters, 7-6, before an estimated 1,500 fans at the South End Grounds in Boston.
On the team’s all-time list of “greatest” contests, that 1890 game ranks No. 39, and the 1947 game is only second-best.
We’re not about to give it away because a) it’s probably too obvious anyway and b) if you can’t think of it, that’s improbable. Although not impossible.
Although Hoornstra’s research project came out in the summer of ’15 – too late for our annual review list from that April – we’ve bent the rules a bit because this has become a must-have reference guide. Along with the declaration: Why wasn’t this done before?
As a starting point, Hoornstra narrowed the field to just 125 seasons, going back to that memorable 1890 season. So, that’s roughly 10,000 candidates.
Can’t get much easier.
What makes this work is that it’s not just a simple review of each game and why it was important, but also having it put into some historical context, and not relying on the fact that it’s only a “great” game because something “great” happened to the Dodgers on that day.
Take Game No. 50, for example: It wasn’t all that long ago, on Oct. 5, 2001.
An 11-10 win in San Francisco came in the top of the ninth when Marquis Grissom grounded out to third, allowing Jeff Reboulet to score the go-ahead. Then Jeff Shaw set the Giants down in the bottom of the ninth to save it at about 12:30 in the morning, a nine-inning game that lasted a MLB record four hours, 27 minutes.
That alone makes it interesting, but what else? Barry Bonds hit his 71st and 72nd home runs of the season, both off Chan Ho Park, to establish a single-season record (he later his No. 73 before the season ended). Yet, this particular Dodgers win knocked the Giants out of playoff contention in a nationally televised game.
Like that one, half of Hoornstra’s 50 games occurred in October, when the stakes are much higher. But one that didn’t make it was a suggestion from Don Newcombe. He thought a 1-0 win by the Yankees over the Dodgers in Game 1 of the 1949 World Series was pretty cool. Newcombe and Allie Reynolds each threw a complete game, and Newcombe lost by giving up a game-winning homer to Tommy Henrich to lead off the bottom of the ninth. That also happened to be Newcombe’s Rookie of the Year season, and this was his first post-season start.
Look at it this way: The games that most obviously belong here, that’s where the rankings make it most intriguing. The games that are not so obvious make it more alluring.
We can’t really justify that a Dodgers-Cardinals contest on June 4, 1972 meant anything. But then, the Old-Timers Day game before it did — the Dodgers finally retired the numbers of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Sandy Koufax. It’s No. 49 on this list.
Did a Dodgers game on June 13, 1973 have any great meaning? Yes, actually. It’s the first one where Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Ron Cey and Bill Russell all played together (a 16-3 loss in Philadelpha). That seminal moment, however didn’t make it in the book.
Instead, at No. 32, there’s Boston Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth, on Oct. 9, 1916, throwing all 14 innings of a 1-0 win over the Brooklyn Robins (pre-Dodgers) in Game 2 of the World Series. It wasn’t even played at Fenway Park – the place just a few years old was deemed too small to handle such crowd demand.
The most recent entry was June 18, 2014 – one where you almost had to be at Dodger Stadium to see it since it was the first year of the team’s SportsNet LA channel. Clayton Kershaw can give you a few updates. It is one of only six games from the 21st Century that was listed.
The Kershaw game also caused a little problem for Hoornstra, as he tell us. To fit it in, he had to knock another game out. (It ended up being Nolan Ryan’s record-setting no-hitter against the Dodgers in September, 1981).
Of all the hours and late nights he spent combing online through newspaper archives and trips to the downtown library for more information, it added up to more than a year and a half on the project. Picking the top 50 took another month or two of debate.
For those interested in more behind each game, Hoornstra includes more than 40 pages of sources and references (including some of his own game stories) which were condensed to the essence of each game.
This task may seem to be a bit thankless, but we have to thank J.P. and his passion behind the project to get it done.