THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON : It Was 1959. The Dodgers Played in the Cavernous Coliseum. And a Ragtag Team of Kids and Has-Beens Won L.A’s First World Series.
THE SWIMMING POOL salesman from Oklahoma, the mortgage banker from Rhode Island and the van-line operator from Long Beach had come to Florida for a reunion, and they had noisily bantered with a crowd of old friends through the opening-night cocktail party and buffet. Now they took their seats to review a 30-year-old newsreel-style film. “Us old guys have to sit up front so we can hear,” one of the men joked.
Silence fell as they watched--seemingly lost in nostalgia--the black-and-white flickering images of baseball players in old-fashioned uniforms. Then one of the athletes on the screen, outfielder Norm Larker, bobbled a grounder. “You shoulda caught it, Larker,” came a wisecrack from the front row. And the bantering started up again.
With their silver hair and tanned faces, the 16 prosperous-looking, 60-ish men who came to the Vero Beach complex known as Dodgertown for four days in February could have been mistaken for “snowbirds”--the retirees and tourists who flock there each spring to watch preseason baseball in the sun. But these men hadn’t come to greet the 1988 world champions. They had once been boys of summer themselves, the first to play major-league baseball in Los Angeles. These were the Dodgers of 1959, summoned to Vero Beach by Peter O’Malley, son of the man who had moved them west from Brooklyn in 1958.
They had come to celebrate the 30th anniversary of a quirky championship season--a season that brought the first World Series crown to Los Angeles, utterly confounding the experts and naysayers who had seen the team finish seventh only a year before and expected nothing better in 1959. But then the Dodgers retooled, finished with a 88-68 record and tied the Milwaukee Braves for first place in the National League. Game 2 of the two-out-of-three playoffs, the deciding game, as it turned out, went 12 innings. When Gil Hodges scored the pennant-winning run, the cry “We go to Chicago” was forever etched in baseball lore by a broadcaster named Vin Scully.
A World Series highlight film told the rest of the story, and the reunion team watched it so intently that one might think they didn’t already know how it ended. Just before the Chicago White Sox’s Ted Kluzewski hit his second home run to help his team win Game 1, 11-0, former Dodger general manager Buzzie Bavasi headed for the bar at the back of the room, muttering, “I’ve seen this one before.” But after he and the reunion crowd had reviewed pitcher Larry Sherry’s heroics in Games 2 and 3, Gil Hodges’ tiebreaking home run in Game 4 and Sherry’s 9-3 win in the series-ending Game 6, they all erupted in applause.
“This wasn’t my best club, but it’s my favorite club,” says Bavasi, who transformed the team into a champion. “My best team was the 1955 team, but no team was more dedicated to winning, or played with more love, than my ’59 team.”
In 1955, the Dodgers were still the beloved Bums of Brooklyn, a team that placed seven members in the Hall of Fame--Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Jim Gilliam, Sandy Koufax and manager Walter Alston--and beat the rival New York Yankees in seven games for their first world championship. But it was a changed team that moved to Los Angeles three years later. Robinson had retired in 1956 after the team tried to trade him; Campanella was disabled. What remained was a hybrid, a patchwork of Brooklyn past and Los Angeles future. Hodges, Snider and Carl Furillo were among the older holdovers. Koufax, meanwhile, was a struggling left-handed pitcher prone to bouts of terrifying wildness. Just as Executive Vice President Fred Claire made the roster moves that turned the mediocre 1987 Dodgers into winners, so, too, did Bavasi remold the Dodgers of ‘58, trading Gino Cimoli for a journeyman left-fielder from St. Louis named Wally Moon; recalling from the minors 29-year-old shortstop Maury Wills, who revolutionized the game by reintroducing the stolen base as a weapon to be feared; and summoning Sherry, a graduate of Los Angeles’ Fairfax High School who would prove as unhittable as Orel Hershiser would be three decades later, from the minors.
