With Tuesday’s arrival in bookstores of “The Last Innocents: The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers,” writer Michael Leahy circles back to a group of players from that roster to find out, 50 years later, how they survived that decade of upheaval, surrounded by World Series titles and adjustments from the franchise still fresh off its move from Brooklyn.
We reviewed the book as one of our favorites during the April series — not just for the subject matter but the way it is so eloquently written and organized.
Leahy, the former Washington Post political writer who has covered everything from politics to sports, is coming to Southern California as part of his book tour, arriving at the Burbank Library’s Buena Vista Branch on Thursday, May 12 at 7 p.m. along with former Dodgers first baseman Wes Parker.
Prior to his arrival, the 63-year-old Northridge native and Yale grad currently living in Fairfax County, Virginia, often included in the Best American Sportswriting annual anthologies, graciously submitted answers to our Q&A about the process of how the book came about and what he got out of it:
Q: In writing this book, did you feel that growing up in Northridge with a fan’s appreciation of the team and franchise helped you more than got in your way of an objective approach to documenting how that era played out?
A: When it comes to the book, growing up where I did was an enormous advantage. I probably saw 20 to 25 games a year at Dodger Stadium as a kid. Familiarity and intimacy are always huge benefits for a writer.
For instance, I find it difficult (bordering on impossible) to imagine how I would have written the scene about Koufax’s perfect game had I not been in the Stadium to see it – at the very least, something powerfully visceral would have been lost. There are moments from that night, frozen on my mind’s eye at age 12, which I would’ve had no chance of evoking had I not been sitting with my hosts (the Allen family, who are characters in the scene) in Aisle 27, Row S of the reserve level.
And I keenly remember what it was like, a year earlier, to make that drive with my father from Northridge to Dodger Stadium for the first time, the sheer wonder of it – ascending that incline on Stadium Way, glimpsing the ballpark and the glowing globes with the baseball stitching in the parking lot, then sitting in the high seats and watching the sunset in the distant hills. It was all paradise for a kid whose family had moved to Los Angeles a short while earlier. The memories of those images have served as reminders for me of the Dodgers’ profound hold on millions of Los Angelenos during the Sixties. We were, in many unadmitted ways, a citizenry without a hub at the time, and the Dodgers (along with some other Los Angeles teams and institutions) served to provide some modest sense of connection.
What a writer must avoid, of course, is romanticizing his subjects. A writer has a duty to reveal the truth about his subjects, no matter how disturbing that truth might be in moments, and to illuminate, as in the case of this book, what those realities tell us about individual players, the team’s management, the city and country in which they played, and their era. It’s always the same task in journalism really. It was much the same challenge for me in writing for The Washington Post about politics and about Michael Jordan’s playing comeback in Washington and later in my book about Jordan (in 2004).
When it came to writing The Last Innocents, I told players that I hoped to learn something utterly new about their careers and lives, something that would enable a reader at once to grasp the reality of their lives and better understand baseball in the era, the sport’s imperious executives, the Dodgers organization, and the Sixties. The players delivered; they were extraordinary subjects.
Q: Who were the Dodgers you connected most with in the ‘60s growing up? Or, before or after that period?
A: I suppose there were two players with whom I most connected. I taught myself to throw left-handed as a kid because of Koufax. I didn’t do it well, but that didn’t stop me from standing out there for hours in my cramped backyard in hot Northridge trying to imitate Koufax and his motion.
I’d lean toward the imaginary catcher the same way, touch my cap the same way, tug at my pretend jersey the same way, roll my shoulders before my windup the same way, lift my leg the same way, I was a real nut. I’d make these crazy sound effects for crowd noise – ahhhhhhhhhhhh – on those rare occasions I struck out a playmate. But what I couldn’t ever do was successfully imitate that Koufax cool, his unflappability. As a kid, you wondered: where the heck do you go to get that? Koufax seemed to have no flaws, no rough edges. He was perfection to us, a superhero. It took time, of course, to learn that actually he had his own set of rough edges and burdens. And the book explores much of that.
The other player was Maury Wills, who had broken Ty Cobb’s major league single-season stolen base record and was just right for the times: charismatic, electrifying on the field and the bases especially, astoundingly quick, and endlessly inventive. Kids in that era loved trying to steal bases in Little League. It was all because of Wills; he made the stolen base feel like a happy renegade’s defiant expression.
So Koufax and Wills were two luminous players for me. But I liked plenty of others as a kid. I really liked the Gold Glover Wes Parker. He played first base with an elegance that you couldn’t miss. Between pitches, he deftly smoothed the dirt around him with a light foot – it was like watching an artist readying his canvas. I admired Lou Johnson – he played in every moment like this was the most important thing he would ever do. As a spectator, you felt his urgency. And when he homered, he regularly clapped running around the bases. You realized you were watching a transitional player, someone perfectly suited for the Sixties.
In retrospect, each of these players served as a reminder that baseball might be the best of all sports for any aspiring writer/journalist/observer to study. That’s not to claim that it’s usually the most heart-stopping. But there’s enough time in the pauses to puzzle and marvel over the eccentricities, the personalities and the surroundings, to ponder what it all means. And you get to eat a hot dog there without anybody guilting you out – in fact, people actually encourage you to have two. Like I said, Paradise.
Q: Do you still follow the team from Washington D.C. and beyond?
A: Sure. I’m a fan besides everything else. And I like swapping stories with people I meet. Most people in and around Washington are from somewhere else. So I sometimes wear one of my Dodger T-shirts to the gym and wait for someone to say, “You from L.A.?” And it goes from there.
