The book: “The Last Innocents: The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers”
The author: Michael Leahy
The vital statistics: HarperCollins Publishers, 496 pages, $26.99. To be released May 10
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com, at the publishers’ website
The pitch: Maury Wills, Wes Parker, Tommy Davis, Sandy Koufax, Jeff Torborg, Dick Tracewski, Lou Johnson, Al Ferrara, Joe Moeller, Ron Fairly, Claude Osteen …
They really weren’t innocent bystanders.
They happened to be mature enough in age to be playing baseball in Los Angeles, for the star-studded and workman-like Dodgers, in the 1960s, when the land around the Ravine was still shifting.
They reflected the cross pollination of race, religion, class – while winning and losing in a sport that many still considered the national past time — pre-Super Bowl, remember.
The beauty of this 50-year retrospective is that as a group most are still around to talk about it, honestly, putting their trust in a Washington Post writer who started this innocently enough in 2009 when he was tracking down former DC native Wills to catch up with him about his exclusion from the Hall of Fame which was, and continues to be, a gross oversight.
One interview led to a story in the Post Magazine, and a book was organically created when Michael Leahy talked to more and more of Wills’ teammates from that era, particular the introspective Parker, then Tracewski, then Davis …
We are fortunate Leahy has a personal connection to this subject.
Growing up in Northridge, he admits in the acknowledgements that his passion was “ignited long before I had a driver’s license,” and his dad and neighborhood friends would take him to Dodger Stadium – including the night to witness Koufax’s perfect game in 1966 from Aisle 27, Row S of the fourth deck, with enough of an imprint that he can reflect on some of the key plays of that game from his own perspective, things seared into his memory that may make no sense to others, but it’s the power of that memory that comes alive again.
He also knew first-hand the impact of Vin Scully’s voice, who, “at thirty-four in 1962, Scully possessed the command of someone twenty years his senior. .. (he) had the wit and a keen eye to complement a melodious voice devoid of any trace of an eastern accent, his speech and style an amalgam of laidback folksy and eloquently descriptive.” He was perfect man for the job when the O’Malley family moved the team from Brooklyn and needed to attract new fans, because “the sound of Vin Scully on their radios was ubiquitous. To make that first trip to Dodger Stadium for the new Californians was akin to embarking on an obligatory family pilgrimage to Disneyland.”
Those bigger-than-life players for Southern California kids growing up in that era can now appear as elder statesmen, giving us the perspective as we have now as adults to realize just what many were going through personally and professionally.
Who knew that someone like Lou Johnson, the most outwardly engaging player and person on that team, was enraged about the treatment of blacks in America at this time – particularly things that happened to him.
“The first thing to know about Lou Johnson,” Leahy writes on page 248, “was that he took no shit. … The second thing to know about Lou Johnson was that he was hugely liked by other ballplayers, black and white. That he didn’t let anybody mess with his dignity was only part of the reason … he was privately seething, at white people especially.”
After he was traded to the Cubs in 1967, Johnson reconnected with fellow Louisville native Muhammad Ali and became even more vocally anti-establishment in the civil rights movement. What if that trade never happened?
Even Koufax consented to a rare interview, at first just to talk about Wills, but also adding the perspective of the Hall of Fame superstar from that era and how he fit in with his teammates.
Labor issues and war protests were heating up amidst a period of social unrest, political assassinations, and Marvin Miller’s union was just getting its feet planted.
Still, there is the humanized story of Wills begging Dodgers GM Al Campanis for a $100,000 contract in 1972. Campanis was stuck on $97,000. Wills just wanted to be respected for what he had done, and rewarded with that $100,000 figure – offering to immediately give Campanis back $3,000.
“Take it or go home,” Campanis said, adding that Walter O’Malley also was against the six-figure number.
“Wills excused himself to step into the hallway of the Dodgers executive offices,” Leahy writes. “He was crying. He had stood up to the executives so resolutely in recent years that it was strange being back in this place where he capitulated so often as a younger man. Now, as then, he decided he had no choice. ‘I’ll sign it,’ he said to Campanis.
Parker, a player rep at the time, was also not fond of being sucked into “professional martyrdom.” He would quietly retire from the game, telling Leahy: “I needed baseball more than I loved it.”
Think again about the Dodgers’ run from ’62 to ’72, which Leahy puts his primary focus for this project. With all that talent, only one 100-win season, in ’62, and they lost the NL playoff to the Giants.
A World Series win in ’63 and ’65. A World Series loss in ’66. With little hitting, plenty of pitching, and a renewed interest in a team that less than a decade earlier were beloved 3,000 miles away.
Then “the winning was over,” as Leahy pointed out to start Chapter 8, noting that, aside from relief pitcher Bob Miller, no member of that 1966 NL championship team would ever go back to win a World Series for the rest of their careers.
There is some sad reality that comes out on these pages, but also the realism of that time that needs to be documented – with Roy Gleason having to leave the team and serve time in Vietnam, how players like Don Drysdale and Torborg felt a connection to Robert Kennedy and how they reacted to his assassination in the middle of the ’68 season. Torborg’s account is particularly haunting.
It is a lengthy read, but hardly a heavy one, with plenty of foundation and prose and content to carry it from chapter to chapter without any sense of getting dragged down by what might have kept some of these Dodgers less than happy at the time. The enlightenment is appreciated.
If Roger Kahn can hang much of his literary success on the writing of “The Boys of Summer” about the 1950s Dodgers, then Leahy seems to take this to the next time period, letting the participants who were Los Angeles entertainers/residents/World Champions reflect in brutal truths about their connection to the O’Malley tradition.