“In 1958, we were so damned bad,” Don Drysdale says, “but 1959 was one of those years when everything went right. It was like watching last year’s team; you could see after awhile that team was going to win, and it was the same with us.”
One word used to describe the team was ragtag, applied to the makeshift lineup that coalesced and somehow beat teams that, on paper, were far more formidable. But as former Dodger executive Bill Schweppe points out, the team produced six major league managers--Roger Craig, Hodges, Don Zimmer, Wills, Bob Lillis and Norm Sherry; four hall of famers--Snider, Koufax, Drysdale and Alston; and a couple of broadcasters--Ron Fairly and Snider.
There were also several major league coaches--Gilliam, Joe Pignatano, Larry Sherry, Stan Williams--and some minor-league club instructors--Koufax, Johnny Podres and John Roseboro. Moon became the group’s only club owner when he bought the Dodgers’ San Antonio minor league team in 1977. (He sold it in 1981.) “Pretty good for a ragtag team,” Schweppe says.
Many are still linked to baseball as coaches or instructors; others--such as van-line representative Norm Larker, swimming pool executive Don Demeter and banker Clem Labine--are businessmen. A few have died. Some of the most significant contributors to the championship missed the reunion. Moon, the first Dodger star with an all-L.A. identity, couldn’t attend because of an illness in his family. Ex-pitcher Roger Craig was in Mesa, Ariz., working with his San Francisco Giants.
Wills told Dodger officials he would be in New York writing a book, and his absence was hardly a surprise. Since his retirement as a player in 1972, Wills has hopped from job to job, including a stint as manager of the Seattle Mariners in 1980 and ’81 and one with the Dodgers’ Speaker Bureau in 1984. His problems with cocaine were well-publicized. He remains an elusive legend.
The players who did show up were joined by their wives, Dodger officials past and present and members of the 1959 sports press corps. There was golf, a pool-side barbecue, a golf tournament, a visit to Epcot Center and more golf. But finally, on Sunday afternoon, the men returned to the baseball field. In new uniforms, they posed for a team picture, still carrying themselves like the athletes they’d once been, then spent the afternoon signing autographs at Holman Stadium, site of the Dodgers’ preseason home games. And at the end of four days together, they were still reminiscing, retelling the stories that, collectively, are the legend of the ’59 Dodgers.
THE UNLIKELY BALLPARK
IF THE ragtag team was a bit ungainly, so was the stadium in which it played--the Coliseum, which at a cost of $200,000 had been transformed from a perfectly acceptable football field into a baseball park of freakish proportions. In Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, fans felt as though they could reach out and touch the players. The Coliseum, by comparison, was as intimate as an airstrip, but it would have to do until the completion of Dodger Stadium in 1962. The makeshift ballpark made for great box office; no baseball team has ever drawn bigger crowds than the 90,000-plus patrons the Dodgers packed into the stadium for World Series games. But it was horrifying to baseball purists: The short 251 feet from home plate to the left-field foul pole and the 40-foot screen that arose in left field created a home-run target for even the weakest of right-handed hitters. Left-handed hitters, meanwhile, suffered with a center-field fence 425 feet away; the right-field fence disappeared in the distance, 440 feet from home plate. (By comparison, Dodger Stadium’s right-field foul pole is 330 feet away.)
Outfielder Moon, hardly a power hitter, popped 16 home runs over the close-in left-field screen, and his “moon shots” made him a star. And had Campanella ever played in the Coliseum, Buzzie Bavasi says, the catcher might have hit 100 home runs over the screen. But an automobile accident in January, 1958, had paralyzed Campanella from the waist down, and Roseboro, a one-time minor-league outfielder, took his place. Roseboro probably should have been intimidated by the idea of replacing Campanella--a three-time National League MVP--but he wasn’t.
