DODGERTOWN : It's Modern Now, but Many Recall the Days of Barracks, Pizzas, the Green Phantom and Seabiscuit the Cockroach

Times Staff Writer

When Los Angeles baseball writers first came to this town for spring training in 1958 they called it Zero Beach.

Their irreverence was excusable. Vero Beach was the smallest town in America serving as a spring training base for a major league baseball team. It still is, in fact, with about 17,000 souls.

"There wasn't much to do then," said Frank Finch, a former Times baseball writer who covered the Dodgers their first season away from Brooklyn.

There was even less for the players, club officials and press to do in the winter and spring of 1948 when the Dodgers, then based in Brooklyn, N.Y., first traineD on thE former Naval base that came to be known as Dodgertown.

In those early days, the population was closer to 3,000. There were no bright lights. There was one movie theater and little else. A few affluent visitors from the North lived here in the winter, mostly in big houses on the 25-mile-long barrier island that is part of what is now known as the Treasure Coast.

The town and the training camp were called a lot worse than Zero Beach in those days. Stories and jokes abound about the Spartan life the players led in the old barracks.

When Bobby Bragan got his first look at Dodgertown, he said: "Where are the barbed wire and dogs?"

Leo Durocher took his first look and cried, "Help!"

Although he came along much later, catcher John Roseboro caught the flavor of the place. "It's just six weeks in stir," he once said of spring training here.

The barracks were so crowded with minor league players in 1948 that they slept six to a room.

"They blew a whistle to wake us up," Danny Ozark, a former player and coach, recalled. "Dinner was at 5:30."

Wives of players and officials who got letters from Dodgertown swore the mail smelled musty.

Recreation was limited to badminton, horseshoes and fishing.

Eleven years later, not much had changed.

"There was nothing to do on the base," said broadcaster Vin Scully. "The players relied upon each other for fun. They sat around at night and talked baseball or shot pool. The camaraderie was incredible."

The two-story wooden barracks had no heat or air-conditioning. "The floors creaked, the plumbing was shot and the water often was rusty," Finch said.

The roof leaked and rain often poured into the upstairs rooms.

"The barracks were modern," The Times' Jim Murray once wrote. "They had running water, sometimes too much of it."

Coach Monty Basgall recalled: "You could hear Dixie Walker snore and Maury Wills play his banjo down the hall. The walls were virtually paper. You could hear everything anyone said."

The walls were so thin, in fact, that club officials held meetings in the clubhouse dressing rooms so that players wouldn't know if they were being shopped around the league.

Dodgertown to Murray was just another name for Andersonville. "I lived in Cellblock 7," he said.

He wondered why Sherman hadn't burned the barracks down and wrote, "I didn't know the Confederacy had a navy."

When he learned that the late Walter O'Malley had paid only $1 a year to lease the base, Murray wrote: "It's the worst case of rent gouging I ever heard of. At night you sit around and listen to the plumbing drip."

The Dodgers had a midnight curfew in those days, and some of the funniest Dodgertown stories are told about players trying to slip back into the barracks without being caught.

Late in the 1961 training season, pitchers Larry Sherry and Sandy Koufax left the base to get some pizza at Port San Lucie, about 30 miles from Vero Beach.

"We were ignoring the time," Sherry said the other day. "It was later than we thought and we missed the curfew."

They had just slipped into their room when Manager Walter Alston began pounding on the door.

"He really banged on it," Sherry said. "We didn't open the door quickly enough to suit him."

Alston was sore, Sherry said, because they had awakened him, but Koufax, listening to the story, disagreed. "Stan Williams' card game already had him up," he said.

The visit to the pizza parlor ultimately cost Sherry and Koufax about $10 a wedge, since Alston fined them, but it cost Alston more. He pounded the door so hard that he lost the diamond out of his 1959 World Series ring.

Johnny Podres once took off his shoes and tried to tiptoe into his room after curfew, only to find that his roommate, Al Ferrara, had locked him out.

Podres was caught another time when he, Duke Snider and Don Zimmer, riding in a Volkswagen, took a shortcut back to the base, drove along some railroad tracks and got stuck.

"Their excuse was they had gone to a drive-in movie," said Bob Hunter, a long-time L.A. baseball writer and columnist. "But three big guys in a Volkswagen? Nobody believed their story. They had gone to the dog races in West Palm Beach."

Fresco Thompson, then director of the Dodgers' minor league teams, went to great lengths to catch curfew breakers, Hunter said.

"Cars would drive into the orange groves next to the barracks late at night and players would slip out and run to their rooms. So Fresco decided to hide in the grove and catch them.

"One night he saw a man and woman drive up and climb into the back seat. Running to the car with a flashlight, he cried, 'I got you.' The man was a Los Angeles sports editor."

Thompson also chased a player across the roof of the barracks, Hunter said.

"The player jumped to the ground and got away. All the next day, Fresco checked with the medics to see if anyone turned up with a sprained ankle."

Not much escaped the vigilant Thompson.

Said Billy DeLury, traveling secretary: "An electrical storm blew out all our lights one night, and for about an hour and a half we all stood in the hallways waiting for the power to come back on. Fresco was standing in the lobby by a window when he saw a bright light in one of the players' rooms.

"He went to the room and found a young player trying to read a newspaper by a fire he had built in the sink."

Few players had enough money to rent cars in the early days, DeLury said, so the team ran a bus service into town at night.

"The last bus returned to camp at 11:45 and you'd always see players on the road walking back to beat the curfew," he said.

Scully was a rookie in camp in 1950. "I remember getting off the train and a young player who had been aboard said, 'Come with me.' He rented a car and drove so fast over a wooden bridge that bits of wood went flying. We drove to a hotel and the player rushed into the kitchen and sampled the soup. The player was Chuck Connors."