I interrupt this answer to let you know that Ted Cruz, who has badly lost to Donald Trump in the Indiana primary as I’m writing this, has officially suspended his presidential campaign. Bernie Sanders has won in Indiana and gets to play another day. And the Dodgers have beaten the Rays, 10-5. This is what the life is like here for the denizens. You oscillate between watching political knife-fights and, during this time of year, catching up on baseball scores.
Which reminds me: One of the hardest things, many years ago, about leaving L.A. for a job across the country was accepting that it meant my wife, son, and I wouldn’t be able to go to any Dodger games for the foreseeable future. Our very last moments in Los Angeles were spent on a weekday afternoon in an otherwise empty Dodger Stadium, silently looking out on the field (the nice attendants permitted us just to sit there for what was probably a good half-hour at least). It made us feel a little better. We vowed to each other we’d be back often. Then we got into the car and started driving.
(Note: Leahy’s father and several siblings still live in L.A., and his son, a musician, also lives in L.A.)
Q: How did you gain the trust of the players as you talked to them, starting with Maury Wills, and really get them to open up about all the things that they eventually did? Is there a feeling they had these stories bottled up over time and this was the right moment to let it out?
A: I think the second part of your question nails it. In many cases, the players had mulled over their stories for roughly a half-century. And they simply had arrived at the point where, aware in some cases of their mortality, they wanted the stories told.
I wrote a story for The Washington Post about Wills in 2009, a story that was largely premised on my belief that he unquestionably belongs in the Hall of Fame as someone who revolutionized the game and who was his team’s great offensive catalyst. The 2009 story was supposed to be a simple break for me from covering politics and writing about social problems here and there. But, after Wills and I concluded an interview that lasted for hours in an empty Dodger Stadium (I always looked for ways to do interviews with him at the empty Stadium), I began wondering about other possibilities. That first Wills interview (Maury and I ultimately sat down for more than 25 hours together) was, by turns, solemn, revelatory, painful and hilarious. In other words, it was the best kind of interview. We agreed to get together again, and soon other players followed. That’s how the book began.
Q: Since you (thankfully) brought up Vin Scully in the book and his influence at that point in time, can you expand a bit on how the power of his voice has endured all these years and if you feel connections to him from your past once you hear his voice?
A: Scully has been the most important Dodger during the team’s history in Los Angeles – more important than the O’Malleys, Koufax, Wills, Fernando, Kershaw, anybody. Forget for a moment about his immortal call of Koufax’s perfect game. Think of all the other days and nights during which you felt compelled to bring your transistor radio to the Stadium, as if his voice alone conferred legitimacy on the action, somehow making it theater. He has been the singular bard of the game. The score could be 13-2 in the eighth inning, and it could be 104 degrees in the Stadium, and Scully would hold you rapt with some story about a father and his kids sitting down the first base line doing something inane. He is the only man in the history of civilization who could make you want to listen to a baseball announcer doing a Farmer John hot dog ad. As Lou Johnson would say, Come on now.
Whenever I hear him, I think of my youth and its best times. And I know I’m not alone. He transports the multitudes. I don’t think there is any higher praise.
Q: What interview, aside maybe from Wills or Parker, surprised you most about what they had to say? Lou Johnson? Jeff Torborg?
A: Well, in addition to Wills and Parker, you absolutely chose the right players. Lou Johnson, in his brave and poignant discussions about the racism he encountered, was one. And the other was Torborg, who told me about meeting Robert Kennedy (who had come to meet Don Drysdale) and, a few days later, reacting along with his wife, Suzie, to RFK’s assassination. And you’re right in pointing to Parker, who was among the bravest of all my characters in talking about his largely horrific youth.
Q: Was there someone you wanted to contact for the book but either didn’t have the time or availability to make for you?
A: I would have loved to interview the late Walter Alston and learn more about his managerial methods and relationships with players, particularly Koufax, with whom his relationship was thoroughly professional, though never warm.
And let me flip the query upside down for a second to note that I am deeply grateful to Peter O’Malley for sitting down with me and answering every question I posed, no matter how difficult. We spoke at length about the famously contentious 1966 Koufax-Drysdale salary holdout and other issues relating to his late father’s ownership and stewardship, and general manager Buzzie Bavasi’s imperious style. Peter O’Malley couldn’t have been more forthcoming during our discussion.
Q: I made the comparison to “The Boys of Summer” in a review of your book and how this was kind of the natural progression, the team of the ’50s becoming the team of the ’60s with new faces and challenges. Did you happen to read that book and think about it as you were doing this project?
A: Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer” is a book for the ages. I can’t say that I really thought of his book in writing my own, but I am a huge admirer of Kahn and his impact on the literary world.
Q: Are there any lessons from the ’60s and diverse team chemistry or team ownership that could apply to the franchise today, or does 50 years ago kind of feel like 1,000 years ago compared to today’s business and structure?
A: Yes, there is one and only one lesson, I think – and it applies to team chemistry. You need a strong leader among the players to win – someone who is such a fierce competitor and relentlessly selfless worker that he commands the respect of even players whom he occasionally infuriates. The Dodgers of the Sixties had that player in Wills. You can’t win without someone like him.
Q: Was there anything else about the process of the book, something you learned but couldn’t get into the book, that’s worth telling about now?
A: I delved into everything I wanted, and my publisher thankfully gave me the space and time to do that. If there is anything that surprises me a bit it is the depth of gratitude that I feel toward the players. They couldn’t have been more giving subjects. I’ll never forget that.