The conventional wisdom in the fall of 1959 was that the Dodgers would be helpless against the running attack of the “Go-Go” White Sox. People were saying “they were going to run us out of the ballpark,” recalls Roseboro, now a Dodger catching instructor and partner in a Los Angeles public relations firm.
“There was a little bit of pressure because I wasn’t a good catcher,” Roseboro says. “I went back to the backstop a lot to retrieve balls. I was a little tense. But I learned to block the ball. After that it was like writing home for $5 and getting $10. Once I threw out the White Sox, then I had some respectability.”
In 46 years in baseball, Bavasi says, Roseboro was the only black player who came to him looking for a front-office job instead of a coaching position after he quit playing in 1970. At the time, Bavasi says, he had just hired Mike Port (now executive vice president and general manager of the California Angels) as his assistant general manager with the Angels, and was unable to grant Roseboro’s request. Why did Roseboro seek a front-office job? For the same reason a barber once denied him a haircut in Vero Beach during spring training, he says: his race.
“It was a necessity,” Roseboro says. “You weren’t going to manage. And if you’re not going to manage, first-base coach is the only other job you’re going to have, or out in the bullpen. So you want to expand yourself a little bit--try and learn the other part of baseball. That’s why I went to Buzzie. You knock on doors and keep knocking and one day one will open.” But for Roseboro, that front-office door has remained closed, though he’s still trying.
Did he come along too soon? “About 20 years maybe. Thirty years.”
THE DUKE OF FLATBUSH
BEVERLY SNIDER is sitting at a pool-side barbecue Saturday night with Tommy and Jo Lasorda and her husband, Duke, who is slightly heavier than in his playing days and taking in the action around him through bifocals. “In Brooklyn,” she recalls, “you could walk down the streets and hear the radio blaring the ballgames from inside the stores. You couldn’t imagine it being that way in Los Angeles.”
She explains that they grew up in a Los Angeles with no major-league baseball and couldn’t imagine this city in a baseball frenzy. Even though the Sniders owned an avocado ranch in Fallbrook, neither had wanted to move permanently to the West Coast.
Maybe they had premonitions of what was to come: It turned out that no Dodger was more discombobulated by the Coliseum’s cockeyed dimensions than Snider: The left-handed power hitter had hit 40 or more home runs in each of his last five seasons in Brooklyn, then dropped to 15 his first season in Los Angeles. Snider blamed the decline in productivity on knee problems, but the distant fences were tough targets.
In his book, “The Duke of Flatbush,” he writes of how the right-handed Willie Mays ran up to him before their first game at the Coliseum:
“His eyes were as big as baseballs. ‘Look where that right-field fence is, Duke,’ he said. ‘And look what they gave me--250 feet. They sure fixed you up good. You couldn’t reach it with a cannon. You’re done, man! They just took your bat away from you.’ ” In 1959, though, Snider hit a respectable 23 home runs, with a batting average of .308.
THE MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
THE BEST way to get an interview with Larry Sherry would be to sign up as his caddy. This fit, energetic ex-pitcher spent almost every moment of the reunion on the golf course at Dodger Pines Country Club, taking a break from his career as a private pitching instructor at his home in Mission Viejo. But Sherry, too, revels in memories of 1959--unexpected memories. Cornered on the field at Holman Stadium during a photo session, he says that even though he is best remembered as the World Series MVP, the game he recalls most vividly is the first playoff game against Milwaukee.
“It was drizzling,” he says. “I come into a 2-1 game, the bases are loaded and I’m up against about as tough a lineup as you’d ever want to face. (Eddie) Mathews, (Hank) Aaron, (Joe) Adcock, (Wes) Covington, (Bobby) Avila, (Del) Crandall--I remember the lineup they had. Going into the seventh, there’s (a Dodger) error made, tying the score. I remember (Warren) Spahn and (Lew) Burdette yelling, ‘Choke’ and ‘Rookie’--from the bench.
“And I stuck it to them.”