Scully's room, which was next door to the Western Union office where reporters filed their stories, had two metal cots. He had no regular roommate but virtually every night, he said, "I had someone stumbling into my room to sleep on the other cot. A constant parade of newspapermen went through that room."

Scully had not yet made the broadcast team that spring. "I was on a one-month option," he said. "If it hadn't worked out, they could have sent me back."

There was little to do on the base, he said, but he partly solved that problem. "I went with notebook and pencil to Branch Rickey's lectures every day," he said.

One night Scully walked into the main lobby of one of the barracks and saw a big crowd of players standing in a circle and cheering.

"I thought it was a crap game," he said. "But there was Branch Rickey Jr. and a player on the floor, arm wrestling."

Tom Lasorda was the butt of many practical jokes at Dodgertown. Once his room was emptied of everything, including drapes and furniture. The next night the room was filled with shredded paper. Another time, everything in his locker was painted green.

After Lasorda had been caught in the whirlpool one day by infielder Jim Lefebvre, a sign appeared on it that read: "The S.S. Lasorda."

Lasorda was not the only victim of the Green Phantom. One night, the practical joker removed the wheels from Walter O'Malley's golf cart.

Lefebvre later confessed to being the phantom and said that his assistant, the Shadow, was first baseman Wes Parker.

Cold weather is not uncommon on the central Florida coast in early spring. To keep warm, the inmates at Dodgertown often used the throw rugs from the bare floors as extra blankets.

Finch and Hunter recalled that once it was so cold that coach Chuck Dressen was dispatched to find some electric heaters.

"He drove south toward Miami, buying every one he could find," Finch said. "When he returned, everyone plugged them in at once and blew out all the fuses."

Cockroaches often invaded the barracks. "I got so fond of one I called him Seabiscuit," Finch said. "I chased him every spring with a rolled-up newspaper. Never did catch him."

Cockroaches and rusty plumbing aside, life, by all accounts, was more fun at Dodgertown in those days than it is today.

"Nobody talked about money or drugs then, just baseball," Finch said. "It was fun."

Former pitcher Ralph Branca once said: "The primitive conditions in the barracks made the players closer."

Basgall said: "It was crude, but I think the guys had a lot of fun then. Everyone lived on the base."

Today, many of the wealthy young athletes live in apartments or condominiums with their families. They practice for a couple of hours and disappear.

"It was a phenomenal place," Scully said. "There were 26 farm teams and 600 or 700 players in camp my first year. There was barbershop singing, and everyone had stories to spin. It was not anything like it is today."

Today, the Dodgertown Sports and Conference Center is a first-class resort with 90 modern villas, six tennis courts, an Olympic-size swimming pool, three baseball practice fields, a 6,000-seat stadium, 12 meeting rooms named after former Dodger stars, two golf courses covering 27 holes, a theater that seats 150, medical department, basketball court, lounge, pressroom, eight batting cages, four practice pitching mounds, recreation room and a dining hall that seats 180.

It has been the only privately owned training facility in the major leagues since Walter O'Malley leased the former Navy air base from the city of Vero Beach in 1948. The Dodgers had previously trained at Daytona Beach, Sanford and Pensacola in Florida.

The Dodgers had more black players than other clubs then, and O'Malley's mixed team had problems with Florida's segregation laws. The team faced problems in Vero Beach at first, too.

"The black players had no place to go," Scully said. During spring training, in fact, the black players virtually disappeared at night. They often could not get served meals in town. Neither were they allowed to play golf on the local courses.

In 1955, O'Malley purchased 110 additional acres of land and built his own 9-hole course. In 1972, he added an 18-hole course, the Dodger Pines Country Club, on 200 more acres. On that course, legend has it, O'Malley, a 36-handicapper at the Los Angeles Country Club, widened the fairways where his slices were apt to land. He was virtually unbeatable on his own grounds.

The old barracks near the entrance to the camp were torn down in the mid-1970s.

"They had seen better days," said Charlie Blaney, who has been Dodgertown's managing director for 12 years.

Today, the Dodgers own 450 acres here, have 210 to 250 employees and pay $140,000 a year in property taxes. Their annual payroll is $1.7 million.

"The Dodger organization is both an attraction and an industry," said J.B. Norton, executive director of the Vero Beach Chamber of Commerce. "I wouldn't know how to act without them. It's a big business for us. They dump a good-size payroll into the community."

Norton will not put a dollar value on the business. "All I know is, March is the largest month for tourism," he said. "We have a 60,000 population in the winter and 17,000 the rest of the year.

"I don't know how much of that can be contributed to the Dodgers. People know the Dodgers train here and every game is sold out. I know the Dodgers spend a substantial amount of money here."

The team is worth a lot more than it spends, of course. The Vero Beach dateline appears in all the major newspapers and magazines, including the Wall Street Journal and Sports Illustrated. "How can we pay for that publicity?" Norton asked.

The two golf courses and 70 acres of Indian River grapefruit, which the Dodgers market themselves, make the team an industry here. In addition, during the 10 1/2 months the Dodgers aren't here, Dodgertown becomes a busy conference center.

"It is a wonderful place for a conference," said Walter Green, chairman of Harrison Conference Services, which runs that part of the business.

Harrison took over management of the facility for business conferences in 1976. "We manage the facility year-round," he said. "The Dodgers determine what service they want."

Conferences are a profitable business for the Dodgers. "We stay busy," Green said. "The Dodger name and the team's reputation as a well-managed operation in the sports industry make Dodgertown an appealing place for a conference. There is a retreat-like feeling here."

They should have preserved the old barracks, though. Young athletes today don't know how well off they are.

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