“About a month or so after the season,” he says, “I was at a banquet. (Joe) DiMaggio was sitting on my right and (Stan) Musial was on my left. Eight months before, I had been down in Venezuela, beating my brains out in winter ball. I looked there (to his left) and there (to his right), and I said to myself, ‘Boy, I’ll tell you what, what a jump to make, sitting with these two guys.’ You know you’ve made something.”
Sherry had made a quick and dramatic ascent. When he was recalled from the Dodgers’ minor-league Spokane team in July, he had a 6-7 record but was leading the Pacific Coast League in strikeouts. On Aug. 31, he pitched his only shutout in the big leagues, beating Pittsburgh, 6-0. The next day, Alston made him a reliever. “Sandy (Koufax) was coming on a little bit, and they wanted John (Podres) and Don (Drysdale) to pitch, and Roger (Craig) gave us four good starters. I made 16, 17 appearances. I don’t know what it was, but I didn’t have a bad outing.” Sherry went on to pitch for Detroit and Houston before ending his playing career with the California Angels in 1968.
PITCHER JOHNNY Podres and shortstop Don Zimmer were the clowns who kept the players loose in the clubhouse, and they naturally fell back into their old roles at the reunion. “Zim and I palled around all the time,” Podres recalls as he sits on a bench under a tree at Dodgertown. “We’d go to Hollywood Park. When I wasn’t pitching that day, we’d go catch five races” before the game.
Says Clem Labine, a reliever on the ’59 team: “Johnny and Zimmer were two fellows who, if there was a horse race going anywhere, whether it was in Venezuela or South America, they had a bet going.”
Zimmer, now manager of the Chicago Cubs, lives in Treasure Island, Fla. Podres, who suffered a heart attack a few years back, is a minor-league pitching instructor for the Dodgers and lives in Glens Falls, N.Y. He is still fit and even throws the ball a bit at team workouts. And he remains as playful as he was in 1959, when the team’s press guide pictured him shooting marbles with a cluster of boys in Vero Beach.
“One time in spring,” he recalls, “Drysdale and I wanted to go to Miami, just to get out of town. In those days, you didn’t make a lot of money as a ballplayer, so when you needed a few dollars you went to Buzzie and he would give you a couple hundred or 300.
“Well, Buzzie wasn’t around this day, and Drysdale said, ‘What are we going to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, hell, we’re going to see Mr. O’Malley.’ So we knocked on his door, and Mr. O’Malley said, ‘Oh, c’mon in, boys. Something on you boys’ minds?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, Donnie and I want to go to Miami; we got a day off tomorrow.’
“He said, ‘Sure, boys’--you know Mr. O’Malley talked in that deep voice. He said, ‘Sure boys, go ahead, have a good time, and don’t get into any trouble.’
“I said, ‘There’s one more thing, Mr. O’Malley.’
“ ‘What is it, John?’ he asked, rolling his cigar.
“ ‘We need about $300 apiece, Mr. O’Malley.’
“He said, ‘Oh, yeah? I get to make a decision around here for a change?’ And he called over to the team auditor and said: ‘Commander, Johnny and Don are coming over there and they need $300 apiece.’ And he never took it out of our paychecks.”
(Unlike the six- and seven-figure salaries today’s ballplayers command, the minimum salary for major leaguers in 1959 was $5,000--the average yearly income in the country was $5,417--and the highest-paid Dodger, Duke Snider, earned $42,500.)
DON DRYSDALE spent almost all of his brief stay at the reunion laughing at Don Zimmer’s jokes. The Dodger broadcaster, who looks almost unchanged at age 52, flew in for cocktails and dinner Thursday night and flew back to Los Angeles early Friday. He’s married for the second time, to former basketball player Ann Meyers; they have a son, Donnie, and live in Rancho Mirage.
For Drysdale, the Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles in 1958 was a homecoming. He grew up in Van Nuys, “back when it was still walnut groves and horse ranches,” and when the team came West, he moved back in with his family. “If I hadn’t,” he says, “my mom would have shot me.”
But familiarity did not translate into instant success for Drysdale, who opened the 1958 season with one win in eight starts before winning eight of his last 11 decisions to finish 12-13.
“It was nice going home, but it was tough. I felt like I was trying too hard. In 1959, I was still groping, trying to get things together.” Still, with a 17-13 record, he was the ’59 team’s leading winner.
Drysdale describes his most vivid memory of the season not as any particular pitch or inning but as a missed moment. It was the birth of his daughter on July 3. “We’d just left on a three-week road trip. I never saw her till she was 3 weeks old. I saw her picture in the paper after I was named Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh.”
THE LEFT-HANDED LEGEND
AT THE reunion’s closing night banquet, emcee Ron Fairly introduces a player in the crowd as “the greatest left-hander of all time.” Ever the clown, Tom Lasorda stands up, but everyone knows who Fairly means. Attention focuses on the tanned, silver-haired man sitting next to his new wife at a table near the front of the room.
In 1959, Sandy Koufax provided only previews of the stellar pitcher he was to become. He won just eight games each in 1959 and 1960, before blossoming into an 18-game winner in 1961.
Although he struck out 18 Giants in one game in July, 1959, to tie a record, “I didn’t have a particularly good year in 1959,” he says with his characteristic modesty. “Wally Moon had a great year, and Larry Sherry. And Maury (Wills) came up in the middle of the year and sort of turned the whole team around. I did a couple of things that maybe were exciting. But I think Maury, Wally and Larry really were the major contributors.”
The next year, Koufax says, “I came close to quitting. I think it was after the season in 1960--I just threw everything in the garbage the last day of the season and left. When I got to spring training, Nobe (Kawano, the equipment manager) pulled out everything and said, ‘I thought you might want this.’ ”
Bavasi still jokes, albeit painfully, about Koufax’s timing in retiring six years later. “Sandy Koufax was the greatest pitcher I have ever seen,” Bavasi says at the banquet. “But you were stupid, Sandy. You retired in 1966. Had you stuck around until 1967 (the year the players’ union was formed), you could have earned the big money.”
But Dr. Robert Kerlan, then-team physician, had advised Koufax to quit or risk losing the normal use of his left arm. Koufax’s early retirement shocked the public and left them wanting more. He seemed a bit of a mystery man. That image was reinforced when Koufax, feeling uncomfortable as an on-camera interviewer with NBC Sports, walked away from the job in 1968, forfeiting eight years of a 10-year, $1-million television contract.
Eventually, he wound up back on the playing field. Today he’s a roving pitching instructor for the Dodgers and lives in Vero Beach with his wife, Kim.
He’s still a hero. Fans line his every path at Dodgertown and jump over stadium railings to get closer to him. At Holman Stadium on the last day of the reunion, a fan asks him for his autograph--on an oil painting of Koufax as a young pitcher.
“I’m not recognized that much when I’m not in uniform,” Koufax says, “but (in Dodgertown) it’s a different story.”
THE LAST OUT
ON THE final day of the reunion, while many team members catch a last round of golf at Dodger Pines, Duke and Beverly Snider host an open house at a new restaurant in Vero Beach, Duke Snider’s. That morning, they had attended a memorial for their teammates who have died, a list that lengthens each year: Gilliam, Hodges, Alston, Walter O’Malley and, one month before the reunion, Carl Furillo, whose 12th-inning single in the playoffs sent the Dodgers into the World Series.
While Larry Sherry helps Roseboro with his golf swing and Koufax signs autographs, Peter O’Malley circulates with Bavasi’s video camera. Labine stands to one side, reflecting on the weekend that had taken 30 years off the passage of time.
“I’ve laughed here, and I’ve cried,” he says. “We heard stories that had nothing to do with being old.
“We were young.”
Are you a true-blue fan?
Get our Dodgers Dugout newsletter for insights, news and much more.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.